This extensive appreciation of HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l was first published in our English Yated in 5754 (1993-94) at the fifteenth yahrtzeit.
Beware — Fire!
R' Chaim was generally able to control his emotions and refrained from outbursts of temper which might hurt another person, even indirectly.
One of his disciples, whose niece had suddenly taken ill, came to R' Chaim in a turmoil. Word had reached him from the hospital that the situation was critical. By this time, the family already knew that it was too late, but they were afraid to tell him outright.
In his sensitivity, R' Chaim was aware of the situation. Nevertheless, he listened to the outpouring of woe and gave his blessing. As soon as the man left the room, however, he burst into hot tears. When his study partner asked him why he had held them back all the time, R' Chaim replied, "I saw how overwrought he was and feared that if he saw me weeping, he would break down altogether. I had to control myself until he left in order not to compound his despair."
R' Chaim would dwell often and at length on the concept that someone who caused his fellow man pain, even if it was indirectly, unintentionally—and even if he really meant it for his good—would suffer heavy consequences since this was a matter bein odom lechavero.
We find in Shmuel that Penina would make certain painful remarks to Channah about her childless state. Her real intent was to prod her to pray harder for children. Her intentions were pure; nevertheless, she was punished with the death of her sons.
When R' Yochonon saw R' Kahana grimacing at him and took it as an insult, it caused the latter's death, even though R' Kahana could not change the expression on his face since he had a cleft lip. But die, he did.
The underlying factor in all of these examples, R' Chaim would stress, is the fact that hurting a person is like playing with fire. It goes far beyond normal consequences. People's feelings are like fire—they are dangerous, volatile and even lethal.
To what extent?
A close acquaintance once went to visit R' Chaim while he was ill and, to his horror, found him lying on the ground, writhing in pain. After he had been lain abed again and his pains had subsided, R' Chaim apologized to the visitor. "You should not have found me in such a state."
And to prove that his apology was justified, he offered an on-the-spot insight on Yaakov's punishment for having complained to Pharaoh that his days had been "few and harsh." The Midrash tells us that thirty-seven years were deducted from his potential life span for this statement. If we count up the words, we see that the number is complete only if we take Pharaoh's question also into account. Thus, Yaakov was held accountable for having elicited Pharaoh's question.
This proves that a person is punished for the very fact that his suffering is obvious to others and that he is, thereby, also causing them pain.
All For Another's Sake
R' Chaim presented his students with a noble goal: perfection in deed.
A person can perform the most exalted act, but if he has a hint of an ulterior motive, it falls short. This is what is said of the Elders at Har Sinai: "They gazed upon Elokim and they ate and drank." One who is on an exalted level but tries to derive personal benefit from it, is considered to have fallen to the base level of drinking and eating.
He often quoted the piercing words of Mesillas Yeshorim which tells of the drastic punishment suffered by R' Chanina ben Tradyon's daughter who minced her steps upon hearing the praise of some Roman officials walking behind her. Her intention was to walk more modestly, but because she sought to glory in their praise, she forfeited everything and was punished.
R' Chaim fiercely condemned a self-serving interest in Torah study. He would expound at length upon the words of the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 34) on the words, "The rich and the poor met." If one who is rich in Torah knowledge refuses to share it by teaching one who is poor in Torah, he causes Hashem to declare: "Whoever made the one wise, can also make him stupid, and the One who made the latter stupid can also make him wise."
R' Chaim certainly shared his knowledge with others to a great degree. He was willing to study in partnership with anyone who as much as suggested it. He had a wide array of chavrusa commitments from morning to night. He used to offer an entire set of `keys,' that is, prepared sources from memory, to neophyte maggidei shiur to help them prepare shiurim upon any given topic. He, himself, would discuss his lectures with one of the well known baalei mussar, even after they became widely attended and publicized. Some people were even under the mistaken impression that it was this figure who `taught' R' Chaim his shmuessen.
