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7 Nissan 5763 - April 9, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Nothing Left But Torah -- Marking HaRav Shach's First Yahrtzeit

Delivered by HaRav Shmuel Auerbach

This inspiring talk has much to teach us at all times about the importance and function of Torah.

Introduction: A Lasting Impression

As more and more time passes, the terrible consequences become clearer, the vacuum becomes more apparent -- and the more we appreciate the dreadful loss that is virtually impossible to encompass. The Chasam Sofer zy'a (in Droshos) explains that when a great man is niftar and the powerful light of avodas Hashem that he provided is lost, although it initially appears that the strongest arousal takes place at the time of his death, the loss is actually felt more and more as time goes on. With the passage of time, as the true dimensions of the void become clear, it becomes apparent that the initial arousal was not all that deep. This is what happened during the year that has passed since the petiroh of our great teacher, whose stature grew steadily to the point where he illuminated all of Klal Yisroel. Now we need to know our obligations in order to attain a genuine awakening, that will yield practical results.

The seforim mention a well-known principle. At any gathering to honor a great man, discussion should center upon those matters over which he was particularly careful. Since we are gathering in memory of this giant among great men, we should make a point of speaking about those things that he exhorted about at every opportunity and demanded of everyone.

One has to be truly wise and understanding in order to be genuinely aroused to the point where one makes practical changes; not gaining a merely external impression and absorbing things superficially, after which all one is left with is the `coating' -- the fascinating stories and the like. On such occasions, our teacher himself always used to call for contemplation of the practical message: "Zei nisht kein na'ar, (Don't be a fool)."

He always used to insist that something permanent should remain in one's heart as a result of what one hears, something genuine, practical and lasting.

Nothing But Torah

In selichos we say that, "We have nothing left but this Torah," for this is truly all that remains with us. The truth is that without the Beis Hamikdosh and Mishkon, everything suffers and even Torah study is not on the highest level. The Vilna Gaon explains that the posuk, "For Torah shall come out of Tzion" means that while the Mikdosh stood, there was special Heavenly assistance with Torah and when it was destroyed, Torah was weakened -- "Her kings . . . are among the nations; there is no Torah." Nonetheless, all that we really have left is Torah.

This is the Torah for which our fathers and forefathers sacrificed themselves at different times, undergoing countless killings and decrees and shedding rivers of blood and tears, down to the most recent times -- may Hashem declare our suffering ended. We have borne everything. Generations have withstood all of this in order to safeguard the holy and eternal Torah that remains ours.

At this gathering to honor the memory of our great teacher, who illuminated the whole world and who was literally the heart of the Jewish nation . . . we should recall that throughout his life, he devoted himself to this awe inspiring ideal. He repeatedly called for strengthening Torah -- [one of] the things that Chazal tell us always need bolstering (Brochos 32) -- and thanks to him, Torah was indeed strengthened tremendously. He also anticipated problems and took early measures to prevent them from arising. Neither would he allow avreichim to seek other pursuits or solutions so that they would "have what to live on" etc. The source of all this was his wholehearted conviction that "We have nothing left but Torah" -- that's all we have!

The great Reb Chaim Halevi ztvk'l, wrote a well-known letter after the Haskoloh had begun to spread. Part of the Haskoloh's power to draw people away from Torah stemmed from their concern over "tachlis" and parnossoh, which bewildered many of them.

Reb Chaim wrote that it was important to be aware that the fact that one sees -- and will always continue to find -- sincere, Heaven-fearing ba'alei batim in Klal Yisroel, men who are not wholly occupied with Torah but who are wholeheartedly religious, is solely because these people's foundation and the basis of their entire education, their early years and the homes that they established, was Torah. To begin with, when they started out in life, their only ambition was "to dwell in Hashem's house all my life" (Tehillim 27:4). In time, though they were unable to continue that way due to the difficult conditions that prevailed, they remained sincere and faithful ba'alei batim.

