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29 Adar 5759 - March 17, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Nineteenth of Adar 5759
And His Hands Were Faithful -- the Twenty Fifth Yahrtzeit of HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein Zt'l, Mashgiach of Mir and Ponevezh

By A. Bar Moshe

Part I

Introduction: Emunoh in his Hands

There is scarcely a yeshiva today whose leaders have not been influenced to one degree or another, by the strong yet gentle character and the moving shmuessen of Reb Chatzkel who conveyed a faith in Hashem that was so pure and clear that it was virtually tangible. From prewar Europe and Eretz Yisroel, from Mir across Europe to the Far East, in postwar America and again in Eretz Yisroel, in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak, Reb Chatzkel inspired three generations of bnei yeshiva with the faith to cling to Hashem and His Torah under all and any circumstances, and with the strength to attempt the rebuilding of the yeshiva world in new times and places. To fully plumb the depths of his character, or to assess the true extent of his influence is beyond our capability. All we will do here is present a handful of recollections gathered from some of his talmidim, that will give us a picture of his life, his character and his achievements.

In a hesped for the mashgiach which he delivered at the levaya in Ponevezh Yeshiva, HaRav Shach said that even were Reb Chatzkel zt'l, to have lived his life of avodas Hashem five hundred years ago, in the time of the Rishonim, he would still have been reckoned as a great and a pious man. To see the mashgiach, the Rosh Yeshiva ylct'a, continued, was to behold a wonder; a man so weak and frail, who nevertheless waged war. In his seventies and his eighties, he still battled the yetzer hora with might, refusing [for example] to lie down for even a brief rest during the day, because his daytime hours were wholly devoted to serving Hashem.

The Rosh Yeshiva added that the comment made by Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l, about his teacher, Rav Zundel of Salant zt'l, can be applied to the mashgiach. Rav Yisroel Salanter said that he had never seen someone who served Hashem to such a degree. We too, said HaRav Shach, have never beheld a servant of Hashem to equal the mashgiach.

The Chazon Ish described Reb Chatzkel as someone who had "emunoh in his hands"! Everyone who knew him could see that his faith in Hashem was so strong and so solid, that it could virtually be touched. It is this aspect of Reb Chatzkel that we shall try to portray.

None served Hashem as he did and he left no one who could be compared with him. With his passing, the last remnant of the Beis Hatalmud of Kelm, as Reb Chatzkel was described by HaRav Dovid Povarsky zt'l, was also lost to us. The feeling of all who knew him and his teachings could be summed up in a paraphrase of a well known gemora (Makkos 24): Came Reb Chatzkel and placed the entire Torah upon a single foundation -- emunoh!

In the following articles, we will briefly survey the story of his life and trace the path that led him to the positions that enabled him to peel away the layers of concealment which the world casts over events from the eyes of his talmidim, to find the keys that opened up closed, numbed hearts, to lead and guide Yeshivas Mir safely through tempestuous times and through the vicissitudes of exile and then to exert an influence upon a young, new generation in Eretz Yisroel.

His Origins

HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein was born in Warsaw, the Polish capital, in 5656. When five years old, he was orphaned from his mother, a very righteous woman named Zlota o'h. His father Reb Yehuda z'l, remarried.

The young orphan went to learn in Yeshivas Lomza, after having become a bar mitzva and arriving at the realization that Torah study was a far better investment than any other: he had worked in a store and suffered the theft of his money.

In one of his shmuessen, Reb Chatzkel portrayed the atmosphere in the yeshiva of Lomza. He described how the talmidim would gather before ma'ariv on motzei Shabbos in a darkened room to hear the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Dovid Tevel zt'l, a talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter, deliver words of mussar which fired the boys' hearts and aroused within them a yearning for teshuvah. Those shmuessen would end with the prayer, "Bring us back to You, Hashem and we shall return . . . "

In the period leading up to the yomim noraim, everyone would burst into bitter tears, from the dread of the approaching judgment.

Reb Chatzkel spent two and a half years in Lomza, learning with great application, as those who knew him at the time later attested.

