Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

2 Kislev 5761 - November 29, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Rabbi Mordechai Miller of Gateshead -- Impressions of an Avreich

by Rabbi M. D. Spiro

Rabbi Miller both loved and shunned the limelight. He loved the limelight when it illuminated the message which he brought to his audience. Yet he shunned the limelight when it shone on him as a person. We must not forget this when recording a few remarks about him as a person, and we have to keep in mind: Will they bring a message to the reader? Will they inspire?

We hope that the following will inspire our readers with the memory of one of the great teachers of our generation.

Part I

A Major Achievement

It has been said that the little Kehilloh of Gateshead was a Teivoh built during the Mabul which engulfed the Jewish world in the thirties. It is wondrous how many living beings managed to come inside this Teivoh and keep alive in a spiritual sense. Just as Noach had to provide sustenance to all living beings, so too did R. Miller provide spiritual sustenance to the bnos Yisroel in his part of the Teivoh. Just as Noach exerted himself to his utmost -- until he coughed blood [as Rashi explains] -- so too did R. Miller stretch himself to his utmost, physical frailty notwithstanding.

Despite R. Miller's multifaceted activities in harbotzas Torah the focus of his activities was undoubtedly the Seminary. From the perspective of an avreich it is hard to describe the inner workings of his teachings there. One achievement, however, towers so much above the rest that it is visible to the entire Klal Yisroel:

Some years ago, a member of a heimishe shul in England had married off two of his daughters to husbands who stayed in learning after their chasunoh. When he told his neighbor in shul that his third daughter had become engaged, the neighbor exclaimed: "Mistome noch a kollel yungerman. Nu, abi gezunt! (Probably another kollel avreich. Well, at least let them be healthy.) Anyone who understands the subtle nature of Yiddish understatement knows that the neighbor was far from being impressed!

At that time, this man was the first baal habayis in his shul to take a son-in-law who learned in kollel. He was not disappointed and some of his sons-in-law have become world famous talmidei chachomim. In recent years, however, almost every member of that shul has married his daughters to sons-in-law who commenced their married life with full-time learning. (Heard from HaRav Matisyohu Salomon)

R. Miller had a big role in this change. Together with his colleagues, R. Miller elevated kovod haTorah. He revolutionized the outlook and aspirations of a bas Yisroel. Rather than share their lives with a young man with a promising future in the professional world, his talmidos learned to see their fulfillment in a marriage which at least commences with full-time devotion to learning. They realized that true spiritual bliss supersedes the glitter of an assured comfortable parnosso.

His Message to his Talmidos

He used to say: We are not trying to teach girls mesiras nefesh in terms of sacrifice. There is no real sacrifice. We are just trying to show them where there is beauty, where there is ta'anug, where there is real enjoyment of life to its fullest -- to be bound to a ben Torah, to do something for Torah. In his own family he aspired to sons and sons-in-law who are bnei Torah. (Rav T. Miller in Hesped in Gateshead)

It may perhaps be said that R. Miller was a general of Stage II of the campaign to save Yiddishe daughters.

When daughters of Chassidishe homes started to go to opera- houses, when German and Russian authors became their idols and Goethe took the place of Chumash -- then Soroh Schenirer o"h set out to save the sinking ship. At the behest of her mentor and with assistance from gifted colleagues she began to stem the tide. (One of her colleagues even wrote a book to reconcile German literature with Torah -- such was the nekudas habechiroh of Yiddishe daughters in those days (heard from Dr. Judith Grunfeld o"h who taught in the Cracow Seminary). This was Stage I.

It was left to the next (postwar) generation to elevate the chinuch of bnos Yisroel; to generate in them a love of Torah, an admiration of those who devote their life to full- time study of the Torah. In response to this challenge, R. Miller and his partners merited to guide his part of the Teivoh from the brink of the abyss to hitherto unknown heights.

Several years ago he visited HaRav Shach shlita. HaRav Shach said to R. Miller: "People think that you have only saved the girls. The fact is that you have also saved the yeshivos. If girls would not be prepared to marry bnei Torah, what would the Yeshivos look like! Please could you give me a brochoh!" (Rav E. E. Miller in hesped in London)

Overcoming Physical Suffering

The Rambam writes (beginning of Hilchos Talmud Torah): "Everybody is obliged to learn Torah . . . whether healthy or afflicted with painful diseases." In the case of no other mitzvoh do we find that the Rambam should state the obvious: Even a sick person is obligated to carry out a mitzvas asei. Why did he find it necessary to state it regarding talmud Torah?