Our Dream and Joy

Our generation is largely unaware of how things once were, when there simply was no bread to eat. My father and teacher zt'l used to recall the time when he was learning in yeshiva ketanoh and in his parents' home there was literally nothing to eat. Sometimes, there was a single slice of bread and they didn't know how he and his brothers should eat it.

I remember several Jews who told me with pain why they left learning -- not because they lacked comforts or conveniences but because there was simply nothing to eat.

And even in such circumstances, the common ambition, for which every individual used to strive, was to be wholly occupied with Torah. This was always the basis of Klal Yisroel's outlook and its joy. A Jew's dream and his yearning were to remain bound to Torah and to delve into it continuously, because it is the source of everything.

This was the idea that our great teacher fought to establish and to see propagated. He fought like a lion for this cause, often heading off threats in advance, in order to ensure that no other kinds of ambition gained a foothold.

It is hard for me to speak in these terms, but one must address the issue of Torah's survival. Divrei Torah always need strengthening (Brochos 32) and Chazal have told us that, "They are as easy to lose as [fragile] glass vessels." A person should never feel confident of his ability to withstand spiritual challenges because even Torah that he acquired at great personal cost can be lost.

Chazal said that divrei Torah are "easy to lose" and the same is true of feelings, goals and character traits that one has worked on. One can toil to develop a high awareness of Torah's value and one can lose that, too.

Today there are parties working in their own interests, for financial gain, that organize various initiatives. It is possible that they are acting without malicious intent, chas vesholom, but simply from a lack of understanding. Yet the message they convey in their advertisements and their communications is that, "not everyone is going to emerge a rosh yeshiva, anyway," and they consequently offer alternatives, chas vesholom.

One should be aware that it is literally forbidden to listen to such things. This is how, beginning with small things, one can move from a situation where Torah is genuinely being upheld, to its neglect and to the destruction of religion chas vesholom.

Ultimate Tachlis

We ought to rejoice over the swelling of the ranks of those studying Torah and be wary of any influence of Pharaoh's frame of mind, "lest they multiply" (Shemos 1:10). These ideas were always deeply embedded in our national consciousness.

Jews always knew that the very greatest merit was to study Torah. They always knew that Torah itself is the solution to all problems. This was universally accepted in Jewish homes, by men and women alike.

I remember how impressed my grandmother a'h was with my mother a'h. She once noticed that the young children's clothes were soiled and that she had not changed them. She pointed this out to my mother a'h, who replied simply that, "The clothes are in a cupboard in the room where Father (zt'l) is sitting and learning. It simply isn't possible to go in, even if the slightest possibility exists that he might be disturbed momentarily." My grandmother heard this and rejoiced. She was always very impressed when she told this story.

Things were once as simple as that --they knew that nothing takes precedence over Torah. Neither the Rebbetzin a'h of ylct'a . . . HaRav Eliashiv . . . nor my own mother a'h, when they married bnei Torah, had any thought or dream of marrying them because they would emerge as the poskim of the generation. They didn't think about that at all. They didn't give a thought to the future or to positions, etc. They were deeply imbued with the straightforward conviction that the husband sits and learns Torah because one has to study Torah for its own sake and that this is our purpose.

Grandmother a'h, always used to say that when they rocked the babies' cribs to put them to sleep and sang, "Lernen Torah, Torah iz die beste sechoirah" (To learn Torah, Torah is the best merchandise)," that was when they infused them with the awareness that Torah study itself is the ultimate purpose. That was the common dream and goal; [it was modified only] if individuals encountered problems chas vesholom, and felt that their situation was so difficult that they simply couldn't continue.

We saw that our own forbears did not leave Torah even when they hungered for bread but even those who were not on such a level of self-sacrifice, did not easily make the decision [to leave learning] because they had been brought up not to see this [path] as their future. Even when there was literally no choice, they took the step with dreadful pain. I still heard from Yidden who got to the stage where there was no food left at all, yet when they parted from the gemora it was literally Tisha B'Av for them!

