Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Hesped for Gedaliah by Rabbi Menachem Epstein

This has been re-entered so that the Hebrew letters are there instead of a transliteration.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin asks the question: “ Who is a hesped for; the deceased or the living?” The real answer is that it is for both. We can easily understand that it helps the living because of the lessons in life they can learn from the deceased person. But in what way does it benefit the deceased? The Gemara explains that when a person dies, and is brought before the heavenly court he will be held accountable for the things people say about him. These statements will be used in the most important court case of one’s existence. Since the very words of the eulogy will be used in the person’s case, the Gemara says that it is forbidden to lie or exaggerate. Not only would I never lie, but in speaking about Gedaliah, it is absolutely unnecessary to exaggerate.

I met Gedaliah in Boston when we were in college. In those days there were very few people in all of Boston who were frum, and even fewer who went to college. Our friendship began at a Shabbaton for frum college students.. He gave me something positive for my ruchnius to engage myself on Shabbos. When we learned together, we would discuss and philosophize all kinds of philosophy. We would argue and debate the different proofs and theories of Hashem’s existence. Gedaliah was far more knowledgeable than I was. When we discussed the different theories, it was a great education for me, and through Gedaliah I learned how to defend and destroy any arguments of the apikorsim. It was like the possuk about Yisro which states “ki godol Hashem mikol Elokim” (Shemos 18:11 look at Rashi there).

At this time, Gedaliah was attending MIT, where he was among the best and brightest students in the United States. Most of the other students came from big high schools where they were the top of their class in science and math, but they did so poorly at MIT that they would become depressed and even suicidal. Gedaliah came from a tiny Lubavitch school which certainly had minimal math and science curriculum. Therefore, it is unbelievably impressive that he graduated MIT with a 4.97 out of 5.0 average. His only 3 B’s were in humanities. In fact one of the humanities classes was in bible criticism. Gedaliah told me he would bring his Chumash with Rashi to the class and many times Rashi would ask the same questions being discussed in the class. Gedaliah would read Rashi’s question and answer aloud to the class. . It got to the point where the professor told Gedaliah he was not trying to debunk the Chumash, but of course, he really was.

Gedaliah was supposed to graduate in 3 years, an unbelievable feat for MIT. He did this by reading the incredibly difficult books on his own, without attending class until it was time to take the test. The last term he wanted to take an unbelievable eight classes but his advisor told him that it was too much for a student to take, and it would lower his average with poor grades. Although Gedaliah was an undergraduate, many of the subjects were graduate courses. The advisor would only approve 7 courses. Gedaliah got A’s in all the subjects. The advisor later apologized to him. By the time he graduated, Gedaliah had 90 credits (MIT has a different way of counting credits) and two degrees , one in physics and one in mathematics. Although the extra year ended up costing him his PhD (as he was less than a year from getting his PhD when his father-in-law passed away), Gedaliah was never regretful or angry towards this advisor. It changed his life in a major way, but he understood that it was totally min hashomayim, and totally out of his control. In fact, not only didn’t he express any negative thoughts about this life changing series of events, he accepted it with joy explaining that he loved physics because his goal was to be able to understand how Hashem makes the world run.

While we were in Boston, we had a seder in learning and Gedaliah introduced me to Rabbi Mordechai Savitsky, a great gaon, with whom we learned several times. Eventually, we both went to New York where I went to Mirrer Yeshiva and Gedaliah went to Princeton for graduate school. We continued to learn together at Mirrer Yeshiva.

After a year of learning at Mir, I wanted to go back to graduate school in engineering. The mashgiach was strongly against this plan. He said I already had enough schooling for a job. Why not just sit and learn? At one point, the mashgiach said to me that he was not worried about my chavrusah, but he did not know for sure about me. I remember thinking at the time, he does not know Gedaliah at all, yet he gave him more respect than me. I am not talking about his attitude towards me, but about how he got so much respect from someone who was a very holy great man. That was the response Gedaliah from anyone who met him.

The next year, I did go to graduate school and came into Yeshiva on weekends. Gedaliah and I had a seder on Sundays from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. We kept this up even after we got married. It was really remarkable that both of our wives would let us go learn, leaving them alone on our day off when other young couples would go on outings.

