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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Who Was Rav Mordechai Feinstein?

By Rabbi Sender Haber

We will never know who was Rav Mordechai Feinstein was.

Rav Moshe Feinstein was a well-known tzaddik and one of the foremost Halachic authorities of his generation. He wrote thousands of brilliant Teshuvos (responsa) and published seven volumes of Igros Moshe during his lifetime. An eighth volume was published several years ago and a ninth volume of Igros Moshe was published this month.

The ninth volume includes a section of responsa by Rav Moshe’s brother, Rav Mordechai Feinstein. It is twelve pages long.

I read the letters of Reb Mordechai and was mesmerized by their style. I was treated to a glimpse of Reb Mordechai’s scholarship and his clever and encompassing approach to issues. It was easy to get a feel for Reb Mordechai’s love of Torah and his burning desire to fulfill the will of Hashem.

I did some research into the Feinstein family and learned that at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Mordechai Feinstein led communities in Russia. They possessed a level of scholarship that, according to Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, belonged to previous generations. They were throwbacks to earlier times. They were also Rabbis at a time when Judaism was all but illegal. Rav Mordechai ran a secret yeshiva in Shklov and Rav Moshe worked secretly to make the local municipal pool into a Kosher Mikva. Both brothers represented a level of sacrifice and love for Torah that we can only aspire to reach.

As it became apparent that there would not be another generation of Jewish Education in Russia, Rav Moshe Feinstein left the country and immigrated to New York. Over the next five decades, he was a source of halachic decisions, guidance, and advice to hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world. He was instrumental in teaching American Jewry how to apply ancient rules to modern shores. By the time of his passing in the 1980’s, he was considered by many to be the last word in Halacha. His volumes of responsa have become classics and can be found anywhere that Halacha is studied.

Reb Mordechai Feinstein did not come to America. He remained in Russia where he continued to teach Torah in secret. Many of his students did not survive the revolution and the war. Almost nothing remains of his teachings beyond the twelve pages in ninth volume of Igros Moshe.

One of the letters that we have from Rav Mordechai was written just before Rosh Hashana in 1923. It was written to Reb Mordechai’s uncle, Rabbi Yaacov Kantrowitz, and he alludes to some of the difficulties that they were facing in Russia. Knowing what I know, I couldn’t help but cry as I read Rav Mordechai’s concluding words to his uncle:

“May Hashem grant you and your family a year of health of the body and soul and clarity of mind. May you have a year of happiness, peace, and true peace. May you see Nachas from your children in Kletzk and may you watch them become truly great people…

“May Hashem increase the honor of the Torah and those who study it, thus increasing the honor of His entire nation.

Signed,

Mordechai Feinstein”

We now know that many of the prayers of Rav Mordechai were not fulfilled: Rabbi Kantrowitz’s son Yitzchok Yechiel was murdered by the Nazis outside Vilna. His daughter, Cheina Gittel, never left Leningrad and did not survive the war.

Rav Mordechai Feinstein himself was arrested not too long afterward. The Yevsektsia took him from his table while he was celebrating the holiday of Shavuos. They sent him to Siberia for the “crime” of teaching Torah and he was never heard from again.

Both Rav Moshe and Rav Mordechai lived holy lives that are worthy of our envy, but we can’t help but wonder what could have been if Rav Mordechai had lived long enough to parallel the great life of his brother.

We cannot question the ways of Hashem, but we can appreciate the questions that we ask ourselves on Rosh Hashana: Who will live? Who will prosper? Who will make a difference in the lives of others? Who will see nachas from their children? Who will celebrate Simchos with their friends? Who will realize their aspirations and who will have the chance to accomplish all that they can in this world?

This is the time of year when we need to think about what was and what could have been. We need to ask Hashem for the strength and opportunity to achieve everything that we are capable of.

May we all merit a year of true peace and prosperity. May we realize all of our dreams and experience only happiness and nachas. Most importantly, may we learn to take nothing for granted.

Kesiva V’Chasima Tova.

Read more about Elul and Rosh Hashana by downloading a collation of past posts and essays at http://www.torahlab.org/images/uploads/Elul_and_Rosh_Hashana_Collection_2011.pdf

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