Keser Torah: HaRav Aharon Kotler Zt'l, 2 Kislev 5753 — The Thirtieth Yahrtzeit
by Sholom Meir and Yisroel Gellis
HaRav Aharon Kotler talking in learning with HaRav Boruch Ber Leibowitz on "dacha" in Europe
This extended appreciation of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l was first published in 1992 in the print edition. We are republishing it now for the 60th yahrtzeit, and also to make it available on the web.
No description or appreciation of Reb Aharon can come closer to capturing his essence than one of his own shmuessen, entitled "Keser Torah". This shmuess, prepared from manuscript by his son HaRav Shneur Kotler zt'l, first appeared in a publication of Toronto's Kollel Avreichim entitled Hama'ayan and has since been reprinted in the first volume of Mishnas Rebbi Aharon.
As he analyses the nature of that supreme dedication to Torah learning which raises a man higher than his fellows, crowning him with the glory of the Torah itself, Reb Aharon could have been sketching a brief self-portrait. A careful reading of the text of the shmuess, together with the stories here which illustrate how Reb Aharon himself exemplified everything he wrote, will give us some inkling of the extent of his greatness and help us to understand how one man was able to bear the tremendous double burden of harbotzas haTorah and hachzokas haTorah single-handedly.
Even today it is not uncommon for roshei yeshiva to have to spend time raising funds and no doubt those roshei yeshiva can attest to the heavy demands that travelling and collecting make on their strength and the resultant damaging effect on their learning and teaching schedules. Being aware of this makes Reb Aharon's accomplishments, which are outlined below, seem all the more incredible.
Reb Aharon was renowned as a genius while a youngster. He taught in the yeshiva of his father-in-law, HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer, later moving with a large part of the yeshiva to Kletsk, where he served as rosh yeshiva. Escaping from war-torn Europe via Japan, he was over fifty when he arrived in America, not the easiest age for launching a major new undertaking. Yet it was there that he was to effect far-reaching changes on the Jewish scene whose significance for all of klal Yisroel can scarcely be overrated.
Reb Aharon is principally remembered today as the founder of Beis Hamedrash Govoha in Lakewood where he personally raised a new generation of American talmidim. While it may be an oversimplification to attribute it to the efforts of one man alone, it was undoubtedly Reb Aharon who raised aloft the banner of Torah learning for its own sake in the inhospitable spiritual conditions of America. Very slowly, the concept of a young man's devoting years to learning began to take root and the ben Torah became a familiar figure on the American Jewish scene.
Today, two generations later, the seed which Reb Aharon (and subsequently his son Reb Shneur zt'l) nurtured in Lakewood has matured, sending offshoots not only to all parts of America but to the rest of the globe as well.
In America, Reb Aharon carried the full financial burden of the yeshiva, as well as advising on the whole range of communal issues in America and Eretz Yisroel and making crucial decisions which continue to guide us today. His responsibilities kept him away from Lakewood during the middle of each week so that the yeshiva's learning centered around the shiur which Reb Aharon delivered on Shabbos. How was it that, despite his constant travelling and involvement in klal work, he was nevertheless able to keep the beis hamedrash at the center of his life and have the strength to devote himself totally to learning and teaching Torah?
Certainly, Reb Aharon possessed incredible strength and stamina which his thin frame and short physical stature belied. He had power and intensity which was visible in his clear, sharp blue eyes and which he put into every word and deed. Yet this does not completely explain how he was able to constantly alternate between the world of the beis hamedrash and the yoke of fundraising and communal involvement without becoming drained.
We will see, however, that for Reb Aharon there was no contradiction between any of his varied activities. He was not pulled in opposing directions by the different things he did. Each area of his activity complemented another. His klal work was the automatic and natural practical application of the Torah he learned and taught. Even the endless travelling to solicit funds (for which he had several of his own ideas as to why it was necessary), was an aspect of Torah.