Granted, one can't give guidelines that fit each and every individual situation. Only Hakodosh Boruch Hu is capable of judging each case on its own merits . . . What I am talking about is something else entirely. We are not just dealing with this or that individual who finds things hard and decides to leave. There are people with personal agendas who are creating an atmosphere that can chas vesholom develop into an outlook, of [legitimizing] seeking other solutions and who are elevating and valuing their idea. This is a terrible blow, for here we are dealing with Torah, the Jewish religion's heart of hearts.

This approach is a dreadful insult and a disgrace to the ideals to which our teachers devoted themselves. How much blood has been spilled -- how much have we fought through the ages -- in order to acknowledge that Torah is the main thing and that we have nothing else? Truly, "we have nothing left but this Torah!"

The danger is not confined to the weakening of Torah study. It is well known that the beginning of all spiritual deterioration is a diminishing of toil in Torah. When there is a drop in the fulfillment of, "If you proceed in [accordance with] my statutes -- that you should toil in Torah" (Vayikra 26:3, Rashi), the very worst manifestations of, "lest your hearts turn and you stray" (Devorim 11:16) are in the offing.

Chazal say that as soon as one strays, chas vesholom, a descent to the very depths is immediate. Chazal tell us that the words, "and you stray" apply to someone who parts from Torah and the following words in our eternal Torah are, "and you stray and serve other gods." Even though the urge to serve idols has been neutralized, the descent that follows any parting from Torah is of the same order of severity, with all that that entails.

All Fire

We ought to take ourselves to task and realize that all this starts when there is a drop in the intensity of our toil in Torah, in our joy in its study and in our feeling that it is all that we look to. The gemora in Chagigah (27) typifies a talmid chochom as being "all fire," implying that this is his standard form -- there is no suggestion that gemora is only talking about select individuals. This is how every talmid chochom, whatever his stature, ought to appear.

We ourselves saw our great teacher's tremendous toil in Torah and the fire of his Torah, that owed nothing to any other discipline, chas vesholom. Even those who were not close to him witnessed this. How much more so those who were.

It was Torah and Torah alone that burned within him. Hashem planted such giants in each generation. With the diminishing spiritual stature of the generations, Hashem demonstrates to each of them the enormous potential that exists and the heights that can be attained.

In the previous generation, Hashem showed us the Chazon Ish ztvk'l. Whenever HaRav Shach spoke about the Chazon Ish, he would dwell on the Torah that he learned with the purest motivation, that he continually refined -- "Mer grois fun alle (Greater than anyone else)."

The downward descent of the generations is not a Scriptural precept that must be accepted. It is certainly a reality but nobody is compelled to weaken his grip and move "with the tide," chas vesholom. Instead, one should always try to raise and elevate oneself.

Chazal obligate each of us to say, "When will my deeds be on a par with those of my ancestors, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov?" . . . The [lives of the] ovos, are themselves the path we must follow in order to approach Hashem; they are the basis of all we have.

Certainly, we ought not to fool ourselves and live with delusions about our true level; each individual knows best how distant he himself really is from that level. Yet Chazal nevertheless oblige us to be aware of what is possible and to aspire to such heights. One has to know what is being demanded of him. The deeds of the ovos should be a constant goal.

Away From the Lights

Torah study itself should be our aim. In several places in Mishlei, the Vilna Gaon advises against learning [solely] in order "to become something." The toil itself, as we witnessed with our own teachers, is the object. Whenever the Rosh Yeshiva spoke about the Chazon Ish, he would point out that whenever we envisage the Chazon Ish's greatness, his great fame and renown are part of the picture.

Yet for most of his life, the Chazon Ish did not live that way. He published one tremendously great sefer after another but they did not become well known immediately. Nobody came to him to praise his efforts. And he continued learning and toiling at the same level and with the same joy and delight -- for such works could clearly only have been written with joy, with boldness of spirit and with might.

