HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz
If he had a sum of money which had to be delivered to one of the avreichim, he would run the errand himself. Once when one of them protested that the Rosh Yeshiva could have found a messenger to bring it, he replied, "Do you mind if your wife sees how I respect you?"
Reb Nochum decided once that it would be beneficial to one of the bochurim if they would regularly speak together in learning together. Reb Nochum made the first approach. "I heard a kushya in your name and an answer has occurred to me. Tell me what you think of it."
When the bochur did not realize that Reb Nochum wanted steady contact with him, Reb Nochum tried a different tack. "I have been approached regarding shidduchim for you, and have been asked whether you come to speak to me in learning. Start coming over to me so that I will be able to answer them truthfully."
While Reb Nochum was indeed aware of the importance of his position as it affected others, for himself the position of Rosh Yeshiva in and of itself meant nothing. He remarked on one occasion that it was quite clear to him that he had been spared from the Holocaust only in order to learn and teach Torah, and this conviction guided the ben Torah throughout his life.
The very same hasmodoh which he displayed in his youth remained throughout his life. Reb Gershon Weisenfeld, who as a young bochur spent a period learning with Reb Nochum in Mir in America before aliya to Eretz Yisroel, related how he was once determined to "beat" Reb Nochum at hasmodoh and remain learning after Reb Nochum retired. When his eyes began to close and he was forced to submit and go to rest, he decided to at least get up early the next morning and arrive in the Beis Hamedrash before Nochum Trokker. This was also not to be, for when he arrived in the morning, he found Reb Nochum already immersed in his learning.
When the Yeshiva emptied out in the summer months and the bochurim went to learn and rest in the mountains, Reb Nochum remained alone and continued learning three sedorim a day. On the boat to Eretz Yisroel Reb Nochum sat at his shtender deeply immersed in maseches Gittin.
It remained Reb Nochum's practice to learn into the small hours of the morning and during these hours, the door to his house (which was situated in the Yeshiva building), remained open and anyone could walk in to talk in Torah, and would be warmly welcomed.
Reb Nochum's advice to a talmid seeking a shidduch, reveals the philosophy behind his amazing hasmodoh. "Generally, when the time comes to look for a shidduch, people treat this as their most important concern but since they can't devote all day to it, they learn a bit in their spare time. Once engaged, they take the same attitude to the wedding preparations again using their spare time for learning. They can continue all their lives like this: now it is the main job to bring joy to their wife, later on, the education of the children becomes the overriding concern...and with all the other obligations they also find some time to learn...
"I tell you though that exactly the opposite is true! A person's main job at each and every stage in his life is to learn, learn and learn. While continually occupied with learning one also has to find the time for seeing to other important aspects of one's life."
It is primarily as the maggid shiur whose deep and crystal clear shiurim illuminated the most difficult sugyos in Noshim and Nezikim that Reb Nochum is known in Yeshivos the world over. He claimed not to have any distinctive approach in his learning but when pressed by his talmidim he said that he always had two guiding principles in mind: the actual words, as they were written in front of him, and straight thinking. Only when his conclusions conformed with both of these requirements were they acceptable, otherwise felt that he had to devote further thought to the problem.
He attached great importance to the exact phrasing which the Rishonim used and especially to that of Rashi, first and foremost. He had concluded that this was the correct way to view Rashi on his own, as a result of his vast experience. There was simply no such thing as an imprecise Rashi, he told his talmidim.
Once a young ram told him of a novel conclusion based on three comments of Rashi. Rav Nochum was overjoyed. "I also thought like that," he said, "but I could not bring myself to say it in public. Now that you also say it, I can tell it over. I will even say it over in your name."
When the yeshiva learned Nedarim, which is not printed with a reliable commentary of Rashi, his talmidim were wondering what he would use as the basis for his shiurim. The first shiur was based on a Rashi in Shavuos that was relevant to an issue in Nedarim.
He would remark, "Sometimes I am forced to decide either that I do not know how to learn, or that a Rishon did not know how to write something. I always choose the first option."
