Shortly after the end of World War II, a modern-looking young man, sporting a large chup, was brought to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, in one of the displaced persons camps. “I heard that before the war you were the top bochur in the Munkacs Yeshiva,” the Rebbe said to him. “What happened to you?”
“I saw that the best were burned, and only the p’soles (chaff) remained,” the former yeshiva bochur replied.
“You are so right,” the Rebbe answered him. “The best were burned and only the p’soles remained.” Then the Rebbe, who had himself lost his wife and eleven children during the war, burst out crying. The two remained there a half an hour or more sobbing together.
Later, the young man returned to full religious observance. Of his return, he said, “Had the Rebbe given me one word of tochachah (reproof), I would have walked out and never returned. But he just cried with me.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that phrase – “the best were burned and only the p’soles remained.” As a statement of fact, there are, of course, thousands of counterexamples – great tzaddikim, like the Klausenberger Rebbe himself, who survived all seven levels of gehennom.
Yet, something of that feeling strikes all of us when we hear of the petirah at a young age of a great tzaddik (holy person), especially if he is younger than we are, and has passed through some of the same institutions and accomplished more in his life than most of us can even contemplate.
Rabbi Yaakov Fried zt”l, who was killed in a car crash on 22 Av, was one such tzaddik. Rabbi Dovid Speyer zt”l, who succumbed on Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul (the day before the month of Elul began), after a three-and-half year battle with leukemia, was another. Of both, the Gemara‘s description of the petirah of Rabi Yochanan – “the sun set at midday” – applies: Rabbi Fried was in his sixtieth year and Rabbi Speyer in his fiftieth. Both accomplished much in those years, despite having begun their formal Torah studies only in their very late teens. They serve as poignant reminders that our lives are measured not by the length of our years, but rather in the way we fill each day.
I DID NOT KNOW RABBI FRIED PERSONALLY, but he was a mechutan of two sets of close friends. And he was a legend at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach, where I had the privilege of learning many decades ago. A large Shas in the bais medrash bears the inscription of a gift from “one of the talmidim” upon the completion of Shas with proper chazaros (review). Another Shas, bearing the same inscription, is in the bais medrash of Aish HaTorah (whose founder, Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l, also founded Ohr Somayach).
From the beginning of his journey, Rabbi Fried seemed to have few of the normal baal teshuvah struggles, say those who knew him in his early days at Ohr Somayach. Despite having little Jewish education, from an early age he had an awareness of the Creator, gained through the contemplation of the magnificent natural settings of his native New Canaan, Connecticut, and his parents’ summer home in Maine.
Within ten years of arriving at Ohr Somayach, after dropping out of Harvard College, and not even knowing Alef-Bais, he had made his first Siyum Hashas. It would be the first of many.
Despite his late start, he burned with a desire to know literally “kol haTorah kulah” — a desire that is virtually unknown today. On 3 Elul 5754, less than 22 years from his walking into Ohr Somayach, he made another siyum in his home for his family and talmidim on Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Mechiltah, Sifra, Sifri, Sifri Zuta, all the various baraisos, Torah, Neviim and Kesuvim. Again, the letter of hoda’ah (gratitude) to the founders of the institution where he first learned Torah identified him only as “one of the talmidim.” As soon as he turned forty, he began learning Kabbolah with Rav Yaakov Hillel. One of his last siyumim was on Tikkunei Zohar.
Reflecting on Rabbi Fried’s loss, one friend comments that it would take at least five others to replace him. “I can’t think of another person with whom I could speak in so many areas of Torah and know that I would always go away with some new understanding or insight,” he tells me.
He would stand for long hours straight at his shtender in Yeshiva Torah Ore. Apart from Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Rosh Chodesh seudos, or what was a required for a mitzvah, he ate only the minimum necessary to sustain his body to learn Torah, and slept only a few hours at night.
His emunah in every word of Chazal was absolute. Whatever Chazal said was a literal description of reality. And his bitachon was “off the charts,” in the words of one friend. Though he struggled with debts, his menuchas hanefesh was complete and nothing ever interfered with his concentration in learning. He refused to take money for learning Torah with chavrusos, even though there were many who would have been eager to pay for the privilege.
When I asked his wife how they had managed to support a large family, she answered simply, “He believed in siyata diShmaya, and we were repeatedly zocheh to such siyata diShmaya.“
Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, a close friend for more than three decades, attests that he was oblivious to his own spiritual level. Once, Rabbi Schwartz asked Rabbi Fried for a bracha that he should find beautiful hadasim for Sukkos. Rabbi Fried blessed him that he should do so, and without great expenditure of time or money. Shortly thereafter, a hadasim merchant appeared at Rabbi Schwartz’s door holding three hadasim Rabbi Schwartz had previously put down as way beyond his budget. Now the merchant wanted to give them to him as a present.
