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14 Kislev, 5783 - December 8, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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"Keser Torah" —- HaGaon HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l The Thirtieth Yahrtzeit

By Yisroel Gellis, Shalom Meir and Moshe Musman


This extended appreciation of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt"l was first published in 1992. We are republishing it now for the 60th yahrtzeit, and also to make it available on the web.

For Part II of this series click here.

For Part IV of this series click here.

In this third part of our series, we come to Lakewood Yeshiva, the institution through which Reb Aharon wrought a virtual revolution in the American Jewish public's appreciation of the importance of Torah study, and in the status of those who devote themselves to Torah learning.

Again and again, Reb Aharon spoke about how the lomdei Torah are the heart of the nation, from whence sustenance flows to the rest of the body. Even those who have strayed far from Torah nonetheless rely for whatever spiritual existence they have on the centers of Torah learning.

While the community certainly needs trained rabbis, shochtim and teachers, Reb Aharon explained that they were not enough to ensure the survival of American Jewry or any other group of world Jewry. Neither did the answer lie in building magnificent synagogues or multimillion dollar charitable institutions. Tefillah and gemilus chassadim are, by themselves, unable to serve as a foundation for the development of future generations without the third pillar of Torah study.

Of all the dangers which face us, said Reb Aharon, shic'chas haTorah, the abandonment of Torah, is the gravest, for it paves the way to all other misfortunes. The Jewish nation's existence is guaranteed only by strong centers of learning, where Torah is learned lishmoh: in other words, with no other purpose than excellence in Torah.

The novelty was not in the message. Reb Aharon himself applied the observation of Mesillas Yeshorim that the most straightforward and universally accepted truths are also the most ignored. The job at hand was to muster the support to make the message a reality.

For financial support, Reb Aharon turned to the orthodox laity, impressing them with the necessity of supporting a project of this nature. He also had to work to guide the young students who came to learn from him, stressing their role as the "shevet Levi" of the nation, according to the Rambam's definition (at the end of Hilchos Shemittah Veyovel).

Whereas the Rosh Yeshiva came from a world where Torah values were the only yardstick used for anything, his pupils had been raised in pragmatic, money-conscious America where material success took a high priority.

Today, almost fifty years after Beth Medrash Govoha first opened its doors, the path from yeshiva to kollel has become materially easier to follow and is trodden by relatively large numbers of talmidim. In the early days, it took very special determination to turn away from a career and financial security, putting trust only in Hashem to provide the needs of His servants. In addition to encouraging his talmidim to give spiritual goals priority over material ones, Reb Aharon spoke of the vast, boundless treasures that were within the reach of those who were inspired to strive for them.

This is the theme of the third part of the shmuess, "Kisroh Shel Torah": through complete dedication to Torah, — and stretching one's potential to its limit — a person's horizons become wider and the capacity for spiritual growth becomes greater and greater.


Part Three: Wide Vessels

They also said: [Sukkah 46.] "Come and see that Hashem's ways are not the same as those of human beings: with humans, an empty vessel can receive more, but a full one cannot. Hashem's way is that a full vessel can receive whereas an empty one cannot."

The meaning of this is that through Torah, the soul becomes filled and a person in reality becomes renewed, with a nefesh yeseira, an enlarged soul — for the soul is capable of growing wider and larger and of receiving more. Just as the growth process of a child's body takes place by the physical addition of new material, so it is with Torah and mitzvos.

In a certain respect, the proper fulfillment of the mitzvos does not act simply as an external influence on a person. Rather, the mitzvos are the very being, the material of the soul. With constant new mitzvos, the soul is like a full vessel which receives as new life is added to it — it becomes renewed and capable of receiving more and more. Conversely too, an empty vessel cannot receive, for the soul has shrunk and become smaller like something that has dried up and shriveled and is unable to receive and hold anything.

Similarly, the posuk, "widen your mouth and I will fill it," (which the gemora [Brochos 50.] says refers to divrei Torah), can also be understood in this fashion. Although the explanation given in that gemora is slightly different (i.e. to ask repeatedly for ever higher levels of attainment of knowledge and achievement, and to turn to Hashem begging Him to grant this, to weary oneself in striving for greatness and to dedicate oneself to it, so that "widen your mouth" refers to a person's multitude of prayers), the posuk can nevertheless be explained as above. A person should widen his capability to receive until he is "full," then, after he is filled, his soul is renewed with yet further capability to receive more and more. "Your mouth," according to our explanation is understood according to the gemora [Eruvin 54.] "for they [divrei Torah] are life to those who speak them out".

