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A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Tammuz 5759 - July 7, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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The Lion's Heart: HaRav Yehuda Leib Nekritz zt'l
By A. Avraham

There was a man, a highly active man, who embodied shleimus ho'odom, perfection. His name was HaRav Yehuda Leib Nekritz.

This name traveled the world, across deserts and oceans, without losing its perfection. On the contrary, each step of the journey revealed more of the man's greatness. His life became a chronicle that told of the development of Novardok yeshivos and his personal image was a golden thread woven into the beautiful tapestry of the Beis Yosef yeshivos. His story was told in the sefer, Lev HaAri, published ten years after his passing. This article is a glimpse of his great personality.

A new light shone in the city of Slutzk, a light that added a new hue to the city's glow. A son was born to Reb Tzvi Hirsch Nekritz, a student of Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l. The city rejoiced with the family, and the baby was named Yehuda Leib, a name that became a symbol for the uncompromising battle for a life of Torah, for an eternal life, under all circumstances, in every period. The year was 5667 (1907).

When Yehuda Leib was four years old, his parents moved to Dvinsk, where the boy began learning in the local cheder. Yehuda Leib was not one of the mischievous children who scampered up rocks and climbed to the treetops. He was a noble child, who exuded warmth and love. Everyone respected the young boy. They loved him at home and in cheder; they adored him in shul. The entire city talked about him. He was constantly learning diligently, constantly attached to the eternal Torah. Like the belt bound around the holy parchment, he was bound to the Torah and those who learn it. In his youth and old age, "lo yomush mitoch ho'ohel -- he did not move from the tent [of Torah]."

World War I broke out. Yehuda Leib fled with his family to Hommel in White Russia, where he continued his Torah studies. While in cheder, he once confided in his friend, Yisroel Chasdan: "I saw a great tzaddik in the yeshiva's beis midrash," he said excitedly. "His name is Reb Yoizel."

That was Reb Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novardok. This youthful perception was actually a vision that later connected his life to the quintessence of Novardok. Then, he knew "Reb Yoizel the Tzaddik" only superficially. In the following years, he began to recognize the particular essence that made him into a tzaddik in his personal and public life.

Yehuda Leib began learning the Novardok shita in Yeshivas Beis Yosef in Hommel. He learned diligently there and grew steadily in Torah, yiras Shomayim and midos tovos. He found abundant food for his delicate soul and for his noble character traits. Hommel was the fertile soil in which his fruits took root and began their growth.

It was a time of revolutions, and the Communists rose to power. The bnei yeshiva had tremendous nisyonos. The materialistic gains publicized by the new rulers promised "happiness and freedom." Talk of a "better future" seeped into every social stratum.

The long arm of Communism even entered the chareidi world. "Extremist" yeshivos like Novardok had a very difficult time gaining approval to continue to function. R' Yehuda Leib was standing at a fateful crossroad. Would he continue learning in yeshiva or forget his aspirations and stay in his city? The decision was not at all easy.

His Penetrating Words

And then the Chofetz Chaim zt'l visited Hommel. He stayed at the home of the wealthy R' Shmuel Yitzchok Luria, and after the Shabbos davening, many bnei yeshiva, both young and old, came to see him. The Chofetz Chaim sat at the table, surrounded by the callers. First he spoke about the parsha, and then people asked him shailos.

One of the students, Chananya from Kiev, asked him, "Our rebbi should teach us what to do if the family opposes my learning in yeshiva?" (Because this boy's parents lived far away and we know little about Chananya's relationship with them, we don't know if this was a practical question or if he just wanted to know theoretically.)

The Chofetz Chaim answered, "What is the problem? The family does not want you to learn Torah? Better you should become a Soviet official? [Until the Bolshevik revolution, a Jew could not hold a government position. Now that this opportunity was available, many Jews were eager to obtain a government job and considered it a great thing to get one.]

"You should know, in the haftorah of this week's parsha, Hashem says through the novi Yirmiyohu (23: 29), "Halo ko devorai ke'eish ne'um Hashem, behold My words are like fire, Hashem says." The Torah is compared to fire, but there are two types of heat: The fire itself, that is constantly burning, and the pot of water on the fire. The first type is always hot, because that is its essence, while the pot is only hot as long as it is on the fire. The further it is removed from the fire, the colder it becomes.

