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Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna

Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna
....HaRav Yechezkel Sarna was born in Horodok Russia, in 5650 (1890).
His father was R' Yaakov Chaim, a maggid meishorim in Horodok and
Slonim, who became famous for his outstanding rhetoric as the maggid
of Slonim. His mother Eidel stemmed from the Buxenbaum family. Like
all of the other children of the period, he began his education in the
local cheder. His father, who recognized young Yechezkel's talents,
sent him when he was still very young to various yeshivos in the area.
Yechezkel wandered from yeshiva to yeshiva, until his older brother,
Reb Leib finally brought him to Slabodke in Kovno, where he began to
study in the Or HaChaim yeshiva ketana, known locally as Yeshivas
Rebbe Herschel. The mashgiach at that time, Reb Eliyahu Laicrovits,
planted mussar roots in young Yechezkel's heart. Yechezkel remained in
Slabodke for only a year. In 5662 (1902), he journeyed to Maltshe,
where he studied under one of the most famous Torah giants of the
time, HaRav Zalman Sender Kahana-Shapiro, who also presided as the
Chief Rabbi of Maltshe. Due to an inner conflict which occurred in the
yeshiva, Reb Zalman Sender left Maltshe, and transferred to Kriniki.
This was only a year after Yechezkel had arrived in Maltshe. However,
without a mentor, he too left Maltshe and returned in 5663 to
Slabodke, in order to study in Knesses Beis Yitzchok, headed by HaRav
Chaim Rabinowitz, who later on became known as Rav Chaim of Telz. He
was very fond of the youth, who became bar mitzvah that year, and
recognized his brilliance of mind and swift grasp. When Rev Chaim was
invited to deliver shiurim in Telz, at the end of 5664, he included
the young Yechezkel in the group of well known Torah scholars who were
schooled in halocho. In the beginning of the winter of 5666 (1906),
the young Yechezkel once more returned to Maltshe, in order to study
under HaRav Shimon Shkop. Another year passed, and Reb Shimon left
Maltshe. Under the influence of the son of the Alter, HaRav Shmuel
Finkel, the young Yechezkel, who was by then seventeen years old,
decided to return to Slabodke. 5667 (1907) was the most important year
in the life of Reb Yechezkel. His searching and wandering had ended,
and he decided to remain in Slabodke -- and he remained there until
his final day.
Slabodke itself wandered first to Eretz Yisroel in Chevron the city of
the forefathers, and then to Geula in Yerushalayim, but he always
remained in Slabodke. He never left it. Regarding this, he later said
that he was very grateful to Reb Shmuel Finkel for having drawn him
into the Slabodke life.

the first part of this article, we discussed some of the themes and
great incidents of HaRav Yechezkel Sarna's life. These included the
funeral of the Alter of Slobodke and the funeral of the Seridei Eish.
We also related an incident with the Chofetz Chaim and a young yeshiva
student who, during World War I, was accused by the Russians of spying
for the Germans. The first part also gave the basic biographical
details of HaRav's early years as a youth in Horodok and his wandering
through several yeshivos and mentors until he finally settled into the
life of Slobodke.
Merging Into Slobodke Slobodke's study hall at that time was filled
with some of the great Torah scholars of Lithuania. There were veteran
talmidei chachomim, who had gained fame for their straightforward
thought and sharpness of mind. Among them were the bochur Aaron the
Sislovitzker (HaRav Aharon Kotler) and Yaakov the Dahailover (HaRav
Yaakov Kamenetsky). And then young Yechezkel Sarna, the Horodoker,
joined their ranks. He once casually related that he was a peer of the
Sislovitzker, who later became the symbol of brilliance and
astuteness. He was very well versed in the depth of halocho and
equally as great in the scope of his knowledge. Maran HaRav Eliezer
Man Shach, who was in the yeshiva then, related that the bnei yeshiva
would speak in amazement about the Thursday mishmar nights, in which
the Horodoker would study forty pages of gemora. It was natural that
the image of the refined young man caught the eye of the yeshiva's
founder and father, the Alter, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. The Alter
related to each and every student differently. With his special
critical sense, the Alter understood that Reb Yechezkel was a young
man who, in addition to greatness in Torah, had outstanding qualities
which rendered him fit to be a mentor in the mussar halls of the
future generation. The Alter displayed his fondness for Reb Yechezkel
and drew him close to him. He saw the young man as one whom he could
model into a suitable spiritual and ethical image. The spiritual guide
(mashpia) of the yeshiva (in addition to the Alter of course) at that
time was HaRav Zalman Dolinsky, also called Reb Zalman Radiner. His
discourses also had a great impact upon Reb Yechezkel, who used to
mention the lasting lessons he gleaned from them. The young Yechezkel
studied in Knesses Yisroel in Slobodke until 5674 (1914). However, for
a few months in 5670 (1910), he studied at Telz, having been sent
there along with a group of students who had been asked to assist the
mashgiach, Reb Shmuel Fondiller, Hy"d, who was one of those working to
spread the mussar approach.
