“Farewell to a Great Leader”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayeilech, the second of this week’s combined parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Moses bids a final farewell to the Jewish people before he passes.

In Deuteronomy 31:1 we read, “Va’yay’lech Moshe va’y’da’ber et had’varim ha’ay’leh el kol Yisrael,” Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel. He said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for the L-rd has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’ The L-rd, your G-d, He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you, and you shall possess them; Joshua–he shall cross over before you, as the L-rd has spoken.”

According to tradition, Moses went from his own dwelling near the Tabernacle and walked through the encampments of each of the twelve tribes to bid farewell to his beloved people, to comfort them prior to his impending death, and to assure them that G-d would continue to be with them even after his demise.

Our commentator’s point out that Moses did not abdicate his leadership position due to the infirmities of old age, for the Torah itself testifies (Deuteronomy 34:7) that, Moses’ “eye had not dimmed and his vigor had not diminished,”–that he was firm and vibrant until the last moments of his life. It was rather because G-d had told Moses that he was not to enter the Promised Land, and therefore the leadership had to be transferred to Joshua.

Although the passing of a leader of such great stature left the nation bereft, there was, thankfully, a new leader, Joshua, to assume the mantle of leadership.

On the twelfth of Av, early on Monday morning, August 3, 2009, Rabbi Zelik Epstein, the Rosh Yeshiva of Shaar HaTorah in Kew Gardens, Queens, passed away at age 97. Although he was a world renowned scholar and leader, his name was not widely known among the masses of Jews who are not connected to the Yeshiva world. I had the great honor of knowing the Rosh Yeshiva, and I believe that the National Jewish Outreach Program and the greater Jewish community is very much in his debt for his courageous leadership and decision making.

Some time ago, I was walking out of a restaurant where I had purchased some chicken soup to relieve my head cold, when a gentleman whom I did not know approached me. He asked if I had heard of the problem of visiting the Kotel, the Western Wall. When I told him that I had not, he proceeded to explain that notices had recently been posted in Jerusalem that religious Jews should not visit the Wall on Shabbat due to the surveillance cameras that operate 24/7 at the plaza. Although I probably should have checked more carefully, I quickly assured him that the rabbis in Jerusalem had most likely investigated the matter, and that even if there were a problem, it would soon be resolved.

The gentleman’s question only underscored for me how increasingly difficult it has become to be an observant Jew. Whether it is copepods (tiny bugs) in New York City’s drinking water or hair from India that is used in the manufacture of women’s wigs that was suspected of having been part of idolatrous rituals, there are new issues cropping up each day. A joke circulating now asks, how is a new chumra (stringency) created in Jewish law? The answer: Tell a Ba’al Teshuva (a returning Jew) a joke. So if you jokingly tell a Ba’al Teshuva that hands need to be washed fourteen times a day, it will be taken seriously. The next thing you know, a new directive will be issued to the observant community instructing everyone to wash fourteen times!

But the truth is, you don’t have to tell a Ba’al Teshuva a joke– it seems as if everybody is looking for stringencies today. Part of the reason for the move toward more restrictive practice is that it takes much greater erudition and courage to say that something is permissible than it does to say that something is not permissible. By favoring the stringent point of view, we eliminate all gray areas, resulting in: “When in doubt, nothing is Kosher!”

The National Jewish Outreach Program launched its now-renowned campaign known as Shabbat Across America on April 4, 1997. Until that time, a program known as “Turn Friday Night into Shabbat” had been offered in a limited number of synagogues, fifty to sixty at most. The reason for limiting the program was due to concern about proper Shabbat and kashrut observance in non-traditional synagogues and settings.

But we were determined to reach the people where they were, and those who could most benefit from Shabbat Across America were in the non-traditional synagogues and temples. We approached our rabbinic decisor, Rabbi David Cohen of Flatbush, who had always been a courageous mentor, asking him if there was any way that NJOP’s Shabbat program could be conducted in non-traditional synagogues. Rabbi Cohen said that he believed it could be done, but modestly noted that he did not have “broad enough shoulders” to issue such a decision alone. He suggested that we consult with Rabbi Zelik Epstein, who was then the senior Rosh Yeshiva in America.

