He Had the Lord
When a person is as full of Torah and life as was Rav Chaim Kastel z'l his passing from the world is hard to accept; it's hard to believe. He was always so above the fray, so unfazed, so unafraid, so insightful about it all. I got to thinking that he was indestructible. He was only 7 years older than me, but it seemed like 50. He seemed to be from a prior generation. It is incredible to think that when I first met him he was only 36. He seemed like a sage.
You could usually reach him by phone, often on the spot. Sometimes you had to call back in a few hours, but only because he was giving a shiur or with someone else. He took great pains to make himself available to the tzibur. He believed that if a person had a question it would be painful to wait for an answer.
I know I wasn't the only one, because I brought many people to him, people with lumdish questions, people with complicated halachic shilos, people with simple halachic shilos, people who were struggling with life, people struggling with Torah observance, people who were just beginning to get involved. In many cases, they became his students. Chassidim might be a better term, even though Reb Chaim, as I generally referred to him, traveled a litvach's derech.
He was an accomplished talmid chocham. I brought Gemaras to him out of the blue, something that perhaps I had seen in a article or heard in passing, and no matter the tractate, no matter if it were svara, shaklah v'taryah, halacha, or aggadata he knew the material without having to crack open a book and handed over about as much insight as I could handle.
You could ask him questions on Chumash, Mishnah, Midrash, halacha, history, philosophy, even a lot of kabbala and he was nearly always fully familiar with it and ready to explain. On the rare occasions where he wasn't familiar, he wouldn't hesitate to admit it. He fulfilled the Talmudic doctrine of “teach your tongue to say I don't know.”
Because he never showed off, and never bragged, it was hard to gauge his full knowledge. He told me what I needed to know. If I probed to get more, he'd give more.
I'd bring him a chapter of Maharal, he'd read it in 60 seconds and explain it. I'd reread if for a decade and realize that he had explained it perfectly after that first quick reading.
I once had a yom tov meal with a family in Monsey, and the host started to talk about an older bochur with whom he, the host, had attended Yeshivas Beis Shraga in Monsey decades before. He said, this bochur was a phenomenon. He was so diligent in his studies that he used to take the shortest walking route to his shtender. He'd eat in minutes and go back to the beis midrash. He said this bochur knew everything, Gemaras, halachas, haskafas. What was his name I asked. Chaim Kastel he said.
But Reb Chaim never told me these things. He didn't talk about himself. I probed. Can I ask what you were doing when I called? Reading, he'd say sometimes. Just taking care of some things, he'd say other times. You could talk to him like that, like a friend.
I spoke to him in the first person. I believe that I once tried the third person – would the Rav, etc. – but he wasn't having any of that. You could call him Chaim and he wouldn't blink. He ran from cavod. Literally ran. He wore a short coat. I don't think you could pay him enough money to be a mesader kiddushin.
He didn't gossip. Despite all that people shared with him about themselves, he never spoke lashon hara, never exposed anybody. He was like a vault. In all my conversations with Reb Chaim, he never exposed information about anyone whose identity I would have even the slightest chance of guessing. He never said one single harsh word about anybody in his family or his talmidim. Never ever.
He never exhibited anger. I doubt that he was even capable of anger. I saw people ask him questions that would evoke charges of apikorsis from other rabbis. But he might say, the Gemara asks that. Or if the Gemara didn't, he'd still address it, calmly, totally unfazed.
I know one guy that was angry about his life, angry with Hashem for his struggles. Sometimes he directed that anger at Rav Chaim as if it were all his fault as a representative of Heaven. Reb Chaim never blinked. Never fired back. He listened. He tried to put things into perspective. He always used to say, you have to take life easy. Sometimes he'd lighten up the air with a joke.
He was very funny. I once showed him a very left wing article that was something of a precursor to Open Orthodoxy. It was essentially Conservative Judaism. He joked good naturedly about the author, saying “that guy has a few screws loose and I'm not talking about the little ones.”
