A Layman’s Glimpse of the Benevolent Side of Genius Rav Steinsaltz

I was “supposed” to go to Dad’s grave in Tzfat on Friday since it was my Bio-Mom’s 43rd Yahrzeit.

I figured that would be my second best choice if I couldn’t get to Mom’s grave in New York. While I scheduled the day around a fun family trip, life didn’t turn out as planned.

Sadly, a man so dear to the whole world and known as a scholar and luminary to many, Rav Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz, passed away that morning at the age of 83. He was my friend’s Dad, an author of many Torah books that were written specifically to help all types of people with various backgrounds and intellectual abilities to better understand the Torah today.

I obviously wasn’t “supposed” to be going to Dad at all that day. Clearly, Rav Adin’s was the funeral and grave I was to attend to. This Yahrzeit date of 17 Av will now forever be shared by his family and mine. (Is it wrong to feel comfort by this, validated in some way?)

I’d like to share here some very personal encounters with the Rav.

My first encounter with Rav Adin was when Yossi and I were given the honor of carrying his grandchild, Moshe, to the mohel for his circumcision. I’m childhood friends with his daughter-in-law, Liza, and she graciously gave us this honor.

A few years later, when I was 25 and heavily pregnant with my first, we met again at Liza and Meni’s for Shabbat lunch. It was to be the first of many times Rav Adin would guide me forward in my life in the most loving but strong and meaningful way, making me dig deeper within myself, ask questions, stand up for myself, and know that I make a difference by my very existence- that I am a vessel of God worth investing in.

That day at lunch by Liza, Rav Adin asked me if I knew what my name meant. I had never been asked that before. “Hindel, a hen, in Yiddish?” I guessed. And he laughed and asked if I identified as a chicken! “Would you like to be like one? Or would you rather identify with the beautiful gazelle, the Ayala, bcz that’s what your name means in Hebrew. Hindel is not a hen. Hindel is the Gazelle”. Well, I’ll certainly go through life differently as a gazelle than I would a chicken!

Since then, we have met many times at family parties and different events. I’ve gotten blessings from him when he was “the Godfather”-sandik- at friends children’s Brisim, and on Simchat Torah when he often took the liberty to give blessings. I’ve also had the pleasure to meet with him privately four times.

Rav Adin was notorious for his soft-spoken tone and low voice while his eyes twinkled- and all this while he straight-talked and gave dramatic harsh examples to get his point across. He didn’t wear kid gloves when he spoke with me, nor did he mince his words. He spoke to me much like my Dad; full of love, and always in a judge-free zone, but with intention for growth.

One of my Dad’s favorite lines was, “It’s not about You”. And Rav Adin would sweetly say the same. He had high expectations for me of how to move forward as my best self. He never criticized me, but he pointed out kindly why my train of thought or my actions was more about ME and less about what I wanted to accomplish for others. He let me know when my ego needed to be moved to the side so that I can make more space in my life for ideas larger than me. He asked me questions with kindness to guide my thoughts until I discovered my own answers to paths I would need to take.

It’s shocking to think that I so easily felt comfortable asking for his precious time to talk to me. I took him away from writing and teaching; his contributions to our earthly and mundane existence, changing the spiritual cosmic face of this world.

I went to Rav Adin to cry and beg for clarity after Shula passed away. I had questions and I needed answers. He answered with love and wisdom as he sat there in his cozy, hands-on museum of an office with one of his many pipes, very much focused on me as if he had all the time in the world. He smiled with sensitivity as he answered as much as a human can answer without speaking for or making excuses for God.

Three years later, I met him at Meni’s birthday party and he immediately asked how I was REALLY doing and brought up details of our private meeting three years prior. And of course I burst into tears and said that three years with Shula gone still felt impossible to survive. We chatted on the couch there for 20 minutes, (ok, I chatted), and this time, Rav Adin spoke with me a bit more strongly. He told me that I wasn’t doing enough to let Shula go. And although it’s important to never forget her, there is a healthy way to move forward with the grief. And clearly I wasn’t doing that and I was making my whole family suffer because of it.

This shocked me as I had been in therapy and I thought my progress in living in my New Normal was exemplary! And I told him so. He humored me with a nod and made it clear he didn’t agree. He said that Shula was just a small girl of three and although she must have been great in her lifetime bcz she so quickly completed her purpose, she must have had a pretty small “bank account”. (He went into such detailed description here that I laughed so loud by his outrageous comments). So all the hard work of events and classes, having a Torah written, and opening a children’s library, I was trying to accomplish in her memory was more for ME, since her pure soul didn’t actually need it. He told me he was happy if it made me feel better. And then smirked.

