The Humble Giant: Remembering Rabbi Michael Haber, zt”l

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This month, our community suffered a great loss.  The passing of Rabbi Michael Haber, zt”l,  was compared by one of his eulogizers – Rabbi David Ozeri – to the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash.  Rabbi Ozeri urged us all to weep and grieve over the loss of this “humble giant,” as his passing is a loss of protection for the community.  

Rabbi Michael Haber, Menachem ben Hannah, was not only a revered and beloved community leader, but also an accomplished author, who wrote several very important books.  As a writer, Rabbi Haber understood how much time and effort goes into the publication of a quality text.  His son, Rabbi Joey Haber, mentioned at the funeral that his father worked on his books tirelessly, devoting many years to each publication, editing and revising the text to ensure that the final tome would be not only accurate, but also relevant and appealing to the members of our community.  

We at Community Magazine have chosen to follow his example of patience and scrupulousness in writing.  Rather than rush to compile the complete story of Rabbi Haber’s remarkable life, and assessment of his extraordinary accomplishments, legacy and impact, in time for this issue’s publication, we have decided to instead acknowledge our loss with an abridged tribute, briefly summarizing some of the stirring, emotional eulogies delivered at his funeral.  A more comprehensive tribute will appear in the July issue. 

In his monumental work, The Kosher Home, Rabbi Haber compiled an encyclopedic manual for the observant Jewish home.  In his preface, the rabbi writes:   

In a book of halacha, such as this one, it is necessary to reach conclusions.  That – we have done.  However, we often mention, as well opinions that differ from our conclusions…We must all have  respect for the halachic opinions of others – even if we do not follow those opinions…and not to look askance at anything that is not exactly what we do.   

These comments epitomize Rabbi Haber’s approach to everything in his life – a rare combination of firm conviction about his principles, and deep respect for other people, even if their opinions differ from his. 

We mourn the loss of our esteemed leader, and send comfort to his family with the hope that our coming tribute will do justice to his important and timeless legacy. 

Below are edited transcripts of selected portions of three of the hespedim (eulogies) delivered at Rabbi Haber’s funeral. 

 

Rabbi Shlomo Diamond 

Although it is Rosh Hodesh, when eulogies are normally forbidden, for a talmid hacham, in his presence, eulogizing is an obligation.  And this is not an ordinary talmid hacham – this is a person who represented our community more than anybody else… 

Rabbi Haber died in the week of Parashat Kedoshim.  Our rabbis tell us that nothing happens coincidentally; everything is by design.  The command of “Kedoshim tiheyu” (“You shall be sacred”) has special meaning; it was no accident; this is by divine decree.  The Ramban famously explains “Kedoshim tiheyu” to mean not that we should abstain from sin – which is already covered – but rather that we should abstain from things which are permissible, but which our sechel, our intelligence, tells us that they aren’t right.  Rabbi Haber lived with this intelligence.  He lived not only by the letter of the law, but by the spirit of the law.  He had a keen mind, a perceptive mind, a deep mind, and he understood “Kedoshim tiheyu”… 

The things he did for the community over the years are amazing – but nobody knew about it.  He did it all without fanfare, without waving any flags.  Everything was done quietly. 

There is also another meaning of “Kedoshim tiheyu,” as explained by the Meshech Hochmah and by Rav Shimon Shkop in the beginning of his Sha’areh Yosher.  When somebody makes something holy, such as by declaring an animal sacred, it means that he designates it to be used specifically for a holy purpose.  “Kedoshim tiheyu” means that the Jewish People have to be special, designated for our purpose.  As Rav Chaim of Volozhin says, a person is created not for himself, but rather to bring benefit to others, to serve the community.  This was Rabbi Michael Haber – only thinking about others.  Everything he did was to help the community in a practical way.   

He was a very, very special person, humble, quiet, unassuming, always with a smile on his face.  Even when he was sick and his family brought him to the synagogue, and when I saw him a few times at weddings – he was smiling.  He was going through great difficulties, but you would never know it. 

