Rabbi Dr Seth Mandel zt”l

There is something I wanted to check today in Chovos haLvavos, Shaar haBitachon. Related to the machloqes between the prescriptive focus of Chassidus and Novhardoker Mussar (if you have bitachon, things will work out well) and the descriptive focus of the Chazon Ish (bitchon is the knowledge that things are working out well as Hashem Planned it, even if I personally would have wanted something else).

My question revolved around specific wording.

And this is only a couple of days after losing the rebbe-chaver who would have explained the original Judeo-Arabic Al Hidayah ila Faraid al-Qulub, the word Rabbeinu Bachyah ibn Pequdah actually used!

R Dr Seth Mandel not only held a PhS in Linguistics from Harvared, specializing in Semitic Languages. He is a Rav I am sure pasqened for you personally. If you ever ate meat with OU shechitah, you relied on his decision as the OU’s Rabbinic Coordinator for all of Shechitah. (See his article here.)

We met some 44 years ago. R Matis Blum zt”l, the Torah Lodaas and my “chavrusah” who taught me how to figure out a piece of gemara on my own, obtained the Science Room at the Yeshiva of Central Queens for his Bachurei Minyan. I found a seat at one of the tables next to someone a bit older than the rest of us. And I haven’t spoken Hebrew like a normal Ashkenazi ever since. Attention to where in davening the commas should go. Which syllable to emphasize. How to pronounce a dageish in a letter than doesn’t make two distinct sounds. Which sheva is pronounced, and which silent. Long and short qamatz. All things I learned by osmosis and by asking many small questions back in those years. Back before I realized I should have been asking him about how halakhah works and can you articulate the system behind Brisker Lomdus?

I remember one time, the then-future-Rabbi Gil Student and I organized a Yom Iyun. I asked R Seth Mandel z”l to be one of the speakers. I asked him for his Hebrew name to put on the fliers. I figured “Rabbi Seth Mandel” would give the whole program a more Modern Orthodox first impression, limiting our potential audience. Whereas a Hebrew name would be equally inviting to any observant Jew. “Well, it’s ‘Binyamin’. But really I am ‘Seth’. I don’t go by ‘Binyamin’; it would be pretending to be something I am not.” The posters said “Binyamin”. Personal misgivings came second to letting me have what I asked for.

You often hear of a man who authors his own derekh get called a Man of Truth, an Ish Emes. But that idiom is usually hiding a criticism, describing someone who values Truth over tact. More rare is the Ish Emes who emulated Hashem as “Rav Chessed veEmes – Who has much Lovingkindness and Truth.” Who lived on that tightrope walk of Truth and Personal Integrity and also of Lovingkindness and Peace.

Rabbi Seth Mandel’s pursuit of Truth took his life on a unique trajectory – to shemiras hamitzvos, to the Rav (R YB Soloveitchik; he wrote for Jewish Action about that relationship here), to a love of the Rambam, to becoming the Rav of a Teimani Minyan – all the while loyal to his own Novhardoker ancestry, and the attention to Middos he grew up with.

Or when he said, “Pardon me for telling you this story. It feels like bragging to let you know one of my professors confided something personal to me. But you really out to know…”

Rabbi Mandel was active on the email lists that I run. There, he was “RSM”, following the convention that everyone was a “Rav” or “Reb”, “Rebbetzin” or a Sephardiah “Rabbanit”. Above, I called RSM a “rebbe-chaver“. He couldn’t be just an unhyphenated “rebbe”, because despite his brilliance he would never have assumed that kind of air of authority. And similarly, when Areivim, the chattier side-room to our Torah discussions on Avodah, needed a moderator, he happened to be out of work and he offered to do the work. Picture a rav offering to fill in as secretary. Hakaras hatov to the group for the discussions we had together was primary. Ego wasn’t an issue.

Novhardok and Brisk in harmony.

The last time I saw Rabbi Mandel was a week before his passing. A combination biqur cholim visit and shiv’ah call, as his son Yisrael had just passed away when he was only 36. And all RSM spoke about was tzidduq hadin, accepting the righteousness of Hashem’s Justice.. He expressed his pain at the loss of his son, the loss of the dreams of what that son could be someday, and how much it hurt. Last week and that week were different worlds. He didn’t pretend all was well. He quoted Yeshaiah, Hashem “makes Peace and creates Ra.” The tragic is indeed ra. And despite that… It was the right thing to happen because it was Hashem’s Will. “Yehi sheim Hashem mevorakh!”

I opened by lamenting being unable to just email RSM one more time to see something in the Chovos haLvavos — did Rabbeinu Bachya really support the idea that bitachon is a way for Hashem to provide you with a happy life, or a way to come to terms with the life He provided you. Many popularizations say the former, but from seeing the Hebrew translations myself, I still can’t judge the wording well enough to know what Rabbeinu Bachya really meant. But the last lesson Rabbi Mandel taught me was which he believed.

I know I just closed the circle and therefore could have, and perhaps should have, just ended this hespeid there. But I want to leave you with a different take-away. The one thing I recall the most of all the things he taught me, is how happy he was to discuss just anything. And how he would make sure you were proud of your thoughts and questions, to make sure he knew he valued your opinion.

יהי זכרו ברוך

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