When we think of the word daunting, we carry along with it unnecessary negative baggage. It calls to mind domineering authority, fear instead of love, and a sense of undue distance. Despite these extraneous layers, I think of the venerable, talented, kind, visionary, generous and brilliant Rabbi Dr. David Eliach as nothing but daunting in all the right ways. As a child I knew him in two ways. First, as a role model for my mother, a person she feared, respected and love. The fact that Rabbi Eliach could scare my mother, someone who scared all of girls campus in Camp Morasha, alerted me to Rabbi Eliach’s stature. She recalled with trepidation the chance of seeing a letter from him in her mailbox in regards to speaking English in her hebrew class, an unforgivable sin at that time. When my mother would yell at me, I used to think, “If Rabbi Eliach were present maybe he can make this fight a little more balanced.” I knew she chose the right person to look to as a role model.
Rav Eliach also served as the chazzan for the high holiday services my family attended in the Yeshiva of Flatbush Elementary School. For those who have heard his voice, my meager description could only poorly approximate the range of emotions his voice captures and engenders in the congregants. My body still quivers when I hear his tunes or recall his voice as it sang the haunting dirge “U’Netaneh Tokef”, and my heart explodes with joy as I remember the triumphant tune to closing prayer, “HaYom.” Seeing Rav Eliach, draped in his tallit, his sonorous voice completely at odds with his more frail body elicited dreams of angels, of the righteous of old pleading and even arguing with the Almighty. These indelible memories stay close to me; they nourish my soul in times of darkness and delight. The Rabbis inform us that for the High Holidays we cannot choose our cantor, our representative before God, lightly. If you were going before the Supreme Court, would you not want the greatest lawyer in the universe representing you? Who else but Rav Eliach could possibly represent the congregation he helped build?
Yet, this subjective account of this daunting intellect and religious leader, does little to capture the true power of Rav Eliach. My generation lives in a post-historical world. Despite all the conflicts and war that disease our world, we know them only through TV if we know them at all. Our world cries out in pain under the weight of poverty, sickness, and death, but most people my age simply struggle to get through their own lives: to find jobs, to marry, to afford Jewish schools. We watch movies of heroism, of true love, but overall our lives retain none of the drama of the previous generation. Of course, the previous generation fought in wars and against anti-semitism to provide the comfort we now live in. But we all can see how this comfort can breed a comfortable apathy towards the issues that demand our attention.
Then I think of Rav Eliach’s life and I marvel at his heroism, at his courage. In a barren Jewish world Rav Eliach resuscitated the modern Jewish community. As the dean of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, with his visionary Ivrit b’ivrit curriculum, he redefined and set the standard for an academic yet religiously guided high school experience. As a student of that illustrious high school, I still benefit from the discipline of its rigorous studies, the memories of religious inspiration, and of course, through my passable hebrew (though I imagine Rav Eliach would find it lacking.) Even today, long retired from his mantle in Yeshivah of Flatbush, Rav Eliach still works with teachers to guide them in his accumulated educational brilliance. Amongst the myriad of accomplishments, we can easily forget that he helped begin the program of the post-high school year in Israel, a program that clearly changed the nature of development for Jewish teenagers the world over.
The love for his wife Yaffa, an infinite love, is the stuff of legends, the muse of Romantic poetry.
Speaking of love, if you have ever had the distinct privilege of either learning with, learning from, or even seeing Rav Eliach learn then you can begin to understand what we say when we speak of a love of learning. Recently, I found my grandfather, Rabbi Meir Moskowitz, learning with his best friends Rav Bakst and Rav Eliach. I saw these three giants sitting around a text, and I felt thrown back into the world of Ponovezh or the Chevron Yeshiva. Here, in this room, the Jewish chain of tradition felt intact, strong, unbroken. I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of history in the room, of accomplishment. My grandfather quickly got rid of me so as to return to his beloved studies, but just a glimpse was enough to elicit a few tears in my eyes.
To put this into perspective, as a teenager I mostly worried about girls, tests, and TV shows. Rav Eliach, if he worried at all, thought of the Haganah, of how he could both help holocaust survivors and save the Jewish Nation’s soul and culture. The Talmud speaks of Talmidei Chachamim, our scholars, as walking Torah scrolls given their encyclopedic knowledge and brilliant intuition into the halachic and hashkafic framework. In the same manner, we can speak of people as the embodiment of a nation’s history. Rav Eliach given his storied life both encapsulates but embodies, with utter modesty, the scope of modern Jewish history.
Recently, after admiring mostly from afar for all of my life, I received the privilege of learning and talking to Rav Eliach in his apartment in New York City. I walked in shaking, not by choice, but shaking nonetheless. His apartment, elegant and spacious, impressed me by the scope of books aligned throughout his living room and dining room. He saw me admiring his collection and in a charismatic manner commented, “Yosef, these are only half of my sefarim, at most.” As a bibliophile, I tend to judge people by their collections, but Rav Eliach put me to shame. I came in expecting to just let him talk for as long he would, but given his nature he inquired into my life.
He cut right to the bone.
What am I doing to forward the goals of the Jewish Nation, how is my hebrew, do I still learn, what is my vision for the future, what problems do I feel are most exigent? Though we come from disparate generations, Rav Eliach evinced a preternatural ability to empathize and understand my concerns and my thoughts of the current challenges we face as a generation, even if he disagreed. I came into our meeting with a sense of awe, and I left not only feeling justified, but with the awe magnified. We live in a time of cynicism especially in regards to our leaders. Rav Eliach, despite the cultural jadedness, still commands our deserving respect.
Some people live lives of poetry, others write poetry, while the rest of us enjoy the fruits of these labors. Rav Eliach does all three. His love of Jewish ideas is only paralleled by his devotion to the Jewish people. His life, a historical one in the truest sense of the word provides a daunting inspiration to the generations that he taught, both directly and indirectly. I cower when I attempt to compare my life to his. Knowing his kindness, he would tell me not to engage in this irrelevant activity. I know he would tell me to stop thinking so much and to get up, and just do something, anything, but give, constantly to the world that needs you. Thank you Rav Eliach. I cannot convey the extent to which you’ve affected mine and countless other lives.