Rav Moshe Chait, zt”l

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R Moshe Chait, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, was niftar on Erev Tisha B’Av. His trademark smile spoke more powerfully than the words a bereft generation can possibly string together.

Smiling at someone does wonders for the recipient. It is the equivalent, says the Chovos Ha-levavos, of handing a passerby a glass of cold milk on a brutally hot day. If we had to continue the analogy, I suppose we would have to consider R. Chait a life-long dairy farm. Rabbi Chait’s perennial smile, though, was not the fixed kind, frozen by years of use.. It refreshed itself for every individual he encountered.

Some people smile because they are happy. Some people turn up the corners of their mouths because they are good-natured, or because they always have a funny anecdote in mind, or even because they are not particularly bright, and life’s seriousness evades them. Then there are those who smile, as the Chovos Ha-levavos also describes, because it befits their level of avodas Hashem. They live in a state of euphoria, a mixture of perfect faith in Hashem, and enthusiasm for the opportunity to serve him.

Such was the smile of Rabbi Chait. We will remember it in the same way we remember the similar smiles of R. Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l and R. Avrohom Pam, zt”l.

Rabbi Chait was one of the talmidim of R Dovid Leibowitz zt”l, who was a talmid of both Slobodka and the Chofetz Chaim, and the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas before he started his own yeshiva, Yeshivas Rabbenu Yisroel Meir HaKohen. He continued as the life-long friend and confidante of his rebbe-chaver, mori v’rabbi R. Alter Henoch Leibowitz zt”l.

Chofetz Chaim was and is a yeshiva that won’t let go of the mussar ideal and the mussar methodology. Like every other ideology, the transition between academic discipline and application to the general world can be onerous. Rabbi Chait was my first exposure to the quintessential ba’al mussar operating outside the more rarified environs of the beis medrash. He proved, by example, that mussar could work in the “real” world.

I was either still in high school, or in one of my early years of the Chofetz Chaim beis medrash when I met him. He was a shul rov at the time, serving in Far Rockaway (he also said a shiur for a number of years in Yeshiva University), but he came to the yeshiva on various occasions to give shiurim and classes – especially in what they then called “practical rabbinics.” (He would later accept the Rosh Yeshiva’s offer to head up the Yerushalayim branch of the yeshiva, a post that he held to the end.) He was someone to listen to. His word choice was varied and precise, his diction and his clothing impeccable, his voice modulation made it impossible not to focus on his words. Every thought of Chazal was a gem to him, something to be caressed and savored – and always with passion and, of course, a smile.

I remember at the time his introducing us to Abarbanel, and giving the reasons why he found it so valuable. So many of my friends at the time never thought beyond Rashi. The really adventurous surreptitiously labored in Ramban. Rabbi Chait opened us up to new possibilities.

A few years later, I spent some time in the Yerushalayim yeshiva as an “older student.” This was a very relative term. It meant mentoring the newbies through guys they could relate to who had already spent a few years post-high school learning, and had therefore focused their energies in more useful directions. (Again, relatively.) Rabbi Chait’s regular mussar talks were a favorite part to the week of everyone. But we learned as much by watching his interaction with talmidim, whether to praise or to reprimand, that showed so much self-mastery and control, and ahavah for every talmid. Moreover, he treated us “senior” students as if we were senior roshei yeshivah, as colleagues rather than young shnooks who were artificially handed too much power. It was a perfect way of making us rise to the occasion, but I doubt if it was calculated. He treated us that way because of a combination of personal humility and absolute adoration of the tzelem Elokim he saw in every person.

In the following decades, I would only see him from time to time on visits to Israel. I would hear about him from talmidim who spent time in the yeshiva, or from my old friend R Baruch Chait, YLCh”T, the multi-talented founder Rosh Yeshiva of Maarava who revolutionized chinuch for Anglo olim to Israel.

With the passing of some people comes the arguable end of an era. Rabbi Chait, however, left something behind that is within reach of the rest of us – a model of refinement, goodness, and devotion to Chazal that is just as timely today as in all the years of his life. May we be zocheh to translate his image into continuing reality.

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7 Responses

  1. Elad says:

    The description of R’ Chait’s smile is precise if insufficient (as any words would be) to convey the true experience of it.

    I too heard (many years after R’ Adlerstein) the shmooze about the chazal that a smile can be of greater benefit to another person than a glass of milk, but I recall him saying that it was a hot glass of milk on a cold day. (How would you get the milk cold on a hot day without a refrigerator?)

  2. zvi freund says:

    You could talk to Rav Chait about ANYTHING. in learning, in hashkafa, in emuna, conflicts with yiddishkeit, ANYTHING.
    i remember the first time i heard the comment about a smile is like offering a cool refreshing glass of milk, we were telling each other, “Don’t smile at me, I’m fleishig.”