He continued, that the only way I would truly affect her soul was by my happiness and the happiness which I perpetuated around me . I needed to make a daily choice to be optimistic and positive “since Shula no longer needed me, as her job title in her new life was no longer as my daughter”. She needed permission from me to be free to live life in another capacity and I had to stop “dragging her down here”. (The detailed description of what her life may look like away from me was so outlandish that he had me laughing so hard again!)

He explained to me what the process of visiting a grave does to the deceased soul and how I must stop visiting Shula so often. (He went into dramatic detail here of comparisons. “You’re like the Shvigger, mother in law, that keeps repeating stories of the good life when her son lived with her and how much love they shared before you came ‘round and took him away.” He said, I need to “stop behaving like a child who keeps picking his scab off his leg just to glorify in the blood dripping down again and again..” I just needed to let the healing begin.)

He explained where God came into the picture and where my lack of faith- though I thought I had plenty- was a testament to my hanging on to grief.

I fought him hard on this. But he smiled and repeated his mantra as many times as I fought him. “We only survive in this world because Hashem’s efforts make it possible daily. It has almost nothing to do with the level of our mourning or our trying to survive. We need to do our part but ultimately, it is our faith that trusts in HIM that Life is GOOD and meaningful- and if we indeed believe that, our grief would be lessened and we can move forward. Because if I have Faith that He is All good, then what He does is surely good as well. If I’m grief-stricken, I don’t truly believe that God is Good.

He relentlessly continued by telling me that we are capable of surviving while holding memories and love for our deceased. He explained that the Lubavitcher Rebbe has guided us through so much of his teachings how to do this. “Let go, but still live with them as if they are part of your own body. By doing good deeds for their soul-, which they don’t need, but We do- we connect them to ourselves physically by becoming their hands and feet or mouths that do the Mitzvah in their merit.”

This was a revolutionary thought for me. I spent years in therapy, (and still absolutely love to check in with the same incredible Marilyn Hershenson) and read many books on grief, and yet no one had the guts to say to me, LET GO of the grief. Move ON! Its time! I didn’t realize I could let go while still maintaining a relationship with Shula. He empowered and liberated me by demanding that I step up and be productive without all the self-pity.

The Rav obviously saw deep within me that I was ready to hear this- and he went for the jugular. What’s most fascinating is that I found his tough-love talk so beneficial that I sent three other bereaved moms to him. Not ONE of them had the same experience as me. He specifically catered his answers to each mom that came with questions. And to none of them did he use that method of authority with his psychological Torah guidance. He just listened kindly and told them they were on the right path for healing… etc. Amazing to think that he really talked soul-to-soul to each individual that came to visit him. He knew what each person can handle and which direction he was able to encourage him or her.

When my father passed away, I marched right back into his office for a third visit.

He cried with me as I cried and begged for fatherly love. He didn’t look away embarrassed by my show of emotion, didn’t get impatient with all my psychological drivel.

He smiled at me with such love and devotion as I bragged about myself, my husband, my children, and my recent accomplishments- details I could no longer share with my own father. He advised me about which Yeshivas to send my boys, which jobs I should take on or drop (“would I benefit the most, or would the world benefit more?”, he asked) which way to encourage my husband in different endeavors, etc.

When he was no longer able to speak, due to his stroke, I had the audacity to visit him again and speak for 45 minutes straight. I would write out my questions for him and make little boxes for him to tick yes, no, or other.

Rav Adin was a tough-love-but loving grandpa who objectively advised those who asked. That’s how I personally saw Rav Adin. Much of the world knows him as one of the most impressive scholars of today, but I wonder how many know the humane, flesh and blood, kindest soul, non-judgmental side to this great Rabbi who had a great sense of humor and biting wit.

During this week of Shiva, as various parts of his soul hover over his home, his place of study, the place he did his good deeds, I wish his family so much love, comfort, and strength to believe that Moshiach is one GIANT step closer to bringing back the Beacon of light that was Rav Adin Even Israel.

To his wife, children and in laws, grandchildren, and all his students, I say
Hamakom Yenachem Etchem Bitoch Shaar Aveilei Tzion Byerushalayim.

Rav Adin receiving the book on my Dad, “I love when that happens”. (courtesy)
(courtesy)
About the Author
Hindel Schwartz Swerdlov grew up in Los Angeles as one of 12 children to the Chabad campus Rabbi and Rebbetzin of UCLA, Schwartzie and Olivia. She has been living in Jerusalem for the past 23 years with her husband and 7 children. Hindel is the founder and director of Shula's Library and writes for Our Tapestry magazine and other publications. She is also a teacher of Chassidut on Self-growth at Mayanot Women’s Yeshiva.
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