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  Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt"l: The Unassuming Giant By Rabbi Nosson Scherman from
Torah Leaders
A treasury of biographical sketches

By The Jewish Observer 



Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt"l: The Unassuming Giant By Rabbi Nosson Scherman

During his years as a maggid shiur, he probably had a total of two thousand talmidim in his classes, but there were many times that many, because his direct and indirect influence radiated far beyond the confines of his classroom and yeshiva.

If Rabbi Pam had been able to schedule his own levaya (funeral), he surely would have said that it should take place during bein haz’manim (yeshiva intersession), so that yeshivos would not lose time from learning; on a Friday, so that fewer people would be able to attend and there would be less temptation to deliver eulogies; and during the summer, when many people are away. Which is exactly what happened. This great and humble man, revered and cherished by so many, virtually slipped away. Several thousand people crowded the beis midrash of his Torah Vodaath and the surrounding streets on 28 Menachem Av, 5761 (August 17, 2001) to bid a tearful farewell to perhaps the most beloved figure in the American yeshiva world, but there would have been many times that number if his passing had come at another time in another month. How fitting for a man whose fondest wish had always been to remain inconspicuous, so that he could devote his life to learning and teaching.

Try though he did -- mightily -- to hide his greatness, he failed. Rabbi Shaul Alter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Gur in Israel, said that when Rabbi Pam left us, “America lost its Divine protection.” Rabbi Alter may have met Rabbi Pam, but certainly could not have known him well. Yet he knew. And countless others knew that behind his normal business suit, turned-down brim, and seat among his talmidim in the middle of the beis midrash, there was one of the great people of our time, and that his loss could not be measured in terms of who would fill his vacancy in leadership positions or with his talmidim. There was more to the man than any of us realized.

These lines are not an attempt to evaluate him or portray him definitively. So inadequate is this writer and so hidden was much or most of what he did, that such a task is impossible. What follows is an appreciation by someone who was his talmid over fifty years ago, and who, like all of his talmidim, never ceased to regard him as a role model par excellence.

He insisted that there be no eulogies at his levaya, except for a “farewell” from his oldest son, Rabbi Aaron, because, as he put it, “I don’t want to go to the World of Truth with a false passport.” It is undeniable that most eulogies, understandably, tend to incorporate some exaggerated praise. It is also undeniable that any praise of Rabbi Pam would have been only an understated part of the truth.

I. The Indelible Impression

As this writer was leaving the levaya, a stranger came over -- a young man in his middle 20’s. He shared this story: In his teens, he had been expelled by two yeshivos, and with good reason. He was angry and rebellious, and his parents were at a loss. In desperation, his mother took him to Rabbi Pam, whom neither of them knew. She poured her heart out to the Rosh Yeshiva. What would become of her son? Would he remain a Jew? Where could he go? What should they do?Rabbi Pam listened, and spoke to the young man. Then he called an out-of-town yeshiva and asked them as a personal favor, on his responsibility, to accept the talmid. They agreed.

The young man concluded his narrative, “He called regularly to check on how I was doing. I did pretty well. I changed. He saved me. If not for him, I would be out on the streets today.” This for someone he had never previously met.

A few weeks later, at a wedding, the menahel of one of Brooklyn’s leading institutions told the following story to this writer: A parent had fallen on hard times and had not been able to pay his tuition for several months. It was time to register his children for the new school year and he was afraid even to go to the school; there was no doubt that he would be required to clear his balance -- but he had no money. Distraught, he confided his dilemma to Rabbi Pam.

The Rosh Yeshiva intervened personally. He called the administrator of the school, who told him that if anyone else had called, he would have told him the simple truth: the school had payrolls to meet and bills to pay. The parent already had a substantial scholarship, and it was not fair to ask the school to do more. But since the one calling was Rabbi Pam, the school would accept the children without insisting on any prior payment.

The story is not yet over. Shortly afterward, a substantial check arrived from Rabbi Pam, to be applied toward the delinquent account.