The Upheaval of World War I World War One broke out in 5674. The
yeshiva was closed, and the Jews of Slobodke expelled. It soon
reopened in Minsk, where young Yechezkel also arrived. Like his
friends, he also used forged certificates in order to evade the draft
which loomed over the heads of young men of his age. But to his
misfortune, he was caught by a policeman, who detained him in the
local prison. He was supposed to stand trial, be punished, and even
worse than that, sent to the front, where people were falling like
flies. Aware of his difficult situation, he sought an escape route,
which wasn't long in coming. A lazy guard turned his head for a
moment, enabling the prisoner's swift escape. He hastened to the home
of a relative, Rev Yehoshua Cymbalist (Horodoner), where he went into
hiding. That very night, he was smuggled to Smilowitz, where the Radin
yeshiva had wandered along with its rosh yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim.
In the meantime, the Slobodke yeshiva left Minsk, which was very close
to the front by that time, and transferred to Krementchug. Reb
Yechezkel remained with the Chofetz Chaim, first in Smilowitz, and
later in Shumiatz. He absorbed many of the Chofetz Chaim's ways, and
he soon came to regard him as one of his mentors. He also enjoyed the
acutely logical shiurim of the rosh hayeshiva, HaRav Naftoli Trop, who
was known in the yeshivos for his remarkable shiurim. HaRav Sarna
regarded this period as one of the most beautiful in his life. His
heart absorbed the impressions made by the righteousness and piety of
the Chofetz Chaim. He filled his mind with the lomdus approach of Reb
Naftoli. But when he left he was the same Reb Yechezkel who had
entered -- a product of Slobodke. A ten-chapter pamphlet called Toras
Ha'Onshim, written by him in Smilowitz in 5676 (1916), was found among
his writings. It testifies clearly that his Slobodke character did not
change during his period in Radin. In the summer of 5677, Reb
Yechezkel was asked to come to the Slobodke yeshiva that was still
temporarily in Krementchug. The Alter hadn't forgotten his beloved
student and wanted to see him now beside him. Laden with Torah, yirah,
and mussar, he returned to Krementchug, where his place on the eastern
wall as one of the top students of the yeshiva was acknowledged. The
Jews of Krementchug were enduring a difficult period. The danger of
death hovered over their heads, and they were prey to pogroms,
robbers, bandits, rioters and starvation. In Adar 5679 (1919), HaRav
Yechezkel married the daughter of HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who
chose him as a son-in-law. As the war ended soon after, the yeshiva
returned to its abode in Slobodke, a Jewish suburb of Kovno which was
at the time under Lithuanian rule. Reb Yechezkel was one of the
returners, settling in his former place of study. It was the beginning
of a new period for Slobodke. In Slobodke, Reb Yechezkel dedicated all
of his time and effort to Torah and mussar. When the Alter proposed
that he deliver shiurim in the yeshiva, he refused. When the Kollel
Beis Yisroel, headed by HaRav Yitzchok Eizek Sher, was founded, he did
not join. Nonetheless, he remained in contact with its members. He
signed the articles he wrote in the Tevuno magazine with the letters
YCh"S, his initials. This was the journal of the Slobodke yeshivaleit,
edited by Rav Yisroel Zissel Dvoratz. His influence in the yeshiva was
great, although he refused to occupy any official position. He rarely
engaged in public activity, except for a few missions he was given by
his father-in-law, the Alter. In Kovno in 5684 (1924) he served as
emissary of the Alter at a rabbinical convention on current religious
The Move Up to Eretz Yisroel In 5684, trouble brewed in Slobodke. The
Lithuanian government had decided to revoke the right of yeshiva
students to an exemption from army service. At the time, the rosh
yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, was in the United States.
