A few weeks ago, I wrote in these pages a piece summarizing some major lessons from the life of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zt”l. I now realize that I left out a very important lesson: Rabbi Sherer was extraordinarily careful never to let anyone close to him whom he feared might ever reflect badly on Torah Jewry. Many times, he rejected out of hand suggestions that Agudath Israel of America honor particular people out of a concern that the award might come back to haunt the organization one day.
Though I described this trait in Rabbi Sherer, I don’t think I fully appreciated it. I did not realize how great the temptation is nor how rare is the ability to resist. We are not talking about turning down money to do something that is clearly wrong or where the potential downside is evident to all, but about something much more subtle: Refusing an immediate and obvious benefit because of a slight suspicion that it may one day generate a negative fall-out.
Our communal institutions are continually strapped for funds. Those responsible for the budgets of those institutions live under constant pressure, and the temptation for them not to examine each potential donor under a magnifying glass is great. It is not hard to come up with a heter for failing to do so, and it is easy to place the onus elsewhere if something runs amiss.
Many of those who sought to join Rabbi Sherer’s inner circle and were rebuffed, for instance, were men of means, accustomed to being honored for their ability to contribute to this cause or institution. Each of them presumably came with a chezkas kashrus as an upstanding frum Jew. And each of them had numerous of other institutional or organizational affiliations. It would have been the simplest thing in the world for Rabbi Sherer to simply rely on their resumes and gain another major supporter for Agudath Israel of America.
But he refused to hide behind the presumption that others must have thoroughly investigated a particular person before accepting his money or honoring him. He did his own investigations and did not place exclusive reliance on any single person’s judgment.
Why was he such a zealous gatekeeper, when the natural tendency of any leader of a major institution or organization, especially one constantly in need of new funds, is to receive all who wish to draw close with a welcoming embrace? Why did he devote so much time to conducting personal investigations to determine who might one day tarnish his reputation or embarrass Agudath Israel of America?
Certainly it was not because Agudath Israel had no need of money. Rabbi Sherer always carried around in his head a list of new projects he wanted to undertake when the appropriate personnel and funding were in place.
The answer, ultimately, is simple: Kiddush Hashem was his lifetime mission, and he would not do anything that might ever endanger that mission. He lived in absolute dread of anything that smacked of possible chilul Hashem.
The most essential element of the Rabbi Sherer’s sterling reputation and that of Agudath Israel under his leadership was, in the final analysis, not the sharpness of his judgment of character, but the strength of his devotion to Kiddush Hashem. If we wish to protect the honor of Torah and Torah Jewry, as he did, we have no choice but to devote ourselves to Kiddush Hashem and sensitize ourselves to anything that might possibly lead to chilul Hashem.
In protecting against chilul Hashem, he was aided by faith in the words of Torah and Chazal. If Chazal taught, “Do not believe in yourself as long as you are alive,” those words applied to everyone. In his new work, Six Constant Mitzvos, Rabbi Yitzchok Berkowitz defines yiras Hashem, inter alia, as a constant awareness of how easy it is to destroy your life, and the understanding that if you so choose, Hashem will not stop you.
Rabbi Sherer had that palpable yiras Hashem. Precisely because he knew how vulnerable we all are to moral failure and understood the traps that we all face, was he so scrupulously careful in vetting those whose names were associated with Agudath Israel of America.
(That is not to say he was never fooled. No matter how sharp one’s judgment of people, it is never perfect. And even the finest of Jews can make mistakes and slip.)
The greater our yiras Hashem, the greater the number of precautions that we take that no chilul Hashem should ever emanate from our actions, either directly or indirectly. It is said of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter that he refused to be alone in a room with money belonging to others, lest he be tempted to steal. How much more so was he careful with respect to the proscriptions of yichud. If Chazal said, “ein apitropis l’arios,” those words were no mere metaphors or figures of speech, but to be taken literally as expressions of the danger to each of us.
If the great Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement of character development, did not trust himself, how much more so do we have to recognize our own vulnerability.
That is no less true with respect to our susceptibility to being blinded by money. If the Torah teaches that “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and make false the words of the righteous,” Rabbi Sherer treated that as an immutable rule of human nature. And from that immutable rule it followed that those who do not view themselves as either “chachamim” or as “tzaddikim” must be even more careful to guard themselves and remain constantly vigilant for signs of being “bribed” in any possible manner.
Because Rabbi Sherer took the warnings of Chazal so seriously, he was always prepared to make the extra effort and take the extra time to ensure that the people upon whom he placed his imprimatur were Jews of sterling character, for whom the development of their middos was an ongoing project. For only then could he have any confidence that they would not one day bring disgrace to the Torah and Torah Judaism.