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21 Ellul, 5783 - September 7, 2023 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Elul in Novardok

by HaRav Moshe Eliezer Schwartzbord

The Novardok Yeshiva in 1920

From his personal diary of the Yomim Noraim in 5697 in Beis Yosef of Pinsk. This article was published in the print edition in 1996 it is now published online for the first time.

Part 1

Memories of Elul in a Novardok yeshiva, and parables that were told there about Yomim Noraim. Beginning with Shabbos mevorchim Elul, a tremor passes over the body and soul of every Jew. All a Jew needs to hear is the announcement: "Rosh Chodesh Elul yihiyeh beyom..." and he is overcome by awe and by fear of the forthcoming judgment. Rising above his mundane affairs, he is propelled into a world saturated with longing for unlimited spiritual attainment.

The Entire Year Should be Like Elul — and Elul is Elul

In Novardoker yeshivas, the spirit of Elul prevails all year long. Every day, every hour, every moment, students of these yeshivas are immersed in thoughts of Yom Hadin, and every tefillah is like ne'ilah of Yom Kippur.

That was the feeling of anyone who was zoche to spend part of his life in one of the mussar yeshivos — one of the yeshivos in which special stress was put on recognizing the Creator and tikkun ho'ani.

Spiritual accounts are constantly being made there, and the longing to improve is ever present. If such is the case throughout the year, then in the forty days of Elul and the Yomim Noraim, the air is rife with inner tension.

In Novardoker yeshivas, the pointed maxim of the father of the mussar movement, R' Yisroel Salanter, finds expression: "If, during the entire year it should be like Elul, then how much more so in Elul, which is Elul!"

The Talmidim of Novardok-Pinsk in 1931

They Went Up On High

What was the yeshiva like during those days? If you enter during those days you immediately feel the Yomim Noraim in the very atmosphere.

For all of those forty days — the month of Elul, then the yoma arichta of the two days of Rosh Hashanah and all of the days bein Kese le'Osor — the yeshiva is like a city totally cut off from the rest of the world and from olam hazeh itself, as if it flew up and floats on high in the blue sky.

During Elul, more than during the rest of the year, a serious atmosphere descends on the Novardoker yeshivas — an atmosphere permeated with fear of Yom Hadin, and with awe of the Heavenly Tribunal, before which there is no favoritism, no falsehood, and nothing is concealed or hidden, but rather revealed to all.

Who is the person who is able to remain unaffected while the book of his life is opened, and all of his thoughts, inner feelings, machinations, deeds and inclinations are revealed to the Creator of the world?

The study hall of the yeshiva is saturated with the fear of Yom Hadin. The stones of the walls cry out: "Let the sea roar and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein" (Tehillim 98:7). Here in the yeshiva, all fear the imminence of Yom Hadin and resolve, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, to observe a taanis dibbur, and to study with added diligence, to devote all their waking hours to prayer and Torah study.

"In the past, every person was seized with trembling upon hearing the voice which cried : Chodesh Elul!" (from R' Yisroel Salanter).

Chazal insured the prevalence of an Elul atmosphere by instituting the blowing of the shofar during that month. This blowing was to be the factor which aroused man to fear Yom Hadin, as it is written: "Shall the horn be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?" (Amos 3:6).

"Wake up you sleepers from you sleep and arise from your slumber" (Rambam). However, the mashgichim of the yeshivas of past generations claimed that in former generations, when our forbears were totally engrossed in Torah and yir'a, an additional arousal in the form of the blowing of the shofar was all the prodding they needed.

But today, what shall we say when we are totally engrossed in the vanities of this world and the pursuit of earthly attainments? What shall we say, when our hearts are heavy and hard as stone? For us, the mere sound of the shofar is not sufficient to arouse us. Therefore, our Sages had to increase the quota of Torah and mussar learning during Elul and aseres yemei teshuva.

It is the end of the second part of the night, when the rooster still crows, yet it is still impossible to distinguish between techeiles and lavan. I am returning form the yeshiva's study hall to my "inn" — the shul in which two benches are awaiting me, and on which I shall lie down. On the way, I am accompanied by melodies — by voices bursting forth from the beis mussar. Of course, during Elul, these voices are stronger than ever.

Please acquaint yourself with my lodgings: I am very fortunate to lodge in the Chevra Kadisha synagogue in Pinsk, Karlin. Because it is near the yeshiva's beis medrash, it was chosen to serve as the beis mussar and beis Torah of the yeshiva.

