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5 Tishrei 5760 - September 15, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Klal Yisroel's Sole Surviving Child

A hesped on the Brisker Rov delivered at his levaya by Maran HaRav Shach yblct"a. 11 Tishrei this year marks the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Brisker Rov, zt'l. Maran HaRav Shach, shlita, was especially close to the Brisker Rov.

Impossible to Appreciate

No matter what words of eulogy or appreciation we use, they will only serve to detract from the stature of the niftar, for we are not capable of grasping what he really was. We find something like this in the gemora (Bovo Kama 59), where Eliezer Zeira, wanting to mourn for Yerushalayim, donned footwear that was customary for mourners, and the members of the Reish Galusa's household asked him, "Are you worthy of mourning for Yerushalayim?"

The explanation of this gemora is that no external action could possibly encompass the dimensions of the dreadful loss that befell us with the churban Beis Hamikdosh. Performing such an act would actually lessen the significance and belittle the dimensions of the tragedy, because it could not possibly express or represent what in truth happened. We, who are able to mourn for Yerushalayim, are only permitted to do so inasmuch as we are fulfilling the halochos fixed by Chazal for all generations and are obeying their command.

This occasion, the petirah of our great teacher, the gaon and av beis din of Brisk zt'l, is the same. It is impossible for any words to properly evaluate and to eulogize such a great man. Instead let us talk about the event, as people discuss what has happened to them with each other. Everybody is able to take part in such a discussion, arousing one another to the terrible calamity, sounding the alarm and crying out.

For example, if a man sees that a fire has broken out at night in a house where men, women and children are all sleeping, unaware of what has happened, he certainly has to yell and wake them up from their slumber. No excuses, such as his inability to shout and arouse people, are at all relevant. Even a dumb man would have to find a way to arouse the people and save them.

That is our position; we have been literally left orphans. We have to cry out at our situation, having been left by ourselves, utterly alone -- who will now fill the breaches? From whom will we be able to seek counsel and advice? We are orphaned in every sense.

In the times of Chazal, we also find this state of orphanhood befalling Klal Yisroel, in the mishna at the end of Sotah, "When Ben Azai died, there were no longer any who applied themselves to learning; when Ben Zoma died, there were no longer any who expounded pesukim; when Rabbi Akiva died, honor of Torah stopped; when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa died, there were no longer any men of deeds . . ." Although if Chazal tell us that there were no more men of application or of deeds, then that is the fact -- with Rabbi Chanina's death, the entire world was orphaned from men of deeds -- there are still differing degrees of orphanhood. There is an orphan who has lost his father, a second has lost his mother too, while another is all alone, with no relatives either.

In the same way, our spiritual orphanhood is growing from generation to generation. Even in our own times, we remember our teacher the Chazon Ish living among us. We would bring every difficult problem to him and he would guide and lead us along the paths of our lives. Then, he left us and our master Reb Isser Zalman zt'l, the Torah gaon, remained. He too, left us and the Brisker Rov was left, literally like an only child. He was the sole survivor of the gedolei Yisroel.

Teacher of Klal Yisroel

He was the teacher and the beacon of all of Klal Yisroel -- Rabbon shel kol bnei hagoloh in the full sense of the word, not as a mere title. All bnei Torah, in every yeshiva, learned his divrei Torah. All over the world, difficulties and solutions were repeated in his name. His teachings were on the lips of everyone, and were said over with such admiration and decisiveness, something that has not happened with any other godol beTorah in recent generations.

Even without a sizable yeshiva, he merited his words being listened to everywhere, which is an indication of how great his Torah was. Everyone mentioned his questions and answers, bochurim in yeshiva ketanos, boys in their bar mitzva droshos. Who else merited such comprehensive and far reaching Torah?

And how pleasant his words were! How much firm, solid truth they contained! And what joy they infused, just as when they were given at Sinai. One's soul simply overflowed with happiness, so joyful and so illuminating were his words. So much so, that I remember once, twelve years ago, leaving his house in such a happy frame of mind and meeting a certain talmid chochom, to whom I expressed myself in my great joy saying, "I don't know whether or not I deserve any Olom Haboh, but if I do, I've consumed it in the joy I'm experiencing from the chiddush I've heard from our teacher, the Brisker Rov!"

Such were the feelings which his precious words engendered in us. In every part of Torah, he propounded novel interpretations and elucidated, with wonderful depth and clarity, whether it was a difficult Rambam or a posuk in the weekly parsha. He encompassed everything with his luminous mind, always with the same characteristic penetration and comprehension.

His great father remarked about him that the halocho followed his opinion in every matter. And this was no mere bon mot because he was his son for in fact, his father was more exacting with him than he was with others. The niftar z'l, related that his father would always dismiss his Torah and say that it was nothing, and he would only find out from others that his father had repeated his divrei Torah to them and had praised them.

