Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Kislev 5762 - November 21, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Single Mussar Thought: HaRav Moshe Aharon Braverman Shares Memories Of His Fifty Year Association With HaRav Shach zt'l

As Told to Dov Partzowitz

Our meeting took place during the shivoh week, when the feelings of heartbreak and helplessness were at their most acute. Our attempts at evaluating HaRav Shach's life and his leadership were punctuated by outbursts of crying, shedding tears of longing for the light that had dimmed and gone out just a few days before.

At the outset, HaRav Braverman noted the extreme difficulty in arranging thoughts at a time of emotional turmoil. He also pointed out that there were episodes that could not yet be publicized. All we could do would be to cite examples, to try and capture some of the highlights of his half century of association with the Rosh Yeshiva.

To begin with, he said that there were two main features that were especially prominent in the giant mosaic of HaRav Shach's life. First, his tremendous ardor for Torah, which he instilled into his talmidim and which he infused into the yeshiva as a whole. Second, his firm fixture on mussar as one of the linchpins of a ben Torah's life. He never ceased searching for supports for his "demand" for the centrality of mussar, or for seeking the means to strengthen it, whether in outlook, or in actions. He built almost all his shmuessen around this idea.

HaRav Braverman's recollections are presented here with very little alteration to the conversational style of their delivery.

At Sunset

HaRav Braverman: . . . It was on the day that the Chazon Ish zt'l, passed away. The tiny city of Bnei Brak was plunged into mourning. People's gloomy faces showed that everybody felt the gaping hole left by the loss.

After the levayah, when the last of the crowds had made their way home, I went to the yeshiva. The deep and painful impression of the past hours and of the great loss were still keenly felt. I went into the beis hamedrash. It was empty. The workers had moved all the benches aside to clear space for the hespeidim that were scheduled to be held that day. And lo . . . in a corner, near the bookcase, our master was standing learning. I went over to him and he began to speak.

"Oi . . . " he sighed, "it says, `A living dog has it better than a dead lion' (Koheles 9:4). The only consolation we have is Torah study. How can we possibly be comforted over such a great loss? What can console us for `the dead lion'? The only thing we have left is [the knowledge] that `it's better for a living dog,' meaning that as long as we remain alive, we are able to fulfill the Torah and to kill ourselves in toiling over Torah and unraveling its intricacies."

Right now, following the death of the great lion, the Rosh Yeshiva, this message has relevance for us too.

He then went on to tell me about his acquaintance with the Chazon Ish. He repeated in detail the story of the period when it had been necessary for him to serve as a maggid shiur in Tel Aviv. The episode is well known [Note: It was included in the biography that Yated published the first week after the levayah.] but he added a point that isn't so widely known. When, eventually, he repeated the Chazon Ish's words to the Brisker Rov zt'l, that, "when you get to Heaven and they ask you how you could abandon a source of livelihood, tell them that I told you to do it," the Rov's reaction was, "Only the Chazon Ish could say that!"

The truth is that if you think about this story, you realize how amazing it is and what a lofty level it portrays. What humility, what self-effacement it shows! At the time it took place, the Chazon Ish had not yet attained the renown that he would one day attain. The fact is that in the controversy over the dateline and the times [of Shabbos] in Japan, you can see how they didn't accord him the proper respect in Yerushalayim. The Rosh Yeshiva however, with his keen insight, accepted the Chazon Ish's authority unquestioningly and acted upon it, tendering his resignation from the post before he even returned home, like the person mentioned by the gemora in Bovo Metzia, who immediately ran to stop his workers from working in the vineyard, and he was praised highly in the gemora for that.

The poverty and penury that existed at the time in Eretz Yisroel were indescribable. It's awe inspiring, if you think about it.

The Rosh Yeshiva said that the Chazon Ish told him, "Vie mir kennen eich fun Vilna, past dos nisht far eich, (According to your reputation in Vilna, it [the post] is not [a] fitting [one] for you)." The Rosh Yeshiva expressed his astonishment as to how the Chazon Ish knew him and the latter explained that HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l used to pass the Rosh Yeshiva's questions on to the Chazon Ish. I remember him once telling us an amazing story about Reb Chaim Ozer that took place on one of his visits there.

A Genius in Torah and in Good Character

"I spoke to Reb Chaim Ozer at length about topics related to Kodshim and then I asked him, `Efsher ken men yetzt reden a fremden inyan -- Perhaps we could now speak about something else (literally "strange") altogether?' and I asked him a question on the sugya of Tokfo Cohen.