He was funny with children too and tried to make them smile by employing funny voices and Yiddish words like schmekle and peckle.
One of his students was in a car accident. He wasn't hurt, but the car was wrecked. When Reb Chaim saw it he called it a “zecher l'chorban,” a play on the burned egg from the Pesach seder that commemorates the Beis Hamikdash.
This fellow phoned Reb Chaim while trapped in the car at the accident scene. That's who he thought to call. Many of us did that. I used to phone him while on business trips in Los Angeles or China. He helped anchor me to the Torah world no matter where I went physically.
He had all kinds of good suggestions for life's problems, even minor matters. I once told him of my distaste for wearing suits. I found them itchy and expensive to take care of. He suggested wearing a blazer with matching khaki pants. He said, just wear out the blazer and get a new one. That's what I do to this day. Problem solved. I'm comfortable and nobody can tell the difference.
He advised another guy to buy a four-wheel drive car since this fellow lived in Monsey, NY in a house that sat above a steep hill. Turned out to be great advice as the snow and the ice there can make driving up a hill otherwise impossible.
He used to say that generally changing jobs wasn't a good idea. The new job was usually worse than the old one. Yet, I once came with a job opportunity at a new company and he told me that sometimes a person needed a change of scenery. I took the job and it elevated me to a new career as well as providing me a much better income. After that, I approached him with another job opportunity and he reminded me of the rule about changing jobs. I didn't listen and how I suffered at that new job, coming to see how good I once had it.
He used to say that with shiduchim the most important thing is to marry a person with a good heart, adding that not many people have a good heart. Having watched all kinds of marriages of my relatives, friends, and neighbors, people who were successful and people who struggled, I see how right he was. Go for the good heart.
He fielded many questions from me about different derachim, different gadolim, different classic seforim and their different styles. He had an amazing sociological grasp on the Jewish world.
He was pithy. I have always blanched at the generalized hostility to gentiles in the frum world. He said to me the pshot is not that gentiles are necessarily so bad, it's that frum Jews are so good. That worked for me. He told me, the gentiles have merits but they can't relate to keddushah. Again, so pithy, so effective.
I'm embarrassed to say that there were many matters of Torah and Torah life that I struggled to grasp even on a basic level and I came back to him again and again and every time he patiently explained it to me. It's hard to imagine how such a genius had the patience to explain basics to somebody who just wasn't getting it, even over years. He explained to me the difference between the views of Rabbeinu Tam and the Gra on when days start and end more than a few times. I must have asked him half-a-dozen times about slavery in the Tanach. It's hard to go backward, he said. Hard to understand past eras fairly. In those days, slavery was a good way to eat, he said. I asked him if he struggled with any parts of the Torah and he said that slavery bothered him some.
He referenced Hashem much more than most other people. He often ended conversations by saying “Hashem yaazor,” Hashem will help. I once asked him about Rav Henkin's fundraising work for Ezras Hatorah, the charity organization for scholars. I was surprised that a person as aidle (refined) as Rav Henkin could withstand the barbs that go along with fund raising. “Wouldn't it hurt?” I asked. “Nothing hurts when you have the Lord,” he said, referring to Rav Henkin's yiras shemayim. This seven word response made a huge impact on me. I think of it often.
He sometimes used the English terms for Hashem – the Almighty, the Lord. Sometimes he used the Yiddish Aybishter. Sometimes he said Ribbono shel Olam. He mixed it up. I found it very effective for causing me to take notice of the points he was making and to actually become aware of Hashem. I believe that his using different names for Hashem in different languages showed that he wasn't just mouthing a word by rote but actually thinking of God and keeping his thoughts fresh.
He chose his explanations for his audience. I worked in the computer field and he used to explain to me that some parts of Judaism like Shabbos are like the hardware and some parts like whether to be Yeshivish or Chassidish are like the software.