By realizing that each moment of life is a world of its own to be filled with avodoh, by feeling the intense love — craving even — for Torah that comes from the full realization that Torah is life, by widening one's horizons and using all one's powers to the full, wrote Reb Aharon, man can merit the keser Torah. Through devotion to Torah on this level, a man begins to reflect the glory of the Torah he has absorbed. His Torah elevates him, just as the wearing of a crown sets its bearer on a higher level than those around him.
For Reb Aharon himself, Torah was not an ideal or a cause. It was, simply put, life itself and thus Reb Aharon carried the keser Torah in all its glory wherever he went. Whatever he did was a reflection of the keser. Each of the five sections of the shmuess will be followed by reminiscences of Reb Aharon from his talmidim which show that what he wrote applied first and foremost to himself.
HaRav Aharon Kotler with HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky
Part I. Every Moment Is A Lifetime
Chazal have said, "One who reads krias shema every day and once does not read it, is like one who has never read it in his life." Similarly, they also asked [Chagigah 9] on the posuk, "and you will return and see the difference between a tzaddik and a rosho, between one who serves Hashem and one who does not serve Him," that surely "tzaddik" and "one who serves Hashem" are one and the same thing and so are "rosho" and "one who does not serve Him"! What is the second phrase intended to convey? They answered, the distinction between one who serves Hashem and one who does not serve him is that there is no comparison between one who reviews what he learns one hundred times and one who reviews it a hundred and one times.
The definition of this (i.e. the significance of a single missing krias shema or one extra chazora) is as follows: just as we see that the entire creation is one unified whole and yet is divided up into small parts, so too, an individual encompasses many different units as long as his life and powers are with him. A person's life during each moment is an entity of its own. It has its own, independent existence that will endure forever.
During the time a man did not say krias shema, he was without acceptance of Heaven's yoke and his being at that moment will remain as such for ever. It is not correct to see that one moment in the context of the thousands of times that he did accept ol malchus shomayim. Rather, it is considered as though this man never accepted the yoke in his life, insofar as his existence at that moment will remain for eternity as lacking kabolas ol.
The practical lesson from this is to adopt the attitude that one's entire spiritual level and the fulfillment of the avodoh for which he was created, are focused solely on the present moment — for even the immediate future is a totally different, new entity.
This is the meaning of the posuk in Iyov [7:18], "You examine him by the moment," of which the gemora [Rosh Hashana 16] states, "R' Nosson says: A man is judged at each hour." R' Yossi [ibid.] however holds that a man is judged only once a day, for in his opinion the process which takes place lirego'im, at each moment, described by the word "tivchenenu," denotes more of a casual looking over than actual judgment.
In contrast, the first opinion thus holds that each moment is examined thoroughly, the moments themselves are examined. Man's complete state at each and every moment is probed, not only special or unusual actions and deeds. In determining his totality, his actions are but one factor. This is the meaning of examining at every moment: besides whatever else he does or does not do, man's state at every moment is examined. The entire creation also changes every moment as the discussed in Nefesh HaChaim (based on the Zohar), that the worlds and the merkava are shifting all the time, so that tefillah at a given time is different from all other tefillos [sha'ar 2, perek 13]. See Nefesh HaChaim at length about this.
Examining The Moments
Reb Aharon used every second to the fullest. After he founded the yeshiva in Lakewood, he would spend the middle of each week in New York where he was kept constantly busy with a heavy schedule of klal work. Wherever he was, though, he carried a sefer with him, a gemora, Mishna Berurah or Mishlei with Biyur HaGra. Sometimes instead of a sefer he took a notebook into which he copiously entered his chidushim. Whether he was waiting for a bus, travelling, even speaking on the telephone he would be looking into his sefer.
When he returned to Lakewood on Thursdays after an exhausting bus ride he would head straight for the beis hamedrash and go into his room to learn. Through the glass door, everyone could see how, without losing a moment, he took a gemora and immediately engrossed himself in a sugya. While in Europe, Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l had remarked that the magnitude of the ol Torah which Reb Aharon carried was such that it was of earlier generations.
On the very evening of his return, a notice was posted with the references for the coming shiur: there would be several sugyos to learn through, rishonim and Rambam, as well as Shulchan Oruch with commentaries. Then, on Shabbos, after the shiur had been delivered, the Rosh Yeshiva again turned to his room, opened his gemora and plunged back into his learning. There was not a moments interruption — there wasn't a moment to spare.
