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10 Shevat 5766 - February 8, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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

by M. Musman

Part Two

Eish Dos and Be'er Moshe

The Rebbe waited until he turned forty (which was while he was living in the United States) before he began writing any of Eish Dos. "I am waiting because the sefer must be of benefit to Yisroel," he said. He used to say that nowadays denial has spread to such an extent in the world that the gentiles' writings have polluted the atmosphere, making it hard to compose seforim in holiness. The preparations had to take longer and the safeguards had to be greater.

He did not see his seforim primarily as a means of disseminating his own novel Torah ideas. He wrote in a letter, "All I need to do is make known daas Torah, according to my understanding. In doing so I will help talmidei chachomim as well, who cannot know everything that Chazal have said on a given subject and even if they know, they cannot know it in an ordered form, `like a set table.' This demands toil and self-sacrifice, for this is the sum of man's task."

His teachings were universally accepted. Mussar scholars praised the instructive ideas that he built on unshakable foundations. He was seen as one of the greatest original thinkers of the generation.

In a private letter that he wrote to a friend, he revealed something of the purpose that he wanted his seforim to fulfill. The actual text of the letter cannot be published, but reading between the lines it is clear that the Rebbe saw Eish Dos and Be'er Moshe not just as seforim but as a system arrayed against the forces of impurity.

He put all his soul into the seforim. "In dedicating this sefer to Chinuch Atzmai, I felt that I am giving away my own flesh and blood," he once wrote.

Before the issue of each new volume he would seclude himself together with the manuscripts, and after publication he continued poring over them.

"Once he told me," said Rav Shlomo Wolbe, "that he had just completed his commentary to sefer Devorim, in the Be'er Moshe series. On hearing this I responded, `Then surely we'll soon have the fortune to see the sefer appear!'

"He replied in his sweet way, `No, no. Before I publish it I first have to work my way through the sefer by myself! (Yetzt muz ich es noch ersht durcharbeten mit zich!).' "

After his petiroh his copy of Be'er Moshe was found to be worn out from use. One night, a visitor to his room found him bent over one of the volumes of his seforim, his face glowing with emotion. The issue of each new volume filled him with joy, as though he had led a daughter under the chuppah.

One of the stories that he was fond of telling and wanted to be circulated was that when he started writing, he sought the consent of the Heavenly Court in a dream. In his dream, the sefer was sent to Rav Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza zt'l, who was no longer living, and he read it and promptly gave it his consent.

He never reached the point where he felt that his seforim contained all that he wanted to say. At the beginning of each sefer, he put on record his prayers to Hashem yisborach to grant him the gift of being able to publish yet another sefer. He would speak longingly about the time of Moshiach when it will be possible to convey everything at once, without the hindrances of language and emotion. He had much more stored in his mind but because he could only transmit it through speech he was unable to give everything over.

He wanted to finish recording his ideas on all twenty-four volumes of Tanach (Be'er Moshe only covers the five Chumashim and the first four sifrei haneviim) but there was so much material and no end to the new ideas that poured forth from him. He carried on and on, leaving everyone baffled as to how one person's mind and soul could contain so much.

"It is impossible not to be astounded at the wonder of a single person in our generation having been able to write such giant seforim that no secret escapes. To an even greater extent than he revealed his knowledge of every chamber of Torah, he displayed his power of fathoming Torah's hidden facets, as though all the world's secrets were clear to him — as though he had come face to face with Torah's innermost meaning" (the Mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, in his hesped on the Ozhrover).

In fact, had the Rebbe written the seforim himself as he originally planned, there would probably have been far more than eleven volumes of Eish Dos. The team of copyists who did the work rendered the thousands of topics into a form that could be understood and appreciated by all. Each volume is a world in itself; together they deal with every topic imaginable: the Creator and creation, Torah and the Jewish People, the Ovos and the twelve tribes, festivals and holy days, exile and redemption, this world and the world to come, mitzvos and aveiros, reward and punishment, prayer and repentance and on and on.

Someone once asked what his sefer was based on.

"On what not?" he immediately retorted.

Ozhrov in Eretz Yisroel

Rav Yehuda Landau, a relative of the Ozhrover Rebbe's, was very close to him for many years. He shared some of his recollections of the Rebbe with us.

"A Jew in America — who had a brother who used to visit the Rebbe's home — was suffering from decay in his leg. He received an injection which could only be given three times in all to any one person. After they gave him a second injection, the doctors in America debated whether to give him a third one or to amputate his leg. His brother came to ask the Rebbe, who said that they should give the injection and everything would be okay. They administered the injection.

