Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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21 Cheshvan 5762 - November 7, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Rabbeinu Hagodol Ztvk'l
By Nosson Zeev Grossma

The pen is inadequate, especially at these difficult hours of piercing pain and confusion, due to the terrible tragedy comparable to the Bais Hamikdosh burning. However, we must at least try to put into words, for the sake of future generations, a small part of the shining image of Rabbeinu Hagodol ztvk'l.

The following words are therefore a first draft, woefully inadequate in depth and breadth, in the short time allotted to put something to paper -- with a pen soaked with tears.

Prince of Torah

Any attempt to express the koach haTorah of Rabbeinu with words such as shkeidoh, hasmodoh and the like, can not do justice. Rabbeinu Hagodol ztvk'l was a precious expression of toiling in Torah and ahavas haTorah -- from childhood through old age. In his youth, he fulfilled the dictum of "exile yourself to a place of Torah." When the world was raging he ignored everything around him and cleaved to Torah despite poverty and want. And so for many decades to come, he learned Torah in every and any situation, fulfilling "the Torah I learned during [Hashem's] anger, that stood for me."

His command of all the Torah's treasures, which was never superficial knowledge but rather from delving deep -- whether a difficult sugya, a halocho in Rambam or a posuk in Chumash Bereishis -- was a symbol and example of "yogato umotzoso," of ameilus in Torah.

His disciples were amazed at everyday displays of his unquenchable desire for learning. When he was working on clarifying a sugya, he looked like someone who was overtaken by a powerful thirst. He used to run to the seforim shrank like a young boy, quickly pull out a Rambam, swiftly leaf through it and "swallow" its words hungrily.

Even when the burden of the community was placed on his shoulders and he was surrounded by all kinds of problems, it was difficult to sever him from his studies. As soon as he finished taking care of an urgent matter, he again grasped the sefer in front of him, like someone who was cut off of his lifeline and needed air to breathe.

Ahavas haTorah beat in him like an uncontrollable "taivo" -- pikudecho ta'avosi. One could see him absorbed in his thoughts, murmuring thoughts in learning to himself at all times, even during unconventional situations that amazed anyone who saw him. "Be'ahavo yishge tomid."

Author of Avi Ezri

The seforim Avi Ezri, fruit of decades of toil, became cherished possessions of scholars in our generation. His entire life Rabbeinu instilled in his student to not be "enslaved" to a specific derech halimud, but only to the emesshitas rishonim in truth without necessarily being bound to the prevalent sevoras. His original approach, which sheds a new light on every sugya and every halocho in Rambam, among which he put into writing, testify to his sharp view that he "delved into the depth of matters with a fine tuned sensitivity" and, as HaRav Chaim Ozer ztvk'l, author of Achiezer defined it in a Torah letter he sent him, "his penetrating understanding."

Unlike many other authors who publish their sefer and are grateful for the finished product, Rabbeinu never considered himself finished with his work. And so additional editions were created -- the second, third, fourth and fifth -- in which he added things that he had clarified again over the years, many times in ways other than his original one. There was always a new light, the fruit of unceasing toil and hard work.

The Rosh Yeshiva

"Maran the Rosh Yeshiva" everyone called him. Some just said the Rosh Yeshiva. In either case, he was the Rosh Yeshiva. For about fifty years Rabbeinu stood at the helm of Yeshivas Ponovezh with HaRav Dovid Povarsky zt'l and HaRav Rozovsky zt'l.

Rabbeinu's devotion to the yeshiva and his talmidim was legendary. He saw his as a twenty-four hour job that was not confined to saying shiur alone, but included being constantly present during sedorim, guiding disciples and instilling in them the truth, forming a close relationship through discussing divrei Torah. He ingrained in them the approach to learning and clarity of understanding, as well as the desire to know and understand more and more -- as a living example of ahavas haTorah. A rosh yeshiva, he said, must also be on top of his talmidim every day and every hour, because he will have to give an accounting for every talmid who was his responsibility.

A few weeks before the beginning of every zman, Rabbeinu starting working on the sugyos, even though he had already written about them and said shiurim for many years, as if he were learning them for the first time. The shiur was not prepared from a notebook or sefer, but from a fresh iyun and libun of the sugya. Thus he was mechadesh new shiurim every semester.

Rabbeinu considered Yeshivas Ponevezh as the "mother of yeshivos," which obliged it to preserve the original form of a yeshiva, without any deviation. It was with this feeling that he led the yeshiva. Even certain actions that he did not consider essentially inappropriate and did allow other yeshivos to do, he did not allow in Yeshivas Ponevezh.

His deep concern for the yeshiva knew no rest. When he felt there was a need to increase the staff in proportion to the blessed growth of the student body, he made every effort to add additional ramim and mashgichim.