Although it is hardly surprising that his tiredness did sometimes catch up with him, it would vanish instantly as soon as he would hear a dvar Torah, a question or an answer. He would take the chidush up and continue on, asking answering and explaining.
His talmid HaRav Leib Heiman, now rav of Beis Knesses HaGra in Bayit Vegan, described Reb Aharon's appearance at the Shabbos table, at meetings and at the weddings of talmidim, sitting with his sefer, his eyes following his finger running back and forth along the page, his eyebrows quivering. His fingers did not rest during chazoras hashatz either, as his mind tirelessly worked on. Another talmid recalled a meeting where the Rosh Yeshiva, sitting listening to the speeches, suddenly inclined his head as if to agree with the speaker and commented happily, "So that is the Rambam's reasoning!"
Perhaps Reb Aharon's realization of the true value of time was one of the reasons he delivered his shiurim in compressed form, speaking at great speed and requiring one hundred percent concentration from his listeners. HaRav Yoel Kluft zt"l, Av Beis Din of Haifa (then known as Yoel Riger), was amazed at the shiurim he heard when he arrived in Kletsk. The contents of a six-hour shiur were given over in one-and-a-half hours.
Rabbi Yitzchok Waldman of Bnei Brak, a talmid of Lakewood, remembers, "I couldn't think at all during the shiur. If I would have tried to consider the implications of one of the ideas that had been presented, I would have lost the thread. The Rosh Yeshiva would carry on and would already have been way ahead. You had to listen carefully to take it all in; just to take it in like a recorder. There would be time for understanding later."
HaRav Aharon Kotler with HaRav Moshe Feinstein
Without Rest, Without Respite
A talmid, Rabbi Ezra Novick of Bnei Brak, recalls the occasion he accompanied Reb Aharon to the laying of the cornerstone of the Slutsk Yeshiva in Rechovot. In the back seat sat HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer and HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky while Reb Aharon, who found prolonged journeys difficult (which adds extra significance to his nonstop travelling for klal work), sat beside the driver.
"I sat in the middle row of seats," Rav Novick recalled, "watching the Rosh Yeshiva. All the time he was learning. His lips didn't stop moving. He sometimes looked back when his father-in-law spoke, and even nodded — without stopping his learning for a moment."
Similarly during Reb Aharon's illness, when he was in the care of Dr. Lesser, a religious cardiac specialist, at one point, while the rosh yeshiva was drugged and barely conscious, the doctor noticed that his patient's lips were moving. Bending over to listen, he could hear the rosh yeshiva repeating chapters of mishnayos.
Just how much Reb Aharon was able to accomplish in the odd moments here and there is clear from the following story told by Rav Novick: "I remember when we arrived, a group of bochurim, at his house, to be tested by him and accepted into the yeshiva. We went inside. The house was humming with activity. In one room, people were waiting, while in another corner stood a group of rabbonim. The Rosh Yeshiva asked us to wait in the library and Reb Shneur, his oldest son, spoke with us in learning. In the meantime, as the Rosh Yeshiva dealt with the throng who waited for him, seeing to the needs of each one, night fell.
"`So,' said the rosh yeshiva, `let us have dinner.'
"The rebbetzin brought the food to the table while the Rosh Yeshiva sat, as usual next to his open gemora. Suddenly the telephone rang and the Rosh Yeshiva answered — while looking into his gemora. The call went on and on and the Rosh Yeshiva continued to learn. During that call, he learned two daf and even he managed to look up the Maharsha!
HaRav Elya Kushelevsky zt'l once wanted to speak to the Rosh Yeshiva. He noticed Reb Aharon going into his building and hurried after him. In the passageway he saw the door of the elevator closing on the Rosh Yeshiva and decided to try to catch up. He raced up the three flights of stairs arriving outside the Rosh Yeshiva's door, only to see it close. He knocked, and the door was opened by the rebbetzin.
"Is it possible to speak with the Rosh Yeshiva?" he asked.
"Certainly." she replied, showing him into the room. He entered to find Reb Aharon sitting by his gemora, deeply immersed even though he had barely arrived home!
On The Blade Of A Sword
Reb Aharon used this ability to achieve deep concentration in an instant even during his traumatic escape from Europe during the Second World War. Escaping from the Bolsheviks, who had announced their intention to capture him, Reb Aharon was smuggled onto a packed train. He was physically lifted by some bochurim and passed through the carriage window into the arms of several other bochurim who had managed to board. Upon seeing who his fellow travellers were, he immediately began to discourse, posing a difficulty, offering an answer.
HaRav Leib Heiman once asked Reb Aharon after a particularly complicated, deep and intricate shiur how old he had been when he had devised the shiur.
"What's the difference?" asked the rosh yeshiva.
"I want to know, how far I am at my age..." replied Rav Heiman.
The rosh yeshiva smiled and replied, "When we ran away from the Russians, from Kletsk to Vilna, I went into a beis hamedrash and it was there that I developed the idea."
On the long journey to America which took the refugees through Japan, Reb Aharon arrived at a hotel to find that the room he had been assigned to had no chair or table. Reb Shneur went to speak to the manager and by the time the two returned they found Reb Aharon perched on the corner of the bed writing down his chidushim. He had only just worked them out and did not want them to be lost.
"I need peace of mind in order to learn," said Reb Isser Zalman, his father-in-law. "But he? Even on the blade of a sword!!"
Torn From Torah
Just as it took Reb Aharon no time to plunge into learning, he could not bear a moment's separation from learning. In a shmuess in the yeshiva he once roared out that a bochur must have the feeling that he cannot close his gemora since to do so, even momentarily, is tantamount to being "torn away from Torah."
To the father of a masmid who came to him with the complaint, "Meila to learn, but with a limit. What about time for eating and sleeping?"
Reb Aharon replied, "Is there a limit to life?"
Reb Aharon was constantly attuned to learning, and mealtimes were certainly no exception. "The rosh yeshiva sat with the bochurim for the Shabbos meals," HaRav Heiman recalls. "We sat at a side table — naturally, in awe of the Rosh Yeshiva. We spoke softly in Torah. All of us were Americans so we were speaking English, a language the Rosh Yeshiva was not fluent in. Someone advanced a svora in English and then suddenly, from his table, the Rosh Yeshiva's voice reached us, heatedly explaining why that svora could not be upheld and what the correct understanding of the sugya was, according to which it was possible to explain the entire topic as well as other sugyos. We were stunned at how he had managed to pick up a quiet comment that was spoken some distance away, in a strange language."
As a talmid of Yeshivas Knesses Yisroel in Slobodke, Reb Aharon would go with many other bochurim to Knesses Beis Yitzchok, situated in one of the suburbs of Slobodke, to hear Reb Boruch Ber's shiurim.
Their coming, however, was a cause of friction. The financial state of Reb Boruch Ber's yeshiva was precarious and conditions were sparse, whereas in Slobodke things were relatively easier. This bothered Reb Boruch Ber's talmidim. It was not fair, they argued, that the Slobodke talmidim should have the best of both worlds: eating in Slobodke and coming to hear shiurim in their yeshiva. If they wanted to learn from Reb Boruch Ber, they should come and join his yeshiva.
As a result, a decision was made to close the doors of the beis hamedrash during the shiur. When the shiur started though, Aharon Sislovitzer was in his regular place. How had he got in? It was really very simple. Unwilling to be parted from Reb Boruch Ber, he had climbed in through the window!
Reb Aharon's relationship with his teacher Reb Boruch Ber was one of mutual admiration. It was said that once as they were out walking, speaking in Torah, they arrived at a narrow path. Reb Aharon stood aside waiting for Reb Boruch Ber to go ahead of him but instead, Reb Boruch Ber took him by the arm and went side-by-side with him down the path.
HaRav Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik zt'l, one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph and later of Kfar Chassidim, related the following story which portrays an incredible standard of immersion in Torah.