About ten years ago a well-known family was sitting shiva. One of the mourners was a Reform rabbi who had long since repudiated the Orthodoxy of his parents and siblings. One afternoon, Rabbi Pam came into the room to be menacheim aveil. The Reform rabbi was startled. “Who is that? He is a holy man!” he said, almost inaudibly.

He was right, but how did he know? He had never met Rabbi Pam, had not seen photographs of him: How could one tell that a small man in ordinary garb, who took pains to be inconspicuous and recoiled from honor, is holy?

The Chasam Sofer was once riding in a coach with his rebbi, Rabbi Nosson Adler, when the horses reared in fright. They were about to be attacked by a wild bear, and the driver could not control them. Rabbi Adler looked out the window. The bear saw him, recoiled and ran back into the woods. The Chasam Sofer asked for an explanation, and Rabbi Adler replied, “Hashem made man in His image and, as our Sages tell us, at the beginning of Creation all the animals were afraid of man’s G-dly nature. It seems that I still have some of that tzelem Elokim, so the bear was afraid.”

Those who were close to Rabbi Pam are not surprised that even someone estranged from Torah could look at him and see holiness. By the standards of our century, his holiness shone through, unmistakably. It shone through in his love of learning, in his delivery of shiurim, in the understated elegance of his shmuessen, in his performance of mitzvos, in his self-sacrifice at giving up some of his personal growth in Torah for the sake of Klal Yisroel, in the simplicity of his home and his abhorrence of luxury, in his enduring gratitude for even the most trivial favor, in the quiet passion with which he appealed to parents to allow their sons to stay in the yeshiva as long as possible and to feel what a privilege it was for their daughters to marry b’nei Torah.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk remarked of the Chofetz Chaim that his saintliness obscured his greatness in Torah. The same could certainly be said of Rabbi Pam.

Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, the late Rav of Antwerp and a formidable Talmudic prodigy, told an acquaintance that when he came to the United States, there were two people he sought out to “speak in learning” -- one of them was Rabbi Pam. Although he grudgingly admitted to knowledge of the four sections of Shulchan Aruch -- because “every Jew must know halacha” -- Rabbi Pam stoutly denied that he was fluent in Shas, except that whatever the topic under discussion, he always seemed conversant in it.

Rabbi Leibel Wulliger, head of the Torah Vodaath Kollel, came to him to discuss a complex sugya that the Kollel was studying. Rabbi Pam protested that it was a long time since he had learned that Gemora, and he was not nearly as familiar with it as Rabbi Wulliger, who was studying it just then. Rabbi Wulliger replied, “I see the details, but the Rosh Yeshiva will see the broad picture.” The discussion began, and the Rabbi Pam who was “not familiar” with the topic, remembered every detail -- as well as the broad picture.

It was perhaps inevitable that this man, who combined greatness in Torah, eloquent simplicity, sterling character, and a refusal -- almost an inability -- to speak or hear ill of others, should be compared to the Chofetz Chaim. No less an authority than Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky said that Rabbi Pam was “the Chofetz Chaim of our time.” It was a description echoed by many, but one had to beware of uttering it in his company. A dinner chairman once introduced him that way -- and it was one of the few times that this paragon of self-control was visibly agitated. Rabbi Pam stood at the microphone and said, “I must protest the affront to the honor of the Chofetz Chaim.”

II. His Life: A Straight and Constant Ascent

Early Years in Lithuania

Avrohom Yaakov Hakohein Pam was born in Tammuz in tiny Vidz, Lithuania. His father, Reb Meir, was an exceptional Torah scholar. Rabbi Pam would tell his family and talmidim that his father almost never went to bed. He would learn until he dozed off from fatigue, and would wake up in the middle of the night and return to his studies.

