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2 Shevat 5765 - January 12, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Yeshivas Lomzha and Its Torah Prince: The Fortieth Yahrtzeit of HaRav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, zt'l

By Rav E. Ozer and B. Re'eim

One Man's Potential

The yeshiva world was suffused with joy at the celebration of the marriage of Reb Eizel Kastiakovsky, known as Reb Eizel Vilner and who was already one of the leading scholars of the Mir, to the daughter of the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon zt'l.

The wedding was graced with the presence of a large number of the greatest Torah personalities of the day. HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l was the mesader kiddushin. HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt'l and HaRav Shimon Shkop zt'l, were honored with Brochos and HaRav Yeruchom Leibowitz zt'l, the Mirrer mashgiach, danced with all his might to honor the chosson and the new illustrious father-in-law.

One key figure was conspicuous by his absence — the kallah's father, the Lomzher Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Yechiel Mordechai. The wedding took place during one of his stays in America to relieve the yeshiva's financial straits and he was unable to interrupt his visit to return home for his own daughter's wedding.

This disturbing vignette captures much that typified Rav Yechiel Mordechai's life. For decades, he ranked among the greatest roshei yeshiva. He stood at the helm of one of the largest of the great yeshivos that flourished in prewar Poland and Lithuania and devoted every ounce of his strength to the spiritual and material needs of his hundreds of talmidim. Under Rav Gordon, Lomzha became one of the first Lithuanian yeshivos to open a branch in Eretz Yisroel — a yeshiva that played an important role in the early development of the Torah community. Yet his life was beset by difficulties and he suffered repeated personal tragedy and loss. Despite his heavy burdens and his sorrows, he always radiated tranquility and joy and extended kindness and grace to all.

Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon was just twenty-four years old when he was appointed Rosh Yeshivas Lomzha. Among the array of spiritual giants who shaped the Eastern European yeshiva world, he was considered the example par excellence of the greatness that a fully perfected human being could achieve.

In Slobodka

He was born in Troki, a small town near Vilna and as was customary, his hometown gave him the name by which he was known in his youth — Mottel Trokker. Later on, things were reversed. A well-known play on the Hebrew saying, "Eizehu chochom? Hamakir es mekomo (Who is wise? One who knows his place)," renders another meaning — "Who is a scholar? One who brings renown to his town" — and this was fulfilled in later years. Troki became famous for the outstanding Torah scholars that it produced, first HaRav Yechiel Mordechai and years later, Nochum Trokker, better known to us as HaRav Nochum Partzowitz zt'l. Their common birthplace was the source of the strong friendship that existed between the two.

As a child, Yechiel Mordechai's noble character and intellectual gifts — his phenomenal memory and clarity of thought — were apparent. He was deeply moved by the Chofetz Chaim who visited Troki in those days and spoke in public. Throughout his life HaRav Yechiel Mordechai shrank from loshon hora and always saw the good and the positive in everybody.

He was a youngster when he joined Slobodka Yeshiva, yet the Alter immediately saw his promise and befriended him. He frequented the Alter's home, benefiting from his close and constant attention. The Alter is said to have remarked, "All our toil in the yeshiva would have been worthwhile even to produce only one individual as complete and perfect as Mottel Trokker!"

HaRav Yechiel Mordechai remained in Slobodka for ten years, until his marriage at the age of twenty-three to the daughter of HaRav Eliezer Shulevitz zt'l, the founder and first rosh yeshiva of Lomzha.

For a time, at the Alter's suggestion, he had the good fortune to share a room in Slobodka with Rav Naftali Amsterdam zt'l, one of the great talmidim of Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l. In the proximity of such mussar giants, his character grew even more refined and elevated.

He related that once on Taanis Esther they went to hear a shmuess from Rav Naftoli. In the middle of the shmuess, Rav Naftali covered his face with a handkerchief and wept. He told his listeners, "I envy you because you are young — you have a yetzer hora and you have the capacity for serving Hashem. I am old. I don't have a yetzer hora and I don't have the means of serving Hashem." Rav Naftali wept copiously.

In later years, HaRav Yechiel Mordechai told this story to his father-in-law who, like Rav Naftali, was also a talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter. Rav Shulevitz's reaction was: "Rav Simchah Zissel [of Kelm, another talmid of Rav Yisroel's] would not have said that. In his opinion, an old man has a yetzer hora just like a young man does. If a person doesn't uproot his yetzer hora when he is young, it remains with him — and so do all his bad traits — even when he's old."

HaRav Yechiel Mordechai remained grateful to the Alter throughout his life for the warmth and for the special relationship that existed between them, that had helped him grow and develop; he would often longingly recall the Alter's influence and inspiration.