With the Chofetz Chaim

As a young talmid in Lomza, Reb Chatzkel heard about the righteousness and the holiness of the great Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hacohen zy'a and about his yeshiva in Radin, and he decided to travel there in order to learn from the Chofetz Chaim. In Radin, he gained a reputation for fluent knowledge of the works, Ketzos HaChoshen and Nesivos Hamishpot.

In letters and shmuessen, the Mashgiach would relate things which he had heard and seen while he learned in Radin. In Or Yechezkel (letter #22) he writes that in one of his shmuessim, he related, ". . . an incident with the Chofetz Chaim [which happened while I was learning in Radin]. He once wanted to prove to one of the talmidim that he should believe in Torah. He said to him as follows: `Look, can you see the sun? Emunoh is as clear to me as the sun.' I said that he wanted to convey [to the bochur] that tzaddikim have clarified emunoh for themselves through the pathways of wisdom, unlike the common view, that tzaddikim serve Hashem without any clarity chas vesholom, just because they rely on those who preceded them. That is not true. In addition to their faith in the earlier generations, their emunas chachomim, they also recognized everything clearly for themselves."

In another shmuess (Or Yechezkel, Middos), Reb Chatzkel recalled the Chofetz Chaim's comments at the time of an earthquake in Japan, which resulted in thousands of deaths. "I remember that he said it had happened because there were no Torah scholars in Japan."

He also related how the Chofetz Chaim had once been able to `smell' the odor of theft hovering about a fish which came from a concern owned by partners, one of whom had not taken his share. Although he was unaware of all the story's details, the Chofetz Chaim would not partake of the fish when it was served to him on Shabbos. The Mashgiach applied the posuk (Yeshaya 11:3), "And he will empower his sense of smell [i.e. of Moshiach, to know what is before him on the basis of smell alone] because of his fear of Hashem." He also recalled the Chofetz Chaim's admonition to a man who had come to him asking whether he should buy chairs for his children's dowry. "HaKodosh Boruch Hu doesn't yet have even one complete seat! And moreover, a man is only a visitor in this world."

The Shmuess that Led Him to Kelm

When the renowned mashgiach of Mir, R' Yeruchom Leibowitz zt'l, arrived to serve as mashgiach in Radin, he delivered a shmuess whose subject was the strengthening of mussar study. Reb Yeruchom discussed Chazal's observation that, "Techeiles (the blue color with which one of the threads of each group of tzitzis is dyed), is similar to the sea; the sea is similar to the sky and the sky is similar to Hashem's Throne of glory." How is it, Reb Yeruchom asked, that people can wear tzitzis and see the techeiles, yet remain unmoved by it? He answered that without mussar study, one is simply not aroused -- one's emunoh will have no practical fulfillment and neither is the breaking of harmful character traits possible.

Reb Chatzkel said that this shmuess was the greatest and the most instructive lesson of his life in emunoh. From that time on, he resolved wholeheartedly never to remove his attention from bolstering his emunoh. He said, "For a year and a half I had no peace, for I felt pressured by the question, how could one live without learning mussar? It is a matter of life and death when it comes to guarding one's spirituality! Until, in Hashem's mercy, I travelled upon the advice of my teacher and rebbe the mashgiach Reb Yeruchom to learn in the Talmud Torah of Kelm."

A single shmuess, that had afforded him no peace, was the deciding factor in Reb Chatzkel's journey to one of the most renowned mussar centers, the Talmud Torah of Kelm.

In Kelm

When he arrived in Kelm, he was fortunate to enjoy the close attention of HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Broide zt'l, (son- in- law of the Alter of Kelm), at whose table he ate his Shabbos meals. One Shabbos, Reb Tzvi Hirsch said to him, "One can see on your face that you had a great and an honorable mother, and it is in your mother's merit that you have arrived in Kelm."

Reb Tzvi Hirsch's wife, Rebbetzin Nechamah Leba Broide, the Alter's daughter, added that Yechezkel had his own merit, for it was also visible on his face that he had never read any secular literature. Reb Chatzkel's comment on this incident was that what both of them said was true. His mother had in fact been a distinguished woman and he himself had also taken care throughout his life to refrain from reading any secular books.