Rabbi Pam once expressed annoyance that someone had referred to Reb Meir as “the father of the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath.” Rabbi Pam protested, “Is it my father’s yichus (distinction) that his son says a shiur in Torah Vodaath? [In his modesty, he never referred to himself as the Rosh Yeshiva.] Do you know what my father was? When he was in his high 80’s, he was legally blind. The only time he could read was at high noon on a sunny day. At such times, he would put his Gemora on the windowsill and learn for an hour or two. The rest of the time he learned from memory.

“Once I came to visit him, and we discussed a Gemora. He told me to look up a Tosafos on daf 86a in Zevachim. I looked, and told him that there is no such Tosafos. He insisted that it was there. I looked further and was happy to tell him that it was on the next page. He began to cry, saying, ‘Look what happens to someone in his old age. He forgets his learning!’”

Rabbi Pam reminisced that his mother never spoke lashon hara. “She was incapable of seeing bad in people, so she never spoke ill of anyone.” She was fluent in the entire Tanach and was expert at using its lessons to comfort the downtrodden. At her apron strings, the young Avrohom Yaakov began to develop the expertise in Tanach that characterized him for the rest of his life. Growing up in such a home, he absorbed his father’s love of learning, his mother’s love of Jews, and their mutual love of Hashem and His service.

Rabbi Meir Pam learned in Knesses Bais Yitzchak, in Kovno, then with Rabbi “Laizer” Gordon (later of Telshe), and finally in the Chofetz Chaim’s Kollel Kodashim, where two of his colleagues were Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the future Ponevizher Rav. Rabbi Kahaneman later was the Rav of Vidz for a time, and invited Reb Meir to say the shiur in the yeshiva there.

When Rabbi Avrohom Pam was 11 years old, his parents sent him away from home to a yeshiva. There was a time when he slept on a bench in the local shul, but nothing deterred him from learning as long and intensely as he could. He was part of a special group of youngsters in Slabodka, where he became a frequent Shabbos guest of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky. It was a warm relationship that was to be resumed many years later when Reb Yaakov became Rosh Yeshiva in Torah Vodaath.

In 1927, after several years of poverty and harassment at the hands of Communist authorities, Rabbi Meir Pam came to the United States, and, after securing positions as a maggid shiur in Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin and as rabbi of the Beis Medrash Hagadol in Brownsville, he was able to send for his family.

Reb Dovid’s Imprint

Avrohom Yaakov became a talmid in Torah Vodaath, then the only mesivta in Brooklyn. He remained there for the rest of his life. Perhaps the single most pivotal period for him was the year he was in the shiur of the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz. The next year, Reb Dovid left to form his own yeshiva and Avrohom Yaakov, like nearly all of Reb Dovid’s talmidim, wanted to go with him. But Reb Dovid, wisely and unselfishly, thought otherwise. He told Avrohom Yaakov that his future was in Torah Vodaath and he should remain there. It must have been a difficult decision for Rabbi Pam, because all his life he considered Reb Dovid to be his rebbi muvhak (primary teacher), saying that his approach to learning came from Reb Dovid. But he accepted Reb Dovid’s prescient advice, and remained in Torah Vodaath for the rest of his life.

When Reb Dovid passed away, Rabbi Pam wrote an appreciation for Agudath Israel’s Orthodox Youth.

“To be a lamdan -- was an ideal he constantly glorified. To acquire a Torah outlook -- was the greatest of achievements. To be a maven (connoisseur) of Talmud -- was a source of justifiable pride. To be a marbitz Torah (a teacher of Torah) -- was the crowning achievement of a talmid chacham.”

That was a hierarchy of values that Reb Dovid conveyed not only to his talmidim. When Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky was in the United States in 1938, and was debating whether to go back to Europe or to bring his family to the United States, he consulted his old friend and colleague, Reb Dovid. Reb Dovid told him, “If you want to enjoy this world, go back to Slabodka, but if you want to earn a share in the World-to-Come, stay here and spread Torah.”