It once happened that his father said a certain chiddush and he disagreed and understood differently and argued with his father. He used to record his father's chiddushei Torah for him -- it was Reb Chaim's practice to explain his Torah to his sons and they would write it down -- but this time Reb Velvel didn't want to write. He told his father that he didn't understand the matter and that he couldn't write it down. Years later, he regretted what had happened. Not because he hadn't written, so he said, for he hadn't understood and why should he have written down something that he didn't understand? He was upset that he hadn't penetrated to his father's meaning.

Once, after Reb Chaim's petirah, he met a certain rov who asked him, "Would you like me to tell you a chiddush of your father's?" and he repeated the very chiddush that Reb Yitzchok Ze'ev had failed to understand and had not written down. The rov added that Reb Chaim had told him that it was possible to learn differently and that "my son Reb Velvel learns differently." Reb Chaim had then explained what Reb Velvel maintained and summed up the point upon which they disagreed. Reb Yitzchok Ze'ev rejoiced to hear this. His father had really accepted what he said, and only towards him had he brushed what he said aside as worthless.

And as severe as he was in his words and in his attitude to his son, he testified that the halocho followed him in every matter. With his petirah, Klal Yisroel has lost the "only child" that remained to it. Moreover, the entire Brisker dynasty, his father Reb Chaim and his grandfather, have all been lost to us through this petirah, for he was the continuation of the chain, explaining and transferring its Torah -- and now we have lost all that.

We were able to turn to him and receive answers to everything. If he said that something was difficult, we knew that it was truly difficult and that this was no mere chatter. If he responded, "I don't know," that itself was sufficient answer.

Now, after his petirah, when a question arises, there will be no one to turn to and nowhere to go. We have been left utterly orphaned.

And besides his superlative greatness in Torah, how great was his fear of Heaven, his piety, his separation from worldliness, his meticulous observance of halocho -- they knew no bounds. And he involved himself with Torah study, with fearsome application. He always spoke divrei Torah; even in his sleep, he was never heard to utter anything other than Torah. During his last weeks too, when he was in terrible suffering, he spoke divrei Torah all the time and his lips were always murmuring pesukim such as, "Yiheyu lerotzon imrei phi," etc. He said Shema Yisroel many times, "ani Hashem Elokeichem," "ein od . . ." his lips whispered divrei Torah without respite.

Precision in Mitzvos and Meaning

And how careful he was over fulfilling mitzvos! If a woman came to him seeking his prayers for Divine mercy, he would bless her and when she left, he would give a small coin to tzedokoh, fulfilling the words of the gemora, "Rav gave a pruta to a poor man and then prayed." He did this before every tefilla, and even when someone was sick, he would first give a pruta to tzedokoh.

He was particular in the same way everywhere over every detail. How stringent he was over the mitzvo of tefilla! When he was sick and he suffered from every tiny movement, he took great care over personal hygiene for tefilla, and was very stringent, though it caused him dreadful suffering. He appointed a guard to stand next to him while he said Krias Shema, to listen in case he, chas vesholom, missed a word. He would say, what help is the guard if he doesn't watch over me during the first posuk to see that I concentrate properly?

We can learn how pure his thoughts were in concentrating on Shema, from the explanation he once gave of the words of the gemora and Shulchan Oruch, which say that when saying the word "Echod," one should acknowledge Hashem as King over all four directions in Heaven and on earth, and that this is sufficient. He asked, why are one's thoughts when saying the word echod being stressed here, and not his thoughts when saying Hashem's name, which is also mentioned in the posuk?

In answer, he explained that there are two obligations: first, "I am Hashem your G-d," and second, "You shall have no other gods." The Name of Hashem, in this posuk, represents Hashem's rule over us, while the word echod implies that we should have no other gods. Other gods can only refer to something in terms of the creation and within the creation. Therefore, when saying echod, it is sufficient to make Hashem King over all four directions of Heaven and earth [for this excludes any other power in the creation].

This does not suffice for Hashem's Name, which alludes to, "I am Hashem your G-d," Who is above any concept that belongs to the creation. When saying Hashem's Name, it is therefore not enough to make Him King of all four directions, and we must have in mind whatever He is.

He had other explanations like this one in his prayers and they were not just abstract ideas. They represented the deep comprehension that he had developed through his toil and reflection on the precise meaning of the prayers according to their halochos.

True Bitochon

He would worry and tremble over his own situation, from fear that he was not conducting himself correctly and he would dismiss his own worth. During his final days, on one of the occasions before Rosh Hashanah when he asked, "What will be?"

