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    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
    the polls.
    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
    reignite them.
    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/