Rabbi Pam absorbed not only his rebbi’s shiurim, but his priorities. He became a lamdan, a maven, and a marbitz Torah. Nowadays it seems unremarkable that a yeshiva student as brilliant and successful as Rabbi Pam should want to devote his entire life to learning and teaching, but in the 1930’s it was a rarity. If his family experience was typical -- as it almost certainly was -- his mother must have been bombarded by well-meaning friends saying, “What do you want to make of your Avrem’el, a rabbi? He’ll never be able to support a family!” Without doubt, there must have been pressure on him to use his gifts to be a successful American, rather than a successful Lithuanian.

He was a perfectionist who wanted to excel at everything he did. His talmidim of years back were convinced he was American born because his English was so perfect. Not only that, he worked hard, and successfully, to eliminate his Yiddish-European accent. He had a feel for language, and insisted on precise use of words. In later years, his translators and editors learned that, often to their chagrin. Some of his closest talmidim attempted to translate his shmuessen for publication, but he was seldom satisfied with their work. He was an accomplished mathematician. Once one of his talmidim was not learning well because he was preoccupied with preparation for a math exam, a subject in which he was weak. Rabbi Pam made a deal with him. “You concentrate on your learning and I will tutor you for the test.”

Despite his abundant secular potential, he never had any ambition other than to excel in learning, and excel he did. Contrary to his external facade of conformity, he did it with an abundance of independence. When he was 21, he embarked on two years studying Shulchan Aruch with a chavrusa (study partner) in complete privacy. He also had the ability to learn alone, without the stimulation of a chavrusa -- an important, but rare, talent -- one of the components of his success. In one of his unusual comments on his own achievement, he told a talmid that during those two years, “I didn’t sleep or eat,” but he became expert in halacha. At the end of those two years, he joined his older colleague Rabbi Gedalia Schorr as the only Torah Vodaath talmidim with semicha (rabbinic ordination).

Sixty-Two Years to Teach... and Exemplify

In 1939, Rabbi Pam became a maggid shiur in Torah Vodaath, a position he held for sixty-two years. During those years, he probably had a total of two thousand talmidim in his classes, but there were many more than that, even many times that many, because his direct and indirect influence radiated far beyond the confines of his classroom and yeshiva. Torah Vodaath was always unique in that it accommodated talmidim from many different Torah communities and allowed -- even encouraged -- them to maintain their native traditions. Chassidim, Misnagdim, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Germans, Hungarians -- they all learned together, argued with one another, grew together, and became fast friends. Rabbi Pam fit well into that environment. He was totally positive about the essentials of Torah Judaism; the rest didn’t matter.

In 1943, Rabbi Pam married Sarah Balmuth, who shared his passion for Torah and sensitivity. She exuded good cheer and hospitality, even as she tried to protect him from intrusions on his precious time for learning, especially after he became the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath and was virtually forced to become a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America). He once told this writer with a smile, “My Rebbetzin has complaints against me. She says, ‘Why did I marry you? Because you were sitting and learning. Now you are busy going to meetings and making speeches. You don’t learn!’”

His widely appreciated shmuessen may have seemed effortless, but he invested enormous amounts of thought in the topics and the manner of expression. He placed heavy emphasis on how a bachur should relate to others: to parents, peers, and eventually to a wife and children. His talmidim have always insisted that those who had attended his shmuessen seriously and regularly had far fewer shalom bayis and other interpersonal problems than others. For many years, his Chayei Sarah shmuess attracted an especially large attendance. In it, he spoke about the attention and sensitivity that husband and wife should show one another. Those who knew the Pams saw a living shmuess in their home.

Their mutual devotion was in itself a shiur in shalom bayis. Hours before the levaya, the Rebbetzin’s children were surprised to see her at her ironing board. She was ironing his kittel... it was her last opportunity to serve him. He always wore the same sweater. The Rebbetzin had knitted it for him and he treasured it.

