Years ago, I heard about a man named Rabbi Meir Shuster, a fixture at the Kotel, who would scan the plaza looking for unaffiliated Jews visiting the Wall. He would approach them and politely ask them if they had the time. When they would reply, he would use that opening to gently engage them and convince them to attend classes about Judaism. It was said that he was the catalyst for bringing countless Jews back to their faith.
I assumed Meir Shuster was a “cool guy,” suave and charismatic, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was probably extremely worldly and well-versed in politics so that he could maintain a conversation with those he met and sought to reel in.
Over two decades ago, before I was married, I spent a Shabbat in the home of Rabbi Leibel Karmel, to help assist with a JEP Shabaton that Rabbi Karmel was running. Rabbi Shuster happened to be in Lakewood for Shabbat that week, and we ate the meal together at the Karmel home.
At first, I was unsure who the sagacious looking individual was. When my friend approached him to ask him if he had the time and he smiled, I realized that he was the legendary Rabbi Meir Shuster. I was quite surprised. Here was perhaps the most uncool person I had ever met. He looked like the righteous scholar that he was. He definitely did not appear to be someone who could be one of the most successful people in Jewish outreach in the world.
Seared in my memory is Rabbi Shuster singing “Yom Zeh M’chubad,” his eyes closed in blissful concentration and one hand lifted in the air.
So, if it wasn’t his charisma, what about him touched the souls of so many thousands of Jews? What was the secret of his kiruv ability?
It seems clear that he attracted people with his sincerity. He was humble and unassuming, yet real and authentic. When he spoke about Torah, his love for it touched those he was speaking with.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky noted that the Hebrew word for influence, hashpa’ah, comes from the same root as the word shipua, slant or incline. There are two ways to water a garden. One can irrigate the vegetation directly, which requires effort and constant wetting. A more practical way is to build a slanted roof from which the steady flow of rain will automatically irrigate the vegetation.
A mashpia, one who influences others, does not do so as much with speeches and moral diatribes, as much as with the force of his personality, through his living, emotional example of how a Torah Jew conducts himself in all his affairs. His emotional attachment to Torah and mitzvot spills over and oozes out of his being and is felt by those in his orbit.
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Beroka met Eliyahu HaNavi in the marketplace and asked Eliyahu if there were any b’nei Olam HaBa in that marketplace? Eliyahu pointed to two individuals. Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked them what their profession was? They replied that they were badchanim who cheered people up. Rashi elaborates on their response, commenting: “We are happy, and we make others happy.”
Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l noted that Rashi makes it a point to say that, not only did they make others happy, but they were happy themselves. The rule is that one cannot give something that he doesn’t have. In order to make others happy, one must be a person who himself feels inner happiness. If you don’t feel it, you can’t convey it to others, no matter how good of an orator or actor you are.
The recent passing of Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein has created a profound void in our broader community. The truth is that, in certain ways, Rabbi Wallerstein was “cool.” He knew the lingo, and the stories and examples he related in his lectures were very contemporary. At the same time, he was very sincere and real. Through that combination, he was able to connect with and inspire countless others.
I can’t say that I was personally close with Rabbi Wallerstein. Though I heard many of his lectures and was inspired by him, I only met him on a few occasions. One of those times was when he spoke in my shul when I was the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead. We were schmoozing after the speech, and Rabbi Wallerstein related that on his decade birthdays (30, 40, 50, etc.) he accepted upon himself something new in his avodat Hashem, as gratitude to Hashem for allowing him to reach that milestone.
If my memory serves me correctly, he told me he began wearing Rabeinu Tam tefillin when he turned 50.
Rabbi Wallerstein would often quote lessons he learned from great people like Rabbi Shimshon Pincus zt”l, and personal anecdotes from conversations and meetings with Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman zt”l, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz shlita, and many other tzadikim. He spoke lovingly about Shabbat, Emunah, Hashem, and constantly doing things on behalf of klal Yisrael.
There is no doubt that a large part of his influence was the result of the fact that he was personally growing. He was always looking for ways to further his own avodas Hashem, and that ceaseless inner drive spilled over.
If we want to create changes, we can do so by seeking our own personal growth. Our influence upon those around us will be inevitable.
Gandhi purportedly quipped, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” How we act inevitably influences others most significantly through our example.
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