Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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29 Cheshvan 5766 - November 30, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In the Proximity of Maran R' Yitzchok Zeev of Brisk, Ztvk'l

Memoirs of Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz

Chapter Sixteen: Whoever Despises Gifts Shall Live

Wages — Yes, Gifts — No

Maran was most scrupulous when it came to refusing to accept any benefit from others gratis. As the wisest of men said, "Whoever despises gifts shall live." The following story illustrates how, even in desperate straits, having arrived here penniless and threadbare, Maran refused to accept anything from anyone.

When Maran arrived in Eretz Yisroel in 1941, together with Morenu Rosh Yeshivas Mir HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l, a delegation including myself (a yeshiva bochur in Heichal HaTalmud at the time), went to receive them at the Haifa port. The English border police who operated there processed all the incoming passengers quickly. Only Maran and R' Finkel were detained.

Time passed and they had still not left the terminal. We approached some English officers and asked them why. They explained, "Those two old men don't have the money to pay the half-lira head tax (the equivalent of about 80 shekel today). We cannot possibly let them into the country until they pay."

People from the Jewish Agency were present at the time and one of them, Mr. Dostrovsky, a head of the Mizrachi, offered, "I'll go and give them the necessary money and there will be no problem."

The British let him enter the immigration office and he approached the two rabbonim, offering to pay their head tax. Maran insisted that he would not accept the money. "I have never taken money from anyone!"

Dostrovsky tried to convince him, saying, "You will be doing the greatest honor to the Jewish Agency if you allow me to pay for you both."

But Maran was adamant, "I refuse to accept money to begin with, and all the more so do I refuse to give honor to the Zionist Agency."

He persisted in his refusal and the British stubbornly refused to let him enter the country without his having paid. We were greatly concerned, knowing that the British officials would not relent. We held council and thought that perhaps the two sages would be willing to accept the money from us, but realized that they would refuse us just as well. We were at a stalemate until Mr. Gewirtzman, one of the prestigious laymen originally from Brisk, presented a solution:

He entered the immigration office and said to Maran, "I think that the people of the Brisk kehilloh living in Eretz Yisroel are obligated to continue paying their rabbi a salary and the Rov must continue to serve them as he did in Brisk. On account of the future salary, I beg you to accept a sum of money either as a loan or as advance wages."

"Such a suggestion I am willing to consider," said Maran. He accepted the money from Mr. Gewirtzman and the two were thus able to pass through.

Without his offer, Maran would not have agreed to take money from anyone, under any circumstances, in spite of his difficult situation. This was a solid principle by him: never to accept any gift, big or small, from any person. And he was unswerving in this to the very end.

No Favors, Please

Along the same lines, I heard the following fact from Maran:

Maran arrived at the shores of Eretz Yisroel penniless, with no means of support. The president of Mizrachi, Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan, who happened to be a relative, paid him a call and suggested that Maran establish a yeshiva or kollel, promising to provide the budget for its upkeep.

Maran listened to the offer but made no comment.

Some time later, Rabbi Bar Ilan returned and asked him if he had already opened a yeshiva, adding, "How can you be here without disseminating Torah! I know how much you miss it!"

Maran, again, refused to react. And so, Rabbi Bar Ilan continued to reiterate his offer upon repeated occasions, while Maran studiously maintained his silence.

One time, Maran said to him, "Let me tell you a story:

"Every motzei Yom Kippur, the Kotzker Rebbe used to announce that he knew every request residing in the hearts of all the worshipers on Yom Kippur as well as how these were received in Heaven. To be sure, the chassidim never dared ask questions. But once a Jew came to Kotzk who was not a chossid. He heard about the Rebbe's announcement and immediately after Yom Kippur, approached him and said, `I was told that the Rebbe knows the secret request of every person, as well as how it was received in Heaven. If this is true, tell me what I asked for, and what was decreed for me.'

"`I will tell you what you asked for,' said the Rebbe. `You have a grocery store, from which you derive a comfortable living. When you stood in prayer, you asked: Ribono Shel Olom, I know that You provide me with a livelihood, but it comes at the expense of my spiritual life. Let us say I am waiting for customers; the shop is empty and the time comes for minchah. I stand and say Shemoneh Esrei, when in steps a gentile woman asking for half a kilo of sugar. She waits, but I cannot pray as I should. I hardly see customers all day and then, just when I wish to begin learning, along comes one customer and then another and another . . .

