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10 Av 5764 - July 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Tzaddik Who Ruled Through His Fear of Heaven: Sixty Years Since The Martyrdom of HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky Zt'l, Hy'd, 5704-5764

by B. Re'eim

Part One


He wrote: " `A tzaddik rules with the fear of G-d' -- his rule is not that of a human being but the rule of the fear of Heaven. This is the inner characteristic of the Chosen People. Even if a Jew and a gentile reach the same level of recognition of G-d, there is still a vast gulf between them, that puts them in different classes, obligating us to have a new standard of conduct" (Toras Avrohom).

When the Chofetz Chaim encountered the mature Rav Avrohom, whom he had known as a youngster, and observed what he had developed into under the tutelage of the Alter of Slobodka, he remarked, "I write seforim, while the Alter creates people!"

From his younger years as a paragon of Slobodka mussar, working alongside the Alter and ultimately becoming mashgiach after his departure for Eretz Yisroel, to his martyrdom in the Kovno ghetto, Rav Avrohom symbolized what mussar could turn a person into and showed the heights it could allow him to reach.

His brother-in-law Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l, once commented, "When Rav Avrohom died, mussar died with him."

His Unique Creativity

"The title gaon is bestowed upon a scholar who displays exceptional knowledge of sugyos of gemora. A scholar who is proficient in those sugyos that deal with yiras Shomayim deserves the same title. The gaon and martyr Rav Avrohom Grodzensky zt'l, Hy'd, was such a figure" (from an article by his talmid Rabbi Dov Katz zt'l in Hatevunah).

In many of his essays, Rav Avrohom notes a narrowing in what is perceived as halochoh [as referring only to the rules that govern tangible actions]. The consequence of this is that many fundamental halochos [concerning the less tangible but no less binding duties of thoughts and emotions] are transferred to the realm of aggodoh [where they are seen as recommendations, rather than obligations].

He undertook to remove this confusion and restore Torah's wholeness by placing all its subdivisions on an equal footing. In this he was unique. He possessed great creativity.

When he spoke, he was able to convey not just a single thought or idea but a full and systematic approach to his topic. Sometimes it could take him months to deal with a subject, in the course of which he conveyed wonderful new insights, like a master scholar in other branches of Torah.

His Mentor

Rav Avrohom derived the backbone of his mussar outlook from the Alter of Slobodka, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt'l. His view of life was thus based upon his understanding of man's innate greatness, by virtue of his being formed in the Divine image.

He always remained very close to the Alter and to his ideas. When the Alter passed away in Chevron (on the twenty-ninth of Shevat 5687 [1927]) while Rav Avrohom was in Slobodka, Lithuania, he expressed his feelings in a letter to his nephew Avrohom Pinchos Grodzensky.

"I very much wanted to come to Eretz Yisroel while our master and teacher -- may I atone for his passing -- was living there, while I could [still] find the true Torah of Eretz Yisroel there, [gleaned] from the pattern of his life and the individual and collective guidance that he gave. Perhaps [I could also have learned something], either much or a little, from his way of thinking, which I have not hitherto been fortunate to hear anything about. Now Eretz Yisroel has returned to its desolation . . . everything, but everything, is now behind us . . . I sincerely regret having left the source of living waters for a year-and-a- half and not having come for at least a month, especially during the new epoch in his life, in the Holy Land."

Masterful Insight

For his part, the Alter commented about Rav Avrohom, "His keenness has stood him in good stead." His sharpness and insight added dimension to his wisdom and his personality.

Indeed, one of the contributory factors to Rav Avrohom's keen mussar awareness was his profound grasp of human character. It became apparent to him that a person cannot properly fulfill the Torah or develop a rounded and stable personality unless he is fully equipped to understand himself and others. A great psychologist who met Rav Avrohom remarked that he was capable of being one of the leading figures in the world in his field. We can reach the same conclusion independently by studying his profound shmuessen which have been published in Toras Avrohom.

In writing about The Wisdom of Mussar, for example, he identifies three areas of attention: acquaintance with the world so that a person can interact with others, awareness of the strengths of human character and adopting strategies for fulfilling the Torah.

He would penetrate to the heart of the thoughts and feelings of his talmidim, who had wondrous things to say about their conversations with him. It was known in Slobodka that when there were particular difficulties and complications with a talmid, the Alter would refer the case to the mashgiach Rav Avrohom, whose expert approach would invariably guide the faltering youth squarely back on the path to knowledge and self-improvement.