Even Rabbi Fried’s role as the longtime baal tokeiah at Torah Ore had of it something of the miraculous. His preferred shofar was of a type that required an immense amount of air – more than he would have seemed capable of generating from his rail thin frame. Yet, the shofar blasts came out like a cannon, throughout Rosh Hashanah, as he would blow for many different groups who had not been able to make it to shul and according to all the various shitos. His final journey was to bring one of his shofros to an expert in Beitar for fine-tuning prior to Rosh Chodesh Elul.
His precision in every aspect of halacha and constant search for new hiddurim in mitzvos were phenomenal. For twenty-five years, and long after he was appointed by the rosh yeshiva of Torah Ore, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg, as the yeshiva‘s posek in all matters connected to hilchos stam, Rabbi Fried maintained a chavrusashaft with Rabbi Pinchos Amitai in hilchos stam. Yet there was nothing tense about him – only constant freshness and simcha in the performance of mitzvos. A neighbor told me that her son gained an entirely new appreciation of tefillin from the one-hour talk Rabbi Fried gave him on the importance of the mitzvah just prior to his bar mitzvah.
His he’aros ponim was legendary, and he genuinely enjoyed people. “He knew how to relate to people at every level,” one Mattesdorf neighbor told me. “He was the posek for many families in the neighborhood, because of his ability to relate the halacha to the needs and capabilities of each individual, and they are wandering around lost without him.” Rabbi Fried had the power of hachra’ah (decisiveness) even with respect to difficult and critical shailos, and a collection of his teshuvos will likely be printed.
Rabbi Fried was known as an ish chessed. The Frieds hosted numerous shevah berachos in their small living room, and their large family was joined by frequent guests – including older singles and ba’alei teshuva – for Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Fittingly, two friends who were involved in a bitter machlokes were reconciled with one another, as they stood by Rabbi Fried’s bedside at the hospital, as his life ebbed away.
At the time of his passing, Rabbi Fried was giving a shiur to older students who had never had a chance to learn Gemara in their youth. He often spoke to his wife with great excitement about how interesting and accomplished his students were. It never occurred to him that it might be beneath the dignity of a talmid chochom of his stature to teach beginners.
When his friend, Rabbi Schwartz, opened Yeshiva Orchos Chaim for baalei teshuvah, he hesitated about whether to take Rabbi Fried as a maggid shiur. He worried that exposure to such a high level tzaddik might fill the fresh baalei teshuvah with unhealthy desires to attain a spiritual level far beyond them at that stage in their development. In the end, however, he reasoned that the benefits far outweighed the dangers. He did not realize how right he had been until news of Rabbi Fried’s fatal car crash began to spread among former talmidim of the yeshiva, and he received an outpouring of calls from around the world from broken talmidim wondering how such a fate could have befallen a “perfect tzaddik.” One even came to Eretz Yisrael just to be menachem avel.
The whole world was a bais medrash for him, and his power of amazement was virtually unlimited. At fifty-nine, everything he did was still done with enthusiasm and excitement. He had a wide knowledge of science, which he used to advise many on nutritional and health issues. Due to his knowledge of both astronomy and halacha, he succeeded in convincing the members of the haneitz minyan, where he always davened, including the renowned talmid chochom Rav Mechel Zilber, that the calculations they had previously used to determine haneitz were slightly off.
As much as he pushed himself in every aspect of avodas Hashem and accepted upon himself various chumros, because he knew he was capable of them, he made no such demands on others. Every Shabbos,Yom Tov, or Rosh Chodesh seudah was filled with special treats for each child. Their memories include waterskiing during the summer, snow skiing on the Hermon in the winter, and Chol Hamoed outings on a rented bus with a few other neighborhood families.The bein hazemanim afternoon of his fatal crash was spent at the park with his grandchildren.
I DID KNOW RABBI SPEYER – or at least I thought I did. For years, we attended the same small chaburah with Rav Moshe Shapiro on Perek Cheilek. After his passing, however, I realized that I had not known him at all. His true depth could only be fully appreciated through constant contact over time.
Over his 17 years as mashgiach in Ohr Somayach, he had a profound impact on hundreds of bochurim. At the levaya, on the first night of Rosh Chodesh Elul, his son Raphael, who had just finished giving a heart-wrenching hesped, found himself comforting broken talmidim and former talmidim of Ohr Somayach. At the hespeidim in Ohr Somayach, at the conclusion of shivah, the bochur sitting next to me could not stop sobbing.
Less than two years after first beginning to learn at Ohr Somayach, Reb Dovid entered the kollel of Rav Abba Berman zt”l, whose deep lomdus even advanced talmidei chachomim found challenging. His intense nature was well-suited to life as a yungerman. But after ten years in kollel, he told his wife that it was now time to give back to others – to go from being a “taker,” in Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s terminology, to being a “giver.”
At first blush, the job of mashgiach at Ohr Somayach did not seem a natural fit. His deep, contemplative nature tended toward the introverted. But there was another side as well waiting to be expressed. He was a rare combination of “Yekkish” precision, with deep emotions. He could be brought to tears by the slightest aliyah in the spiritual state of a talmid or a troubled youth in the neighborhood, or by a decline in the opposite direction.