On a number of occasions, I heard personal testimony from our great teacher zy'a [in this vein]. We know that throughout his life, he fully exploited every drop of his strength and energy. Whoever knew him also knows how careful he was to avoid any exaggeration or inaccuracy in what he said.

He used to speak about the days before his shiurim had a large following, before he came to Ponevezh. He used to deliver shiurim in places where he wondered whether a single listener understood what he was saying. It was in reference to this that he said that whenever he toiled to fathom a sugya and say a shiur, he felt it was always "die zelbe zach (the same thing)". It was good every time [no matter what the audience]. He put the same effort into understanding the topic and preparing the shiur -- exactly the same -- whether he had a handful of listeners who may or may not have understood him, or hundreds of top caliber students.

It was always [the same] Torah. He wasn't trying to make an impression but to understand Torah. And even if, choliloh, he would never have attained a position of Torah dissemination in a large yeshiva to many talmidim, he would have maintained the same level of toil, in exactly the same form. He never looked for anything ancillary -- neither additional personal gratification, nor personal advancement -- because toiling to fathom Torah is itself the ultimate purpose.

This is also how it was when he first arrived in Eretz Yisroel and was with Reb Isser Zalman zt'l. He toiled incredibly then, too. At that time, it was customary for a group to meet regularly with Reb Isser Zalman and speak with him in learning and he didn't stand out especially on those occasions. When the first volume of Avi Ezri appeared, Rav Hirsch Kopshitz zt'l excitedly asked Reb Isser Zalman, "How is it that until now we didn't notice who Rav Shach is?"

Reb Isser Zalman replied, "Neither you nor I have the slightest idea how much he works and labors." He toiled to understand each sugya and every gemora, for that itself is the goal.

It is also said that our master the Vilna Gaon z'l, complained to some tzaddikim who were not so well known publicly, Rav Moshe of Ivye zt'l and Rav Yeshayoh Lachovitcher zt'l, as to why he had been compelled to become famous. Although we have no idea of the extent of the Gaon's greatness, [evidently] his publicity disturbed him in some degree. They told him that apparently, for Klal Yisroel's benefit, things had to be that way.

It is important to be aware that there have been many great talmidei chachomim who were altogether unwilling to shoulder the yoke of disseminating Torah. Rav Chaim Volozhiner draws our attention to the fact that there were times when it was extremely difficult to find [anyone willing to serve as] a rosh yeshiva, for virtually all the outstanding scholars wanted to learn by themselves and work through topics without [the] responsibility [of teaching]. That was when he, Rav Chaim z'l, in his greatness, said that he would "volunteer" to be a rosh yeshiva.

Joy in Our Life

The essence of my message is that we must realize that "we are fortunate; how good is our portion and how pleasant our lot." Though this is elementary, it has lapsed somewhat in practice.

There is no way to convey the joy that should be felt by every avreich who goes to learn in kollel. Avreichim sometimes do not know how to properly value their tremendous good fortune in simply being able to go to kollel and sit by a gemora learning.

Of course, it is good to assure young talmidim that something will become of them, such as a Torah position and the like. However, the older one gets and the longer one has the good fortune to sit and learn, the greater one's awareness should be that Torah itself is the greatest of all goals.

The yetzer hora blunts this recognition and tries to convince a person that he lacks this and is short of that. But we have seen how our teachers dealt with these trials too. I myself heard our teacher zt'l speak about times when he had literally nothing, yet he sat all day toiling in Torah.

Though we appreciate the truth of all this on an abstract level, it is important to make a point of experiencing joy in our bond to eternal life. Each day we bless Hashem, "who has chosen us from all the nations and given us His Torah" but saying it is not enough. We must live it and feel that divrei Torah are, "our life and the length of our days."

Every Jew, each individual who learns Torah, every ben yeshiva and every avreich has his own unique portion in Torah, belonging to him alone. Everyone has his, "inner Torah sanctum," as Chazal express it. In the spiritual realm, there is no "subset principle," whereby someone who has amassed a greater portion in Torah automatically takes in that of his friend with less. Nobody's Torah is swallowed up within someone else's. Everyone has been given the ability to attain something that is unique to him, some level that even a Torah giant, whose heels he doesn't reach, does not possess.