"`Ribono Shel Olom, how much do I earn, anyway? Twenty ruble a month? I don't need more than sixteen. Please, give only that to me, but give it without interruptions, disturbances, annoyances. Without spiritual damage to my soul. Let me pray and study in peace!'

"The man was astounded. That had been exactly what he had prayed for in his heart! Then he asked, `And what was Heaven's reply?'

"The Kotzker Rebbe said, `Heaven said that you must continue as before, to do just as you did up till now, for that was good.' "

Maran said to me, "I told him the story and stopped there. He understood the hint and never approached me again with his request. I don't want to accept any money for my kollel from the head of the Mizrachi, even though he is a relative."

I would like to add something for accuracy's sake. This is how I understood what he told me. But when I repeated this to Maran HaRav Shach ztvk'l, he commented that Maran had also told him the story, but the way he had heard it, Maran had made no mention of the story about the Kotzker Rebbe to Rabbi Bar Ilan, so as not to insult him. Rather he had added it in telling R' Shach about the Rabbi Bar Ilan's attempts to establish a yeshiva for Maran.

"I Would have been Ashamed to go out in the Street"

The seriousness which the House of Brisk attached to every matter smacking of pikuach nefesh, life-and-death, is well-known, as well as the importance they placed on preserving health. Nonetheless, two incidents illustrate that even when his own health was involved, Maran would not agree to modify his policy of not benefiting from someone else in any way.

When I visited the U.S., forty-one years ago, I received a letter from Maran HaGaon R' Yechezkel Abramsky zt'l. It is known that he was one of those who was very close to the House of Brisk, dating back still to R' Chaim. The letter said: "When I visited the Brisker Rov in his home on Rechov Press, I found him ill. He told me that the doctors said that since he was suffering from frequent bouts of colds and grippe, therefore [said the doctors] the apartment [in which he is living] is not suited for someone in his state of health, as it has no direct sunlight. [R' Yechezkel advised] that it is proper (min hadin) that the Rov move to a different apartment. As one those who know just who the Brisker Rov is [addressed to the readers of the letter], it is our responsibility to take care of this matter. In my opinion, it is a matter that borders on pikuach nefesh."

I was surprised to read this message. I knew Maran well and felt that this did not at all conform to his will. But since one could surely rely on Rabbi Abramsky, I felt obligated to fulfill his wishes.

I took the letter and showed it to a relative of mine, R' Yehuda Bodenheimer a wealthy ben Torah, and asked him to read the letter. When he finished, I suggested that he answer the plea for help and gain that mitzvah for himself.

I presented two possibilities: the first, to buy an apartment for Maran, and the second, to buy an apartment for himself, and to put it at Maran's disposal. I knew Maran well, and I still surmised that he would not agree to benefit from such a favor, but if R' Abramsky, who could be relied upon, declared that Maran needed to change his housing, he surely knew, and in order to facilitate the matter, I was looking for some way that Maran would agree to receive the use of another apartment.

R' Yehuda Bodenheimer jumped at the offer. He was prepared to give me the full sum right away, and told me that I could inform the askonim that they could buy an apartment already, as I would be bringing the check with me. Maran would be free to use the apartment as he wished; he could call it his own, or he could just use it for living purposes.

He immediately wrote out a check for twenty thousand dollars, which was the going price those days for an apartment in that neighborhood. I told him that I had a feeling that Maran would not be amenable to the offer.

I hesitated as how to proceed, and decided to send a cable directly to Maran, explaining who R' Yehuda Bodenheimer was, and asking him for his opinion on the matter. I had in the past received instructions from him never to transact anything concerning him without first consulting him. I wanted to be sure, I said, that I was not doing anything contrary to his will.

I sent it off and received an immediate, four word reply: Under No Circumstances. Soloveitchik.

I went back to Mr. Bodenheimer and told him that my hunch had proven correct. I had not harbored any doubts about Rabbi Abramsky being qualified and reliable in the matter; my doubts concerned Maran's acceptance of the offer.

When I returned to Eretz Yisroel, I went in to Maran. He turned to me, asking, "How had it occurred to you to even ask such a question? Did you really think I would agree to accept a gift from flesh and blood, in one form or another?"

I replied that I had relied on Rabbi Abramsky's view that we were under obligation to do something since it was a matter of health, and bordering on life and death. After I explained myself, I asked him why, if it really did concern health, he nevertheless refused to move.

