HaRav Shraga Grossbard
He parted in Europe from his elder brother HaRav Tzvi Shraga (who later became the head of Chinuch Atzmai in Israel), early on in the war, in 5701 (1941). HaRav Shraga travelled to Eretz Yisroel while HaRav Nochum Abba joined his rebbe, Reb Chatzkel, their father's boyhood friend from Kelm. He escaped Europe via the East, spending the remaining years of the war in Shanghai as part of the Mir Yeshiva.
Arriving in the United States in 5707, he immediately joined the staff of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva. His success in kindling the flame of devotion to Torah within his young native American charges was phenomenal. Many respected talmidei chachamim and laymen in America are his talmidim and they attribute their attainments to the firm spiritual foundations laid by HaRav Nochum Abba.
Despite his yearning to leave America and settle in Eretz Yisroel, the gedolim of the time—the Chazon Ish, the Brisker Rov and his own rebbe, Reb Chatzkel—found no way of permitting him to desert a position where he was achieving so much. Despite his undoubted skills as an educator though, when, due to pressing family considerations, he finally made aliya in 5720 (1960), he resolved never to accept any teaching position. He resumed his place at the feet of Reb Chatzkel, who served as the mashgiach of Ponovezh.
After Reb Chatzkel's petiroh in 5734 he was widely regarded as having filled his teacher's spiritual, if not official position. While he delivered mussar shmuessen, he held no position, living an (outwardly) quiet and unassuming life in Bnei Brak.
His deep, unswerving faith and his intuitive, unquestioning trust in Hashem, his respect for his fellow man and his consideration for the needs and feelings of others, his dedication to avodas Hashem and his sacrifices for mitzva observance were apparent to all who saw him.
While he was never a recluse, he ultimately remained a nistar, building his own inner world while keeping the true extent of his greatness hidden from those around him.
If one all-encompassing aspect of his character had to be pointed out, it would be his emunah. While externally he lived the kind of life that countless others lead, supporting himself and raising a family, one just had to catch a glimpse of him to see that he walked every step of the way hand-in-hand with the Ribono Shel Olom.
As a preface to the above mentioned shmuess, Reb Chatzkel Levenstein told his listeners that earlier on that day, one of the talmidim had asked him why he always spoke at such length about strengthening emunah, when Hashem's existence could be readily inferred from contemplating the world. Klal Yisroel especially, are known as "Ma'aminim bnei ma'aminim."
The truth is though, Reb Chatzkel said, that we are very mistaken in our understanding of the essence of emunah. We imagine that the ideas absorbed by a school child on this subject can be termed emunah but it is not so. True emunah has far-reaching practical consequences. It is inseparable from yiras shomayim. Any emunah that does not engender yiras shomayim, is not emunah.
Later on in the shmuess, Reb Chatzkel pointed out that it is clear that the Torah intends the emunah of Klal Yisroel to be real and tangible. For that reason, Hashem commanded that the flask be preserved so that the miracle of the mann could actually be seen, apprehended by the physical senses.
As long as one's emunah remains a piece of theoretical knowledge, even if it exerts a degree of influence, one is nevertheless close to attributing everything to "my strength and the might of my hand," i.e. a power which is within oneself. Such a man is ruled by his desires. Only when one orders his life according to the tangible faith in Hashem's miraculous control of the world can he be called a ma'amin.
In this first part of our appreciation of HaRav Nochum Abba's life, we will attempt to evaluate this basic trait of his and to show how it was reflected in many different aspects of his life. At the same time we must bear in mind the practical lessons which we can derive from him, thus incorporating the lessons of the flask of mann in our own lives.
Standing Before The King
If we imagine ourselves standing before a mortal ruler, begging him to grant us the things we need while our young child tries to climb all over us, what would our reaction be? If we picture the scene accurately, we realize that to turn from the king in order to reprimand the child is disrespectful. For the duration of the royal audience, all our attention must be given to the King.