Reb Leib Gurwitz zt"l explains (in sefer Meorei She'orim): Learning Torah requires a clear mind, as the gemora (Megilla 28b) says. One might have thought that a baal yissurim cannot have a clear mind and is thus absolved from the mitzvoh.

Why, indeed, is he obliged? The answer is that if a person wants something with all his heart and soul, he is able to concentrate on it. The mitzvoh of talmud Torah is so great, so paramount, that a person has to break through even the distractions of illness with the strength of his will in order to learn. Rav Miller, it may be said, was a prime example of this.

He suffered from a variety of ailments. You name it -- he had it! Heart trouble, asthma, arthritis in an advanced stage, failing kidneys, bone problems, spine problems, eye problems etc. His fingers were disfigured. He could not turn his neck, and walked with difficulty.

At the age of seventy-five he once remarked to a group of avreichim [who had a shiur with him in the seforim of the Maharal, Ramchal, and others]: "Of all my limbs and faculties, Hashem left me with two which still work properly: The mind and the mouth. Surely He wants me to carry on my task in life. To this end He has preserved the function of these two parts of my body."

To him one could aptly apply the posuk: "From the sole of the foot to the head, nothing in him is whole . . . " (Eichoh). (Rav T. Miller at the Hesped in Gateshead)

One might add: The posuk continues: ". . . only injury, bruise and festering wound; they have not been treated and they have not been bandaged." The Malbim explains the dimensions of the disaster which had befallen the "patient" (Klal Yisroel): What is good for the relief of one condition can act like poison to another condition. When a person suffers from so many multiple diseases, the treatment of one illness often makes another illness worse. For example, medicines essential for pain and heart ailments may be detrimental to the stomach and kidneys.

Yet Rav Miller exerted himself to his utmost for Torah and mitzvos. He would rise extra early in the morning in order to daven with a minyan. It took him a long time to get ready as he wanted to avoid relying on other people's help as much as possible. He lost sleep and he strained himself to get to his fixed minyan at the Gateshead Kollel although there was a closer alternative.

When admitted into the hospital shortly before Rosh Hashanah with a difficult condition, he was asked to stay over Rosh Hashanah. Rav Miller said to his family: "The doctors do not understand how extraordinarily important davening on the Yomim Noraim is for me. Therefore they don't realize how positively unhealthy it would be for me to lose this opportunity."

And always, after a full day filled with shiurim and all that goes with leading the Seminary, he found within himself the physical and mental resources to learn gemora in depth with cheishek.

His approach is best illustrated by an explanation which he himself gave in shiurim: We say in Pirkei Ovos: Ten miracles were done for our ancestors in the Beis Hamikdash. [One was that] rain did not extinguish the fire on the Mizbeiach. Why could Hashem not "simplify" the miracle by preventing the rain from descending on top of the Mizbeiach? Answered R. Miller: This way teaches us a lesson: Even if it rains, Avodah carries on. Nothing is allowed to disturb Avodah.

It may perhaps be said: R. Miller practiced what he preached. In his own life he personified this explanation.

R. Miller's ongoing battle with physical limitations should also be viewed from a different perspective:

The meforshim ask: Our forefathers in the Middle Ages sacrificed their lives al Kiddush Hashem. They slit their children's throats to prevent them from being baptized. (See the Tosafos Gittin 57b, Tosafos Avoda Zora 18a and Ritvo there, who write that one may kill a child who is in danger of falling into a situation wherein he or she will transgress the three aveiros that are yeihoreig ve'al ya'avor.) If so, in what way then was Avrohom's Akeidoh a greater test than the temptations which his lesser descendants withstood?

Some meforshim answer: The essence of Avrohom's being was to excel in doing kindness: "chesed le'Avrohom". The Akeidoh required Avrohom to act otherwise -- to be cruel rather than kind; to kill rather than to keep alive. The Akeidoh was tailor-made to test Avrohom at the point where it was most difficult for him.

