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10 Cheshvan 5764 - November 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
In Awe of HaRav Shach, zt"l

by Y. D. Halevy

This piece is in honor of the second yahrtzeit of Maran HaRav Shach, zt"l, on 16 Marcheshvon. Short, but very powerful, it certainly makes us painfully aware of what we lost.

Ever since I was a child, every leil Shabbos and motzei Shabbos I would walk with my father, hand in hand, up har Hashem, to daven in the great hall of Yeshivas Ponovezh, to give and receive a blessing for a gut Shabbos or a gut voch from Maran the Ponevezher Rav, the Mashgiach HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein and the Rosh Yeshiva Maran HaRav Shach, zeicher tzadikim vekedoshim livrochoh.

On motzei Shabbos we would go early to hear the shmuess given by HaRav Ben Tzion Bamberger zt"l. R' Ben Tzion would deliver the shmuess in the dark, and the entire building--where the lights were normally burning from early morning to late at night--was cloaked in a thick darkness spreading out far and wide. It was as if the Torah and its hall had joined together to part with the neshomoh yeseiroh.

On the Shaarei Osher floor the shmuessen room was packed tight. R' Ben Tzion would strain his eyes, opening them wide to scan the gathering of mevakshei Hashem who had crowded into every single crack and crevice to listen to him fervently pass on what he had received from his rabbonim-- HaRav Abba Grossbard, who had come with him from Lomzhe to Ponovezh, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein and the Rosh Yeshiva.

Meanwhile we children would play loud games of tag in the western plaza or the yeshiva balcony, where the sun still sent its last rays of red light. The huge hall of the yeshiva was almost completely empty. Elderly men--baalei trissim and baalei mochin from Kelm and Mir, talmidim of R' Yeruchom who would come to warm themselves at Rav Yechezkel's fire--were scattered here and there, spending time in solitude and silence; their black shadows blended in well with the darkness. To our childish eyes these were unique, slightly scary moments.

The only sound on the hill was the gay voices of "One, two, three!" or "Got you!" trying to drive away the silence. Two opposite extremes: Inside a fire burned, while outside were fateful contests, who saw who first and loud, bubbling children's conversations.


And there was one more sound. A very special sound. Kol Hashem behodor. Kol Hashem shoveir arozim. The voice of the Rosh Yeshiva.

Maran would go up first. Right as the sun was setting. Like a Kohen godol whose every action and deed is performed in holiness and swiftness, sunset would find the Rosh Yeshiva well after Sholosh Seudos, already seated in his chair and accompanying the Shabbos Queen with his holy contemplations. During those years these were rare moments of chesed when one could see Rabbenu sitting at his place beside the left pillar on the eastern side of the hall, leaning on his hands, absorbed in thought, without any sefer open in front of him, rocking back and forth.

And then, when darkness had covered the earth and Shabbos had gone far away with the pain of parting, when only the crown of the golden aron hakodesh still caught the last red glints of dusk, a melancholy melody could be heard coming from the Rosh Yeshiva--the "Mussar melody." Somewhere between a melody and a sigh. It was a broken melody, fragments of his heart that sometimes escaped his holy mouth, a small expression of the great storm in his enormous heart, the heart of Am Yisroel.

The Rosh Yeshiva would sit contemplating the world and reflecting upon the week. His head rested on his hands as if involved in a deep sugyo, his eyes shut, wrapped up in his thoughts -- no book, no words -- rocking softly and humming to himself.

His voice was seeking, imploring, delving, searching. It was unmistakable. This was the beloved voice of the Rosh Yeshiva, the same voice, hoarse from the fervor of Tuesday's shiur; the great, commanding voice of the great Jewish leader which people came from every corner of the world to hear. Now it sounded crushed, rumbling, longing, purifying and refining.

As the minutes passed the Rosh Yeshiva would cloak himself in a more and more profound silence, the melody would deepen -- even the soft sighing would become heavier. And the wind hovered, carried on waves of the cross-breeze, whistling and rolling in, straight from the azure sea gazing at us from afar.