Once, an alumnus of the yeshiva arrived in Slobodka. Known for his sharp intellect, the visitor had been appointed to deliver a shiur in a well-known yeshiva and from time to time he would come to Slobodka to see his mentor, the Alter. On this occasion, the Alter pointed out to his talmid that even though he had left the yeshiva, a new prodigy had arrived and he showed him Reb Yechiel Mordechai. The visiting gaon posed a difficult kushya to the young scholar and Reb Yechiel Mordechai demonstrated that the gemora asked the very same question on the following page.

The Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka at the time was HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt'l and Reb Yechiel Mordechai showed him tremendous respect. Although he was closest to the Alter and though his own standing among the bochurim reached the point where he would be approached to resolve disputes between them and they would gather to hear his chiddushei Torah, he was careful to accord HaRav Moshe Mordechai all due deference and would always participate in his shiurim.

The Founder of Lomzha Yeshiva

At this time, Lomzha Yeshiva was developing into one of the main Torah centers. The yeshiva's founder and leader was HaRav Eliezer Shulevitz, who is described on his tombstone on Har Hazeisim as having been, "the last remaining talmid in [the discipline of] yir'oh of HaRav Yisroel Salanter."

The yeshiva was founded in Lomzha, Poland, during Pesach 5643 (1883), some two months after Rav Yisroel Salanter's petiroh and in his memory. Rav Eliezer Shulevitz went to consult HaRav Chaim Leib Mishkovsky zt'l — the rov of Stavisk (which is near Lomzha) who was considered the greatest and most righteous Torah leader of his time — about founding the yeshiva. In HaRav Chaim Leib's home he also found the Chofetz Chaim, who was paying a visit.

Throughout their lives, these two gedolim provided Rav Eliezer with guidance and counsel concerning the running of the yeshiva. In letters, they attested to his deep desire and his extensive and ongoing efforts to spread Torah — for example, in opening preparatory yeshivos for Lomzha in the surrounding villages where some five hundred talmidim studied — and to the purity of his motives.

On one of his trips to a village near Lomzha, the Chofetz Chaim was surprised to see the talmidim of the local yeshiva learning assiduously late at night. When he asked them why they were staying up so late to learn they told him that Rav Eliezer Shulevitz was due to arrive from Lomzha the next day to test them and they were preparing themselves. When he arrived in Lomzha, the Chofetz Chaim embraced Rav Eliezer and kissed him as a sign of his high estimation.

Rav Eliezer opened fourteen yeshivos ketanos in the towns surrounding Lomzha that served as preparatory yeshivos for the yeshiva gedolah. Wherever he went, he left a yeshiva behind. During the First World War, when he was exiled deep into the Russian interior, he spent a period of time in Kharkov. He founded a yeshiva in the adjoining town of Priluk where HaRav Aharon Cohen zt'l, who later became rosh yeshivas Chevron, learned. Rav Cohen felt indebted to Rav Shulevitz throughout his life. "If not for Rav Eliezer Shulevitz," he would say, "I wouldn't be a ben Torah." Other talmidim were HaRav Dov Meir Rubman zt'l, rosh yeshivas Tiferes Yisroel and HaRav Mordechai Shmuel Krol zt'l, rov of Kefar Chassidim.

Torah and Bread

Reb Yechiel Mordechai would relate that when HaRav Eliezer was looking for a mashgiach for his yeshiva, he went to ask the Chofetz Chaim to help him find a suitable person. The Chofetz Chaim recommended a certain individual whom he considered worthy and Rav Eliezer set out on his way home, intending to invite the Chofetz Chaim's candidate to come and see him. When he arrived however, he found a telegram from the Chofetz Chaim waiting for him, retracting his recommendation.

When the two next met, Rav Eliezer asked the Chofetz Chaim why he had vetoed the idea. The Chofetz Chaim told him that just as Rav Eliezer had left, his candidate had suddenly come in to complain about the difficulties he was having in finding a livelihood. "I decided," said the Chofetz Chaim, "that someone whose mind is occupied with his livelihood, is not fitting to serve in your yeshiva as a mussar instructor and mashgiach."

Another interesting anecdote that Rav Yechiel Mordechai would share took place after his marriage to Rav Eliezer Shulevitz's daughter. One of the Lomzha alumni had become a cheder teacher and also served as the baal korei in the yeshiva. Because he was having difficulty in making ends meet, the avreich asked the yeshiva's board to allot him a small stipend for his efforts in reading the Torah for the bnei hayeshiva.