R. Miller too had his little -- or not so little -- Akeidoh. Everybody could see his physical suffering. Everybody could see how he would struggle to open a sefer to the right page. Everybody could see how he could not turn his head because of the collar around his neck which he had to wear day and night. But for a person as retiring as he to be thrust into the limelight because of his debilitating condition, to be watched intently as he was struggling with the door handle, or to be the head of a slow procession crawling up the stairway to davening, that was surely another dimension of agony. Who knows what was harder: the psychological result of the physical limitations or the limitations themselves?

Perseverance in Delivery of Shiurim and Learning Session

The posuk says: "Those who pin their hopes on Hashem renew their strength" (Yeshaya 40). On the other hand we find: The Torah weakens a person's strength (Sanhedrin 26b). There is no contradiction here. Indeed the Torah can weaken physical prowess, but people who trust in Hashem put their powers into those things that Hashem likes. For those matters they are granted renewed and redoubled strength. If a person really wants to achieve something with all his will, he will find the ability to do so.

This is the explanation as to how a person as ill as R. Miller could keep his commitments with such steadfastness. He kept his chavrusas despite great illness. Debilitating conditions which would have provided many a person with a reason to take off from learning, were apparently not strong enough for a person whose love for Torah burned stronger within him than all his painful diseases.

His long-time partner in leading the Seminary, Reb Avrohom Kohn z"l, is reported to have said to him: "If you really don't feel well, do not feel obliged to come and give the shiurim in the Sem."

R. Miller answered with a twinkle in his eye: "If so, I never have to come in!"

When he learned, no disturbances were allowed to intrude. Even a relative, a choshuv talmid chochom who had come from out of town, had to wait till the end of the learning session. Even when one of his children called from abroad, feelings of closeness with the family did not override his chavrusoh. Even when one of his colleagues called with Seminary matters, only urgent calls were allowed to intrude upon his kevius.

A family member noted that the posuk for his name was Moh ohavti Sorosecho, kol hayom hi sichosi. This posuk indeed summed up the essence of his being. (Rav M. Trepp at Hesped at end of shivoh)

In his hesped for Reb Avrohom Kohn z"l, R. Miller mentioned the former's complete devotion in terms of time, allocation of kochos and total interest to the mosad for which he worked. Truly the same could be said of R. Miller's perseverance in giving shiurim and general leadership of the Seminary.

Normally hasmodoh is understood to mean learning 60 minutes out of every hour. However, R. Miller showed us a further aspect of hasmodoh: perseverance and regularity. R. Miller kept the same chavrusoh for gemora for over 40 years! Through the hills and the valleys of life, through the busy and the tranquil periods, he carried on and on with the same learning companion on his voyage through the "sea of the Talmud."

Another kevius with an outstanding talmid chochom carried on for 18 years! Both chavrusas were terminated only by his petiroh. Hasmodoh also means perseverance and regularity. This measure of hasmodoh is truly astonishing. (His son-in-law R. Y. Moore in a hesped in Gateshead Yeshiva Lezeirim)

HaRav Shach shlita noted in the margin of his personal copy of sefer Avi Ezri the following words of the Rashbo in maseches Shabbos: Vehizoharu befeirush zeh ki betorach godol nigleh lonu -- Learn this explanation with care because only with great toil was it revealed to us.

Does the Rashbo (chas vesholom) have to blow his own trumpet? Of course not! In reality he wanted to do a favor to the talmid. If one is told how much the great Rashbo had to toil in order to find the right explanation, he will look at his words differently. He will think: "If the Rashbo with his great mind had to toil so hard until he arrived at the correct explanation, it cannot be simple. We should certainly exert ourselves and ponder his words to make sure that we understand them." (Sha'arei Oroh on Devorim II, parshas Eikev)

The whole experience of R. Miller's shiur shouted out in so many words: "Take care! Giving shiurim is a tremendous effort for me."

The message came over as: How important must Torah be if it merits such toil. How worthwhile must it be to ponder about what he said, if it means so much to him.

Moreover, one felt it when watching him: How much must the Rebbe love the Torah if he is prepared to overcome his suffering in order to deliver the shiur. Does this not indicate: The joy of Torah is greater than the suffering.

