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29 Iyar, 5784 - June 6, 2024 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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A Reiner Mentsch, A Reiner Torah — The Gaon HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l

By Moshe Musman


For Part IV of this series click here.

For Part VI of this series click here.

Part V: Instilling a Love of Torah


Although Reb Moishe Soloveitchik zt'l, was consulted about numerous Torah institutions during the fifty years in which he lived in Europe, there were just two yeshivos with which he was personally involved. He was the first rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva in Lucerne, where for ten years he raised a generation of European bnei Torah who went on to play a crucial role in the development of Swiss and indeed, European, Jewish communal life.

In the last five years of his life, he founded another new institution, Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Moscow, whose guiding spirit he remained until his petiroh. Yeshivas Toras Chaim has already produced a generation of Russian bnei Torah who have left Russia for yeshivos throughout Eretz Yisroel as well as America, where they hold their own among their more experienced peers with astonishing success.

HaRav Moshe Shapira zt"l at a melave malka in Yeshiva Toras Chaim

Actually, Reb Moishe filled completely different functions in the two institutions. In Lucerne, his time was spent with the bochurim, whom he taught, by word and perhaps even more so, by example, what Torah is and the kind of life it demands that its sons lead. The support and the administration of the yeshiva were the responsibility of a committee of laymen. The need for such a yeshiva in Switzerland was already sufficiently recognized there to make this possible.

With the Moscow yeshiva, the situation was reversed. As soon as it became clear that it might be possible to disseminate Torah freely in Russia, Reb Moishe despatched emissaries whose task it was to assess the possibilities for doing so. After their initial efforts met with success, the yeshiva was established and it has been flourishing ever since.

From Zurich, Reb Moishe and two of his close confidants managed the financial side of the Russian yeshiva's affairs. Reb Moishe responded to the many difficult questions which the operation of a yeshiva in a country that had been cut off from the rest of world Jewry for seven decades gave rise. He advised as to what should be learned and how. He took a strong personal interest in the bochurim and their problems. In short, he did almost everything except for actually going and teaching there.

The striking similarities between the achievements of the two yeshivos point to Reb Moishe as the common factor. After making the necessary allowances for the wide differences in the circumstances in which the two yeshivos function and the students to whom they cater, it can still safely be asserted that in both cases, Reb Moishe was responsible for raising two generations of young men into bnei Torah, whose pure hearted dedication to Torah is a reflection of his own greatness as an educator.

Reb Moishe's reinkeit is again the key to understanding his versatility and his success in reaching widely differing types of student. Whether he was dealing with boys from observant homes who had just never been exposed to the experience of full time learning, or with young men whose Jewish roots had lain dormant hitherto and who could not even recognize an alef, he simply exposed them to the pure, unfiltered, light of Torah (which, however, is no simple task) and this achieved the far reaching results mentioned above.

Russian winter at Yeshiva Toras Chaim

To be sure, he had tremendous insight into human nature and psychology but he utilized this to make himself into a passive vessel through which full luster of Torah could illuminate and influence the student, rather than making Torah into the medium through which he himself actively influenced and shaped his students. (No suggestion is intended that one approach is preferable to another. During the last century, there have been many well known and superlative Torah educators of both types. All that is intended here is to attribute the characteristics that are common to the products of the two yeshivos, to Reb Moishe's belonging to the former category of mechanech.)

In the following paragraphs, we will attempt to illustrate this through the recollections of one of his talmidim and one of his colleagues in the Lucerne yeshiva, as well as with one of Reb Moishe's letters from that period. The account of the yeshiva in Moscow which follows next week is based upon conversations with two of the rebbeim who worked closely with him in its running.

An Understanding Heart

A Torah leader, whether a rav, rosh yeshiva or rebbe, must always live both above and among his followers. He must live above them in order to serve as an example of what to strive for and he must live among them so that he can understand them, both collectively and individually, and thus recognize how he can raise them up.

Moshe Rabbenu prayed that his successor possess this special blend of qualities, which has remained a hallmark of Torah leadership ever since. Each age has had its trials and challenges that necessitate differing forms of guidance. The interaction between the circumstances of the time and the individual qualities of the tzadikim who have been placed by Heaven in each generation, yields the necessary form of leadership for the time.

