Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Rav Shimon Shkop in Montreal
Rav Shimon Shkop (1860-1939) was the outstanding Rosh Yeshiva of yeshivos Telz and Grodno. Based on the talmudic methods of his mentors, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and the Netziv, he synthesized his own method resulting in the deep and penetrating analysis of Rav Chaim with the straightforwardness and clarity of the Netziv. He embarked on fund-raising assignments for the yeshivos in England, Canada (as we shall see), and the United States. While in the States he stopped by Yeshiva University to deliver a lecture. He was so well received that he was asked to come onto the faculty as Rosh Yeshiva. After repeated attempts to get him to relocate to the States he finally acceded in 1928, and did in fact become Rosh Yeshiva of YU Rav Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary (this is what they don't want you to know!). He did though return to Europe after heavy criticism from leading Rabbonim. Rav Zelig Epstein, a grandson-in-law, later succeeded him as Rosh Yeshiva Grodno in the American branch of the yeshiva (which happens to be right around the block from where I am sitting and typing these words). Rav Zelig Epstien was niftar two years ago.
Rav Shimon Shkop had traveled to Montreal to raise money for the yeshiva. He stayed at the home of a certain wealthy man, who was known for his generous contributions to worthwhile causes. When he arrived on this particular occasion he found his usually magnanimous host in joylessness and frustration. He had conveyed to Rav Shkop that great trouble had loomed for him and his family. As his family grew it became apparent that more room was needed for the children and more space was also needed for a larger meeting hall for community activities which the man hosted on a weekly basis. An addition was built onto the side of the house, but it was found out later that the addition extended a total of one foot onto the neighbor's property, a very petty amount considering that both him and his neighbor had ample property to begin with. The problem was that a malcontent kvetcher lived next door, and demanded that something be done about the extension. But it wasn't just "something" that she was after. Under Canadian law at the time, if an extension had been built onto another person's property, purposely or inadvertently, the law said that the encroached-upon property's owner had the right to tear down the entire house of the neighbor, and not merely the addition. And this was the case with the kvetcher. She demanded that the entire house be demolished. Rav Shkop's host and his lawyer first fought with the old woman. They screamed and they yelled. He then tried entreating her, but she was not moved. He brought her flowers, then chocolates, and increasingly lavish gifts. And then their was more yelling.
Finally, upon Rav Shkop's visit, he asked him for an eitza (advice). Surely, Rav Shkop could think up some sort of solution. And this is what Rav Shkop had to say: "Go to shul. Go as quickly as possible the next time the Torah will be taken out. Make sure you're called up for an aliyah (to be called up to the Torah to make a blessing). Afterward, go with your lawyer to speak with the woman one more time." Was that all? Would getting an aliyah save his house from being demolished? The next morning, Monday, he went to shul, and requested an aliyah from the gabbai. He called his lawyer after minyan, and the two rushed to the stubborn woman's house next door. And the man said to her, pleadingly, "this is the last time; I promise you that this is the last time I will bother you about the house. Please, PLEASE don't let the city tear down my home. It's only one foot of land. I'll cut away at the extension if you would like, but please not the entire home." The woman, now confused, looked him in the eye, and said, "tear down your house? Why would I want to tear down your house? Who would be such a miserable person to tear down a neighbor's entire home over a disputed foot of land? Please do as you like. It's all right by me." The man and his lawyer were flabbergasted. They offered the woman a polite "thank you" and practically tip-toed out of the house in fear that she might regain her senses and retract her words.
The two, elated, went back to Rav Shko Rav Shkop for some clarity. After all, the woman had been adamant for months about tearing down the house. It just didn't make any sense. Rav Shkop explained, "it is brought down in the mishna berurah that the person getting an aliyah should follow along with the ba'al koreh (Torah reader) by actually looking down onto the claf (parchment). One should also look into the Torah, close enough that he sees the osiyos (letters) during hagbah (the lifting of the Torah). During an aliyah, however, he sees the osiyos up close, and this brings him a special zechus. In addition, there is a special light that emanates from the Torah, and when one looks into the Torah he becomes infused with this light. You went to the woman's house almost directly after becoming infused with this light, and when she looked into your face, the radiance of the light touched her soul, and this woman who was formerly irrational, unreasonable, foolish and absurd, now became levelheaded, sensible, reasonable and decent. And this is how she came to change her mind."
This story became famous throughout the Jewish community of Montreal, and also among the family of Rav Shkop. The story is still told today by members of the family of Rav Zelig Epstein and other grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Rav Shkop.