During the Kletsk period, Reb Aharon once travelled to Baranovitch, where Reb Elchonon Wassermann Hy'd had his yeshiva, in order to raise funds. The situation in Kletsk had reached the point that Reb Aharon had to donate his own shoes to one of the bochurim. In one of his cables he wrote, "There is no money for gemoras."
When Reb Elchonon heard that Reb Aharon arrived, he dispatched a delegation of bochurim to invite Reb Aharon to deliver a shiur. It was morning when the bochurim reached Reb Aharon and he engaged them in Torah discussion. What sugya were they learning? What Torah had they said on it? As they spoke, he replied, expanding on what they said, asking questions, suggesting answers. The time set for the shiur was meanwhile approaching.
He left for Reb Elchonon's yeshiva together with the bochurim and delivered the shiur. Immediately after he was surrounded with questions to which he replied, explaining and bringing additional proofs. The discussion continued after a short interval for mincha and after ma'ariv he was again accompanied back to his lodgings by a group of bochurim engaging him in heated debate which continued on until the next morning. Only then did the bochurim go back to the yeshiva, while Reb Aharon continued learning.
HaRav Aharon Kotler: A Biographical Sketch
The "Sislovitzer Iluy", as Reb Aharon was known in yeshiva, was born in 5652 (1892) in the town of that name, where his father was the rav. His genius was recognized while he was yet a young child in his knowledge of Tanach, which he could repeat by heart, and his understanding of gemora. At the age of ten, he was sent to learn with HaRav Zalman Sender Shapira of Kriniki. At thirteen, he went to Slobodke, where he learnt under the Alter and HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. He also heard shiurim from Rav Boruch Ber, who had his own yeshiva in one of the suburbs of Slobodke.
His name became famous in the yeshiva world and he became the son-in-law of HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Slutsk, where he was appointed a rosh yeshiva and delivered shiurim, all before he was twenty-five years old.
When the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia and began their persecutions of religion, Yeshivas Eitz Chaim of Slutsk was one of their first victims. The roshei yeshiva were hounded and the yeshiva was ordered to disband. Reb Aharon crossed secretly into Poland with the larger portion of the student body and opened his own Yeshivas Eitz Chaim in Kletsk, which flourished until the Second World War. In addition to his duties as rosh yeshiva, Reb Aharon was active in efforts to bolster Yiddishkeit in Kletsk and the rest of Poland.
With the Russian occupation of Poland in 1939, Reb Aharon escaped, first to Vilna, then to Kobe, Japan, arriving in the United States in April, 1941. The primary task at hand was the hatzoloh of European Jewry. Reb Aharon assumed a leading role in the operations of the Vaad Hatzoloh, a coalition of Orthodox Jewish groups dedicated to the relief and rescue of Europe's Jews. Relatively speaking, the Vaad consisted of a mere handful of individuals who were fully conscious of the magnitude of the tragedy that was befalling their brethren and who realized the enormity of the responsibility that they carried. Reb Aharon's role in galvanizing and directing the group was a major factor in the significant accomplishments of the Vaad throughout the war years.
With the opening of Beth Medrash Govoha in a converted house in Lakewood, New Jersey in April 1943, Reb Aharon took his first step towards the vitalization of Torah life in America. Together with the upkeep and expansion of the yeshiva and kollel (whose student body increased from the original 14 to 140 in 5723 (1962), the year of Reb Aharon's petiroh), Reb Aharon's emergence as the leading godol hador, expressing pure, Torah ideals in his characteristic, uncompromising way, brought a new consciousness of Torah Judaism to American — and world — Jewry.
Reb Aharon also headed Chinuch Atzmai, the independent network of Torah day schools in Israel, founded in 1953, and he took over the leadership of Torah UMesorah, the American day school movement, after the death of its founder HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz. He headed Agudas Yisroel's Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and the Agudas HaRabbonim, guiding them and taking part in all their major decision making.
Reb Aharon was niftar in the seventy-first year of his life, on the 2nd of Kislev, 5723. It was estimated that 50,000 people attended the levaya in America and another 100,000 in Eretz Yisroel where he was buried next to his father-in-law Reb Isser Zalman.