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27 Elul 5759 - September 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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

Part II

In the first part of this article, we discussed some of the themes and great incidents of HaRav Yechezkel Sarna's life. These included the funeral of the Alter of Slobodke and the funeral of the Seridei Eish. We also related an incident with the Chofetz Chaim and a young yeshiva student who, during World War I, was accused by the Russians of spying for the Germans. The first part also gave the basic biographical details of HaRav's early years as a youth in Horodok and his wandering through several yeshivos and mentors until he finally settled into the life of Slobodke.

Merging Into Slobodke

Slobodke's study hall at that time was filled with some of the great Torah scholars of Lithuania. There were veteran talmidei chachomim, who had gained fame for their straightforward thought and sharpness of mind. Among them were the bochur Aaron the Sislovitzker (HaRav Aharon Kotler) and Yaakov the Dahailover (HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky). And then young Yechezkel Sarna, the Horodoker, joined their ranks. He once casually related that he was a peer of the Sislovitzker, who later became the symbol of brilliance and astuteness.

He was very well versed in the depth of halocho and equally as great in the scope of his knowledge. Maran HaRav Eliezer Man Shach, who was in the yeshiva then, related that the bnei yeshiva would speak in amazement about the Thursday mishmar nights, in which the Horodoker would study forty pages of gemora.

It was natural that the image of the refined young man caught the eye of the yeshiva's founder and father, the Alter, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. The Alter related to each and every student differently. With his special critical sense, the Alter understood that Reb Yechezkel was a young man who, in addition to greatness in Torah, had outstanding qualities which rendered him fit to be a mentor in the mussar halls of the future generation. The Alter displayed his fondness for Reb Yechezkel and drew him close to him. He saw the young man as one whom he could model into a suitable spiritual and ethical image.

The spiritual guide (mashpia) of the yeshiva (in addition to the Alter of course) at that time was HaRav Zalman Dolinsky, also called Reb Zalman Radiner. His discourses also had a great impact upon Reb Yechezkel, who used to mention the lasting lessons he gleaned from them.

The young Yechezkel studied in Knesses Yisroel in Slobodke until 5674 (1914). However, for a few months in 5670 (1910), he studied at Telz, having been sent there along with a group of students who had been asked to assist the mashgiach, Reb Shmuel Fondiller, Hy"d, who was one of those working to spread the mussar approach.

The Upheaval of World War I

World War One broke out in 5674. The yeshiva was closed, and the Jews of Slobodke expelled. It soon reopened in Minsk, where young Yechezkel also arrived. Like his friends, he also used forged certificates in order to evade the draft which loomed over the heads of young men of his age. But to his misfortune, he was caught by a policeman, who detained him in the local prison. He was supposed to stand trial, be punished, and even worse than that, sent to the front, where people were falling like flies.

Aware of his difficult situation, he sought an escape route, which wasn't long in coming. A lazy guard turned his head for a moment, enabling the prisoner's swift escape. He hastened to the home of a relative, Rev Yehoshua Cymbalist (Horodoner), where he went into hiding. That very night, he was smuggled to Smilowitz, where the Radin yeshiva had wandered along with its rosh yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim.

In the meantime, the Slobodke yeshiva left Minsk, which was very close to the front by that time, and transferred to Krementchug. Reb Yechezkel remained with the Chofetz Chaim, first in Smilowitz, and later in Shumiatz. He absorbed many of the Chofetz Chaim's ways, and he soon came to regard him as one of his mentors. He also enjoyed the acutely logical shiurim of the rosh hayeshiva, HaRav Naftoli Trop, who was known in the yeshivos for his remarkable shiurim.

HaRav Sarna regarded this period as one of the most beautiful in his life. His heart absorbed the impressions made by the righteousness and piety of the Chofetz Chaim. He filled his mind with the lomdus approach of Reb Naftoli. But when he left he was the same Reb Yechezkel who had entered -- a product of Slobodke. A ten-chapter pamphlet called Toras Ha'Onshim, written by him in Smilowitz in 5676 (1916), was found among his writings. It testifies clearly that his Slobodke character did not change during his period in Radin.

In the summer of 5677, Reb Yechezkel was asked to come to the Slobodke yeshiva that was still temporarily in Krementchug. The Alter hadn't forgotten his beloved student and wanted to see him now beside him. Laden with Torah, yirah, and mussar, he returned to Krementchug, where his place on the eastern wall as one of the top students of the yeshiva was acknowledged.

The Jews of Krementchug were enduring a difficult period. The danger of death hovered over their heads, and they were prey to pogroms, robbers, bandits, rioters and starvation. In Adar 5679 (1919), HaRav Yechezkel married the daughter of HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who chose him as a son-in-law.

