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.