The Beginning

In America during the second World War, Reb Aharon was approached by a group of bochurim who had learned in European yeshivos before the war and who now asked him to head a small kollel. He agreed, with two stipulations: one, that the kollel would be situated out of town, away from the city atmosphere which was the antithesis of the values it would be promoting, and two, that the kollel be run according to Reb Aharon's philosophy, namely, complete dedication to Torah, and only Torah. There would be no limit to the length of stay and no "graduation."

This was in contrast to the few existing yeshivos in America at that time, where the day was divided between Torah study and secular pursuits and the botei medrash were empty during the afternoons. In Beth Hamedrash Govoha, Torah would be studied from early morning until late at night.

Naturally, there was opposition. Young men to sit and learn, marry, and then continue to sit and learn?! To what end? — asked the rank and file. Where was the tachlis?

The Rosh Yeshiva met the challenge head on. Certainly, he agreed, some of his talmidim would become rabbonim, however his purpose was not to train rabbonim. Others would surely become roshei yeshiva, but neither was it his intention to produce roshei yeshiva. The principle on which Beth Hamedrash Govoha had been founded was, purely and simply, learning for the sake of learning — toil in Torah with no other end than to grow great in Torah.

"I'll give you any sum of money you ask for, just give me back my son!" was the impassioned plea of one rabbi whose son was learning in Lakewood. Needless to say, his son remained on in Lakewood. Today he is a venerated rosh yeshiva in America and his own sons are all talmidei chachomim — to their grandfather's joy. Today, that is. Then, Reb Aharon was not understood. The derisive term "Kotlerism" was coined as a nickname for his "extreme" policies.

And the truth was that, in terms of dollars and cents, it didn't add up. For lack of funds, the yeshiva was only able to give avreichim a monthly stipend of one hundred and sixty dollars with which to provide for their families, and at times it was not possible to give even this. While this did not disturb the learning — the Rosh Yeshiva asserted that an avreich was simply a yeshiva bochur draped in a tallis as the responsibility of both was to devote themselves completely to learning — the debts nevertheless mounted. Still, nobody thought of leaving or of looking for a position. In the words of a talmid from those days, "We keenly felt that to lose the connection to the yeshiva and its leader would be to sever our lifeline."

How then, did they manage? Here are some recollections of one of the first talmidim: "A bochur would get married, and would be given wedding presents — as is customary. When sheva brochos were over, he would divide up the amount he had received among the avreichim. The money was to be used for covering their debts. From then on, he himself began to run up debts, which were covered after the next wedding...

"The avreichim were members of a health insurance scheme. I was healthy, boruch Hashem and I decided to set aside the monthly fee of three dollars and forty-three cents to be used as a gemach. Part of my wife's dowry was a green copper box which was useless — I gave it a use. I put the money inside and any avreich who needed to borrow would come and take as much as he needed, for as long as he needed, leaving behind a note. When he returned the money, he took back the note.

"That box was an institution of its own. It is easy to work out what kind of sums mounted up in it from just three dollars forty-three but the amazing thing was that there were even notes inside for sixteen cents — the price of a loaf of bread!"

Learning continued in Lakewood then, even when the money to buy bread was lacking. How right Reb Aharon was when he proclaimed that in his yeshiva, the talmidim would learn with the sole ambition of growing great in Torah!

The Rosh Yeshiva would stress that the truth which the Torah reveals to us is exactly the reverse of the ordinary person's grasp of things. The phenomenon of the mann, which sustained an entire nation for forty years, is recorded in the pesukim together with all the obvious miracles that accompanied its dispersal, collection and preservation as a lesson for all the later generations that sustenance and livelihood do not belong to any natural order and are in fact miracles which are performed for each individual according to his own level.

The amount of bounty bestowed by Hashem is in direct proportion to the degree of trust which man places in Him [Yirmiyahu 17:5-7]. The true meaning of bitachon, which is the purpose of the creation and without which true unity with Torah is impossible, is the awareness that we are dependant for every moment of our existence, on Hashem's bounty and subject to His supervision. Living each moment with this awareness automatically brings trust for the future.

The foundation of Torah learning itself also had to be bitachon, Reb Aharon explained, for Chazal point out that the Torah was only given to the generation that ate mann and existed on the highest levels of bitachon. There is first of all the obvious need for trust that material necessities will be provided, as a condition for the peace of mind to sit and learn. Besides this, there must be bitachon in the success of one's spiritual endeavors, [see "Chovos Halevovos"] for after all, a person's preparations and efforts, wisdom and attainments in Torah come directly from Hashem [Mishlei 2:6, Niddah 71.]. The bounty of wisdom and true understanding of Torah depend on closeness to Hashem, which depends on the degree of bitachon which one attains.

Three Reasons

The orthodox community of Lakewood supported a Jewish day school. For financial reasons, classes were mixed for the youngest children. Reb Aharon demanded that the boys and girls be separated. He was told that this would mean doubling the schools budget, and the funds were simply not available.

"Nonsense," he retorted disdainfully with a wave of his hand. "The world is full of money. `Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold, says Hashem.' But what? There is a divine decree that for Torah, one has to toil. What you lack is not money but willpower and toil."

This then, is the first reason Reb Aharon advanced for the financial plight of Torah institutions; a divine decree that the support of Torah also requires hard work, just as learning Torah does.

On another occasion Reb Aharon explained that while Hashem could certainly provide limitless money for the yeshivos, were He to do so, the roshei yeshiva would no longer travel from community to community and from donor to donor and the ordinary Jews would miss hearing the Torah's praises and greatness of which their guests were wont to speak.

Similarly, Reb Aharon pointed out, while the Torah commands us to erect signposts showing the way to the cities of refuge, we find no commandment to do the same for those going up to Yerushalaim for the festivals.

He would explain that this is because it is fitting that a murderer run to the city of refuge without any delay whatsoever, not stopping to ask directions and tell people what he has done. The less the world hears about murders the better.

On the other hand, it is very desirable that groups making their way to Yerushalaim stop at every crossroads to ask their way, thus publicizing the performance of the mitzvah of aliya la'regel. The emissaries of the Torah institutions spread the awareness that Jews are sitting and learning and are mekadesh Shem Shomayim.

On another occasion, after a day of driving around to solicit funds and returning with a mere five dollars, Reb Aharon had a very different explanation for the lot of the roshei yeshiva (it is reasonable to suppose that he held that either one reason or the other was always valid, depending upon the success of the trip).

It was, Reb Aharon said, virtually impossible for a rosh yeshiva to completely avoid hurting the feelings of his talmidim in the course of teaching them. Hurting another, even unintentionally, is akin to murder and the penalty imposed by the Torah for accidental murder is exile to a city of refuge. The suffering of travelling from place to place to raise funds, a form of exile, is the atonement for damaging another's feelings.

The great esteem Reb Aharon had for his fellow man is clearly evident from this reply. If the rosh yeshiva was brusque in his rejection of crooked ideas, he was only obeying chazal's injunction to "throw gall upon the talmidim." It was really an expression of his love for them and his great longing to see them succeed. His low tolerance for perversions of the truth was a measure of how much his very life was bound to the Torah of truth. Nevertheless, none of this changed the fact that when he had been the cause of another's wounded feelings, he needed a kaporoh.

Weekends In Lakewood

After spending the middle of each week on the road, Reb Aharon would return to the yeshiva on Thursday afternoon. The week's learning in the yeshiva centered around the shiur on Shabbos.

On Thursday night the mar'ei mekomos were posted. On Friday, there was preparation and on Shabbos the shiur was delivered. On Sunday there was review: parts of the shiur were understood while other parts needed further clarification. These were noted, in readiness for the repetition of the shiur on Monday. In between all this, the Rosh Yeshiva would talk with talmidim in learning, answer questions and deliver a chabura on Kodshim to the kollel.

At the end of a week's learning, the appearance of the Rosh Yeshiva, visible to all through the glass doors of his room as he sat and learned, infused new life into the yeshiva. When Reb Aharon got up to come and fetch a sefer, and glanced around the beis hamedrash, an electric current went through everybody.

On Friday afternoon Reb Aharon was in the beis hamedrash for seder and attendance was full. At the Shabbos meals, which he ate with the bochurim, Reb Aharon spoke divrei Torah and on Shabbos, he gave his shiur. The weekends were the strongest, not the weakest part of the week.

One talmid tells the following story of the Shabbos of his bar mitzvah which was held in the yeshiva. His brother-in-law, blessed with a large family in need of support had, upon the advice of gedolei Torah, had devoted his evenings to the study of accounting and had attained the highest qualification. He was now managing to combine learning Torah with a livelihood.

Arriving in Lakewood for the bar mitzvah, he had his first taste of the yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva. He witnessed the seder on Friday, saw the Shabbos meals, listened to the shiur and watched the chazoroh. Finally, he announced, "I am staying here!"

