Rabbi Drukman and Rabbi Doron Perez at a Mizrachi event for outgoing shlichim in 2018.
Remembering Rav Chaim Drukman zt”l
BY YEDIDYA MEIR
Rav Chaim Drukman zt”l, who passed away on the 7th night of Chanukah (December 25, 2022) at the age of 90, was Israel’s senior Religious Zionist leader. Born in 1932, he survived the Holocaust by hiding with his parents, making Aliyah in 1954. Over the course of his lifetime, he was a leader of almost every major Religious Zionist institution. He was the head of the Or Etzion Yeshiva, head of Yeshivot and Ulpanot Bnei Akiva, rabbi of World Bnei Akiva and also served in the Knesset for the National Religious Party. He received the prestigious Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2012. Most significantly, Rav Drukman inspired thousands of students, playing a key role in the growth of the Religious Zionist movement in Israel and around the world. May his memory be a blessing for all of Am Yisrael.
Although Rav Drukman was well known, it is only now that we have begun to truly grasp the full scope of his character. From his early days as a Jewish child in the town of Kitov, Poland – a child who, statistically speaking, was not supposed to survive at all – until his funeral ninety years later, as an elder of the tribe, a revered leader, and a beloved teacher. Tens of thousands of mourners accompanied him to his final resting place in tears.
A few months ago, I had the privilege to host an event in his memory. So many significant things were said. Not only “לְעִלּוּי נִשְׁמָתוֹ,” “for the ascension of his soul,” but also “לְהִתְעַלּוֹת נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ,” “for the ascension of our souls,” here in this world. This was the feeling we experienced during every story told about Rav Drukman. It almost doesn’t matter which story or memory you heard or when the story occurred during Rav Drukman’s long life, the “punch line” was always the same and is summed up by the six words on his simple tombstone: “כָּל חַיָּיו קֹדֶשׁ לַתּוֹרָה, לַעָם וְלָאָרֶץ,” “His entire life was sanctified for Torah, the nation and the land.”
In the winter of 1969, about a year and a half after the great victory of the Six Day War, Rav Drukman published an article in HaTzofeh in which he called for the Israeli public to draw spiritual conclusions from the results of the Six Day War. He wrote that there is a great thirst for faith among large sections of the people, and that we are obligated to satiate it. “The youth in the farms and in other places are thirsty for faith. If we do not act at this moment, we will be judged for it… we must go everywhere throughout the land and bring the word of G-d. For if we do this in the right way, surely many hearts will be open to receive it.”
Rav Drukman did just that, giving classes in kibbutzim and summer camps, bringing the word of Hashem to those places. And the hearts were indeed open to receive. Many ba’alei teshuva were born from those meetings. One of them was a young woman from Jerusalem, an 11th grade high school student who came to Rav Drukman’s class at Machon Meir in Jerusalem. Meeting Rav Drukman changed her life. At the memorial event, she spoke about her connection to Rav Drukman with great emotion. Her name is [Minister of National Missions] Orit Strock.
“I am one of those people who merited to receive the light of the Torah and values that Rav Drukman instilled in people who came from far away – from really, really far away. When I ask myself, what was it about him that made me and others open up and draw closer to Judaism, I think that the most fundamental thing, even before his love of the Torah, people and land, was Rav Drukman’s love of G-d. His closeness to G-d was at such a level that it was impossible not to be drawn to it.”
And then Minister Strock pulled out her cell phone and said: “With your permission, I want to play you something from Rav Drukman himself. This is one of the first things I heard when I first came to his house. I play it for you so that you can feel it together with me.” She put the phone closer to the microphone, and from it emanated the raspy voice of Rav Drukman reciting the prayer of ribon kol haOlamim, “Sovereign of the Worlds,” that many recite on Friday night. Listening to Rav Drukman’s tefillah, Minister Strock closed her eyes devoutly. She said: “That’s how Rav Drukman’s kiddush sounds. Every time he said “מֶלֶךְ,” “King,” it made us feel that the King was there with us around the Shabbat table. And that’s not the Yom Kippur prayer; it’s the Friday night kiddush we say every week. To me, that was the basis of everything – Rav Drukman’s closeness to G-d, his awareness that G-d is here with us all the time. It obligates us, empowers us, and uplifts us.
