The Gemara (Moed Katan 17a) tells us: “If a rebbe resembles an angel of G-d, people may seek Torah from his mouth; if he does not, then one should not seek Torah from his mouth.” Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (1895-1986) was without a doubt one of the most respected g’dolei ha’dor (Torah authorities) in America during his time. He was certainly the most accepted expert in halachah, Jewish law.
Rav Moshe was legendary as a masmid, being totally immersed in his Torah studies, as well as his sterling character. He beamed with G-dliness even as he sat at a table. It is not an exaggeration to say he appeared as an angel to anyone who was fortunate, as I was, to see him in person.
Following Rav Moshe’s passing, an article was written about him by a family relative, which appeared in the OU’s Jewish Action. The thrust of the article was to show that Rav Moshe was human like the rest of us. He tied his shoes in the morning, he ate breakfast, and he even read newspapers. I am sure many readers appreciated that perspective. I did not.
I wrote a published letter to the editor complaining that I did not see the purpose in the article. What is wrong if we, even incorrectly, think of Rav Moshe as an angel? Why deprive us of that indulgence in believing that we had an angel in our midst? It illustrates to us that, even here in America, we can reach spiritually lofty goals. What harm would that do?
Recently, on one of my family chats, someone posted a precious picture of Rav Moshe sitting at a kitchen table with shortened shirt sleeves, playing with some of his grandchildren.
On the chat, I responded that I was disappointed to see that Rav Moshe had elbows. That comment evoked some chatty discussion. Of course I know that Rav Moshe had elbows! I know that Rav Moshe was a human being like the rest of us. I was just expressing my illusion that such an angelic figure was somehow different from us. Underneath his frock and square-shaped yarmulka was something unlike us.
Our community had its own mal’ach, its own angel – a mal’ach of chayim, of life. That angel was Rabbi David Keehn zt”l.
Rabbi Keehn was somehow able to be available for everyone in need as a chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Queens (formerly known as Booth) and later at NYU-Langone. During a crisis, he was there. For spiritual guidance, he was there. For ritual needs, he was there. For comfort, he was there. For dignity of the deceased, he was there. He appeared out of nowhere during a sudden emergency. Seven days a week. All this while being visually very handicapped.
Yet his reach went way beyond his chaplaincy. He was past president of the Queens Jewish Community Council and had to make some very difficult decisions. He remained active well beyond his tenure as president. He was my go-to person when I needed something to be addressed, where I felt that the QJCC could be helpful.
Of King David, the Gemara (B’rachos 4a) says that David declared, “Am I not pious? All other kings, East and West, awake to an entourage greeting them with great ceremony, and I am busy dealing with the most intricate family matters.” That was our David, as well: selflessly dedicated to every stratum of the community with no interest in personal glory.
He and tbl”ch his wife Andrea were the headquarters for so many in the community who were otherwise not able to have proper Shabbos meals or to navigate thorny legal issues. He was so proud of his children Avrohom Tzvi and Leah, whom they sent off to learn in Israel. For quite a while, he and his kids were regular participants in our Young Israel’s Family Learning Program.
Rabbi Keehn was one of those angels. I don’t know if he had wings or elbows, but there was something very different about his soul. He was the Mal’ach HaChayim, the Angel of Life, until the Mal’ach HaMaves, the Angel of Death, snatched him away from us.
May his memory and his good deeds serve his wife, children, and the entire Jewish community for all of eternity. Amein.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.