Reb Shlomo: The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld
By Rabbi Yisroel Besser
Judaica Press, 2008
Reviewed by Michael Sanders
In the depths of memory, there abides an image vouchsafed to me alone. I see him now as he was then—more than half a century past—a man of stature in the full bloom of life. Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, my rebbi, scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees.
His rebbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, had asked him to prepare the building on President Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for the inaugural of Kollel Gur Aryeh of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Reb Shlomo asked me to lend a hand, and there we were, all alone on our hands and knees.
Not long ago, I mentioned this episode to a rosh yeshivah—and watched his eyes light up. “I always sensed in that kollel an overwhelming feeling of kedushah; now I know where it came from,” he said.
But that was Reb Shlomo. He could weigh issues that stand berumo shel olam (at the apex of the universe), and he could also scrub the floor of a makom Torah.
When I first heard that The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld was being written, I thought: “It can’t be done. How do you capture Reb Shlomo Freifeld between the covers of a book?” I, who knew him for forty years, would have found it a daunting task. It is all the more astonishing to find that Rabbi Yisroel Besser, who knew him not at all, has indeed succeeded in this endeavor—and has caught him to the life. The author’s vast study and research (he has written Warmed By Their Fire [Brooklyn, 2007] and is a contributor to Mishpacha magazine and to the Yated Ne’eman) have enabled him to produce a marvelously broad picture of Reb Shlomo. He has, too, the literary gift: there is not a dull sentence in the book.
The Life and Legacy is replete with instances of Reb Shlomo’s indomitable spirit. He never despaired of a Yiddishe neshamah (a Jewish soul), wherever it may have been and whatever it may have been through. The most beautiful expression in the English language, he once remarked, is “And yet.” However bleak the prospect, however dark the future, for him there was always redeeming hope.
No book is perfect. Though The Life and Legacy is organized in chapters around specific themes, various people and ideas keep returning to its pages. The richness of this work calls for the aid of an index. You could search the book—some 330 pages—for the story of Reb Shlomo and the eggplant, or for what he learned from the Mona Lisa or how he got to wash the hands of Reb Moshe Feinstein; they are all there—but an index would make them easier to find.
We would have been gratified to learn more about Reb Shlomo’s personal history. In our reverence for great men, we tend to hold them immune from the pangs and heartbreaks of daily life. They sail along, in our fancy, trailing clouds of glory in perennial sunshine. But all life is a trial, and the great are tried with the small. Our rebbi was not spared his own tribulations. One of the greatest of these was the search for his bashert.
Looking back on that time in his life, he once told me he had been confounded to see all his friends happily married, while he remained alone. One match after another had been proposed, to no avail.
Years passed—he became twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six.…He told me he had become despondent, and had despaired of his future. But, finally, at the age of twenty-seven, when he found his bashert in Sara, the tzaddekes from Yerushalayim, it all became clear: how could they have been wed any sooner, when she was just seventeen?
One of the last chapters in the book is devoted to the rebbetzin. We used to say that her feet did not touch the ground. A moment in her company was a privilege. In The Life and Legacy, Rabbi Besser has provided but a glimpse of the rebbetzin from Yerushalayim; she really needs a book of her own.
Another chapter should be titled “The Rebbetzin from Costa Rica.” [Reb Shlomo remarried after his first wife passed away.] Who could have foreseen that a woman from a far-away land, Sarah Etel, would so long afterward arrive, crowning a great life journey of her own, to join Reb Shlomo in his last years, and be for him and for us a rock of strength and devotion? “A woman beyond pearls”—much as Rebbetzin Sarah Etel, shetichyeh, would call it nonsense, the phrase fits none more than she.
Talk of the two rebbetzins highlights an aspect of Reb Shlomo’s personality that seems on its face absolutely remarkable. What could be more disparate than Yerushalayim and Costa Rica? They are a world apart. One, an ingenuous young girl of the Old World of the Holy City; the other, a cosmopolitan professor of the new world of the academy. And yet, singular as they are, Reb Shlomo found in each a unique life companion.