We should appreciate our true status as recipients of Torah and rejoice in it. The Rambam writes, "Whoever holds himself back from [experiencing] this joy deserves retribution, as the posuk says, `because you did not serve Hashem . . . with joy and gladness of heart' (Devorim 28:47)." The Rambam places this posuk, which is written amid the suffering and punishment of the tochochoh, into our context.

This joy is not a special level. Its absence brought on all [our nation's] dreadful misfortunes. Joy is the measure of a man; its absence is the most powerful factor against him. Someone who has chas vesholom been vanquished by his yetzer hora, is already preoccupied and is hard to reach. But someone who is still sitting by his gemora and is occupied with spiritual pursuits but is not living with the utmost joy over his fortune in being able to do so, is blameworthy indeed.

I heard the following from a grandchild of the Chofetz Chaim zt'l, who spent several months in his home and became acquainted with him in his old age. As is known, the Chofetz Chaim used to engage in spiritual stock-taking. When he grew older, he would repeatedly reckon up the merits that he had amassed in this world and the things for which he would be taken to task in the Heavenly court.

He was heard expressing fear that what might tilt the balance against him would be [insufficient] joy in serving his Creator. He would say to himself, "True, you've done mitzvos but where was the joy in doing mitzvos? Why didn't people see that you were the happiest person alive?" Afterwards he was heard giving himself heart and saying, "But you still can [rectify this]!"

There are so many spiritual `projects' that can be taken up by anybody; there are so many goals to aim for, into which one can channel one's energies. They are unequaled by any other pursuit; there is no need to seek anything else. Everyone is capable of elevating himself according to his own level and his portion in Torah. Avreichim must inject this drive into their very blood, advancing spiritually and experiencing the indescribable joy that it engenders.

With Your Mind, With Your Tools

Our teacher was a beacon of light in this respect. His constant demand, "Nisht farshlofen die yohren!" not to sleep away precious years, was one that he himself amply fulfilled.

Sleep can take different forms. A person can be awake, walking around and conversing with others, yet still be in a deep slumber. If one is not actively living in awareness and pursuit of eternal values, he is in fact asleep.

This has always been the foundation of Jewish living. Never before have men whose sole aim is to reap profits, tried to introduce the idea that anything other than this can serve as a starting point. Hakodosh Boruch Hu is running the world. Even in our times, with all the dreadful deterioration that has followed the fearsome, unparalleled destruction, He has granted us the opportunity of being able to dwell in the tents of Torah -- and may He help us to do so in greater comfort, rather than in penury.

Each and every individual has his own portion in Torah. It is well known that even famous gedolim were not necessarily especially gifted; they fully exploited their portion in Torah and grew tremendously in so doing. When a person reaches the stage at which he is able to continue his growth, the yetzer hora starts putting thoughts into his mind like, `What will become of you?' and `What will you achieve?'

The response to this should be to tell oneself, `What will turn out? This is what is turning out! My own Torah attainments and my own portion in Torah! Continue with renewed vigor and with great joy and you will develop wonderfully!'

Nobody is called upon to use intellect and abilities that he doesn't possess. No one is asked to do more than he is capable of doing. But just as one attends to other affairs that require attention, for which everyone draws on the abilities that he possesses, one should at least do the same for Torah and yiras Shomayim.

The main demand on our generation is that we have everything in front of us. Yeshivos and kollelim are flourishing. The opportunity is there to sit and learn. We have both the meat and the knife. We are held responsible for our failure to use this opportunity, for not coming to learn with greater eagerness and happiness. Even if it appears to a person that he won't develop as he would have liked, every day he can spend learning is cause for the greatest imaginable joy.

Enjoyment in learning should be felt throughout life, not just in one's youth. All the gedolim kept trying to elevate themselves, literally until their very last day. That they did so was natural and self-understood. Progress and growth are not functions of any particular age or stage.

