Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Tribute to R. Moshe Chait zt"l

A Tribute to R. Moshe Chait zt"l

by R. Baruch Pesach Mendelson (adapted from his notes with his permission but without his review - I retain responsibility for mistakes - GS)

He may not have been well known throughout the world but within the small world occupied by members of the Chafetz Chaim yeshiva system, he was very well known. Rav Moshe Chait zt"l was a student of R. Dovid Leibowitz, a rav in Far Rockaway for twenty years while giving a shi'ur in my yeshiva, and made aliyah and became rosh yeshiva of Chafetz Chaim in Israel in 1968 -- where he served for over 40 years, having passed away this erev Tisha B'Av.

Click here for moreMoshe Rabbenu tells us that we have to remember the day we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we have to recall what our eyes saw (Deut. 4:9-10). The difficulty, however, is that I didn't see it with my eyes. How can I remember was I never saw? R. Elya Svei zt"l explained that everyone has his own personal kabbalas ha-Torah from his time in yeshiva.

Twenty years ago, I went to learn in Eretz Yisrael and I had the zechus to learn be-chevrusa with this very special rosh yeshiva at 6:30 in the morning. I had to get up at six to be ready for the seder and just about every day he would ask me, "What time did you go to sleep last night?" If I would say any time past midnight, he would say, "You are causing me to end this seder; a person cannot learn be-iyun on less than six hours of sleep." I saw from there a caring and total dedication to his talmidim and their well being.

His life was defined by his talmidim -- the end of the above verses (Deut. 4:9-10) directs us to learn and to teach. R. Chait's son, R. Baruch Chait, said at the funeral: "He had no need for money or anything material; all he needed was a talmid and a [statement of] Chazal."

He perfected the style of the Alter of Slabodka's mussar shmuessen, which he learned directly from his rebbe, R. Dovid Leibowitz, who was himself a close talmid of the Alter. He used to tell us, "Not a day goes by that I don't think of rebbe."

He didn't start out as a rosh yeshiva, though. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended public elementary and high school. A rebbe came from Yerushalayim when he -- R. Chait -- was thirteen and gave a shi'ur on Gemara. This was the first shi'ur he ever attended and he followed all of the steps, asking questions about practical halachah all along. The rebbe answered each question with, "Mutar" (permissible) or "Assur" (prohibited). At the end of the shi'ur, the rebbe asked if there are any questions, and the thirteen year old R. Chait aske, "What do mutar and assur mean?" He knew so little!

He went to New York and was a talmid in RIETS and Yeshiva College (now YU) from 1936-1938. He felt that there was too much emphasis on secular studies so he left to R. Dovid Leibowitz's at-the-time new yeshiva, Chafetz Chaim. He studied under Reb Dovid until the latter's death in 1941. R. Chait eventually married and was one of the four founding members of the Chafetz Chaim kollel. He always pointed out that this kollel predated Lakewood. The yeshiva had no money. He told me that, despite this, he could not remember ever having any shalom bayis issues. He said that if you learn mussar, it makes you a mensch and you will not have such problems.

At the time he was in it, the kollel did not provide any stipends. R. Chait lived on essentially nothing. After a few years he became a rav and a maggid shi'ur in YU. He was an incredible speaker and had a fabulous smile. One of our congregants who remembers R. Chait from years ago said that he was so good looking he could have been a movie star. Just looking at him made people feel better.

His whole life was dedicated to helping people and trying to fix sinas chinam. He was dedicated to Klal Yisrael. He had so many talmidim and he was constantly busy trying to help them. One time I needed to speak with him about an important matter and he made an appointment with me for 1 am. I came to him and he was fully alert to help me with my dilemma. Years later, I got back to him and let him know how things had turned out with the situation. He was so grateful to see how his advice had worked out.

R. Chait emphasized hakaras ha-tov to Hashem. He made the world in color even though He could have made it in black and white. He it just for man's pleasure. R. Chait had an incredible ability to describe things. He gave examples that made his point come alive. I remember that he once described the pleasure of this world as a cold glass of milk and a bowl of cherries on a hot day.

He loved learning step-by-step through Tosafos to show how to read between the lines. He emphasized that the main point of a rebbe and a rav is to give over a Torah-based hashkafah. More important than shi'urim are the basics of a Torah lifestyle! This was taught through mussar. As it says in the verse we are discussing: "You should learn in order to fear" (Deut. 4:10).

He was a true ba'al mussar with impeccable gentlemanly midos. He had incredible modesty. He had a neatly trimmed beard and would wear blue or brown suits with sunglasses so that he would not look like a rosh yeshiva in the street. He would tell us how people would push him out of the way to get onto the bus.

This is what I remember from my year with him -- my kabbalas ha-Torah from him. I treasure the memories and hope to have incorporated some of them into my personality -- yehi zichro baruch.

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