His mesirus nefesh for his talmidim was unlimited. He spent hours on the phone talking to parents, shadchanim, and counselors. For many of his students at Ohr Somayach, he was a surrogate father. Towards the end of his life, a new chemotherapy treatment that offered the best hope of life suddenly became available, but a Shabbaton in his Neve Yaakov neighborhood for Ohr Somayach students had already been scheduled. Reb Dovid asked his doctors if the chemotherapy could be postponed for some days, until after the Shabbaton. “I feel the boys need it,” he said by way of explanation. Even in the last days of his life, he was answering phone calls from talmidim,,”How can I help you?”.
Besides his talmidim, another group shattered by his passing was the at-risk teenagers in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood in which he lived. At first glance, that seems strange. It would be hard to think of someone less cool or charismatic. But the troubled teenagers knew that he was the real thing. And they knew that when he smiled at them, it was genuine, untainted by artifice of any kind. When he asked them how they were, he really wanted to know the answer and had all the time they needed to listen. Unbeknownst to anyone, Reb Dovid had established an organization – Yahalomim (Diamonds) – for those at-risk teenagers.
He had little need to talk. All those who knew him remarked on his disconcerting habit of not answering immediately when one said something to him. Often, we would repeat the statement or question, assuming he had not heard. But the real explanation was even simpler: “I’m thinking.” The possibility of weighing each word before talking had never occurred to most of us.
That ability to remain quiet became the key to his counseling of bochurim. Rather than telling them what to do, he would encourage them to analyze the various sides of the issue and thereby discover the answer for themselves.
Every minute of his day was carefully accounted for. His study was filled with lists of middos he was working on and with concrete programs for doing so. He would approach his wife and tell her, “Devorah, you know me better than anyone. What should I be working on?” As the number of talmidim grew, and correspondingly their demands on his time, he went to speak to Rabbi Naftoli Kaplan and asked him where he should cut from all the hespeikim – in Mishnah Berurah, mussar, Gemara – that he had set for himself and the time given over to his talmidim.
Rabbi Kaplan told him that it was a difficult question, and he would have to think about it. After a few days, Rabbi Kaplan advised him not to cut anything. Reb Dovid remained ever grateful for that advice. Even in the midst of the harshest treatments or in excruciating pain, he strove to meet his daily quotas and was frustrated when he could not do so or found himself unable to daven with sufficient kavanah.
But as careful as he was about his time, his talmidim were not given fixed time slots.The conversation was always for as long as the talmid needed or was continued later.
He did not act without a great deal of prior thought, and once he had determined that a particular course was the right one, he saw it through to the end. A local nursery school teacher once asked her class to describe their bed times. A Speyer son replied that his father read him a story every night. The teacher said, “Oh, how nice. Your father sometimes reads you a story.” “No,” the boy insisted, “he reads me a story every night.” When the teacher met Mrs. Speyer and told her the story, she added that she had assumed that if a father was giving that much attention to a child, he must be the oldest in the family. She was shocked to learn he was the ninth.
During his long medical battle, the question he asked all his rabbonim – Rav Aharon Feldman and Rav Moshe Shapiro, in particular – was whether he should work on bitachon that he would recover or on accepting the gezeirah be’ahavah. On that question depended practical questions such as whether others should be informed of the seriousness of his condition and asked to daven for him or not. Out of his own avodah during that period came two years of vaadim in the Mirrer Yeshiva on the topic of bitachon
During one hospital stay, the infusion tube in his wrist broke and was gushing blood. The nurses were busy, and for half an hour Reb Dovid sat there manually pressing on the wound to limit the flow of blood. When a nurse finally responded, she placed a new infusion higher up on his arm. Rather than being bitter about the long delay, he was delighted, for he had been worried that the previous infusion had prevented him from properly washing his hands. “You see, Devorah,” he said to his wife, “we just have to lean back and let Hashem take care of everything.”
His standard line to his wife was: “Everything is going according to plan (though not necessarily our plan).” As long as the doctors had something to offer, he insisted that his recovery was not yet in the category of a neis niglah, and he could hope for the best. His last words, while on a respirator, that his family was able to understand clearly, were: “I want to live.”
Shortly before his passing, Reb Dovid confided to one of his sons, “If I cannot be in the yeshiva for Elul, that would be a blow.” His passing on Erev Rosh Chodesh was a blow not just for him, but for all those hundreds who directly felt his influence.
MUCH OF OUR PREPARATION for Rosh Hashanah centers on a rigorous analysis of who we are. That requires knowing our potential and the ways that we are falling short of fulfillment of our unique mission in life.
The lives of Rabbi Yaakov Fried and Rabbi Dovid Speyer can add much to that aspect of our preparation for Rosh Hashanah, for they serve as concrete examples of how much potential we each have and reproof to us for all the potential that remains untapped. As different as they were from one another, they both teach us another lesson as well: No matter how demanding one’s personal avodas Hashem, if it reflects the true simchah of being connected to Hashem and knowing that everything one does is filled with purpose, one will draw all those with whom he is in contact closer to a life of Torah and mitzvos.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman, Sep. 26.