As the war ended soon after, the yeshiva returned to its abode in Slobodke, a Jewish suburb of Kovno which was at the time under Lithuanian rule. Reb Yechezkel was one of the returners, settling in his former place of study.

It was the beginning of a new period for Slobodke.

In Slobodke, Reb Yechezkel dedicated all of his time and effort to Torah and mussar. When the Alter proposed that he deliver shiurim in the yeshiva, he refused. When the Kollel Beis Yisroel, headed by HaRav Yitzchok Eizek Sher, was founded, he did not join. Nonetheless, he remained in contact with its members.

He signed the articles he wrote in the Tevuno magazine with the letters YCh"S, his initials. This was the journal of the Slobodke yeshivaleit, edited by Rav Yisroel Zissel Dvoratz.

His influence in the yeshiva was great, although he refused to occupy any official position. He rarely engaged in public activity, except for a few missions he was given by his father-in-law, the Alter. In Kovno in 5684 (1924) he served as emissary of the Alter at a rabbinical convention on current religious matters.

The Move Up to Eretz Yisroel

In 5684, trouble brewed in Slobodke. The Lithuanian government had decided to revoke the right of yeshiva students to an exemption from army service. At the time, the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, was in the United States.

HaRav Yechezkel Sarna tried to activate the Jewish lobby, even personally participating in the delegation which appeared before the authorities. But to no avail. After consulting with the Alter, it was decided that part of the yeshiva should be transferred to Eretz Yisroel.

The proposal was a daring one for those days, considering the difficult conditions in Eretz Yisroel of almost eighty years ago. A telegram was sent to the United States to ask the Rosh Yeshiva to approve the proposed solution. In his return telegram, the helmsman of the yeshiva said that the suggestion was a good one. The Rosh Yeshiva even promised to make every effort to secure money to carry out the complex transfer.

After Pesach, HaRav Yechezkel set out to Eretz Yisroel to find a suitable place for the yeshiva. He was charged with organizing the yeshiva's transfer and setup in its new abode, along with the task of securing entrance certificates for the yeshiva students. HaRav Avrohom Grodzinsky, who served as the yeshiva's spiritual director, arrived soon afterward.

It was decided to transfer the yeshiva to Ir Ho'Ovos, Hevron. During the period of the Yomim Noraim of 5685, the first minyan of students reached Hevron. That winter, many other students from Slobodke, Telz and other yeshivos arrived, as did students from the old yishuv in Yerushalayim, who looked a bit skeptically at the new yeshiva, whose ways seemed somewhat strange to them. HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, however, discerned the yiras Shomayim of the students, and remained in close contact with the yeshiva and its directors until his final days.

Slobodke, the kingdom of mussar and yirah which strode along the paths charted by Reb Yisroel of Salant, was the first of the yeshivos to make aliya to Eretz Yisroel. The leader of the aliya, Reb Yechezkel, regarded it as a great merit to have paved the way later followed also by the Lomza yeshiva which settled in Petach Tikvah, as well as by others.

Within a few months, HaRav Avrohom Grodzinsky was asked to return to Lithuania. As a result, the burden of leading the yeshiva in Hevron fell on Reb Yechezkel, who displayed outstanding organizational capacity. In addition, he was revealed as a mashpia, whose deep, logical shiurim captured the interest of students who were not much younger than he.

The name of the yeshiva became famous throughout the Jewish world. In the course of 5685, the rosh yeshiva, who had come from America, visited Hevron and then returned to Slobodke in Elul. He was accompanied by his brother-in-law, the son of the Alter, HaRav Moshe Finkel, who was suddenly niftar on Succos of 5686, after having remained in Hevron for only six months, where he delivered shiurim. The Alter also arrived in the summer of 5685.

A year later, in 5686, a new mashpia ruchani was appointed: HaRav Leib Chasman, later known for his Or Yahel.

In the beginning of 5687, when the Alter fell ill and felt that his end was near, he called his beloved Reb Yechezkel to him, and told him that he should begin to deliver mussar shmuessim in the yeshiva. The first sichos were delivered in HaRav Yechezkel's home. He later began to speak in the yeshiva itself.

During his early efforts as a mussar speaker -- perhaps because of a fear of public speaking or perhaps due to his desire to weigh his words -- he would pause between every word, like one counting precious pearls. In time, however, his speech began to flow, and he became on outstanding speaker.

After the petirah of the Alter in the winter of 5677, Reb Yechezkel gained recognition as the mussar leader in the citadel of the Alter, along with HaRav Leib Chasman, who was esteemed for his deep spiritual influence.

