A parchment and a mirror: a eulogy for Harav Yaakov Nayman z"l


From the other side of the bench

By David Seidemann

Issue of December 4, 2009/ 17 Kislev 5770
Eulogies for Harav Yaakov Nayman revealed that he lived for over 100 years, as his tombstone will reflect. But anyone who spent even a moment with Rav Nayman would swear that he had lived for at least 3,322 years. For it was in the Hebrew year 2448, some 3,322 years ago, that the Torah was given to the children of Israel. And while our heritage teaches that all Jewish souls that will ever walk the earth were present in some form or another at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, it took one glance at Rav Nayman’s face, one moment in his presence, for one to sincerely feel that Rav Nayman himself was there, and that same incarnation was on display now in 5770.

I live in a community with many respectable and respected rabbis. People who live elsewhere acknowledge that this community is unique in that all of the rabbis seem to “get along” with each other. It is special to live in a place where present-day rabbinic figures are, for the most part, unified; it is particularly unique to live where those present-day rabbis and all of us present-day worshipers unite in reverence around a rabbinic personality from yesteryear.

I leave it to others, perhaps family members or students (there are no longer any contemporaries) to favor you with the details of his early years as a student of the Brisker Rav and of Rav Elchonon Wasserman. They surely know better of his early days in the famed Mir Yeshiva; how he survived two World Wars and brought Eastern European Jewry to these shores, first in Chicago and then in Lawrence. I leave it to others to expound on his breadth of Torah knowledge. I can’t begin to fathom it and therefore am ill suited to comment about it. I sat at Rav Nayman’s funeral on Sunday, one of over a thousand in attendance, and heard story after story of his great legacy. All that remains after his passing are stories about luminaries from yesteryear. For now that Rav Nayman is gone, the physical link to the great sages has vanished.

I wish to share my personal observations of a giant of a man who transported me back to the shtetl whenever I saw him. And I saw Rav Nayman often because we lived across the street from one another. His home and his shul in Sutton Park are diagonally across the street from where I have lived with my family for the last nine years. In that time I witnessed erudition, dignity, humility, and humanity. My family would observe Rav Nayman and his wife of 67 years (she passed away before him) shpatzir (walk) side by side around Sutton Park. On numerous occasions my wife and I would point out to our children that as important as it is to be steeped in Torah scholarship and to be there for one’s community, it is equally important and often overlooked to be there for one’s wife and family. Rav Nayman was there for everyone, looking out for those whom were at a distance and never overlooking those that were closest to him. The smile on his face as he walked with his family was probably no different than the ecstasy he enjoyed strolling the streets of  Brisk with his rebbe and mentor, the Brisker Rav, in the early 1900’s.

My little girls could not perceive Rav Nayman’s brilliance but they could appreciate how a real Torah personality treated his wife.

Once, newlyweds were our Shabbos guests. After Friday night services at Rav Nayman’s shul, I brought the young fellow over to introduce him to Rav Nayman and to wish the rav a good Shabbos. Rav Nayman asked what the young man does. I replied that he doesn’t work; he was just married and was learning in yeshiva. Rav Nayman was quick to correct me. He pointed out that learning, being newly married, and keeping one’s wife happy is the hardest work a man could ever do.

His mind was sharp, his smile was infectious, and his sense of humor allowed people who might otherwise have shied away from him because of his brilliance, to approach him and then to be affected by him. Rav Nayman did not often speak in shul but when he did it was with power and emotion. I know I was hard-pressed to concentrate on the message itself because I was so captivated by the stature of the messenger himself. Did I belong in the same room as this sage? Was I really in New York or was I somehow transported to Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s?

In June of 2001 my wife and I purchased a Torah scroll, which is presently housed in Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Lawrence. As is customary, its final letters were written in our home. A scribe from Washington Heights sat in my library, the scroll laid out before him. In his hand was the special dye and quill. One by one, members of the community sat beside him and either wrote a letter in the Torah themselves or asked the scribe to serve as their messenger in doing so. When Rav Nayman entered my home and took his seat next to the scribe, a hush fell over the room.

Those assembled knew that they were in the presence of greatness. Those who had come to write a letter in a Torah were cognizant that they were about to witness 3,314 years of history collide. Everyone knew that when Rav Nayman grasped the quill, put it to the parchment and looked at the parchment, the parchment was, in reality, a mirror. For Rav Nayman was the total picture of what one is expected to become, and of what one can become — if one understands the centrality of Torah study and absorbs the depths of its lessons.

When the writing of the Torah was completed, we danced with the Torah outside of our home, past Rav Nayman’s home and shul and then drove the remaining distance to Sh’or Yoshuv, where the festivities continued. We made certain to hand the Torah to Rav Nayman as we marched past his home. He held it tightly with the same certainty and security that he held on to all that he absorbed at the feet of the Brisker Rav, at the feet of Rav Elchonon Wasserman, and all that he absorbed in the Mir yeshiva in the early 1900’s. It was difficult for me to determine on that sunny day in June 2001 whether Rav Nayman was carrying the Torah or whether the Torah was carrying Rav Nayman. One thing I know for certain, is that the Torah that was Rav Nayman will carry all of us for many generations to come.

David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein. He can be reached at (718) 6 92-1013 and at ds@lawofficesm.com