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20 Elul 5759 - September 1, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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HaRav Yechezkel Sarna -- His 30th Yahrtzeit
by Binyomin Nehorai

Part I

29 Shvat, 5687 (1927). In the branch of the Slabodke yeshiva in Chevron, the sun has set. The Slabodke founder and educator par excellence has passed on. The Alter, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, was niftar. It is the ne'ilah of the opening chapter in the Slabodke division of the yirah institutes which were founded along the paths charted by R' Yisroel Salanter.

Somewhere, far from the bier which is surrounded by the grieving hearts, stride two of the Alter's students.

"Two types of builders," one says to his fellow, "participate in the founding of every spiritual edifice which is established for the generations: the masterminds and the accountants. Now that the masterminds have left us, we must don the mantle of the accountants."

"I saw then," one of them -- HaRav Yitzchok Hutner -- later on related, "how Reb Yechezkel's shoulders rose up to don the mantle which was thrown his way."

And, as if apologizing, Reb Yechezkel later explained to the readers of the notes he had recorded in the margins of his Mesilas Yeshorim, the Shulchan Oruch of yiras Shomayim, "I hereby say, that if in these insights, I have failed to cite the name of my mentor, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, this is because there is no reason to mention him, since everything I know is from him. Without him, I would be like a blind man and a deaf man. Only through him have I merited the opening of my eyes, and my ears, and my entire study approach and manner of analyzing the halochos comes only from him, my rav muvhak, even though I didn't merit to be a talmid muvhak."

Those close to him testify that in his sichos, Reb Yechezkel never mentioned the name of the Alter.

He has studied elsewhere. It was not well known, for example, that he had also served another mentor, HaRav Shimon Shkop during the period he studied in Maltshe. He held Reb Shimon in great esteem, but more than that he valued his lack of dependence on one approach or another. His heart was prepared to absorb from the Alter, from the mashgiach, Reb Zalman Dolinksi, from Reb Naftoli Trop of Radin and from Reb Chaim of Telz. But his own mind ground the ideas he absorbed, dipped them in condiments from his own table and prepared them according to his taste.

In this way he followed the sage advice of HaRav Yitzchok Yeruchom Diskin, the son of the Maharil Diskin the Rav of Brisk, whom he visited in Yerushalayim when he searched for a building for the yeshiva after the massacre that forced them to relocate from Hebron to Yerushalayim.

"Surely," said HaRav Diskin with warmth, "you are swamped with eitzas. But let me give you an eitza too. It is worthwhile to listen to every advisor and to listen to every eitza. But when it comes to taking action, proceed according to your own understanding."

Dikduk in Mitzvos

As far as the attention to the details of mitzvos were concerned Reb Yechezkel followed the methods by all of the disciples of Reb Yisroel Salanter. In this he was much like the Chofetz Chaim, whose son said: "As for my father, all of the mitzvos and all of the prohibitions were the same to him."

Typical of him is the following question, which Reb Yechezkel marked down when he was in Switzerland (due to an illness): In modern hospitals where the pipes are very strong, one makes a lot of noisewhen he opens the faucets to draw water. This is also true of the waste water, as it flows out to the sewage. This noise in all likelihood disturbs the sleep of the patients. What is preferable: to use a lot of water when washing, for reasons of bein odom leMokom [Note: the gemora says that using a lot of water for washing brings brocho], or to be minimize the water, due to considerations of bein odom lechavero?"

Another one of Reb Yechezkel's questions:

A rosh yeshiva of a yeshiva from which he earns his livelihood, has very costly medical expenses, yet he also refrains from accepting private gifts, partially out of considerations of the dignity of the yeshiva. Which is preferable: To withdraw money from the yeshiva's account for his expenses, or to accept private gifts in order to defray the expenses?"

Some of his students once encountered him mounting the stairs to the yeshiva's study hall on Shabbos night, having arrived only after the end of davening. To the students who wondered why Rav Yechezkel was in a rush when ma'ariv was already finished, he explained, "Ma'ariv is miderabonon, while wishing a gut Shabbos is de'Oraisa."

He never endorsed imitation of outward behavior without a corresponding change in one's inner essence. He once told a group of avreichim: "The Chazon Ish possessed the attribute of simplicity and modesty. One can learn humility from him; one can learn respect of one's fellow from him, and love of one's fellow. He not only had long tziziyos."

"The most precious diamond in the crown of a godol beYisroel," he once said, "is the fact that he is `tov ro'i' in other words a figure in whom all see good, a model of the Torah Jew."

