Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
I have resisted writing about Rav Binyomin Zilber for years. I have trembled. In my mind I have begun to write about him several times, but let the project go uncompleted even in the mind, let alone on paper. I have never taken notes after meetings with him. I have not recorded what he said to me, or my impressions of being with him, or of watching him, even though I know the tricks of memory. I write now not to recall him for others, not to convey my impressions or his words. I write now only because I am outside of the Land of Israel, of the most intense location of sanctity; and I write to recall him for myself. to summon his image, his words, his overpowering yiras Shomayim, to afford myself at least something of the props with which I used to deal with spiritual struggles when I was in the Land of Israel. I write as an act of self-admonition. trying to substitute by myself for what I could rely on from othersmost poignantly, most searingly, from Reb Binyomin. It seems as if every moment with him is burned into my memory.
I first met Reb Binyomin in Meah Shearim in 1973. I asked whether I could learn the writings of Reb Yisroel Salanter with him. He assented at once. and before I could comprehend, he was off in a rush. I quickly followed. He led me to the Novarodok Kollel took an Ohr Yisroel from the shelf, and we began to learn. What I was about to see I had never seen before and doubt that I shall ever see again. For Reb Binyomin, every word of Ohr Yisroel was sheer holiness, every uterrance of Reb Yisroel a secret entranceway to the most profound levels of avodas Hashem. He recited a word. re-recited it, explained it. questioned his explanation. considered various possibilities, sat silently over it, but mostly he grasped its meaning at once, and recoiled, as if hit by shrapnel. The word was not the word on the page; it was the living utterance of Reb Yisroel himself. The force of its command, the depth of its penetration to the secrets of what moves men and women. and of what Hashem wishes to move men and women, moved him. It moved him spiritually, and physically. Great sighs overcame him. It took me some time to realize that he actually aspired to become a talmid of Reb Yisroel to emulate him - not simply to revere him. To cite him, to use him to prove a point, to pledge allegiance to his importance, or his teachings but actually to live as if he were born in earlier generations. So weighty, so laden with meaning, was each of Reb Yisroel's words for Reb Binyomin that we usually covered only a column or two in an hour. From Reb Binyomin I learned to accept Reb Yisroel as the rebbe. the starting point. of yiras Hashem for this our own lime. Reb Binyomin was obsessed with yiras Hashem; he was the living moral of all the parables l had heard about its value. Consider yiras Hashem as more valuable than the most precious stones. says Proverbs. What would I do were I the owner of precious diamonds, sapphires and rubies? I would treasure them, and probably touch them, hold them to the light, devote great energy to ascertaining their value, and above all I would enjoy the security of having them. I saw Reb Binyomin rushing, always rushing, to learn, to daven, to deep davening, longer and longer, to deliver shmuessen, to write teshuvos, and simply, to begin anew each moment, in the search for yiras Hashem. If not dashing literally, which he often was - to shul, or to the beis hamussar, or to the beis ha-midrash, or to his own beis hisbodedus - he was dashing inward,
always in search. Yiras Hashem needed to be guarded zealously, lest it be lost. It was a treasure, always to be touched, felt, held against the light of the Rishonim and the Acharonim (earlier and later commentaries, from 11th Centuiy on) to be tested for purity. If even slightly impure, its value was lessened, and consequently it required greater cultivation. For Reb Binyomin, there was no end to his cultivation of yiras Hashem, and no end to the security it provided. Even now, when l merely imagine him davening, all the more so when I used to view him davening, I myself was-am-moved, pained, as if struck by shrapnel: the sense conveyed by authentic yiras haromemus-awe of the Divine majesty-seemed to hover over him, through him, reaching me and embarrassing me, truly. How could I continue to cast my eyes on this? Yet I could not resist. Why could I not daven like that myself? Yet I tried. Why could I not retain that image in my mind's eye the year round, and not just during this sacred season? I wished so deeply that I could.
I remember one instance especially, following a memorial gathering in Rav Ben Zion Bruk's Novarodok Yeshiva in Jeruslaem. An old Novarodoker. Reb Hillel Vitkind the darshan with the golden tongue-had died thirty days earlier. Many great people spoke-Reh Binyomin, Rav Bruk, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz of Mir, and others. Afterwards, Ma'ariv. Long after I had finished, Reb Binyomin was still davening. "A consuming fire" is how sefer Devarim describes Hasham In, around, this fear of Hashem, I could see only fire. Earlier, when he spoke, I had sensed fire, spiritual fire. 0ne winter day I came upon Reb Binyomin unannounced. He had said that we would learn at three in the afternoon. I assumed that he meant at the Novarodok Kollel. He was not there. I asked where he might be, and received directions. Finally I came across a small, broken. wooden door, hidden at the back of one of the worn stone courtyards in Meah Shearim. I pushed the door open, and was struck dumb, and still. There he stood, his back to me, at the amud of a small shul-I later found out that he had been given the key to the shul, to use it whenever he wished as a beis hisbodedus-he stood fully draped in his tallis and tefillin, weeping, and weeping. He was pouring out his soul before Hashem, about what spiritual failings I could not imagine. As I stood gazing upon something that I felt I should not see, the point was brought home searingly. A tzaddik is a tzaddik not because he is great. but because he understands, minute by mintue, how small he is in relation to the only Reality that ultimately counts.