He took interest and investigated every single detail of yeshiva life. He considered the yeshiva a "mikdosh me'at" in which there is weight to every detail that molds the personality of the bochurim, their "business," ideas and goals.

Father of Yeshivos

Over the years, the influence of the Yeshiva spread to other yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel and abroad. New yeshivos were established with Maran' s encouragement and guidance, and all disseminators of Torah came to consult him on yeshiva policies and the students.

Thus Maran set policies of the yeshivos and kollelim, stressing the obligation to keep the yeshiva schedules as they have always been, including davening and mussar seder. Any change in the established sedorim was seen as a breach in mekomos hakodesh.

His desk contained weighty sheilos on criteria for accepting students and the number of staff. His decision became a foundation, and the entire yeshiva world abided it. Whenever a new yeshiva was established, Maran the Rosh Yeshiva investigated its staff and schedule.

He always used to say that a mashpia ruchani, a Torah educator or maggid shiur, and especially a rosh yeshiva, cannot be chosen according to criteria for secular speakers. It is not enough to be talented in saying shiur, because a marbitz Torah is a link in the chain of Torah disseminators from Har Sinai, and he has to be an example of how a talmid chochom behaves in every way -- in Torah, yir'oh and good middos. The yeshiva must produce the future Torah scholars, which can only be done out of a sense of tremendous responsibility and lofty ideals.

The scope of this article does not allow for a detailed description of his approaches in yeshiva matters of our generation, which are known to all marbitzei Torah all over. More on the topic will be discussed.

Maran the Rosh Yeshiva felt that the yeshivos are the heartbeat of Klal Yisroel and stood guard on them. Whenever the issue of drafting yeshiva students came up, the Rosh Yeshiva announced publicly that it is considered a decree of destruction. We still remember his words at the opening of the Yarchei Kalla that if this decree is passed, we will all leave Eretz Yisroel -- and Torah will continue to exist.

In his later years, from his sickbed, he asked that it be publicized that according to him "it is ossur to go to the army and one must give up his life for it." Gedolei Yisroel and roshei yeshivos joined his words. He fought with falsifiers from within who established a "yeshiva-high school" in chareidi guise. Rabbeinu opposed this phenomenon with all his might.

In the zechus of all of this and more, he was considered the founder of the yeshiva world and the father of yeshivos in our generation.

Mussar Sefer

Rabbeinu Hagodol ztvk'l considered the approach of baalei mussar from HaRav Yisroel Salanter ztvk'l as the lifesaver of yeshivos in later generations. In his letters, he called to be strict in keeping the mussar sedorim as an inseparable part of building Torah in every bochur and avreich.

Rabbeinu's sichos mussar instilled his listeners with a yearning for lofty heights. He lit up each posuk and ma'amar Chazal with a precious light that displayed the greatness of man on one hand and the dangers lurking for him on the other hand, and pointed to man's tremendous responsibilities and how to achieve them. He especially explained at length the parshos dealing with the Ovos hakedoshim and yetzias Mitzrayim, because "ma'asei ovos simon labonim." Through the manner with which Klal Yisroel was formed, we understand our obligations even today.

In his personal life he was an example of exalted character traits; his entire essence was to give to others and he did not ask anything for himself. He devoted many long hours to listening to individuals' sorrows and tried to help as much as he was able.

He lived with a constant cheshbon hanefesh, constantly evaluating his deeds, turning them over and over to purify them from any impurities. At the twilight of his days, he began to calculate all of his actions from his youth, weighing if he did the proper thing.

Purity of Mind

His purity of mind, like his purity of hands and heart, propelled Rabbeinu to make extreme demands of himself, which increased sevenfold when he bore the yoke of the community.

He did not favor relatives when distributing the large sums of tzedokoh money he was given every month and vehemently refused to use his influence for his family, even if it just meant a short phone call to secure someone a position. He felt that someone who bears the yoke of the community cannot be indebted to anyone.

His words still reverberate in our ears: "I don't have yerushos and I don't have chazokos." They were accepted as words that came from the heart and entered the heart, and gave a tremendous mussar power to all his communal decisions. Everyone knew that his da'as Torah could not be changed, because he had no personal consideration in it, just the pure truth.

Transmitter of Tradition

Rabbeinu Hagodol ztvk'l was zoche to transmit the tradition of the gedolim of the previous generation, from whom he received the ways to acquire Torah and yir'oh that he bequeathed to our generation.

In his discussions with Torah disseminators or communal activists, he used to tell amazing facts that he saw from past gedolei hador. All his actions expressed his deep connection to Torah mussar giants whom he merited to visit often.