So it was when one of Reb Nochum Abba's young sons got into the habit of climbing on his father and hanging onto his shoulders while he stood saying the Amidah. Reb Nochum Abba just continued his prayer without budging, standing erect, his hands clasped over his heart, as prescribed by halacha. His neighbors during tefillah noted however, that despite his being completely absorbed in prayer, he always made sure that his young children prayed whatever they could and did not disturb the other mispallelim.
The degree of closeness to Hashem that he achieved is apparent from the fact that throughout the year, crying and weeping often accompanied his prayers. How much more was this the case during the Yomim Noraim when he cried all the time. His yearning for Hashem was so great that on Tisha B'Av, he literally dissolved in tears, as one of his neighbors in the beis hamedrash expressed it.
No external circumstances could divert Reb Nochum Abba's mind from his audience with the King. Someone who saw him just once, during his years in America, while vacationing in the mountains, later described the tremendous impression that seeing Reb Nochum Abba's tefillah made on him. Here was a Jew who prayed in a holiday resort with the same concentration that others (perhaps) prayed with year round in their usual surroundings.
When travelling by airplane, he used to ask the stewardess to vacate the kitchen area so that he could pray there. His shacharis there took him the same hour and a half that it took him every day in Ponovezh Yeshiva. However pressured or unsettling the surroundings, his tefillah was always the same.
The King was the same, so of course, the tefillah was too. In fact, if he felt any disturbance of his concentration, he regarded it as a sign from Shomayim that he was at fault somewhere and he would examine his actions to try to find out what was wrong.
The Alter of Kelm taught that tefillah is given to us in order to enable us to strengthen our realization of our total dependence on Hashem for everything we have. Because it is human nature to ascribe our achievements to our own powers, much hard work is necessary to reach the stage of seeing the truth. This is why tefillah is called service: "avoda shebelev".
Reb Chatzkel pointed out that this is what the Kuzari (3:3) means when he writes that each tefillah nourishes the soul until it is time to pray again. Without first praying shacharis, said Reb Chatzkel, when we eat the morning meal, we would be attributing our food and the strength it gives us to our own actions thus, chas vesholom, denying Hashem's role.
We can thus gain an understanding of the derivation of the halacha that eating before tefillah is forbidden. Chazal (Brochos 10) learned this from the posuk, "lo sochlu al hadom," explaining that one of its meanings is: "You shall not eat until you have prayed for your blood (i.e. your lives)."
Another source for the halacha brought by the gemora is the posuk, (Melachim I, 14:9), "and you have cast me behind you." After a man has eaten and drunk, he grows proud and cannot properly accept the yoke of Hashem's rule. Only by prefacing eating and other mundane activities with the acknowledgement that we are totally dependent on Hashem can we hope to retain the correct perspective on the meaning of our lives.
The extent to which Reb Nochum Abba took this was astonishing. Tefillah came before absolutely anything else. He used to rise early, between four-thirty and five o'clock, in order to begin preparing for shacharis. Even if something fell down on the floor or needed to be tidied, it would remain as it was until after the tefillah.
He did not talk at all before tefillah. When he had to wake his sons, he did so in silence. If he had to communicate something, he did it through gestures. Even though halacha permits drinking before shacharis, Reb Nochum Abba would not even have a drink of water. Towards the end of his life, when he was ill, he was still very loath to drink. When he had to, he would drink tea but made a point of not taking any sugar.
Even when he wasn't standing before the King, Reb Nochum Abba's awareness of His presence never lessened. It was evident in his speech. For example, he would never say, "I will go..." or "Ploni arranged..." and so on, attributing the cause to human efforts. It was always, "If Hashem wills it..." and "It worked out that..." He wouldn't refer to things as "mine." Rather it was always, "Hashem gave this."
He discerned Hashem's hand in normal, everyday situations. He would often announce, "Today I saw hashgacha pratis," and proceed to describe how he had needed to meet ploni and had suddenly met him, or some such similar story. He would always recount what had happened to him in such a way as to stress the direct workings of Hashem's Providence and leave out the "role" of any intermediary.