The wonder is actually to be found in a fundamental aspect of Reb Shlomo’s personality. He strove in so many ways to emulate his own rebbi. One of Rabbi Hutner’s maxims was “We have room in our beis midrash for everyone, from [the] shomer Shabbos to Eliyahu HaNavi.” This broad amplitude was realized in Rabbi Hutner’s beis midrash at Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, and, as the book attests, was inherited by Reb Shlomo.
His own beis midrash at Sh’or Yoshuv Institute in Far Rockaway, New York, had room for everyone too—for he had room for everyone. He was broad enough to “talk with crowds … or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch.” And for Reb Shlomo there was no contradiction in finding a life partner in the distinct individuality of each rebbetzin.
It is a striking testimony to the comprehensive vision of the rebbi, and to the exhaustive nature of Rabbi Besser’s work in portraying it, that the book can serve as a handbook for coping with the ups and downs of daily life. Full of Reb Shlomo’s approach to so many varied life problems and crises, The Life and Legacy might well have been titled “How to Live a Real Jewish Life.” The book recounts the story of one of Reb Shlomo’s talmidim (students) who suddenly loses his job. Devastated, broken, he calls the rebbi, who is already ill at the time. “Stay right there—I’m on the way over,” says Reb Shlomo, who arrives after a two-hour journey. He fortifies the talmid, giving him much practical advice.
At the time I read this story, I had just heard of someone else who had lost his job. I picked up the phone and read it to him, for which he was immensely grateful. Countless others will no doubt be cheered and inspired as they traverse the pages of the book.
It’s always easier to forbid than to permit, and it’s common nowadays to call for greater and greater stringency in religious behavior. Our rebbi, however, was not named Shlomo—“the wisest of all men”—for nothing. He knew that the path to the Light is a gradual one, and that those new to the path must not lose their way. Which other rosh yeshivah tells his talmidim to take a nap Shabbos afternoon instead of learning? To break the “nasty habit” of teetotaling and to drink a lechaim? To tell a little girl the stories of Jesse James and Little Red Riding Hood? To go on with his college education rather than drop out and return to the yeshivah full-time? To not grow a beard because it might displease his wife? To not give up his career as a doctor in order to learn at the yeshivah? No doubt Reb Shlomo advised each individual according to his needs, but it takes breite pleitzes to prescribe such contrarian remedies.
At the same time, it is remarkable to find the rebbi berating himself for eating breakfast once without kavanah, “without any chiyus penimi [inner vitality].” He felt it was “not the eating of a human being; it was more like an animal, lacking in contemplation.” One of his hallmark beliefs was that the human potential is without limit; that people have the capacity to be big and that the aim of life is to actualize one’s full potential. For Reb Shlomo, to eat a breakfast without kavanah is to miss a golden opportunity.
Sh’or Yoshuv attracted all manner of folk who came from far and wide to learn the rebbi’s secret: how he had managed the marvel of building—and rebuilding—the hearts and minds of a lost generation.
The gemara in Yevamos cites a verse from Mishlei: “As water reflects the face, so one heart reflects another.” This is explained by (what the rebbi’s devoted talmid Reb Yosef Lieber calls) a Mega-Rashi: “If his rebbi gives him a smile, the talmid grows wise.”
Rashi doesn’t say that the rebbi or talmid has an IQ of 160. Nor does he say that the rebbi learned with the talmid for many years. What counts is the smile; from that, all else flows.
As Rabbi Besser shows in The Life and Legacy, Reb Shlomo was the living incarnation of this truth. The ordinary teacher says: “Jump through this hoop, and I will love you.” Not Reb Shlomo. He knew the secret of the heart: “I already love you; let’s jump through the hoop together.”
Rabbi Michael Sanders served as a day school principal and as a kosher supervisor at the OU under former Rabbinic Kashrut Administrator Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg.