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Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Ellul 5761 - September 12, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Tishrei in the Beis Medrash of Rabbeinu Chaim Volozhin

by Rav Dov Eliach

Part I -- Yomim Noraim

"Somar . . . mipachdecho . . . besori . . ." thundered the voice in the hall of the Volozhin Bais Medrash. "Umimishpotecha yoreisi!" A pall of dread descended upon the listeners . . .

"My flesh shuddered with dread for You . . . (Tehillim 119:120).´Thus Reb Chaim Volozhiner began his drosho, as goose-bumps appeared on his listeners' arms, and spines tingled in fear. Trembling took hold of the talmidim; behold, the Day of Judgment has arrived!

That drosho Reb Chaim delivered on the first day of Selichos, Elul, 1812, plumbed the depths of his listeners' hearts, yet elevated them to great heights. Inspiration gushed forth from his wellspring of purity, conquering the hearts of the bnei Torah, and shaking the souls of the Volozhin townspeople to the core. Geonim, talmidei chachomim, and laymen, young and old, all those who entered the Beis Medrash left, filled with his'orerus. So testified his son, Reb Itzele Volozhiner.

The unfailing inspiration repeated itself after every one of Reb Chaim's droshos, and this one was no exception. That momentous drosho was rewritten by his talmidim, "yet according to their (limited) understanding . . ." as in the words of the tzaddik Reb Zundel Salant.

The great gaon Reb Alexander Moshe Lapidoth, av beis din of Rassein, quotes Reb Chaim Volozhiner in his sefer Divrei Emes. Therein, he refers to Reb Chaim as "the great Gaon, the Sar HaTorah . . . Rabbeinu, the light of the Exile." Reb Alexander Moshe quotes a drosho in which Reb Chaim expounded on those who are actually capable of being oseik beTorah, yet choose to do otherwise . . . and therefore become included in the group of those who will not earn a share in Olam Habo. "Both young and old streamed out of the Beis Medrash, each shuddering and trembling as he re-thought his individual lifestyle, forced to consider that he might not earn a share in Olam Habo!"

That famous drosho, which became known as "The Drosho of Reb Chaim," ended up being printed in four sections. Tradition has it, according to his great descendants, that Reb Chaim originally delivered this drosho in several parts as well.

His penetrating words bored holes like shooting arrows from a flesh-and- blood bow. He impressed his listeners to such an extent, that the sobbing in the Beis Medrash reached crescendos! The sudden outburst of emotions that washed over those aroused hearts and minds cut short the words of Reb Chaim, and he was unable to continue. After a pause, and once the crowd had somewhat gotten hold of itself, Reb Chaim resumed his mussar.

Yet the scene repeated itself. A stormy sea of tears gushed forth from the listeners' eyes, and again Reb Chaim was forced to stop. Three times he was compelled to interrupt the drosho; the wailing made it impossible to continue. Thus, out of one intentional drosho, four were created, each one more precious than pearls . . .

Reb Itzele Volozhiner, in his introduction to the Nefesh HaChaim, writes how great his father's influence was, and how much was transmitted through that peh kodosh to his listeners. "His words were like fire, burning from the flames of love and blazing fear of Hashem." As a flame melts wax, Reb Chaim melted his listeners' hearts; They were drawn to his every word.

Reb Aharon Kotler zt'l used to relate that he heard in the name of Reb Chaim's talmidim how their great Rebbe once met a priest -- an apostate Jew. Reb Chaim took the priest into a private room, and locked himself inside with him for a while. He dropped words of mussar and tochochoh upon this hardened, unbelieving heart. Reb Chaim particularly dwelled upon the posuk "Yirbu atzvosam acher mohoru . . ." (Tehillim 16:4). Let the sufferings of those who follow another (sovereignty) multiply.

These words traveled deeper and deeper through the layers of heresy, until the priest burst out into such terrible weeping, that he resolved to do teshuva right then and there. Indeed, he returned to the fold of Yiddishkeit, a complete ba'al teshuva.

What was the secret? Where did this unbelievable influence and exceptional power stem from?

Many have asked this question before us, among them one of Reb Chaim's closest talmidim: the gaon and mekubel Reb Yekusiel Zalman of Zager. Reb Zalman was one of the three talmidim about whom Reb Chaim testified: "He learned how to daven with concentration, purity of heart, and untainted thought." Earning such testimony from the great Reb Chaim Volozhiner is no small achievement! (Among the writings discovered in Reb Zalman's possession after his passing, was the aforementioned drosho: "Droshas Morenu HaRav Chaim.")

One year, as Reb Zalman arose to deliver his Kol Nidrei drosho before his congregation in Zager, he burst out in stirring cries: "Morai Verabbosai! Why is it that when my great mentor and teacher, the Gaon and tzaddik Reb Chaim used to speak, sanctifying this holy day of Yom Kippur, his words broke all hearts, and rivers of tears were shed in true teshuva. I myself experienced and witnessed it. Yet, when I speak words of chastisement and rebuke, my words do not stir my listeners?

"We can draw the following parable," said Reb Zalman. "A doctor prescribed a particular medicine for his ill patient. The medication, however, accomplished nothing, even after several days had passed. Thereupon, the doctor himself went to the pharmacy, and asked to watch as the pharmacist pounded the leaves of the herbal plant and prepared the medicine for use. To his dismay, the doctor soon discovered that although the quality of the leaves was perfect, as was their method of preparation, the pestle itself was faulty. It gave off a terrible smell which spoiled the medication."

Reb Zalman went on: "So it is with mussar. The words have the power to heal and elevate any and every type of crowd. The question is: whose mouth are they coming from? When Reb Chaim used to deliver the message -- Reb Chaim whose entire body was holy and pure, as was his mouth -- the words he emitted too, were enunciated bikedushoh uvetohoroh. Their curing properties were completely effective. Yet I," continued Reb Zalman. "I, who have not merited such a status, must begin my droshos with a prayer to Hashem that my words be accepted by their listeners . . ."

Reb Chaim's pure and holy being definitely impressed his listeners, as did the very sight of his majestic nobility. In his davening, in his learning, wherever he went, an indelible impression was formed upon those who saw him, as if he were the Kohen godol performing the avodoh in the Beis Hamikdosh.

It is told about him that when he came to the words in Selichos, "Ezra HaSofer said before You, my G-d, I am ashamed and humiliated to lift my face before You," Reb Chaim would repeat these words again and again with intense emotion, until he would collapse in a faint! "If Ezra HaSofer could say about himself that he was ashamed to lift his face to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, what should we say?" Reb Chaim would murmur as he came to his senses.

Reb Avrohom Zackheim, in his sefer Nitei Eison, wrote that his grandfather Reb Osher Anshel of Molodzhana would retell the following: As a yungerman, Reb Osher Anshel was once compelled to spend Aseres Yemei Teshuva in the town of Volozhin. He had the opportunity to hear Reb Chaim, who was then already at an advanced age, recite Ovinu Malkeinu. For the rest of his life, whenever Reb Osher Anshel recalled that sight, he was seized by trembling as he relived that fervor and fear of G-d evident upon Reb Chaim's whole being as he recited the Ovinu Malkeinu . . .

The Power of Teshuva

On the subject of repentance, Reb Chaim was wont to say: According to the Torah, one must be filled with regret (charota), and leave go of his sin (azivas hacheit), in order to do teshuva. Chazal added, amongst other things, that we must fast, cry, and lament upon our shortcomings. Today, we fulfill Chazal's requirements of fasting and crying, yet charota and azivas hacheit we do not fulfill! What a paradox!

Yet, when Reb Chaim spoke in Volozhiner Yeshiva about teshuva, he promised: If one will analyze all his deeds, and will confess all his sins, he will certainly be spared all evil and will never come to any harm.

Reb Chaim proved his words with the following episode:

As one who was extraordinarily scrupulous in the observance of all the mitzvos, the great Reb Chaim particularly excelled in giving tzedokoh. He was careful not only to set aside ten percent of his earnings but was mehader to give a chomesh -- a fifth -- to tzedokoh.