He embodied the pure emunoh and the responsibility for the klal of the Chofetz Chaim ztvk'l, the leadership qualities and the bearing of the community's yoke of HaRav Chaim Ozer ztvk'l, the love of mankind and tremendous middoh of doing good of HaRav Isser Zalman ztvk'l, and the concern to instill proper hashkofoh and the standing guard on Torah and halocho of the Brisker Rov ztvk'l and the Chazon Ish ztvk'l

In his shmuessen he stressed that transmitting Torah is the foundation of existence. The mishna of "Moshe kibeil Torah miSinai umesoroh liYehoshua" was often mentioned, as he said that only passing the Torah from generation to generation without any kind of change can ensure the existence of Klal Yisroel.

Pillar of Truth

Maran's middoh of truth led him in all his actions. He fought for the truth, without extraneous calculations. Considerations of "profit and loss" were strange to him; the need to establish the truth was constantly before him.

And so, he was able to take courageous decisions like leaving communal movements that he devoted his life to, or founded and built with his own two hands, the moment he thought they were not loyal to their obligations and mission.

When he felt that he must take care of a neglected community, he worked for it even though it was not a popular thing to do. Nevertheless, when communal leaders veered from the proper path, he did not hesitate to lose political power that he built up, because there is nothing that stands in the way of truth.

For the sake of truth, he was prepared to remain a minority, even alone on the battlefield, because truth is not measured in power and numbers that can be counted, but in a total attachment to the hashkofoh of the pure Torah.

Avi Gedor

Avi Gedor -- was one of Moshe Rabbeinu's names, because he fenced off the breaches of Klal Yisroel. This was the way of all gedolim of later generations, who stood on the front lines of the war against portzei geder of the Reform, Zionist and Enlightenment movements, as well as compromisers who wanted to combine the Torah with foreign values.

In our generation Rabbeinu Hagodol ztvk'l stood in the breach against every small change in our masores. He used to often say (and it seems he said this in the name of the Chofetz Chaim) that these generations, when most of Klal Yisroel has veered from the proper path and only a minority of the nation is like a pure pach shemen, one must spurn any slight movement and any tiny change. Our generation has a din of a gosseis, who cannot be touched even if you intend his good. Every touch is considered as if you spilled his blood and brought him closer to death!

Rabbeinu stood alert and ready, watching like a loyal watchman on his guard, that no change in our masores occur, whether in educational matters, the structure of yeshivos or actions of the community -- and any other topic.

His deep understanding and diagnoses that fit to a hairsbreadth, also came to a strong expression. Over the years everyone saw how farsighted his view was, and even when it seemed to some that he was exaggerating, it was later evident to all that they were real dangers.

Today all shomrei Torah feel that if not for this watchman, our generation would be breached on all sides chas vesholom, institutions of kilayim and shatnez would have penetrated into the chareidi community and outside hashkofos would be percolating in our midst.

Fighter of Hashem's War

When he had to stand up for the truth, Rabbeinu armed himself for war with all his strength.

All of his students and acquaintances, who knew him as a soft person, a good, kind, soft-spoken onov, then saw him gird himself with the tools of war, in opposition to his everyday qualities, and gather strength for the War of Hashem.

Like a king of his troops, he took action and called to action, drafted communal activists and instructed them to be fearless and courageous. He spoke in public, publicized letters, called for kinusim and to take action. He did not rest until the threat on Torah life and Judaism's foundations had passed.

Any attack on Klal Yisroel's kedusha and Torah tradition was a danger to the existence of the nation. Ahavas Yisroel and responsibility for the community, which was ingrained on his heart, propelled him to go out to difficult battles, that no other man dared take upon himself.

Leader of the Generation

All these qualities and many others turned Maran Hagodol into the leader of the generation who bore the yoke of the community for decades. It was a unique phenomenon that the entire Torah world bowed to his authority and accepted his words unquestioningly, like the word of the urim vetumim.

His speech at the beginning of the Yarchei Kalla in Av became of unprecedented interest. Anytime a question arose, it was heard all over, "What does the Rosh Yeshiva say?" The media used to wait for Rav Shach's word.

Maran's feeling was that fortification of the Torah world nowadays is only possible through establishing organized institutions that give an address and platform to the Torah world, whether in communal matters, public relations, communal life or kashrus. He therefore established Yated Ne'eman, Degel HaTorah and Shearis Yisroel -- entities only he could have established, which seemed at first like pipe dreams that had no chance.

We Are Orphaned

As mentioned, the scope of this article can not do justice to even a part of the giant personality of Rabbeinu Hagodol ztvk'l. This is merely a poor attempt to describe what we lost. We are orphaned. We are orphaned -- and there is no father.


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