Rabbi Sholom Brodt passed away last Friday morning. His death was a shock to an entire community. Rabbi Brodt was the founder of Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, named for Shlomo Carlebach, located in the heart of Nachlaot in the Brodts’ home, Simchat Shlomo is not just a school, but the center of a community. Every week it is filled with guests for Shabbat meals. The Brodts’ home has been the focal point for numerous people over the past decade.
How do you do it? How do you possibly do justice to a man like Rabbi Shalom Brodt when trying to write about him?
Baruch Dayan Ha’emet. This is what we say when someone dies. It refers to God and means “blessed is the true judge.” Why do we say it? Because we acknowledge that as painful as it is to lose someone from this world, it is all part of the greater plan. We acknowledge that it is not for us to question God and to accept his judgements because he, of course, knows best.
Easier said than done! Especially at times like these.
We lost someone truly special this past week. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but Rabbi Sholom Brodt passed on during the Hebrew month of Elul which comes just before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time when Jews everywhere observe a 40 day period of self-reflection and preparation for the ultimate judgement. It is when the Book of Life is open and we hope to adequately atone for our sins, and we all do very much have many sins which are in need atonement. This month Sephardic Jews already say Slichot — literally “forgive” – every day and Ashkenazim blow the shofar every day as a call to repentance.
We cannot – all of us who knew Rabbi Sholom Brodt and who were touched by him in some way – help but feel that it will be much harder to connect to Hashem in the coming days of awe without Reb Shalom. Dare I say – Rebbe Sholom? If you define a “Rebbe” as a man who helped bring people closer to Hashem then he certainly was one. In that respect you could be completely anonymous and have had an effect on but one random person in your life and qualify as such. Anyone who has ever been in the Nachlaot community, if even for a short time, knows how great an impact Rabbi Brodt had on so many people’s lives.
They say that someone who successfully brought two or more couples together in this world has a guaranteed place in the world to come. Well Rabbi Brodt could take credit for quite a few matches, but also for numerous people who were brought together with Hashem.
If we only assessed a person’s impact for good in this world by the number of people who were influenced by him and followed in his path then Rabbi Brodt will be remembered like some of the great musicians or poets of our time such as Leonard Cohen or John Lennon.
But we don’t. We also assess what the person stood for, what he preached and what people did with what they learned from him. In this case I think it is fair to say that Rabbi Brodt will be remembered more as a Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik or a Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
But let’s try to remember him as a man. Let’s try to remember that he personified what it means to be a true mensch. Shalom Brodt did not just carry the Tora around with him as his big stick. He did not use it as his crutch for getting around in this world, as his way of feeling like he was better than most people. Let’s not let the misinterpretation of true Hasidut get in the way and make of him another symbol to be used as a crutch for ourselves, as a path to connect with God. Let’s remember that he was no different than any of us. Sure he was better, but he was also just trying to be the best person that he could be, the closest to Hashem that he could be.
Now please indulge this avowed Misnaged as he gives a few first hand examples of what made Sholom Brodt the embodiment of what it truly means to be a Chassid.
One day I was upset about something, it doesn’t matter what, and I did my best to keep from showing it. But Rabbi Brodt saw it on my face anyway when I walked by his home. He asked me “is something wrong?” It was not just that Rabbi Brodt asked the question, but how he asked it and the look on his face; The concern, the genuine concern and complete humanity which he showed. Most people either don’t notice or just don’t care. And if they do care they seem to care more about appearing to be a sympathetic person than actually being one.
This was not Sholom Brodt. Rabbi Brodt was genuine.
It was the day after Yom Kippur. This is the time when people in Israel can be found all over the country building their sukkot. If you live in the city, especially in a downtown area like Nachlaot, you need to build your sukkah in the street. Rabbi Brodt’s house is situated by an open square with only a few small houses so there is plenty of room for sukkot to sit.
I was reading Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s book on the holidays. There was something that he wrote regarding the building of a sukkah that I did not understand. I had already asked a few people about this and was still searching for the person who could explain it to me.
While I was crisscrossing through the alleyways of Nachlaot on my way somewhere icame upon Rabbi Brodt and a few of his students building his sukkah. They had only just begun and the sukkah’s skeleton had barely taken shape. The Rabbi was down on one knee in the corner making sure that the pieces of the frame properly fit into place.
I asked Shalom Brodt my question, but before he could answer one of his students gave me a generic Hassidic/Kabbalistic line about the mystical nature of the Sukkah. He said something like how “the most important thing to remember about the Sukkah is how it relates to spirituality and how we connect to God’s holly such and such and blah blah blah…” when, without missing a beat, without getting up, without even stopping what he was doing and with his back to us Rabbi Brodt said, “The most important thing to remember about the Sukkah are the rules of how to make a kosher one so that you will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah. And besides, you didn’t answer the man’s question.”