I remember my father going to visit Reb Isser Zalman one Chol Hamoed. Reb Isser Zalman was then over seventy and he told my father very simply that he had recently decided that he wanted to start learning Zevochim because he got more out of that masechta!

The Gaon's comment that the first remedy for any ill is Torah, is well known. Only those who are not bound to Torah need other remedies. Thus, eternal Torah warns us against slipping in the intensity of our toil in Torah -- "lest your hearts stray" -- for when this happens, the consequence is, "and you turn and serve other gods."

All kinds of vain and nonsensical thoughts start to fill the mind. These are not merely harmless. They are actually a destructive fire in the guise of a mitzvah.

Those who let the level of their learning fall, are easily swept up into the atmosphere created by the profit seekers. Through their enticements, they fall prey to terrible things, to every evil in the world. It is known that even in turning to idol worship itself, there were explanations and rationales e.g. that it was something necessary, chas vesholom. The yetzer hora works full time, like a galloping horse in the thick of battle.

A young bochur works hard and feels fatigued. He thinks that he won't turn out as he expected. How childish and foolish it is to think like this. Our obligations apply at all times and in all places. Even in old age, the Chazon Ish demanded arousal and toil of himself. True, it is easier to rouse oneself during one's youth but infinite results can be attained at any age.

When a person lives like this, he is happy with his lot. Whatever he attains is invaluable. And if he is using all his abilities to the full, then no one else's happiness will equal his. Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l, is said to have remarked that were he to hear of a person who, though not especially gifted, fulfilled his obligations in this world according to his own abilities and understanding, he would travel a considerable distance in order to see and minister to him.

Conclusion: The Way Forward

Our duty, then, is not merely to eulogize our loss as one would bemoan a ship lost at sea. What will we gain from that? Our aim must be to learn and to arouse ourselves; not to relate to Hashem haphazardly, not to live life superficially but to contemplate the simple truth deeply and to make an honest reckoning of what constitutes temporal life and what eternal life.

These truths are very close to us indeed, yet we rebel against them. With a little common sense and understanding, a person would take steps to ensure his own eternal life. Our Father in Heaven wants us to fortify ourselves and stop seeking `broken cisterns that won't hold water' and cleave instead to the true source of living waters.

This is the goal to which our teacher devoted his entire life. He learned, taught and fulfilled this, with mighty power, sincerely demanding it, from the depths of his heart, of us too. Certainly, `tzaddikim are greater after their passing than in their lifetimes' but it is our arousal that Hakodosh Boruch Hu wants. A hole the size of the eye of a needle is enough but let's at least make that opening.

Let us resolve then, that "we have nothing left but Torah." Let us increase both Torah study and swell the ranks of those who engage in it, in the awareness that "lest they multiply" was Pharaoh's fear and should not be ours.

Let all who study Torah, resolve to be more joyful, in the realization that one's own portion and enjoyment are not measurable against others'. And may all of us experience more joy in our service of Hashem, for each of us serves Him in many ways -- in character refinement, in purifying oneself, in prayer, in interpersonal relations and in every facet of life. Each and every step forward is invaluable and is envied by the Heavenly hosts. The main form that our repentance should take is, "return us, Father, to Your Torah," to involvement in Torah. Torah is waiting for each and every one of us.

May it be Hashem's will that our great teacher, the Rosh Yeshiva ztvk'l, be an upright advocate for our defense. May we see the swift fulfillment of, "and the land will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem," for this is what we are waiting for. May Hashem's glory be revealed, may Klal Yisroel be revealed in their splendor and may the world attain its complete rectification, bimeheiro beyomeinu omein.

This article was prepared from HaRav Auerbach's addresses to gatherings held at the time of HaRav Shach's first yahrtzeit in Yerushalayim, Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Sefer last Cheshvan. HaRav Shmuel Auerbach is rosh yeshivas Maalos Hatorah in Jerusalem.

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