"Six months later, the man came and said that his brother had recovered. I asked the Rebbe if his advice had been inspired by ruach hakodesh. He replied that he received booklets from the American Agudah containing medical articles by the leading doctors in America. According to his understanding of how medicine was progressing, there would be a cure for the condition within half a year! That's foresight!

"The Rebbe never spoke unnecessarily on Shabbos or Yom Tov, and even what he had to say he said in loshon hakodesh. Once, a mother and son came to see him, saying that they'd been sent to ask whether an operation should be performed and it was a matter of life and death. The Rebbetzin went into his room and asked him to see them. He didn't respond. When they burst in, in tears, the Rebbe opened the door and said, "Come tonight."

"`But it's a matter of life and death,' the woman said, weeping. But it didn't help.

"They returned on motzei Shabbos. Taking a piece of paper, the Rebbe made a sketch of the human internal anatomy and indicated which side the operation should be done from. He told them to give it to the doctor. The following day, the doctor came to the Rebbe and asked him how he'd known. They had planned to operate from the other side, and had they done so the patient would not have survived. After that, doctors came regularly to consult him.

YN: It is well known that he had vast Torah knowledge. Can you provide any examples?

Rav Landau: "He had extraordinary fluency in Bavli and Yerushalmi, Sifrei, Sifra, Tosefta and more, all of which he knew by heart. Once, when he was vacationing in Yerushalayim, a certain rebbe came to visit him and wanted to repeat a thought based on the language of the Zohar but the sefer was not at hand.

"`Tell me which parsha it's in,' the Rebbe said and when told he started to repeat the Zohar on that parsha by heart.

"I once told him that I'd seen an idea on Bava Kama in a certain sefer and he immediately told me, `That's in the Shittah Mekubetzes, quoting the talmidim of Rabbenu Peretz.' (The Shittah in his home was covered in dust from not having been used for such a long time.)

Among Gedolei Yisroel

"Once, at one of the meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah which was being held at a secret location near his home in Tel Aviv, the Ozhrover gave his opinion and the others asked him, `How do you know this?'

He got up and quoted the text of the gemora, Rishonim and Acharonim and they accepted his view. The next day the Ponovezher Rov zt'l, came to him and said, 'I've never seen such broad knowledge before.' "

YN: We heard that you accompanied the Rebbe to meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah.

Rav Landau: "I've never seen a rov who had Litvishe roshei yeshivos for chassidim; they approached him with fear and awe. When he visited the home of the Brisker Rov zt'l, before Rosh Hashonoh, the Rov accompanied his car until the end of Rechov Press. Every year before Rosh Hashonoh he would visit the homes of the Tschebiner Rov, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein and the Beis Yisroel of Ger, zecher tzaddikim liverochoh. What honor he was accorded! He would be visited at home by Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt'l, and Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt'l, who was his great admirer.

"Great weight was given to his opinions at meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, especially by HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin zt'l. I remember that HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l, participated in meetings of the Moetzes and before the meeting he would always converse with the rebbe at length. Once he even said that he was 'a gaon in every chamber of Torah.'

"He also led the campaign of the gedolei Yisroel against P.A.I. The Purim before, a delegation from P.A.I. came to his house with a huge tray of mishlo'ach manos. He whispered to me, `Take it out! No flattery will enter my home!' He led the campaign at its height. He once said that, in Poland, the gedolim had wanted to appoint him chairman of Agudas Yisroel. But he refused, so they appointed Rav Meir Shapiro zt'l instead."

Awesome Sights

YN: We've heard that he experienced wondrous revelations.

Rav Landau excitedly relates how he and the Rebbe were at Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's burial place in Meron once on the seventh of Adar. "It was dark and the attendant held a candle and passed the notes with people's names in front of him. Even though he was blind, he mentioned what each person lacked and what each had. In the beis hamedrash too, he could see for tens of meters.

"One of his holy pursuits was bridging the time between minchah and ma'ariv [with spiritual endeavor]. Nobody could enter then. He was locked in his room and all kinds of noises could be heard. Once a scholar of Kabboloh came and looked through the keyhole. From then on, the noises stopped.

"On Friday nights, he would walk back and forth in his little room for six or eight hours. In winter, all the shutters were closed, except for one small one. Once, a friend and I went into the street to look through the open shutter and see what the Rebbe was doing. He stopped his pacing and closed the shutter. Afterwards he said to me, `What has already happened is bad enough and you want to do more?'

