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A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5767 - October 3, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Memories of HaRav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Rov, author of Kehillos Yaakov

Memoirs of Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz

Chapter Twenty-Nine

"When You Do Something Good — Ignore the Portents"

We have already discussed the clarity of thought which Maran, the Steipler ztvk'l, was blessed with in all subjects of Torah and in every aspect of life in general. And even when his opinion was not accepted by the public, he still did not hesitate to voice it.

This clarity poured hope and trust into those who turned to him in time of need and, similarly, it rescued many a person from the quagmire of doubt and despair.

In 5724 (1964), a terrible tragedy took place: nine Bais Yaakov seminary students from Beer Yaakov who were on the beach in Tel Aviv and just wading in the water, met their death by drowning when a huge wave suddenly rushed to the shore and swept them out to sea.

When I learned of this calamity, I rushed to the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, fearing that the police might decide to order autopsies on the bodies as was common practice in those days. Every dead person was routinely autopsied without exception, unless public representatives stood adamantly on guard to prevent it.

When I reached the hospital, I saw the bereaved parents, their emotions spilling over. They were threatening Rabbi Moshe Yaakobson, the seminary principal, with a bloody revenge. Fearing for his life, I abandoned the original cause for which I had come and spirited R' Yaakobson away from the scene. I took him to our home in Bnei Brak, thinking that in the home of a Knesset member who enjoyed political immunity, they would be relatively safe.

Rabbi Yaakobson and his wife remained in my house for a week. In general, I remained at home to guard their safety from avengers and when I was forced to leave for any period of time, I asked my wife not to allow anyone, with no exception, to enter the house.

It was too much for Rabbi Yaakobson to take and his spirits were broken to the point that he would not even eat or drink anything. When his friend, the Mashgiach HaRav Shlomo Wolbe ztvk'l, heard of his extreme reaction, he tried to convince him that he was not to blame in the least for what had happened. He must not flagellate himself. But it was of no avail.

R' Shlomo then sat himself down by R' Moshe's side and began to feed him, like a baby, spoon by spoon, food alternating with drink, with tremendous patience. The entire process took a long time but slowly, R' Moshe became accustomed to eating again.


One day when I returned home, my wife told me that a man with a special hadras ponim had just come to pay R' Moshe a visit. She assumed that he was a very esteemed person, but since he refused to divulge his identity, she honored my orders not to let anyone in, lest the visitor be someone bent on a bloody revenge. She duly apologized to him but refused to let him enter.

According to my wife's description, I understood that it had been none other than the Steipler. I immediately ran off to intercept him and when I caught up with him, I apologized profusely in my name and my wife's for not having allowed him to come in. I explained my reason for this and begged him to return. Maran complied and when he arrived, he turned to my wife and said, "You were absolutely right in adhering to your husband's instructions and not letting me enter. You did exactly what you should have done and you must not feel any compunction about it."

Maran then sat down by the side of Rabbi Yaakobson and sought to comfort and encourage him.

R' Moshe said to him, "Two similar tragedies occurred in my seminary, one after the other. The first one was a serious fire that broke out in the dormitory and now, the drowning of nine students. I see in this a sign from Heaven that I must shut down the seminary."

Maran rejoined, "Your seminary and the chinuch which you provide are saving these girls. Without it, they would be spiritually lost. You must not take these events as a sign or omen. When one does the right thing, when one acts according to the Torah, he must not take such so-called portents into account."

Maran told him that R' Chaim of Volozhin had ruled, in his time, that according to the teachings of his master, the Vilna Gaon, the kohanim are required to recite the priestly blessing every day, as is the practice in Eretz Yisroel today [and not only on yom tov, as was the custom in the Diaspora]. But since he did not wish to change the tradition in the extant synagogues of Vilna, he built his own beis knesses where they did duchen every day.

When this synagogue was burned down, people said to R' Chaim that it was a sign of Heavenly censure. R' Chaim ignored this argument and rebuilt the gutted synagogue, but it was again razed by fire.