In the same way that one period differs from another, each locality is different, too. The right approach in one country or region may be wrong for another.

Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau at Yeshiva Toras Chaim

Torah leadership in post war America for example, needed to cope with a very different set of problems than that which beset Switzerland. In America, the Torah community had to contend with the influence of materialism as well as the ignorance and apathy or false ideologies of the majority of Jews.

On the other hand, while the Swiss communities were observant, there was a marked lack of appreciation of the importance of Torah study in many quarters, which bordered on antipathy towards its representatives. In time, this would have been as hazardous for the future of Swiss Jewry as other, more obvious dangers.

Although the threats which the modern world posed to a Torah true life and outlook were universally perceived, as was the antidote — sustained immersion in the pure waters of Torah — the methods of disarming the former by promoting the latter could obviously not be the same in both places. The cultivation of a genuine love of Torah in a child or disciple requires much thought and care, even under favorable circumstances.

In the environment in which Reb Moishe found himself, it is hard to imagine that any other approach could have succeeded to the degree that his did. Reb Moishe's reinkeit, his total dedication to Torah alongside his utter humility, his ability to understand the world of his talmidim and to relate to them, and his unique way of conveying whatever message had to be conveyed, all contributed to his ultimate success in raising a generation of loyal European bnei Torah whose first allegiance was to the values they had absorbed from their beloved teacher and who transformed Western European Orthodoxy.

Rav Yehoshua Karlinsky spent two years teaching in the yeshiva in Lucerne. (Today he heads Kollel Be'er Avrohom and Yeshivas Nachalas Osher in Yerushalaim.) He recalled an insight he heard from Reb Moishe himself years later, which captured the essence of his approach to education.

The gemora (Brochos 17) states, "Abaye used to say, one should always be cunning in the fear of Heaven, answer gently [which will] abate anger and heighten peaceful relations with his brothers, relatives and all others, even with a gentile in the street..." Reb Moishe asked what special role was played by `cunning' in the fear of Heaven, in the context of Abaye's advice?

He went on to explain that the very person who truly fears Heaven and who is pained by every slight to Hashem's honor that he sees, is liable to react forcefully. It is true that sometimes there is no choice and one must indeed respond in this way. However, one must be cunning too, examining whether or not there is a real need for an aggressive response. The correct way to do things is often by responding gently, not heavy handedly.

(A talmid recalled that the only time he heard Reb Moishe attacking anyone was in a public address in 5733, when Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren permitted two mamzeirim to marry. Before a crowd that had travelled from all over Switzerland to hear him, Reb Moishe strongly protested the falsification of halacha and the use that was being made of Torah as a means of currying favor with the Zionist politicians.)

In a letter to Rav Karlinsky dated Iyar 5721, Reb Moishe referred to a certain position in Eretz Yisroel which the Ponovezher Rav had proposed he take up. "You know that I intend going up to Eretz Yisroel and I was extremely happy [to hear of this offer], for Hashem has apparently accepted my supplication," he wrote. "However, a decision regarding this matter depends upon several things. First, whether or not I would have to deliver shmuessen, for you know that it is not my way to address others with words of reproof — and especially in Eretz Yisroel, where there are so many who are superior to me, from whom one can hear mussar..."

The letter concludes with the wish, "May Hashem in his goodness guide us along the path of truth, to serve Him in accordance with His wishes." Indeed, Rav Karlinsky recalls, Reb Moishe was glad to honor any visitor to the yeshiva with the task of delivering his weekly mussar discourse in his place.

The above mentioned talmid of Reb Moishe's in Lucerne recalls that on those occasions when a specific issue or individual had to be addressed, the message was woven unobtrusively into the weekly shmuess which was delivered to the whole yeshiva. When it came to expressing a message in this way, Reb Moishe was a craftsman who formulated his words so that they conveyed exactly what he wanted to say to the particular person or persons who had to hear it. The lesson was always fully comprehended by the addressee.

Rav Moshe Lebel, rosh yeshiva, giving a shiur at Yeshiva Toras Chaim

He could convey his feelings without words as well. On one occasion when the bochurim were all gathered together, a few individuals sang some songs that were out of place. Reb Moishe simply covered his face with his hands and began weeping. The singing stopped immediately.