I comforted him with the words of the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah perek 1:3) where the gemora says that Klal Yisroel arrive at Rosh Hashanah dressed in white, groomed and washed because they are certain that a miracle will be performed for them, unlike the way of the world where, when a man is summoned to judgment, he wears black clothes and mourns over his fate. In our present situation too [I said,] he ought to be certain that a miracle would be performed for him.

However, he answered, "In what, in what should one be certain?" and proceeded to explain the Yerushalmi and to elucidate the following words in Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol's piyut, Keser Malchus:

"My G-d, if my sin is too great to bear, What will You do for Your great Name? And if I do not hope for Your mercy, Who else will take pity on me except for You? So, even if You kill me, I beseech You. And if You seek my sin I will flee from You to You. And I will protect myself from Your anger in Your shade."

What do the words, "I will flee from You to You" mean? He showed that the Rambam also uses this expression in his commentary to the mishna on the fourth perek of Rosh Hashanah: " . . . for they are days of service and self effacement and fear and dread of Hashem and fear of Him and fleeing from and taking refuge in Him."

He then explained Chazal's words in the Yerushalmi in the following way. Only someone who feels himself to be in distress can possibly be said to trust in Hashem. In that case, despite this person's troubles he relies on Hashem and trusts in Him. Such a person is [rightly] called a ba'al bitochon, one who possesses the trait of trust.

This is the meaning of the words in the piyut, "I will flee from You to You." This man is so frightened and trembles so at the prospect of his judgment that he wants to run away from it. Then his trait of bitochon puts him in a position where he runs both from and to Hashem. If a man doesn't feel himself to be at all distressed, however, and he feels calm and safe, then he is not trusting in Hashem at all.

Now, on Rosh Hashanah we are certain that a miracle will be performed for us. However this is the day of judgment, on which the angels quake and are gripped by dread and trembling. It is imperative that we are afraid and that we tremble on this day -- and only after this is it possible to have trust and to dress in white, to shave and to wash. This is actually Klal Yisroel's virtue, that they trust in Hashem, unlike the nations. If, though, we do not tremble from yom hadin to begin with, what place is there for bitochon? And he concluded by asking about himself, "If so, how can I trust?"

Rejoicing and Apprehension

We find in the gemora (Moed Koton 25), that when tzaddikim die, Hashem rejoices at their arrival in the Heavenly academy, just as a groom rejoices over his new bride. My uncle, our master the gaon Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, explained that the gemora is careful to speak of "a new bride," for it is referring to a second marriage.

It is the way of the world that in a first marriage, when a young man marries a young woman, both sides rejoice in complete happiness. If however, in later years, the wife dies and the husband is left a widower with small children, he sees in time that he cannot take care of them and he seeks a new mother for them, and marries a new bride. If it is her first marriage, the bride rejoices but the groom may seek a corner to himself and shed tears of apprehension. Will this woman be a good mother to his children?

So it is when a tzaddik dies. The joy is mingled with apprehension. What will be the fate of the orphans?

We, the generation that has been left without any teacher or leader, are able to explain the gemora according to its plain meaning. "A new bride" refers to a first bride and the gemora expresses the Creator's great joy when a pure and pious soul comes to Him in Heaven.

The truth is, that we should question what occasion there is for such great joy in the Heavenly academy with the arrival of a godol of our times, when there are tano'im and geonim already sitting there? Surely their greatness exceeds his.

However, it is only possible to ask this question according to our way of evaluating things, whereby we rejoice in any addition to what we have. For example, if a millionaire earns a dollar, he'll be happy because in addition to his million, he has one more and he now has a million and one. He is happy at the addition of the dollar, not with the dollar itself.

It is not so with the Creator's joy over a tzaddik who comes to him. The joy is not over the addition of the tzaddik to those who are already there, but over the tzaddik in and of himself. This is why the gemora stresses "a new bride." It is something new, without any relation to whatever has gone before. The Creator rejoices over the tzaddik for what he is, because he merited to elevate himself and to attain purity and piety, according to the will of his Maker.

Since this petirah, we must be aware that we are obligated to fill the empty space. New gedolei Torah must develop, as it says, "Before the sun of Eli [Hacohen] set, the sun of Shmuel Horomosi rose," (Bereishis Rabbah, Chayei Sorah). New gedolim arise and everyone should aspire to be one of them.

It is clear and is universally agreed upon, that greatness does not come by itself. The merit of righteous ancestors can help, but no godol's greatness came by itself and one has to toil in Torah study. Whoever learns becomes a scholar. The great niftar is with us now and if he were to ask something of us, everyone would certainly make a sacrifice to fulfill his request. And what is the wish of the niftar? That he should strengthen and encourage us; that everyone should make an effort, according to his abilities and as far as he can, to take the niftar as a personal example, both in Torah study and in yiras Shomayim, following his path, and growing and ascending.

(This hesped was published in Michtovim Uma'amorim, cheilek III.)

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