"Can't you see," people said vehemently to R' Chaim, "that Heaven does not want you to institute the priestly blessing in Vilna every day? This is the second fire, already!"

R' Chaim still refused to accept this argument and rebuilt it a third time and this time, it remained standing and the kohanim continued to daily bless the congregants.

Maran concluded, "Your seminary is a good, successful thing. You must continue to maintain it and ignore any so-called ominous signs for we are in no position to interpret them one way or the other."

"No Suffering Can Result from Keeping Mitzvos"

The gifted writer, my esteemed friend R' Moshe Sheinfeld zt'l, was one of the heads of Zeirei Agudath Israel. Maran R' Yitzchok Zev of Brisk was especially fond of him and used to say that his articles were right on the mark regarding daas Torah. When he fell ill, he suggested to the Steipler that he was afraid that his excruciating pain was a punishment for having insulted certain figures from chareidi circles who belonged to a well known division which had deviated from the opinion of gedolei Torah and had been attacked by him in public through his articles.

Maran replied to him, "It is clear that a person does not suffer punishment for his good deeds. All of your articles are written for the public good, for kiddush Hashem, and cannot be the reason for your suffering."

As for those compromisers, Rabbenu the Steipler writes in his work Bircas Peretz (Nitzovim), as follows:

"And see that the compromisers despise those who adhere to Torah because they do not follow their example in compromise, but on the other hand are in complete friendship with the outright wicked ones. And it does not bother them that these colleagues [are different from them in that they] rebel against Hashem, R"l. With regard to Torah scholars, however, who really adhere to the Torah, they wish to see their downfall.

"And all this is against nature, for there is no natural desire to despise talmidei chachomim and prevent the fulfillment of the Torah. But once a sinner has given in to his lusts, he remains in the clutches of the evil inclination."

Keeping Mitzvos Through Self-Sacrifice

Legendary is the degree of mesirus nefesh with which Maran kept each and every mitzvah fully. I heard the following fact from a cab driver from a Bnei Brak company, known to all as Yehuda from Tzfas.

One very rainy, stormy day, the driver noticed a horse and wagon attempting to climb the steep incline of Rechov R' Yehuda Halevi when suddenly, the horse lost its footing. He was deliberating whether to leave his shelter and go out to help when he saw an old man approaching the horse and trying with all his might to raise it to its feet. He, then, decided to brave the elements and to lend a shoulder too, alongside the old man.

Yehuda noted that even though he had been exposed only a short time to the driving rain, he returned home thoroughly drenched. The old man, he concluded, who had preceded him by some time, must have been soaked to the bone, but had not been deterred by his personal discomfort.

Yehuda was most curious to know who that old man had been, who had so devotedly, so selflessly, offered his help and had surely endangered his health thereby. And so, he decided to follow him until Rechov Rashbam, where he asked neighbors if they could identify him. They told him that the old man had been none other than Maran, the Steipler!

It is a Greater Mitzvah in Person than by Proxy

A ben Torah once told me that he saw the Steipler dragging a very heavy wooden board to the carpenter for him to prepare for his succah. To be sure, he rushed right over to offer his help, explaining that a young man is stronger, but Maran rebuffed him.

The young man pleaded and asked why Maran refused his offer. Maran explained, "I am occupied now with a mitzvah. I want to perform it completely, all by myself."

One Must be Worthy of a Blessing

Maran refused to let the door of his home be shut, even when he was weak or ill. Whenever he noticed the door closed, he would go and open it himself, saying, "I must answer all the questions that are brought to me. I must especially take into account those people who wish to `talk with me in learning.' "

He told his family that whenever he took an afternoon nap and people came to ask questions, they should wake him up. "Perhaps they are coming from afar," he said. "I cannot allow them to leave and come back again. It doesn't matter if my sleep is interrupted; I'll make it up at another time."

Maran's blessings were a chapter in of themselves. He was very cautious not to lend the impression that he was in any way especially influential in channeling blessings down from Heaven. Only when he was certain that the recipient was truly worthy of a blessing did he agree to confer it.