In most of his shmuessen, he discussed faith and trust in Hashem, the fact that Hashem runs the entire world and what it is that He wants from us. Another common theme was vindicating sinners. "Everybody has his weaknesses," Reb Moishe would say, "and Hashem certainly takes this into account."

In his endeavors to widen their appreciation of what dedication to a Torah life entails, Reb Moishe would refrain from ideological confrontations with his pupils. He would acknowledge their opinions (or their parents') about secular studies and merely add the qualification that it was necessary to devote plenty of time to learning as well as to preparing for and engaging in work.

Reb Moishe also showed the bochurim that he was familiar with the ways of the world, despite his never having attended a college. When they saw that side by side with this knowledge, their teacher's every word and movement was dedicated to the service of Hashem, they absorbed the lesson that Torah study and kedusha had to be prominent in a Jew's life, whatever else he did.

The message that the extent and depth of Torah are limitless was conveyed in a typical way. Upon the completion of a shiur, Reb Moishe would summarize what he had said and then remark that in fact, he had also not fully understood the gemora, however, if the bochurim followed the approach he had just explained, all the questions that had been raised could be resolved.

When discussing diligence in Torah learning, he would often stress that adopting this or that particular method of learning was not as important as deriving enjoyment and pleasure from one's learning. The main thing was to learn with desire, with a good feeling and with geshmak (i.e. the enjoyment of learning should be as real and tangible as that of a delicious food).

His talmid recalled that if a bochur had difficulty understanding a Tosafos, Reb Moishe would advise him to continue learning on and return to it the next day, when, he would reassuringly add, he would understand. If the difficulty still presented itself, the student could come to Reb Moishe for help.

The next day, Reb Moishe would not wait to be approached but would go over to the bochur and ask him whether he had understood the Tosafos yet.

Once, when asked why he waited a whole day instead of resolving the bochur's difficulty immediately, Reb Moishe replied that he had seen that the boy was on edge due to his lack of comprehension and that he therefore preferred to delay the explanation for a day, so that the bochur might be in a calmer, more relaxed frame of mind.

HaRav Zevulun Shwartzman at Yeshiva Toras Chaim

A Letter to the Father of A Yeshiva Bochur

Isru Chag Succos 5719, Lucerne,

Greetings and blessings,

You have surely heard from your son that I wanted to write to you as soon as you left here. However, I was delayed from doing so for a variety of reasons (you know about some of the developments to which I am referring). I therefore wanted to correct the situation immediately after Succos because there are several things that I regret not having emphasized during our conversation. I may thereby have caused bitul Torah or more.

When you were here, I was very glad to get to know you as a man of character, of a careful nature, who carefully weighs even trivial matters and certainly serious ones. I was therefore amazed to hear from your dear son that prior to his departure, he had almost decided to interrupt his learning and begin secular studies. He also told me that he would have continued learning and I received the impression that I was to blame.

In truth, he is right because it is usually expected that the rebbe will not want to hear of his pupil's stopping to learn. If therefore, I remained silent when hearing of the arguments against my position, I must have given the impression of acknowledging them to be correct.

The truth is though, that this is not the case. By nature, I do not insist that my opinions be accepted and I listen to the opinions of others, when they contain something of value. I then convey my own views and if someone wants to accept them, I am glad. If not, then what can I do about it?

If you remember, at the end of our conversation I asked you your son's age and when I heard that he is sixteen, I told you that there is still time to think about his future and that for the present, he should continue learning as he has been doing. I did not stress this more because I thought that you understood the justice of my point of view by yourself. Apparently you understood differently.

Also, I did not think that you were really planning to make an immediate decision, for this is a matter which requires deliberation and careful consideration, because it is literally a life and death question.

Since it is difficult for me to write at length, I requested through your son, that you come to Lucerne a second time so that I could further clarify matters verbally. To my dismay, you were unable to come here and the truth is that in writing, it is almost impossible to cover every aspect of the subject and deal with them all.