(The Rosh Yeshiva said that Reb Chaim Ozer was slightly taken aback by the term "fremde," applied to divrei Torah since the word is usually used to denote something foreign or alien. But this was characteristic of the Rosh Yeshiva's way of expressing himself, as his acquaintances know.)

"After I told him my question on the sugya of Tokfo Cohen he got up and went into his inner chamber where his large library was, and he brought out an aged volume by an earlier Sephardic author (I think he said it was Bris Yitzchok) and he showed me that my question appeared there. After we parted I travelled by train and I happened to meet one of the gedolei hador (I think it was Reb Elchonon Wasserman zt'l). I told him the question that I'd asked Reb Chaim Ozer and about the obscure sefer that he'd shown me. Then I noticed a look of astonishment on Reb Elchonon's face and he said in amazement, `But that's Rabbi Akiva Eiger's question right there on the gemora!' And I had indeed forgotten that he asked it. I was surprised though, that Reb Chaim Ozer had to go all the way to such a sefer. Had he also forgotten that Rabbi Akiva Eiger asked it?"

[That couldn't be for,] as the Rosh Yeshiva put it, " . . . with Reb Chaim Ozer, there was no such thing as forgetting. The true reason was his lofty character. Evidently, he hadn't wanted me to be embarrassed at forgetting Rabbi Akiva Eiger's question, so he showed me that the question appeared in an obscure sefer, that it was no embarrassment for me to be unaware of it!"

This is an example both of Reb Chaim Ozer's incredible genius -- he knew who asked which question, even in works from several generations before -- and of his sublime character in his care over preserving someone else's dignity.

Let's go back to our encounter on the day that the Chazon Ish passed away.

The Rosh Yeshiva mentioned his bond with our master HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l, and he told me something that I don't think people know. It's known that Reb Isser Zalman took the Rosh Yeshiva into his home while he was in Kletsk. [However,] the Rosh Yeshiva told me that Reb Isser Zalman told him at the time that he was taking him in as a kameiah to save him from the Bolsheviks who used to wreak havoc with the local rabbi wherever they came. By taking him into his home, he would be protected from them . . . this is something wonderful.

(On that occasion, he also mentioned to me in passing that he was upset that they had not asked the Ponevezher Rov zt'l, to eulogize the Chazon Ish because he would have been able to rouse the large gathering to love of Torah and respect for those who toil in it.)

Kindling a Fire of Torah

He set the yeshiva ablaze with a brenn, a fire of toiling in Torah. He inspired us and aroused us, slowly at first but in the end it burst into a great blaze of love and desire for Torah. It's impossible to explain it fully in all its details. It was a combination of personal example -- his very being cried out "Torah!" -- and his way of learning, the shiurim and everything about their delivery, his preparations before the shiur on Dienstag (the Tuesday shiur keloli), his tremendous profundity and his absolute concentration on the topic, to the point where nothing else in the world existed for him in those hours. During the shiur we saw the innermost fruits of this concentration break forth and the joy of divrei Torah that illuminated them, "Like when they were given at Sinai!"

I remember well the first day that he came to the yeshiva. As I said, it's hard to describe but there was some kind of natural aura of brenn, of fire and ardor, about him in his very appearance.

After he came into the beis hamedrash the mashgiach HaRav Dessler zt'l, went over to him and had a very warm conversation with him. One could see their admiration for each other from afar.

He said his first daily shiur in a room adjoining the beis hamedrash (the old one, of course). The shiur was on perek Hanizokin and his unique approach was immediately evident. I remember that in that shiur he asked to be brought a Rambam and he commented lightly, "In der Rambam iz doch gornit shver; muz men doch zeien dem Rambam (There is of course nothing difficult in the Rambam, so we should take a look at it)," and the tension in the shiur dissipated a little as smiles appeared on the faces of the bochurim. This was part of the joy of living with which he infused the learning of the bochurim.

He trained towards absolute truthfulness in Torah, without any veneer [of superficial understanding]. He told me that he had difficulty in understanding the posuk (Devorim 29:10), " . . . from your wood hewer to your water drawer" -- what was the Torah adding with this? (Although Rashi gives an explanation, he felt it was still unresolved and he wanted to understand the simple meaning.) He told me that he'd asked this question to many talmidei chachomim and that they'd all had answers but "when I asked Reb Velvel [the Brisker Rov], he thought and said, `S'iz shver (It's a problem)'!"

Dedication to Every Bochur

There is another point, which he himself dwelt upon on many occasions. The Rosh Yeshiva made a point of being in the yeshiva for every seder. It was an innovation, as the [Ponovezher] Rov zt'l, remarked at the time, to spend so much time with the bochurim and to be so immersed in the topic that he was learning himself, and yet to answer any bochur's question on whatever sugya he was learning.