Whenever Maran was asked to bestow his blessing upon young boys that they grow to become G-d-fearing Torah scholars, he would repeat the words of the Brisker Rov: "He [your son] will be a talmid chochom in the very measure that you devote to studying with him. As for yiras Shomayim, that will come in the very measure that your wife prays and weeps for his sake."


In this vein, I would like to add certain facts that are cited in the biographical work, Toldos Yaakov.

Whenever a blessing was sought for a sick person from Maran or if he came in person, he asked if he was a Torah-and- mitzvah-observant Jew. If the answer was in the negative, Rabbenu would say very forcefully, "How can I bless you? All of the blessings come in the merit of the Torah!"

When a certain young scholar came to Maran for a blessing, the latter said, "I don't know if my blessing will be effective since today, my study was not as strong as usual and I lack the power to bless . . . "

Another young man wrote a note to Rabbenu thanking him for his blessing, since it had been effective and he had been healed. Maran shouted at him: "That is flattery and lies! I only bless because Chazal said: `Let not the blessing of a simple layman be negligible in your eyes.' But to say that my blessing helped? That is a downright lie and flattery."

He repeated this statement several times, not leaving himself an iota of an opening to actually believe that his prayer had really been effective.

By the Dwellings of the Shepherds

The mutual high esteem and genuine affection which was shared by Maran the Steipler and Maran HaRav Shach ztvk'l deserves at least a special chapter by itself. Both of them were leaders of their generation. Both of them had firm, crystallized opinions on every subject of relevancy; neither of them should have seen the need to `capitulate' or cede to the other in ideological matters when there was a difference of opinion. And it was almost unavoidable that at some time, over the span of many years, such differences should arise.

And yet — this was not the case!

Maran told my son-in-law, R' Elozor Shulsinger shlita, "Fortunate are we for having R' Shach. He verily carries all of Klal Yisroel upon him, like a nurse cuddles a child. Whenever a daas Torah opinion is needed, he tells me about it. He is afraid of no one, save for the Ribono Shel Olom. His first and foremost axiom is halochoh. He enjoys special siyata deShmaya. He absolves me of much responsibility, for were it not for him, I would not be able to handle all the things that are brought to my attention. Tell him that his hands are verily like mine. Whatever he would want from me is as good as done" (this appears in my son-in-law's work, Al Mishkenos Horo'im).

In his extreme humility, the Steipler said to me often, "I find it very difficult to make decisions. After I have done so, I am tormented by the thought that I might have erred. But by Rav Shach, the guiding axiom is daas Torah, so you should first approach him and do whatever he feels is the right thing."

The wife of a Torah scholar once became ill and in the doctors' opinion, she required hazardous surgery. A messenger was dispatched to the Steipler to ask if they should go through with it, since there was a chance that it might exacerbate the condition. He said, "I am unable to rule in this matter. Go to Rav Shach and ask him."

The family went to ask Rav Shach. After he heard the details of the case, he said that they should take the risk. "On one condition, however," he stipulated, "and that is that R' Yaakov (the Steipler) pray for her and bless her. If he blesses the operation, it will surely succeed and there will be no question of risk, of pikuach nefesh, even though he is circumspect . . . " (Shimushoh Shel Torah).

On the other hand, Maran HaRav Shach testified how he nullified himself before Maran the Steipler. In his eulogy for him, he said, "I am not able and not worthy of eulogizing the godol hador . . . Who can replace him? Maran the Steipler has no substitute, no equal. . . . Oy! I have remained alone, an orphan. What will be with `Every difficult thing they would bring to Moshe'?"

He added, "The Steipler's humility was vast, so much so that he forced me to affix my signature before his own and would not agree otherwise. But when it came to `every difficult thing,' he was the one who made that decision so that there be no mistake, no vacillation about the truth."

