HaRav Soloveitchik, HaRav Kotler and Irving Bunim as a Chinuch Atzmai dinner in the 1950s
Part Five: Acquiring Torah
There is a yet greater factor to consider which brings about a flaw in the keser Torah. It is known that spiritual matters, especially the acquisition of Torah learning, depend for their attainment on the virtuous traits through which Torah is acquired. We find this in the case of Beis Hillel.
The gemora [Eruvin 13:] asks, "On what account did Beis Hillel merit that the halacha be fixed according to their opinion? Because they were quiescent and humble."
Now Beis Shammai also conducted themselves according to the halacha entirely for the sake of Heaven, in accordance with their own opinion. (So why was their approach less worthy than Beis Hillel's?) Nevertheless, since the halacha is determined by humility (i.e. it is one of the kinyaney Torah), to be like Beis Hillel, it is they, whose Torah was accompanied by humility, who merited to arrive at the halacha, even though Beis Shammai were sharper.
Similarly the gemora [Yoma 53] relates that "When Rava took leave of Rav Yosef, he walked backwards (out of reverence to Rav Yosef, his teacher) until he banged his feet and the threshold of Rav Yosef's house was bloodied."
When Rav Yosef (who, being blind, did not see what had taken place) was told of his talmid's behavior, he blessed Rava that "May it be Hashem's will that your head be raised above all the other inhabitants of the city."
Rabbenu Chanan'el explains this to mean that the halacha should everywhere be fixed according to Rava's opinion. This is related to the previous gemora (in that a person who possesses a greater level of the kinyaney Torah arrives at the correct halacha.)
Besides the merit of determining the halacha, as far as the illumination which the nefesh has in Torah, the same holds true. The more a person merits the keser Torah, the more he merits illumination of the nefesh and to arrive at the halacha.
To Flee From Honor
Reb Aharon disliked public displays of honor. On a trip he made to England, he was invited to visit Gateshead and its numerous Torah institutions. An official reception was organized, with crowds of rabbonim and their talmidim going out to the railway station to meet him. It was no problem for Reb Aharon to dispel the formality of the occasion with the honors that would be accorded him. He asked which masechteh the yeshiva was currently learning and immediately posed a question and answer, sparking off a heated debate which transformed the orderly gathering into a seething Torah discussion.
On another occasion, when a reception had been arranged for his arrival at Israel's Lod airport, he avoided it by entering the building through a side entrance. On the occasions that he was unable to escape however, his discomfort at hearing his own praises from the lips of others was obvious to all. The aged HaRav Poupko, spending a Shabbos in Lakewood told the bnei yeshiva how he had heard Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l remark that their rosh yeshiva would one day become the godol hador, adding that he himself had seen this fulfilled. The talmidim meanwhile, saw something else. Their rosh yeshiva reddened and was looking perplexed, shifting about in his chair with obvious discomfort.
At the first annual dinner in support of Chinuch Atzmai in 1956, in the course of his speech, the chairman made a remark to the effect that Reb Aharon gave him an idea of what he imagined the Beis Halevi and the Chasam Sofer were like. The Rosh Yeshiva grew red and began to cry. Tugging at the speaker's sleeve, he protested, "It's not true! It's not true!"
One of Reb Aharon's chaperones at Agudas Yisroel's Knessia Gedola 1954, was Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz who tells the following story:
"I accompanied the Rosh Yeshiva to the hall where the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah held their meetings and I saw how one of the members was sitting down while a bochur stood behind his chair in his honor, waiting to receive any necessary instructions. I decided that I too would position myself behind the Rosh Yeshiva as a sign of respect.
"I stood there, and the meeting began. Suddenly, the Rosh Yeshiva turned round to me. `Where is Rav Stefansky?' he asked. `I need him.' Rav Stefansky was his driver.
"I went down to look for the car but it was nowhere to be seen and neither was Rav Stefansky, so I went back up and reported this to the Rosh Yeshiva. He knitted his brow and said, "I need him. If you would be so kind, please, go and look for him."
I went up and down again looking in the corridors, everywhere, but Rav Stefansky was not there. The Rosh Yeshiva would not give up. "Do me a favor," he asked. "Stand by the door, on the outside and as soon as you see him, call him. Without any delay!"