Rav Yechezkel would charge a rav with the difficult task of cultivating good rhetoric and proper speech. "Just as in music," he once wrote, "every note in speaking must be weighed and measured, and every tone which is out of place is jarring. In speech, words do not enter the hearts, and surely do not cause them to tremble, if the diction is not measured and weighed."

Regarding Chazal's maxim which determines that the words of the wise are heard if they are said calmly -- divrei chachomim benachas nishmo'im, he said: "Nachas doesn't necessarily denote just a lack of anger. Every raising of the voice that is inappropriate, causes harm. Even if the words are filled with rich content, they won't make the proper impression if they are not spoken with appropriate calm."

The Honor of a Friend

The rosh yeshiva's students still remember the resoluteness of their rav at the levaya of one of the special poskim of that time, the gaon of Montreux, HaRav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a Slabodker talmid who is famous for his responsa work, Seridei Eish. News of the petirah of the Seridei Eish reached Eretz Yisroel from Montreux in Switzerland. HaRav Weinberg was a friend of the rosh yeshiva from the period in which they studied together in Slabodke under the Alter, who had a great impact on both of their personalities.

The admirers of the niftar in Europe made efforts to bring his bones to Eretz Hakodesh. His friend, the rosh yeshiva, also planned to attend the levaya. But precisely when the aron was on the way to Lod, Reb Yechezkel fell ill, and at the instructions of the doctor, he had to remain in bed, suffering deeply over his forced absence from the levaya. It was very difficult for him to accept that he would be unable to participate in the levaya of his friend, who was so esteemed and was considered one of the gedolei hador.

R' Yechezkel told the students who came to visit him, that they were obligated to close their seforim and to pay their respects to the sefer Torah which had been consumed. The niftar, he explained, "was a man of great stature in his wisdom, his yirah, his middos and his zikui horabim.

"You should know," he told those who perhaps didn't know, "that a great prince of Israel has fallen today. But I want to make one request," he added, and from his voice it was obvious that something was weighing heavily on his heart. "I know that the Mizrachi circles will try to link his name to their approach. They will try to bury him alongside those who identify with their method. You must try to prevent this. All of his life, he was an ish Torah veyirah, who was raised and grew in the beis medrash. He is one of us.

"And if there are problems," he closed. "Tell me immediately."

There were indeed problems. When the bier reached a crossroad, the Knesset members from the Mizrachi movement issued orders that the procession should continue to Sanhedria, to the plots where the leaders of their movement were buried. The students of the Chevron yeshiva sought to fulfill their rosh yeshiva's instructions, and they encountered firm opposition.

Suddenly, in a totally unexpected manner, the edge of a walking cane cut the argument short. It was the cane of Reb Yechezkel who, despite the pain he suffered, had made the effort to come to the site. Those present sought to approach him and to ask how he felt. Others, who knew his precise condition, tried to lend him supporting hands.

But the Rosh Yeshiva paid no heed to them. In a storm, he headed toward the bier. Leaning on his cane, and panting heavily from the effort, he finally reached the bier which stood at the center of the battle taking place on the crossroads between Sanhedria and Har Hamenuchos.

Here the Rosh Yeshiva behaved in a most authoritative manner. "The niftar will be buried there," he said, his hands pointing in the direction of Har Hamenuchos.

To those who still doubted who had the last word, Reb Yechezkel's following remark put an end to their hesitations. "The niftar will be buried in the place prepared for me, beside HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, the rosh yeshiva of Mir.

"Our generation needs someone like Reb Yechezkel for many more years," said HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, who was present on the occasion.

This was in 5726 (1966), a year before the dramatic events of the Six Day War. The Kosel, the Old City and Har Hazeisim were all under Jordanian rule. No one had any thoughts about being laid to rest on Har Hazeisim, the mountain opposite Har Habayis, a mountain whose tombstones had been trampled for eighteen years by Arab legionnaires. No one knew that exactly a year later, Jews would once more be able to pour out their prayers on the place from which the Shechina did not move.

Three years after the petirah of his friend, Reb Yechezkel was called up to the mesivta shel maalah. On Wednesday, the 6th of Elul, 5729, the aron kodesh of the Slabodke yeshiva was taken captive.

"Bury me on Har Hazeisim," was the request of the one who had "donated" his grave in order to save the honor of his friend. He was buried beside the grave of his illustrious father-in- law, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein.

With the Chofetz Chaim

HaRav Yechezkel Sarna merited to be very close to his mentor, rabban shel Yisroel, the Chofetz Chaim, and for a year- and-a-half lived beside him, when he moved from Radin to Smilowitz, while the cannons of the First World War raged. The events of World War One had an impact on the life of the yeshiva, which was nonetheless like an island of daled amos shel halocho in the vast ocean of blood and tears.