After graduate school I got a job in a technical company, while Gedaliah continued research for a doctorate in theoretical particle physics at Princeton University. At that point his father-in-lawע was killed in a car accident. Gedaliah desperately needed a job to support his family, and he left school. I told my boss that my friend was a genius, and would be invaluable for the company. My boss replied that it will take 6 months to train him and in 6 months the Physics field might open up, and he would leave. I could not disagree, and went home forlorn. My brother said, “ Why don’t you just teach him the programming yourself?” I gave Gedaliah the book and told him to read it. The next day he called me up and said he read it. I asked, “Do you mean you read the whole book?” and he replied, “ Look I had a whole day.”

Gedaliah was hired and by the end of the first week, he was programming reports that average programmers could do only after years of programming. (In one sense it was a bad experience because I had unrealistic expectations for anyone else I ever trained.) He not only was a terrific programmer, but he was beloved by everyone. Everyone respected him and he was an unbelievable “Kiddush Hashem”. Gedaliah was instrumental in helping out anyone who was Jewish who worked in the programming department. Over the years he helped many Jewish people who got jobs in the company. Gedaliah was my eyes and ears for these people. Considering my position, I could not directly help or I would be accused of showing favoritism. Gedaliah helped out all these people in many ways. His method of handling people was always “dracheha darchei noam” and people really appreciated his wisdom without feeling put down.

There were quite a few Lubavitchers who got jobs there, among them Joseph Shurpin who later became his partner in their own company. I really feel that their getting jobs was a zechus because Gedaliah had worked out so well. My boss was willing to try anyone he recommended hoping he would be “half a Gedaliah.”

I remember at Pesach time he used to bring hand shmura matzos to everyone in the company who was Jewish. His line was “just like the original ones”. People who had absolutely no connection to Yiddishkeit were really impressed. It gave them a warm feeling about their Judaism, and they never felt put down by him.

I once asked Gedaliah what would he do if a job asked him not to wear his Yarmulkah. He joked that he didn’t know whether he should keep his peyos tied on top or let them hang down. He personified the Gemara in Yoma which says, “What is called Kiddush Hashem? When a person walks by and people say מה נאה יהודי זה שלמד תורה .”

He also kept up his “kiruv” activities. He and his wife started a program on Long Island called Jewish Marriage Encounter.Over 100 couples became Frum through their influence. He told me in his normal self-effacing way that his wife was really the main star, and he was just technical backup.

He was knowledgeable in so many things , but in combination with middos , especially modesty and getting along with people. A precise description of him is איש אשכולות which Rashi translates as, איש שהכל בהן . He personifies two statements in Pirkei Avos and one from Michah. הוא היה אומר כל שרוח הבריות נוחה הימנו, רוח המקום נוחה הימנו. כל הרודף אחר הכבוד הכבוד בורח ממנו, וכל הרודף מן הכבוד הכבוד רודף אחריו. ומה השם דורש ממך כי אם עשות משפט ואהבת חסד

In my last job I was a partner in a new company and many times I really became frustrated and unhappy. Even though we did not see each other as much by then, Gedaliah advised me to stick with it. He told me to look at the greater picture with my ultimate goal of selling the company, so I could retire and teach Torah. That is exactly what happened., and for the last ten years I have been living a life of Gan Eden in Eretz Yisroel where I learn and teach Torah. I cannot imagine a bigger zechus and fulfillment of my dreams. His sage advice once again helped me maintain my perspective through somewhat difficult times. As the Ritvah quotes very often ”divrei pi chacham chen”.

A key part of his personality was that any customers who dealt with him, whether as an employee or as a consultant , never said a bad word about him. These people were very hardened businessmen who would complain about anything and everything, especially if it cost money. It is hard to imagine that some of these people would not find reasons for complaining, but it seems they had so much respect for Gedaliah, that they could not say a bad word . Gedaliah himself, never showed anger in any situation and this in itself is a lesson in mussar.

Let me end off with two sayings from Pirkei Avos which shows the way Gedaliah related to people. Hillel says be among the students of Aharon; love peace, run after peace, love people, and bring them closer to Torah(1:12). Rebbe says what is the proper path that a person should choose? Whatever is a credit to himself and earns the esteem of man.(2:1) The best lesson we can learn from him is to emulate his derech hachayim.

והצנע לכת עם השם אלקיך. I have lost my best friend.

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