The winter of 1912 was particularly brutal, one of the coldest ever recorded. “The human race will have to fight for its existence against cold,” declared the Los Angeles Times. It was, of course, the year that the RMS Titanic fatefully collided with a giant iceberg.

In the mountaintop city of Safed, everyone hunkered down at home; only the strongest considered braving the elements.

Unsurprisingly, the small group at the synagogue waited a while for a tenth man to arrive for the morning prayers. To their astonishment, in walked their small and frail rabbi who had braved wind and snow to join them. His name was Rabbi Yaakov David Vilowsky, known around the world by his acronym, the Ridvaz, which stands for Rabbi Yaakov David ben (son of) Zev. That was to be his last winter; he passed away on Rosh Hashanah, October 2, 1913, at the age of 68.

The rabbi entered the synagogue and strode to the amud (lectern) to lead the service, something he did not usually do. He was visibly emotional throughout the prayers, tears flowing freely.

After the service was over, the small crowd was eager to understand what was going on. Why did the rabbi endanger his life to come to synagogue when he could have prayed at home? Why did he lead the service, against his normal practice? And why was he so emotional?

The story he told in response is deeply moving.

As a child, the Ridvaz grew up in poverty in a small town in what is now Belarus. With six children, his parents’ economic situation was dire, and they hadn’t been able to pay tuition since the beginning of the year.

One day, young Yaakov David heard his teacher tell his father: “Your son Yaakov David is an exceptional student, but if you can’t pay me for teaching him, I will have no choice but to replace him with a fee-paying student.”

The boy froze; it seemed like he was on the verge of losing his teacher and with it the learning he enjoyed so much.

That night, he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, consumed by fear and worry. He nearly burst out crying, but he held himself back, knowing that this would only add to his parents’ distress.

Lying awake in bed he heard his parents, Zev and Hendel, talking. “Yaakov David has so much potential to become a Torah scholar,” Hendel said. “We can’t let him miss out on an education.”

Zev came up with a solution: “Tomorrow I will dismantle our heating stove and sell it. It is now wintertime, so the stove will sell for a good price—enough to pay for half a year’s tuition.”

“My relief at being able to continue learning,” recalled the Ridvaz, “was marred by the realization that my parents would freeze on my behalf. I fell asleep that night at once both happy and sad.” The next morning the oven was duly dismantled and sold, and the Ridvaz went on to become one of the outstanding scholars of his generation, filling rabbinic posts on both sides of the Atlantic. He authored numerous distinguished works, including his monumental commentary to the Jerusalem Talmud.

“When I saw the storm this morning,” the rabbi explained, “I thought it would be religiously preferable for me to play it safe and stay home. But it is my father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of death), and I owed it to him to be in synagogue to honor his memory and pray for his soul. My parents sacrificed so much for me, enduring a freezing winter with no stove so that I could study. Now it is my time to sacrifice for them. That is why I led the prayers, as is customary on the yahrzeit. It is also why I was so emotional, remembering my parents’ dedication to Torah.”

The Ridvaz was a particularly strong-minded scholar, not known for his sentimentality. He found himself at the heart of several fiery halachic disputes over the years. In 1903, he was enticed by a very generous offer by the Orthodox community in Chicago to be their chief rabbi. The community leaders strongly desired a rabbinic leader of the Ridvaz’s stature. A mere two years later, however, he left the city and moved to the Land of Israel (then under Ottoman rule), after clashing with those responsible for supervising the city’s kosher food. In that short time, the Ridvaz left an enduring impact. (Still today, candle-lighting on Fridays is called for 20 minutes before sunset in Chicago, while in virtually every other community it is called for 18 minutes prior.)

He never forgot his parents’ extraordinary devotion, and credited them with his achievements.

This may help explain a strange anomaly regarding his name. As mentioned earlier, he was known as the Ridvaz, which stands for Rav Yakov David ben Zev. Not since the Middle Ages has it been common for a rabbi to be called after his father’s name, as everyone has last names – in this case, Vilowsky. Surely, this was a special tribute to his parents.

In his will, the Ridvaz specifically urged his descendants to learn Torah on his yahrzeit, and not to say kaddish otherwise. It seems that he wished to pass on his parents’ legacy even after his passing.

A pivotal decision taken when the Ridvaz was just six years old set him on a path to greatness. For all of his own toil and effort over many decades, he gave the credit to his loving and idealistic parents. To whom do we owe the good things we have enjoyed? Let us remember and pay tribute to those who make a significant impact on our lives.