Maran Rav Gershon, zt”l – Flashes of Light from Our Luminary Gadol
By Rav Dovid Hofstedter
As I gather my thoughts and put pen to paper, I find it very hard to write ‘zatzal’ after the name of Maran HaGaon HaRav Gershon Edelstein, zt”l. I can’t begin to imagine how painful it will be to spend time in Bnei Brak on my next trip to Eretz Yisroel without visiting his bayis malei kedushah on Rechov Raavad and being greeted by Rav Gershon with his signature smile. It was a smile that spoke volumes, radiating chavivus, yedidus and chein – warm, heimishe qualities to which the formal English language cannot do justice. To convey in mere words who Rav Gershon was and what he meant to me is proving very difficult indeed.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind was my last meeting with him, on erev Rosh Chodesh Nissan, just over two months ago. He was very weak, and for the first time ever, I was shown to his bedside. The room was dim, save for the pale illumination of a small night light. The venerable Rosh Yeshiva lay in bed, holding a small, pocket-size Chumash and reciting shnayim mikrah v’echad Targum. It was a mild day, but there was a heater on, blowing hot air to warm him. The very fact that he agreed to see me, despite feeling so weak, underscored how seriously he took his role as a shaliach tzibbur, as a person who belonged to the tzibbur, and was completely mafkir himself.
Shining out at me, from that shadowy bed, was Rav Gershon’s smile. The smile that captivated you. The smile that reflected his genuine joy in seeing you. The second thing that impressed me was his sense of achrayus. I had come to show him a copy of the new Dirshu edition of Shulchan Aruch. He put down the lightweight Chumash he was holding, took the large, heavy sefer in his hands, opened it, and immediately began learning. He asked questions about the new commentaries, and what purpose they served. I was astounded at the transformation. From the moment he immersed himself in that Shulchan Aruch, he was in another world, his weakness forgotten. It was clear that Torah was more beloved to him than any earthly consideration.
With Rav Gershon, nothing was perfunctory. He invested everything he undertook with a full sense of the responsibility and mission that Hashem placed upon his shoulders – even when those shoulders were frail, and had carried that weighty mission for nearly a hundred years. The Rosh Yeshiva remained strong and unwavering in his convictions. About ten months ago, we asked him to give his haskama to a new Dirshu Yerushalmi testing program. He told me that while it was an important, innovative and compelling project, he felt he couldn’t lend his hand to it. He was worried that people who had not sufficiently learned Talmud Bavli would jump straight in to learning Yerushalmi. At the start of our meeting, I felt sure that he would give us his warm haskama and bracha, but he had a clear and unequivocal hashkafic path, and he was always true to it.
Rav Gershon was a noble adam gadol who didn’t wear his tzidkus and passion on his sleeve. He did everything with such tzniyus, innate humility, and so naturally that you thought it was just “normal.” It was “normal” for a man of his age to take in guests, and review a sefer while infirm and abed. You had to notice these flashes of light from his inner greatness, or you could miss and dismiss them as “normal.”
Rav Gershon’s home was ablaze with these flashes of light. His grandson, the child of his daughter and son-in-law, Rav and Rebbetzin Isamar Garbuz, Rosh Yeshiva of Orchos Torah, is a Daf HaYomi B’Halacha maggid shiur. One time, he mentioned in passing to his grandfather that he was about to make a siyum on one of the chalakim of Mishnah Berurah. “Why don’t you come over and make the siyum here?” Rav Gershon asked promptly, offering his home and hospitality without missing a beat.
Providentially, I was in Eretz Yisroel at that time, and attended that siyum. I cannot forget Rav Gershon’s joy on the occasion, how he transmitted that love and joy to his beloved grandson, reveling in his Torah accomplishments. I knew that Rav Gershon did not have an easy personal life. When I knew him, he was well into his nineties. He had recently lost a son, Rav Yosef Edelstein, who passed away after a difficult illness, leaving behind a large family. His beloved son, Rav Bezalel, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Ahavat Aharon, had just been diagnosed with a degenerative disease that confined him to his home. Somehow, Rav Gershon was able to transcend all of that terrible heartache, and be a happy, supportive grandfather.
At Rav Gershon’s levaya, HaGaon HaRav Boruch Mordechai Erachi, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Ateret Yisrael said that Rav Gershon wore two crowns: the Kesser Torah and the Kesser Hanhaga. The crown of Torah, of learning and teaching Torah for more than seventy years, and the crown of hanhaga, of being a leader in Klal Yisroel. Rav Gershon did not allow one crown to compromise the other. Each one remained b’shleimus. His learning and shiurim never faltered. At the same time, he was able to fulfill the responsibilities of his hanhaga, advising and making decisions for Klal Yisroel.