"This is what the novi means: Torah, whose essence is fire, never cools off; the dvar Hashem is compared to fire that is constantly burning and giving warmth. There are many things that warm a person's heart during his life: his parents, brothers and sisters, and so on. This warmth is good and very pleasant, but does not last forever. How long does a person spend with his family? Twenty, thirty, forty years? Then they go and pass on. The man is left alone, bereft of that warmth. The Torah is not like that -- it lasts forever, and warms him his entire life in Olom Hazeh and in Olom Haboh."

The words of the gaon and tzaddik clearly implied: Why do you listen to your relatives' promises of all types of happiness through leaving the path of Torah? The Torah is a constant source of warmth, better than any of their benefits, and the Torah will be your strength and encouragement throughout your life.

The young Yehuda Leib heard the Chofetz Chaim's answer and felt as if the tzaddik were speaking directly to him. For weeks he had been tormented by this question, but his youth prevented him from speaking to the Chofetz Chaim about it. The Chofetz Chaim's answer was a balm to his heart.

Later, when he would describe this conversation, he added, "They say that the Chofetz Chaim was zoche to ruach hakodesh. Perhaps at the time, he had a bit of ruach hakodesh, that he was able to solve people's problems when they themselves had not even asked him outright."

The Siberian Exile

Dozens of Beis Yosef yeshivos were spread across Europe. Each yeshiva was run according to the regulations firmly determined by the Alter of Novardok, but the war scattered them and forced them to wander. In many places, the Communists sent the bnei yeshiva to Siberia. One of the exiled, who became a pillar of the exiled, was Reb Yehuda Leib. He and his family were sent on a long, difficult journey that ended in a small village in Siberia.

Amazing stories about his mesiras nefesh for Torah and mitzvos were created there. A chapter from the sefer, Lev HaAri is quoted below, describing his stay in Siberia:

One of the group, R' Chaim from Korov, describes Reb Yehuda Leib's mesiras nefesh when he dared ask the NKVD officer to give them Shabbos as a day of rest. He tells, "When we reached Nizshna-Machavei, our first thought was, `How will we keep Shabbos?' We were afraid to ask, because even for such a request, they could -- and would -- send us to a prison camp from which no one returns. They would threaten everyone to such an extent that no one would even dare ask for a lighter work load. Reb Yehuda Leib was the first one who dared to raise the issue in public. He not only suggested, but also arranged and fought to keep Shabbos. He explained to them, `We were educated in religious schools. We understand that we must seriously work hard, but we also have to keep Shabbos and yom tov.'

"Reb Yehuda Leib put himself in great danger, even though he had a wife and two small children. He risked his life first, but then we stood behind him and didn't leave him.

"It is possible, that if we had asked a rov and posek, he would have told us that it is a matter of pikuach nefesh in this land of gezeiros and because we were forced, it would be permissible to be mechalel Shabbos. [As it turned out,] our group was an exception (from the prison camps and Mekalchazim); we did not work on Shabbos."

HaRav Yaakov Pasternak from Lutz, a rav in Brooklyn, spoke about this matter. "One night, there was a sudden knock on our doors, and all the exiled bnei Torah were taken to the office. A commander from the central NKVD in Moscow spoke to us, urging us to forget our past because we'll be here until we die. The Communist slogan was, `He who does not work does not eat.' We were supposed to work from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. After the man finished speaking, Reb Yehuda Leib zt'l stood at the head of the group and said, `We will not work on Shabbos.'

"The commander could not believe his ears. `You don't understand where you are. Besides that, it's a time of emergency now, a world war. People are being killed on the battlefield -- and you dare ask for such things?'

"It took a lot of mesiras nefesh to withstand this nisoyon. We felt that we were in their hands; they could do whatever they wanted with us. We skinny, weak men were facing the mighty Soviet Union. It was only thanks to Reb Yehuda Leib and his great bitochon and the strength from learning mussar that he instilled into us, that were we able to withstand the nisoyon.

"In the end, we worked out the issue of Shabbos internally, and only Friday night remained a problem. Yom Tov did not even occur to them. In reality, `their mouths spoke falsehood,' and as time went on the pressure to work on Shabbos got stronger again. There were times that we were forced to wake up before sunrise on Shabbos to run away and hide in the forest.

"One motzei Shabbos, after we had avoided work the entire day, we went to the guards and told them that we could work now to make up for Shabbos. The Russian, who understood the matter, said, `Yes, when the sun rolls under the ball of the earth, you also come rolling around with it.' He said no more and was quiet. It seems they commanded him not to bother us too much.