From Manmade Law to G-dly Law

"Reb Yochanan was walking up from Tiveriya to Tzipori. Reb Chiyoh bar Aboh supported him in his walking. They came to a field. Said Reb Yochanan: "This field used to belong to me and I sold it so that I could occupy myself with learning Torah." They came to a vineyard. Said Reb Yochanan: "This vineyard used to belong to me and I sold it so that I could occupy myself with learning Torah." They came to an olive tree plantation. Again Reb Yochanan told him the same thing.

Reb Chiyoh started to cry. Said Reb Yochanan to him: "Why are you crying?"

Answered Reb Chiyoh: "I cry because you left yourself nothing for your old age."

Said Reb Yochanan: "Is it a light matter in your eyes what I have done! I sold something which was given in six days for Torah which was given in forty days."

When Reb Yochanan died [people in] his generation applied the following posuk to him: "If a man would give away all his possessions" -- with the love with which Reb Yochanan had loved the Torah "he will merit the booty of the battle of Gog and Mogog." (Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 8:7, according to Eitz Yosef commentary)

R. Miller held a postgraduate degree in law. He had a promising future in the professional world. His uncle had a law firm in London and with his great talents he would have been given a good position. But he gave it all up in order to spend his life al haTorah ve'al ho'avodoh. (In later years he used to say jokingly the following (approximately): I used to be engaged in pursuit of the law of profits, now I am engaged in the pursuit of the law of the prophets.)

In this he emulated his Rebbe's way. He had seen how Rav Dessler had breathed and lived Shlomo Hamelech's hashkofoh of haveil havolim regarding earthly matters.

In a letter someone remarked in a degrading way as if bnei Torah lack the degree of sophistication that comes with secular studies. R. Miller answered: No one can say what is greater, chochmas haTorah or any other chochmoh, unless he is a master of both. I feel that I am someone who can tell you where chochmoh really is, where depth really is, where ta'anug really is. And I can tell you: Of all the chochmos of the nations there does not really exist anything that is comparable to the chochmoh contained in one line of gemora. (Heard from a member of the family)

His hashkofoh was borne out by what he aspired to in his own family. None of his sons, daughters or sons-in-law pursued a higher course of secular education. Every one of them chose Toroso umanuso. To all of them R. Miller accorded great respect -- for their way in life was his ideal too. When he looked for a son-in-law, he looked for somebody he could look up to. What mattered to him were the words of the Rambam: ". . . that the daughter marries a talmid chochom. This is the fulfillment of the mitzvah of cleaving unto Hashem."

R. Miller quoted Reb Yonoson Eibeshitz (in his sefer Kreisi Upleisi) in his explanation of why an extra limb renders the animal treifoh (kol yeser kenotul domi): If there is an extra limb attached to the body, it means that the body systems have to work harder in order to sustain the life of this extra limb. However, they were only endowed with the ability to sustain a normal body and thus the extra load will run down the body systems.

Said R. Miller: Everybody's faculties and abilities have a limit. If a person wants to have everything in life, he will in the end remain bereft of everything. A human body is just not made in a way to enable him to do everything. He has to choose: Are his main interests in gashmiyus or in ruchniyus?

R. Miller himself -- as a family member pointed out -- had the broadness of mind to have been able to turn his attention to many varied spheres of activity, including also some talmud Torah (as a sideline). Yet he chose to direct his faculties completely to meleches Shomayim to the exclusion of other pursuits. (He used to quip: If you are too broad-minded your mind might fall out!)

Chazal tell us: R' Akiva had 24,000 talmidim. They all died within a short period. "And the world was desolate" (of Torah). R' Akiva commenced again with only five (!) talmidim. From those five talmidim, Torah flourished again. How did R' Akiva have the moral strength to start from nothing and bring about a rebirth of Torah? Because he himself had revolutionized his own lifestyle. He used to be a shepherd and decided to devote his life completely to Torah. He changed himself, so he could change others.