In a letter to Reb Yeruchom in Radin, Reb Tzvi Hirsch wrote, "Know my dear one, that I have great pleasure from the dear bochurim you sent . . . as to the bochur Yechezkel from Warsaw n'y, we have great hopes from him. He has been here only a short time, but it appears that he arrived well prepared to succeed."

When the Chofetz Chaim's son-in-law HaRav Tzvi Hirsch Levinson zt'l, visited Kelm, he wanted to take Yechezkel back with him to Radin but in Kelm they would not agree to it.

Serving Hashem in Kelm

The generations that knew the Talmud Torah of Kelm have left us a succinct description, which sums up the essence of the place: "The residence of the truth and of the perfection of character."

Anyone familiar with the origins of the great teachers of mussar and of avodas Hashem in recent generations knows that in Kelm, the emphasis was placed upon reaching high levels of personal integrity and of faith, and that it was in Kelm that all the great mashgichim developed. Here is a letter of Reb Chatzkel's about Kelm (Or Yechezkel #1):

" . . . now is not the time to let those things slacken which can enhance friendship and fellowship, and perhaps lead to some further `arousal' of desire and longing to join our company. Know my brother, that we dwell in this pleasant house in tranquility and that our teacher Ze'eiv n'y [HaRav Nochum Ze'eiv Ziv, son of the Alter of Kelm], is here all the time and delivers precious words almost every day, matters which relate to the present period and time. He is also inspired to prayers and supplications which concern the present time. And boruch Hashem, we are strengthened according to our stature . . . sometimes I find joy in my heart, for His having put my portion among those who dwell in this house."

Reb Tzvi Hirsch revealed to Reb Chatzkel that were three prerequisites to becoming a ba'al mussar: first, powerful feelings; second, a good head; and third, the desire and the longing to be a yirei Shomayim.

Reb Chatzkel once demonstrated how Reb Tzvi Hirsch had placed the imprint of the truth upon him. "When I arrived in Kelm, Reb Tzvi Hirsch told me I should learn Sha'ar Habitochon from Chovos Halevovos. I told him that I had not attained the level of that section. My teacher became annoyed with me, for it appeared from my reaction that I was accomplished in other areas and on other levels, whereas the truth is that we have attained nothing at all."

He would repeat the following anecdote to portray Reb Nochum Ze'eiv's greatness.

During the First World War, Kelm was shelled and bombed and missiles rained down on all sides, scaring the wits out of the townspeople. One shell fell in the neighboring street, on the house of an avreich who had once learned in the Talmud Torah but had left it for the world of trade. His rebbe, Reb Nochum Ze'eiv, sat at the table facing the window, contemplating the avreich's house burning. As he sat, he tapped the table and announced, "Apparently in Heaven they have not yet given up hope on this avreich; even though we have given up on him here -- and that is why they are making him suffer."

An important aspect of the Kelm education was learning to accept the mastery of a higher authority, to be submissive and receptive. Upon his arrival in Kelm, Reb Chatzkel noticed that all the students took turns in the maintenance jobs in the beis hamedrash and he had difficulty understanding why this was so. Reb Tzvi Hirsch said to him that one of the areas of self improvement that were addressed in Kelm was the humble acceptance of the rules.

His Marriage

In Kelm, the mashgiach married his rebbetzin, Chaya a'h who was an orphan. The proposal had been HaRav Aharon Grossbard's zt'l and it had also been shown to him in a dream. Reb Chatzkel rejected glowing offers made to him by wealthy men who wanted him for their daughters. He argued that a girl who had been brought up in riches, would be unable to share a life of privation and restraint and of subsisting on the bare essentials. Great talmidei chachomim attended his wedding, as did all his teachers in Kelm.

The Rebbetzin indeed merited to stand by him through all manner of difficult times and circumstances, until she passed away in her old age. In Kelm, she worked in a shop to support herself and her husband, who would only end his learning late at night. Not only did she not prevent him from doing so, she rejoiced in this practice and requested from him a share in his Torah in Olom Haboh, which Reb Chatzkel undertook to provide her with.

