Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Ellul 5761 - August 22, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Glimpses of a Godol
by Moshe Rockove

HaRav Avraham Yaakov Hacohen Pam zt'l was born in Lithuania 88 years ago. His father was a rov and an outstanding talmid chochom. He learned in the famed Kodshim Kollel in Radin where he was a chavrusa of HaRav Elchonon Wassermann.

At the age of nine, he left his town to enter a yeshiva in Kovno. He was younger than the other bochurim so that the rosh yeshiva asked his father jokingly, "Where is his crib?" He received a letter from his former rebbi that said, "Someday this young bochur will be a godol beYisroel." (The family still has the letter.) He was accepted and learned with complete devotion.

Rav Pam would eat Shabbosim at the home of HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l, who was learning at the time in the famed Kovno Kollel. They would cross paths again later in life when they were both on the hanhalla of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas. Rav Yaakov would affectionately refer to Rav Pam as the "Kohen Godol."

Rav Pam's father immigrated to the U.S. when his son was 11 years old; the rest of the family came two years later. He attended Mesivta Torah Vodaas and became a devoted talmid of the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Dovid Leibowitz zt'l, a Slobodker talmid who had also learned in the Kovno Kollel and was the nephew of the Chofetz Chaim. He always considered HaRav Leibowitz as his primary rebbi in life. He wrote a beautiful tribute about his Rebbi after he passed away signed "A Talmid."

At the age of 21, he faced a dilemma: In those days, most bochurim his age went to work and didn't learn in beis medrash any more. He wanted to continue with his learning but had no one to learn with! He learned by himself in a shul in Brownsville for five years until he became a rebbi.

Rav Pam started saying shiurim in the Mesivta in 1937, and for the next 64 years he said shiurim to thousands of talmidim who went through Torah Vodaas. He started as a 10th grade rebbi, then moved up to 12th grade -- and for the last 25 years he said the Yoreh De'ah shiur. He felt it was a zechus for him to say this particular shiur in his old age, for in his prime as a bochur, he learned Chulin with a lot of hasmodoh. He would eat and take care of what he had to, but it was always with Chulin on his mind. He thus felt it fitting that he should say a shiur on that which he toiled so hard on, in his advanced years.

When HaRav Aaron Kotler came to the U.S. in 1941 he said shiurim on Zeroim to a select group of avreichim; HaRav Pam was never among that group. HaRav Gedaliah Schorr zt'l who also later became a rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas, was also a part of the group.

Rav Pam had a special affinity for the sefer Mishna Berurah. He knew every se'if with the Mishna Berurah and Biyur Halacha. When it was hard for him to see and people would learn with him, he would correct them if they read the Biyur Halacha improperly. His set of Mishna Berurah was buried with him as a testament to his love for those seforim.

He married Sarah Balmuth who was from a Galician family. HaRav Hutner zt'l was the shadchan; he told the girl's father that "he was going to be a godol beYisroel," echoing the sentiments of Rav Pam's youth rebbi.

A Rebbi to Talmidim

His shiur was known for its emphasis on clarity. He would say that a bochur has to know the gemora, Rashi, and Tosafos clearly before he goes deeper into the sugya. He didn't like to use the gemora as a springboard to delve into the sugya without a clear understanding of the basic facts first.

Those of us who didn't learn by him got a taste of his shiur at the last Siyum Hashas in 1997. He started the new cycle at the main siyum in New York City by learning with everyone the first mishna in Brochos. He explained each part of the mishna with simple eloquence; we felt as if we were all sitting in his shiur room in Torah Vodaas listening to his blat shiur on Brochos daf beis.

His love for his talmidim was boundless. He was available to them anytime they needed something from him -- an answer in halacha, a hashkofoh question, or advice about life. They reciprocated his love by helping him out as much as possible. They took up his causes as their own and always assisted him when he was ill. In fact, when he was niftar at 1:15 Friday morning, 35 talmidim were at his bedside; some having been there for days.

Sterling Middos

Rav Pam personified the middoh of pashtus. He looked and dressed like a simple person; he never wore a long coat or even sat on the mizrach in Torah Vodaas.

Rav Pam visited Eretz Yisroel 35 years ago with his wife. They went to Bnei Brak to see the Ponevezh Yeshiva, which was hosting its Yarchei Kallah at the time. The beis medrash was alive with the kol Torah of the participants. He told his Rebbetzin that he would like to join them on one condition: the minute someone starts referring to him as a rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas, he is leaving.

They moved into the dormitory and stayed together with the other members of the Yarchei Kallah. Rav Pam learned in total anonymity for two weeks. One day there was a pidyon haben in the Yeshiva. Someone came over to him and suggested that since he is a rosh yeshiva, he should sit at the head table for the seuda. His anonymity breached, he left that very day back to Yerushalayim, where he was originally staying.

He measured his words carefully. Everything he said was thought out and was said for a reason. He would mention the Sheloh that says two mal'ochim accompany a person and write down everything he says. "They don't write shorthand. If a person would see this personally, how careful he would be when he utters a word!" he said emotionally. He lived with this Sheloh as his guide in watching what to say.

Whenever he spoke and demanded a certain middoh from the audience, one had the feeling that he himself had worked on the middoh first before addressing the public. He would speak about emes because his lived with that middoh.

He demanded from bnei Torah a certain extra sensitivity in middos and interpersonal relationships as befitting a talmid chochom. He would say that the Rambam writes that a talmid chochom should not walk around with even a stain on his shirt; so surely he should speak and act as befitting a ben Torah.