It was not that he saw middos tovos (fine character) as divorced from learning; he always made clear that hasmada (diligence) in Torah study is the source of good character. He had a way of focusing on points that were important, but often eluded others. A former talmid who was soon to begin his teaching career confided to Rabbi Pam that he was worried that he would not do well. The night before the beginning of the school year, Rabbi Pam called him to say, “Don’t worry. You will do well.” The fledgling rebbi was moved and buoyed. He is doing very well.

When Rabbi Pam was older and not as strong as he used to be, a younger Rosh Yeshiva in Torah Vodaath urged him to stop attending so many weddings. “You have been to thousands of them. It is enough.” Rabbi Pam answered, “For me there have been thousands, but for the chassan, it is the only one.”

Before the summer, he would remind his talmidim that if they were in camps or similar surroundings, they should come to meals on time so that waiters and busboys would not have to put in extra time and effort because of them. And before bein haz’manim (intersession), he would urge his talmidim to be helpful in the house, to be available for shopping, and to be prepared with divrei Torah at the meals. That sort of sensitivity filtered down to talmidim and their families. Especially when the talmidim knew it was coming from a man who, in the midst of his final illness got out of a car and walked back up the steps of the yeshiva, because he had forgotten to say goodbye to the janitor who was mopping the floor.

His relationship with talmidim was remarkable. In Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s letters to his students, he never addressed any of them as talmidi (my student), for he would say, “Who knows which of us learned more from the other?” Rabbi Pam, too, spoke of his talmidim as “my friends.” No doubt they cringed when they heard it, but he meant it with all sincerity. To a talmid who asked him to be mesader kiddushin (officiate at his wedding), he inquired, “Is there anyone else that your family had in mind for this?” The answer was that his parents had spoken about the Mattersdorfer Rav.

“If so,” said Rabbi Pam, “he should be mesader kiddushin and I will come as a friend.”

In many public addresses and private conversations, he made it a point to refer to R’ Avrohom Biderman and R’ Gedalia Weinberger, his loyal talmidim and servants in heroic acts of chessed, as “his friends.”

Although his English was perfect, he spoke Yiddish exclusively in public, until he became Rosh Yeshiva and, he responded to the change in the Torah community, for whom English was the mother tongue. His sense of responsibility prevailed, and he became an English orator. Similarly, at the last Siyum HaShas, Madison Square Garden was completely sold out and Agudath Israel needed to open a second venue; it was very important that a major Rosh Yeshiva participate in the designated place, Nassau Coliseum. It was taken for granted that he would volunteer. The cause mattered; the public-image factor did not exist.

The first time he spoke publicly in English was at a large kinnus his’orerus (inspirational gathering) for women on Asara b’Teves. He told this story:

When he lived in East Flatbush, he knew a very simple couple, who turned out to be not so simple after all. Before their fiftieth wedding anniversary, their children came to visit, with a plan. “When you were married, you couldn’t afford a hall or a catered affair. You had barely a minyan present. For your golden anniversary, we will make you the catered simcha that you never had, for the whole family and all your friends.”

A few days later, the parents asked the children to come again. Their father was the spokesman. “All our lives we could never afford to give tzeddaka the way we wanted to. Instead of a big catered affair, we will invite the children and grandchildren to our house, and your mother will make a meal the way only she knows how. Give us the money you wanted to spend, and we will distribute it for tzeddaka.”

Rabbi Pam concluded, “When we marry off our children, we all look for segulos (good omens) that will help assure happy lives for them. What better segula can there be than to make a smaller, simpler affair, and use the extra money for Torah and chessed?”

That was typical of his emphasis. Instead of decrying the negative, he emphasized the positive. Why do something wrong or neutral if you can do something right and constructive?

Advice, Counsel, and Direction

Rabbi Pam was always available for advice and encouragement. No one will ever know how many young men and women discussed their shidduchim with him, and, with their doubts eased, left his home or office fortified with clarity and confidence. When this writer and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz spoke to him about the projected ArtScroll -- later to become the Schottenstein -- Talmud, he listened, probed, suggested, and gave his warm encouragement. Whenever people came to him with something for the benefit of Torah study or Klal Yisroel, he was as thrilled as if his own children had suggested it.

