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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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