“And when Rav Drukman would open a book to teach a lesson – many books, a pile of books – he would read a verse from each book, two sentences, a short passage, almost nothing. But he read every word with reverence, love and admiration, as if he had found a special pearl and was examining it from all directions. This is not love of Torah – this is falling in love with Torah! This is what it was like with him; he was in love with every word of Torah. Just as he was in love with every person who came to him. In love. And it was impossible not to feel this love. He simply loved each one of us in his soul, and we felt this love. And he had the same love for the Land of Israel. When he would say al haMichyah, the after blessing – oh, how he would say it! “וְהַעֲלֵנוּ לְתוֹכָהּ,” “bring us up to [the Land],” “וְשַׂמְּחֵנוּ בְּבִנְיָנָהּ,” “let us rejoice in its rebuilding,” “וְנֹאכַל מִפְּרִיָּה,” “let us eat from its fruit,” “וְנִשְׂבַּע מִטּוּבָהּ,” “let us be satiated with its goodness.” With every phrase you felt that he was falling in love with the Land of Israel all over again.
“From all this love, from all these deep feelings, came his incredible mesirut nefesh, and his hospitality. Everything he accomplished stemmed from this – from a life full of love, faith, of immense gratitude. He constantly lived in gratitude, doing more and more for G-d, because he was constantly thankful to have lived in this generation.
“When Shimon Peres was prime minister, it seemed like every two weeks he gave another city to Yasser Arafat. He started in the north: Jenin and Tulkarm, then Ramallah. We knew that Bethlehem was next. We decided to organize a demonstration to protest giving away Bethlehem, and I was assigned to call Rav Drukman and ask him to come to the demonstration. I remember calling, and that Rav Drukman wouldn’t answer the phone. I called again and again – I’m very stubborn – but still he didn’t answer. Finally, he answered and said: ‘Orit, I’m not able to speak,’ and hung up the phone.
“I said to myself: ‘OK, so Rav Drukman is sitting by the phone. All I have to do is call again and explain what an important issue we’re dealing with, and then he’ll speak with me.’ I dialed again, and he answered again and said, ‘Orit, I’m not able to speak. Rav Neria passed away,’ and hung up.
“Unable to speak! Without speaking, he spoke so much. All of a sudden I understood what it meant that Rav Neria had passed away. Rav Drukman was unable to speak! Because that’s how Rav Drukman was. He lived life fully and intensely; he absorbed everything, nothing passed him by.
“I merited one last word of strength,” she concluded. “In his final days, when I realized the condition he was in, I came to visit him every day. I arrived on the night of Chanukah before the Rav passed away, and to my delight he recognized me and said hello. Then I talked with him a little and prayed next to him. But then I had to return to the Knesset; what could I do? So I said: “HaRav, I need to go back to the Knesset, I will come again tomorrow.” Then I saw Rav Drukman struggling very hard to speak, and he finally said: “!מְצוּיָן,” “Excellent!” Just as he would always say “!מְצוּיָן”… He put all his effort into this word. And it was the last word I heard from him.”
Minister Strock reminded me of the conversations I had with Rav Drukman when I was very young and would ask him for advice about all kinds of things. When I spoke with Rav Drukman, he always let me speak and would sit there, listening, listening and listening. He would guide me in the right direction, but he made sure that it always came from me and from within me. And when I would come to a conclusion, he would always say “!מְצוּיָן.” For me, too, that was the last word I heard from him.
I am truly grateful to G-d for giving me the privilege to know a person who was so alive, who brought so much light, like Rav Chaim Meir Drukman.
● Originally published in Hebrew in B’Sheva.
Yedidya Meir is a journalist and radio broadcaster. He is a weekly columnist for B’Sheva.