He always insisted that the explanation fit perfectly into the words and would sometimes reject wonderful chidushim when the fit did not meet his standards, even when talmidim could see no problem. On the other hand he also gave weight to the comments of his talmidim and if they pointed out that the words did not imply the explanation he wanted to give them, he retracted at once and made no attempts to force his explanation on them (unless of course they had misunderstood him).
Once he labored long and hard, building an intricate edifice to straighten out a problematic Tosafos, but then rejected the whole thing. "It cannot be that Tosafos expressed themselves in a way that takes three hours to arrive at their meaning," he explained. "Had they added just one more word the meaning would have been as clear as day, and the fact that they didn't means that we must be mistaken in our explanation."
Chazal tell us (Nedarim 55.) that when a man makes himself like the desert, which is ownerless and open to all who wish to come there, the Torah is given to him as a present. The clarity, depth and sweetness of Reb Nochum's shiurim and chidushim was in direct proportion to his dedication to Torah and his selflessness, both of which were total. Both Reb Nochum the man and his Torah were hefker: open and available to anyone who desired to learn.
A relation once published a sefer which contained many comments in the form of footnotes. In time it became known that almost all of the footnotes were the work of Reb Nochum who had given full permission for their inclusion, even though his name was not mentioned once.
He was always available to talk in learning. His joy was not in his personal advancement but simply in the amassing of further Torah knowledge. For example, he was once discussing a well-known debate between the Rishonim on a certain topic and his colleague showed him that the Tosafos Chachmei Anglia, whose chidushim had recently been published, took the position of one of the sides in the debate. Reb Nochum's joy was boundless. Even though the debate was well established and defined, he rejoiced over the new knowledge that there was another opinion for one of the sides.
His self-effacement in order to learn something new can be glimpsed from an incident which took place after the engagement party of one of the talmidim at which Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz had been present. The next day, the new chasan was amazed when Reb Nochum came up to him and asked him to say over the dvar Torah he had said the previous evening at the engagement.
"This, the Rebbi is asking of me?!" he exclaimed.
"My father-in-law told me that what you said was very important so I would like to hear," Reb Nochum explained. The chasan still felt unable to comply, so Reb Nochum added "Please, my father-in-law advised me to hear what you said, and besides, I myself am very interested to know..."
Another measure of his complete selflessness was the fact that he himself kept no written records of his shiurim. He told his talmidim that they couldn't see his notes from his preparation of shiur because they did not exist. "I used to write," he told them, "but as I found that when we returned to the same masechta I would start again from scratch anyway, I stopped writing."
He didn't feel that each of his shiurim was worth preserving in it's own right.
The amount of time and effort he had taken to develop a shiur or chabura was not a consideration if Reb Nochum felt that an objection was valid and the whole thing would be scrapped. He approached each new topic afresh, irrespective of how many times he had learnt it before, and in shiur was never heard to say, "I remember that we once said..." He always worked things through from the beginning and did not rely on previous occasions.
Once, a talmid asked a strong question on the shiur. Reb Nochum said, "I remember that years ago, when I learned through this subject, I had an answer to your question. Although I can't remember it now, since an answer does exist, the shiur is correct and need not be retracted."
After a few moment's thought, he spoke again. "No, no...as today I have no answer, I am unable to say this shiur!"
His practice of learning each time anew prompted him to say that he found Yevamos the hardest masechta to learn. His listeners were amazed, for the concepts which Reb Nochum developed in this masechta are particularly well known. "That's exactly why," he explained "All my previous ideas are what makes it so hard for me to look at it as completely new."
Beloved Are Afflictions
The harsh conditions experienced during the escape from Europe and the years spent in Shanghai caused much discomfort to the bnei yeshiva for whom, in spite of, and perhaps because of, all the hardships, this period was one of dramatic progress. Nevertheless, nobody ever heard a complaint escape the lips of Nochum Trokker.
In later years, Reb Chatzkel Levenstein, the Mirrer mashgiach, who later became mashgiach of Ponovezh, remarked that in Shanghai, Reb Nochum had not missed a single vaad or shmuess. He then said that his ability to devote himself to learning despite his suffering was the fruit of this devotion to mussar in those early years.