However, he saw this as an obligation. He was devoted to the talmidim with his whole heart. He once told me that while walking from his home to the yeshiva, he would decide which bochur or chavrusa he would speak in learning with that day.

He viewed latecoming by a maggid shiur in a very serious light. Apart from any considerations of stealing [by not keeping to his terms of employment] he saw it as setting a negative example to the talmidim. Interestingly, he was once asked to speak to the teachers of [the Sephardic girls' school] Or HaChaim and the first thing that he stressed to them was this point about arriving late for lessons.

I remember a kiddush once being held for the aufruf of one of the bochurim of the yeshiva, in the Gesuhdeit Hall and naturally, all the yeshiva's rabbonim were there. The kiddush stretched on and an interesting exchange took place between the Ponevezher Rov and the Rosh Yeshiva on the subject of "How were the earlier generations different from the later ones?" (Yoma 9).

After the kiddush, everybody went their own way. The Rov went to his home which was in the yeshiva building and the Rosh Yeshiva accompanied him. The Rov thought that the Rosh Yeshiva was walking with him out of respect (the Rosh Yeshiva lived at that time on Rechov Wasserman) and he immediately told him that he shouldn't bother. He was amazed when the Rosh Yeshiva told him that he was returning to the yeshiva to continue learning.

There was once an initiative which the Ponevezher Rov was leaning towards adopting, whereby a kind of kollel would be formed for outstanding avreichim who would comprise a separate, special group. The Rosh Yeshiva was adamant in his opposition to the idea. His opinion was that this went against the tradition of the yeshivos. We heard him make this point many times -- on one occasion, he even expressed his view at a meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah -- namely, that his experience of fifty years in yeshivos had shown him that it was impossible to predict, or to determine in advance which talmid was better than which, and who would be successful and who not.

His dedication to bnei yeshiva extended even to those who did not learn in his yeshiva. One incident involved a relative of mine, a ben yeshiva, who was weighing plans to leave the beis hamedrash, Rachmono litzlan. His rosh yeshiva came together with him to the Rosh Yeshiva, for him to offer him advice and persuade him not to leave. This was indeed what happened.

However, after the conversation had ended and the bochur had gone home, the Rosh Yeshiva felt that there was something else that he urgently needed to tell him in order to fill in something that had been missing in their discussion. He found out the address of the bochur's home, which was in Tel Aviv and, taking no notice of the trouble involved, he travelled there and engaged the bochur in further conversation for a long while. At the end, he told him, "I promise you that I'll come to your chuppah, be'ezras Hashem . . . "

This bochur made great progress and developed into an outstanding talmid chochom.

Transmitting Torah as We Received It

There was an additional factor to his influence on the yeshiva, namely, his emphasis on the purity and integrity of Torah study. He fought like a lion against the plans that some bochurim had, to complete other studies alongside Torah study.

One should be aware that things then were not like they are today. There was a certain lack of clarity about these issues. He boldly fought to maintain the authentic character of a ben Torah and the authentic form of Torah learning.

There was an incident involving a bochur from chutz lo'oretz, who left the yeshiva in order to complete a course of other studies. As I mentioned, he was looked upon forgivingly by a number of the bnei hayeshiva, who maintained contact with him, to the point that when he got married, he decided to hold his aufruf in the yeshiva. At maftir, when the chosson arose ceremoniously, I saw the Rosh Yeshiva looking. When his gaze fell upon the chosson he seemed to tremble and he buried his face in his hands. He spoke to the other roshei hayeshiva excitedly, and he seemed to be extremely agitated. I felt that he was unable to remain in a place where such a thing was taking place. Indeed, after kedushoh of musaf he left the beis hamedrash.

Another incident involved a Belgian bochur whose parents were supporters of the yeshiva. This bochur would repeatedly tell the others that he and his parents had definite plans for him to go and study in the following zman. When the Rosh Yeshiva heard of this, he instructed him to leave the yeshiva immediately since his remaining in the yeshiva was a contradiction to the character of the yeshiva and of bnei yeshiva.

This order wounded the bochur's honor terribly, and even more so that of his parents. Pressure started being brought to bear to have the decree rescinded. The rov of the community in Belgium became involved and he suggested a compromise: in the meantime, the bochur would continue to learn in the yeshiva's kollel [not as part of the yeshiva proper] just so long as he wouldn't feel that he had been shamefully expelled. The Rosh Yeshiva however, remained firm in his opinion that this bochur and the yeshiva could not remain together and the bochur was compelled to leave.