HaRav Yechezkel Sarna tried to activate the Jewish lobby, even
personally participating in the delegation which appeared before the
authorities. But to no avail. After consulting with the Alter, it was
decided that part of the yeshiva should be transferred to Eretz
Yisroel. The proposal was a daring one for those days, considering the
difficult conditions in Eretz Yisroel of almost eighty years ago. A
telegram was sent to the United States to ask the Rosh Yeshiva to
approve the proposed solution. In his return telegram, the helmsman of
the yeshiva said that the suggestion was a good one. The Rosh Yeshiva
even promised to make every effort to secure money to carry out the
complex transfer. After Pesach, HaRav Yechezkel set out to Eretz
Yisroel to find a suitable place for the yeshiva. He was charged with
organizing the yeshiva's transfer and setup in its new abode, along
with the task of securing entrance certificates for the yeshiva
students. HaRav Avrohom Grodzinsky, who served as the yeshiva's
spiritual director, arrived soon afterward. It was decided to transfer
the yeshiva to Ir Ho'Ovos, Hevron. During the period of the Yomim
Noraim of 5685, the first minyan of students reached Hevron. That
winter, many other students from Slobodke, Telz and other yeshivos
arrived, as did students from the old yishuv in Yerushalayim, who
looked a bit skeptically at the new yeshiva, whose ways seemed
somewhat strange to them. HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, however,
discerned the yiras Shomayim of the students, and remained in close
contact with the yeshiva and its directors until his final days.
Slobodke, the kingdom of mussar and yirah which strode along the paths
charted by Reb Yisroel of Salant, was the first of the yeshivos to
make aliya to Eretz Yisroel. The leader of the aliya, Reb Yechezkel,
regarded it as a great merit to have paved the way later followed also
by the Lomza yeshiva which settled in Petach Tikvah, as well as by
others. Within a few months, HaRav Avrohom Grodzinsky was asked to
return to Lithuania. As a result, the burden of leading the yeshiva in
Hevron fell on Reb Yechezkel, who displayed outstanding organizational
capacity. In addition, he was revealed as a mashpia, whose deep,
logical shiurim captured the interest of students who were not much
younger than he. The name of the yeshiva became famous throughout the
Jewish world. In the course of 5685, the rosh yeshiva, who had come
from America, visited Hevron and then returned to Slobodke in Elul. He
was accompanied by his brother-in-law, the son of the Alter, HaRav
Moshe Finkel, who was suddenly niftar on Succos of 5686, after having
remained in Hevron for only six months, where he delivered shiurim.
The Alter also arrived in the summer of 5685. A year later, in 5686, a
new mashpia ruchani was appointed: HaRav Leib Chasman, later known for
his Or Yahel. In the beginning of 5687, when the Alter fell ill and
felt that his end was near, he called his beloved Reb Yechezkel to
him, and told him that he should begin to deliver mussar shmuessim in
the yeshiva. The first sichos were delivered in HaRav Yechezkel's
home. He later began to speak in the yeshiva itself. During his early
efforts as a mussar speaker -- perhaps because of a fear of public
speaking or perhaps due to his desire to weigh his words -- he would
pause between every word, like one counting precious pearls. In time,
however, his speech began to flow, and he became on outstanding
speaker. After the petirah of the Alter in the winter of 5677, Reb
Yechezkel gained recognition as the mussar leader in the citadel of
the Alter, along with HaRav Leib Chasman, who was esteemed for his
deep spiritual influence. In Av of 5689, blood baths inundated the
country; one of the worst hit was the Jewish settlement in Hevron.
