"You see this spot," said the old man to the young boy proudly, pointing to the old building that housed Yeshivas Eitz Chaim. "This was where R' Yisroel Yankel learnt maseches Bovo Basra one hundred and one times. On this very spot!"
In his later years, the doctors decided it was imperative to operate on his eyes. "I cannot agree to that," insisted R' Yisroel Yaakov to Reb Michel Goodfarb. "My eyes are the vehicle through which I learn. What will be during the days of the operation and those following. How can I learn without my eyes?"
In the end, the operation was carried out and obviously the Torah learning continued unabated — by heart.
"Torah mitoch hadchak." This was Reb Yisroel Yaakov's lifestyle most of his years. At one point when he and his household were lacking bread to eat, he was offered a Torah post in an institution that was not suited to his pure hashkofoh. Reb Yisroel Yaakov would not hear of it, remarking to his Rebbetzin, "I prefer to suffer hunger and deprivation than to serve in this position."
In his later years, a wealthy man came to the Dayan for an approbation for his writings. Rabbenu looked the man up and down and then said sternly, "A sefer built on bread and butter (that is, mosros) will not get a haskomoh from me!"
Another example of the degree to which Reb Yisroel Yaakov spurned any pleasure from this world is from his family:
When Reb Yisroel Yaakov had to be connected to an oxygen tank almost all the time, the family asked that he allow things to be made a little easier for himself by putting an air conditioning unit in. Reb Yisroel Yaakov agreed, on condition this would not incur any bitul Torah on his part. His wish was carried out and the air conditioner was installed during the hours that the Dayan was in the beis din and in the beis horo'oh.
The regulated oxygen eased the pressure and made things easier, but a day later Reb Yisroel Yaakov sighed to his grandson, "Who knows how much these extras will decrease my portion in the World to Come. Was this world made for enjoyment and pleasure?"
Rabbeinu once triumphantly told of a Yissocher-Zevulun partnership that failed. He was once offered a deal by a wealthy man who promised to support him, while he learned for the two of them. Reb Yisroel Yaakov did not accept the proposition, but the gvir went to his great rebbe R' Isser Zalman Meltzer zt"l rosh yeshiva of Eitz Chaim. "My rebbe and teacher forced me to accept the deal. I had no choice but to obey, but Hashem helped me and the Zevulun did not manage to pay up and keep his side of the agreement — as I had wished!"
During his last days, upon his return from the hospital, a special chair with electronic controls was bought for him. Rabbeinu begged his family, "I'm already an old man of seventy-three who hasn't taken pleasure from this world up until now. Now in my old age you wish to cause me to stumble in this sin!"
As a dayan, Reb Yisroel Yaakov was always extremely careful not to have any benefit from a defendant. The Mashgiach Reb Don Segal relates that he was once involved in a din Torah that was brought before Rabbeinu. Several years later, upon leaving a chasunah hall, Reb Don saw Dayan Fisher waiting outside and offered that Rabbeinu join him in his car.
Rabbeinu firmly refused, reminding him that he was once involved in a din Torah, "and if the issue comes up again I will be biased, having been bribed by taking a ride with you!"
Reb Don adds an interesting continuation to the story:
"One erev Pesach I was given a large sum of money to donate to talmidei chachomim to help them cover their yom tov expenses. One of the addresses I forwarded the money to was Rabbeinu, who always lived on meager wages. After the Rov's petiroh, I received an envelope from his family with all the money inside. I understood that he had not wanted to hurt my feelings by returning it to me, but instead put the money aside so as not to use it — for the same reason as he had not wanted a ride with me."
"The father of all the brokenhearted." So was Rabbeinu depicted in Yerushalayim. Reb Yisroel Yaakov was the listening ear and did much to ease the suffering of broken Jews.
A resident of Zichron Moshe shared with us an amazing episode to which he was witness.
"It was the Seder night about two hours before chatzos, when I went to the entrance of my house to take in a little fresh air. Opposite me, clad in his white kittel, stood Reb Yisroel Yaakov at the door to his house. He beckoned to me and asked if I would accompany him for a few minutes. Knowing that he was makpid not to walk in the streets alone at night, I immediately agreed and together we walked in the direction of the Bikur Cholim Hospital. I waited outside while Rabbeinu went in and, after ten minutes, he exited and we were on our way back home again.
"As we walked, Rabbeinu turned to me, `You are probably curious to know what I had to do in Bikur Cholim during the Seder. I'll explain. A respected Jew from this area is lying ill in the hospital. As yom tov drew closer, his desire to spend the Seder at home with his family was so strong that he swore that if they would not take him home he would not drink the four kosos of wine or fulfill the other mitzvos of Pesach night. Well,' continued Rabbeinu, `how could I sit and enjoy the Seder, surrounded by my family, while this Yid refuses even to eat a kezayis matzoh or morror? So I came here to be mattir neder and waited to see with my own eyes that the man ate and drank. Now I'm ready to return home and continue leading my Seder with peace of mind.' "
Once, during the Purim seudah, a group of distinguished avreichim came in to Reb Yisroel Yaakov. With copious tears they begged Rabbeinu to promise them that a certain avreich who was ill would have a refuah shleimoh soon.
Rabbeinu trembled and called out, "Do I have the ability to promise? What can I assure you? Who am I and what am I?"
But the group refused to give up. "We are sure that Rabbeinu, with his koach haTorah can assure us. Please just promise that it will be!"
Unable to withstand their crying, Reb Yisroel Yaakov said with a shared pain, "If I have any power in Heaven, I decree that ploni ben plonis should recover."
Interestingly, this man had a complete and miraculous recovery not long after, Boruch Hashem.
A family member recalled that once, when Reb Yisroel Yaakov was talking on the phone, he beckoned and signaled that he take the receiver from his hand for a few moments. The child obeyed and heard the crying voice of a woman describing in detail her difficulties and tzoros, while Rabbeinu stood to one side and cried with her. After a few moments, Rabbeinu composed himself and took back the telephone receiver, consoling and giving the woman the chizuk she needed.
When the conversation ended, Rabbeinu apologized for handing over the receiver, explaining, "She phoned me up to receive chizuk, but had she heard me crying with her, she would have been doubly broken. I had to pass you the phone just so I could control myself and then console and strengthen her as she needed."
During his last winter, a family member complained that the shul and shtieblach in Zichron Moshe were open all night. Quietly, Rabbeinu informed him that he knew of a young man who was having sholom bayis problems and was spending the nights sleeping in Zichron Moshe. "Do you think we can close the beis medrash at night? Where will such people find their refuge?"