I think his greatest accomplishment was the accomplishment for which Hashem loved Avraham – “Ki yedativ lema’an asher yetzaveh et banav ve’et beto aharav, veshameru derech Hashem.”  Avraham did many great things, but what endeared him most to Hashem was that he trained his children to follow Hashem’s ways.  We have a family that is the pride of our community.  Every one of them.  Talmideh hachamim.  Rabbis, leaders, teachers, authors, poskim, speakers… Look at what they’re doing.  Look at their influence upon the community.  It’s all because of Rabbi Michael and Molly… 

The Midrash seems to explain “Kedoshim tiheyu” differently – not as a commandment, but rather as telling us that you will always be holy.  This is something that all Jews have.  Whether they’re religious or not religious, in their heart of hearts they are kedoshim.  Rabbi Michael had this incredible belief in every Jew in our community – that they are special, that they have kedushah, and that this kedushah can be awakened.  If we just present the Torah to them in the proper way, then they will embrace it.  And he imbued his children with this philosophy, which is why they are so successful in our community.   

 

Rabbi David Ozeri 

I have known Rabbi Michael Haber for almost my whole life.  Let’s go back to the beginning, to around 1972. 

Rabbi Michael Haber – who wasn’t yet a rabbi – boarded a plane with his wife to go to Israel.  The destination: Yeshivat Porat Yosef.  He went not to swim in the Dead Sea, but to swim in the ocean of Torah.  Do you know what it was like for a young couple to move to Israel in 1972?  When you got to your apartment, you ordered a telephone, and it took about a year-and-a-half to get it.  If you wanted to mail a letter home, you needed to go to the post office and wait on a long line.  There was no such thing as diapers.  This was their mesirut nefesh, their self-sacrifice, to learn Torah.  He learned in the Kollel in Porat Yosef, in the Old City of Yerushalayim, and he started to build a family.   

And what a family they built!  Can anybody, any rabbi, in our community boast of such a family?  Every single son and son-in-law is a talmid hacham.  They are all serving our community – and in such tremendous capacity, each in his own unique way, through his Torah, his dedication, and his devotion to the community.  How did this happen?  How do you do this?  When you have children growing up and seeing their father learning, writing, and leading, living a life that is nothing but Torah, and seeing their mother sacrificing so much for her husband’s learning – it’s going to happen.  And it happened in an extremely big way. 

Four years ago, I was speaking during se’udah shelishit in the Deal Synagogue.  There were about 800 people in the room.  In the middle of my speech, somebody came over to me and whispered something in my ear.  I walked out of the room, in the middle of the speech.  Why?  Who walks out in the middle of giving a speech?  Rabbi Haber was not well, and we needed to save his life.  We got on our phones, even though the sun had not yet set and it was still Shabbat, and began making some calls. 

A few days later, a young man came over to me and said, “Rabbi, I saw you walk out in the middle of your speech, and I saw you on your phone on Shabbat.  I never really appreciated how great Rabbi Michael Haber is.  I want to do something for him.”  

This fellow was not especially learned, but he said to me, “I think I want to learn all of mishnayot as a merit for his recovery.” 

I asked him if he ever learned mishnayot before, and he said no.  I asked him when he was going to learn, as he worked all day, and he said that he would learn two, three, or four mishnayot a day. 

I forgot about this conversation, until several months later, when this man called me to tell me that he completed the first of the six sedarim of the Mishnah.  A while later he called me to tell me he finished the second seder.  Then three.  Last summer, he made a siyum on all six sidreh Mishnah, as a merit for the health of Rabbi Michael Haber.  This is a simple man, but he realized who Rabbi Haber is… 

Do we realize what we lost?  A talmid hacham who passes away is irreplaceable.  How much more so Rabbi Michael Haber.  This is an irreplaceable loss.  We have to cry “al hai shufra debal’eh be’ar’a” – for this beauty that is now being interred in the ground.  We have to cry for the loss of this beauty. 

You want to know how beautiful he was?  I was having a hachnasat sefer Torah, and I wanted him to come and fill in a letter.  His sons told me that he was not strong enough, so I brought the sefer Torah to his home, together with the sofer, the pen, and the ink.  When I walked into the house, he was sick, but he was sitting at the table with his books open.  We opened the sefer Torah, he looked at it, and he started to cry. 

“Why are you crying?” I asked. 

He said, “It’s so beautiful!” 

How many of us are ready to cry over a sefer Torah? 