And so he did. Today, he is one of the senior avreichim in Lakewood.

Rav Ezra Novick recalls the time he asked the Rosh Yeshiva for permission to travel home for Shabbos Chanukah. Every such request was submitted to the Rosh Yeshiva first. To travel without permission was just not done. Trembling, he entered the Rosh Yeshiva's room.

The Rosh Yeshiva fixed the young Rav Novick with his gaze. "To travel away from yeshiva? But there is a shiur!"

That was that. Not another word was necessary. Rav Novick took a step towards the door but the Rosh Yeshiva had something to add.

"You should know," he said, "that in terms of shteiging, the shiur is worth ten blatt of gemora!"

When Rav Novick came to take his leave of Reb Aharon before departing for Eretz Yisroel, the Rosh Yeshiva reacted to the news in astonishment. "Away from the yeshiva?" he asked incredulously.

Rav Novick explained that the rest of his family were making the move and that he was accompanying them. Reb Aharon retorted with a smile, "Nu, so if your family is making aliya, you can be goleh lemekom Torah and stay here!"

Reb Aharon inspired and directed his talmidim to devotion to Torah, to continually enlarge their capacity for growth and to strive for higher and higher levels. There was no upper limit but a talmid should have command of at least three areas, he said: proficiency in Shas, the ability to compose chidushim and to formulate replies to questions in halacha.

This then, was the early Lakewood: a closely-knit group of talmidim, bound to their rebbe and his Torah. To leave, even for a short while, represented an irreparable loss and was to be separated from the life-giving source.

HaGaon HaRav Yosef Chaim Shneur Kotler zt'l

The plain white walls and curtains of the hospital room where Reb Aharon Kotler lay critically ill, seemed to mirror the silence and the cold fear which gripped the group of close acquaintances that had just entered. They stopped at a small distance from the bed. At the foot of the bed stood Reb Shneur, the Rosh Yeshiva's only son, while on the other side, stood the cardiac specialist, his eyes riveted to the machine that registered the heartbeat of the godol hador.

To the sound of the whispered tefillos for mercy, the doctor removed the equipment from the pure body on the bed, while saying softly in Reb Shneur's ear, "Rebbe, macht a brocho."

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who was present at the time, recalled this occasion some twenty years later, when Reb Shneur was niftar:

"At that very moment, all those present in the room felt that the man in front of us was not merely Reb Aharon's only son and natural successor, but also the one who would continue Reb Aharon's path and carry the full load of Reb Aharon's legacy. His stature gave him the power to stand at the helm of this great inheritance and lead it in overcoming all the obstacles in its path, to continue to its support and add to it, extending its holy boundaries across the length and breadth of the globe."

Reb Shneur was born in Slutsk, Lithuania, where his father Reb Aharon taught in Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, which was led by his grandfather HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer. At the tender age of two-and-a-half he was sent to Kletsk by his father who feared that because of the Bolshevik persecution of religion, there may be no cheder for him to attend in Slutsk.

Shortly afterward the family was reunited, as Reb Aharon himself crossed the Polish border into Kletsk with most of the yeshiva's students. Pressures on Slutsk's chadorim and yeshivos intensified. Eventually, Reb Isser Zalman joined his son and grandson, but he left Europe to head the Eitz Chaim Yeshiva in Yerushalaim while Reb Shneur remained with his father in Kletsk.

When he was about twenty years old, Reb Aharon sent him to Kamenetz, to his own rebbe, Reb Boruch Ber with whom Reb Shneur also developed a close relationship.

In 1941, the yeshiva in Kletsk was forced to close. While Reb Aharon himself travelled to the United states, he sent Reb Shneur to his grandfather in Yerushalaim, where he spent the next five years. Reb Shneur learned with his grandfather and had the opportunity to meet and get to know the best talmidim of the yeshivos in Yerushalaim who frequented Reb Isser Zalman's home. He also became a member of the group before whom the Brisker Rov, with whom he also became closely acquainted, said his shiur.

Thus, points out HaRav Eliezer Schwartzman, Reb Shneur's nephew who heads the Yerushalaim branch of Beth Hamedrash Govoha, Reb Shneur was a talmid of three of the greatest pupils of Reb Chaim Brisker, whose teachings and outlook served as his beacon during his years of leadership.

At the end of the War, Reb Shneur returned to his father's house both as a talmid and aid to Reb Aharon in his work. He married the daughter of HaRav Aryeh Malkiel Friedman, an outstanding mussar personality who, according to a family tradition, was blessed by the Chofetz Chaim to have gedolei Torah for his sons-in-law.