I merely wish to call your attention to how serious and important it is that your son continue learning. This is not something of mere momentary import. It affects his entire future. His development as a man and a faithful Jew depend upon it. He is still young and is in the middle of forming the principle elements of his personality — he will soon be a grown man. He has been very successful in his learning until now and if he continues this way for another year, perhaps half a year, he will have attained a sufficient level to be able to learn in depth by himself, i.e. to learn a sugya with the commentaries of the rishonim, which is the very least necessary in order to investigate a subject thoroughly.

His general opinions will also become firmer. Where is the safest and best protected place for someone of his age to pass through this stage, if not within the walls of the yeshiva, in a wholesome environment, where he will be burdened with the yoke of Torah and the involvement therein?

I don't know how far matters have progressed with regard to his secular studies however, the situation is reversible. I think it is worthwhile to absorb whatever expenses are involved as long as he has the possibility of returning to the yeshiva and continuing to learn the holy Torah. Just to show you how much this means to me — although I know that the proposition I am about to make is not really a practical one — I would be prepared to take upon myself any expenditure that has already been made, as long as there would be no question whatsoever of his leaving.

Believe me, it is exceptional for me to have written in this vein at such length however, something inside me prompted me to write. Hashem knows what lies within my heart. I would be very glad to hear what your opinion is on what I have mentioned. I wish you and yours every good thing and every blessing. May Hashem in His goodness lead us on the path of truth, so that we may fulfill His will and serve Him whole heartedly.

Yours etc. Moshe Halevi Soloveitchik

Notes: Reb Moishe's struggle between his own utter self effacement on the one hand and his sense of responsibility towards both his talmid and the boy's father, can be clearly perceived in the first paragraphs.

Also Reb Moishe's intention may have been that leaving the yeshiva was a matter of spiritual life and death however, he may have had in mind an incident that had taken place just a short time before. One of the talmidim left the yeshiva because his parents wanted him to pursue secular studies. About a year later, the boy's father became seriously ill and his life was in danger for several weeks. When this talmid told Reb Moishe about his father's illness, Reb Moishe said, "The truth is that I always fear for the health of parents who prevent their sons from continuing learning in the yeshiva."

This brief comment, which most people would probably prefer not to express even today, gives us a glimpse of Reb Moishe's complete emunah, his love of the truth and his deep concern for his fellow Jew's welfare, both material and spiritual. In fact, this bochur did return to learn for over ten years, in yeshivos and then in kollel and his father lived for almost another twenty years after his illness.

(This letter originally appeared in Kol HaTorah and the annotations are by Rabbi Shmuel Tzvi Schwartz.)

A Legacy of Love

Reb Moishe's warmth broke the ice. The transformation he wrought in the lives of his talmidim can be readily appreciated now, when thirty years have elapsed since he left Lucerne. They remained bound to him heart and soul even after they left Lucerne, maintaining constant contact with him in their later lives. Many of their own children have established Torah homes and have helped change the face of Jewish life both in Switzerland as well as beyond, learning in kollelim and serving as valued members of communities throughout Europe and Eretz Yisroel. The strength of his disciples' bond to him is discernible in the aching sense of loss they experienced when he was taken from them.

In his article in Kol HaTorah (see box) HaRav Salomon notes this as another aspect of the rebbe-talmid relationship. Chazal's teaching on the posuk, `Veshinantom levonecho, and you shall teach [Torah] to your sons,' is well known: "Your sons — these are your disciples." On the most basic level, this defines a Torah teacher as his pupil's spiritual parent, who has given him life and to whom all the pupil's subsequent accomplishments are attributable. However, it also reveals the type of relationship that ought to exist between the two. This should include the father's love and concern for his son, no less than the son's appreciation towards his father. (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 5:12)

Further insight is provided by the Sifrei which, after saying that in the same way as disciples are called sons, their teacher is called a father, cites the example of Elisha, who, upon seeing Eliyahu Hanovi's ascent to Heaven, cried out, "My father! My father! Chariot of Yisroel..." This posuk adds a new dimension. It is not enough if the rebbe's love is merely present but concealed. It must be experienced by his pupils to the extent that their instinctive response when he is taken away from them is to cry out, as a son does for his father. Though many years elapsed since he taught them in yeshiva, Reb Moishe remained a father to his talmidim and like true sons, they cried out in grief when he departed.


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