Suffused With Feeling

"The only thing to do", wrote Rav Avrohom in one of his essays, "is to arouse our feelings; to find the important things whose power keeps life within us. If we arouse our emotions with feeling for these great things, then we will slowly but surely also feel the little things in our daily lives."

The following story illustrates how Rav Avrohom implemented this approach. Rav Avrohom demanded that talmidim feel the yeshiva to be their home in every way. A young talmid came to Slobodka from Yerushalayim and still felt himself a Yerushalmi. Rav Avrohom noticed this and bided his time.

On Yom Kippur before Ne'iloh, Rav Avrohom called this talmid over and asked him, "When confessing `We have mocked' (Latznu) in the course of this holy day, what did you have in mind?"

The talmid replied, "I thought about the fact that the class of mockers do not encounter Hashem's Shechinoh; I thought `We have mocked' by neglecting divrei Torah."

Rav Avrohom told him, "I mean real mockery. If hearing shmuessen all through Elul in yeshiva doesn't change a talmid in the slightest, that's mockery!"

The talmid got the message. After Yom Kippur he took himself to the Kovno beis hamussar and learned mussar with deep feeling, until he resolved to stay on in Slobodka. On Simchas Torah, Rav Avrohom honored him with leading ma'ariv, demonstrating that he was a full ben yeshiva and that he now kept yom tov sheini. This talmid went on to become one of the greatest ba'alei mussar and mashgichim of his generation.

His Delicacy of Feeling

Rav Isaac Sher once suffered a heart attack. Rav Avrohom was also ill at the time. He asked one of his close talmidim to write a letter to Chevron, where the yeshiva was at that time in Eretz Yisroel, requesting that a minyan of bochurim travel to pray at the Kosel for their recovery. Before sending the letter, the talmid showed it to Rav Avrohom, who rebuked him. "In parshas Beha'alosecho, the Torah writes two nunin in order to separate one episode of punishment from another (Shabbos 116), yet in one breath you write about two sick roshei yeshiva!"

Rav Avrohom once had to travel to his hometown Warsaw for a day. He wanted to meet his uncle Rav Shlomo (who headed Yeshivas Toras Chesed in Lodzh), who lived there. He gave instructions for a telegram to be sent to his uncle, giving the date that he would be in Warsaw and saying that he would very much like to see him. However, he said that the telegram should not be signed. When asked why, he explained with characteristic originality and pleasantness that this was the halochoh.

Chazal, he said, explain that the first Luchos were written in the singular so as to allow Moshe Rabbenu to defend bnei Yisroel after they made the eigel by arguing that they were addressed only to him and only he had been commanded to do the mitzvos that were written on them. We see that it is one of Hakodosh Boruch Hu's characteristics to leave some room in the language of His commandments for defending failure to observe them. We learn from this that when requesting something from another person, one must not push his back to the wall and leave him no alternative but to agree. We should always leave a way out, so that if necessary he can excuse himself from the task.

By not signing the telegram, Rav Avrohom ensured that if he was unable to meet him, it would not be difficult for his uncle to ignore the request.

Rav Avrohom would sometimes devote a long time to fully clarifying all the details of a specific halochoh or custom according to every opinion and stringency. For example Slobodka thought laid great stress upon fulfilling the mitzvah to "follow Hashem's ways" and to emulate Him in His dealings with His creations. He is merciful and deals kindly and we must be the same.

Rav Avrohom divined how others were feeling and made every effort to benefit them and bring them pleasure and satisfaction, according to their circumstances. He was an expert at participating in others' joys and sorrows.

Even when others were suffering, he looked for the aspect of their situation that would allow them to feel slightly more at ease with their pain. When they rejoiced, he rejoiced with them.

One well-known story concerns the time Rav Avrohom was away when a talmid was getting married. He kept track of the time of the wedding and began to dance and rejoice where he was. He truly felt the talmid's joy, whether or not he was with him.

After the Alter's petiroh, his talmidim found the letters nun- ches-beis-heh written with his personal undertakings. Nobody knew what they meant until Rav Avrohom solved the mystery, revealing that they were the initials of the phrase nosnim chitosom be'eretz hachaim (imposing their fear in the land of the living). The Alter had been concerned not to derive the slightest personal gratification from the steps he took to ensure that his talmidim held him in the proper awe and respect. Only Rav Avrohom, who was so like him in his empathy for others, was able to divine the abbreviation's meaning.

Strength of Character

Rav Avrohom was as powerful a mussar character as he was a mussar scholar. From his youth he waged a battle against the pull of the yetzer hora, examining each, wish and desire and not resolving to act one way or the other unless he was sure that his self-control would in any event emerge victorious.

