A Tribute to Rav Moish and Sondra Gottesman

The following is the drasha that I delivered this past Shabbat which was a tribute to Rav Moish and Rebbetzin Sondra Gottesman for their decades of inspirational dedication to our Oceanside community:

In the middle of the parsha, Moshe Rabbenu begged God to kill him.  Why? Because the people wanted meat.  Isn’t Moshe’s response a bit extreme? I wonder if Moshe reacted the way he did because he felt all alone. Why am I saying that?  Because Yitro may have just left the camp of the Bnei Yisrael.  Immediately prior to this story, Yitro wanted to leave and Moshe told him to stay and the ending of the story is unclear.  Indeed, the commentaries debate as to whether Yitro actually left the camp.  If Yitro did leave, perhaps we can understand Moshe’s anxiety.  After all, Yitro was the one person who had given Moshe personal advice.  In Parshat Yitro, he saw that Moshe was struggling and offered a solution to help him, namely to appoint judges.  If Yitro left, Moshe would have nobody left to personally look out for him and maybe that is why he complained so bitterly to God.  Moshe felt all alone.

But was Moshe truly alone without anyone available to assist him?  Why didn’t the judges that Yitro suggested come to Moshe’s aid? After all, in Parshat Yitro, Yitro told Moshe to find anshei chayil, yirei Elokim, anshei emet son’ei batza, men of valor, God fearing individuals, men of truth, individuals who hated ill-gotten gain, and make them judges.  These individuals had a sterling reputation!

Perhaps Yitro didn’t fully understand the true challenges that Moshe faced and that is why these individuals couldn’t help Moshe now.  Yitro saw Moshe working from day to night and he thought that Moshe needed practical support because of his workload.  However, there was a deeper reason for Moshe’s stress which Yitro did not understand.  Moshe had judges to help him, but he still complained “He’anochi hariti et kol ha’am hazeh im anochi yelidtihu ki tomar eilai sa’eihu b’chaikecha kaasher yisa ha’omen et hayonek,” or “did I impregnate this nation?  Did I give birth to them?  Like you would tell me to carry in your bosom like a nurse carries an infant!”  Moshe believed that the people needed a mother for this nation.  However, maybe Moshe also didn’t fully understand what was necessary.  God told Moshe that He will gather seventy elders to assist Moshe. What is the difference between the judge and the elder?

The judge is the rational, intellectual individual who interprets and implements the law so that society can function.  However, regarding the elders, God said, “v’atzalti min ha’ruach asher alecha v’samti aleihem,” or “I will draw upon the spirit that is on Moshe and will place it on them.”  Many commentaries explain this phrase to mean that the elders will receive prophecy, but the Abrabanel adds, “limshoch libam el ha’emet,” that the elders “will draw the people’s heart to the truth.”  The judge interprets and implements the law, but the elder inspires.  And isn’t that a primary role of prophecy?  Not only must the prophet hear God’s message, but he must inspire the people with God’s message.  Indeed, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the reason why these elders only prophesied once was simply to establish their credentials, that they were chosen.  Once they established their credentials, then they would be able to help Moshe inspire the people.  Yitro thought that Moshe simply needed practical help from a judge.  Moshe thought that the nation needed a mother to tend to their every whim and desire, but God understood that what was truly missing was inspiration, and that was the primary function of the elders.

Many people join a community and help a community on different levels.  Some people even act like judges in a community.  They support the mission of the community practically through their time and resources and communities cannot survive without those individuals.  However, there are a select few, who are more than judges.  There are a select few who are the elders of the community, not because of their age, but because they inspire an entire community for decades.

Moish and Sondra, whatever I say about you here today will clearly only be miktzat shivchat adam l’fanav.  It will only be partial praise, because who can truly express all the blessings that the two of you have bestowed upon our community for so many years?  The two of you are zekeinim and you have been zekeinim in the Oceanside community ever since you moved to our community because nobody has been more inspirational in our community than the two of you for so many years.

We will present you with a plaque that states “Moshe zachah v’zikah et harabim,” or “Moshe merited and enabled the masses to merit.”  I still remember as a young Rabbi fourteen years ago moving to this community and I noticed that people were approaching Moish to give him money for tzedakah and I was wondering to myself, “Who does that?  If you are soliciting people to give tzedakah, shouldn’t you approach them?  Why are they approaching you?”

The answer, of course, is obvious to all of us. Moish inspired us to love to do mitzvot.  He inspired us to love to give tzedakah, when it wasn’t seen as a burden but as a wonderful opportunity.  It was an honor to have Moish as your shaliach, your agent, with which you could fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah.  I also remember at times that when someone offered Moish money he declined, and I asked him why. He told me that the timing is not right.  If he waits until a later time, he’ll receive a much larger check from this specific donor.

