Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch – a lesson today from 3 decades ago

It’s not every day that a giant of the Jewish world, and a leader of leaders, passes away.

Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, my former rosh yeshiva in the “hesder” yeshiva of Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, who passed away today at age 92, was exactly that.

I can hardly claim to have been close to him – after leaving the yeshiva, I think I only saw him a couple of times over the last 25 years, and I doubt he would have recognized me. I have been reading so much today about what he did in his life — as we start the mourning period for this great man, stories naturally abound about him. He was a brilliant man, tall, imposing and regal, yet so approachable to so many. Yet he was not only a genius, an author and a posek halacha, a rabbi at the forefront of Zionism and Halacha, but also someone who knew exactly what to say and when and how to say it. The story I want to tell about him, the thread to add to the tapestry that many are weaving now, is about that gift, and not about his rabbinical prowess or knowledge.

The moment that will stick with me that I want to share, that is so relevant to now as well, was one only I experienced, and took place in the dark winter of 1991. I had only been at the yeshiva a few months, and was still months away from drafting to the IDF. I found myself, with all the other students, sucked into the strange and unexpected world of learning while under fire, literally – the Gulf War began in January 1991 and then raged, with the Scud missiles falling daily from Iraq and the fear palpable. How ironic that the last time that Israelis would learn — extremely quickly — not to leave their houses without their masks was then – although that time it was with a gas mask, not what we currently wear.

Once the Scuds began falling on us, the yeshiva administration set in place a system to sound the siren. Back then there was no automated system, and it was decided that the yeshiva student who was the guard on duty would be the one to activate the siren. So, to the usual guard duty was added another task: to listen to the radio and wait for the music to be interrupted by the harsh, guttural “Nachash Tzefa” code (anyone reading this who heard this back then knows exactly what I mean) meaning that missiles were on their way. When that happened, we were to activate the siren by pressing and releasing the button, alternately, to make the up-and-down wailing sound that would wake the rest of the yeshiva and send them running to the safe rooms, and then check that they were actually awake and moving. This quickly became the norm.

One Friday night that happened to be very cold and rainy, it was my turn to guard, in the middle of the night. The radio was using the – then new – idea of a silent emergency channel – meaning that it was on, but would only blare into life when a “Nachash Tzefa” was to be broadcast, thus making it permissible for Shabbat observers to have it on yet not disturb their Shabbat atmosphere. An excellent solution, except that being nervous that it actually was on, we turned the volume up to full blast to make sure we didn’t miss it. Therefore, when it came that night, the radio was at maximum volume, sending my already peaking adrenaline levels sky-high.

I sounded the alarm, and remember dashing out into the rain to check that the dorm was alive with people rushing to the safe rooms, before sprinting for cover myself. I didn’t panic – adrenaline gives you wings, and fear is your superpower for a short time – but I was about as scared as I had ever been in my life, and remember that the pounding of my heart when all had returned to normal a few minutes later just didn’t want to go away. I was 18, had no army experience, was cold, wet and shivering, waiting for another blast of Nachash Tzefa, my heart was pounding hard enough to feel all over my body, and I was just plain scared.

It was at that moment, maybe 15 minutes after the radio had shattered my Shabbat, that Rabbi Rabinovitch appeared in my guard post, with a hearty “Shabbat shalom, yashar koach!” (Well done)  He lived very close to the yeshiva, and had decided, being up from the siren anyway, to come and see how his students were. My instinct – had I been caught doing something wrong?  This was the head of the yeshiva! – was quickly smothered by his smile and his congratulations to me for having worked the siren properly, and his simple concern about how we were all handling it.

He sensed how scared I was, and knew exactly what to say to calm me down, and it really worked – just plain conversation, asking me how my family was, making me feel important, and assurance that everything was fine.

However, just before he left to go and check on the dorms, he said something that really resonated with me. It was a lesson that I had heard before, and have heard again since many times – I think it is one of life’s great lessons, and I try and impart it to all my students. But hearing it from him there and then, in the middle of one of the strangest Friday nights I have ever been through, from the great rabbi to an audience of one teenager, really penetrated deep.

What he said was simple.  ”You know, these are difficult times, scary times.  But remember, we don’t control what happens to us, only G-d controls that. All we control is how we react to what happens to us. How we act, how we treat others in this situation, how we care for others, and how we are an example to others — that is in our control.”

All we control is how we react. A lesson learned almost three decades ago.

It is simple to see how these words are as critical now as they were then.

We are in this COVID-19 situation, and that is beyond our control.

What is in our control is how we react to it.

Ask yourself, what can I do to help the other, on any level.  How can I react in a way that I will be proud of later.

The world is a darker place today without Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, and today I am thinking of him and the lesson I learned three decades ago.

Baruch Dayan Haemet.

About the Author
Betsalel Steinhart is a Licensed Tour Guide, and the Director of the Ramah Israel Institute for Ramah Israel. He lives in Bet Shemesh with his wife and five children.
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