He replied, "Do you think that I would have been capable to show myself on the street while living in a home belonging to another person? I would be totally ashamed of myself. Why don't you understand that such a thing would be impossible?"

Maran's Refusal to Accept Free Treatment

During his illness, I offered him the services of a ben Torah male nurse, who would have considered it a great privilege to attend to Maran. Maran, of course, turned down the offer of free service, agreeing to his ministrations only on condition that the nurse accept full payment. The subject was stalemated for a few days, during which Maran suffered excruciating pain but refused free treatment. I finally convinced the man to accept money.

Two days before his death, Maran asked me if he had, indeed, been paid in full.

His Last Illness

During his final illness, Maran was greatly disturbed over all the fuss being made over him by so many people, especially his sons and daughter. He once complained, "I am literally stealing away my family's time and effort."

During this period, I was also by Maran's bedside for months. I once sat by him for seven consecutive hours, in a very uncomfortable chair besides. Maran then said to me, "Reb Shlomo, I see that sitting is difficult for you for hours at a time. But you are making it so much easier for me, so that it is really worth your while."

In order to get an idea of Maran's greatness during this stage, we will quote the words of the doctor who was in charge. He said, "I know how great the rabbi's suffering is. If one could divide it up between several people, they would each be going berserk with pain. And yet, just look at his face; see with what serenity he is sitting, as if he were not suffering in the least." (Heard from HaGaon R' Zev Chechik zt'l)

In his eulogy, Maran the Mashgiach HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein said, "We are incapable of grasping the scope of his illness, the suffering it caused the patient during the year and a half it held him in its grip. And yet, it did not even affect him. He studied, asked, gave answers as if nothing was the matter. His depth in Torah and his clarity were not damaged whatsoever. He remained with the same equanimity and nothing was discernible upon him at all."

What, then, did pain Maran during this period?

Maran's son-in-law, HaGaon R' Michel Feinstein zt'l, said in his eulogy: "On the final Shabbos of his life, he said to his son, HaGaon R' Meir shlita, `A Jew like me, who is accustomed to conducting himself purely according to the Shulchan Oruch, finds it difficult when he is sick, since his illness makes it difficult for him to conduct himself in this manner.' "

The pain, the disease itself, did not disturb his peace. The only difficulty he found was conducting his life strictly according to the Shulchan Oruch, as he said.

When on his deathbed, Maran did not fail to take into account his responsibility towards the public. He knew full well how concerned the bnei Torah community was about him and therefore sought to prevent the knowledge of his sickness from reaching them. He forbade me from even mentioning the name of the illness from which he was suffering or any details concerning it, for fear that people would discuss it among themselves, which would be of no practical use in any case. All this, he felt, would only lead to time wasted from Torah study.

Maran did, in fact, succeed. The details of his disease were not made public and thus, did not cause any unnecessary idle talk.

His Main Greatness — In Torah

In the chapters of Maran's memoirs, we have outlined certain characteristics and general lines, which, to be sure, are very superficial and do not provide a complete picture. His primary greatness, which lay in his Torah knowledge, was not even touched upon here, and surely, the Torah world does not need our own corroboration on this point!

We did mention what Maran R' Aharon Kotler ztvk'l said, "I will never presume to disagree with the Brisker Rov. The halochoh is always according to his stand."

Again, on one public issue, R' Aharon did not worry about his own honor but publicly changed his stand when he learned that the Brisker Rov was opposed to it.

It was not extreme humility on the part of R' Aharon but a simple fact, that none of the Torah leaders of his generation dreamed of differing with his opinion. Maran's stature in the yeshiva world had no parallel. Maran had no yeshiva of his own, but the top students in Yeshivas Mir, who were the top students of the entire yeshiva world, were sent by their rosh yeshiva, Maran R' Eliezer Yehuda Finkel zt'l, to spend a year in his proximity, while he [HaRav Finkel] footed the expenses for their stay in Brisk. These students, who were great Torah scholars in their own right, later disseminated Maran's teachings to the yeshiva world.

Maran's teachings became a foundation for the yeshiva world, accepted universally without dispute. In contrast to other Torah giants and roshei yeshiva, whose words were argued and challenged, Maran's Torah was inviolate, untouchable, and it was only when people did not understand fully what he had said that they had any questions. Just like a difficult Rambam remains a Rambam, so did a difficult Brisker Rov remain a Brisker Rov. But to question the basic principle and to argue with the Brisker Rov — no one dreamed of doing.