One of the students, Ephraim Leibowitz, who had come from Memel (a city on the German border), was suspected by the Russians of espionage on behalf of Germany. According to the emergency regulations, all German citizens had to appear before the authorities, who would then transfer them to Eastern Russia or to Siberia.

In the yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim, at that time, there were three students with German citizenship. Out of pity, the yeshiva's administration ignored their citizenship and its requirements, even as it feared the repercussions of their being in the yeshiva illegally.

After the fast of the 17th of Tammuz 5675 (1915), calamity occurred. In the middle of the night, agents of the KGB, accompanied by police from Lida and Vilna, raided the home of Reb Leib Matlis, the brother-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim, where their suspect lived. During the search, a precise sketch of the blueprint of the fortress in Kovno was "found" among Leibowitz's belongings, on a piece of paper which had been maliciously stuck into the student's pocket by one of those very secret police.

The threat of death loomed over the student. He was expected to be put to death within no more than a day or two. With much effort and money, his trial was postponed. Many efforts were also made which were finally successful in releasing Reb Leib Matlis from the prison in which he had been detained for a number of weeks as an accessory.

The boy's family came to plead with the Chofetz Chaim not to be angry at him, and not to curse him. The Chofetz Chaim replied that he never curses anyone.

It was two years later that the Chofetz Chaim learned that Leibowitz was in a prison in Panze, and that his trial was about to take place. It was precisely on Shemini Atzeres 5677 (1916) that a letter arrived with the news that Ephraim Leibowitz was about to be tried. The following day, Simchas Torah, when the Saba Kadisha was called up to the Torah, he banged on the table and burst out into tears. "Ribono shel olom," he cried. "Why do you let your sons suffer so? The Torah which Ephraim studied with great hasmodoh is before You, and now he is suffering terribly, even though he has committed no crime."

Those present cried, while the Chofetz Chaim asked his son-in- law to calm them, saying, "It's Simchas Torah today."

After the davening, the Chofetz Chaim sent a special messenger to the well known lawyer, Oscar Gruzenberg of St. Petersburg, who was famous as one of Russia's greatest jurists. Gruzenberg had achieved his fame in some of the biggest criminal trials of his time. In the Jewish world, he became known for his defense of Beilis.

Gruzenberg, a Jew who barely knew about Yiddishkeit, tended toward the radical left, and was far from the Jewish experience. Along with this, he was a humanist, and was thus always among the first to take the side of the downtrodden, and as was natural in those times, they were often Jews who suffered from pogroms, expulsions, blood libels and more.

This time, however, Gruzenberg refused to take the case. He was afraid to become involved in a trial which was being held in the wartime atmosphere of hostility to Jews and Judaism.

Upon hearing the reply, the Chofetz Chaim decided that he himself would go to see Gruzenberg about the case. On this trip, he took his student, Reb Yechezkel Sarna, whom he regarded as his confidante whom he could trust, and also Reb Hillel Ginsburg. The trip was shrouded in mystery, and some of its chapters aren't even known today. There were many efforts about which Reb Yechezkel never said anything.

Nonetheless, many details about the journey did become known. In time, it was related that Gruzenberg asked the Chofetz Chaim if he could personally testify that the accused was completely innocent of espionage.

The Chofetz Chaim replied that he was certain of this, and that the very fact that a man as old as he had come all the way from Shomiatz to St. Petersburg for that purpose, should be proof enough of his own conviction.

"Rabbi," Gruzenberg said with emotion. "I'm pretty young. But if you have the energy and vigor to make such a dangerous trip then we, who lack such a feeling of responsibility, should be considered old."

Then to his wife he said, in Russian: "In our times, when life has so little value, would a Russian notable be willing to embark on such a dangerous journey, just in order to save a single young boy, who isn't even his relative?"

Gruzenberg apologized for a moment, and left the room. "He's a good person," the Chofetz Chaim told those who had come with him. "It's a pity he isn't oriented towards avodas haBorei. If only he had been educated in a yeshiva . . . "

Gruzenberg returned and announced that he could not accept the defense of the young man. "I don't feel brave enough to stand before a military court at this point," he said. "I called a friend, non-Jewish lawyer, who agreed to accept the case. He also thinks that it's best that the defending lawyer be a Christian and not a Jew."

The trial was held in Vitebsk in Teves 5677 (1917), before a military tribunal which was made up of three Russian generals. On the day the trial opened, the Chofetz Chaim sent telegrams to all of the yeshivos in Russia, to daven and recite Tehillim. In his yeshiva, everyone fasted.