To sum up his influence upon the yeshiva, and upon the bochurim in general through which he influenced the Torah world in its entirety, one can point to three things: first, his special zest in learning, and his love and desire for it; second, his forming the character of the authentic ben Torah and the character of authentic Torah study; and third, his giving mussar study central prominence and his use of character refinement as a yardstick of greatness.

The Foundation of Man

Perhaps we can dwell on the subject of mussar. To which particular contribution of his were you referring?

(HaRav Braverman is visibly agitated.) Oi . . . "a single mussar thought" . . . these words from his testament are earth shaking. They encapsulate our holy teacher, the Rosh Yeshiva's great campaign over character refinement. One could write and write on the subject. This penetrates one to the depths: "One mishnah, or a single mussar thought, for the elevation of my soul!"

For him, this was the acid test of how to relate to a person, even to people knowledgeable in Torah. One could say that the Rosh Yeshiva reduced everything to one single issue: character traits!

His fearsome response to the question of the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Chaim Friedlander zt'l, who asked him which area of avodas Hashem he should concentrate on during the last period of his life, is well known. He replied that the first thing to know is that in the Heavenly court, everything is measured according to the extent to which a person has refined his character. Who would have imagined he'd give such an answer? It's awesome if one thinks about it.

One could speak and speak without exhausting the subject of our master's work in this area. When I speak of his "work," I'm referring to both his overall influence and to his deeds, his very own deeds in the course of day-to-day living. Oi! "Who will make my head [flow with] water and my eyes a source of tears?" (Eichoh) . . . Who can appreciate his holy ways, the care he took to respect others, with graceful modesty and gratitude. His ability to forgo -- he once told me that when he arrived at the yeshiva, the Rov wanted to seat him on the mizrach wall, next to the Oron Hakodesh . . . "But," [he said,] "I refused, even though this was a kind of signal from Above, I nevertheless refused." Then he looked at me and said, "Nu, un ich hob epes derleigt? (Well, did I lose out on anything?)" One never loses a thing by forgoing and giving in!

It is known that he saw a need to write about the importance of the existence of the yeshivos, in whose merit Torah is transmitted from one generation to the next, in his introduction to Avi Ezri. He noted the merit of the great luminary, Rav Yisroel Salanter zy'a, who instituted mussar study in the yeshivos.

I remember when one of the talmidei chachomim who was close to him asked him why he had felt this an important thing to note. The Rosh Yeshiva answered with conviction, "Because that is how it was! In the merit of mussar, we were able to withstand the travails of the times and the alien influences!" Then he added, "None of the approaches remained in the long term with the sole exception of mussar, which survived and retained its standing for later generations as well."

In passing, I recall him saying that he learned with Rav Itzele Ponovezher zt'l, for several years before his bar mitzva, this was before the First World War, which broke out in 5674 (1914). He would often note Rav Itzele's prayers, which were uttered with great inner toil.

The Farthest Reaches of Good

When speaking about the purity and refinement of his character, it is in place to mention that there was a period when he would go every erev Rosh Hashonoh to the middle of Rechov Rabbi Akiva, to wish a certain widow "A gut yor." This woman used to live near his home in Rechov Wasserman and when his rebbetzin had been sick, she had cared for her and helped her. To show his gratitude, he was careful to give her his good wishes every year.

It is also fitting to relate the following story, which is instructive: One erev yom tov, one of my family came into our house, which is on Rechov Rashbam, and told me excitedly that the Rosh Yeshiva was walking down below in the street. As this was not a common occurrence, I went down to him straight away to ask if I could help, or at least accompany him.

When he saw me, the Rosh Yeshiva told me that he was going to the home of the gaon HaRav Gedaliah Nadel yblctv'a to buy some eggs in honor of Yom Tov (in Reb Gedaliah's house they sold eggs for parnossoh). I asked him, "Does the Rosh Yeshiva have to go himself? Couldn't he send one of his grownup grandchildren? He answered me as follows: "Ich farshtei nit. A lulav oder a esrog geit men koifen alein, un tzorchei yom tov passt nit koifen alein? (I don't understand, one goes to buy a lulav or an esrog oneself; is it unbecoming to buy one's yom tov needs oneself?)"

One should understand that was no mere sharp retort. If there had been nothing more to his comment than that, he wouldn't have been walking a kilometer to buy groceries for yom tov. He quite simply felt that there was no reason whatsoever to trouble someone else. This was always his way.

His shining countenance and pleasant behavior towards every individual that he encountered -- he would even speak to children as equals and would frequently entertain them with nuggets of wisdom, always with a smile, fostering closeness.