During the last fifteen years of Reb Nochum's life, when he suffered from the agonizing degenerative disease which eventually took his life, he demonstrated that a ben Torah remains a ben Torah even in the most terrible conditions. As long as no sign of the disease was visible, the only ones to know about it were his close family. Even the chavrusa with whom Reb Nochum had been learning at home for years only found out that something was wrong when it became obvious to everyone that Reb Nochum was having difficulty in walking.
As time went on and the disease took its course, Reb Nochum's suffering became greater yet he continued to deliver shiurim for as long as he was able to. Although it was obvious that every movement was painful for him, he would still talk in learning with the talmidim as he walked downstairs after the shiur. While he was speaking in learning he didn't feel the pain and the talmidim felt able to approach him. The one aspect of his illness which he didn't refrain from complaining about was his worry that his capacity for learning was impaired.
He was upset at not being able to spend the long nights contemplating a sevoro as he used to. "My shiurim used to be more comprehensive," he sighed once after hearing over one of his old shiurim.
Once he mentioned his terrible physical suffering. The occasion was a visit from a young talmid who had also been struck by a painful disease. "Look at me, see how much effort everything is, how much pain every movement involves...but the main thing is that we are alive and able to learn!"
He would explain the reason why he went to such lengths to conceal his suffering from those around him, quoting Reb Yechiel Mordechai Gordon of Lomza, who was also a native of Troki and to whom Reb Nochum had been close, eating at his table during his years in America. Reb Yechiel Mordechai, who also suffered greatly, would say that a person's face is a reshus horabim which all those with whom a person has contact must see and one therefore had to take care not to be a source of damage in a public place by exhibiting pain and suffering.
To repeat this is one thing, but Reb Nochum also had the self-discipline which Reb Chatzkel had remarked on, and the immense inner strength required to live by it, day in and day out for years. He showed that the standards of behavior demanded of a ben Torah have to be consistent, in any situation. When learning and saying shiurim, he was able to detach his mind from the pain and his family said that during bein hazmanim when he was not saying shiurim, there was a clear deterioration in his health.
For as long as it was possible, Reb Nochum did not ask for help from anyone, even for the simplest things. When every step he took was full of pain, he still would go himself to fetch a sefer from the shelf rather than ask one of the talmidim to do it.
Many times as night fell and the room where he was sitting with a talmid grew dark, the talmid would not get up to put on the light without being asked, while Reb Nochum didn't want to ask.
During a shiur, a fly was bothering Reb Nochum and he was trying to drive the fly away by waving his hand without removing his glance from the gemora in front of him. This was not effective as his hand was already weakened from his illness and yet, Reb Nochum's concentration did not waver and the shiur continued while all the time he tried to rid himself of the fly. The talmidim were themselves now unable to concentrate, so upset were they by Reb Nochum's discomfort yet they knew he would not appreciate their help.
Once after shacharis, Reb Nochum started the slow, painful descent from the beis hamedrash to his house, two flights below, and on reaching his front door he suddenly exclaimed that he had left his tallis upstairs. The bochur who heard him immediately started to go upstairs to fetch it but Reb Nochum would not hear of it and began to climb up again himself in order to fetch the tallis.
When Rebbi Eliezer was ill, Rebbi Tarfon, Rebbi Yehoshua, Rebbi Elozor Ben Azaryah and Rebbi Akiva came to visit him. The first three comforted Rebbi Eliezer, comparing him to the rain, the sun and a person's parents in his indispensability to Klal Yisroel whereas Rebbi Akiva said simply, "Chavivin Yissurim" translated as "beloved are afflictions."
While it can be understood that Rebbi Akiva wanted to comfort Rebbi Eliezer by letting him know that his suffering was valuable, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz said that Rebbi Akiva's message was that Rebbi Eliezer was actually serving as a teacher even though he was unable to teach Torah as he used to. He was teaching how to accept suffering.
We can add that while in teaching Torah, the Rebbi gives over the Torah which he has learned to his talmidim, when he suffers like Reb Nochum did, he gives over his very essence as he becomes revealed to the talmidim helpless, and suffering. It is then that they can see the ennobling effect the Torah has on man. Reb Nochum whose life was permeated with Torah, was cleansed and refined by it and in his suffering the full greatness of his character could be seen.