I can supplement Rav Ezrachi’s words through what I personally witnessed at that siyum. There was a further dimension to Rav Gershon’s great persona, and another set of crowns – his roles as a father, and a grandfather. He performed both of those roles with shleimus, each distinctly, without compromising one for the other.
Another unique quality of Rav Gershon was that although he wasn’t one for small talk or a conversationalist in the typical sense, he often told me personal stories about incidents that made an impression on him and from which he learned. It was from those stories that I gleaned many brilliant flashes from his inner world and the perspective through which he viewed things.
Rav Gershon once told me a story about a bochur he knew well, who was going through an extremely difficult time. The young man had a complex family situation and was falling away from Yiddishkeit. He stopped learning, left yeshiva, and joined the work force. The bachur acknowledged that he should at least try to learn something in the evenings, but could only commit to learning for half an hour. When he approached Rav Gershon to ask what he should learn, Rav Gershon advised him to learn mussar. The bachur learned mussar for thirty minutes every day. Ultimately, that mussar brought him back. He got a cheshek to start learning again and slowly began to do so. Later, he was able to go to yeshiva ketana and resume learning all day long. From there, he went on to yeshiva gedolah. Today, he is a great mezakeh es harabbim. All in the merit of that nightly mussar seder, and the wisdom of Rav Gershon.
I observed the degree to which Rav Gershon valued mussar, how strongly he held that, even today, in 2023, mussar is key to avodas Hashem, engendering a cheshek to learn Torah and be a servant of Hashem. Just three months ago, Rav Gershon invited us to his home, together with senior Mashgichim form Eretz Yisroel, to promote the learning of Mussar in Dirshu’s Kinyan Chochma program. Despite his age and weakening condition, he pushed himself to host, and delivered a powerful shmuess on the importance of mussar learning in our times. Although he was 100 years old, from the generation of the Chazon Ish and the Ponovezher Rav, he had a keen awareness and incisive understanding of today’s youth and their challenges.
I will cite an example based on another story that Rav Gershon once told me. “I remember,” he told me, “a young bochur once came to me and said that he decided to stop speaking devorim biteilim – any extraneous speech. After a while, he came back and told me that he could not maintain it, it was too difficult not to speak at all.” Rav Gershon, someone who barely spoke any devorim biteilim, keenly understood that for most people, talking is necessary. He told me that a person must be able to talk a bit with friends. That is human nature. At the same time, he pointed out, that does not give one carte blanche to incessantly schmooze. “A person mut talk a bit,” he stressed, “but too much schmoozing is considered batalah…”
Indeed, despite being from a previous generation, he understood this generation, as the following story will illustrate. I once consulted with him as to whether Dirshu should offer programs that are less demanding for those who can’t keep up with the more demanding programs. I was worried that perhaps people who were capable of more would choose the easier programs even though they could do more. “You do not have to worry about that,” Rav Gershon told me. “The nature of a person is to learn b’makom shelibo chafetz, where his heart pulls him. People have different natures. Some people are naturally inclined to bekius, others to iyun, and yet others to halacha. That’s why I feel you should have many types of programs. Each person will find the program that appeals to his particular skillset.” I remember how Rav Gershon repeatedly told me that, “the main thing is l’fi tivo, that every person should learn in accordance with his natural inclination. Chazal teach us that this is the way to truly grow in Torah!”
I will conclude with a final story that I heard from the baal hamaaseh. Today, he is a yungerman, but when he was a bochur learning in Ponovezh, he was feeling unfulfilled in his learning and went to Rav Gershon for advice. At that time, the yeshiva was learning Masechta Sanhedrin, so Rav Gershon suggested that he learn and take Dirshu tests on the entire masechta. This was two months after the zeman had started and Dirshu’s rules are that if you want to participate, you must start from the beginning of the masechta. Hence, he could not join. Rav Gershon wasn’t deterred. “Okay,” he told the bochur, “if you can’t take the Dirshu tests, come to me once a month and I will test you!” And that is what he did. When the bochur came back at the beginning of the year to take tests on the next masechta, Bava Kama, Rav Gershon encouraged him, “Now it is the beginning of the zeman, so you can sign up for Dirshu.”
What chinuch! What anava! That was the Rav Gershon I knew. Every word that I heard from him was a revelation and a lesson in middos tovos, especially in anivus. I recall how, at one of Dirshu’s large stadium siyumim, when it was time for the Rabbanim to enter, and the tzibur was joyously singing Yamim Al Yemai Melech to greet them, I found myself walking behind Rav Gershon. On entering, the Rosh Yeshiva paused, beckoning me to go first. Of course, I recoiled and insisted that he precede me.
Rav Gershon’s image, his example, his personal guidance and inspiration will always remain in front of us. Our world is colder without his warmth and love, and darker without the flashes of light that emanated from his pure neshama. May his memory light the way for us to aspire to lives of Torah, hasmada and true Yiras Shamayim, as he taught and encouraged all of his days. Yehi zichro boruch.