I remember that when he was sick and underwent surgery -- obviously he was hospitalized for a time -- we saw the extreme care he took to be polite to the staff at every opportunity. We asked him, "Rebbe, to such an extent? Does one have to go to such lengths?" and he told us that Reb Isser Zalman said that although according to the ruling of the Shulchan Oruch nobody today has the halachic status of a talmid chochom [for the purpose of the special halochos that apply to talmidei chachomim], since people held him to be a talmid chochom, he was obliged to sanctify Heaven's Name, so that people would say, "How pleasant are his ways . . . happy is the one who bore him . . . " (Yoma 86).

His nobility of spirit, that led him to be so careful about not availing himself of others help, literally became part of his nature. How difficult it was for us to assist him at first. One could fill a book with examples of his refusal to make use of others. On one occasion he was speaking to HaRav Shmuel Rozovsky zt'l, about a suggestion that he write a letter of support for a yeshiva and kollel that belonged to a member of his family. The Rosh Yeshiva expressed his distaste at the idea in the following terms: "S'iz bai mir erger vie der toit! (For me, it's worse than death!)" And that indeed is how it was with him, without exaggeration.

He once told me that he'd never written a letter in support of anything that looked like it was his own. He also stressed that he had never called anyone to come to him.

When he published Avi Ezri, he was adamant in refusing to accept any monetary gifts for the expenses. Once, one of his dear friends pressured him into accepting five thousand dollars towards the costs of putting out the sefer. Some time later, this gentleman came to see him again and the Rosh Yeshiva took the money out of a drawer and gave it to him. The man thought that there had already been some income from the seforim and that the money was from the income but the Rosh Yeshiva told him, "This is the same money -- the same banknotes." He'd only taken them in order to please the donor.

As I mentioned, the perfection of a person's character was the yardstick by which he judged whether or not he would take to them. There are well-known cases of those from whom he distanced himself simply because of character defects that he found in them. He devoted much thought and mussar study to learning about various human failings.

I was once with him at a bris made by HaRav Noach Weinberg, rosh yeshiva of Aish Hatorah in Yerushalayim. Of course, the baalei teshuvoh from the yeshiva were there and the Rosh Yeshiva was asked to speak. I should note that he had a special rapport with baalei teshuvoh. He had a way of speaking to them that reached their hearts. Many of them had bonds with him.

On that occasion the Rosh Yeshiva said, "When one sees instances of wickedness, like that of the German evildoer, one is apt to think, `What depravity lurks within man,' and one becomes disheartened at the failings of human nature. The truth is exactly the reverse however. Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave man free choice. When we see how far a person who chooses evil and corruption can sink Rachmono litzlan, we ought to learn from it the extent to which one can elevate oneself and how far one can reach. The two sides to free choice are equal and opposite. If man can choose the absolute in evil, it is also within his power to choose the absolute in good; this is the Torah that has been given to and for man."

HaRav Braverman ends with a prayer that his words should serve as a means of strengthening the Rosh Yeshiva's achievements in this world, entrenching the mussar idea in the hearts of bnei yeshiva -- and if one thinks about it, doing so was neither a simple nor an easy matter. May these lessons be acceptable and may they bring elevation to his soul, as a fulfillment of his request for "a single mussar thought." Omen kein yehi rotzon.

Escape in the Week of Parshas Lech Lecho

The Rosh Yeshiva had a miraculous escape from the European bloodbath. This was what happened.

In 5700 (1940) HaRav Shach was in Vilna, which was then a temporary haven for thousands of refugees, among them many bnei Torah, since independent Lithuania was then the only route of escape from Europe. HaRav Shach was in Vilna alone; his rebbetzin had remained in Slutsk. He had two options: he could either call his wife to join him in Vilna, from where they would try to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel. This plan contained an element of danger, in that the Russians might not look favorably upon their wish to leave Russia -- they sometimes considered it an act of treachery and could send them to Siberia. The other option was to remain in Russia, in which case, he had to let his wife know that he was coming to her in Slutsk.

Having come to no conclusion as to what to do, he wrote out two telegrams. In one he wrote that he was coming to Slutsk and in the second he wrote that his wife should come to Vilna. Thus he found himself standing in line for the telegrapher in the local post office, unsure of which one to send. While he stood there thinking, a thought entered his mind. The parshah that week was Lech Lecho . . . "Go . . . from your land and your birthplace, to the land that I will show you . . . " As this was going through his mind, his turn arrived. The worker grabbed one of the telegrams that were in his hand -- it was the one telling his wife to come to Vilna so that they could travel to Eretz Yisroel. He saw this as direct hashgocho that led him to be among the surviving remnant. Today we recognize the magnitude of that rescue.


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