Ladies and gentleman, Rabbi Haber was a walking sefer Torah.  A beautiful sefer Torah.  This beauty is going to be buried in the ground… 

I have a personal thank you to make in front of everybody.  I had an aunt, my mother’s sister, whose husband passed away, and they had no children.  She was an older woman, left alone.  Somebody introduced her to Mr. Joe Haber, Rabbi Michael Haber’s father, and they got married.  All of a sudden, she had a family.  Rabbi Michael and Molly Haber took her in like a mother.  Rabbi Haber even named a child after her.  My aunt said to me, “Can you believe I’m walking down the aisle at a grandchild’s wedding?”  And even after Mr. Joe Haber passed away, Rabbi Michael and Molly continued taking care of her.  These are not humans.  These are angels! 

Our sages teach that the passing of a tzadik is as big a tragedy as the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash.  This is the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash!  We are now looking at the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash 

We should not worry about Rabbi Michael Haber now.  We should be privileged after 120 years to get a peek at the place where he is now.  But what about us?  What should we be doing? 

Let us not underestimate ourselves.  We can do things for his neshamah, and for ourselves.  And we should.  Every person should take something upon himself.  We lost this protection.  He was a magen, a source of protection for our community.  All his suffering was a kaparah (source of atonement) for our sins.  Let us now do something, and mourn this terrible loss which Hashem has brought upon us. 

 

Rabbi Joey Haber 

Most things in life, we get to choose – we choose a spouse, a job, a house, friends, and neighbors.  But one thing we absolutely cannot choose is who our father is. 

I am 1,000 percent sure that each of my brothers and sisters agrees with me when I say that the primary emotion which we feel today is pride, and gratitude to Hashem.  I don’t know what we did to deserve to be born into this home, to these parents, to be able to look up to this father every single day of our lives… 

He was a role model, someone we were in awe of, a leader.  A lot of people say that my father was a humble man.  And it’s very true.  But sometimes people imply by “humility” that he was soft, delicate, and sweet.  To anyone who had that thought I say – you have no idea what kind of strength this man possessed.  He lost his mother at seven years of age.  She had a sudden aneurism.  (By the way, she kept a diary about her son, and the last thing she wrote was: “Michael loves religion, and loves to write.”)  He came to school a few days later, and his friends were scared, not knowing what to say.  He told them, “I’m just the same as you.  Treat me exactly the way you treated me before.” 

…Two years after he got married, he decided he was ready to make the sacrifice and move to Israel to learn Torah.  I was not yet born; I was on the way.  My parents got on a plane and flew to Israel.  They were there for three years.  My mother spoke to her mother around four times in those three years.  They didn’t have a dollar, but they couldn’t care a lick, because they were learning Torah, and nothing else mattered.  My father’s humility was simply, “I am not interested in all that stuff.  The things that matter, that are powerful – this is what I do.”  He spent every day learning – morning, afternoon, and night.  Back when he was in Deal, he would be in shul at 11 or 12 at night, learning.  When he was in Brooklyn, he would be in shul at 11 or 12 at night, learning… It was nonstop.  He didn’t come to the pool on Sundays in the summer; he was learning.  He wasn’t hanging out at home at night; he was learning.  He wasn’t off on Sundays; he was learning… 

Each one of his books took him ten years.  He would focus day in, and day out, perfecting every line, every source, every single page.  Even when he was sick, we would go with him to the hospital or to doctors’ appointments, and when he got home, instead of going to bed, he would go into his office, sit in front of his computer, open his books, and write and edit.  He did all this for you.  You’re the ones he did this for… 

As a role model, I think there were two things which I hope each of the siblings have done our best to incorporate into our lives.  First, is not to stop learning.  And second – that there is not a single member of this community that ever deserves to be judged or disrespected.  Nobody.  Ever.  It doesn’t matter religious or not religious; wealthy or not wealthy; good family or not-so-good family; well-known or not so well-known; kids or no kids.  He taught that every single person is deserving of respect, and every single person received his respect.  Every single “underdog” in this community was in my father’s office at some point for some reason.  People who were very successful were in his office, and people who were not successful were in his office.  To everyone, he would listen, he would care, he would advise, he would inspire, he would relate. 

There is nothing in the world better than being able to walk down the street and say, “I am Rabbi Michael Haber’s son.”  There is nothing in the world more glorious than that. 

