The Miracle of Mesorah
by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Rav Archik Bakst of Shavel was a dominant rabbinic figure in prewar Lita, as a rov, mechanech, posek and baal mussar. He took the mandate of kibbud av va’eim seriously and would frequently travel to visit his aged mother.
Once, he was laid over in the city of Lida, where he waited for the next train. Word quickly spread throughout the town that the Shaveleh Rov had arrived and was sitting in the train station. Lunch invitations flowed to him from the town’s leading citizens. Rav Bakst had to decide which invitation to accept, that of the rov, Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Reines, or the one from the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Polachek, affectionately known as the Meitchiter Illuy.
Rav Archik accepted the Meitchiter’s invitation, explaining afterwards, “I do not know who is the greater talmid chochom or tzaddik, but I know that Rav Shlomo was exposed to the Torah of my rebbi, Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm. I therefore went to his home for lunch.”
What Rav Archik was describing is the value and power of the intangible relationship between a rebbi and talmid. A rebbi isn’t just someone whose shiur you attend. A rebbi isn’t just a person who teaches you p’shat in a Rashi. He does that, of course, but he is more. A rebbi is a vibrant, real connection to life itself. Rav Bakst went to the person who had benefitted from his rebbi, because he believed that he carried spiritual nutrients that could enhance his growth.
It is a kindness from Hashem that even though times have drastically changed, and worlds have been destroyed and rebuilt, Torah remains a constant reality, guiding us from generation to generation. In our day, in 2015, and in our place, in the heartland of America, we still acknowledge the benefit and power of a rebbi, just as our forbearers did throughout the centuries.
This past Shabbos, I was heartened when I saw the dedication of rabbeim and the thirst of talmidim. I attended a Shabbaton for mesivta talmidim of Yeshiva Gedola of Waterbury, and as I listened to talmidim and rabbeim discuss burning issues, clarifying, arguing and analyzing, I couldn’t help but think of how fortunate these boys are.
The Chazon Ish famously said of chinuch that today’s battles must be waged using today’s armor. We have a mandate, as part of an am netzach, to move forward without forfeiting our identity.
This is the job of our rabbeim, transmitters of mesorah. Like skilled drivers navigating bumpy, curving roads, handling twists and turns with ease, the leaders selected by Heaven guide us and drive us along the paths of history.
The visit of Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch to Yeshiva Toras Emes in Flatbush, Brooklyn, last week was unique in that it brought the Slabodka rosh yeshiva back to his roots. Some seventy years ago, in 1944, when the idea of attending a yeshiva school was not yet popular, young Moshe Hillel Hirsch attended Yeshiva Toras Emes Elementary School.
Rabbi Nosson Muller, menahel of Toras Emes, introduced Rav Hirsch to the talmidim and told them that there were two reasons the rosh yeshiva was invited to visit the school. The first was so that the youngsters would get a glimpse of an adam gadol and a leader of thousands of talmidim. The second was so that they could see the greatness that every student can attain. After all, Rav Moshe Hillel started out just like them, as a student in Toras Emes.
“One of the greatest roshei yeshiva began learning Torah in our very yeshiva. You can too!” Rabbi Muller told the over 350 talmidim who packed the room in a display of kavod for the rosh yeshiva.
After the visit, Rav Hirsch expressed interest in visiting the centenarian former menahel, noted mechanech Rabbi Elias Schwartz, who was the principal of Toras Emes when Rav Moshe Hillel was a young student of the school. Rav Hirsch thanked Rabbi Schwartz for the values he instilled in him.
Rav Hirsch recalled a morning many decades ago when Rabbi Schwartz entered his classroom and asked each of the children what they wanted to do when they grow up. The answers were as could be expected: One wanted to be a fireman, another a policeman, a third a doctor, and so on.
After listening to each child’s ambitions, Rabbi Schwartz told the boys that regardless of the career path they would eventually choose, they should remember that there is nothing more important than being a talmid chochom and no pursuit more worthy than Torah.
“I thank you for all that you did for me and my classmates,” the rosh yeshiva told Rabbi Schwartz. “You told us that day that whatever we do, we must first be a talmid chochom. That message inspired me then and inspires me until today.”
Visibly emotional, Rabbi Schwartz told the rosh yeshiva how proud he is to have such a talmid and that he “should keep on growing.”
With tears in his eyes, Rabbi Schwartz reached out to take the rosh yeshiva’s hand and kissed it with great emotion.
Seventy years had passed, yet the rebbi-talmid relationship was as strong and personal as ever.
We are a people of mesorah, transmitting our heritage from one generation to the next. The relationship developed between the generations is integral to the success of the endurance of our tradition. Rabbeim are the heroes of transmission and talmidim are the heroes of acceptance.
The Sefas Emes points out that the posuk references that Hashem hardened the heart of Paroh as the saga of the makkos played out. Paroh’s stubbornness, however, seems to be rooted in the ability of his mind to hear the logic, accept the threats of impending destruction, and then ignore them. His deficiency seems to be located in his brain, not in his heart.
