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3 Shevat 5766 - February 1, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








HaRav Moshe Yechiel Halevi Epstein zt'l, the Ozhrover Rebbe
Rosh Chodesh Shevat 5766, Thirty-Five Years Since His Petiroh

by M. Musman

Part One

A New Generation, a New Challenge

Writing in memory of the Ozhrover Rebbe ztvk'l, twenty years ago, when only fifteen years had elapsed since his petiroh, posed a challenge. Many people still remembered him as a holy gaon who had led his small chassidus from his beis hamedrash in central Tel Aviv; as a prominent member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah universally revered for his towering Torah scholarship as much as for his holiness and piety; as the author of two monumental series of seforim; and as a friend and mentor to any Jew in need who sought his advice and encouragement.

But even then more of the picture needed filling in. Much was only seen by those who came into contact with him — the incredible extent of his application to Torah study and dissemination, his strength of character, the immense toil that he invested in his writings, the power of his love for each and every Jew and, above all, his soul's constant attachment to its Heavenly moorings that was apparent in every facet of his life. The challenge twenty years ago was to show the public who still remembered him that he was far more than the sum of his parts and that for all the greatness that was evident, much more remained hidden than could be imagined.

The challenge in writing about the Ozhrover Rebbe today, for a generation that never knew him, is that much greater. Because of his very uniqueness — because he was a phenomenon without parallel — there is little hope that we who never knew him can begin to appreciate him. We simply have no frame of reference within which to place him, nothing to compare him to.

We are also hindered by our own shortcomings. How can we, with our diminished hearts and impoverished understanding, begin to comprehend a character who was acclaimed by leading figures of (what we see as) different spiritual worlds?

Those who were well-versed in the teachings of chassidus were astounded by the love of Klal Yisroel that was revealed in his seforim, to the point where they saw him as a contemporary Kedushas Levi. Pointing to a passage in one of his seforim the Ponovezher mashgiach, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l, exclaimed, "This rebbe is a baal mussar!"

Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l, declared that the Rebbe was, "a gaon in every chamber of Torah knowledge!"

Another godol said, " Divrei Torah flow in his veins!"

HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt'l was an ardent admirer who saw himself as something of "a Litvishe chossid" of the Ozhrover's.

Yet Heaven planted him in times very close to our own. Though he cleaved to the upper worlds, he betook himself to see and understand the Jewish world around him and the problems it faced. He lived and worked with and among people like us. He advised and guided them as individuals, he took part in deciding the communal issues that affected them, and he composed seforim to instruct and inspire them.

He wrote, "I have invested great toil and huge labor in this sefer, which I love like my own soul . . . Hashem yisborach has merited me and illuminated my heart with His Torah and I have gathered everything in this sefer in order to benefit the contemporary reader."

However incomplete our portrayal and however inadequate our understanding, we will still have gained from making an attempt. The following article tries to convey something of the greatness of the Ozhrover Rebbe, based on the impressions of several people who knew him.

Work on Yourself to Learn Torah

He could have relied on his rich spiritual legacy — his illustrious lineage, his noble character, his gifted intellect and his phenomenal memory — and he would still have been an impressive figure. But he worked mightily all his life to acquire Torah on his own, fulfilling Chazal's injunction: "Work on yourself to learn Torah, which is not your automatic inheritance" (Ovos 2:12).

On Moshe Yechiel's third birthday his father, the holy Rav Avrohom Shlomo zt'l, allowed him to enter his private study for the first time. Seeing his son's rapture at being in close proximity to the holy seforim he quietly left the room and closed the door, thus dedicating him to Torah.

The child spent a long time in the seforim-filled room. This laid the foundation of the incredible application to learning that he retained throughout his life, right until the end. He was stricken, just before his petiroh in a room filled with seforim, his learning room, adjacent to his beis hamedrash in Tel Aviv.

As a child, his separation from every worldly pursuit was so complete that he said himself that he scarcely recognized his own sisters, while his aunts — his father's and mother's sisters — he didn't recognize at all.

He received his Torah education from his father and from his grandfather, the Rebbe Rav Leibush zt'l. In later years, he related that his grandfather had taught him that a person's main task in this world is to attain the trait of humility and that one's level of Torah scholarship rises according to the extent that one succeeds in achieving this goal.

With his photographic memory, his powerful mind and his intense application, it is no wonder that he completed Shas ten times by the time he was forty years old. He had total command of every part of Torah; the breadth of his knowledge astounded all who met him. He remembered the precise wording not only of the gemora but also of its commentaries and of alternative versions of the text, of the Zohar and Kabboloh literature, of midroshim and of works of chassidus and halochoh.