When our world was "desolate of Torah" after churban Europe R. Miller was among those who started from nothing to bring about a rebirth of hashkofas haTorah in Bnos Yisroel. How could he attempt such a task? Because he had rechannelled the tide of his life from dedication of his abilities to success in a profession to total dedication of his abilities to Torah. If he could change himself, he was granted the ability to change others. (Heard in the name of R. Y. M. Halpern)

His Rebbe's Mouthpiece

Indeed, R. Dessler had but a handful of close talmidim in England, especially from his pre-Gateshead days. Three of these invested years and great chochmoh in preparing his works for publication. A third, R. Miller, disseminated his Rebbi's Torah as Torah shebe'al peh as well as through his three English seforim and two Hebrew seforim of shiurei Shabbos and shiurei yom tov. Over the years R. Miller gave over R. Dessler's Torah orally to thousands of talmidim and talmidos. It may be fair to say that in terms of numbers reached by the spoken word, R. Miller disseminated Rav Dessler's Torah to more listeners than any other disciple.

Hashkofoh Shiur

R. Miller used to give a fortnightly shiur on hashkofoh to bochurim of Gateshead Yeshiva Gedola. This shiur filled a void, a vital need, despite the many varied shiurim by great talmidei chachomim which were given in the Yeshiva.

In what way?

There were many deeply sincere bochurim who learned seriously. Yet for one reason or another they arrived in the Yeshiva imbued with a long-held belief [to put it bluntly]: The Torah is (chas vesholom) not "with it." The Torah cannot compete in intellectual depth with the arts and sciences they had been taught before they came to Yeshiva. The Torah does not really relate to twentieth century life. This was the attitude of more than one of the sincere yeshiva bochurim.

Along came R. Miller. His personality and his shiurim demolished these fallacies. He discussed space exploration, "Science and Moral Progress," Racism, and many other more "traditional" issues. He changed their whole outlook. The depth of his shiurim showed the beauty of the Torah's depth. Their content showed the relevance of Torah to modern life. His way of giving it over showed how a talmid chochom can be "with it."

Other bochurim came with a heimishe hashkofoh, but they, too, were eager to hear the answers to modern questions.

Indeed his combination of breadth and profundity of knowledge was dazzling. And it greatly elevated toras ho'aggodoh from the way it was perceived by us ex-children -- a springboard for a vort at the Shabbos table -- and it took its rightful place alongside toras hahalochoh.

His shiurim, both his weekly Shabbos shiur (some of which have been published in English and Hebrew) and in particular the midweek shiur on hashkofo, were really "bread and butter" of a Yiddishe Weltanschauung. But more than that: they actually put many a bochur on the right track for his whole future. There were many who changed their career plans, their whole purpose in life, due in no small measure to R. Miller's shiurim. They had the ability, they had powers of concentration and intelligence. But it was due to him that these were channeled towards talmud Torah.

One bochur listened six times to the whole two-year cycle of hashkofoh-shiurim -- once live and five times from tape. He later noted that it helped him to "keep above water" in difficult times, in times of great nisyonos.

First he heard them while in Yeshiva. Later on -- in his college years -- he heard them during the ride to university, then on the ride home from university, as immersion in the waters of mei hada'as (to use the Rambam's expression); in fact even when brushing his teeth! Indeed they helped him to come back to the world of learning.

Another aspect of the hashkofoh-shiurim was also remarkable. Although he had so much to be mechadesh himself, and every maggid shiur enjoys giving over his own novel insights, R. Miller limited himself almost exclusively in the midweek shiur to give over the hashkofos just as he had heard them from his own Rebbe. When one looked afterwards into the Michtav MeEliahu it was all there -- but it had come to life because of the way he said it and felt it.

It says in parshas Beha'alosecho (10,2): Asei lecho shetei chatzotzeros kesef, vehoyu lecho lemikro ho'eidoh. Rashi comments that the chatzotzeros which Moshe Rabbenu made for himself could not be used for another generation. HaRav Leib Gurwitz used to explain in the name of HaRav Abramski: The content of the message is timeless. It's the same in every generation. But the keli, the way in which it is presented, must be attuned to the generation. The tune may be the same, but the instrument is different. And so the chatzotzeros which served Moshe Rabbenu so well are posul for the next generation. A new means must be found. (Meorei She'orim in a hesped on HaRav Y. Abramski)

In the same way R. Miller was the timely chatzotzeros who gave over the timeless message. All those who benefited from his spoken [and published] word will always be grateful that the Hashgocho Elyonoh placed the right individual in the right position lemikro ho'eidoh, to "call the congregation" to dvar Hashem.

End of Part I


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