by Y. D. Halevy
In Awe of HaRav Shach, zt"l
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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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