In Av of 5689, blood baths inundated the country; one of the worst hit was the Jewish settlement in Hevron. During the infamous savage massacre by Hevron's Arabs, twenty-four of the yeshiva's students lost their lives. The Hevron chapter in the lives of these Jews ended, as did the Hevron period of Slobodke.

"Our sorrow is great as the sea," Reb Yechezkel telegraphed HaRav Yitzchok Eizek Sher in Slobodke.

He himself had gone to Yerushalayim on the Thursday prior to the Shabbos of the massacre, but due to the tense situation he was unable to return to Hevron in time for Shabbos. Thus, he was far from the focal point of the calamity. Scores of students dispersed. Parents from abroad called upon their sons to come home. "Moh rabu rachamov," wrote Rav Yechezkel in a letter, "that the yeshiva merited to arise anew after so terrible a destruction."


Rebuilding the yeshiva was not easy. Grieving, pained, and injured, the students assembled once more. Invitations arrived from Tel Aviv, from Petach Tikvah and even from Reb Yitzchok Gerstenkorn of Bnei Brak, who offered HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein the position of the Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak. But the choice fell on Yerushalayim, and the burden once more on Reb Yechezkel, who was nearly alone at the front.

The Rosh Hayeshiva made the necessary efforts to collect the money, while HaRav Leib Chasman, who was ailing and feeble, did his share by encouraging the students and guiding their chinuch.

"Of course, during the first weeks," Reb Yechezkel related in a letter, "they were in a desperate situation -- oppressed and ailing, lacking even clothing and shoes. But from the 15th of Elul, they began to slowly recuperate, and by the week before Rosh Hashanah the yeshiva had already assumed once more the form of a yeshiva in the full sense of that term and, as is customary in Elul, the students made great strides in their studies."

The synagogue in the Achva neighborhood was the yeshiva's first station in Yerushalayim. Quite soon, homes, apartments and houses were purchased in Geula, where the large study hall of the Hevron yeshiva -- called by its former name that was hallowed by the blood of the kedoshim -- was eventually built.

A new period began. Hevron occupied its place among the fashioners of Torah in Eretz Hakodesh. Generations of talmidei chachomim, roshei yeshiva and dayanim developed between the walls of the yeshiva.

Under Reb Yechezkel's inspiration, the Yavneh Talmud Torah and the Tiferes Tzvi Yeshiva were founded. They served as a mechina to prepare students for the Hevron Yeshiva. Kollelim for avreichim, alumni of the yeshiva, were founded in Yerushalayim, Petach Tikvah and Tel Aviv.

In the wake of the yeshiva's difficult financial situation, HaRav Sarna was forced to travel to the United States in 5691 (1931), where he stayed for twelve months. The uprisings had an effect on the yeshiva's financial situation which had continually deteriorated since then. Sufficient funds were not raised in America. The responsibility increased with the petirah of the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, in the winter of 5694.

HaRav Yechezkel became the rosh yeshiva, the mashgiach, the parnas. We cannot describe this difficult period at length in this article, though we will mention that included very difficult times that it included liens and even prison sentences because of the yeshiva's financial difficulties. Eventually, under HaRav Yechezkel's influence, the Weizman brothers, owners of the Nur match factory of Acco, merited to build the illustrious yeshiva study hall, where Torah still resounds today.

During the period of the Holocaust, HaRav Sarna was one of the first to spearhead the Vaad Hayeshivos fund, and he assisted the Vaad Hatzolah which dealt with European refugees. He also took an interest in aliya of young, orphaned refugees as well as in their Torah education.

His two brothers in-law, HaRav Aharon Cohen and HaRav Moshe Hevroni worked alongside him in the yeshiva as roshei yeshiva. HaRav Meir Chodosh was its menahel ruchani.

"Let's bring Moshiach tzidkeinu," he told the mashgiach, HaRav Eliyahu Lopian, who visited him on the last erev Shavuos of his life.

When he became seriously ill, his students recited many prayers for his welfare. "Now it's Elul, and the students will surely study Torah and mussar with hasmodoh. I hope that my illness will not disturb them," he told one of his close confidants.

The tree was not cut down. Also the well did not dry up. The tree continues to grow and the well to flow: one in Givat Mordechai, the other, in Hevron Geula in Yerushalayim, headed by his son, who is continuing in his footsteps, HaRav Yaakov Chaim Sarna.