"One who separates a fifth to tzedokoh will become wealthy," he used to say. "If only all Bnei Yisroel would separate a fifth of their earnings to tzedokoh, we would merit the Chumash's promise that our Nation would have no needy amongst us."

It once happened that Reb Chaim did not recall the particular amount he had given to tzedokoh; Had he included in the sum total the chomesh amount or not? Reb Chaim decided to be lenient in the matter, and did not add the sum in question to his already-allotted donations.

That very same day, one of the household servants went to the well to draw water. Suddenly, the bucket he was using fell down into the well below. In an attempt to retrieve the bucket, the servant lowered his ax into the well, yet it too disappeared together with the bucket.

Empty-handed, the servant returned to Reb Chaim's home and told him what had occurred. Immediately, Reb Chaim calculated the monetary value of the bucket and the ax, which amounted to three gold coins. This was precisely the amount in question, unclear as to having been donated to tzedokoh or not. Without a moment's hesitation, Reb Chaim went to set aside three gold coins. Not too much time elapsed before he was notified . . . that the ax and the bucket had been retrieved!

Following this episode, Reb Chaim drew from his wellspring a great mussar haskel. If a person examines his deeds and confess his sins, he will immediately be spared any harm, and Hashem will remove the punishment for the aveiroh.

He brought additional proof to illustrate this point:

The wedding of his illustrious son, Reb Itzele, was celebrated in an inn along a faraway road. There was no sefer Torah available on the premises for Krias HaTorah. Reb Chaim, who was so meticulous with every mitzvah, large or small, could not forego the opportunity to hear Krias HaTorah, even if it was only once, during such great festivities.

As the time of Krias HaTorah drew near -- on Monday morning -- Reb Chaim made a move to go and find a neighboring townlet which had a sefer Torah.

Among the guests participating at the wedding, was the great Gaon, the Rov of Radzkowicz. He tried to deter Reb Chaim from going. "Is it so terrible if you're not mehader -- at a zeman chasunah -- to hear Krias HaTorah once?" he said. According to other versions of the story, Reb Chaim requested that a sefer Torah be brought to him. However, the Rov of Radzkowicz felt that it was not befitting to move a sefer Torah just for this purpose. Since the Rov was far older, Reb Chaim yielded to his opinion, and did not go to hear Krias HaTorah.

When the week of Sheva Brochos ended, Reb Chaim returned home, and opened his Aron Kodesh. To his horror, he discovered that his beautiful sefer Torah had been stolen!!

In all his pain and aggravation, after just a few moments, the magnitude of the catastrophe was pushed aside. Reb Chaim had only one explanation for the robbery. It was surely because of that Monday morning, when he had forfeited Krias HaTorah. Nothing else had occurred during all the days of the wedding celebration that would make him deserving of such a harsh punishment. Reb Chaim retreated to his special room, to meditate and to confess.

He was still in his room, his heart full of remorse, when people came shouting joyfully that the precious sefer Torah had been found! A Russian soldier was seen carrying it in the streets of Volozhin, attempting to sell it to passersby. They immediately grabbed the sefer Torah from his hands and returned it to its rightful owner.

Yet, the greatest heavenly wonder was discovered minutes thereafter, when the precious sefer Torah was opened, and one yeriah (parchment section) was discovered missing. It was indeed the section that included the Krias haTorah of that Monday morning.

"Again, we find the greatness of the power of teshuva," said Reb Chaim, as he concluded his shmuess to his talmidim. "When a person confesses his sin, knowing full well that it was that particular sin which brought on his mishap, measure-for-measure, Hashem will withdraw the tzora from him immediately."

End of Part I. The next part deals with Succos in Volozhin.

The above has appeared in the Tishrei, 5750 edition of the bi-annually published Kol HaTorah journal. The material was later incorporated into the author's two-volume, Avi Hayeshivos about Volozhin. This article has been translated with permission.

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