Influencing Others

In Kelm, there was a yeshiva ketana which was headed by HaRav Eliyohu Lopian zt'l. Reb Chatzkel used to deliver a short discourse, five to ten minutes of reproof and guidance, before the shiur. Talmidim from that period affirmed in later years that the impressions of those brief sessions exerted a lifelong influence over them.

It is said that Reb Chatzkel was advised in Kelm to gain experience in speaking, for it was expected that he would be speaking in public in the future. Rebbetzin Nechamah Leba Broide even recommended his taking elocution lessons so as to attenuate his Polish accent but her husband Reb Tzvi Hirsch Broide responded that this was unnecessary, for the truths which Reb Chatzkel spoke came straight from his heart, and for this reason they would certainly be accepted, irrespective of accent. The extent to which Reb Tzvi Hirsch's assertion was fulfilled can be affirmed by any of the mashgiach's multitudes of disciples, who received his teachings and implemented them in their own lives.

Mashgiach in Mir and Kletsk

In 5679 (1919), during the First World War, while Reb Yeruchom was serving as mashgiach, the Mirrer Yeshiva was exiled from its hometown of Mir, Poland, into Russia and then to Vilna, returning to Mir only after the war's end. Reb Yeruchom however, did not return even then. He travelled among the yeshivos in Lithuania for a further four years.

At this time, Reb Chatzkel, who was learning as an avreich in Mir, was asked by the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l, to supervise the yeshiva's spiritual welfare until his rebbe Reb Yeruchom returned. Despite his youth, Reb Chatzkel succeeded in rallying the yeshiva with his shmuessen and maintaining its high spiritual level.

Upon Reb Yeruchom's return to Mir in 5684, he was highly impressed with Reb Chatzkel's success in guiding the bnei hayeshiva.

HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt'l, who had been appointed as rav of the town of Ponevezh, proposed that Reb Chatzkel come to serve as a maggid shiur in a yeshiva ketana there, a proposal which the latter accepted, remaining at this post for over a year.

Reb Chatzkel was then approached by HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l, who headed Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Kletsk, to come and serve as mashgiach ruchani in his yeshiva. Reb Chatzkel accepted this offer, feeling the weight of the responsibility which he was undertaking.

In his hesped for Reb Chatzkel, HaRav Shach ylct'a, related that while he was in Kletsk, he noticed that the mashgiach would remain in the beis hamedrash all day long, not so much as stepping outside. He asked Reb Chatzkel about this and was told that there was a certain bochur learning there, who was liable to leave the beis hamedrash if he, Reb Chatzkel, did. This was why he stayed there all the time.

In Kletsk, Reb Chatzkel's influence was very great. However, for reasons which are unclear, he left the yeshiva's staff abruptly and returned to Mir to learn there as one of the avreichim. Bnei yeshiva from that period recalled how he would clamber up onto the benches in order to hear Reb Yeruchom's shmuessen, despite the fact that he himself had once served as the yeshiva's mashgiach.

References to this period in his life can be found in Reb Chatzkel's letters (Or Yechezkel letters #309 and #315). In one letter, discussing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's life of pure bitochon and avodas Hashem, he wrote, "I myself tried a little of this, for I left my position in Kletsk and travelled to Mir without a position . . . according to the principles of bitochon there is nothing to fear from this, for everything is fixed from Rosh Hashanah."

In the second letter he wrote, "Who would have guessed that when I was forced to leave Yeshivas Kletsk and to be in Yeshivas Mir, in a difficult position R'l, in various respects . . . and all of it was contributory to my remaining alive boruch Hashem, as well as meriting a position of beneficial public influence boruch Hashem."

Petach Tikvah

The call came from Yeshivas Lomza in Petach Tikvah, which was headed by HaRav Reuven Katz zt'l, for Reb Chatzkel to be oleh to Eretz Yisroel and serve in the yeshiva as mashgiach, as well as exerting an influence upon the surrounding area. This was in 5695 (1935), a few years before the Second World War.

There were very few talmidim learning in the yeshiva when Reb Chatzkel took up his post but many more were attracted after he joined and both the yeshiva's size and reputation greatly increased. Many talmidei chachomim developed there, some of whom have become well known roshei yeshiva.