The entire procedure of the trial is an amazing story. Among the witnesses were HaRav Elchonon Wassermann, Reb Tzvi Hirsch Levinson, the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim, and the Chofetz Chaim himself.

Throughout the trial, the defense related accounts of the sterling character of the Chofetz Chaim, in order to illustrate the extent of his ethical level. Even when the reliability of the stories was questioned by the judges or the prosecution, the defense insisted that it is not only the story itself which proves the point, but even the fact that such a story is even told about him, even if it is not precise.

The prosecution, for its part, explained that although the honesty and sincerity of the Zidovski Rabinn was not in doubt, all this still did not prove the innocence of Leibowitz who, in his wily manner, had deceived his mentor.

The accused was sentenced to death, but out of consideration for his age, the sentence was commuted to twelve years in prison, with hard labor.

The accused fainted in fear, and from the observer's benches, wails were heard.

The students who left the court were shocked. They also didn't know how to convey this to the Chofetz Chaim. Some advised telling him that Leibowitz had been sentenced to only two years in prison.

Reb Yechezkel was the one who broke the news to the Chofetz Chaim, telling him that Leibowitz had not been sentenced to death but to six years in prison.

It is related that the Chofetz Chaim ordered Reb Yechezkel to lock the door of the room. Agitated, he looked to and fro, and when he saw that there was no one else there, he whispered to Reb Yechezkel: "What makes them certain that they will continue to rule for even six more months?"

Two months passed, and Kerenski and his revolutionary government took over the reins of government, while Czar Nikolai was deposed and, a short while later, assassinated. This was on the 22nd of Adar, 5677 (1927)!

Ephraim Leibowitz, the "Jewish spy," was freed along with other political prisoners, thanks to the efforts of Gruzenberg, and the yeshiva community.

In Brisk it was said that R' Chaim Soloveitchik had commented on this story: "The Chofetz Chaim deposed Nikolai."

Reb Yechezkel took the remaining secrets to his eternal rest.

His Biography

HaRav Yechezkel Sarna was born in Horodok Russia, in 5650 (1890). His father was R' Yaakov Chaim, a maggid meishorim in Horodok and Slonim, who became famous for his outstanding rhetoric as the maggid of Slonim. His mother Eidel stemmed from the Buxenbaum family.

Like all of the other children of the period, he began his education in the local cheder. His father, who recognized young Yechezkel's talents, sent him when he was still very young to various yeshivos in the area. Yechezkel wandered from yeshiva to yeshiva, until his older brother, Reb Leib finally brought him to Slabodke in Kovno, where he began to study in the Or HaChaim yeshiva ketana, known locally as Yeshivas Rebbe Herschel. The mashgiach at that time, Reb Eliyahu Laicrovits, planted mussar roots in young Yechezkel's heart.

Yechezkel remained in Slabodke for only a year. In 5662 (1902), he journeyed to Maltshe, where he studied under one of the most famous Torah giants of the time, HaRav Zalman Sender Kahana-Shapiro, who also presided as the Chief Rabbi of Maltshe. Due to an inner conflict which occurred in the yeshiva, Reb Zalman Sender left Maltshe, and transferred to Kriniki. This was only a year after Yechezkel had arrived in Maltshe. However, without a mentor, he too left Maltshe and returned in 5663 to Slabodke, in order to study in Knesses Beis Yitzchok, headed by HaRav Chaim Rabinowitz, who later on became known as Rav Chaim of Telz. He was very fond of the youth, who became bar mitzvah that year, and recognized his brilliance of mind and swift grasp. When Rev Chaim was invited to deliver shiurim in Telz, at the end of 5664, he included the young Yechezkel in the group of well known Torah scholars who were schooled in halocho.

In the beginning of the winter of 5666 (1906), the young Yechezkel once more returned to Maltshe, in order to study under HaRav Shimon Shkop.

Another year passed, and Reb Shimon left Maltshe. Under the influence of the son of the Alter, HaRav Shmuel Finkel, the young Yechezkel, who was by then seventeen years old, decided to return to Slabodke.

5667 (1907) was the most important year in the life of Reb Yechezkel. His searching and wandering had ended, and he decided to remain in Slabodke -- and he remained there until his final day.

Slabodke itself wandered first to Eretz Yisroel in Chevron the city of the forefathers, and then to Geula in Yerushalayim, but he always remained in Slabodke. He never left it. Regarding this, he later said that he was very grateful to Reb Shmuel Finkel for having drawn him into the Slabodke life.

End of Part I

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