On Motzei Shabbos, Parshas Va’era, Montrealers gathered together to commemorate the 10th yahrtzeit of their beloved leader, the former Chief Rabbi of Montreal, Hagaon Harav Pinchas Hirschprung zt”l. The melave malke took place in the auditorium of the Beis Yaakov d’Rav Hirschprung Elementary School on Glendale, an institution that he founded and ran for many years.
Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung was a beloved leader of the Montreal community for many years, He was a Torah giant who made grown men, Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva quake in their boots, when he would ask the only question that mattered to him “Vos Lernst Du, what are you learning?”
After a few seconds of stammering, the Rav would take over, putting everybody at ease. Whether it was a child learning Mishnayos, a bochur struggling with a Rashba, or a talmid chacham searching for an obscure Yerushalmi, to the Rav it was all the same. With shining eyes, he would share a relevant chiddush, an appropriate tzushtell, ask a kushya, always thoroughly familiar with the topic, fluent as he was in the entire length and breadth of Torah.
When we contemplated the fact that our Rav, this diminutive man sitting on his couch surrounded by mountains of Sefarim, was acclaimed by the Gedolim of another era; by his great Rebbe Rav Meir Shapiro, by Reb Chaim Ozer, Rav Meir Arik and by so many others who were legend to us, we felt connected to their world.
They did not only acclaim him; his Rebbe remarked that ‘it would have been worth it for me to open the Yeshiva, Chachmei Lublin, just for this one talmid!’
Besides his incredible prowess in learning, this giant was the softest and gentlest of men, with a sensitive heart which didn’t stand for politics, anger or complaints. He once told his daughter that, ‘if they judge me harshly in the next world on aveiros bein odom lemokom, I will accept. But if they judge me harshly on aveiros bein odom lachaveiro, I will protest. Ich hob in mein leiben nisht getcheppet a Yid, I’ve never caused anguish to another Jew.’
The Rav was able to fuse his brilliant mind with his sensitive heart to benefit Yidden. Someone in Montreal was in need of assistance from the Polish government, and had a meeting with the Polish ambassador in Ottawa. He asked the Rav to accompany him and testify on his behalf to the ambassador. The Rav graciously consented to the two-hour trip, and the gentleman picked up the Rav at the appointed time.
In the car, the Rav noticed a book written by this very ambassador. Being fluent in Polish, he rapidly glanced through the book. When they entered the office of the ambassador, the Rav began to recite the entire treatise for the amazed diplomat. The ambassador smiled and spread his arms wide “Rabbi”, he said, “anything I can do for you, I will.”
A young talmid chacham was suddenly niftar, and the Rav threw himself into the immediate needs of the family. Yet among the major issues that needed his attention, he didn’t neglect the smaller ones. He called the treasurer of Beis Ya’akov and reminded him that this father had several daughters in the school, and that he had paid their tuition with post dated checks. ‘Make sure to rip them up immediately,’ the Rav told the treasurer.
Someone once asked him why he didn’t reply more forcefully to his detractors. He quoted the words of the Ramba’m, in a letter to his son. ‘I have heard that people have criticized me, and you have defended me,’ writes the father. ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that. What they say about me doesn’t bother me, so it shouldn’t bother you. Furthermore, it gives them pleasure to do so, and it’s a case of zeh neheneh, this one has benefit, vezeh lo chaser, and the other suffers no loss!’ The Rav looked at the questioner and said to him. ‘I have lived my entire life that way!’
In fact, as a young refugee, escaping from Poland, he was once on a train when another bochur entered his compartment. His companion insisted in mocking him, riding him mercilessly and making the trip difficult for him.
When Rav Hirschprung arrived at the next town, one of many forlorn refugees looking for shelter, he went to the home of the local Rav. The Rav began to converse with him in learning, and was so impressed by him, that he insisted on treating him like a visiting dignitary. The Rav summoned the wealthiest man in town, telling him that it would be his privilege to host the young Gaon.
As this was happening, the bochur who had so antagonized Rav Hirschprung entered the Rav’s home, he too searching for a place to stay. Rav Hirschprung noticed him and made a request of the Rav, ‘please help him as well, he traveled together with me.’
He arrived in Montreal after the war as a penniless, unconnected refugee, with nothing but his good name. In a relatively short time, however, he was invited to become a member of the Va’ad haRabbanim, and the new arrival with the penetrating wisdom and sensitive heart quickly earned the respect of his peers.
One of the elder Rabbanim had passed away, and his contemporaries were discussing the issue of providing his widow with a pension.
Another Rav on the Va’ad had issues with the deceased Rav, and vociferously protested the proposed pension, saying that it was an unnecessary expense for the financially strapped Va’ad.
The young Rav Hirschprung felt otherwise, and let his opinion be known. Finally, the older Rav turned on him and burst out, ‘Rav Hirschprung, what is your relationship with this Rav that you are so concerned for his almanah?’
Rav Hirschprung responded with his characteristic calm. ‘Ich mein nisht zein Rebbetzin, ich mein dein Rebbetzin, I am not thinking of that Rebbetzin, I am thinking of your Rebbetzin!’
At the occasion of Rav Hirshprung’s 10th yahrzeit, a siyum hashas was held lilui nishmaso. The melave malke was sponsored by the Drazin family of Montreal, whose patriarch, Mr. Samuel Drazin z”l was a close friend of Harav Hirschprung, and who helped found many of the mosdos that are part of our city today. Rav Hirschprung used to chair an annual seudah at the yahrtzeit of R’ Shlomo (Samuel) Drazin, at which he would be mesayem a mesechta lilui nishmaso. In an ironic twist of events, Harav Hirshprung was niftar on the day of the yartzeit of R’ Shlomo Drazin, his close friend and supporter.
Rav Pinchas Hirschprung left an indelible imprint on the community. His vision is responsible for so many of the Mosdos that benefit the city. But the greatest gift he gave the city was the knowledge that its inhabitants carried in their hearts; that there was a man in their city, who, day or night, winter or summer, Shabbos or Yom Tov, was engaged in one pursuit. They knew that, whether in the car, at the doctors’ office, or comfortably ensconced amid the Sefarim in his study, he had only one occupation. This reality emboldened them to grow; it obligated them to strive for greater heights. The protection that this mighty tree afforded comforted them, knowing as they did that there is no fortress like Torah to shelter a city from harm.