In a letter dated the third of Marcheshvan 5697, R' Chatzkel wrote to a distinguished friend, "For who knows how his fate has fallen. A person's feet carry him to the place where [it has been decreed that] he needs to be. Here too, I have various doubts regarding his moving to Petach Tikvah . . . since I came, the yeshiva has taken on the appearance of a yeshiva and I hope that it will be successful, if I have any merits. We intend to apply to the Government for a permit for more then thirty bochurim." Many talmidim indeed arrived from great yeshivos in chutz la'aretz.

Back to Mir

Despite the very difficult, poverty stricken life he led in Petach Tikvah, sometimes finding it necessary to borrow money in order to fulfill the obligation he had undertaken to support his son-in-law who was learning in Mir, Reb Chatzkel never complained. His sole aim was to spread Torah and yiras Shomayim, to implant faith in HaKodosh Boruch Hu within his talmidim and to place the mark of mussar and character refinement upon them and all the bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel.

When Reb Yeruchom passed away (on the eighteenth of Sivan 5697) however, the heads of the yeshiva asked Reb Chatzkel if he would agree to return and serve as mashgiach in Mir, which was then world famous and had a student body hundreds strong, and which consequently offered the possibility of exerting a much wider influence. With a sense of gratitude to his teacher Reb Yeruchom, Reb Chatzkel consented to return, hoping to continue the promulgation of his rebbe's teachings in Mir.

In hindsight, the workings of Hashgocho can be seen, in preparing the means for the yeshiva's rescue, under Reb Chatzkel's leadership and guided by his unswerving emunoh.

East and West

The yeshiva's experiences during the Second World War have already been extensively chronicled. The move to Vilna at the war's beginning, the dispersal in Lithuania, the miracle of the granting of exit visas making it possible to escape from the Russians, the yeshiva's journey to the Far East and its sojourn in Japan and China until, in Hashem's mercy, the bnei hayeshiva succeeded in reaching America -- all of it, from beginning to end, under the Mashgiach's inspired leadership, have been recounted in Neis Hatzoloh by HaRav Elchonon Yosef Hertzmann, Operation Torah Rescue, by HaRav Yechezkel Leitner, Mofeis Yechezkel by HaRav Moshe Binyomin Bernstein as well as other works. In addition, several articles in both the Hebrew and English editions of Yated have dealt with this period and we will not devote further discussion to it here.

For a long time after the war's end, the Mashgiach waited in Shanghai for the gates of Eretz Yisroel to be opened to the bnei hayeshiva. When the anticipated certificates failed to materialize, Reb Chatzkel was forced to agree that the yeshiva travel to America, as a temporary measure. From Shanghai, he wrote to the Chazon Ish zt'l, "I waited for a long time, in case Hashem would open the gates of the Holy Land to bnei Torah, for in that eventuality, I would certainly travel together with all the bnei hayeshiva, and that is why I delayed my journey to the United States until now. Since I have seen that our hopes are far from being realized however, R'l, I have decided to travel to the United States, until I can travel to Eretz Yisroel . . . my hope is to erect the yeshiva's edifice only in Eretz Yisroel. I extend my request that he mention me in his tefillos . . . "

Why did Reb Chatzkel and his teachers, and the Chazon Ish have such reservations about the materialistic atmosphere of America? The issue at hand was after all, reestablishing the yeshiva there, as a self contained unit. The Mashgiach likened America to a wine press, where the fumes intoxicate all who are there, irrespective of whether they actually drink anything. It was for lack of an alternative that Reb Chatzkel left for America in Teves 5707, together with the last group of talmidim.

In a letter to HaRav Shach he wrote, "I wanted to let my friend know that I intend to return to our Holy Land, but at the time my journey to the United States was unavoidable for the bnei hayeshiva had no entry permits for Eretz Yisroel . . . and besides my own desire for Eretz Yisroel, it is very difficult for me to live here, as is obvious. In my opinion, this place is not suitable R'l, for our yeshiva, and not even for a ben Torah . . . at present I am not revealing my views, for it will not be easy for me to travel from here, and also because right now, I do not want to become connected to any particular place in Eretz Yisroel. I have received information from a certain place that I will be able to be of great benefit there be'ezras Hashem, but for the moment I intend toconduct myself as mentioned."