"On erev Shabbos at shki'ah, the nisyonos began. The problem was how to avoid work. The NKVD commanders who guarded us accused us of not filling our quota, of being lazy about carrying out the government's plans, whether for produce in the field or chopping trees for weapons for the rifle stocks. We devised a solution: We would plan an "accident" that would force us to stop working. For example, we loaded up the wagon with bundles of produce and then caused the wagon to overturn. We screamed as if we were wounded, no one answered, and when darkness fell, we got up and left.

"Another example: R' Shlomo Faiga started to scream, `My head, my head.' When they brought him the thermometer, he rubbed it and it went up higher than forty-two degrees. Thus, he was spared from chillul Shabbos. Each one of us found another excuse, and in the end we did not have to be mechalel Shabbos even once. This was all due to Reb Yehuda Leib's powerful influence and tremendous chizuk at all times."

R' Moshe Ulman from Pupa relates an incident of mesiras nefesh for shemiras Shabbos that happened when he was with Reb Ben-Tzion Hirshfeld (from Rutka). One Shabbos in the middle of a bitterly cold winter, the two were guarding a storehouse, far from the village. The two guards were staying in a hut that had been built for workers in the summer to rest in during the day. It was bitterly cold, even inside, as the flimsy hut only shielded them from the wind. There was a small iron stove that gave a bit of warmth, but because they decided not to add wood on Shabbos, the fire soon went out.

What did they do? They stayed awake, standing and pacing back and forth in the room, because the minute anyone sat down, he could fall asleep and freeze to death. The entire night, they spoke about mussar and mesiras nefesh for kiddush Hashem until gentile workers came the next morning to thresh the grain. They found them suffering from the cold with an unlit oven, and they burst out screaming and laughing, mocking them for having not re-lit the stove. Go explain to a goy that it is forbidden to light a fire on Shabbos. The gentiles immediately lit the fire and we also enjoyed it and said, "Chasdei Hashem ki lo somnu."

HaRav Yaakov Pasternak tells of a similar incident: "During the yomim noraim I was with my friend, Pinchos Ingberman (from Makava) who was later killed in an airplane crash on his way to Eretz Yisroel. We worked together in the `Mehl Stroui' which was comprised of a few buildings where the villagers from many villages would stay when they came to grind the wheat. The Mehl Stroui was about seven kilometers away from Nizshna-Machavei, and we also slept there. Pinchos and I were separated from the group in Nizshna although our spots there were still reserved for us.

"Before Yom Kippur, we spoke about running away and going back to Nizshna so we could spend Yom Kippur together with the group. [We tried,] but when we left, we were immediately captured by the policemen who brought us back to the Mehl Stroui. That night, we said whatever piyutim we could remember by heart and spoke about mussar and teshuvah. In the morning, we complained that we were sick. The guards rebuked us but allowed us to stay inside on the condition that we make sure the fire in the oven does not go out, so the workers could cook their meal on it. We stood to daven tefillas Yom Kippur, but did not add wood to the fire and it went out. We almost froze in the cold. When the workers came back, they were very angry at us. They also made fun of us and called us lazy."

Honoring Shabbos in Siberia

How did they honor Shabbos under such circumstances? It is worthwhile to quote a few paragraphs of a letter from R' Ben Tzion Hirshfeld, who was with Reb Yehuda Leib zt'l in a farmhouse in Arashau. "We yearned for Shabbos even though there was nothing to look forward to, because we barely had any food or clothing, and did not even have a minyan. Whatever we could do, we did. I remember how the Rebbetzin Etka Nekritz made sure to take salami with her to Siberia. A few pieces of it were made into soup lichvod Shabbos that had a taste of Gan Eden. The salami lasted ten weeks. (For all the rest of the years, there was no kosher meat in Russia.) We sat around the kupert, a box that served as a table, with the tzaddik Reb Yehuda Leib and sang zemiros. Today, when I sing Tzur Mishelo, I tell my family that this zemer is very dear to me, because it reminds me of the past when we sang it in Siberia."

Further on in the letter he writes: "When we were forced to work separately, the group wanted to be together on Shabbos to discuss Torah and mussar. The distance between Reb Yehuda Leib's house and us was more than the tchum Shabbos, so one of the group (R' Hirsch Nudell) would go out on Friday with a piece of bread and put it on the path two thousand amos away. On Shabbos, we would go to that spot, and when we found the eruv, we would continue on to Reb Yehuda Leib zt'l to learn Torah with him until nightfall. Usually, we would hide the bread very well so the hungry dogs that roamed the area would not smell the bread and eat it up."