Torah is Important to All Klal Yisroel

One of the heads of the Mizrachi movement in the United States sharply criticized the rosh yeshiva for his membership in to Agudas Yisroel. "Ramim must keep a distance from politics," the man claimed, even threatening to cause financial harm to the yeshiva. In a long, amazingly penetrating letter, HaRav Sarna wrote what appeared to be an explanation of the aim of Torah Jewry in Eretz Yisroel.

"Regarding the claim that ramim must keep a distance from politics and not involve themselves either directly or even indirectly in the intricate problems of politics, I must wonder! That is what the secular say. The secular always tell the rabbonim not to interfere in politics, even when the rabbonim come to mend the breaches of religion. Do you really believe that all of the issues of Mizrachi and Aguda are nothing but politics?

"If such is the case, I would advise you, although your are not ramim, to distance yourselves from politics, and instead spend your time learning a few pages of gemora each day."

HaRav Sarna replied in a pleasant manner to the threats, and with the admixture of refinement and resolve of a true leader: "I can't refrain from telling you how sorry I am about your threats which, if we translate from diplomatic rhetoric to spoken language, means: `If I don't change my ways, then you'll deprive the yeshiva of its source of sustenance.' But I stay away from fear, for were I a coward, I wouldn't be where I am today. The yeshiva hakedosha is maintained by miracles: every day a new miracle, and those who head yeshivos are not afraid of the future. If that were so, there would be no yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel, cholila.

"I'm not frightened by your threats, because I don't think that you are in the category of chayovim -- of those through whom a chov of such immensity is brought about, and I regard all that you have said as mere prattle. I am not sorry about the threats, but about those who make them. I am sorry that they have reached so low a level. Let me ask you: Whom are you threatening? Is it my yeshiva and not yours? Is the value of Torah measured only by one's narrow party lines? Such thinking may be compared to that of one who said: `If you don't do what I want, I'll turn off the lamps which glow in the city during the nights and provide light for its residents.'"

His love of the abodes of Torah is expressed in a different letter: "I always say that the biggest miracle is that ruchniyus continues to be maintained in the generation of ikvesa demeshicha, in which there are so many enemies whose sole purse is to uproot all, and especially the young generation which suffers so much from their families who constantly pressure them to be concerned about "tachlis." The miracle is that those young, dear people are imbued with the full realization of their true tachlis, and know that all other aims will destroy the body and the soul together, cholila. They cling to the Torah with all their hearts and all their souls out of love and simcha."

The Wail of 5745

The fog over Europe began to clear. The clouds which concealed the sources of information about what happened slowly dispersed. What was revealed below was a field of death, unprecedented in human memory. The rivers of blood still boiled. But then the vapors of the boiling blood reached the shearis hapleito in Eretz Hakodesh. They thought then that they knew the scope of the Holocaust.

And in Hevron, in the yeshiva's study hall, rabbonon and their students gathered for a bitter hesped, a stirring speech delivered with deep emotion with the weeping voice of the rosh yeshiva, who called out to "listen to the voice which calls from Shomayim to weeping and lament."

It was an exalted event which had a deep impact on those present. Like Yirmiyohu Hanovi, the rosh hayeshiva mourned the deaths of the kedoshim for two hours. Until today there are those who can recall that occasion, the impressions of which will never fade from their hearts.

"The scope of the destruction is so terrible -- as great as the sea -- so that we cannot grasp it at all. It is neither understood by our minds nor grasped by our thoughts, and we face it stunned. We are like an infant who, in a time of terrible adversity in the home, sees downcast faces, sorrow and mourning, but whose reason cannot understand all of the anguish which surrounds him. What he feels most at that time is that food isn't served him as usual, and his needs aren't attended to as usual.

"How terrible and great is the spiritual destruction. In respect to the exile of Bovel, where Am Yisroel was done a great chessed by Hashem in sending the cheireish and the masger, the great Torah scholars, several years ahead of the main body of Klal Yisroel . . . Hashem did a kindness with Am Yisroel by preceding the exile of Yechonya (which consisted of the cheireish and the masger) to that of Tzidkiyo, so that Torah shebe'al peh would not be forgotten and Am Yisroel would have the transmitters of the Torah in a tradition from rav to rav, back to Moshe Rabbenu.

"How great, then, is the darkness of our times, after the terrible destruction. Many countries which were full of Torah and yirah were lost along with their geonim, their tzaddikim, their kedoshim, their chassidim, their rabbonim and their talmidim.

"Who can replace them? Who can give us the Torah and depth of Lithuania ? Who can give us the Torah of Poland and its sharpness? The Torah of Hungary and its straightness? Who will restore the luminaries of the mussar movement and the rabbei'im of Chassidus? Our world has grown dark. Who will light it?"

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