The head is where a person processes intellectual information, but how we react to that information, and how we adapt and modify our behavior as a result of that analysis, depends on the purity of our hearts. Thus, while Paroh may have accepted the truth of Moshe’s words on an intellectual level, he proved incapable of applying those facts to his life. Thus, his failure was one of the heart.
Over Shabbos, the achdus I witnessed was impressive. The ruach and singing were invigorating, and the talents and love of the rabbeim were heartening, yet what moved me most was the purity of heart of the talmidim. I sensed their essential conviction that there is a mesorah and that there is wisdom to be found amongst those of the older generation.
The bochurim I met demonstrated a gnawing desire to find the truth. In pursuit of that goal, they ask real questions that get real answers that they are willing to accept.
Those bochurim are fortunate to have rabbeim qualified to answer their questions and help guide them lovingly along a path that leads to the potential to become a talmid chochom and a gavra rabbah.
Just as the Shavele Rov who sought out the unique characteristic possessed by the Meitchiter Illuy because he had been exposed to the influence of his rebbi, talmidim who base their worldview on that which they receive behold the essential solidity that will accompany them throughout their lives wherever they go.
There is siyata diShmaya that accompanies the talmid. A follower merits a special connection with his leader.
The following story appears in the sefer Yissochor Zevulun, written by Rav Aharon Tawil and printed 100 years ago in Yerushalayim. The sefer was recently republished by Rav Yaakov Hillel.
The Arizal was once learning with his talmidim, when a young talmid, Rav Shmuel Ozidah, entered to join the shiur. When the Arizal saw him come in, he immediately rose and said, “Boruch haba.” He took the young man by his hand, sat him down next to him, and spoke to him.
Rav Chaim Vital was intrigued. “Rebbi,” he said to the Arizal, “why did you rise for that young man and why did you extend to him the greeting of ‘Boruch haba,’ something you have never previously done?”
The Arizal responded that he did not rise in respect for the young talmid, nor did he say, “Boruch haba,” to him. “I was being mechabed Rav Pinchos ben Yair, who arrived with him. His neshomah was nislabeish in this bochur, because he performed a mitzvah that Rav Pinchos ben Yair was accustomed to performing. Therefore, his neshomah came to him today to be mechazek and to help him.”
Later, the talmidim urged the bochur to tell them which special mitzvah he had performed that would have the holy Tanna accompany him.
He told them that on his way to the shiur, he heard cries coming from a home. He entered and saw a family that had just been robbed of everything. Thieves had literally taken the clothing off their backs. The bochur hurried home and brought his clothing for the family to cover themselves and stay warm until they would be able to put themselves back together.
Thus, by following the path of Rav Pinchos ben Yair, known for his generosity, compassion and charity, Rav Shmuel merited his company. Though he was not even aware of the assistance, it was there and he benefited from it.
This is the intangible zechus of following a mesorah, the Divine protection and guidance with which a true talmid is stamped.
The Arizal explained the phenomenon to his talmidim. “That is the sod, the explanation, of Chazal’s statement that ‘Haba letaheir mesayin oso - Heaven helps those who seek to purify themselves” (Yoma 38b), for as soon as a person thinks about doing a great mitzvah, the neshomah of a tzaddik from the other world who excelled in that mitzvah comes to help him, and through that he is able to properly perform the mitzvah. Otherwise, the yeitzer hora would overpower the person and scare him out of doing the great mitzvah.”
Children who cling to the paths of their fathers and talmidim who cherish the lessons of their rabbeim merit a special zechus. When we sacrifice and give even more than we think we can, and we work to plumb the depths of the Torah that we think might be too difficult an undertaking for us, we merit special assistance. We are never alone and are never given challenges that we cannot overcome.
Rav Tzvi Shvartz of Rechovot, a one-man kiruv lighthouse, is a talmid of Rav Hillel Zaks zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Knesses Hagedolah who passed away last week. Reb Tzvi told me something that he heard from Rav Hillel, who was a son of Rebbetzin Faiga, a daughter of the Chofetz Chaim.
One evening, someone came Rav Zaks with a manuscript of a sefer he had written. The author left it and asked him to review it. He put the book aside to read when he would have an opportunity. He then went to sleep.
The next morning, his mother asked him what he was doing with a treife book. She explained that her father had come to her in a dream the previous night and told her that her son had a treife book in his possession.
Rav Hillel immediately took the manuscript and disposed of it outside his home.
The Chofetz Chaim was looking out for his grandson and protecting him from Shomayim, because he knew that he was doing his best to follow in the ways of his sainted grandfather. He thus reached out to assist him.
When we work hard lesheim Shomayim, our forebears protect us and look out for us. They help us succeed and excel.
If we show interest and do the best we can, we are zocheh to siyata diShmaya. We must not permit our errors and missteps to discourage us from remaining on the proper path and continuing to endeavor to improve.
We must study the lessons of those who came before us, for their zechuyos and lessons are eternal.