Rav Eliezer asked his young son-in-law what he thought of the idea. Knowing the avreich's situation and the size of the yeshiva's budget, Reb Yechiel Mordechai replied that in his opinion, there should not be any great difficulty in agreeing to the request and that it would be correct to assist him.

His father-in-law however told him, "Look. Now, when people ask this avreich how he's managing he tells them that he earns a living from teaching and that his spiritual sustenance comes from the yeshiva, where he even serves as baal korei. If he starts to receive remuneration for reading from the Torah though, when he's asked how he earns a living, he'll give his sources of livelihood as teaching and reading the Torah in the yeshiva."

Around that time, the yeshiva suffered a major financial setback and Rav Eliezer was deprived of the means of supporting it. When the Chofetz Chaim heard that he was considering closing the yeshiva, he set out for Lomzha and sent a message to Rav Eliezer telling him that he would like to meet him at midnight. When he arrived, the Chofetz Chaim invited Rav Eliezer to accompany him on a stroll through the streets of the town. The Chofetz Chaim first led his companion past the beis haknesses, whose lights were out and then he made his way to the yeshiva, which was still ablaze with light.

"Why are the lights on so late here?" the Chofetz Chaim asked.

"This is the yeshiva," replied Rav Eliezer, "and the masmidim are still learning."

"And are you thinking of extinguishing this light too?" the Chofetz Chaim asked him.

The Chofetz Chaim then called a meeting of the leading townsfolk and charged them with helping to support the yeshiva. The danger of closure abated.

Joy and Heartbreak

When his daughter came of age, Rav Shulevitz sought a chosson who would be capable of serving as a rosh yeshiva together with him. He consulted his childhood friend, the Alter of Slobodka, who felt that Rav Yechiel Mordechai was a suitable choice.

Upon entering his father-in-law's family, Rav Yechiel Mordechai grew yet further in stature under his influence. A close talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter, who always conducted himself in accordance with Rav Yisroel's ways and outlook, Rav Eliezer revealed much of his own rebbe's teachings and guidelines to his son-in-law. Rav Yechiel Mordechai absorbed this approach to a great extent. He once wrote in a letter that he had indeed come across several things of which he disapproved but, "I am considering how Rav Yisroel would have acted."

After his marriage, Rav Yechiel Mordechai left home to amass further Torah knowledge in the Talmud Torah of Kelm, from the Alter of Kelm and his talmidim. He had not been there a year when tragedy struck. Lomzha was hit by a typhus epidemic and within three weeks, both Rav Eliezer Shulevitz's wife and his daughter, Rav Yechiel Mordechai's young wife, passed away.

For Rav Yechiel Mordechai, this was only the beginning of a life of profound physical and emotional suffering. Eulogizing him years later, his brother-in-law HaRav Moshe Aryeh Ozer zt'l, described Rav Yechiel Mordechai as "the Iyov of our generation." (The full meaning of this will only become evident in the second part.)

With his deep faith and his firm attachment to Hakodosh Boruch Hu however, Rav Yechiel Mordechai managed to overcome all his travails. He was the personification of the Chovos Halevovos description of the "chossid [who] carries his mourning in his heart and displays brightness on his face." People who encountered him could hardly understand how someone who had experienced what he had, could still have such a calm, refined and joyful bearing.

At the Helm of Lomzha

Upon marrying Rav Eliezer Shulevitz's second daughter in 5665 (1905) at the age of twenty-four, Rav Yechiel Mordechai was given the highest shiur in the yeshiva to deliver and was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Lomzha — a position he would hold for the following sixty years.

He was joined by Rav Shulevitz's second son-in-law, HaRav Yehoshua Zelig Roch zt'l Hy'd, who had a reputation as a genius and was known as HaRav Zelig Rokishoker (thanks to his hometown Rokishok). Rav Roch was one of the leading Torah disseminators in Europe until the war. His profound shiurim and his great toil in Torah made a great impression on all his talmidim and acquaintances. Together, the two brothers-in-law raised the yeshiva's stature to the point where it was one of the finest and largest in Europe, with over five hundred talmidim.

The mashgiach who served alongside them was HaRav Moshe Rosenstein zt'l, who elevated the atmosphere in the yeshiva to sublime heights with his shmuessen and by his personal example. A product of Kelm, Reb Moshe was untainted by any kind of mundane, worldly involvement. He fasted daily and his thoughts centered on holy matters. Many stories were told about him that highlighted his holiness, his expertise as an educator and his fatherly relationship with his talmidim. His seforim, Yesodei Hada'as, which he published and Ahavas Meishorim, which was published after his petiroh, deal with many fundamentals of Torah outlook.