This was brought home to me with an unrelenting power as we met during the forty days of Elul and repentance. Then, Reb Binyomin's presence battered me, yanking me from my moorings, transporting me to a world of purity and a level of spiritual quest far beyond my own. Reb Binyomin actually attempted to bring to life the heroic techniques of giants who, to me, were until then only historical figures. Reb Binyomin aspired to the madreiga of Reb ltzele Peterberger, Reb Yisroel Salanter's illustrious disciple, whose dread, or yirah, during these forty days was so overwhelming that he took upon himself not to speak to anyone, except for words of Torah. Reb Binyomin aspired to live on the plane of Reb Itzele. Whenever Reb Binyomin needed food, he would not tell me, but would write a list. Whenever he needed a certain sefer, he would motion and gesture. Rarely, he would slip, utter a secular word, and then mention Reb ltzele's name with both extreme reverence and a kind of helpless musing: who could attain his piety today? But Reb Binyomin tried. Like Reb ltzele, Reb Binyomin would leave his home, would remain in hisbodedus, in seculsion, in Jerusalem, in study of Torah and mussar, in teshuva, in total (or almost total) silence. So many times l visited Reb Binyomin in his home, his son-in-law's home, or in Rebbetzin Jofen's home next to the Novarodok Kollel, when he drank tea. When he recited the beracha, I witnessed a kavana I could summon only when davening on Rosh Hashana. For just a one-line beracha. with no build·up through pesukei dezimra and krias Shema, with no minyan, and no special holy time, he could summon such kavana. l felt shamed, uplifted, perplexed: whence this power to ascend?
What perplexed me equally was his capacity to communicate with me. We spoke not simply about matters of an objective nature. so to speak, inquiries that any competent halachic authority could answer, but deeply personal matters. There was nothing l felt I could not share with him. There was nothing in my background that prepared me for such a counselor; I could ascertain nothing in his background that prepared him to serve as such a counselor. Such measurements, clearly were not relevant. Never once did l feel that he spoke out of defective understanding of what my soul was asking: never once did I feel that he consciously or unconsciously was manipulating me in accord with some abstract notion of what people generally, as opposed to me personally, ought to be doing. From Reb Binyomin, I heard emes, truthmost simple, most difficult of utterances. Emes may be conceived as the opposite of kavod; truth may be seen as the opposite of seeking attention for oneself. Reb Binyomin published many mussar seforim anonymously. On some of his seforim he printed something to this effect: "Anyone who wishes, may reprint this without permission; let the merit be his for disseminating Torah." A stumbling block in embodying and in speaking truth is self-aggrandizement-seeking to project oneself in the public arena. To deflect kavod from oneself nurtures truth-seeking, and truth-telling. The conscious avoidance of kavod I saw in Reb Binyomin, over and over. Maybe for this reason - maybe for others, the Chazon Ish called him "Reb Binyomin the Tzaddik."
True to Reb Yisroel Salanter's teaching that women and men are equally obligated to learn and to embody mussar, Reb Binyomin admired illustrious women as well as great men. Over and over, he would tell me what a privilege it was for our generation to have two such righteous women and living mussar personalities as Rebbetzin Zaks (daughter of the Chafetz Chaim) and Rebbetzin Jofen (daughter of the Alter/Elder of Novarodok). 0nly in one context did I hear Reb Binyomin boast. He was palpably proud of his love of Eretz Yisroel. One summer I visited him in Bnei Brak. to find him reminiscing. "Next month," he said, "it will be fifty years since I came to Eretz Yisroel. Yovel Shanim-a Jubilee-in Eretz Yisroel." He relished the works, relished what they represented. Some months later, sadly. his wife died. I have seen strength, but rarely strength like his. at that time. I could account for it only by his attachment to ruchniyus. to spirituality. The positive force of what never left him played its role in compensating for the force of what did leave him. When I saw him three years later he dealt with the link between family and Eretz Yisroel. Not once in fifty-three years had he left Eretz Yisroel. he told me. He recounted the hardships during his first several years in Palestine no water, no flush toilets. and on and on. Most clear about the recital was not the hardships, but the joy in withstanding them, in overcoming any temptation to leave. or to become cynical about, Eretz Yisroel. "Now anyone can come," he was saying, "but then you needed a 'certificate' from the British. Not anyone could come. It was touch and go whether you would be allowed to come." He went to his Rosh Yeshiva: "I want to go to Eretz Yisroel!" And since he had come, he and his wife had raised eight children. I do not know how many grandchildren, and now he has eight great-grandchildren, every single one born and living in Eretz Yisroel, and learning Torah. Here was a segula-a mysterious meritof Eretz Yisroel he was saying. citing the famous Ramban about merely living in the Land of Israel as constituting an overriding mitzva. That night, we spoke about various methods (shitos) in mussar. In explaining his own attraction to Reb Yechezkel Levenstien and to Kelem mussar, he said, "Our own derech, or way, is more on the side of pashtus. Simplicity." It struck me. He had spoken in the first-person plural. He had included me as if, somehow. I were on a madreiga to make and to accept, choices in such matters; as if somehow he and I were on the same level. I was truly complimented, and embarrassed. How I wish I could speak to him tonight. or learn with him tomorrow ... to make daily preparations for tefilla-to stand before the King. How grateful I am that I can even summon the images that stimulate the wish!