The Alter said of him that he had "acquired mussar [by paying] with his blood." He worked on every aspect of his character and, with iron will, had mastered every trait.

Rav Avrohom's talmidim asked the Alter what was so special about their rebbe, when other colleagues of his had also attained similar levels of self-control. He answered, "Rav Avrohom overcame all his [natural] traits without the sound of his smashing them being audible far away!"

His struggles were not always noticeable externally but he drew upon the reservoirs of strength that he had amassed to maintain his firm views on every aspect of life and his solid and deliberate approach that nothing could sway him from following. One glance at his regal, upright and sturdy figure was enough to show that he was hewn from steadfast rock.

He would hold himself in check and maintain the regimen of Torah and mussar study that he had determined for himself. At times, he would stand for long hours learning without allowing the severe pains from his bad leg -- from which he suffered throughout his life -- to disturb him. He scarcely acknowledged the pain, containing any discomfort that he might have been feeling. He continued his service in complete tranquility, his smile never leaving his lips.

His talmidim would relate incidents from the First World War when the yeshiva moved from one place to another, that showed how Rav Avrohom carried himself with superhuman strength, not allowing any personal or collective problems and difficulties to get the better of him.

In the Face of Adversity

Rav Avrohom's wife a'h passed away at a relatively young age, leaving him with eight young orphans. He did not give way, even at such a time. For two days he felt unable to accept the decree fully enough to make the blessing Dayan ho'Emmes wholeheartedly. After that he overcame his grief and said the blessing with the joy of acceptance of Divine justice, as halochoh requires.

During the shivah, a talmid came in and informed him that he had obtained an exemption from the army. Rav Avrohom got up and kissed him and fully participated in his joy. Nobody who saw him in those moments could have guessed the dimensions of the sorrow that filled his heart.

A long time after his wife's passing, he referred to it in a letter to his nephew Avrohom Pinchos as being "a tear that has not been repaired . . . Ten years have already gone by and it is impossible to speak of it as something in the past!"

In a shmuess in the yeshiva he once said, "When a person dies young and leaves behind orphans, everyone says, `Poor things! What will happen to the children?' but this is heresy! Now they have more of a Father than they had before. Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the Father of orphans, is their Father!"

As Heard from Rav Avrohom

Here are some of the things that one of Rav Avrohom's talmidim, HaRav Moshe Tikochinsky zt'l who served as mashgiach of Yeshivas Slobodka in Bnei Brak, said over.

A distraught Jew once came to plead with Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l about the health of his only son. Rav Yisroel's talmidim were tending the victims of a cholera epidemic at considerable risk to their own health and the man's son was with them. He begged Rav Yisroel to instruct his son to desist for, if any harm were chas vesholom to befall him, he, the father, would be left childless. Rav Yisroel's response was, "If you'd like me to swear that nothing will happen to him, I'll swear!"


While a father feels anger over his son's shortcoming, he may not hit his son. The blows are motivated by anger, not by kindness towards his son. Only if the father's anger stems wholly from love and devotion can he give reproof while he is angry.


Rav Avrohom taught that gratitude is not confined to returning a kind deed to someone who has helped us. Essentially, it is the simple acknowledgement that we have received a favor from the other person. A consequence of this will be our devotion to our benefactor's welfare.


He also maintained that the dangers of laziness outweigh those of any other type of shortcoming. All other impulses, even negative ones, are active in nature, while laziness is passive, negating and preventing the implementation of the powers of intellect and character that a person needs for his advancement and self perfection.

Rav Tikochinsky related that when the last time for Krias Shema was early, pesukei dezimroh were said hurriedly in order to reach Shema in time. Rav Avrohom said that when this happened, extra time should be spent on saying the Amidah, to compensate for rushing pesukei dezimroh.

His Father

A learned and devout Jew lived in Warsaw. Reb Itche Grodzensky was his name. He had no title and held no position, though he was a talmid chochom of exceptional stature. The Chofetz Chaim once commented that in his day, Reb Yitzchok had saved Torah study in Warsaw.

He had come to Warsaw from Lomzheh and before long was recognized as a man who devoted his life to spreading Torah and to helping others. On one of the Chofetz Chaim's first visits to Warsaw, Reb Itche sought him out and asked his advice. The Chofetz Chaim respected him greatly and encouraged him to spread Torah, yiras Shomayim and mussar.