The talmidim would repeat one of Reb Moshe's interesting insights. On a visit to the Polish capital, Warsaw, he saw an elevator for the first time. "Oy," he said, "from now on, we won't have the strength to climb the stairs!"

Other maggidei shiur, all of them Torah scholars of stature, taught in the yeshiva and provided the talmidim with superlative role models. Rav Yechiel Mordechai coordinated and presided over the entire yeshiva, whose atmosphere was suffused with yiras Shomayim and selflessness. All the yeshiva's affairs were conducted in the spirit of mussar and the fear of Heaven. All who knew the yeshiva were impressed by the obvious honor and respect that the roshei hayeshiva and the lecturers accorded each other. Thanks to the harmonious relations that existed between the heads of the yeshiva, an uplifting and inspiring atmosphere pervaded all the ranks of the talmidim.

In later years, Rav Yechiel Mordechai's son-in-law, HaRav Eizel joined the yeshiva's faculty. One of the leading members of the Mir chaburah and a close talmid of Reb Yeruchom's, Reb Eizel was a wondrous gaon and until his marriage he was the regular chavrusa of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l. At his engagement, Reb Eizel delivered a tremendous pilpul on maseches Mikvo'os that astounded all the guests with his genius. It was said that the mashgiach Reb Moshe was so moved that he could not hold himself back and in the middle of the pilpul, he got up and embraced Reb Eizel and kissed him.

Reb Eizel's chasunah was held in the vacation town of Druskenik and as mentioned earlier, was the occasion for a gathering of the elite of the Torah world. Only Rav Yechiel Mordechai was absent. He had traveled to America to try to relieve the yeshiva's tremendous burden of debt and he couldn't allow himself to interrupt his endeavors to return home even for his daughter's wedding.

Reb Yeruchom played the leading role at the chasunah. Under the chuppah he declared, "In the physical world there are borders and barriers that separate people [from one another] but in the spiritual realm, distance and boundaries do not exist. We [therefore] extend our hand to the principal mechuton, the gaon Rav Yechiel Mordechai, who is far away and bless him and wish him mazel tov!"

Rav Yechiel Mordechai's second wife bore him five children. The eldest daughter married Reb Eizel; both she and her husband perished in the Vilna ghetto.

Love and Reproof

As a young talmid in Slobodka, Rav Yechiel Mordechai once came across a copy of Shemiras Haloshon resting on a shtender and, after spending a long time examining it, remarked to himself, "See what respect is due to a human being, Mottel! See the extent of his greatness! A whole sefer needs to be written just to clarify how people may speak about one another!"

This attitude was the leitmotif of his long career as an educator, through whose hands thousands of students, of all levels and inclinations, passed. His love and devotion to his talmidim were legendary and the encouragement and goodwill that he bestowed on them, even when rebuke was called for, warmed their hearts and made them receptive. His method of chastising was to envelop the talmid in warmth and love and to slip in an allusion to the matter that required attention. An oft-repeated saying of his was, "Mit schlechts macht men nisht gut (With bad [i.e. harm] one can't do good)."

He was always deeply involved in both the material and spiritual welfare of his talmidim. If a talmid felt ill or took to his bed, Rav Yechiel Mordechai would assume personal responsibility for providing the necessary care and attention that were required. He would pace up and down in agitation saying, "He needs a doctor. This is required . . . He must have that . . ."

He once took a talmid to task for being careless about his own health. "You are extending your illness," he pointed out, "and are troubling Hakodosh Boruch Hu to minister to you for an extra day since [as an invalid] you require extra attention, as it were. Is that proper? Is that how a ben Torah behaves?"

A talmid related that after he left Lomzha and transferred to another yeshiva, he invested a great deal of toil into the sugya of zikas yibum and ultimately managed to organize the results of his study and formulate chiddushim on the topic. When he repeated these to his father however, his father told him that he had been preempted by HaRav Meir Simchah, the Or Somayach zt'l, in whose Kuntrus Zikah the ideas already appeared. The bochur became very upset by this and he went to see Rav Yechiel Mordechai.

"Why are you depressed?" Rav Yechiel Mordechai asked him. "You should be rejoicing! Do you know what you've managed to do? You've arrived at the same conclusions as HaRav Meir Simchah! Have you any idea what that means?" His words raised the bochur's spirits considerably and rekindled his desire for delving deeply into Torah.

Hunger and Poverty

The First World War brought revolution, chaos and marauding to the Jewish heartland of Poland, Lithuania and Russia. The yeshivos' sources and channels of support collapsed and many of them disbanded or went into exile, leaving many talmidim stranded, with nowhere to turn. There were many who found a place in Lomzha where Rav Yechiel Mordechai, with his warmth and kindness, cared for them.