But what most amazed those who met him was his incredible application to learning, that never slackened. He was able to toil at reviewing his learning as though he was learning it for the first time. He would learn through masechtos a hundred-and-one times, although he already knew them in their entirety by heart.

On Friday nights it was his custom to learn until very late (at this time he learned principally Zohar). One week the light went out early, but the Rebbe carried on learning just as he always did though it was quite dark.

He would finish the Shabbos meals quickly in order to return to his learning. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of taking a nap on Shabbos he would rest for a few minutes. All the rest of the day he remained inside his room — learning.

His life was arranged according to the clock. Every minute was precious. When a relative failed to come at the time that had been arranged the rebbe scolded him saying, "I live by the clock."

Once, when his Rebbetzin saw him interrupt a rest after a very short time, she said in surprise, "Is that called taking a rest?"

"I slept for three minutes," he replied, glancing at his watch. "Would you have wanted me to sleep for three hours?"

On another occasion when the Rebbe went to rest, the Rebbetzin asked an attendant to make sure that he wouldn't be disturbed. The "watchman" peeped into the Rebbe's room and saw that even while lying down his lips were constantly moving.

The Rebbe once fell ill and the medical treatment that he received did not help. He was growing weaker and he asked the doctor for permission to return to his room to learn. The doctor was aware of the seriousness of the situation and categorically forbade it. When his condition took a further turn for the worse, the Rebbe suddenly got up, returned to his room, immersed himself in learning and regained his health and strength.

His application to learning was independent of every other consideration. It was utterly irrespective of the degree of his knowledge, which was already complete. It arose simply from the obligation that every Jew has to occupy himself with Torah at every available moment, no matter what conditions he happens to find himself in (see box).

Ozhrov, Poland

The young Ozhrover Rebbe was the fifth rebbe in a dynasty that had been founded Rav Yehuda Aryeh Leib halevi Epstein zt'l, a talmid of the Chozeh of Lublin zt'l. Rav Moshe Yechiel had a yeshiva where he taught the bochurim, advancing them in Torah knowledge and proficiency.

His yeshiva was a faithful reflection of his chassidus. There were neither hordes of chassidim nor were there hundreds of talmidim. There was no grand building or bustling court. During the day, the bochurim learned while the rov kept up his own learning schedule and supervised the religious affairs of the town. Towards evening he went up to the beis hamedrash and after ma'ariv he began delivering his shiur. The shiur went on for hours, lasting until shacharis the following morning; so it was, night after night.

After shacharis the talmidim returned to their lodgings to eat and rest while the rov nodded off briefly at his shtender, and then went down to his house, to learn and to attend to the needs of the townspeople. While location and outward circumstances changed this, in essence was the pattern that his life followed throughout his eighty years, hour after hour, day and night, summer and winter — teaching through the night, learning through the day and attending to communal needs in between times. It was not a circular path repeating itself with regularity; it was a straight, upward ascent with each hour and each day being utilized to the full for advance in Torah and in avodas Hashem.

"In Ozhrov," the Rebbe once said as his memory took him back to earlier years, "it was the rov who went to collect mo'os chittin. It was the rov who toiled to open a mikveh. It was the rov who went around to organize the collection of funds for making an eruv. During the First World War, when everything was strictly rationed, and in order to obtain flour for matzos one had to apply to an antisemitic minister, I traveled to Warsaw to meet him and I was successful. With Succos approaching, I spent four days in Vienna and obtained an esrog after real self- sacrifice; it was the only esrog in our region. When marauding bands swept through our region wreaking mayhem, I approached the military governor and paid for special protection. On another occasion I asked him to put out word that a contagious disease had infected our town — the marauders rushed past us . . ."

To later generations that had never experienced Jewish Poland and its glorious heritage of Torah and chassidus, the Ozhrover Rebbe was a font of information. In his later years, listeners in America and Eretz Yisroel would drink in every word he told them about earlier generations. Through him, they caught a glimpse of some of the wondrous ancient sights, going all the way back to the beis hamedrash of the Chozeh of Lublin, the great and holy mentor of the Ozhrover's holy forefathers, the Admorim of Ozhrov and Chentschin, zecher tzaddikim livrochoh.

Ozhrov, America

The Rebbe chose the path of strenuous work and self- perfection. Small wonder that when he left Poland in 5686 (1926), he did not shrink from settling in the inhospitable spiritual climate of prewar America. He settled in New York, in the Bronx, drawing a circle around himself within which he continued his regimen of learning and avodoh, without slipping an iota from the level he had maintained in Poland.

