Two Men, Two Worlds: Rav Wolbe and Ezer Weizman

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A funny thing happened on the way to writing this blog.

During Pesach, two major funerals took place here in Israel. One was for Ezer Weizman, former president of Israel; the other, for Rav Shelomo Wolbe, the world recognized dean of today’s Musar movement.

Because they went to their eternal reward at about the same time, it seemed to me appropriate to say something about these two contrasting men.

I sat down yesterday to write a few words about the flamboyant Weizman and the quiet R. Wolbe. I did a rough first draft, and then decided to sleep on it and to do the final draft today.

But today, when I searched for the draft on my screen, it had disappeared. I had saved it properly, and had done all the right things to put it to bed, but it was lost somewhere in the ether, nowhere to be found. I recalled that R. Wolbe had requested that no eulogies be delivered at his funeral (something that Chol Hamoed Pesach restricted in any case) and it occurred to me that perhaps this sudden disappearance of some random thoughts about him was a mysterious fulfillment of the dictum that Gd fulfills the wishes of the righteous ( Tzadik gozer veHKB”H mekayem).

Having thus been chastened, I offer here not a eulogy, but a brief contrast of these two different men.

Weizman, over 80, is the acknowledged creator of the Israeli air-force. An ace pilot, he was the very model of the dashing and intrepid fighter. It is largely because of his influence, and the esprit de corps that he instilled in his men, that a motley group of ancient planes and inexperienced pilots was transformed into one of the world’s premier air forces.

He was known as the ultimate sabra – brash, daring, and supremely self-confident. Impatient with the subtleties of diplomacy, he was regularly in the headlines and the gossip columns.. Even the fact that he left the presidency under a cloud raised by certain financial improprieties hardly made a dent in his popularity.

R Shelomo Wolbe, who was over 90, was the great master of musar, the moral-ethical underpinning of the Torah. He was the last survivor of those who imbibed musar at the feet of the great European teachers before Word War II. Born in Germany, he spent the war years in Sweden, where his personal bravery was instrumental in saving countless Jews from the cauldron of Europe.

Arriving in Israel in 1948 at the age of 33, he was immediately recognized not only as a pre-eminent Torah scholar, but as a specialist in shaping and molding the character of his disciples. He was soon presenting regular musar lectures throughout Israel, and especially in Jerusalem. There he established the world famous Beit HaMusar, and became known simply as ” HaMashgiach.” Among his books, his Alei Shor – dealing with concepts of Torah as applied to daily life – became an immediate classic because of its keen insights into the human condition.

It is characteristic of R Wolbe that he tried to publish the work anonymously. The fly-leaf of this, his magnum opus, does not mention his name at all – but it was only he who could have written the book. Although he had a cosmic view of Jewish life, and made visionary proposals for the Jewish future, he shunned personal publicity. He avoided anything that touched on self-aggrandizement, and struggled constantly to weigh his every word and deed by one criterion: will this further the will of Gd? He was the embodiment of the musar personality: quiet, humble, disciplined, unpretentious, concerned with the well-being and sensitivities of the other. Anyone talking with R Wolbe received his full attention, as if no one else in the world existed. Which was why disciples and colleagues constantly besieged him with their personal issues and problems.

These two were a perfect study in contrasts: the one was an acclaimed military and political leader, an acknowledged builder of the State, usually attended by admiring servants and obsequious chauffeurs, whose death produced front page headlines and retrospective TV programs. The other was a modest and retiring teacher of Torah who lived a simple , unadorned life, and whose death was barely noticed by the media.

But it is an interesting irony that tens of thousands of people attended the funeral of the self-effacing R Wolbe. It was marked by a spontaneous but palpable mass weeping and sadness, and thousands of mourners walked miles as they accompanied his coffin to his last last resting place. By contrast , the Weizman funeral was very restrained, and limited to several hundred invited guests. This was partially due to the creditable desire of the family not to turn it into a public spectacle; nevertheless, while there was certainly a sense of mourning, the atmosphere was proper, contained, and correct.

The worth of a man is not measured by the number of people attending his funeral, but it is curious that a spiritual hero of the Jewish people elicited a massive outpouring of emotion, while a physical hero was given a restrained send-off. Perhaps this is because spirituality is so hard to come by, while physicality is not so rare a commodity.

It is fair to say that the mourners for Weizman never heard of R Wolbe, and the mourners for R Wolbe had only a dim awareness of Ezer Weizman. The two men inhabited the same land, but lived in two different worlds. Had they ever met, R Wolbe would surely have treated the great war hero with respect, not only because of he was another human being but also because he had risked everything to save Jewish lives. And Weizman would surely have been touched by the ethereal qualities emanating from the great Master of Musar. R Wolbe might even have enagaged Weizman in a discussion of the deeper meanings of life and death – something which, one suspects, Weizman might well have received with a sympathetic ear.

(I once met Weizman in our synagogue in Atlanta and I sensed from his questions that though he was religiously unlettered, he had a natural respect and affinity for things genuinely religious. He was a true tinok she-nishba, so unaware of religious life that he was surprised to learn that there was such a thing as a daily morning minyan outside of Jerusalem. )

These two polar opposites entered the Other World at about the same time. The confluence of their deaths engenders inevitable ruminations about whose life was more crucial to the ultimate survival of the Jewish people and the Jewish land. Although only the heavenly gate-keepers are privy to such mysterious knowledge, this a question worth thinking about.

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7 Responses

  1. A feldman says:

    Great peice! This contrast not only stimulates thought about the difference between the external power and the internal greatness, but also reflects the very power and source of any success that the jewish people have. It can safely be surmised that Weizmann’s- and all of the army’s- success, is only possible as a result of the gratness of r’ wolbe and all those involved in spirituality. This is obvious because the miraculous survival of the jews, and the country of israel, can only be attributed to something that brings miracles, which is service of g-d. This helps us understand many of the issues arrising out of the dicotomy of the religious/ secular state of israel and the jews.

  2. Shira Schmidt says:

    Could you, Rav Feldman, give an example of the writings of R. Wolbe z”l from Aley Shor? A short passage perhaps. Your description whets the appetite to read what R. Wolbe wrote.
    7 b Iyyar

  3. NerBochur says:

    If anyone wants an idea of Weizman and his personality based on a first hand account, I strongly recommend the he\she read “Letters from Tel Mond Prison” by Era Rappaport. One is free to judge for himself.

  4. GS says:

    Just for the sake of accuracy… the brief bio of rav Wolbe gives the impression that he arrived in Jerusalem and immediately set up the Beis HaMussar. In fact he was the mashgiach of Be’er Yaakov for over 35 years. Only after that did he become mashgiach in “Lakewood East” and also start giving weekly shmuessen at the Mir Yeshiva. At that time is when he set up the Beis HaMusar too. (I believe it was around 1980)

  5. Brother Bob says:

    And what of Rav Wolbe’s zt”l background in Torah im Derech Eretz? Its surely must of had an impact on his educational philosophy.

  6. mb says:

    And vice versa?

  7. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    Thank you Rabbi Feldman for a wonderful piece. The exterior and interior of our people; the brash, tough exterior and the saintly and spirited interior. The latter is our essence and the former our hishtadlus to survive in a dangerous neighborhood. Do you, Rabbi Feldman, see a day coming when the leaders of Israel will publicly venerate the leaders of Yisrael?