Growing up in my parents’ house, the shul was two-and-a-half miles away.  They then decided to move, and we lived two miles away.  And I want to tell you – we loved those walks to and from shul.  We cherished them.  My brothers and I, and sometimes my sisters, always walked with him.  We almost never walked separately.  People felt bad for us, walking so long in the heat or in the cold, but we never felt bad.  I did it for 18 years, and when I moved to Brooklyn I wanted to buy a house far from the shul so I could walk with my sons the way my father walked with us.  We got a PhD on Torah, on how to relate to people, on how to respect people, and on how to understand the community.  Even when it was cold and snowing, we loved it. 

There are nine of us, and every single night that we were living in our parents’ house, my father would go into every single room and give every single one of the children a kiss.   

For seven years, I learned in yeshiva in Staten Island.  My father, for a period, was both a rabbi and a consultant, and he would go to Brooklyn.  Every Friday, he would go out of his way to come visit me in the yeshiva.  Every single Friday, for seven years, he would come and deliver a bag of challah from my mother and some other things.  We would sit in the car and talk.  This is a man who was busy his whole life with Torah and the community, yet somehow, he was able to make his community his “everything,”  and also make his family his “everything” at the same time…  

We all want great memories with our parents.  Memories are created in the good times, while legacies are created in the difficult times.  When people thought that my father should worry, that he should have every emotion in the world, the emotion he had was the one that most people didn’t know he had – strength, power, just as when he was seven years old. 

I was in my upper 20s when I was asked to speak in Shaare Zion for the first time in my life.  I was nervous.  I didn’t feel comfortable speaking in the Dome.  I was worried that people thought that I was this or I was that.  I remember having a conversation with Rabbi Diamond, and I asked him why they were trusting me to speak. 

“Joey,” he said, “they’re trusting you not because they think you’re this, that, or anything.  They just think you’re Rabbi Michael Haber’s son.  That’s why they trust you.” 

My father was a legendary speaker, because of his softness, his relatability, and the inspiration he gave.  When he spoke at my wedding, he gave an analogy, telling an imaginary story of a man who walked through the desert with a large package on his back.  When he reached the other side, people saw him with his large package, and with a big smile on his face.  He looked very happy.  The people asked him why he was so happy walking through the desert carrying a burden on his back.  He should be exhausted, not happy. 

“You don’t know what’s in this package,” he replied. 

He opened it, and pulled out a violin. 

“Whenever the heat is unbearable and I’m feeling exhausted,” he explained, “I sit down in the middle of the desert, take out my violin, and play music.  The music lifts my spirits and makes me happy.” 

My father said that he strived to raise children in a home where the Torah was the “violin,” the thing that made life beautiful, sweet, wonderful, and enjoyable. 

This is the reason why every one of his children wanted to do everything they could to learn and spread Torah – because we grew up in a home where Torah wasn’t just a series of laws and instructions.  The laws were adhered to down to the finest detail, but the Torah was presented to us with the beauty of music.  And therefore it was so easy, and so wonderful, to be Torah Jews in my parents’ home… 

In one of my father’s other speeches, he spoke of how all people, at 120 years, will look back at their lives and ask themselves if they did things right, and they will see things that they could have done better.  For you, Dad, 120 came way too early, but when you look back, you have zero to question.  When you look back at every word you spoke, every prayer you recited, every Shabbat you observed, every book you wrote, every day you spent, every interaction you had – with famous people or with simple, ordinary people – you have no doubts and no regrets.  You never made a person feel small in your entire life.  You never made a person feel less important than another person in your entire life.  You never said a word that was even slightly derogatory, to anybody.  You never wasted a day of your life.  You never wasted an interaction with somebody.  You achieved every day of your life what for some people would be a lifetime’s accomplishment, through your meetings, your speeches, your writing, your learning, and your interactions with people… 

As I said at the outset, we don’t get to choose who are our father is, and we thank Hashem for whom he has chosen to be our father.  But here’s what we are able to choose – we get to choose how hard we are going to work in order to live up to who our father was.  Every single one of us must commit to do everything in our power to make sure that every ideal, every principle, every concept that my father built into the foundation of our home, our family, and our community will remain strong, and that we are worthy of the father that Hashem chose for us.