21 Oct RABBI ELEAZAR MENACHEM MAN SHACH, ON THE 20TH YAHRTZEIT: THE SECRET OF GREATNESS
William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night
is probably his most enduring and popular
comedy. At one point, the unfortunate Malvolio
discovers a letter he thinks has been written by
Countess Olivia, with whom he is besotted.
But the letter is a forgery, containing information
that leads Malvolio to behave out of character,
much to the amusement of those who forged it.
But as with so many other Shakespearean
peripherals, the fake letter contains a remarkable
line which remains one of Shakespeare’s bestknown quotes: “Be not afraid of greatness.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
Those who achieve greatness often defy
advanced prediction. Such a man was the late
Rabbi Eleazar Menachem Man Shach,
whose 20th yahrtzeit is this week.
A Lithuanian-born yeshiva-trained scholar
lucky enough to emerge from Nazi-overrun
Europe, in 1940 he settled in Palestine where
he struggled to find income as a yeshiva
teacher, despite his previous experience
running a significant yeshiva in Europe.
He was eventually hired to teach at
Ponevezh, a remarkable institution created
by the legendary Ponevezher Rav, Rabbi
Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman. Rabbi Shach
proved very popular with students,
although he was initially overshadowed
by his colleague Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky,
a masterful pedagogue whose clarity and
scholarship made him the undisputed superstar
Talmud lecturer at the yeshiva.
In retrospect, Rabbi Shach was typical of many
rabbis like him who had survived the Holocaust
– qualified, competent, pious, a scholar, and
deeply committed to the cause of reestablishing
the world that had been destroyed.
And just like most of these rabbinic colleagues,
including those who had excelled in Europe,
Rabbi Shach struggled to succeed in the
postwar Jewish world, amidst an atmosphere
where old-world Judaism seemed very much
in decline. Making a living was difficult, and
incidental concerns, among them ideological
leadership, were remote considerations, if they
were considerations at all.
But in contrast to others, in the early-1970s, with
the passing or decline of the older generation
of rabbis who took on leadership roles after
the Holocaust, Rabbi Shach emerged as the
preeminent spokesperson for the non-Zionist
orthodox Jewish community who chose active
if cautious cooperation with the State of Israel
as its modus operandi.
For over a quarter of a century he presided over
this community, his pronouncements treated as
holy law by hundreds of thousands of acolytes
in Israel and across the world.
Despite his humble origins, and despite the
lack of exceptional credentials by any objective
criteria, Rabbi Shach became one of the most
outstanding leaders this community has ever
had, unmatched by anyone since he faded into
the background in the mid-1990s (he passed
away in 2001 at the age of 102).
Obituaries published after he died give the
impression of an implacable, one-dimensional
ideologue: “a zealot who repeatedly led his
followers into ideological battles”; a “fiery
leader” who was “uncompromising in his
opposition to the liberal values of secular Israeli
The truth, however, is far more nuanced, and it
unlocks the secret of Rabbi Shach’s incredible
appeal as a leader who inspired such devoted
and sustained admiration, even beyond the
strictly orthodox community.
My late father took me to see Rabbi Shach
several times when I studied in yeshiva in Israel
during the late 1980s; I have a photo of one of
those visits on display in my office.
I was only in my teens, but even so was struck
by Rabbi Shach’s incredibly gentle nature and
profound humility; he met us at the door as
we arrived and escorted us back when we left,
despite being extremely elderly and having
attendants to do it for him.
But what left the greatest impression was a
speech Rabbi Shach gave on October 9, 1988,
to thousands of people at Binyanei Ha’uma in
Elections for Israel’s 12th Knesset were
scheduled for November 1st, and Rabbi Shach
requested a gathering of the faithful for him to
share an important message in anticipation of
His speech that day, if read as a dry text,
appears harsh and unforgiving. Torah-true
Jews needed to understand that their influence
had to be asserted on Israeli society-at-large;
ingrained secularism had turned Israel’s youth
into the antithesis of Jewish values; the very
future of Judaism and the Jewish nation was
in danger unless those who cared about Torah
and traditional Jewish law seized the moment
and turned things around. Rabbi Shach’s biting
criticism of modern Israel was merciless,
contemptuous, and disdainful.
But the text of his speech belies the mode of
its delivery. As Rabbi Shach began to describe
the worst aspects of Israeli society’s embrace of
secular values he started to weep uncontrollably,
his voice cracking with emotion. “My heart
breaks within me,” he cried, “to see how our
nation’s holiness is being consumed by evil.”
It was not about politics or censure; he was
engaged in a battle to preserve the heritage of
the Jewish people. Those who had abandoned
tradition were not objects of hate, rather
they were the misguided results of skewered
priorities, souls ripe for reignition, if only his
followers would take up the challenge and
Remarkably, this powerful message is utterly
consistent with Rabbi Shach’s interpretation of
a curious Midrash on Parshat Vayishlach.
The Midrash attributes the tragedy of
Jacob’s daughter Dinah’s kidnapping by
Shechem to his not having given Dinah to
Esau as a wife, instead hiding her in a box
so that Esau wouldn’t see her.
Had Yackov allowed Esav to marry Dinah,
says the Midrash, perhaps Esav would have
repented from his sinful ways.
Many commentaries query this idea: does
the Midrash seriously believe Yackov was
wrong to protect his daughter from Esav?
Rabbi Shach dismisses this notion. On
the contrary, he says, Yackov did the right
thing. Rather, the Midrash is taking Yackov
to task for not being regretful that he had to
hide his daughter. Just for a moment Jacob
should have paused to consider his brother’s
depressed spiritual condition that forced him to
hide her, and felt a moment of sadness.
We, who benefit from the incredible warmth
and depth of Jewish tradition, should never
forget that those who lack what we have are
not “others”, but “brothers”, and their lack of
Judaism must never be treated merely as an
excuse to criticize. Instead, it should remind
us that as members of our family, their reduced
involvement in Jewish life is a terrible scar.
It was this visceral feeling of sorrow that
elevated Rabbi Shach above his rabbinic peers,
and the reason why greatness was thrust upon
Rabbi Dunner is the Senior Rabbi at YINBH- Beverly Hills Synagogue, and resides with his wife & 6 children in Beverly Hills.
To read more of Rabbi Dunners articles visit https://rabbidunner.com/