For a man that studied Torah day and night and never attended any college or worked in secular industry, he knew important information about the world. He used to say that Sigmund Freud and Dr. Spock destroyed the world with their philosophies (Freud destroyed the adults by corrupting them, Spock the children by spoiling them) and that Bill Gates, the computer entrepreneur, changed it (not necessarily for the better but changed it nonetheless).
He knew what couldn't be known. I asked him once what was the solution to the problems in the Middle East. He said, “Who's the fool who thinks he knows?”
I asked him if in Olam Haba we might learn who shot President John F. Kennedy. He pushed off the question by saying, “Curiosity killed the cat.” I expressed surprise that we wouldn't be shown all such secrets in the next world. He repeated, “Curiosity killed the cat.” I took this mean that a person should mind his own business and not poke into every matter of the world.
Some people would just mock the entire secular world and that always seemed to me a denial that Hashem is running it. And for a baal habyis like me, it's hard to go out into the world that is portrayed as having no good in it. Reb Chaim had a way of applying Torah sensibilities to life and society, seeing the good, seeing the bad. As the Mishnah says, “who is wise, he who can learn from all men.” Yet, he generally steered me away from secular pursuits. While some try to assert the truth of Torah by pounding the table, Reb Chaim poured Torah insights over everything. It was second nature to him. It seemed effortless and was the ultimate testimony to Torah truth.
Reb Chaim had talmidim of all types and spoke to each in a different way. There were haimish guys, hard core yeshivish guys, scholars, budding scholars, and people struggling to hang on. He worked with kids. He was a champion of baalei teshuvah, a whole crew of which looked to him like a protective big brother. He tended to their wounds and gave them hope. He opened his home to everyone.
It was so peaceful there. It wasn't always quiet as he was a lively man and his family large. But a calm took over me when I passed through the door. The other home where I felt that to such a degree was that of the Rivnitzer Rebbe, the famous baal mofes.
Yet even though his house was full of people, we didn't see them very much. He had mostly girls in the days when I was there, but all managed to stay out of sight most of the time as did his wife. Such sacrifices they made so that he could teach Torah and take care of the public.
He gave wonderful greetings whether at his house or on the phone. Heelllooo, he'd say, lingering on the word, his voice traveling up a musical scale from B♭ to A♯. If it had been a while, you might be treated to a truncated bracha of techiyas ha-masinm or shehekiyanu without the shem.
In email, he'd always write the word hello. He didn't care for what high tech correspondence was doing to our interactions. People should say hello he would remind me.
His emails were brief. They were responses to halachic shilos. It was another way of reaching him quickly. He wasn't chatting.
He insisted on honest business dealings. All taxes were to be paid. No cheating anybody. Truth and honesty was his policy. If I were writing a Torah essay, everything had to be sourced and true. No fudging it to win an argument. Truth and again truth.
Rav Avigdor Miller noted that many people fail to talk about Olam Haba and Divine justice sufficiently. However, Reb Chaim did. He was particular to note that we will be held accountable for how we treat people and for honesty in business dealings. I heard this from him many times.
Of course he didn't just advise this to his students. He was completely honest in his own monetary dealings and always erred on the side of short-changing himself for what he was owed. I have heard that he took on all kinds of chumros upon himself. But he was so modest about it, that I'm not really sure. He kept it totally hidden in accordance with the verse: “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you Except to be just, and to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God.” ( Michah 6:8)
He believed in being pleasant, in derech eretz. You could enter a debate, fight for causes, speak the truth, but do it in a nice way, he'd say.