The reader may wonder: Bnei Torah study mussar on a steady basis during the yeshiva's regular study sessions. Why then is another beis mussar necessary?

But know: the beis mussar is like a "health spa." Here in the four cubits of the beis mussar, the yetzer hora holds no sway. Bnei Torah visit it in order to be healed. Here they uncover their wounds and here their wounds are dressed. Immediately, they find a cure for their ailments.

In the beis mussar, one speaks with the Creator of the World. One pours out his heart to Him: "Abba..I your Yankeleh who fled from You all year.. have returned to You...I am here beside You...From now on I will always remain close to You., my situation can be compared to that of a boy who rebelled against his father and ran away from home. In his sorrow, the rebellious son, who cannot continue to live without his father, decides to return to him, and with a broken heart, to fall at his feet, and shedding warm tears, to cry: "Pity me, Abba."

The merciful and compassionate father doesn't grow angry. Instead, he kisses the recalcitrant son who has sincerely returned home.

So it is with the ben Torah. He enters the beis mussar downcast and brokenhearted. When he leaves, his eyes glow with joy. He is smiling. His heart overflows with tranquility and trust in Hashem.

And if this occurs all year, imagine what takes place in Elul, for as R' Yisroel Salanter said, "The entire year should be like Elul, and Elul is Elul!"

The forty days preceding Yom Kippur are yemei rotzon — days of grace, during which waves of purity and atonement cascade from Heaven to earth. Abundant wellsprings of siyata deShmaya are placed before you. They reveal themselves to you in every corner and with every footstep you take. They plead with you: Come ben Torah, avail yourself of this siyata deShmaya free of charge. During Elul, you will be able to acquire great things — things of the uppermost importance.

Throughout the year, you encounter an iron curtain; throughout the year, you must break down iron walls and bring gifts and wreaths. But during these days, enter the beis mussar, open a mussar book and with soaring spirits and deep emotion, pour out your heart before Ovinu Malkeinu. How is it that man has the ability to tell his woes to the Master of the Universe, as if he was speaking to a father of flesh and blood?

How can one sleep in this sacred place, when from all sides one hears the well-known melodies of mussar study and the words of the bnei Torah of then? My chavrusa, R' Eliezer Bilgreir, zt'l, is also among them. All open their mouths and cry out: "Why are you sleeping"?

The following anecdote used to be related in the yeshiva world: A certain author wrote a sefer based on parables meant to arouse yiras Shomayim. He complained that people did not read his book. Why was this so?

People like parables — mesholim — because they are enjoyable and sweeter than honey. However, the moral of the parables — the nimshal — was rebuke, from which the reader must deduce a lesson. As we know, people dislike rebuke, for it is demanding and bitter.

What did that author do? He revised his book, and left in only the parables, which were very palatable. Then the public did rush out to buy his book.

In Novardoker yeshivas, the philosophy is different. They want the nimshal, as the thrust of the book and the moshol as just an accessory. But if such is the case, why do they still flavor their discourses with mesholim?

This can be explained by the moshol of a person who had to swallow a very bitter medicine. He was advised to swallow the bitter drops along with a teaspoon of honey. [This parable is the source of the expression, "to sweeten the pill."]

The nimshal: Words of rebuke are as bitter as poison, and it is preferable to wrap them in mesholim which are as sweet as honey.

Following are some of these Novardoker mesholim.

The Moshol of the Soul and the Rooster

An eagle and a rooster stood beside a refuse bin. Both of them pecked at the refuse with delight. "Give honor to your king," the eagle boasted to the rooster. "Don't you know that I am the lofty and esteemed king of the birds, and that you are my servant?"

"How can I give honor to you?" the rooster bravely replied, "when both of us are pecking at the refuse. What is the difference between us? We are both eating waste."

"Wait a moment, and you will see the difference between us," the eagle said, as he laughed loudly. "I have the power to soar to the skies, while you must remain behind to wallow in the mud. I have the ability to distance myself from the refuse, and to fly aloft to the greatest heights, while you are a very unfortunate creature. From the moment you emerged from your egg into the world, you have been pecking at refuse from morning until night. You will remain that way all your life."

"Look up," the eagle then cried. "Search for me in the heavens, and see how high I have flown."