Acting upon this advice, shiurim in Gemora were opened and a group of bochurim was formed before whom Reb Itche delivered shiurim. A yeshiva was founded; it was headed by several maggidei shiur. Following Reb Itche's example, some of his followers later went out to one of the city's suburbs to begin shiurim there; the Chofetz Chaim's Mishnah Berurah and Shemiras Haloshon featured prominently in the subject matter.

There were learning groups throughout Warsaw that had been founded either by Reb Itche or by one of his followers. When he passed away on the twenty-fifth of Sivan 5681 (1921), the Chofetz Chaim delivered a eulogy -- something he rarely did -- in which he deeply mourned Reb Itche's petiroh. Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt'l, said that he heard the Chofetz Chaim say that most of the Torah in Warsaw existed in Reb Itche's merit.

The Chofetz Chaim was also grateful to Reb Itche for his hospitality. He eventually repaid this kindness to the husband of Reb Itche's granddaughter, Rav Yaakov Neiman zt'l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Or Yisroel in Petach Tikva.

Many other great Lithuanian geonim found accommodation in Reb Itche's home at one time or another. Reb Itche was also close to the Beis Halevi zt'l. At one time he baked the Beis Halevi's matzos for him and he accompanied him when he traveled to take up the rabbonus of Brisk.

Scores of Warsaw's poor and destitute ate at Reb Itche's table during the week. They always found his door wide open in welcome. Once Reb Itche gave his bed to a leper whom nobody else would go near -- according to Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l, he shared the bed with the leper.

Reb Itche's home was a refuge to broken and embittered souls, to whom he extended the warmth of a friend and brother. Emotionally unstable folk were also attracted to him. When hearing another person's troubles, he would sigh and groan in empathy and extend practical help. His mundane conversation revolved around arrangements for visiting the sick, marrying off indigent brides and the like. This was the home into which Rav Avrohom was born in 5642 (1882).

Molded in Slobodka

Rav Avrohom arrived in Slobodka when he was seventeen (5659). In 5665, Rav Eliezer Gordon zt'l, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, asked the Alter of Slobodka to send him a group of talmidim to strengthen mussar study in his yeshiva. Rav Avrohom was one of this group.

When he was twenty-nine, Rav Avrohom married the daughter of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Heller zt'l, who served as a mashgiach in Slobodka. In 5684 (1924), he traveled to Eretz Yisroel with the first group of talmidim to found the Slobodka yeshiva in Chevron and he was responsible for the timetable and the regulations that were put into effect there. Afterwards, he returned to Slobodka upon the Alter's instructions to assist Rav Isaac Sher zt'l in running the yeshiva.

Rav Avrohom paid a second visit to Eretz Yisroel in 5695 (1935). He delivered a shmuess in yeshivas Heichal HaTalmud in Tel Aviv that became a talking point in yeshivos across the country. He also spoke in kollel Toras Eretz Yisroel in Petach Tikva. Rav Avrohom returned to Slobodka, where he remained after the war broke out. He was murdered on the twenty-second of Tammuz 5704 (1944).

Rav Avrohom on Simchas Torah

The following is an excerpt from an eyewitness account of Simchas Torah 5696 (1936) in Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel -- Slobodka, Lithuania, by Rabbi Sholom Teichtel zt'l who was a talmid in the yeshiva at the time. We have tried to preserve the lyrical style of the original piece as far as possible.

"By the time it was all over (the hakofos on Simchas Torah night), many of those who'd come had already gone home. The son of our master and teacher . . . Rav Avrohom Grodzensky came to tell me that the Mashgiach was inviting me to the evening meal. (It was Rav Avrohom's custom to remain on Simchas Torah night with a minyan of the closest bochurim.) As we walked behind the Mashgiach to his house, the sky glittered with a myriad shining stars, while the white moon looked benevolently on.

"Arriving at the Mashgiach's home, the bochurim gathered around the table. On the large table stood an old, silver six-armed candelabrum. Rav Avrohom started delivering a mussar shmuess, portraying the greatness of man in general and of Yisroel in particular and speaking about completing the [reading of the] Torah. When he spoke about the Jewish nation, who tell Hashem, "You have chosen us from all the nations" (Yom Tov Amidah), we imagined we could see the Shechinah embracing Knesses Yisroel, wiping the tears from her eyes and comforting her, dangling her locks on her cheeks like a compassionate mother, playing with her gracefully and saying mercifully, " `I have a precious son, Ephraim, [who is] a child [I delight] to play with, for whenever I speak about him I continue to remember him' says Hashem" (Yirmiyohu 31:19).