A grandson related that his grandmother offered a bochur some watermelon and the bochur responded "Yes." Rav Pam was so agitated that the bochur did not say, "Yes, please," as a courtesy, that he had to go to his room to rest afterwards!

Concern for Others

His ahavas Yisroel was legendary; he hated machlokes with a passion. He once remarked at an Agudah Convention that if a married couple feel they must divorce, why must they put themselves through such strife and turmoil by fighting with each other?

The evil of speaking loshon hora was something he emphasized his whole life. He once mentioned in a shmuess that his mother did not know what it meant to speak negatively of a fellow man. This was the environment in which he was raised.

He would say that the underlying cause for loshon hora is a lack of ahavas Yisroel. He suggested many times that people should learn the Chofetz Chaim's sefer Ahavas Chesed as a way of increasing their concern for their fellow man.

He said from Chazal that the reason the meraglim were able to speak loshon hora about Eretz Yisroel is because they lacked ahavas Eretz Yisroel. When the love for something is lacking, there is nothing to stop a person from speaking ill about it!

A bochur was once caught stealing from his roommate. The roommate, who was very sensitive, was afraid to stay in the dorm. Rav Pam invited him to sleep in his home. His wife thought the bochur moved in because the heat in the yeshiva wasn't working properly and needed extra care, so her husband was being nice to him. She never found out the real reason why he brought the bochur home!

His address was a place for every individual who needed wise counsel and a listening ear. Many people came just to cry their hearts out to him. He would listen to them and they would leave feeling relieved without him giving advice on how to resolve their issues! They felt as if they unloaded their "weight" on him and he relieved them of their burden just by giving them the time of day to vent their pain and anguish. They felt someone -- a real caring person -- was listening to them.

His son HaRav Aron Pam said at the levaya that HaRav Shneur Kotler mentioned to someone when he was ill that if he dies, he is sure that the mosdos he felt responsible for will be taken care of, but who will be busy with the many individuals who came to him for help? "Similarly, the mosdos my father felt responsible for will find someone else to guide them, but who will take care of the many people who needed his help?"

He refused to have a gabbai or a secretary assisting him with the many requests for his time. At one point, the family decided he should take one day off from seeing people just so he could have a break. He replied that they are right, but what happens to the person who needs him today and cannot wait until tomorrow? He will have lost his chance. "I cannot do that to a person."

A lot of money went through his hands that he gave as tzedokoh to those he knew needed it. This past Shiva Ossor BeTammuz, he had just arrived home from the hospital and was in a very weakened condition. He said, "We must do gemilus chassodim." He summoned an older person who lived in the neighborhood and needed a lot of chizuk. Rav Pam kissed him on the hand and gave him a check for $1800. He next got on the phone with a talmid and requested $10,000 for someone he knew who needed the money. The talmid came over immediately with the money. Only after this was all taken care did he say, "Now I can go lie down."

The Rosh Yeshiva demonstrated enormous respect to other talmidei chachomim. When HaRav Reuven Fine zt'l was rosh yeshiva in Torah Vodaas, he would frequently travel to Eretz Yisroel to visit his family. The bochurim would accompany him to the airport to see him off. One time, the bochurim were at HaRav Fine's house getting ready to go to the airport when HaRav Pam came in to say good by. After he talked for a few minutes with HaRav Fine, the entourage began the trip to Kennedy Airport. HaRav Pam stayed on the street and walked behind the cars for a few steps so he could fulfill a mitzva by escorting a talmid chochom!

Leader of the Klal

The last years he was involved in all major decisions facing Klal Yisroel. He was a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of Agudas Yisroel of America. HaRav Shach asked him to become chairman of Chinuch Atzmai, which he served with total devotion.

For the last ten years HaRav Pam was the backbone of the Shuvu organization, which has educated some 10,000 Russian children in Torah and Yahadus. He spoke at the Agudah Convention one year and said, "We are not doing enough for the Russian children in Eretz Yisroel, we must do more." These simple, heartfelt words penetrated the hearts of the assembled guests. Immediately after he finished speaking, people came over to him asking "What could we do?" They had a meeting that night and Shuvu was born.

He was selflessly devoted to that cause. He was in constant contact with those running the organization in Eretz Yisroel. He attended every function -- parlor meetings, dinners even when it required a considerable amount of mesiras nefesh.

Just a few weeks ago, the annual Shuvu parlor meeting took place. HaRav Pam was extremely weak yet he insisted he must go. The doctors spent the entire day taking him off the machines he was on and hooking him up to portable ones. Three doctors went with him to ensure everything was all right. He spoke a few heartfelt words about Shuvu but really nothing had to be said: Just to see how Rav Pam came and how much effort he exerted to come, conveyed to everyone his strong and deep feelings about the organization.

He was niftar early Friday morning. When people went to Shacharis they were greeted with signs that informed them of the sad news. The levaya was at the Torah Vodaas beis medrash, a mokom that meant so much to him as a bochur and later, as part of the hanhalla.

As per his explicit wishes, there were no hespedim. He mentioned this request numerous times to his family and was very passionate about it. His oldest son, HaRav Aaron Pam, said a few words in the name of the family. The thousands who attended then accompanied HaRav Pam on his final journey.

The family members relate that Rav Pam would get very emotional when he would duchen on yomim tovim. It was as if he felt the generation resting on his shoulders and wanted to give the bircas kohen to all of them. Now that he is at the Kisei Hakovod, he should be a meilitz yosher for his family, his talmidim, and all of Klal Yisroel for he truly knows what they all need.


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