We are sometimes afraid to undertake great commitments. We look at the work that remains to be done to prepare the world for Moshiach and we shudder. We look at the number of people who need help and can become discouraged before we even begin. We see how many Jewish people are removed from Torah and wonder if it is even possible for us to reach them.
We look at the size of Shas and are frightened from even attempting to study it in its entirety. We want to be better Jews and we know that to do that, we must study Shulchan Aruch and halachah seforim, but the complexity of it is daunting. We must ensure that we don’t capitulate to the urge to despairingly concede.
Heaven helps those who seek to purify themselves. We have to begin. We have to show the willingness to undertake improvements. We will then be granted the strength and ability to fill the vacuum in our world. We have to do what we can to repair the breaches and to replace tears with smiles, sadness with happiness, and tumah with taharah. Hakadosh Boruch Hu and his agents, the tzaddikim of ages past will assist us.
In this week’s parsha, Am Yisroel essentially begins its formation. It is interesting to note that the first mitzvos they received before leaving Mitzrayim were those of Kiddush Hachodesh and Korban Pesach.
Kiddush Hachodesh reminds us on a monthly basis that we should never despair. Although the moon shrinks and disappears, it always returns to its former glory, size and strength. The Jewish people, as a nation and as individuals, must likewise, never perceive loss and hardship as eternal setbacks. Hashem watches over us and provides us the ability of resurgence and growth.
The mitzvah of Korban Pesach welcomed Am Yisroel to a life of avodas Hashem with a mitzvah unique in its demand for zeal and care.
The sheep must be chosen days prior to Erev Pesach to ensure the health and worthiness of the korban. As it remained in the Jewish home, tied to its owner’s bed, the family’s anticipation for Pesach continued to build. Once offered in the Bais Hamikdosh, the korban was eaten bechaburah, in groups. Families joined together - fathers and sons, grandfathers and their grandchildren - symbolizing the role of mesorah in mitzvos. Every aspect of the korban required special care, including its final consumption, when it was forbidden to break any bones while eating it.
The Korban Pesach was eaten with matzos, which also require intricate care to produce. There must be no chometz available for the duration of the yom tov, another difficult mitzvah to observe.
Armed with these mitzvos and the lessons they convey, the Jewish people were able to advance towards Yetzias Mitzrayim and Har Sinai. The first mitzvos that the soon-to-be-redeemed people were commanded were difficult, but they would provide much joy and succor when properly observed and fostered a unique relationship between the Creator and His people.
A teenaged talmid had questions on emunah and his bais medrash rebbi feared that he was headed on a path that would lead him out of yeshiva. On Purim, he brought the boy to Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l and asked the rosh yeshiva if he could answer the boy’s questions. Rav Shach told the boy that there were many people coming and going that day and it wasn’t a good time to engage in serious discussion.
“Why don’t we speak during the Pesach bein hazemanim?” Rav Shach said to the boy. “Then we’ll have time and peace of mind to discuss your questions.”
When the boy returned to yeshiva after bein hazemanim, his rebbi asked him if he had gone back to Rav Shach. “No, I didn’t,” he answered. “When we were there on Purim, through his conversation with me, he surreptitiously found out where I live. He came to my house twice. I couldn’t believe it. He said that we made up to meet, so he came to me because I hadn’t come to him.”
“Did he answer your questions?” the rebbi asked.
“He didn’t have to,” said the boy. “I never asked them. The fact that Rav Shach troubled himself to travel to me in Tel Aviv changed everything in my life.”
This boy’s life was turned around when he saw that Rav Shach believed in him and cared about him and the direction in which he was headed.
This is the dedication and concern I saw this past Shabbos. I observed a flow of love between rabbeim and talmidim. The feelings appeared to be mutual; not only do the rabbeim believe in their talmidim, but the talmidim believe in their rabbeim.
A boy related that he was in many different yeshivos and was never able to sit still, but when he came to Waterbury in the eleventh grade, he developed such a kesher with his rebbi that he did whatever his rebbi said, because he felt the love. He became a tremendous masmid, as he was shown his potential, it was demonstrated to him that he really does have the ability to make something of himself and his life.
In 2015, we still see the miracle of the mesorah. We see the ayin tovah, the confidence and the belief that rabbeim have in each talmid, and, in turn, we see the belief that the talmidim have in their rabbeim, which is such a vital component in continuing the golden chain.
For me, this past Shabbos was restorative, bolstering my faith in the process and the precious olam hayeshivos. It gave me a new depth of understanding of the pesukim of a parsha filled with references to mesorah: “Lemaan tesapeir b’oznei bincha uven bincha… Vehigadeta levincha bayom hahu...”
As fathers, our job is to give. As children, our job is to receive. As teachers, our duty is to transmit, and as students it is to acquire. As good Jews, our task is to do both in order to perform the sacred mission that comes with being part of a mesorah.
Like the staff of the Waterbury mesivta, rabbeim and moros in yeshivos and schools around the globe remain dedicated to their sacred tasks as the world spins out of control.
At a time when people fear what news the next day will bring, it is comforting to know that what is true and eternal is safe.