"When he finished speaking we were in deep silence. Suddenly the Mashgiach joyfully announced kiddush. His face shone as though the holiness of the Shechinah rested on it. He lifted the big silver cup that was filled with wine and made kiddush. After the meal we danced for several hours with tremendous enthusiasm.

"I rose from my bed at dawn. Arriving at the beis hamedrash, I saw that it was full of people, young and old, like the previous evening. They were standing and swaying and the sound of their cries of prayer grew louder and louder. It was a true yom tov pleasure. Every corner was suffused with a sense of enjoyment and gratification. A few moments later, I watched as the twenty best bochurim in the yeshiva carried in our master and teacher . . . seated on his chair. When they entered the yeshiva the song, Se'u she'orim rosheichem . . .ve'yovo Melech hakovod (Tehillim 24:7) was started. The hakofos followed the same arrangement as the previous evening, in joy and gladness and the special Yom Tov mizmor was said."

It is said that Rav Avrohom's talmid HaRav Moshe Tikochinsky related that Rav Avrohom would dance all the hakofos on Simchas Torah with a tallis covering his head.

Freedom of Choice: Excerpts from One of Rav Avrohom's Shmuessen

This is an abbreviated version of one of the shmuessen that Rav Avrohom delivered to the Slobodka graduates who learned in the Kovno Kollel. It appears in HaSabo MiSlobodka, Vol. 126 in the Lebovits-Kest Compact Bnei Torah Library. It was originally recorded by HaRav Shmuel Leib Svei zt'l and was given to the publishers by his son ylct'a HaRav Elya Svei.

A person's natural condition is to have freedom of choice; this freedom accompanies him all the time. There is no matter or situation in which he is deprived of it. There is good and bad in absolutely everything. Yaakov said to Yosef, "Deal with me in kindness and truth" (Bereishis 47:29).

[Rashi explains] that "the kindness done for the dead is true kindness, for no reward is expected" but other kinds of kindness cannot be completely genuine. [Even] Yosef, the choicest of the tribes, the wise son who was devoted heart and soul to Yaakov could not hope that any other kindness he did for his father was genuine. There was always some hope of reward or of attaining blessing and the like.

. . . Here we see that a person's freedom of choice is a fact, that is part of how he is made. A good deed done by even the greatest of the great can be tainted by untoward elements.

Involvement in Torah study is the pursuit that is supreme in goodness yet, since man chooses, even there he is not safe from the taint of the opposite of good. "One who teaches an unworthy disciple is like someone who throws a stone to Markulis." If Chazal hadn't used such an expression, we couldn't have said it. Markulis is a type of idol that is worshiped by throwing stones at it. Chazal compare Torah study that is not undertaken in the way that befits it to such a practice. The Torah becomes the reverse of what it ought to be chas vesholom.

The Rambam explains that an unworthy disciple is one who behaves wrongly. Rabbenu Yonah explains that it refers to faulty character traits. Since his character is unworthy, his Torah is transformed to the very opposite of what it should be. "Study is great because it leads to deeds."

This is the basis for the ruling that study is preferential because to them, it was straightforward that study leads to deeds. For us, this is by no means a given. The reason for this is that everything depends on how one approaches Torah.

If we approached Torah properly, it would be a different Torah. If we were to approach every step of the discussion with every detail and stage of the debate as commandments from Hashem, then it would automatically lead us to practice. Since we do not approach [Torah] as we should, we are not safe from failure.

. . . There isn't a single bit of a person's involvement in Torah, mussar or in ministering to a talmid chochom who is a mussar scholar -- which is apparently the most concrete [form of learning] of all and should be subject to the fewest mistakes -- that he cannot be mistaken in. A person is never free of his freedom of choice and he is always in danger of learning the opposite of what he is supposed to. What makes this so serious is that he retains his mistakes and remains with a wrong set of ideas that are the reverse of mussar.

. . . According to what we have explained, a person has a double task. He must make every effort to seek Torah and mussar and to seek good friends and a good environment. To the very same extent, though, he must also worry and be afraid -- " `Happy is the man who is always afraid' refers to divrei Torah."

We understand the necessity for fear and concern when someone leaves an environment of Torah and mussar. In the very same way, he should also be afraid [even] while he is in an environment of Torah and mussar -- be it the best and the greatest -- of being "an unworthy disciple" whose Torah is chas vesholom transformed into Markulis and becomes a tool of the Satan.

. . . We can employ our recollections and written records of the conduct of our master and teacher [the Alter] zt'l, in his own life and in his attitudes to everything, that we view as an approach and a path. They can serve to help us search our ways and examine our conduct and how we exercise our freedom of choice in mussar and its implementation.


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