HaRav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Mir Yeshiva and father-in-law of HaRav Chaim
R' Chaim introduced a new concept in zikkui harabbim, those who toil for the benefit of the community.
"They are like stars who shine forever," he would say quoting the famous posuk in Daniel. Their reward is limitless. Why?
A person is paid for a mitzva he does according to the value which he attributes to it. If Esav valued his birthright at no more than a plate of lentil soup, that is all it was worth to him, and there was no element of cheating if Yaakov bought it for that price.
This applies to the mitzvos on a personal level; the less a person values it, the smaller is his reward. But if one causes many to perform a mitzva, he no longer determines its value; this becomes the domain of those who fulfill it.
The gemora tells us that Yehuda's remains "returned to their resting place and he was assigned a place in the Heavenly academy where Torah was studied and ruled upon." In what merit? That he caused Reuven to repent. But Yehuda's act of confession was a mighty one; it required a tremendous amount of self-sacrifice! Nevertheless, it was the fact that Yehuda caused another to repent, and not his own deed, that raised him to his eternal level. This is zikkui harabbim, being instrumental for others doing good.
R' Chaim once said that the greatest praise he heard after delivering one of his shiurim was when someone in the audience came over the next day and said that he had been so enthused that he had sat for the next six hours at his study, without budging!
R' Shimon Shkop zt'l was quick to recognize this power in R' Chaim. When asked what he saw so unusual in this exceedingly young ram, he replied, "There are surely others more veteran and brilliant than he, but in his special gift of injecting the love of Torah into his disciples he has no peer."
To Remain With the Klal
The bond between the individual and the Klal was one of his favorite themes. No man can break a bundle of canes, he would quote from Midrash Tanchuma. Therefore, "Hashem will be your everlasting light" only applies if Israel is united.
Our Sages say that the verse "He ate the bread of champions" refers to Yehoshua, who was provided with "as much manna as all Israel." Of course this is not referring to quantity but to the fact that he, singly, had the merit of receiving manna in the same measure as the rest of the people, who received their individual portions in the merit of the community.
Those who are part of the Klal enjoy the benefits of the whole community. Heaven does not examine their particular foibles and sins as it would if each stood alone, on his individual merit. One who distances himself from the community, even if only a little, requires greater merit for the same privileges and benefits.
R' Chaim always said that he saw this principle displayed in the flesh when he was fleeing the Nazi horror and passing through cities and countries. Those who remained constantly with the bulk of the yeshiva were spared, while those who went off on their own, for whatever personal reason, even if they intended to rejoin the group later, often forfeited their lives.
Therefore, when the Six Day War broke out and Yeshivas Mir was in direct firing line of the border, he ordered, warned and beseeched his foreign students to remain together with the yeshiva. He feared a mass exodus which would diminish the bulk of the yeshiva and greatly weaken its collective strength. For many years, he continued to show his esteem to those students who had not succumbed to their family's entreaties from abroad to return, but had remained with the yeshiva in its time of danger.
R' Chaim highlighted an additional subject which focused on the responsibilities of the person and the community. He would expound at length about a person's unlimited obligation to perfect himself in Torah. Even R' Akiva, a giant among giants, was taken to task and suffered a horrible death because "his heart was as spacious as a hall" and he had the capacity to achieve additional levels in Torah study, but didn't.
R' Chaim would stress that the sin in failing to rise to Torah heights does not only affect a person in a private form, but hurts the entire Klal. Ben Azai bemoaned the fact that he did not spend time ministering to R' Yishmoel. Here Rashi comments, "A pity on Ben Azai—it is a loss and damage to the entire world." The entire world loses out when an individual does not reach his full potential.
R' Chaim once delivered a rousing talk after a spate of tragedies had hit the yeshiva world. He dwelled on the diminishing quality of generations with regards to Torah diligence and the small achievements the yeshiva had to show by way of dapim covered during a long winter session. He noted the pain he had felt upon questioning a youth how much he had learned midway through the zman and discovering that it was only a few pages.
"I cannot forgive it!" he shouted to his audience.