Torah in Siberia

In Reb Yehuda Leib's memoirs, he describes how he learned Torah in Siberia. He writes: "We learned Torah in the forests of Siberia, knowing that this was the continuation of the "aish dos" that was given on Har Sinai. This fire accompanied us through the deep snow and the bitter cold of the taiga, the subarctic forest. In the cold, frost and loneliness, this fire relieved us and warmed our whole body. We felt a breath of life flowing from the pages of the gemora that entered deep into our heart. It instilled in us true bitochon in Hashem, that we will get out of this darkness, that we will live, and be zoche to return to Klal Yisroel, whether through natural or miraculous means, because we were attached to the source of life.

"When we were taken to Siberia, a dark, gloomy place without electricity, we used korniklach (lamps made from inkwells that were emptied and filled with oil with a wick made from a rag). We would each learn a page of gemora by the light of these small lamps. This warmed us for the entire following day during our backbreaking work, chopping huge, one hundred-year-old trees. The forests were full of awesome cedar and oak trees, forty meters tall and so wide that three adult men could embrace them from one side to the other. The tree chopping was also done while standing in snow up to our stomachs. We became experts on how to fall the tree. By looking at the leaves on the treetop and figuring out how the wind was blowing, we knew how to make sure not to get crushed by the falling tree.

"When the supervisor (the brigadier) would turn aside for a short time, we would pull out the gemoras we had hidden in our pockets and learn together the inyonim each of us had learned alone the night before by ourselves. We learned the sugya of R' Chanina Sgan Hacohanim in Pesochim. We feasted on the halachos of tumah in food and drink, while we ourselves had no food or drink. We were hungry and thirsty, in the frost of the taiga, with the atrocity of war hanging over our heads. Yet a small, soft voice was heard, the gentle voice of Torah, `Onochi Hashem elokecho.'

"These sugyos sustained us and sated us more than any food or drink. In that daf gemora, we found monn from heaven. We kept our souls alive through the Torah, the hashro'as haShechina and the fact that we guarded our tzuras ho'odom. "Eitz chaim hi lemachazikim bo" was realized in us and that is how we were able to survive until we were freed.

"In the forests of the taiga, along with the whistle of the ax and saw, echoed the names and fiery words of the holy tano'im and amora'im. The names of R' Akiva, R' Tarfon and R' Meir, Abaye and Rava, of Yeshaya Hanovi and of Chavakuk. We felt like we were in their holy presence and not in the darkness of Siberia. The Mishkan was built in the midbar to teach us that even in a desert, while wandering, one must reserve a place for the Aron Hakodesh, the Torah and the luchos. We were also zoche, with Hashem's help, to carry the Mishkan to the Siberian desert.

"In the Siberian taiga, we saw the "alef ze'ira." The same little alef that is found in the posuk: "Vayikro Hashem el Moshe." It encouraged us and warmed us in the terrible cold through the snowstorms in the wild taiga. We saw this alef ze'ira on a torn piece of gemora; we peeked into it and saw the netzach Yehudi that will never be stilled. And even when no one heard anything, Moshe Rabbenu heard the mighty voice of Hashem, calling him to the Ohel Mo'ed." (Rashi at the beginning of Vayikro.)

Reb Yehuda Leib's closeness to Hashem grew stronger and stronger from the day in his youth when he recognized his creator. In the steppes of Siberia, this closeness reached a peak and was expressed in all aspects of his life: in bitochon, tefilla, mitzva observance and learning Torah. He radiated his inner light and encouraged, comforted, strengthened and supported all the Jews in Siberia. He comforted them with words and with his personal example.

After spending years in Siberia, he came to the United States. He and his father-in-law HaRav Avrohom Yaffen ran the Beis Yosef yeshiva there. When his father-in-law was niftar, he continued running the yeshiva. His noble personality and outstanding talents influenced the yeshiva and everyone around it.

HaRav Yehuda Leib Nekritz went through many hardships and bitter exiles, but he did not cease his pure work. Until his last day, he did not move from the tent of Torah and his name is engraved in the ranks of gedolei haTorah.

On 27 Sivan 5744 -- zach Sivan -- his soul went up to heaven in a storm.

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