The eagle then spread its wings and ascended to the skies in a whirlwind, while the rooster remained beside the refuse bins, marveling at the eagle and trying to fly. All of its efforts were in vain, and it remained rooted to the earth.

The nimshal: One of the gifts Hashem has given man is teshuva. With it, he can break free from the snare of his deeds and flee the trap of his sins. In this way, man is like the eagle, who spreads its wings and ascends to the skies, leaving the refuse behind.

Regarding teshuva, the Rambam writes: "Great is teshuva in that it draws man closer to the Shechina... Last night, he was despised by Hashem — despicable, distanced and corrupt. Today, he is beloved and dear, close and cherished.. before the Creator, Blessed be He" (Hilchos Teshuva).

The Moshol from the Verse:"A prayer of the impoverished ... "

The full verse is: "A prayer of the impoverished when he faints and pours out his complaint before the Lord" (Tehillim 102:1)

The words of this verse bring to mind the situation of a very tired and hungry wayfarer. He has been walking for many days, during which time neither a morsel of bread nor a drop of water have entered his mouth. His strength is waning, and he can barely continue. Very soon he will collapse from hunger. As he drags himself on, he finds himself before a huge palace. The palace is filled with people, for the king is holding a huge feast for all of his ministers and servants. The king too is present.

The hungry man squeezes into the palace, and there sees each servant seated beside his own table. The tables are laden with the finest foods in the world: fish, meat and all sorts of drinks and delicacies. The hungry man approaches the first servant he encounters, who is busy eating the portion on his table. The hungry man pleads: "I haven't eaten all day. Give me a slice of bread.

The servant replies with indifference: "I have received my portion from the king, and every last crumb belongs to me."

After receiving such an answer from each and every one of the servants, the pauper decides that since the king himself is in the palace, he will approach him directly, instead of through messengers. He himself will beg for food, and tell him how desperate he is. And so, the pauper turns to the king, and pleads with him. He tells him his entire story, and the king gives him a ticket, made out to the chief cook, entitling the pauper to a portion of food, too.

The nimshal: Prayer is the first condition one must fulfill if he wishes to receive benefits from the Creator. This idea is found in many sources in the Torah. Despite their noble attributes and lofty spiritual levels, the sacred Ovos received nothing without prayer. Avrohom said: "O' Lord... what will you give me, seeing that I am childless" (Bereishis 15:2). But he was given a son only as a result of his prayers, and only in his old age.

Yitzchok, Rivka, Leah and Rochel were also granted yeshua only as a result of their prayers. The question arises: Didn't the Ovos and Imahos have enough merits to make them worthy of being saved? Nevertheless they merited yeshua only through prayer.

Regarding the redemption from Egypt it is said: "And I have heard their groaning" (Shemos 6:5), indicating that had they not prayed, they wouldn't have been saved. Our sources further teach that this fundamental rule has been imbedded in Creation from the very beginning. Odom Horishon prayed for rain, and rain fell. The trees grew, and the grass sprouted. Odom's act established the rule that man receives nothing in this world effortlessly. Instead, he must go forth and take it, through prayer.

It is not easy to speak with a king of flesh and blood. One must first make an appointment with him. There is a long line, and receiving such an appointment might take quite a while. In order to make such an appointment, one must hire the services of a lawyer, and it is quite possible that the petitioner will not manage to speak with the king directly, but only through a messenger.

The Minster of Defense, though can speak with the king whenever he pleases. The king has a special telephone — a "direct" or a "red line" through which the Minister of Defense calls him undisturbed and without messengers. The Minster of Defense has to make swift decisions and has no time to wait even a minute.

By the same token, during the days of rachamim and selichos, every Jew, no matter where he is, can speak with the King of Kings, HaKodosh Boruch Hu, on the direct line, the open line. Of course, this line is used only for important matters. On it, a person can pour out his heart before the King of Kings without shame, telling him all that pains him and listing all his requests, for He accompanies a person constantly, and is familiar with every one of his thoughts. Every breath one takes has been empowered by Hashem. He gives us the strength to move our limbs every moment of our lives.

This idea is even more applicable now, during of the days of rachamim and selichos, as we draw closer to the Yomim Noraim, of which it is said: "Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon Him while He is near" (Yeshayohu 45:6). During these days, Hashem comes down to us and is very close to us. May it be His will to accept our prayers with rachamim and rotzon, and to fulfill all of our requests in the best possible manner.

End of Part 1


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