When he undertook something, he gave it his all -- that was part of his sense of responsibility for the cause rather than the person. He was not happy when Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky forced him to become a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah -- first, because he undoubtedly did not consider himself qualified; and second, because it would take away time from his learning, his talmidim, and Torah Vodaath. But once he became a member, he served with dedication and effectiveness. In later years, when it was difficult for him to attend meetings, the other members came to his home. Reluctant he might be, but his participation was essential. And Rabbi Sherer and then Rabbi Bloom knew that Rabbi Pam was ready whenever called upon, for whatever the need.

He surprised his own family and others by saying even as a young man that he prayed he would be able to teach Torah for at least sixty years. Sixty years! How unrealistic! But he did it. Until the end of his life, he turned the unrealistic into reality.

One of his bywords, especially in his later years, was from the prophecy of Chaggai (2,4). Hashem commanded the prophet to exhort the leaders of Israel to encourage their people to shake loose from the dispiriting bonds of exile and proceed with the building of the Second Temple. Everything was stacked against them, but the word of Hashem insisted “Asu, ki Ani itchem -- Do! for I am with you.”

The last ten years of his life focused on the plight of children from the Former Soviet Union in Israel. At the National Convention of Agudath Israel in 1990, he spoke movingly at the Thursday-night plenary session about how tens of thousands of children -- including immigrant children -- are benefiting from the Chinuch Atzmai Torah Schools. At the same time, he bemoaned the hundreds of thousands of such children in the Holy Land who are receiving a public-school education that not only fails to teach them the heritage of their grandparents, but poisons them against the teachings of the Torah. He said more. Prophetically, he said that the political future of the country will be in the hands of the Soviet immigration. Emotionally, he said that we must provide them with a Torah chinuch -- and it is “beyadeinu, in our hands. We can do it!”

There was a hardly a person in the hall who thought that his call was anything more than inspiring oratory. Realistic? Of course not! In our hands? Not against the power of the state and without funding or personnel.

Later that evening, a small group of baalei battim convened a meeting, and pledged a total of $50,000 in response to Rabbi Pam’s plea. They presented him with their decision the following day, and Shuvu/Return was born. The organization has enrolled 12,000 children for the current school year, and is eliciting horrified editorials from the secular press and politicians that there is a brain drain from the public schools to Shuvu.

In the United States, he gave his full encouragement to Nechomas Yisroel, the “impossible dream” of a few young men who influence Russian children to attend yeshivos, and raise the money to pay reduced tuitions. Thanks to their efforts, thousands of such children are being saved for a life of Torah.

In his eighty-eight years of inspiring life, nothing matched the example he set in his last public appearance. He was determined to attend the summer fund-raiser of Shuvu, organized by his “friend,” Avrohom Biderman, in the home of another “friend,” Gedalia Weinberger. He was deathly ill, barely a shadow of himself, but he knew that his attendance would help raise more funds, funds that would mean another Shuvu school, another summer program, another battalion of youngsters in the army of Torah life.

With the Rebbetzin’s understanding and approval, the arrangements were made. He was brought in a hospital bed, accompanied by his physician and Hatzolah volunteers. The bed was carried into the house and placed behind curtains. Rabbi Pam was painstakingly lifted into a chair, behind a table. The curtains were parted. He spoke. The assemblage responded. This man of indomitable spirit told Avrohom Biderman that he had prepared a lengthier drasha, but decided to save some of it for the Shuvu dinner in February. February? To him, medical prognostications and hopeless test results were meaningless. If Hashem Yisborach would give life, Rabbi Pam would use every last breath in His service.

He is no longer with us, but his example is. His exhortations are. His unfinished work awaits us. His memory inspires us.

Do, for I am with you! It is beyadeinu!

 
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