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Rabbi Kalmar's Message: “The Loss of My Rebbe, Rav Yehudah Kelemer z’tl and the Power of Hope”

         Over 20 years ago I found myself in the middle of a personal crisis, having suffered a setback that had thrown me.  As a single semicha student, I went for Shabbos to a good friend who lived in West Hempstead, NY and my friend suggested that I talk to his shul rov, Rabbi Yehudah Kelemer, to find some support.  I did and Rabbi Kelemer found time for me over the weekend to talk to him.  He sympathized and advised me in such a profoundly sensitive and caring way that made me feel cared for and optimisitic again. He so impressed me.   I latched on to Rav Kelemer and never let go.  He was my Rav, our family posek, my rabbinic posek, a rabbinic mentor and even a rabbinic father figure for me.

              Rav Kelemer passed away this past Friday and left a shocked and bereaved 700 family strong Young Israel of West Hempstead.  He also left behind a wife and family, 12 children and many grandchildren.  But he also left behind a family of Rabbonim – rabbis who consulted him for his psak and his wisdom, and I’m sure also – because they just wanted the opportunity to talk to him – in learning and otherwise.  For Rabbi Kelemer was a unique individual – yes, he was the rabbi of a modern Orthodox shul – which he helped grow to be the second largest Young Israel in the US, but he was also a world class posek – a decisor of Jewish Law, with incredibly broad shoulders.  He would answer the most complicated shaylos (questions) with his absolute recall of Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch and Shaylos uTeshuvos, with his trademark humility, his fantastic sense of humor, and with incredible sensitivity to the human condition and to people’s situations.   He could have been a world class Rosh Yeshiva and Posek anywhere.  He learned with Rav Mordechai Gifter as a young man and got semicha from R. Chaim Shmulevitz at the Mir, he was connected in learning and friendship with Rav Moshe Feinstein and with Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (who when Rav Kelemer was a young rabbi in Brookline – the Rov would send people to with complex halachic questions) and with R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.  

And on top of that - he was an amazing speaker, and an amazing darshan, often explaining complex issues in ways that everyone could understand.   Some rabbis are good pastorally, some are great scholars and some are great speakers.  Rav Kelemer was all three and so much more.

              When I spoke to him – he spoke to me as if I was an equal – like he was a rabbi and I was a rabbi – and we were doing the same thing.  When of course he was in a different world.   What I found out when watching his funeral (click here) and reading what people wrote about him (click here and here and here and here) was that he spoke to everybody that way.  It didn’t matter who it was and what the conversation was about – he saw himself as an equal, as one of the crowd.  He saw himself as just another member of the congregation and really as just another member of humanity.  You’d see him at Grand Central Station with his little hat and a sefer sitting by himself – he gave off the most modest, “I’m just a regular Yid” manner.  He was unique and special in so many ways.  Hard to believe that he is gone.

So this past Friday marked a day of profound loss for me.  But truth be told, it was a loss for all of you, for the ASKT community as well, even though you wouldn’t recognize it.  Because the most complex questions that you asked me would often be passed on to Rabbi Kelemer as well.  And he would listen carefully and answer them so thoughtfully and earnestly.  And he had so much an understanding of so many things, from Kashrus to science to psychology to medicine, his knowledge base seemed to know no limit.  That being said, he was always turning to the experts in every field to get answers that would help him answer halachic questions.  And he believed that you had to have all the real experts – the tops in the field – on speed dial.  And he would share them.  “Wes – here is the number of the top heart specialist, here is the number of the top infectious disease doctor,” and he would give me their number and tell me that he would call them to let them know that I was calling them.  He was relentless in his pursuit of trying to help – to help the person with the question, to help me to get the answer – to just help.  He didn’t just give the halachic answer and finished.  If the halachic answer would leave someone in trouble or distress or pain – he found another solution – he looked for ways to fix the problem.  It wasn’t about giving an answer – it was about helping people.    