At Reb Aharon's funeral, in the middle of eulogizing the Rosh Yeshiva, Irving Bunim read out a message that had been received from Yerushalaim stating that at a meeting of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and roshei yeshiva of Eretz Yisroel, it had been decided that Reb Shneur was to succeed his father as rosh yeshiva of Lakewood.

As Rabbi Sherer noted, Reb Shneur shouldered the full burden of Reb Aharon's klal responsibilities, becoming a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and working for Chinuch Atzmai and Torah UMesorah besides his leadership of Beth Hamedrash Govoha. While unquestionably only somebody great in his own right could possibly have undertaken all that Reb Aharon did, to regard Reb Shneur merely as his father's replacement is to underestimate the immense personal contribution he made independently.

The size of the yeshiva increased dramatically, from one hundred and forty to some thousand talmidim, during the two decades under Reb Shneur. The Rosh Yeshiva despatched avreichim to open kollelim across the United States and beyond, and moved to establish some dozen yeshiva high schools and yeshivos gedolos.

His efforts to expand the yeshiva and its network of institutions went hand in hand with the utmost devotion to the individual needs of his talmidim. Reb Shneur's constant exhortations to raise ambitions, to strive for ever higher achievements, the stress he always laid on controlling the tongue and the example he set with his own refined speech, the sense of responsibility for the klal that he demanded of others and exemplified himself, and his call for harmonious cooperation of all the different segments of klal Yisroel all deserve fuller consideration than can be given them here.

"He never required of anyone else what he did not require of, and fulfill, himself. He demanded only that others should attempt to reach the heights on which he stood and further their gaze towards the vistas that were within his range." So writes his son HaRav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, now rosh yeshiva of Lakewood. "With his natural warmth, straightforward ways and pleasant speech, he broke down barriers of estrangement and knew how to find paths to the heart of every individual."

Reb Shneur's manifold activities and responsibilities kept him from investigating the severe pains which began to visit him some time before his illness became apparent. With tremendous effort, he continued to labor in Torah and deliver shiurim when already very sick. In the last days and weeks of his life he still attended meetings of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and took part in other gatherings for strengthening the klal and the yeshiva. Reb Shneur was niftar on the 3rd of Tammuz 5742.

HaRav Meir Kotler zt'l: A Personal Recollection

by Yisroel Gellis

When writing about the gaon Reb Aharon zt'l, it is impossible to ignore the opportunity to write a few lines about his beloved grandson Reb Meir zt'l who was taken from us when he was twenty-six years old, on shevi'i shel Pesach, 5739 and who was buried next to his grandfather's grave on Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalaim.

I came to know Reb Meir in the Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalaim, where he was one of the top students. Outstanding in Torah and possessing unusual abilities, all his time was devoted to learning with extreme diligence and without respite, while at the same time he was beloved by all, radiating life and continuing in the glorious tradition of his distinguished family.

I remember that one evening we were sitting and discussing the Torah connection between the yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel and those in the diaspora on their ways of learning gemora and their approach to the sugya. At the time the yeshiva was learning the topic of "gude oh agud" [a complex subject in the first perek of Bava Basra dealing with the rights of partners wishing to dissolve their partnership] and together, we reviewed the chidushim that had been said on this matter in Lakewood Yeshiva.

Around two o'clock in the morning I made my way home — my house was situated just a short distance from the yeshiva. Those were the times of the demonstrations against autopsies and it was during the small hours of the night that the bill posters would go out to post their protests on the walls. As I went innocently on my way I was stopped by detectives of the Yerushalaim police force who unceremoniously hauled me off to the Russian Compound on the charge that I had been pasting up posters.

"You are allowed to make one phone call only — to wherever you like — to let them know you are here," the officer in charge said to me.

Without a choice, I dialed the number of the public telephone in the yeshiva and asked them to call Meir Kotler. I told him that I had been taken into custody and, without me saying a word, a mere ten minutes later, he was in the detainment room with me. He said, "As it looks like we'll sit here until the morning, let's continue our discussion of the sugya." And that was what we did, until morning when I was released for the obvious lack of proof.

With his wisdom and understanding, his noble character and the wide Torah knowledge he had acquired, everybody had predicted a shining future in the Torah world for him but, to the heartbreak of all his friends and acquaintances, he was claimed by the cruel illness from which he suffered for two years and never recovered. In spite of his illness, he did not lose his enjoyment of life or sink into depression. He accepted his suffering with love and heroism.


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