Lomzha and Telz were behind the German lines and the task of providing for all the bnei hayeshiva, whose numbers swelled to seven hundred, was virtually a superhuman one. Each meal had to be organized like a rescue operation and as soon as one been successfully carried out, the next one loomed. The following stories illustrate just how serious the situation was and the weight of the burden that Rav Yechiel Mordechai carried. Though it is hard to say with certainty that they all took place during the First World War, it seems reasonable to assign them to this period of extraordinary difficulty and it is at any rate valuable to view them against its backdrop.

One morning, the specter of hunger loomed over the yeshiva. With a calm, unruffled air Rav Yechiel Mordechai made his way to the baker and, setting down a pen and paper, proposed they drew up an agreement. "I would like to obtain eight hundred loaves of bread from you," he said, "in return for which I will write a document assigning you my portion in Olom Habo . . .." The baker rejected the offer outright.

On one occasion, the dining room remained empty as the bochurim entrenched themselves in the beis hamedrash and worked on formulating a statement explaining why they were "striking." They were going hungry and they felt that things had gone too far. In this case, holding a "strike" merely meant staying in the beis hamedrash and learning without interruption. Amid the stormy learning, Rav Yechiel Mordechai suddenly appeared. He ascended the steps leading to the Aron Hakodesh, said a few words, and went down.

"Tyer'e kinderlach (Dear children)," he began. "Do you think that your food is being taken away? . . . Let me tell you something. The Torah forbids us to eat human flesh but if it were permissible to do so, believe me, I'd cook pieces of my own flesh and feed them to you . . . "

When HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l repeated this story, his shoulders trembled as he shook from tears of emotion.

An Unbearable Burden

One of the bochurim to arrive in Lomzha during the war was HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt'l. His initial encounter with the Rosh Yeshiva was disastrous. Reb Yaakov was tired out when he reached the yeshiva, his beard was unkempt and his clothing disheveled. His strange appearance made Rav Yechiel Mordechai suspicious that he was an indigent wanderer who was only interested in a place to obtain food.

"How can I accept you into the yeshiva?" he asked the newcomer, "there isn't any food for the bochurim." He began discussing a passage from the Ketzos Hachoshen, in an attempt to engage the stranger in Torah discussion and gauge his credibility but Reb Yaakov was so exhausted that he simply fell asleep. When he awoke, he realized what had happened and prepared to leave the yeshiva. A bochur whom he knew recognized him and told the Rosh Yeshiva who his mysterious visitor had been. Rav Yechiel Mordechai immediately set about trying to locate Reb Yaakov, which he eventually succeeded in doing, gladly accepting him into his yeshiva.

Reb Yaakov remained in Lomzha for two-and-a-half years, which were very happy and productive ones for him. Already in his mid-twenties, he was much older than most of the other bochurim and only nine years the junior of the Rosh Yeshiva. He learned mostly by himself but spoke in learning and delivered chaburos to the bochurim, to whom he was an inspiring example. He became a close friend of Rav Yechiel Mordechai, who would consult him concerning the yeshiva's affairs.

The two met again in the United States after the Second World War and Rav Yechiel Mordechai confided to HaRav Yaakov that his arrival in the yeshiva had been a costly affair for him. After Reb Yaakov had almost slipped through his fingers, R' Yechiel Mordechai had resolved never to turn away any bochur who sought admission to the yeshiva. He accepted all comers and undertook to provide for them.

For four difficult years, Rav Yechiel Mordechai battled to sustain the yeshiva, but at one stage things reached a point where he could no longer continue and he announced that the yeshiva would have to disband. One bochur remained sitting by his gemora, as though oblivious to the news, his voice echoing sweetly through the empty beis hamedrash. Rav Yechiel Mordechai went over to him and with pain and pity in his voice, pointed out to him that there was no food left in the yeshiva.

The bochur told him, "If I leave the yeshiva and the rebbe, what should I live for? I prefer to die here, together."

Rav Yechiel Mordechai spent long years in the United States until he'd succeeded in repaying every penny of the yeshiva's deficit, which amounted to the huge sum of four million dollars. On one of his trips, he visited London and was given a letter by HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky for Dayan Abramsky zt'l who headed the London Beis Din.

"He is altogether an outstanding individual," HaRav Chaim Ozer wrote about Rav Yechiel Mordechai, "who finds it difficult to burden others however, there is nothing shameful about acting as necessity dictates . . . I hope that my friend [i.e. Dayan Abramsky] will do all he can to benefit him and to save him and his yeshiva from their terrible crisis. The misery of his situation can scarcely be imagined or believed . . ."

End of Part I


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