At that moment I understood it, I knew it. Rabbi Brodt was not like the hippie nouveau-Hassidic types who have made Nachlaot the hub of their misguided philosophy which attempts to meld Tora with the drop out sub-culture. He understood that you need to know the basics. If you are one of those people who wears his tzizit on the outside while not even noticing that they have become invalid, or living with no derech eretz (living an ethical life and being good to others), then you are guilty of an offense worse than not wearing them at all. To paraphrase Rabbi Hillel: “It’s about Derech Eretz stupid!”
I never took a single class at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo. But I am confident that it provides the students with the basics and the grounding that one needs to avoid falling into the trap of the phony Hassidic groups like the cult of the “Na Nachs” or of the Messianic Chabadniks.
Sometimes you meet a local rabbi or religious leader of some kind and they seem to use religion as an extension of their narcissism and need for attention. They seem to need followers, disciples, and they use their charisma to get them. These people may actually believe in what they preach, but they also need you to acknowledge their greatness as much as they want people to accept the religious doctrines which they espouse. They betray themselves with their grandiosity or how they need to get up and really close to someone with whom they are speaking. When these people speak in public they tend to be loud and use grandiose gestures. Watch out for them. They prey on the damaged and the ones with low self-esteem.
That was not Rabbi Brodt. He spoke softly and disliked attention. People loved him because they knew that he was sincere. He was a mensch.
Let’s remember that. Let’s not make him into some sort of prophet or messianic figure as people have done with Shlomo Carlebach. Let all of us strive to be more like him while remembering that it is about the message and not the messenger. He did.
I was at a wedding once where someone gave the young couple a blessing where he said that they were such good and beautiful people that the best blessing he could think of was “may they have children who grow up to be just like them.” May we all grow up to be only half as good as Sholom Brodt.
There have been quite a few comments about Rabbi Brodt’s passing on Facebook posted by people all over the world. Here are a few of the exceptional ones:
Reb Sholom was always there for everyone, and he was there for me. Remembering now his love, humility, wisdom, selflessness, gentle and sometimes firm influence. Being the de facto rav of a wonderfully wacky community like Nachlaot must have been more challenging than anyone could possibly imagine. He was the man for it. We are all at loss.
Reb Sholom Brodt, years ago I was at a wedding of one of the Chevre (friends), was in a bad place imbibed with probably a few too many “L’chaims” and spent most of the time “farbrenging” with a friend of mine off to the side. You noticed us, came over to see what was going on and kept coming back periodically to check on us. At one point pretty late in the evening, you popped back over and said “Nu, any progress?” So my friend told you “He says his whole life he is constantly looking for the emes (truth) and never finding it and he’s getting flustered and frustrated” So you looked at me and in your typical singsong sarcastic voice uttered the following words that I will NEVER forget as long as I live “Yahr looking for Emes in Oilam HaSheker (world of falsehood), and you’re upset that you’re not finding it!? Shkoyach!! (congrats – sarcastically)” and you walked away. Few statements in my life have ever had so much effect and while I can’t say it immediately and entirely pulled me out of my funk, it was truly a paradigm shift for me and opened my eyes allowing me to look at the world in an entirely different way. YOU were one of those rare kernels of Emes down in this world of lies, but somehow managed to cut right through it every time. I don’t know what we are going to do without you…
And this one says it all – it also left me in tears:
Nechama Jacobson (A professional photographer in Tel Aviv)
You mastered kindness like it was your trade.
You remembered each face and held the details of our stories like thread.
You carried looms on your back and held baskets to catch the weaving fibers as blankets were formed.
You never grew tired.
You were a tailor,
An open door;
The carpet my feet stood upon the first time I heard your voice on the voicemail machine.
You were a piercing smile from across the room,
The metronome to our song —
Keeping up the pace or silence lest we got carried away.
You were the quiet that descended upon the room the moment you wished to speak,
Judy’s sparkling candles, shining gold to your Lion face.
A faded rainbow Yarmulke,
The protector of heartbreak,
An aging hand waving us forward and closer.
Your home was a mythological legend of crowded temples that never ran out of space.
You were a forever temporary hut in early October where cigarette smoke rose and honey fell.
You sat as the Jester in early March handing me a drink while I wept,
“What words do I have that will explain what you mean to me?”
And you hushed me because you never wanted attention.
You were a king leading the way out in early April, where you left me an open seat for the wicked son.
And in early June when you collected your harvest, I, a cricket begged you, “Bless me with faith, I have no faith” and you told me, “Stop thinking about yourself so much.”
We have lost so much today.