  3. Zave Rudman says:

    As someone who cannot remember a moment of his life from his earliest recollections till just last week without Rabbi Chait ZT”L and Rebetzin Esther Chait (may she enjoy much nachas for many more years), let me share just a few words. My family knew the Chaits for 4 generations. For those from Young Israel of Wavecrest and Bayswater, the name of my grandparents Rabbi J. T. and Dora Rudman needs no introduction. They, together with their siblings, Joe and Lea Wachsman were instrumental in founding the shul. When Rabbi Chait became Rabbi in 1961, he became our family mentor. I then went on to learn in the Jerusalem branch of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, and was privileged over the course of my years there to learn bechavrusa with Rebbe.

    One thing I can say, that in the years of my life and growing from a child, to Yeshiva Bochur in Israel, to young Kollel Avreich in his Kollel, and then a father, Rebbe and teacher- he was always there for me and my family with love encouragement and wise Torah advice. This ability to always be able to relate was extremely special to all of his students. This love extended to the degree that my own children cried at his passing.

    When my wife and I were about to get engaged, I was already in the States and she was in Jerusalem and had not yet met the Chaits. Without even thinking twice, I asked her to please go meet them. But I forgot that not everyone knew their openness. She was terrified to go meet her future groom’s Rosh Yeshiva by herself. Looking back, she was right to be afraid. But to those of us who knew Rebbe, there was no problem. Why would anyone be nervous meeting him? From that meeting on, she immediately felt that unique connection. Later she told me how close and comfortable she felt, and could not believe that this was a Rosh Yeshivah, and not a loving grandfather. In actuality that is what he was to us.

    Finally, if there is one powerful idea that we learnt from him, it was a connection to your Rebbe. In almost every conversation there was reference to his Rebbe R Dovid ZT”L. May we his students and their students, be able to pass on to future generations what he so clearly represented, the way he did to us.

  4. Danny Rubin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Thank you for this tribute to Rav Chait z”tl. I was fortunate to spend my first years of Beis Medrash under Rav Chait’s guidance in Chofetz Chaim Yerushalayim.
    With both actions and words he powerfully imparted the fact that Chessed was more than just a mitzvah but a mature and fundamental precept on which the world and Judaism stood. Rav Chait was also appropriately candid when sharing the struggles and unpleasant situations that he, R’Dovid and R’ Henoch were forced to handle in order to build a Yeshiva. It was only years later that I appreciated these exquisite lessons on how to fight for one’s principles while recognizing the “Tzelem Elokim” in one’s adversaries.
    I will never forget the way Rav Chait saw no problem in “bending” Yeshiva rules to provide me with an individual environment that would bring out my best. It was a privilege to have learned from him in such formative years of my life.

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    Rabbi Chait is a perfect persona of Torah-infused menthchlechkeit to teach our beleagured dor that being a mentsch is not “as opposed to” (chas vesgalom) or even “in addition to” our Torah (although, halevai we could do this much) but that there is a uniquely Jewish type of mentch who only could have cahieved his rarefied madrega through Torah.

    Maybe wre can somehow put meaning to Rabbi Chait’s petirah davka now, by using his midos in your initiative to improve our midos matzav? Or maybe phrase it lehefech, maybe we can use our matzav as an oppportunity to publicize the life and approach of Rabbi C?

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I came to Yerushalayim between Yom Kippur and Sukkot of ’70, a raw baal teshuva (used in the conventional sense, since I am still struggling to become a REAL baal teshuva). I was at Dvar Yerushalayim, then in its formative stages, located in Sanhedria, sharing facilities with Chofetz Chaim. I met R’ Chait and heard him a number of times. I was awestruck by the the way he was a tzaddik who didn’t blind you with his tzidkus. Rather he nuanced it and showed you that there was a derech for you to get there, too. I was still too clueless to capitalize on that opportunity at the time. I was still too full of myself with my secular education. I needed basic emuna before I could appreciate musar. But still, a lot stayed for me to chew on later. The balance between a rather extreme analytical derech in lomdus and the totally out-front menshlichkeit of a shul rabbi turned rosh yeshiva was awesome. He was the diametric opposite of the ivory tower rosh yeshiva. He was not physically strong and it was chesed Hashem that he was around for so many years, obviously in the merit of his tremendous middos. He left sons, R. Dovid in the yeshiva and R. Boruch in Maarava, and myriad talmidim such as RYA, whom I had a brief opportunity to encounter as well, to carry on his work interpreted for the next generation of this crazy world. Y’he zichro baruch, may his memory be blessed.

  1. August 7, 2009

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