 

 In the beginning of VaEira, God sends Moshe with a message for the Jewish people – that is so stirring and such good news!  God says – Jewish people!  I am going to keep my covenant with your forefathers!  I am God! And I am going to take you out of your burdens and save you from this bondage, and redeem you with great wonders and I will take you to Me to be a people!  And I will bring you to my special land of Eretz Yisrael, the land of your forefathers and you will be my people!

Moshe gets to be the bearer of such great news!  And he goes to deliver this wonderful news and message to the Jewish people.  And….they can’t hear it.   

וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

They could not listen to Moshe because of shortness of spirit and crushing work. 

The Jewish people couldn’t hear that there was good news.

When someone’s spirit is crushed they can’t absorb the good news.  

When I think about    קֹּצֶר רוּחַ and עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה, I think about how I felt when I first went to see Rav Kelemer.   My spirit was crushed.  And he lifted me up somehow and I didn’t feel so crushed.   I was talking to a good friend of mine about Rabbi Kelemer and he told me a story about he was in a dark dark place.  That he had done things that were out of character for him and was feeling like he had no way back.  But he went to talk to Rabbi Kelemer and he helped him.  When explaining how he helped him, my friend explained that what was so special about Rabbi Kelemer was that he didn’t look at my friend any differently, despite knowing the things that he had done.  He saw him as the same person that he was before, just a person with a crushing weight on his shoulders that needed lifting.  Rav Kelemer saw the best in every person and praised them, highlighting their best characteristics and strengths.  In his non-judgmental, empathic, helpful way, Rav Kelemer gave people hope that things could get better, that they would get better.

Moshe Rabbeinu does not succeed at first at getting the Jews to hear the good news, to feel hopeful, to feel that they had a way forward.  It’s not until next week’s parsha, parshas Bo, where we see the people accepting the good news from Moshe and moving forward.  When they are told the good news again of the exodus and told that all they have to do is take a sheep, a god of Egypt, into their homes and wait to slaughter it for five days – they don’t fail to hear, they don’t say – are you crazy? Take a sheep – what will our masters say? They are no longer crushed of spirit – וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּשְׁתַּֽחֲוֽוּ  - they kneel and bow their heads –  ַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־משֶׁ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֖ן כֵּ֥ן עָשֽׂוּ

 and they do what Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to tell them to do.

What is the difference between our parsha  - when Moshe told them the good news – when they couldn’t even hear it and in Parshas Bo – when they accept it and get busy being brave and moving forward?  One answer certainly could be that the Jews have seen the nine plagues that have taken place so far and they have had a break from their slavery perhaps.  But I’d also like to suggest that Moshe’s approach was now different.  When he was speaking to them the first time, Moshe was a man who had grown up in the palace and then Moshe had been living in Midian and not experiencing the abuse of Pharaoh.  But after grappling with Pharaoh through all of the plagues and suffering the indignity of being thrown out of the palace by Pharaoh forever after the last plague – Moshe can relate to what the Jews have been putting up with and living with.   Moshe sees himself as one of them.  And that gives the people courage and hope.  When another person can see your pain, and feel your pain, and judge you favorably, that is a person that you are willing to listen to.  And that’s a person who can give you hope.

 

Rav Kelemer was an amazing man and mentor and I am incredibly blessed for having been able to spend so much time speaking with him.   And I am profoundly saddened by his passing.  But I know that Rav Kelemer would want us to mourn kedai, the halachically appropriate amount, but no more than that.  Rav Kelemer was a multifaceted individual, but I choose to highlight this aspect of his life.  Rav Kelemer was all about giving people hope and strength, through his warmth, through his humility, through his humor, through his halachic approach, and by treating each and every person with dignity, respect and genuine, above and beyond care.  So I’m going to stifle my sorrow with a commitment to being hopeful and to bringing hope to others to the best of my ability.  We are living in a time that has had a lot of darkness.  A lot of shortness of spirit and crushing work. 

But there are many hopeful signs as well.  So, I would encourage us to take a lesson from a truly great man, Rav Yehuda Kelemer, Zecher Tzaddik Livracha, and to find hope and share hope wherever we go.

Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos,

Rabbi Wes Kalmar

Mon, March 8 2021 24 Adar 5781