No one doubted that Maran was the highest authority in his generation, both in matters of Torah and in communal leadership.

Suffice it for us to quote some of the eulogies said by his bier, by the outstanding leaders of the generation, to understand Maran's unique, unparalleled stature.

The Mashgiach of Ponovezh, HaGaon R' Yechezkel Levenstein ztvk'l, said of him, "A Brisker Rov we will no longer have. In all those areas where he was so outstanding, he will never have his equal. He stated that he had no doubts, no sfeikos. His passing is an elimination of a certain level of clarity in Torah which will never return."

The Mashgiach also said: "I did not visit him much, but every time I went, I felt a self-nullification. I experienced an awe . . . This is the power of Torah; when someone speaks with its authority, one feels like a nothing."

The Ponevezher Rov, HaGaon R' Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman ztvk'l, said in his eulogy: "There is no Torah scholar or rosh yeshiva who does not need to avail himself of his teachings. He merited to disseminate Torah in all the yeshivos. He was our master, our rebbe. He was the ultimate posek."

"I heard from HaRav Shach that the Beis Halevi, R' Chaim and the Brisker Rov — were like one generation."

Rosh Yeshivas Mir, Maran HaGaon R' Chaim Shmuelevitz zt'l, expressed it thus: "Had he lived in the time of the Rishonim, he would have been one of them . . . Whoever would have liked to see how the Ramban prayed, could have seen it by him . . . He was able, by his sense of smell, to know what was kosher and what was invalid. With a sense of `smell,' it is possible to detect something that might prove harmful in a century's time."

Maran HaGaon R' Shach ztvk'l said: "He was the rabbi/master of diasporan Jewry, literally so, not only as a title. His famous father testified of him that halochoh followed his ruling in every instance. All bnei Torah studied his teachings. In every yeshiva, throughout the world, they reviewed the questions and responsa said in his name. His teachings were uttered by all with the greatest reverence. Nothing of the kind could be said about anyone in these latter generations, by no other gedolei Torah. With his passing, Klal Yisroel lost an `only son,' a matchless one-of-a-kind. We lost the House of Brisk, the Beis Halevi, R' Chaim . . . "

Maran R' Shach added, "I remember twelve years ago, leaving his house totally overflowing with the joy of Torah. I met a Torah scholar and said to him, `I don't know if I have a portion in Olom Habo, but if I do, I have just consumed it all now, through the sheer joy that I have gleaned from a chiddush I just heard from Maran the Brisker Rov!'"

The Answer to Backsliding

I will conclude with poignant words I had the privilege to hear during a special moment of grace by Maran, which I regard as a kind of will and testament to public servants and addressed, in effect, to each and every one of us:

I once went in to the Brisker Rov in a downcast mood, close to despair. It was after the Knesset had voted down a bill I had proposed regarding the breeding of pigs, despite the fact that before the vote, I had been assured of it passing with a large margin, including the support of secular MKs. I poured out my heart before Maran about the low spiritual state of the country, explaining the facts that everything seemed a lost cause.

Maran then said to me: "Let me teach you a portion in Chumash, as I learn it with my son . . . "

He opened up a Chumash Devorim and read from Parshas Vayeilech (posuk 16): "And Hashem said to Moshe: You are about to be gathered with your forefathers. And this nation will rise up and stray after the strange gods of the land . . . "

He then explained in Yiddish: "Their straying after strange gods does not [just] mean that they will stop davening shacharis, but that they will literally worship idols. And if this were not enough, the verse continues, `And they will abandon Me.' This does not mean that they will stop davening minchah, but that they will not even worship Me in conjunction with other gods. And as if this were not enough, it continues further, `And it [the nation] will break My covenant.' This does not mean that they will stop davening ma'ariv, but that they will not circumcise themselves."

And he continued commenting on the successive verse in the same vein.

"Nu," he said, lifting his head towards me. "You surely agree that this is a worse situation than what you are describing to me. But let us continue to learn. `And now, write you this song for Me and teach it to Bnei Yisroel.' The study of Torah will be the remedy, the nostrum, for every backsliding and spiritual deterioration, even if it reaches idolatry and the breaking of the bris covenant. It will return the Jews to Hashem's Torah. We must simply see to it that `it is taught to the bnei Yisroel.' "

And that — he said — is why there is no justification for your despair.

This marks the end of Rabbi Lorincz's articles on the Brisker Rov. The series continues with his memories of HaRav Shach, zt"l.


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