Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Quiet Greatness - Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum

Rabbi Moshe Don Kestenbaum is an unusual man. This tall dark-haired 11th grade Rebbe with a warm smile is beloved by so many. His daf yomi shiurim are applauded for their brilliance. This once (and likely still) talented left-handed basketball player has made his mark on the Jewish people at a young age, in an area far from that of athletics. As a bochur, he was known for hasmoda. That was his mark on the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, and the Mir. Friends of his who learnt beside him in the Mir describe Rabbi Kestenbaum showering and dressing for shabbos at 12 pm, and then heading for the beis midrash until shabbos, on long summer Fridays.

Coming from the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, he was educated by one of today’s mussar giants, Rabbi Yechiel Perr Shlita. Rabbi Perr is the quintessential baal mussar, a kind thoughtful talmid chocham who can take the most complicated of human situations and dissect them through the Torah’s lens. When he first came to Waterbury, he gave shiurim and mussar vaadim to the Beis Midrash bochurim – extremely popular ones. His mussar was laced with quotes and stories from Rabbi Perr. He himself came up with many methods of personal growth based upon the wisdom found in s’forim. He laughingly would describe to those in his chabura what it feels like as a bochur to buy a bag of potato chips from the snack machine in yeshiva. “You buy a bag for 75 cents, and you open it to find that it is mostly air, and only three chips! Then a friend of yours comes by and says, he can I have some?” Since this is likely to bother you, explained Rabbi Kestenbaum, you of course should never ask someone else to give you their chips! “Buy two bags,” taught Rabbi Kestenbaum to his students. “Then you will have one to give away and one for yourself!” Indeed he lives his own life this way, and has thus developed into a magnanimous and truly giving person. Anyone who has seen him don his colorful “wedding yarmulkeh,” and proceed to dance before a chosson with abandon, has truly witnessed what he is willing to sacrifice of himself for the pleasure of his fellow Jew.

Built likely from years of mussar vaadim, and even more years of personal mussar study and development, Rabbi Kestenbaum embarked on a daring initiative – he began writing his own mussar sefer. Those who know Rabbi Kestenbaum are aware that, more so than most of his companions, he is known for his very real mastery of Shas – having finished many mesechtos with Rishonim and Acharonim many times over. This makes his choice to publish on mussar all that more surprising. A look at his introduction tells us why he made this choice. In his words, “There are many mussar sforim by giants in Torah and Yirah, who am I to count myself amongst them? However, it appears to me that there is yet a great need for a contemporary sefer that speaks to a person of our times….”

He called his sefer Olam Hamidos, (the intitals M.D. of his first name ‘Moshe Don’ are alluded to in the first two letters of Middos) for it is a work that sets out to “delineate the obligation of ‘middos’ and offer effective advice to develop them.” It bears the haskomos of Rabbi Aharon Kaufman shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury, Rabi Yechiel Perr shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, and Harav Nosson Tzvi Finkel shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir Yerushalyim. Rav Finkel, in his haskoma makes a remarkable statement about the author, when he says, “from between the lines of the sefer, it is evident that the author is a veritable storehouse of Yiras Shomayim.” A school-child might say, “it takes one to know one,” and in this instance, such praise could not come from a more remarkable source.

Olam Hamiddos, the World of Middos, is made up of 8 “worlds,” all dealt with in individual chapters. The first is the “world of middos” which explains the purpose of middos development; then is the “world of truth,” “the world of kovod” (honor), “the world of jealousy,” “the world of anger,” “the world of happiness,” “the world of strength,” and “the world of kindness.” Within the sefer there are so many remarkable though provoking messages that it is daunting to attempt to take a sample, but we shall nevertheless try.

Rabbi Kestenbaum tells of a mystifying quote, attributed to Rav Chaim Vital, the great student of the Arizal; “the character of a person is judged solely based upon how he behaves toward his wife.” Isn’t this unusual, asked Rabbi Kestenbaum, for a man is far more than a spouse! He has dealings with so many people in so many situations! Why are his middos judged by this one dynamic? He speaks of how man desires so deeply to find favor in the eyes of others, that subconsciously he does whatever he can to curry their favor. But that does not exist when one is married. The same kovod is not forthcoming from those with whom we live as from other whom we may impress with a mere glimpse. On a deeper level, he continues, the love and closeness of proximity that marriage demands make it difficult to hide even a hint of anger or dissatisfaction. This is not so with even the closest friend. It thus emerges that the true mettle of a person is only really displayed in his marriage. Whether or not he really is filled with hate and anger or love and compassion is truly something that only his wife can know. This, explained the Olam Hamidos is what Rav Chaim Vital was telling us.

Throughout the course of his sefer, Rabbi Kestenbaum offers both conceptual and theoretical advice in a sincere and down to earth fashion. Quoting from great sforim and Rabbonim, such as Mesilas Yesharim (on p. 184) Rav Yisrael Salanter z”l (p. 26) Yitzchok Hutner z”l (on p. 8) and Rabbi Aaron Wilk shlit”a (p. 25), he weaves a tapestry that is certain to make the reader both a better person and a better Jew. Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury is truly blessed to have Rabbi Kestenbaum in it’s walls.

Published in Yated Neeman Waterbury Page March 2008

1 comment:

Neil Harris said...

Great description, I'll have to look for the sefer. Freilechen Purim.