During the condolences paid to the Steipler's son, R' Chaim, R' Shach said, "We have become orphans. I, myself, am now an orphan." Maran R' Shach repeated this statement many times to me, upon many different occasions: since the passing of the Steipler, he verily felt like an orphan.

And Avrohom Returned to His Place

I will conclude with a directive which the Steipler once sent through me to Maran HaRav Shach. This directive applies to each and every one of us, to every person who sometimes despairs and lacks the strength to continue in his holy communal work.

When it was decided at a meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, contrary to the view of Maran HaRav Shach and Maran the Steipler, to join forces with Poalei Agudath Israel in a united list for the Knesset elections — even though they had rebelled against the decision of the Moetzes which ruled that National Service (Sheirut Leumi) for girls was completely forbidden — R' Shach was utterly despondent and dejected. He was dispirited, agitated and could not "find his place."

At this time, I visited the Steipler, who asked me how R' Shach was feeling. I told him that he was altogether broken and crushed, that he was beside himself with frustration. He was so disappointed that he went as far as to declare that he no longer had any strength to continue.

Maran listened to my words in deep pain and said, "I would like you to go to him on my behalf and convey the following message to him in my name:

"The Torah tells us at length how Avrohom Ovinu prayed extensively in his attempt to save Sodom from destruction. An entire chapter is devoted to this episode in the Torah, which follows, step by step, his plea to spare fifty tzaddikim, forty-five, forty and down the line until ten. But not even ten righteous men could be found in Sodom to nullify the decree, and it was executed. There it says, `And Hashem left after He had finished speaking with Avrohom, and Avrohom returned to his place' (Bereishis 18:33)."

What are we supposed to learn from the fact that he returned to his place?

"The answer is," said the Steipler, "that the Torah wishes to teach us that even after Avrohom did everything in his power to spare Sodom and failed, he `returned to his place' - - and this is what you are to say to R' Shach. One must continue on with one's work, one's mission in life. To continue as if there were no setback, no failure. A disappointment does not justify despair. A person must not let himself be crushed to the point that he cannot pick himself up and continue on in his holy work. I want you to say this to him, word for word, in my name.

"He did everything he possibly could. He did not leave any stone unturned. And this is why he must fulfill the next step of, `And Avrohom returned to his place.' He must continue to lead Klal Yisroel as before."

I fulfilled my mission and delivered the message verbatim. Maran breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Go, this time as my messenger, and tell Maran the Steipler that I have internalized his true words and I will continue on, be'ezras Hashem, in my work on behalf of Klal Yisroel."

To Flee from Debt as from Fire

On the subject of becoming entangled in debts, he had much to say. It was a question of `quality of life,' he said, and he had a very definite stand which was contrary to the accepted social norm. The following words appear in the work, Toldos Yaakov written by Maran's grandson, R' A. Y. Kanievsky.

Maran said: "One must flee from debts like from fire. It is Gehennom in this world!"

Upon many occasions, he voiced his opposition when avreichim sought to assume debts in order to expand their living quarters. This, he maintained, "is the wile of the Soton to remove Torah scholars from their study. One can manage in a small apartment too, whereas in a larger apartment, a person will have no peace of mind because of the yoke of debts. They will find themselves running from one gemach to another, and be transformed into thieves when they don't pay their debts up in time. In the end, they will even be forced to sell their larger apartment."

Maran said that at the time one is extending a loan, he should know how the borrower expects to pay it back; what are his resources, his income? If he does not have a clear- cut, viable plan of how to pay back, and thinks that there are many gemachim from which he can continually borrow, getting from one to pay back the other, he already falls into the category of "the wicked man borrows and does not pay back" (Tehillim 37:21).

A young man was given the opportunity to buy an apartment in a neighborhood where there was chillul Shabbos. For $6,000 more, he could buy a similar apartment in a totally chareidi neighborhood. Maran ruled that he must not assume debts, even if this was a relatively small sum. As far as the issue of chillul Shabbos, he told him to close the shutters and not view that desecration. Hearing Shabbos being desecrated was not so bad. The main damage comes from seeing it, he maintained.


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