"Obviously, I went out and waited. An hour passed and there was still no sign of Rav Stefansky. The meeting ended and, as there was no car waiting to transport the Rosh Yeshiva, I stopped a cab and we went to the hotel. Towards evening, I bumped into Rav Stefansky. "Where were you this morning?" I asked him. "The Rosh Yeshiva was looking for you feverishly!"
"He was looking for me?" Rav Stefansky was amazed. "Why, he himself sent me to Bnei Brak on an important errand!"
"I learned two things on that occasion," concludes Rav Ravitz. "First, the extent of Reb Aharon's humility: he could not bring himself to have a bochur stand behind him, honoring him before all the members of the "Moetzes". Second, the delicacy of his feelings: he didn't want to tell me explicitly to go away and stand outside!"
Have You Made Your Friend A King?
For Reb Aharon, considering needs of others came automatically, whatever situation he was in. Arriving once at a meeting which had been called to discuss some proposal which threatened the religious community, Reb Aharon made a point of asking for a seat for the talmid who was accompanying him. Later, in the midst of the stormy discussion, he suddenly called the talmid again and reminded him to eat something. "What about the Rosh Yeshiva?" asked the talmid.
"I? I have no free time!" was the brief reply.
His attitude towards his talmidim in his dealings with them was one of respect. The son of one of the Chassidic rebbeim was sent to learn in Lakewood and it once came about that the Rosh Yeshiva travelled together with this father and his son. When the rebbe heard Reb Aharon address his son as "ihr," in the more formal and respectful second person plural, he protested at the Rosh Yeshiva's adoption of this form of speech towards his pupils.
"My own rebbeim used "ihr" when they spoke to me, and I speak to my talmidim in the same way," the Rosh Yeshiva replied.
His razor sharp mind, that when learning perceived every nuance and could see every possible way to differentiate between similar topics, failed, when it came to dealing with his fellow man, to distinguish between himself, the iluy who, even as a youngster had made his teachers wiser, and his own pupils who had to struggle to understand his shiurim.
HaRav Nosson Wachtfogel, mashgiach in Beth Hamedrash Govoha, remarked that he never saw better practice of Chazal's prodding question, "Did you place your fellow man as a king over you, in a pleasant way?" than Reb Aharon's. The Rosh Yeshiva felt it incumbent upon himself to be concerned with all their needs.
A talmid recalls, "I came to Lakewood from another yeshiva whose financial situation was excellent whereas the attitude to the talmidim bordered on complete indifference. I arrived at a yeshiva where, in contrast, material conditions were terrible, but the relationship with the talmidim was of the highest quality. There were certain talmidim the Rosh Yeshiva would consult, subsequently acting on the advice they gave him. Everybody was shown respect and estimation."
It was not only towards those who were already his talmidim that Reb Aharon behaved in this way. HaRav Reuven Axelrod recalled his first visit to Reb Aharon's home to be tested, where he was given a reception which left a lasting impression. Reb Aharon sat before an open gemora, holding the telephone receiver in one hand. He was learning and speaking at the same time. The rebbetzin showed him into another room to wait.
"The call ended and the Rosh Yeshiva replaced the receiver. He got up and hurried — ran in fact — towards me. His arms outstretched, he greeted me and lovingly led me to the table."
When an elderly man, visiting Lakewood for Yom Kippur, felt weak after Kol Nidre, Reb Aharon made constant inquiries as to his welfare throughout the day. Before Ne'ilah, he called one of the bochurim and instructed him to go to this man's room and daven Ne'ilah there together with him.
"And what about tefillah betzibbur?" the bochur pleaded, loath to miss the climax of the yom hakodosh as part of a tsibur of hundreds.
The Rosh Yeshiva's succinct reply was, "Doing a kindness for a Jew is more important."
Here is another story which serves as a classic example of "making one's friend a king." In Lakewood, one Elul, some talmidim were present as Reb Aharon was writing a letter to another rav. The Rosh Yeshiva included a request for the rav's forgiveness before Rosh Hashanah arrived. One of those present had the temerity to ask why the Rosh Yeshiva had to ask for forgiveness.
"I didn't do anything to him," was the cryptic reply.
The talmid, who knew that the rav had once shamed Reb Aharon in public, reacted with surprise. "But he is the one who needs to ask your forgiveness!"
Reb Aharon would not be drawn and only murmured, "I didn't do anything to him....but nevertheless.."
