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2 Av 5763 - July 31, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Lessons of the Churban: A Letter From the Alter of Kelm Zt'l

The Alter of Kelm zt'l wrote the following letter and had copies sent out to the members of his circle. A copy of the letter, originally taken from a copy handwritten by the Alter's talmid HaRav Shmuel Hillel Sheinker zt'l (whose role in founding Yeshivas Or Chodosh in Yerushalayim was the subject of an article in the parshas Terumoh edition of our paper), recently came to light. At the end of the general letter, there is a personal note to the Alter's son, HaRav Nochum Zeev Ziv zt'l, which has never previously been published with the Alter's other writings and which is relevant to the present period of bein hametzorim.

Addressing the Group

Listen my friends, faithful comrades, who have banded together to take Torah's path and turn our hearts toward mussar -- those who are together in our yeshiva in Kelm, in Grobin, Slobodka, Kovna and Lomzhe -- precious young men, who are trained to bear the yoke of Torah and mussar from their youth. May Hashem bless you and grant you success in this world and the next.

Now, someone who travels a firm road that is frequented by others [may make his own way safely and] does not need to go as part of a caravan. Someone travelling through a desert however, or an area where there are robbers, must take care not to travel alone. He must seek a large party of companions, the larger the better. In our times, and especially in this generation, the Torah's paths are extremely hazardous. I therefore said to myself, "I shall go to my faithful friends and we shall take counsel together." Each of us will assist his brother's [efforts in both] Torah and mussar from afar and will [thus] ensure [our] deliverance from the foes and saboteurs that lurk along the way.

A thought came to me on Tisha B'Av during the kinnos, when I considered the scope of the lamentations penned by the holy mourners in their wisdom over the Churban and all its details. I am at present prevented from indulging my wish to speak about this at length -- may the One on High have mercy upon us and draw us closer to His service -- so I shall write with great brevity and those who study [my words] should give them much thought. We learn two things from this: that the fair Judge has enabled us to understand the events perpetrated, and the preservation of the perpetrator.

Devastation of Sin

[First,] he has shown us effects of sin and the extent of its power in bringing punishment once the measure [of guilt] is full -- [punishment] without mercy, without any pardon whatsoever, chas vesholom, with outpoured wrath, as it were. [By showing us] the power of sin in bringing punishment and vengeance upon those who transgress His will, chas vesholom, in this world, where He has combined the attribute of mercy together with that of judgment, Hashem enables us to understand its strength in the world [to come] of retribution, where His verdict is one of judgment, not mercy for "mercy has no place in judgment." The hairs on a person's head and flesh stand on end when he [realizes this and] recalls the power of sin. And if it is so for the nation as a whole, how much more so is this true for the individual, chas vesholom.

The second lesson that we ought to take from this is that a person ought not to give way to his own wishes, letting them operate unbridled, at full strength, chas vesholom, for this can lead him to become divested of his humanity, chas vesholom, and to wreak thorough destruction. The accursed rosho Titus ym"sh, strongly desired to destroy the Beis Hamikdosh and Heaven allowed him to do as he wished. He should have given some thought as to why he was suddenly able to do so, for [the city was universally believed impregnable, as the posuk says,] "The kings of the land and people of the world did not believe that an oppressor and enemy would enter the gates of Yerushalayim" (Eichoh 4:12).

He should have realized that there was no other explanation but that their sins were the cause [and that he was merely an instrument]. Yet his powerful desire, [propelling him] like a horse in headlong gallop, led him to do what the biggest fool would never have done. If, when the strong one and the weak are both below [on the same level the weak fears the strong,] then [how much more so] when the strong one is up [in Heaven] . . .

Can it be believed? That this accursed rosho ym"sh, raised his accursed hand against Heaven in anger and fury and lost his humanity because of his headlong rush to achieve his desire, which led him to believe that his own power and strength had achieved it?

We must learn to be careful of giving free rein to our desires, so that we are not led to attribute independent power to ourselves. This is an extensive topic that is worthy of close consideration.

Rectifying the Cause

In maseches Yoma (9), Chazal ask why the Second Beis Hamikdosh was destroyed and tell us that it was because of the causeless hatred that existed among the people. They ask whether the sins that led to the first or those that led to the second destruction were more severe, and they answer, "Look at the edifice, which returned for the earlier generation but not for the later one." Causeless hatred is thus more serious than immorality, idolatry and murder [the sins that brought about the first churban]. Why is this so?

There is a very well founded explanation but I am unable to expand on it now. In our many sins, this shortcoming is still rampant among us, to the point where even people with good traits, for whom it is easy to give tzedokoh and to practice kindness towards others and who are far from immorality, as above, are nevertheless swept along with this bitter sin, in that they are happy at the misfortunes of others and find it hard to see their good fortune, their greatness or their honor, and they certainly do not rejoice in their friends' good fortune.

The posuk states fully and explicitly, "And you shall love your friend like yourself" (Vayikra 19:18). This is the foundation of proper behavior and it is "a fundamental Torah principle" meaning that it is a fundamental principle in fulfilling the Torah.

Anyone who does not invest toil and effort into attaining love for his fellow human beings, will necessarily chas vesholom fall into the Gehennom of hating them, for human nature tends towards this. And especially someone whose nature is difficult in this way, chas vesholom, [it is as if he] lives with idolatry, immorality and murder, and worse, every day.

Practical Steps

We said earlier that where the roads are dangerous, one should only proceed as part of a caravan. It is therefore our duty to resolve to greatly occupy ourselves with the mitzvah of "love your neighbor like yourself," all year round. We will thereby be making ourselves part of Klal Yisroel, which is a very safe caravan to belong to.

Now, my brothers and friends, I have discovered a simple and easy method of doing this and I hope that it will yield a bountiful harvest in the coming year, may it be a good one. However, just as a doctor does not prescribe medicine unless he has found it effective, so I too have now found a sefer written by a holy man of Hashem, the work Tomar Devorah. Although I had already seen it, I had neither the heart to understand, nor the eyes to see, until now, as the posuk (Devorim 29:3) says, "And Hashem has not given you a heart to comprehend, nor eyes to see . . .until today." For, where a person does not delve sufficiently deeply into something, he neither sees nor understands [the things that he does once he does fathom them fully].

When my eyes were opened to it this time, I saw that it is a good idea to learn a fixed portion of it regularly, without skipping. [It is] also [good] to occasionally dwell on the positive command to, "Love your friend like yourself" with ideas . . .and to fix [this contemplation at] times of prayer, such as:

"(Umishpotecho) And Your judgments" -- Know Him in your every path; "(Vetzidkosecho) And Your justice" -- Your fair dealings with the world; "(ad afsei oretz) [extend] to the ends of the earth."

"Vesoresecho udevorcho yossim al libbo -- [Happy is the man] . . . and who takes Your Torah and Your word to heart" -- as above, meaning that one should model his conduct upon Hashem yisborach's traits (from Ezras avoseinu, Shacharis).

Similarly in the brochoh of "bonei Yerusholoyim" too, one should contemplate why Yerushalayim was destroyed, as above, and ensure that one is doing one's part to rectify it by strengthening Torah study and one's love for one's fellow creatures. Also by keeping fixed times for learning from Tomar Devorah, we can be certain that there will be a rich yield next year.

If we pool our ideas, proceeding together as a caravan, each of whose members occupies himself with these things in his own place but together, I hope that we will all have great merits amid Klal Yisroel.

From myself, who is your good friend, my beloved,

With blessings,


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