People liked to give tzedakah through Moish because it was always for a good cause, whether it was for a family in need of medical treatments, hachnasat kallah, poor people in Israel or for wonderful organizations and Yeshivot.  In doing so, Moish introduced our community to wonderful Torah institutions and Gedolei Torah across the hashkafic spectrum.  Moish introduced the Oceanside community to Yeshivot Bnei Akiva and many members of our community are proud supporters.  He also introduced the community to Mesivta Tiferet Jerusalem and he brought Rav Dovid and Rav Reuven Feinstein to Oceanside many times.   Who does that in today’s day and age?  Who is able to have so much ahavat Yisrael and ahavat Torah across such a broad hashkafic spectrum?  What an inspirational message!

Moish founded the Bikur Cholim of Oceanside, he was one of the founders of the Chevra Kadisha, he was the first chairman of Yom Haatzmaut events at YIO and nobody said a better tefilla for chayalei tzahal than Moish – “bayabasha, ba’avir… u’vayam.”

Moish, you were our Gabbai for so many years and I am pleased that just a short while ago, the Board of Directors of YIO passed a unanimous resolution giving you the title of Honorary Gabbai of our Young Israel.  This is not so much a kavod for you as it is a kavod for us to have you as our Honorary Gabbai.

Moish taught our community to care about everyone because he led by example, whether it was getting around an autopsy that was state mandated that prevented a timely burial or whether it was speaking with politicians because there were problems with the local eruv.  Whenever any Oceanside families had problems with their children in Yeshivot, whether or not the children were in HANC, and whenever someone was in financial need, Moish was there to help.  He inspired us to care about every individual.  Moshe zachah v’zikah et harabim.

The plaque also says Sarah Neviah hayta.  Yes, Sondra is our prophet.  Sondra’s wisdom, emuna, tefilla and her connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu inspired countless women in the community.  To daven in Sondra’s vicinity during the Yamim Noraim meant that you were included in her tefillot and you were spiritually nourished by the aura that she projected.  [Someone after the drasha told me that every year, on her YIO Yamim Noraim seating form, she writes, “As close to Sondra Gottesman as possible!”]

And what about our beautiful mikvah?  Moish and Sondra had the idea to start the mikvah in our community.  Together with Moish Williams, they were the driving force behind raising money for the mikvah.  They were instrumental in getting Rav Bick as the Posek of the mikvah and there is actually nothing that Sondra hasn’t done for the mikvah.  She interviewed and was very involved in hiring the various shomrot for the mikvah, she is very involved in running the day to day operations of the mikvah including maintenance, cleaning, laundry, supplies and being the shomeret many times.  She is involved with the finances of the mikvah, with buying flowers for the mikvah and with leading tours of the mikvah, especially to high school classes.

In fact, it came to my attention that at one time neighbors took the mikvah to a court zoning board over the building permit of the mikvah.  Moish took 12th grade HANC girls to the hearing and told them that they should be dressed in their Shabbat clothes.  When they all came to the hearing, Moish told the judge that these are the future users of the mikvah.  The judge granted them the permit and dismissed the case.

Sondra is the head of the Bikur Cholim in South Nassau and has inspired so many men and women by example to make regular hospital visits.  Sondra is also a “mevakeshet,” a seeker of Torah.  She is always looking to learn more and more Torah and attend more and more shiurim.  Until last year, she would always attend my women’s class, as well as countless others, with an old-fashioned tape-recorder to tape the shiur, review the shiur and ask questions if she didn’t understand something.  She has finally transitioned to a more updated recording device.  In being a “mevakeshet,” she inspired so many women to learn Torah.  Additionally, the Gottesman home is always open for hachnasat orchim.  In short, Sondra has inspired us in countless ways by her own personal example.

For me personally, so many times when I had to make a judgment call for the community, whether I should be strict or lenient, whether I should speak up about an issue or look the other way, how do I phrase my request to the community in a matter that will be inspiring and not offensive, and how do I find that balance between bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachavero with regard to a number of issues facing our community, I turned to Sondra for advice. Who better than Sondra to give such advice, an individual who is so sensitive to both halacha and the needs of our community.  For your wisdom and guidance, I thank you.  Sarah neviah hayta.

It has been such a bracha for our community to have been inspired by the two of you. We wish you much bracha in your new journey in life, and we hope we can make the two of you proud because so much of what we are today, a community with a firm commitment to chesed, tzedakah, hachnasat orchim, Talmud Torah, taharat hamishpacha, love of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael and love of all Jews, is directly because of the two of you.  Thank you.


About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.