"By the way, when he made aliyah from America, he intended to stop conducting himself as a rebbe. He arranged with the Chazon Ish that he would buy the apartment adjacent to his and would learn together with him. His sister's daughter was an unmarried orphan and he gave up his plans and bought her an apartment, renting himself accommodation in Tel Aviv and continuing to act as an Admor."

YN: What about his prayers?

Rav Landau: "I was a guest in his home every Succos because one could spend all day with him in the succah; the Rebbe would be the shaliach tzibbur. Once, he didn't sway the arba minim at the last recital of hodu laHashem ki tov and after he finished Hallel he stood and started swaying the arba minim. He turned around to face the congregation and the expression on his face was otherworldly. The entire congregation fled from the beis hamedrash, except for myself and one other Yid. We held on to each other in fear and awe.

"I remember one motzei Simchas Torah at the end of the hakofos. The Rebbe had been awake through Hoshanoh Rabba night and all through Simchas Torah, and I could see him still sitting and learning. It was very late when I saw him go out onto the balcony of his house. He put his hand on the railing and looked up to the heavens. A moment later he clapped his hands and burst out with a joyous, 'Boruch Hashem!' and went back into his room. I peeped inside and saw him laying tallis and tefillin — he had seen the dawn break.

"I was a little late in rising that morning and I went into the beis hamedrash to daven. Afterwards, I went to take leave of the Rebbe and I saw from his look that he wasn't pleased that I'd prayed late. He stopped and said to me, `You know, with us in Ozhrov, a bochur your age wouldn't go to sleep on motzei Simchas Torah. After eight days of not laying tefillin during Chol Hamoed, weren't you longing for them? [Now] travel [home] and find peace!'

"By the way, he would walk up and down on his balcony for hours holding a Tanach. Sometimes I would see him at the same page for a week; in his mind he'd been reviewing all the midroshim and teachings of Chazal on each posuk.

"Rav Yehuda Zerachiah Segal of Tel Aviv related that a certain great talmid chochom who was a widower, approached him, after a match had been proposed to him and the lady had said that the Ozhrover Rebbe could tell him about her.

"The Rebbe told Rav Segal, `Her father supported me for twenty-two years, but as to saying whether or not she fears Heaven . . . I don't know if I myself fear Heaven so how can I testify about whether someone else does or doesn't?'

"Rav Segal expressed his displeasure with what he considered the Rebbe's evasiveness but the Rebbe would say no more.

"On erev Yom Kippur, Rav Segal had a call from the Rebbe who said that he'd been doing some soul- searching and had realized that he'd angered Rav Segal during that phone call and would he forgive him? Second, he said, he'd heard that Rav Segal was a poseik — if he ruled that the Rebbe was fit to declare the lady a yir'as Shomayim he would do so. Rav Segal immediately took a cab over to the Rebbe's home to receive his blessing and from then on was one of his greatest admirers.

"The Rebbe died suddenly, after suffering a stroke while he was in his room. He lay paralyzed in hospital for several hours. Then he suddenly twisted his payos with his beard (which has kabbalistic significance) and his soul left his body in purity, on motzei Shabbos, the night of Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5731. He was indeed a holy man . . ."

Note on sources: Articles by Rabbi M. Grylak and Rabbi S. M. Wallach that appeared in Yated Ne'eman twenty years ago, at the time of the Ozhrover Rebbe's fifteenth yahrtzeit were used in preparing this article. Also used was A. Hacohen's article, containing the above interview with Rav Landau that appeared in Yated five years ago. Rabbi Wallach's article is based on the book Belabas Eish about the Ozhrover Rebbe, by Rabbi A. Surasky. Some supplementary material from Rabbi M. Schapiro's article on the Rebbe that appeared in the English Yated ten years ago was also incorporated into these articles.

From the Pages of Be'er Moshe

Yisroel's Faith in Torah Leaders is Put to the Test (pg.363)

"And Pharaoh will say about bnei Yisroel, `They are wandering about the land; the desert has closed on them.' " (Shemos 14:3)

This whole episode is very puzzling. Why did Pharaoh hesitate to pursue bnei Yisroel, only finding courage when it seemed to him that they were lost? They had been slaves and were therefore weak, while he and his men were experienced fighters. What's more, we find (Medrash Tanchuma, parshas Yisro) that bnei Yisroel were physically blemished as a result of their enslavement; why was it necessary to go to such lengths to get Pharaoh to chase them? The greatest problem of all is that it seems that Hashem ultimately had to harden his heart — "and I will harden Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue them." What difference did it make if they appeared to have lost their way or not? Did there have to be a pretext for hardening Pharaoh's heart?