During the infamous savage massacre by Hevron's Arabs, twenty-four of
the yeshiva's students lost their lives. The Hevron chapter in the
lives of these Jews ended, as did the Hevron period of Slobodke. "Our
sorrow is great as the sea," Reb Yechezkel telegraphed HaRav Yitzchok
Eizek Sher in Slobodke. He himself had gone to Yerushalayim on the
Thursday prior to the Shabbos of the massacre, but due to the tense
situation he was unable to return to Hevron in time for Shabbos. Thus,
he was far from the focal point of the calamity. Scores of students
dispersed. Parents from abroad called upon their sons to come home.
"Moh rabu rachamov," wrote Rav Yechezkel in a letter, "that the
yeshiva merited to arise anew after so terrible a destruction."
Rebuilding Rebuilding the yeshiva was not easy. Grieving, pained, and
injured, the students assembled once more. Invitations arrived from
Tel Aviv, from Petach Tikvah and even from Reb Yitzchok Gerstenkorn of
Bnei Brak, who offered HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein the position of
the Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak. But the choice fell on Yerushalayim, and
the burden once more on Reb Yechezkel, who was nearly alone at the
front. The Rosh Hayeshiva made the necessary efforts to collect the
money, while HaRav Leib Chasman, who was ailing and feeble, did his
share by encouraging the students and guiding their chinuch. "Of
course, during the first weeks," Reb Yechezkel related in a letter,
"they were in a desperate situation -- oppressed and ailing, lacking
even clothing and shoes. But from the 15th of Elul, they began to
slowly recuperate, and by the week before Rosh Hashanah the yeshiva
had already assumed once more the form of a yeshiva in the full sense
of that term and, as is customary in Elul, the students made great
strides in their studies." The synagogue in the Achva neighborhood was
the yeshiva's first station in Yerushalayim. Quite soon, homes,
apartments and houses were purchased in Geula, where the large study
hall of the Hevron yeshiva -- called by its former name that was
hallowed by the blood of the kedoshim -- was eventually built. A new
period began. Hevron occupied its place among the fashioners of Torah
in Eretz Hakodesh. Generations of talmidei chachomim, roshei yeshiva
and dayanim developed between the walls of the yeshiva. Under Reb
Yechezkel's inspiration, the Yavneh Talmud Torah and the Tiferes Tzvi
Yeshiva were founded. They served as a mechina to prepare students for
the Hevron Yeshiva. Kollelim for avreichim, alumni of the yeshiva,
were founded in Yerushalayim, Petach Tikvah and Tel Aviv. In the wake
of the yeshiva's difficult financial situation, HaRav Sarna was forced
to travel to the United States in 5691 (1931), where he stayed for
twelve months. The uprisings had an effect on the yeshiva's financial
situation which had continually deteriorated since then. Sufficient
funds were not raised in America. The responsibility increased with
the petirah of the rosh yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, in the
winter of 5694. HaRav Yechezkel became the rosh yeshiva, the
mashgiach, the parnas. We cannot describe this difficult period at
length in this article, though we will mention that included very
difficult times that it included liens and even prison sentences
because of the yeshiva's financial difficulties. Eventually, under
HaRav Yechezkel's influence, the Weizman brothers, owners of the Nur
match factory of Acco, merited to build the illustrious yeshiva study
hall, where Torah still resounds today. During the period of the
Holocaust, HaRav Sarna was one of the first to spearhead the Vaad
Hayeshivos fund, and he assisted the Vaad Hatzolah which dealt with
European refugees. He also took an interest in aliya of young,
orphaned refugees as well as in their Torah education. His two
brothers in-law, HaRav Aharon Cohen and HaRav Moshe Hevroni worked
alongside him in the yeshiva as roshei yeshiva. HaRav Meir Chodosh was
its menahel ruchani. "Let's bring Moshiach tzidkeinu," he told the
mashgiach, HaRav Eliyahu Lopian, who visited him on the last erev
Shavuos of his life. When he became seriously ill, his students
recited many prayers for his welfare. "Now it's Elul, and the students
will surely study Torah and mussar with hasmodoh. I hope that my
illness will not disturb them," he told one of his close confidants.
The tree was not cut down. Also the well did not dry up. The tree
continues to grow and the well to flow: one in Givat Mordechai, the
other, in Hevron Geula in Yerushalayim, headed by his son, who is
continuing in his footsteps, HaRav Yaakov Chaim Sarna.