At one point, he was so bothered by the way even the religious newspaper presented stories, writing as if all power rested with governments and politicians, that he cancelled his subscription. He felt that occupation with the concerns of this world and reading about them when Hashem's name is not mentioned, has a degree of heresy about it and encouraged the feeling of "my strength and the might of my hand." He bitterly regretted the fact that Hashem's name was not incorporated into every item.
His reaction to something as commonplace as a broken cup was to call his wife and discuss with her what sin could have been the real cause of the mishap. If something happened that affected all the members of the household, he would examine the conduct of the family as a whole. When everyone was sitting together at the Shabbos table he would mention the mishap and offer encouragement in an area which he felt needed strengthening. If he felt it was really important, he would even summon the family specially, during the week.
His response to misfortune was always to give tzedaka and to search out the spiritual shortcoming. If one of the family had narrowly escaped injury, in addition to the above, he would also say the special "Mizmor Lesodah" at the end of the Chayei Odom for the duration of the ensuing month.
When the family sat shiva after the death of a young daughter, he would repeat to every visitor the Rambam's words in Hilchos Oveil, 13:12, "...he should be afraid and worried and should examine his deeds and do teshuva."
The only question which bothered him was: what did Hashem want from him? He dismissed the serious concern voiced by some that the doctors had been to blame for the tragedy. What difference did it make, he argued, who the messenger had been for the Divine decree?
He saw evidence of, and praised, Hashem's wisdom, in everything around him. He used to walk every day past an empty lot on Rechov Yismach Moshe in Bnei Brak. When the winter began and the land had received a few heavy rainfalls, it became carpeted in green in a very short time. Reb Nochum Abba marveled at how Hashem had transformed empty land into greenery.
This sight inspired him to deliver a very deep shmuess in which he discussed the incredible powers that are contained in a simple lump of earth. The same vast potential for growth, through which plants can spring up without any seeds having been sown there previously, can also enable a rock to produce drinking water or make vinegar burn like oil. It is the lifeless earth that contains the potential, the seed being merely an instrument to bring about the growth. In the simple sprouting of a plant, the earth obeys Hashem's will and so can any other substance.
The famous words of the Ramban at the end of parshas Bo, were continually on his lips. "The High G-d has no desire in the lower world, other than that man should know and thank his G-d who created him...for one has no portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabbenu until he believes that all our affairs and occurrences are miracles. Not one of them can be ascribed to nature or the way of the world, neither the experiences of an individual, nor of a whole community..."
He lived his entire life with the tendency to see straight through all forms of intervention, perceiving Hashem to be the only true cause. Everything was therefore a miracle.
His perfect trust sprang from this trait. While we do have an obligation to conduct ourselves according to the natural order of things, this is so that the world should not seem to be run with open miracles. This obligation could really be met with the very minimum of human endeavor. To do more is to strengthen the illusion of independent human power and lessen the recognition of the true source of all things.
In this light, he would explain the fact that when Yaakov Ovinu lay down to sleep, the posuk tells us that he placed stones only around his head. Rashi says that their purpose was to protect him from wild animals but this seems strange for if the stones were low enough for him to put his head on, couldn't a tall animal reach over them? And even if his head was protected, wasn't the rest of his body exposed?
Obviously, answered Reb Nochum Abba, Yaakov Ovinu felt secure enough in his awareness of Hashem's presence to lie down to sleep without any protection at all. In order that his safety should not be a miracle, however, he had to perform some minimal endeavor. This was characteristic of all the ovos, Reb Nochum Abba continued, summing this idea up in the pithy remark that our task is "to hold onto the ways of nature and to annul them."