The purpose behind all this was Hashem yisborach's wish that bnei Yisroel believe in Moshe as well. Faith [in Hashem] is only genuine when it is bound up with faith in the Torah sages. This is why He commanded Moshe to tell them that "they should go back and encamp in front of Pi Hachiros" (14:2).

In the Mechilta (ibid..) we find that bnei Yisroel didn't ask how they could be expected to go back in the direction they'd come from, so as not to cause the women and children to lose heart. They relied on Moshe and trusted fully in his instructions. This showed that they had true faith in the Torah sages. Logic would have dictated that they keep as far away as possible from Egypt and not turn around. Yisroel however, are holy; they had no misgivings about obeying Moshe and did what they were instructed to do.

In consequence of their faith, Pharaoh's brazenness — that is, the power of evil — was weakened. Faith causes the power of evil to submit. Although Pharaoh still possessed great strength, "he was in two minds as to whether to pursue them or not" (Rashi 14:8). His spirit sensed that his power had been weakened.

Hashem however, hardened his heart and on seeing bnei Yisroel coming back he thought that he would manage to defeat them. This is why he said, "The desert has closed in on them" — in the desert, the place where the forces of evil hold sway, he was sure they would be in his power. What he didn't realize was that Hashem planned all this in order to bring about his downfall. The goal was, "I will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt shall know that I am Hashem" (14:4).

From the Pages of Be'er Moshe

Klal Yisroel are One

"And bnei Yisroel looked up and lo, Egypt is in pusuit . . ." (14:10)

Basing himself on the Mechilta, which notes that the posuk refers to the Egyptian army in the singular, as "Egypt," Rashi comments, "With one heart, like one man." How indeed, did the Egyptians attain such a lofty level of unity?

While Rashi here says first that the Egyptians had "one intention," his comment on Klal Yisroel is slightly different. On the posuk, "And Yisroel encamped there, opposite the mountain," (19:2) he again quotes the Mechilta which, noting that "encamped" is in the singular says, "Like one man, with one heart." The difference in order is certainly significant.

In fact, the entire concept of unity is inapplicable to gentile nations. The medrash (Vayikra Rabba 4) notes that the six members of Eisov's family are referred to by the posuk (Bereishis 38:6) in the plural, as "the members of his household." Yaakov's family, on the other hand, numbered seventy souls yet the posuk refers to them in the singular: "And all the descendants of Yaakov were seventy soul" (Shemos 1:5).

The Zohar (Pinchas, chelek III, 196:1) states this plainly. Noting that a posuk in Yeshayohu (50:10) switches from a singular verb to a plural adjective, the Zohar explains, "because they were staying together and they immediately went separate ways." In other words, even though there was a temporary connection between them, it immediately broke up and they split up.

That is why, in speaking about the Egyptians, the fact that they had "one heart" must come first. They really have no unity at all because even at their nation's spiritual root they are separate from one another — obviously this remains the case when they branch out as individuals. On this occasion though, they were brought together by their common goal of plundering bnei Yisroel. The fact that they temporarily had "one heart" made them "like one man."

By contrast, bnei Yisroel who are children of the living G-d, are really a single unit at their spiritual root. In writing about the reasons for the mitzvos hARav Chaim Vital zT'l says, "All of Yisroel comprise one body," (Likutei Torah Kedoshim). Even if there is occasional discord between individuals, we remain a single unit at our root. It is therefore correct to speak of Klal Yisroel as being "like one man, with one heart." The common goal and intention results from our truly being "one man." (p. 367)

From the Pages of Be'er Moshe

The Common Theme of Mitzvos between Man and Man and Mitzvos between Man and Hashem

Chazal tell us " `And I will beautify Him' (Shemos 15:2) Be like Him; just as He is gracious and merciful, you should also be gracious and merciful . . ." (Shabbos 133).

Rashi comments on the above Posuk, " `ve'anveihu' (I will beautify Him) is related to `ani ve'hu (He and I)' — I will make myself like him by cleaving to His ways." In other words, the way to beautify Hashem is by adhering to His ways and bringing benefit to His creatures. Toras Cohanim (Kedoshim) says, "A king's retinue ought to imitate the king." This means that the members of the retinue should conduct themselves just as the king does. (The author of the statement in Toras Cohanim is Abba Shaul, who also makes the statement in maseches Shabbos quoted above.)