He recalled, "Ten years before I came to the United States, my grandfather Reb Leibush prophesied about me. He said, `One of my grandchildren will be forced to travel to America but I don't know which one.' " In fact, the Rebbe did initially oppose emigrating to America out of concern for possible negative effects on his daughters' spiritual development. In the end, circumstances beyond his control forced him to leave Poland for the United States.

During the day he learned and at night he knew no rest. Once, the daughter of his neighbors fell ill and her parents took turns sitting with her through the night. First the father went to sleep and the mother stayed awake. Later the mother rested while the father took her place by the child's bed. All night long, whenever they looked through the window they saw the Rebbe's shadow as he paced back and forth in his room immersed in thought.

During the summer he joined the exodus from the sweltering heat of the city and traveled to the Catskills. For most of the day he paced up and down on the top of a nearby hill (that was appropriately nicknamed Mount Sinai) with a sefer in his hand. When they retired for the night his neighbors felt secure in the knowledge that Torah was being studied nearby without interruption. Near his lodgings stood a small hut, inside which he closed himself and learned while standing.

The Rebbe once found himself traveling in the company of a wealthy businessman who was deeply embedded in the American experience and the Rebbe sought a way to fan the Jewish spark buried within him. As they passed a certain bridge, the Rebbe asked what the name of the place was. When his companion told him the bridge's name he gave an astonishingly accurate account of its history, the year of its construction, who the mayor was at the time, its dimensions and the cost of its construction and maintenance. This display of knowledge astounded the man who was overjoyed to find a rabbi who spoke his language and it reinforced his faith in Torah scholars and sense of Jewish identity. Subsequently he visited the Rebbe many times.

In New York too, his home was frequented by Torah scholars and other distinguished Yidden. Well-known judges and doctors also sought his company, as did coarse, unlearned Jews who felt uncomfortable in any other religious setting. All of them received a warm welcome in the Ozhrover Rebbe's home. He also outstretched a hand to the rank and file through the public tischen that he led, which lasted all night, at which many of the participants regained their spiritual equilibrium.

When someone came in to see him he would turn towards him from his other, all-abiding love — Torah study — with the genuine love he felt towards every Yid. He would close his sefer and give his full attention to the petitioner, who was able to remain in his company for as long as was necessary. He never gave anyone the feeling that they were imposing on him by speaking too much or that they were stealing his truly precious time.

"Boruch Hashem," he once exclaimed gratefully, "I withstood the trial of America safely."

He refused to grant kashrus certification, or become an institution for conducting weddings, selling chometz and delivering eulogies, which at that time were the most sought-after rabbinical functions. When people sent him the usual payment for "services" he would return their money, even when there was not a penny in his house. He encouraged people to call him on the telephone because it saved time, though it meant that he received none of the traditional recompense for his efforts on their behalf.

He was glad that he had been able to withstand both the material and spiritual temptations of America. "When I came to America," he said, "people told me, `In America one doesn't give over profound ideas, just simple and easy ones, so that people will understand.' I responded by quoting a posuk in Yirmiyohu (15:19): ' . . .They shall gravitate towards you, not you towards them.' "

At seudah shelishis on Shabbos he would speak for over an hour, pouring forth original and beautifully presented ideas studded with pesukim and teachings of Chazal from the Bavli, Yerushalmi, Zohar and midroshim. He would flit back and forth from text to text seemingly effortlessly, at lightning speed. He would close his eyes, place his right hand on his forehead and begin talking. The Rebbe himself regarded these droshos as having "come down from another world" and he regretted the fact that they could not be recorded. Amazingly, he had an audience. His listeners sat spellbound throughout as his words opened up their hearts and minds.

"They shall gravitate towards your words and you shall not veer into blundering after them" ( Targum, Yirmiyohu ibid).

Channeling the Bounty

However much he managed to say at seudah shelishis, it was barely a drop in the ocean of what was still stored in his mind, ready to pour forth. One godol beTorah who heard him speak said that the Ozhrover managed to pack ideas into his droshoh of an hour-plus, that would have taken anyone else an entire day to convey.

Like a gushing wellspring, new concepts and arrays of ideas were constantly presenting themselves and he wanted to convey them to Klal Yisroel. To this end he worked on the eleven volumes of Eish Dos. Anyone who heard him speak was impressed not only by the content of what he said but by the ease with which it poured forth from him, like the powerful flow of water through a breached dam. The same person would have been amazed at the huge effort and self- sacrifice that writing his seforim demanded of him, though both his ease of delivery and his difficulty in writing stemmed from the same cause.