"For I, Hashem, Am Your Doctor"
Nowhere was Reb Nochum Abba's minimizing of endeavor (hishtadlus), more striking than in his attitude to doctors and medicines. In his later years, he had been ordered to have a monthly blood test. Once, when his son suggested that they go for the test, whose time was due, Reb Nochum Abba refused. He explained, "The test itself is worthless but I am nevertheless obliged to do it. Last time however, there was a female nurse instead of the male nurse who usually does it. My obligation certainly doesn't extend that far!"
Reb Nochum Abba hardly ever sought the advice of doctors, neither for himself, nor for his family. His son recalls that throughout the years that the children were growing up, they never visited the doctor. Three medicines were kept in the house. These were Aspirin, Vicks, a rubefacient (warming) ointment, and "ND," an antiseptic cream. All minor illnesses and injuries were successfully treated—that is, as far as hishtadlus is concerned—with one or another of these remedies. Their father always stressed that these were not the true answer to illness. The children were taught that the main thing was to pray to Hashem for recovery.
In cases of more severe illness, Reb Nochum Abba prescribed giving some tzedaka or even accepting upon oneself some righteous conduct in addition of course, to tefillah. All the time, he stressed that the only Hashem could restore health. If somebody asked him for instance, why his hand was swollen, he would retort, "Why? It's min haShomayim!"
He also pointed out that the short yehi ratzon prayer that is said before taking medicine, doesn't ask that the "terufah," the medicine should heal. Rather, the word "eisek," involvement, is used. It is not the intrinsic value of the medicine that we pray should work but the general "involvement," the fulfillment of our obligation to make hishtadlus.
Only when he became sick towards the end of his life, were medicines prescribed for him. Even then, he only agreed to take them after prolonged efforts on the part of his family. Several times a day, he had to overcome his strong opposition and swallow the tablets. Whenever he had to take medication because he was unable to refuse his family's entreaties, he would make a point of saying the "yehi ratzon" lest he himself start to regard the tablets as possessing some power.
Not only did Reb Nochum Abba refrain from visiting doctors, he didn't even register his family with Kupat Cholim and, as one of his sons recalls, the fact is that for many years none of the family ever needed it; for a large family with many young children, this is miraculous in itself.
One of his brothers strongly opposed this practice, arguing that it was necessary because of the young children. Reb Nochum Abba replied that certainly, if a person is sick, a doctor should be consulted but as long as everyone is well, no hishtadlus in the direction of the doctor's clinic was required. He quoted the Ramban's famous words, "What business do doctors have in the houses of servants of Hashem?"
When his daughter fell ill, however, he had to register. Within that year, several of the children needed hospitalization and he himself fell ill. When he praised Hashem for having sent the illnesses only after he had arranged for health care, one of his sons pointed out that perhaps the illnesses had been the result of their having joined Kupat Cholim. Reb Nochum Abba nodded and said, "Perhaps that's the truth."
Bitachon And Hishtadlus
As he was with regard to medicines, so he was in all other areas of life. He trusted in Hashem and never sought more than what Hashem prepared for him. He arrived in Eretz Yisroel having resolved not to accept any position. Thus it was that he turned down a number of posts that were offered to him. While there were doubtless other good reasons he had for making this choice, the fact remains that by doing so, he was giving up the chance to earn a regular salary.
Consequently, he made his minimal hishtadlus for his livelihood and saw with his own eyes, how Hashem provided for him. He would often make remarks to the effect that he could see how he was being fed from Shomayim by spoon, or, that he felt that the mann arrived right to his doorstep. The family lived modestly and never sought more than Hashem provided. The correct amount of hishtadlus was a frequent topic of discussion between Reb Nochum Abba and his teacher Reb Chatzkel.
At this point we may well be wondering whether the levels of trust that we have been describing have any practical bearing on our own lives. One can, and must, always work on strengthening one's bitachon but can one change one's level?
To make the question clearer, let us say straight away that for the vast majority of readers, it would be quite wrong to relate to medicine and doctors like Reb Nochum Abba did. What for Reb Nochum Abba was quite sufficient hishtadlus, would for us, amount to relying on miracles.
End of Part I