Reb Chaim's Torah outlook was incredibly well-balanced. There are people out there, scholars even, who will give pictures of Torah values that don't always seem quite right, at least not to me. They'll tell you that this is the most important thing or that is the most important thing. From our very first meeting more than two and a half decades ago, Reb Chaim's picture of the Torah seemed right to me. When I study Rishonim, say the Rabbeinu Yona or the Chovovs Halevovos or the Rambam, I find a match with Reb Chaim and his rich picture of proper Jewish life. It includes many parts that seem forgotten today. In general, I felt that watching him was like watching Pirkei Avos come to life. Here's some of it:
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.” – Reb Chaim was a big believer in traditional Orthodoxy. He was faithful to the mesorah. He tried his absolute best to find you the heterim you needed but always within the rules. He used to say that one has to stay within the highway lanes established by the gadolim and try on the outside to pursue the halachic standards of one's community. In the home and in your mind you were free to do your own thing. But one had to be careful with the children. Mixing derachim often confused them, he said. Ensuring that the children grew up right was a common theme with him. He often referenced Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Eliyahu Henkin, and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky as examples of geniuses who were very down to earth and normal. They were good role models. Some people misunderstood Reb Chaim since he did a few things differently than others. In his Succah, he hung real framed pictures rather than tinsel and cheap cutouts which he felt failed to fulfill the halachic obligation of living in the Succah like it was your home. Would you put tinsel on the wall of your home he asked. He also never wore a tie. So he seemed unconventional. But I can attest that his approach to Jewish life, to halacha, and to avodas Hashem went very much by the book. He taught me over and over again to follow the majority of gadolim and stay on the true and tried path.
“Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G d, and deeds of kindness.” – This was Reb Chaim. He was all about Torah, Avodah, and Chesed. I can't think of anything else he ever did. He used to say that the Torah gives the title of Eved Hashem to very few people, Dovid Hamelech being one of them.
“Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.” – We came from near and far. His home was our home. I felt so comfortable there that without being conscious of it on a few occasions I walked in without knocking. I completely forgot that it wasn't my house. It goes without saying that Reb Chaim's wife Shulamith deserves enormous credit for this. She too opened her house to all these strange visitors. I was often amazed by that. She never caused me to feel unwelcome. It seemed to me that she fully understood what Reb Chaim was trying to accomplish and she accomplished it along with him.
“Do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman.” – On a few occasions I sent over women who needed his aitzah and had no other place to go. He dealt with them like a kadosh. Yet women could come to his door or call him with questions. My wife did and I know that other women that did. Many came to him with their shalom bayis issues. And of course everyone came with halachic questions – pesach, niddah, finances. They came for advice on schooling, work, health. Many people came to Reb Chaim simply for a listening ear, for support, for encouragement. He told me once, there are kids out there who never see a smile the whole day. He tried to give them that smile. He helped many people with their emotional struggles and saved more than a few lives.
“Judge every man to the side of merit.” – He was utterly non-judgmental. There wasn't a hint of it, no matter what you told him. With some people, even if you tell them you finished Shas and supported orphans they look at you judgmentally. With Reb Chaim, it was the opposite. He simply didn't judge. He defended people, explaining how one has to understand their background, their hardships, and their limitations.
“Scholars, be careful with your words.” – He spoke briefly, explaining vast concepts with a few precise words. I asked him how Esav could be good enough that he appeared to be like Yaakov as many commentators have explained but Esav could hunt Yaakov with such venom. Sibling rivalry, explained Reb Chaim.
“Be of the disciples of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.” – When I was working out the details of my chassunah, who should get civudim, how to walk down the aisle, he told me the most important thing was to have peace with all the relevant parties. He also pushed for peace with neighbors, peace with coworkers. He used to say, it's good to get along with family. You never know when you are going to need them.
“One who advances his name, destroys his name.” – He never, ever promoted himself, not even a tiny drop. He did the opposite. And he wouldn't allow his talmidim to promote him either. He also didn't care about money. He wore an old coat and drove an old car.
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” – He took care of his family, each member of which he clearly loved, and always moved them forward in life. And they are wonderful people. But he gave and gave to the world. And again, his wife shares the credit as she freed Reb Chaim up for his public work and never interfered. And everything was quick. He got right to it. He was in the now. When my first child was born, I told him I was having trouble finding backup god-parents to raise my child in case my wife and I were no longer around, Heaven forbid. I asked if he could do it. He didn't hesitate. Send over the papers, he said. After my grandmother died, I told him I'd like to find a way to have Mishnayos said for her. On the spot, he offered and went through all of the six sedarim of Misyhnaos by himself. I had forgotten about it and one day he said to me, I finished the Mishnayos.
“Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.” – He studied constantly and made Torah so much his own that there was wisdom in every conversation. As I have explained, he used words efficiently yet he'd would converse with you at length if you needed it. The conversation was on point and with me it was all Torah, but he took the time. I can't think of anything in life I enjoyed more than talking with Reb Chaim. He was fascinating, learned, wise, and fun. And his wonderful greetings I have talked about. He made delivery men feel good. It wasn't a put on cordiality. There was nothing stiff or fake about Reb Chaim. He was down to earth, straight forward, and jolly.
“By three things is the world sustained: law, truth and peace. As is stated (Zachariah 8:16), "Truth, and a judgment of peace, you should administer at your [city] gates.'” – He taught me the sanctity of halacha and truth. Go with the truth, he'd say. To this day, even as I write these words, I hear his voice in my head, only write the truth. He never flattered and could not be flattered.
In this era, this crazy era where good dayos and middos are rare as diamonds, living these halachos is not common. He covered it all up with his jocular and informal style. But if you study each teaching there, you see it.
He'd groan if he ever heard me say anything of this. He'd say, Charlie, are you crazy? I think this whole write-up would be excruciating to him. He'd rip up the paper into pieces and run out of the room. Reb Chaim did not take himself very seriously and did not see himself as being anything special. He was just trying to “do some good.”
Reb Chaim grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with Rav Eliyahu Henkin on his block and Rav Moshe Feinstein in the neighborhood. He said that when you met Reb Moshe you were struck with what a nice person he was. The greatness in Torah was incidental at that moment. He said half-joking that Reb Moshe would have played stick ball with you if you wanted. He used to tell a story about how his father was once pouring water over Rav Henkin's hands for netilas yadiyim in a Succah. It was near the end of Rav Henkin's life and he was blind or nearly so. Yet, because there was a water shortage in New York, he cautioned Reb Chaim's father:שאַגראַ פעיוועל ביטע נישט צו פיל וואַסער , Shraga Feivel, please not too much water.
Reb Chaim learned well from those giants. He carried their tradition, a great litvach in the best sense of the term, a teacher of Torah, a posek, a shepherd for the sheep all while being a very down to earth, approachable, helpful person. He used to let us store boxes in his garage. If you needed a book that he had he just handed it to you. Some people get very nervous about lending books. He said, what do I have it for? Here, take it.
Reb Chaim said that part of the reason that Reb Moshe was such a great posek was because he gave of himself to klal Yisroel. The result was incredible siata d'shemaya. I think it was the same with Reb Chaim. He was at our service and the result was a Torah mind and personality that seemed to be from another realm. What a privilege it has been to know him. Without him, the world is a different place. It's less interesting. It seems less holy. I have such an urge right now to call him and ask him about that. How do I make sense of the world without you Reb Chaim? I'm reaching for the phone, dial tone. One last call, please? This time, I will have to wait for more than a day.
I was going to end this memorial on that pained note. But I remembered something else that Reb Chaim taught me. I wrote a number of articles over the years and he was very gracious to read them and give suggestions. Often he had to remind me, try to be a little more positive, because oftentimes I am not. So I am catching myself now, and maybe after decades of trying to learn the lesson, I am ready. I ask the following question: How did he do it? What propelled HaRav HaGaon Chaim Kastel to study Torah with such vigor, thirst, discipline, faithfulness, open-mindedness, creativity, and integrity, to commit himself so strenuously to Hashem's commandments and to halacha, to go through life with such aplomb, to wipe insults off his shirt as if they were dust, to care not a whit about possessions or money, and to lend so much of himself to the needs of Hashem's nation? I'll give the same answer that he gave to my question about Rav Henkin. He had the Lord.