His flow of ideas was so powerful that he could not set them down in a lucid, reasoned and defined manner. One idea flowed into another; one source led onto other sources. He filled thousands of pages with interrupted and seemingly unconnected sentences, unclear references and obscure clues to further lines of thought. Producing a text that ordinary people could understand involved rearranging the material and copying it out, while elucidating and elaborating. He originally planned on doing this work himself, restraining his soaring, racing thoughts in order to set out his ideas for the ordinary reader.

It would have been highest form of self-sacrifice for him but he wanted to do it for Klal Yisroel. Nonetheless, it was not to be — his eyesight failed him. He lost all the sight in one eye and nine-tenths of the sight in the other. How he managed to continue learning through the decades that followed is a mystery, but his toil in learning continued unabated. He reviewed thousands of pages of gemora and other seforim, some with close print or tiny letters, some that were ancient and unclear, as well as old editions and manuscripts — we have no idea how. He started work on his manuscripts, adding and subtracting, correcting, deleting and filling in. In a few hours he covered hundreds of pages and remembered them by heart — how? Again, we have no explanation.

When his doctor was informed that the Rebbe had disregarded his strict instructions to rest his eyes and was proofreading hundreds of pages a day he exclaimed, "How can this be? The man is clinically blind!"

The Rebbe's response to the doctor's warnings was to remark, "When a person has been accustomed to sit beside seforim and has been taught since the age of three that one doesn't get up from a sefer — if you take that pleasure away from him you take away his life!"

At any rate, the loss of his sight prevented him from editing his manuscripts by himself. After great efforts and many disappointments and letdowns, he finally found an editor with whom he was able to work, HaRav Moshe Yo'ir Weinstock zt'l, from Yerushalayim. "He understood," the Rebbe said about Rav Weinstock. "There were other copyists who understood but they didn't grasp the full breadth and depth . . ."

Rav Weinstock knew how to decipher the Rebbe's veiled references and could see how one related to another. He was able to take briefly-stated ideas and construct ample edifices from them. These he arranged in beautifully written prose according to themes, divided into chapters and sections. When he or another copyist felt that some link in the chain had been missed out they wrote to the Rebbe asking for clarification, which he provided unstintingly.

End of Part One

I Have Come Now

Come and see; this principle [that all times are equal with regard to learning Torah] is stated explicitly by Chazal on the posuk, "And while Yehoshua was in Yericho, he raised his eyes and saw a man standing opposite him, holding an unsheathed sword. Yehoshua went to him and said, `Are you on our side or on the side of our foes?' He said, `No [I have not come to assist your enemies] for I am a prince of Hashem's host; I have [just] come now' " (Yehoshua 5:13- 14).

"He said, `Yesterday you neglected the afternoon tomid offering and you are now neglecting Torah study.'

"He asked him, `Which of them have you come about?'

"He told him, `I have come now.' (Rashi explains, `On account of what you are currently neglecting.' Tosafos writes, `The Ryvon explains, "I have come because of Torah study," in connection with which the word "now" is written (Devorim 31:19) (Megilloh 3)

Why did the angel reply to Yehoshua's question indirectly? He could have said explicitly that he had come because they were neglecting Torah study.

The angel however, was conveying an important lesson about the obligation to study Torah. Yisroel were engaged in an obligatory war against the thirty-one Canaanite kings, in order to conquer Eretz Yisroel. They could apparently have justified their failure to study Torah on the grounds that being engaged in a war, it was not a suitable time for learning Torah. The angel therefore said, 'I have come now' - - particularly `now.' Even in wartime you are obliged to occupy yourselves with Torah study, as Rashi explains, "Now it is nighttime and you should be occupied with Torah because you don't fight at night."

In other words, during the actual battle "one who is engaged in doing a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah." However, when there is a lull, a person shouldn't excuse himself saying that his heart and mind are preoccupied with the war, even though he's not actually fighting at that moment.

"Now" in particular, because all times are the same in regard to Torah study. This is a lesson for all time — "Now," every moment, every hour. Not tomorrow, not yesterday but now, whatever a person's situation or circumstances.

(Be'er Moshe, Devorim, 31:19, pp. 925-7; Yehoshua 5:13-4, pg.59)

With All Your Soul

Once, on Yom Kippur, a fire broke out in the Ozhrover Rebbe's beis hamedrash in the Bronx. As the flames quickly spread in the small room, the frightened mispallelim began fleeing, with some jumping through the windows. To everyone's alarm the Rebbe stayed put, clutching the sifrei Torah in his arms. His followers begged him to come out but he adamantly refused, declaring, "I will not abandon the sifrei Torah!"

At one point they were driven back by the heat of the flames and the choking columns of smoke and were sure that the worst had befallen their Rebbe. It took the firemen over an hour to douse the flames but then, to everyone's astonishment they saw the Rebbe standing there, holding onto the sifrei Torah!

