In early 1947, the last remnants of the transitory wartime Jewish community of Shanghai arrived in the USA.
Shanghai was a rare ray of light in the darkness that was the Holocaust. Against all odds, the illustrious Mir Yeshiva of Lithuania, made up of hundreds of young men devoted to the study of the Talmud, had ended up in Shanghai, under Japanese rule, and survived the war intact.
Once the war was over, and the threat to Jews had evaporated, many of the boys left China for any Western country that would receive them, with most of them ending up in America. One small group, headed by Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, a man of profound spirituality and piety, had remained in China in the hope that they could avoid the United States and head directly to Palestine.
But the tinderbox political situation in the Middle East in the pre-state era meant that entry into Palestine was almost impossible, and eventually Rabbi Levenstein agreed to travel to America and remain there until such time as he could relocate to Jerusalem.
His distaste for the United States was overt, evident in his letters to colleagues and disciples, and in his well-attended public discourses. His aversion for America was so adamant, that he refused point-blank to take on students who had been born there, insisting they were contaminated by the impurities of a materialistic culture.
Instead the rabbi devoted his attention to orphan Holocaust survivors, acting towards them as a father and mentor, and taking care of their every need, spiritual and material, all the while working frantically to leave and make his way to the Holy Land. Eventually he succeeded in obtaining a travel permit to the newly formed State of Israel, and in 1949, together with a small group of devotees, he left New York and headed to Israel.
During his time in the US, one small group of high school kids somehow managed to convince him to adopt them as his students. After months of pleading he had finally agreed to give them a weekly class in Jewish ethics. One of them later recalled the very first class he taught them, and noted that it was a life changing experience for him and his friends.
“I have heard,” Rabbi Levenstein began, “that there is a place in America called Hollywood, where there are actors and actresses who are fabulously wealthy, and extremely materialistic and self-indulgent.”
“Believe it or not,” he continued, “these actors and actresses die just like everyone else. And just like at every other funeral, someone stands at their graveside and delivers a eulogy.”
“What do you think these eulogizers say?” he asked.
The question hung in the air, and the young men looked at each other and then shrugged their shoulders in silence.
So the rabbi continued.
“Do they proclaim how wealthy the deceased was, or how good looking he or she was? Do they describe his or her taste in clothing, or their fine palate? No. Absolutely not. In the history of the world no one has ever stood next to an open grave and looked at a coffin containing a dead person and described their wealth or their looks.”
“At someone’s funeral the only attributes that get mentioned is how kind they were, how charitable, how he or she was a good husband or wife, a good son or daughter, a good friend. How they helped the poor, the lonely, the sick, the homeless, the unfortunate.”
The rabbi gazed at the boys in front of him with piercing eyes.
“Do you know why that is? Because in front of an open grave, even the biggest fool realizes that the only things of real value in this world are good deeds and kindness, and not the material trappings of a physical existence.”
His point is profound. The meaningful qualities one needs to strive for are kindness and consideration, generosity and benevolence. Yet we spend a lifetime focusing on external aspects of life that are ephemeral and superficial.
This was the rabbi’s opening message to the children of a country that epitomized, and epitomizes, the dominance of materialism over selflessness.
His thesis is supported by an obscure pasuk in the Torah portion of Vayishlach (Gen. 25:8):
וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה וַתִּקָּבֵר מִתַּחַת לְבֵית אֵל תַּחַת הָאַלּוֹן “Deborah, Rebecca’s wet-nurse, died, and was buried beneath Bethel, under the tree.”
Before this pasuk there had been no mention of Deborah, and her passing is the first and only time her name is ever mentioned. So why does the Torah mention her now? It seems that in death, the only important thing to mention are good deeds.
The only piece of information we need to know about Deborah is that she took care of Rebecca, the matriarch of the Jewish nation. No doubt there were other things that could have been said to describe her, but it was the care she gave Rebecca during her youngest years that was Deborah’s defining characteristic.
I was reminded of this idea during this past week, with two bereavements that affected our community. The first was the passing of Helen Deutsch z”l, the mother of Galina Samuel. Every single person who spoke about her at the funeral described her selfless dedication to her family, and her incredible kindness. In fact, there seemed to be nothing else to say. She was the embodiment of goodness, and that was it.
The other was my colleague from YULA, Rabbi Eliyahu Stewart z”l, a veteran local teacher, who tragically passed away after a short illness. All those who eulogized him described his overriding desire to do good for others. They described his care for students, and said that his concern for friends and family were not just dominant features of his character, they were his character.
That was the message Rabbi Levenstein wished to convey. In the end, whoever you are, the only things of any value about you are the good deeds that you do. So why do we do anything else?
Photo: Students and rabbis of the exiled Mir yeshiva study in the sanctuary of the Beth Aharon synagogue on Museum Road in Shanghai in 1942. (Public Domain)