The Rambam z'l, "We are commanded to follow these ways, as it says, `And you shall proceed in His ways' (Devorim 28:9). They thus learned that the elucidation of this mitzvah is, `just as He is gracious, you should also be gracious; just as He is merciful you should also be merciful; just as He is called holy, you should also be holy" (Hilchos Dei'os 1:5-6)

The Rambam here states explicitly that in order to be gracious and merciful so as to make oneself like Hashem, one must also be holy. The interpersonal mitzvos must therefore be performed in holiness, just like the mitzvos between man and Hashem — holiness denotes separation from evil.

That is why the beginning of the posuk that the Rambam quotes says, "Hashem will establish you for himself as a holy People . . ." because following Hashem's ways is firmly bound up with being "a holy People."

This is what Chazal mean when they say, "The hearts of tzaddikim are under their control, just like their Creator" (Bereishis Rabba 67). Only if a person's heart and desires are under is control can he dissociate himself from evil and be like his Creator. Similarly, "Holiness leads to humility" (Avodoh Zora 20) — by separating oneself from evil a person comes to recognize "that he has nothing whatsoever of his own" and he thus sees and acknowledges Hashem yisborach's greatness.

The idea of "ve'anveihu, I will beautify Him," meaning, "act beautifully before Him in doing mitzvos" thus relates to both the mitzvos between man and his fellow man and to the mitzvos between man and Hashem. (p.393-4)

On Behalf of the Yishuv

During his twenty-five years in the United States, the Rebbe shunned publicity and public appearances. By contrast, he took a very active role in promoting the spiritual welfare of the growing yishuv in Eretz Yisroel.

When war broke out in 5708 (1948) after the State was proclaimed, he wrote in a letter to members of his family, "I am utterly speechless . . . only my faith in Hashem comforts me . . . I could not even get myself to travel anywhere out of concern for our fellow Jews in the Holy Land. I have no peace of mind . . .I write to you in a state of shock . . .my face is dark with worry."

When the question of the relationship between Agudas Yisroel and the Israeli Government was being debated, the Rebbe's opinion was that while no concessions whatsoever should be made on religious issues, the Agudah should join the coalition and work from within the government rather than remain on the political periphery. The Agudah indeed joined the government but was forced to resign shortly thereafter when its stand on religious affairs deteriorated even further.

After he settled in Eretz Yisroel in 5713 (1953) the Rebbe became much more involved in public affairs than ever before. He actively supported Chinuch Atzmai and Agudas Yisroel, appearing and speaking on their behalf on numerous occasions. He longed to see Torah observance spread and take firm root. He said, "The first condition for the success of a modern Jewish State in Eretz Yisroel is to fulfill the demands of the Torah. Coarse traits among the populace must be uprooted for they prevent the development of a healthy lifestyle and ultimately cause corruption."

The rebbe arrived in Eretz Yisroel on the seventeenth of Tamuz and spent his first few weeks in the country visiting the graves of tzaddikim and other holy sites. Then he met the Chazon Ish. The two gedolim spent hours together in Torah discussion and held each other in great mutual respect. Their relationship grew to the point where the Chazon Ish insisted that the Rebbe settle in Bnei Brak so that they could continue learning together.

Using the proceeds of the sale of his home in the Bronx the Rebbe purchased an apartment on Rechov Shmuel Hanovi in Bnei Brak but the Chazon Ish passed away shortly afterwards. He then deliberated whether to settle in Bnei Brak or Tel Aviv, for he had followers in both places. In the end he opted for Tel Aviv, saying, "I do not need a large following. My only wish is to learn day and night. I just need a minyan of people with whom to daven."

He sold his apartment but before he found a suitable residence in Tel Aviv he found out about an orphan girl who lacked the means to marry. After finding out how much money was needed, he gave her the entire sum he had received for his Bnei Brak apartment without a second thought for his own needs. With the assistance of one of his followers he eventually purchased the lease for an apartment at on Sderot Rothschild in central Tel Aviv.

On the first of Shevat 5731 (1971), the Rebbe was in his room preparing to sit down for his nightly writing session when those who were standing outside suddenly heard the sound of shattering glass. When they burst into the room they found the Rebbe standing up but unconscious, with shards of glass covering the floor. At the hospital it was found that he had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. First aid was administered but to no avail. Minutes before his petiroh the Rebbe smoothed his beard and payos and folded his hands on his chest and peacefully returned his soul to its Maker.


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