After Rabbis Cohen and Epstein discussed the issues, Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum (Associate Director of NJOP) and I met with Rabbi Epstein to work out the details. His incisive questioning resulted in adjustments to our plans and directives, so that the program could receive his seal of approval. Eventually, two pages of written directives were produced that were signed with a blessing from Rabbi Epstein.

There was much publicity regarding the launching of the first Shabbat Across America. Press conferences were held and newspaper articles covered the anticipated program in depth. The publicity, of course, brought the program to the attention of those religious elements who were opposed to interdenominational programming. One very highly respected leader felt compelled to write a memo to his rabbinic leadership group denouncing the program, questioning how Ephraim Buchwald could undertake such a project without proper rabbinic approval, which he contended would lead to massive desecration of Shabbat and the serving of non-kosher food.

As soon as I received word of his rebuke, I called to tell him that the program indeed had the approval of Rabbi Zelik Epstein. He was rather astounded. To his great credit, after I faxed a copy of the letter to him with the signature of approval from Rabbi Epstein, he apologized, withdrew his rebuke and sent a letter of clarification to his entire rabbinic committee. He said, however, that he could not understand how Rabbi Epstein could grant approval to such a program, and expressed a desire to speak with Rabbi Epstein.

When I relayed the request to Rabbi Epstein, who was then in his mid-eighties, he simply said that the rabbi does not understand the needs of the American Jewish community today. And although the two subsequently met quite frequently, Rabbi Epstein never discussed the issue of Shabbat Across America with this highly regarded rabbinic leader.

In an article written by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in the Five Towns Jewish Times that was published shortly after Rabbi Epstein’s death, it was reported that Rabbi Epstein was once asked to sign a public document forbidding the use of the internet, but he refused to do so. When asked why he would not sign, he responded, “Klal Yisrael’s pants are falling down, and they want me to straighten out Klal Yisrael’s tie?” Rabbi Epstein obviously had a broad view of Jewish communal needs.

Like Moses our leader, Rabbi Zelik Epstein’s eye never dimmed, nor did his vigor diminish, and he was blessedly able to continue teaching until the last six months of his life.

Since that first Shabbat Across America event, thanks to Rabbi Epstein’s decision, more than 800,000 people in North America alone have benefitted from the Shabbat experience. For many it was their first Shabbat, and it has led significant numbers of participants to a greater appreciation for Shabbat, as well as a deeper involvement in, and commitment to, Jewish life in general. Each year, a half-dozen or more non-traditional congregations who have koshered their kitchens for the event decide that having a kosher kitchen is the right thing, and resolve to maintain the kitchen as kosher. It is highly unlikely that any of this would have happened without Rabbi Epstein’s support.

Aside from being one of the great scholars of his generation, Rabbi Epstein was a truly genuine individual who saw things the way they were. He was able to think “out of the box” and did not allow himself to be swayed by political pressure. He never joined rabbinic committees, although he was often asked to assume the leadership of many of the most significant rabbinic and religious organizations.

There are few leaders in our generation who garner universal admiration or who are not involved in public or private disputes with other leaders. Rabbi Epstein was unique, mostly because, as the Torah in this week’s portion says about Moses, “Va’yay’lech Moshe, va’y’da’ber,” and Moses went and spoke. Rabbi Epstein was prepared to walk wherever he had to walk, where others feared to tread, and to speak out forcefully and boldly where others were afraid to raise their voice in support of what he believed was right.

As I was leaving the Epstein shiva home, the deceased’s son, Rabbi Kalman Epstein, a great rabbinic leader in his own right, said to me that his father often told him how privileged he was to have the great merit of helping NJOP with its important work.

I would have felt incomplete or unready for the new year had I not expressed my gratitude to Rabbi Epstein for his efforts, not only on my own behalf, but also on behalf of the National Jewish Outreach Program and, I believe, all of K’lal Yisrael, the entire people of Israel.

May Rabbi Epstein’s memory be a blessing for all.

May you be blessed.