The Ozhrover Rebbe visited Eretz Yisroel for the first time in 1949. During the trip tragedy struck his family. Back in America his beloved son, Rav Alter Avrohom Shlomo zt'l, died from drowning, when he was just twenty-one years old. Alter had graduated from Torah Vodaas and had received semichoh. The Rebbe was not informed immediately. Entering his home on his return from Eretz Yisroel he was greeted by his son-in-law Reb Tzvi Morgenstern and Reb Tzvi Bick. A doctor was also in attendance. Upon hearing the bitter news, a sharp cry escaped his lips but thereafter he remained silent.

During the shiva the Rebbe became ill and had to undergo surgery. Reb Yaakov Goldstein zt'l, related visiting the Rebbe shortly after the operation. The Rebbe said to him, "Yankele, it says, `And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul . . .' (Devorim 6:5) and Chazal explain that this means, `even if He takes away your soul' (Brochos 54). Oy, Yankele, you know how I loved him, how close he was to me — he was part of my soul . . . even so, the Torah says, `you shall love Him.' "

The Rebbe saw the hand of Heaven in his son's death, since Alter had known how to swim. When he was asked by a relative why the death had occurred his initial response was, "Other tzaddikim have suffered more than I have."

Later, he told his close family, "This happened because I became involved with something with which I should not have become involved." According to members of his family he was alluding to his extensive efforts to alleviate the condition of a woman who had been suffering from paranoia. The Rebbe had perceived that a dybbuk had possessed her and employed his knowledge of Kabboloh to banish the spirit.

A year after Alter's death the Rebbe published the first volume of Eish Dos. In the introduction he wrote, "The word eish ( alef - shin) alludes to my only son, Reb Avrohom Shlomo zt'l, who passed away aged twenty-one on the twelfth of Menachem Av 5709."

A short time later the rebbe's wife also passed away. The Rebbe decided that after twenty-five years in America the time had come for him to move to Eretz Yisroel.

Rebbetzin Beila Morgenstern a"h

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Rebbetzin Beila Morgenstern a"h, first-born daughter of the Admor of Ozhrov HaRav Moshe Yechiel Epstein zt"l, and one of the last surviving scions of Polish Jewry, passed away in New York Friday afternoon, erev Shabbos Parshas Vayigash, 6 Teves, which was also her father's birthday.

The Rebbetzin was born on the second day of Chol Hamoed Pesach 5668 (1908). Her mother was the daughter of Harav Hakadosh Emanuel Veltfried zt"l, the Admor of Pabinitz- Lodz and the son-in-law of the Admor of Tzikov zt"l, author of the sefer Ateres Yehoshua. He himself was a descendant of the Holy Chozeh of Lublin and Harav Hakadosh from Pshedvorz.

The Rebbetzin was known for her true yiras Shomayim, saintly character and tremendous modesty, and even her father spoke about her as being a true tzadekes when she was still very young.

She married Rabbi Tzvi Hershel Morgenstern zt"l, a descendant of the Holy Rebbe of Kotzk zt"l. He was renowned as a true Torah scholar, and served many roles and functions in the community, including being the principal of the Bronx Bais Yaakov and an expert shochet. In his younger years in Poland, he was extremely helpful to Rabbi Meir Shapiro from Lublin zt"l, in strengthening his yeshiva.

The Rebbetzin was a model of modesty, purity of speech, temimus and noble character, as befits the scion of one of Poland's most distinguished Admorim. And despite moving to New York in 5687 (1927), which was then almost totally void of Torah observance as we know it today, she remained loyal to her father's rich heritage and educated her own children in Torah and mitzvos. She recited Tehillim daily and prayed sincerely and devotedly for all those in need, often receiving lists of names from people who knew and recognized her spirituality and righteousness.

She was meticulous in observing all her forefathers' yahrzeits by reciting the entire book of Tehillim on each yahrzeit, and asking Hashem that their merit and righteousness protect and defend all of Israel.

The funeral was held on Sunday the 8th of Teves in New York. The Rebbetzin was eulogized by the Admor of Novominsk, Rabbi Feivel Sheinfeld, Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro, her son Mr. Yosef Morgenstern, and her grandchildren Rabbi Dovid Altusky and Rabbi Moshe Yechiel Altusky. All spoke profusely about her nobility of spirit and the tremendous loss to her family and friends, as well as the fact that the Rebbetzin was one of the last surviving remnants of Polish Jewry's noble and glorious past.

May she now, along with her holy forefathers, intercede on High on behalf of all of Israel, Amen.


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