The talmidim were familiar with Reb Aharon's mode of speech and understood what had happened. If that rav had once shamed Reb Aharon, it must have been because he felt Reb Aharon had somehow slighted him. In that case, it was correct, in deference to his feelings, to ask his forgiveness for the perceived slight.
A Hand Outstretched To Far And Near
Reb Aharon's concern extended even to people he had never met. He discovered somehow that the New York Post Office employed a number of Jewish workers, who worked on Shabbos. Reb Aharon approached the management with a request that they be released on Saturdays and was told that this was impossible. The reason they gave was that most institutions, of which Torah institutions comprised a large proportion, sent out their mail at the end of the week and this more than doubled the weekend workload.
Reb Aharon did not let the matter rest. He contacted one institution after another asking them to refrain from sending letters on Fridays. Soon it was a well known rule that one did not send any letters on Friday. As a result of Reb Aharon's intervention, the workload was reduced and the Jewish employees were freed on Shabbos.
Reb Aharon's practice of stopping to pick up hitchhikers is famous. He considered it a waste if there were unfilled seats in the car and applied the gemora's rule that "A man should not spill out waters from his cistern (which he does not need) when others are in need of them."
Once, he directed his driver to stop for three men who were standing by the road in the rain. "It's too dangerous," the driver objected, "They could be muggers. They may even try to drive the car away!"
"Nevertheless," Reb Aharon replied, " "Hashem's mercy is on all His creations"!
Another time, while driving on the highway, he told his driver to backtrack as he had spotted someone trying to hitch a ride. Whenever he took someone into the car, Reb Aharon would engage the passenger in conversation, enquiring about where he had come from and what his destination was, as a host talks with his guest.
When it was decided that the yeshiva would undergo redecoration, a gentile contractor from the neighboring town was hired to do the job. He and his workers extended themselves, doing work that went far beyond the minimum required, for which they charged no extra. The contractor asked to meet the head of this wondrous Talmudic college, whose students, he had noticed, were not to be distracted from their studies despite the noise and commotion of the building work.
The Rosh Yeshiva granted the man his request and the builder entered. The two men shook hands, exchanged some words of greeting, after which the builder left. Reb Aharon asked that he be recalled. "That man is Jewish," he declared.
"Jewish?" was everybody's reaction. How could he be? He was well known in the town. An atheist—not a Christian—but certainly not Jewish. Reb Aharon insisted however that this was the case and that the man be recalled.
Back with the Rosh Yeshiva, the builder answered Reb Aharon's questions. Yes, he said, his father had been Jewish, but had severed all contact whatsoever with his religion, had raised his son in a township remote from any Jewish contact and had even been buried in that town's Christian cemetery. Having grown up totally estranged from his people, it was only here in the yeshiva that something hidden deep inside him had moved. Reb Aharon tried to fan the tiny spark, entreating him to go to shul on Yom Kippur.
In Lakewood there was a cab driven by a Jewish man who did not keep Shabbos. Every time the Rosh Yeshiva travelled with him, he would use the opportunity to speak about Torah and mitzvos or the holiness of Shabbos. Very slowly, his words began to have some effect and once, driving in the cab during the aseres yemei teshuva, Reb Aharon suddenly announced, "This Shabbos — Shabbos Shuvo — you are going to keep! This Shabbos you won't ride!"
As a result of Reb Aharon's careful and sustained efforts, the man indeed became a shomer Shabbos.
Reb Aharon never allowed his telephone to be disconnected in case somebody needed to reach him, despite his grueling schedule and his many responsibilities, even when he was feeling exhausted. There were many callers at his home too, and he would deal with each individual in turn, periodically appearing in the doorway to apologize to those waiting in line for the delay. It distressed him to feel that he was keeping people waiting. He would say that he learned from his mechuton never to turn anyone away, whether their request was of the most trivial or the most weighty nature. Here is the story of one such supplicant.
Among the callers at the Rosh Yeshiva's home one day was a complete stranger. He had travelled some distance, from one of the Southern states. A holocaust survivor, he had lost his entire family and had come to America to try to rebuild his shattered life. He had tried various ways of earning a living but had been arrested for smuggling and was to stand trial.
Was there any way the Rosh Yeshiva could help him? — the man wanted to know — perhaps Reb Aharon could give him a brocho?