The Mashgiach worked hard on his talmidim in the very materialistic atmosphere of that period and his influence upon them was profound, imbuing them with the spirit of mussar and firing them to devote their lives to avodas Hashem. Many of his talmidim developed into great roshei yeshiva and rabbonim in America, greatly benefiting the spiritual level of American Jewry.

In Eretz Yisroel

On the twenty-fourth of Adar 5709, after two years of toil, the Mashgiach hastily fled the shores of America, arriving at Haifa shortly before Pesach. He was accompanied by his son-in-law the mashgiach HaRav Reuven Ginsburg zt'l, and daughter Rebbetzin Yocheved Ginsburg, together with their young family, as well as two of his talmidim, HaRav Reuven Melamed zt'l and HaRav Moshe Bernstein zt'l.

When asked by HaRav Ze'eiv Edelman about the reason for his swift departure from America, Reb Chatzkel replied, "Chazal say, `The eye sees and the heart desires'; if the eye sees the holiness of Shabbos, then the heart desires th<%- 2>e holiness of Shabbos but if the eye chas vesholom sees the holy Shabbos and the like being desecrated, then that is what the heart will desire. That is why I ran away."

The Mashgiach spent his first few days back in Eretz Yisroel in Bnei Brak, in the home of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, an upright store owner. He then travelled to Yerushalayim, where the Brisker Rov tried to persuade him to serve as mashgiach in a yeshiva which he intended to open together with his sons.

However, it was to the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, then led by HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, that Reb Chatzkel felt himself indebted. He served as mashgiach in Mir and also delivered shmuessen to distinguished members of the local community in his home and in the Beis Hamussar which he opened. The Brisker Rov used to encourage his sons to go and hear Reb Chatzkel's shmuessen and they were among those who attended.

When the Brisker Rov's son married in Bnei Brak, the father of the chosson honored Reb Chatzkel by asking him to address the gathering. The Mashgiach widened the circle of his talmidim and spread his teachings among the lomdim of Yerushalayim.

In the winter of 5714, after the passing of his old friend (from their days in Kelm) HaRav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler zt'l, Reb Chatzkel was asked by the Ponevezher Rov zt'l, to serve as mashgiach in Ponevezh Yeshiva, which was then the Torah center of Eretz Yisroel and which therefore afforded an opportunity of working with a large circle of talmidim, in accordance with the Mashgiach's lifelong ambition of inculcating Torah, emunoh and pure yiras Shomayim into the bnei Torah of Eretz Yisroel.

Despite his advanced age, Reb Chatzkel accepted this offer and he spent the following twenty years working in Ponevezh, inspiring the talmidim with emunoh, to toil in Torah, and to work at heightening their yiras Shomayim. His vision embodies the highest ideals of Torah inspiration and education.

The talmidim became closely bound to him. On his very first Purim in Ponevezh, one of the bochurim cried out to him, "Please Mashgiach, revive the dry bones, like the novi Yechezkel did!"

The mashgiach responded to the need and he truly evoked a spiritual revival.

When the rosh yeshiva of Mir, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel asked Reb Chatzkel, "Why have you forsaken us, forgetting your years of leadership in exile?"

The latter replied that his obligation to be grateful only extended to the Ribono shel Olom, who had helped the yeshiva and taken it to safety. Now that he had the opportunity to reach larger numbers of talmidim, there was no debt to Mir that ought to hold him back.

In his hesped for the Mashgiach, HaRav Shmuel Rozovsky zt'l, revealed that the Mashgiach extended great help to talmidim without them being at all aware of it. He had concealed these efforts completely.

Such was the inspiration of Reb Chatzkel's presence and the feeling of loss and helplessness when he passed away, that one of his distinguished talmidim wrote, "The pillars of the Heavens grow weak and the ends of the earth tremble chas vesholom. We have no one to lean on, therefore, save our Father in Heaven."

Our second article will present some recollections of Reb Chatzkel's talmidim, of the Mashgiach and his teachings.


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