The adults among us would steal about slowly, keeping a distance and grabbing a good spot on the bench facing him, on the bimoh or even on the stairs leading to the aron hakodesh. They would observe carefully, taking in every fragment of the melody. Kol Hashem chotzeiv lahavos eish, kol Hashem yochil midbor . . . Little by little most of the youngsters would gather around the Rosh Yeshiva at a distance, forming a great semicircle like a Sanhedrin.

And then, when the lights came on and R' Ben Tzion was still in the middle of his shmuess, we would draw near and he would test us on gemora, on Mishnoh, on Chumash, and the youngsters he would test on the Alef-beis, using the letters in the big Vilna edition of the gemora. At the end of the exam each of us, whether we passed or failed, would get a warm pinch on the cheek from the Sabbo Kaddisho.

This was how motzei Shabbos looked and felt almost every week, all year long.

But Elul was different.

During the last years before the Mashgiach's petiroh the power of Elul was still fully felt at the yeshiva. The tefillos, the learning, the interactions, the earnestness. Elul pervaded everything. And of course the difference could be discerned in the numbers of those who heard the sichos.

Even we children felt the solemnity hanging over everyone. Even the roof of the yeshiva building appeared heavier, deeper. On these motzei Shabbosos we, too, took part in the sober atmosphere and moderated our mischievousness somewhat. We would gather on the long balcony on the western side of the yeshiva and survey the panorama, watching another sun from the month of rachamim set before our eyes.

Then, all at once, the stooped figure of the Rosh Yeshiva would appear, walking up with unusual slowness, ever absorbed in thought, his eyes looked downward within his own daled amos and his heart and mind gazing upward. Wide- eyed we would follow his holy figure as he ascended the broken stairs between his abode and Ohel Kedoshim, continuing up the stairs recently carved out in his honor, and then entering the yeshiva building.

We knew a magnificent sight was awaiting us. Only, back then, we did not know how much it would stir our Elul for the rest of our lives. We did not know then that we had the merit to be present at a sublime occasion we would never see again.

Maran zt"l would sit down in his seat as on every other Shabbos. But the melody was different. The storm winds were gusting more powerfully than before. Then we knew it was coming.

The whisper traveled from one mouth to the next. "The Rosh Yeshiva is crying."

At first there were only tears, tears spilling out of his deep, pure eyes. Deep moans and sighs would accompany the traditional Mussar melody. Our hearts felt a twinge of pain. Who could watch him cry and not feel a need to cry, too?

Even the innocent children began to cry together with the Rosh Yeshiva. Our hearts quaked slightly. The great cedar, the powerful pillar all of Beis Yisroel trusted and relied upon, was crying. And what of us?

Leaning on his hands, the Rosh Yeshiva was absorbed in his thoughts, contemplating, humming a melody, sighing, crying. No words, no rocking. Contemplating the world. Assessing the year. Making a reckoning of Klal Yisroel and of the soul of Nosi Yisroel . . .

As Elul progressed and the days of judgment drew near, the Rosh Yeshiva's sighs grew more audible, the melody became more energetic and the wellspring of tears would flow more strongly. And then . . .

It would generally happen on the first Shabbos of the new year, the Shabbos just before we would stand clad all in white and plead, "Koli Shema uRe'eih dema."

Without any warning the Rosh Yeshiva would begin weeping loudly, weeping from the depths of his pure, refined soul, and the sound of his crying was heard throughout the huge hall, great and terrible weeping that must have been heard on High. Weeping that moved the angels.

Startled and afraid, we would flee from the hall of the yeshiva. It would have been out of the question to stand by and watch the weeping of the giant among giants whose heart was like the heart of a lion.

And when the lights came on the shtender was wet with holy tears. Pure tears of yiras cheit and supreme teshuvoh. A pool of tears flowing from a holy wellspring. Tears that never rested from their furious boil, tears that purify whoever recalls them.

Elul. This was Elul in the presence of Maran.

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