R. Eliyahu Stewart, z”l
Seldom do maspidim capture the essence of a person as well as they did on Thursday when they eulogized Rav Eliyahu Stewart z”l, a home-grown Angelino who was beloved to thousands. In an hour and a half of hespedim, no one needed to exaggerate his accomplishments. They stood proudly on their own. No one needed trivial filler to round out his life story. There was no time for that; the richness of his achievement didn’t allow for it. His rov of many years, and a succession of family members, spoke of someone who loved people, loved learning, and loved presenting Torah to talmidim. The massive number of people who essentially spent their rare holiday afternoon at his levaya was impressive testimony that the love was reciprocated.
Perhaps one element was missing, through no ones fault, from the hespedim – the perspective of a friend. Maybe I am looking for catharsis. Maybe the shock, the grief, the void draws me to the keyboard, but I am driven to share some thoughts as someone who lost a decades-long friend and confidante.
The parallels to the life of Yaakov Avinu would be compelling even if Reb Eliyahu had not died during parshas Vayeitzei. He was the ish tam, the self-contained person, who dwelt in the tents of Torah. He had simple needs, and had no use for a faux-dignity created by uniforms. He proudly pedaled the five miles to work, where others wouldn’t think of it. In a community where even many bnei Torah participate in the spirit of indulgence, he just wasn’t interested in luxury items, hobbies, or vacations. They were distractions from avodah. Esav needed the adrenalin rush of adventure, of the novel – of the sadeh. Yaakov – and Reb Eliyahu – could find deeper contentment in a self-made castle of Torah values. Reb Eliyahu authored no seforim, but like Yaakov his chief legacy was a mitaso shelemah. Like Yaakov, and unlike Avrohom and Yitzchok, Reb Eliyahu’s offspring are all gems, all ne’emanim l’Hashem u-le-soroso.
As R. Samson Raphael Hirsch observes, Yaakov in our parshah labors for fourteen years not on behalf of his family, but simply to acquire one. Yaakov, whose cognomen would later grace our entire nation, shows thereby the central importance of wife and children. So did Reb Eliyahu. If Yaakov lo meis because his children remained a powerful living legacy, keeping his understanding of Torah alive without missing a step (see Gur Aryeh), Reb Eliyahu approximated this in our times.
Speaker after speaker noted Reb Eliyahu’s non-judgmental love of all Jews, indeed all people. (Yaakov taught us all how to rebuke others when we have to. The only time that the Torah uses the word achai/ my brothers in regard to strangers is when Yaakov approaches the shepherds at the well to question their dawdling on the job.) This is true. But the picture would be incomplete if we did not note that there was a definite limit to his tolerance. He was decidedly intolerant of policies and attitudes that tarnished the reputation of Torah. (Sweet, gentle Yaakov could not be roused to anger or retribution in all the years that Lavan cheated him day after day. When does he get angry? When Lavan accuses him of theft, which, if unchallenged, would have created a chilul Hashem.) So many times, throughout the years, he unburdened himself to me, and I to him. (He did so with more grace, and less cynicism than I.) There were so many – too many – ways:
It is true that he loved his connection to his Satmar roots. He cherished it, rather than turned his back on it. He loved his relatives, even those with a life style very different than his own. But he was also profoundly disturbed (to put it mildly) that some in the frum would not be grateful and appreciative of the soldiers that protected them with their bodies, and the government that supported their physical needs, directly and indirectly. He could not accept that some attitudes in the frum world were stuck and mired in ideological battles of the past, without noting that history had left them mostly behind.
It is true that Reb Eliyahu loved and ministered to all kinds of talmidim, who respected and loved him in return, and kept up a relationship with him decades later. At the same time, he was critical of the way some of those talmidim were shortchanged through policies that ensured a substandard general education, which meant that many would be headed for a lifetime of underemployment and perhaps poverty. That was not the way he understood the Torah’s instruction for living.
He had little tolerance for people who were intolerant of non-Jews. He saw this as both an aberration of Torah, as well as a fossilized carry-over from a different reality in Europe that had changed in great degree in the medinah shel chessed.
It is true that Reb Eliyahu advocated, as the maspidim said, that everyone should play to their own strengths. This meant, though, that he was less than happy with systems of Torah chinuch that were monolithic, that failed to accommodate and nurture individual limitations, strengths, and talents. This could not be authentic Torah.
It is true that he was part of a small group of Beverly Hills residents almost a half-century ago who continued to upgrade their Torah learning and never looked back. In Reb Eliyahu’s case, that meant a high-school year in Israel (perhaps the source of his enormous love for Israel), Kerem B’Yavneh, Ner Israel, a lifetime of daily involvement with limmud Torah. This background and breadth (and his relationship with gedolim of the Rav Ruderman generation) made him more tolerant of Jews of different stripes, particularly within Orthodoxy. Yet, this did not diminish his deep sense of disappointment about some of what he observed in teaching in the Modern Orthodox community – the tenuous commitment in some of the students to the full scope of halachic demands, convenient or not; the frequent non-davening that had little, if anything, to do with conversation with G-d. He did not blame the kids, of course. He frequently said that they could not possibly get beyond what they observed in their parents’ behavior. And he was pained that too many of those parents accepted so much Judaism-by-rote, stripped of real kabolas ole and genuine avodah. This is not what Torah was about. Why didn’t they see it?
He had a beautiful voice, and used it as a chazzan. But he also loved Ivrit. He refused to compromise dikduk, even to make the words fit familiar nigunim. He doggedly insisted on respecting every mi-l’eil and every mi-l’ra, even when no one comprehended why his syllable-stresses were so unfamiliar. I suspect that it was not just a matter of his understanding of dikduk, but his core belief that nothing in life should be chaotic and random, including pronunciation. Yaakov’s tiferes led to a rule-driven world, including speech itself.
Some of the maspidim mentioned that he knew where to find the least expensive places to purchase things, a talent not uncommon with children of survivors. And Yaakov Avinu, who went back for the pachim ketanim, also knew that money shouldn’t be squandered. Unlike others, however, this did not make him a tight-wad. He was generous to a fault in regard to tzedakah and otherwise helping people, just as Yaakov was willing for a mitzvah to place his entire net worth before Esav to buy out the latter’s claim to Me’oras Ha-Machpelah.
Like Yaakov, he knew tragedy and loss. His levaya today was held in the same large shul that housed the levaya for a daughter who succumbed to the same tumor. Like Yaakov, he moved on, although never fully getting over his mourning.
In one regard, Reb Eliyahu was not like Yaakov at all. Bikesh Yaakov leisheiv be-shalvah. At some point, Yaakov believed that he had fulfilled his necessary complement of suffering, and might be entitled to coast for a while. Reb Eliyahu learned from Yaakov’s experience; he had no such expectation. Life ahead was to be like the long bicycle rides he organized: just keep pushing on. Rest was not for the living. Alhought he never sought it so early, HKBH decided to give him the early retirement option of eternal tranquility. We mourn only that his taking it leaves us without husband, father, rebbi, friend.
Yehi zichro baruch.