Reb Aharon asked him who his lawyer was and proceeded to call him on the telephone. "This man is a remnant of the holocaust, a survivor of the camps," he reminded the attorney, "does all the suffering that he has gone through count for nothing? Could this somehow lessen the punishment?"
The lawyer agreed, "The judge may take it into consideration."
Reb Aharon noted down the date and time of the trial.
When the trial began, a stranger was there — neatly dressed and of respectable appearance. This was Irving Bunim, Reb Aharon's aide and envoy. An accomplished speaker, Bunim emotionally unfolded the tragedy of the man's life to the court.
"Who exactly are you?" the judge asked Bunim, "a family member, or a friend maybe?"
"Neither." Bunim replied, "I am a stranger, and have been sent here by a famous Rabbi in New York."
"And the Rabbi, is he a relative of the accused?" the judge asked.
"No, but the accused, the Rabbi and myself are all Jews," explained Bunim, "and we are commanded to help each other out. I was therefore asked to come here to represent the accused."
Although the judge did in fact acquit the smuggler, it is likely that he never fully understood what exactly had taken place.
An Open Hand And An Only Son
Needless to say, Reb Aharon was not a man of means. As we have seen though, this did not prevent him from giving boundlessly of himself to all those who turned to him for help. Whenever money was at his disposal for donating to tzedaka, he gave generously.
When HaRav Y. Rosenthal of Haifa told Reb Aharon how he had acquired a plot of land for his yeshiva and was now raising funds for the erection of a building, he was presented the next day with a check for five thousand dollars.
On the other hand, on the same trip to Eretz Yisroel, while Reb Aharon was staying in Yerushalaim and was troubled by the lack of communication from his family, he turned down the suggestion that he call up by telephone to find out if all was well, explaining that since he owed money, he could not allow himself such an expense!
Again in Eretz Yisroel, while Reb Aharon was receiving his usual crowd of visitors and supplicants, representatives of the "Pe'eylim" organization (which works to safeguard and improve the spiritual welfare of new immigrants to Israel) arrived to see him. They gave him a lengthy account of their activities and as he listened, he offered encouragement and his own blessings. After he handed over the sum of money he had brought for them, they thanked him and, before leaving, described their newest project. Their idea was to travel between the camps which housed the newly arrived immigrants from North Africa and distribute new yarmulkes to replace the ones that had been removed from them forcibly on their arrival in the country.
"We are now having a drive to collect yarmulkes," they told Reb Aharon.
"That's very important." he agreed, as he excitedly picked up his hat and placed it on his head, removing his large black rabbinical yarmulke and holding it out to them.
As we have been doing throughout, we will leave the last word on Reb Aharon's devotion to his fellow Jew, to Reb Aharon himself. This story was told by Rav Novick, who was present when it happened.
One day, as Reb Aharon sat in his lodgings in Yerushalaim, taking a few minutes from his bursting schedule to eat a hurried breakfast, a visitor arrived. It was HaRav Yitzchok Finkelstein, a fine Jew who headed Haifa's Talmud Torah "Achiezer," who spoke with great fervor about his work in bringing religious education to the largely irreligious port city. The rebbetzin was distraught and could take no more. Devoted to Reb Aharon's welfare, she voiced a complaint. "People disturb the Rosh Yeshiva day and night, they don't even let him eat breakfast in peace! Do you think that you are an only son?"
An uncomfortable silence followed these remarks, until the Rosh Yeshiva was heard saying gently, "But yes, he is an only son. Each one of them is an only son."
Another Yeshiva Was Established in His Memory
Ten years ago, in Elul 5743, after the demise of the Rosh Yeshiva, R' Shneur Kotler zt'l, a new branch of the Lakewood yeshiva was established in Jerusalem. The yeshiva is called "Beis Medrash Govoha of America in Eretz Yisroel in the name of and in memory of Rosh Bnei Hagola, Rabban Shel Yisroel, Maran HaGaon R' Aharon Kotler, zecher tzaddik vekodosh livrocha."
The Jerusalem branch was founded by R' Aharon's grandson, HaRav Yaakov Eliezer Schwartzman, with the right-hand assistance of his illustrious father-in-law, HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the foremost proponents of the mussar movement in our generation.
Since its inception, the yeshiva has grown and developed until it has become a lodestone for hundreds of bnei Torah, especially from abroad. It has become noted for its high standard of studies and the outstanding environment that induces diligence in study, character development and striving in excellence in every field.