by Eliahu Meir Klugman
originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also
available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications
Judaiscope Series. Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmulevitz
Kovno, 5663/1902 - 5739/1979 Jerusalem
Rosh Yeshivah in Mir-Poland, Mir-Shanghai, and Mir-Jerusalem
He pushed the outer limits of total immersion in Torah thought
The scene: The third level lecture in Reb Shimon Shkop's yeshivah in
Reb Shimon has just tested the students. Before leaving, he turns to
the class and remarks, "This much I can say about your Rebbi: when
was as old as he is now, I did not even stand as tall as his ankles
Torah knowledge." The Rebbi was all of 19 years of age.
The scene: Hoshanah Rabbah in Jerusalem 57 years later. The young
Grodno instructor, who has become the Rebbi and Rosh Yeshivah of
thousands, is lying on his death-bed, his body racked with pain and
ravaged by disease. A young man enters the room and asks him to pray
for the recovery of a sick person.
After the young man leaves, the Rosh Yeshivah says to his son, "Please
dress me, I'm going to the Kosel."
"But father," his son protests, "you can hardly turn
over in bed. How
can you possibly go to the Kosel?"
"Dress me, please," his father insists. "I'm going to
Reluctantly the son helps his father dress and with the aid of
another, carries him to the car which takes him to the Kosel. At the
Kosel, the father with barely enough strength to stand, gets out of
the car and entreats the Almighty for the well-being of another. Then
he returns to his sickbed.
Such was the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, Moreinu HaGaon Reb Chaim Leib
Shmulevitz. Such was his youth, such was his old age, and such was his
It is beyond the ability of this writer to capture the essence of such
a giant among men. What, really, can one say about a man who learned
through the entire Torah, both written and oral, countless times
(Bavli, Yerushalmi, Midrash, Rishonim, and Acharonim), and knew it so
thoroughly and completely in its width, breadth and depth? What more
is there to say about one who had the entire Torah at his fingertips,
and not satisfied with his own accomplishments, spent all his days
teaching this Torah by word and by deed to thousands of disciples,
young and old, brilliant and ordinary?
The Torah tells us: "And
Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep
for her." Reb Chaim asked, "Why doesn't the Torah elaborate
this point and tell us what Abraham said?" He suggested that the
answer is to be found in Rashi's comment to another verse: "The
of the life of Sarah." Rashi comments, "They were all equal
Reb Chaim explained, "Abraham could not truly eulogize Sarah, because,
as the Chazal tell us, she was greater than he in prophecy, limiting
Abraham's capacity to fully understand Sarah's greatness. Thus he
could not understand Sarah's greatness. He could not describe the true
dimensions of her personality. He could, however, offer one
all-encompassing praise - 'All her years were equally superb.' There
were no lapses in her excellence. She was perfectly consistent and
If we cannot evaluate the Rosh Yeshivah, we can at least paraphrase
Abraham's comment: All his days were equally virtuous.
What we will attempt to do is sketch with tentative strokes the
likeness of a man whose life was an unending, consistently perfect
lesson, expounding and illustrating the heights that can be attained
by one whose entire being is permeated by Torah, and Torah only.
Reb Chaim was born in Kovno,
Lithuania, on Motzaei Rosh Hashanah 5663
(1902) to Reb Refael Alter Shmulevitz and his wife, Ettel, the
daughter of Reb Yoseif Yoizel Horowitz, Der Alter f n Novaradok. The
sandek at his bris was Reb Yitzchak Blazer (Reb Itzel Peterburger),
Torah and Mussar luminary of the time, one of Reb Yisrael Salanter's
greatest disciples. Reb Chaim's respect for his father was legendary
and he quoted him often in both Torah lectures and Mussar discourses.
He considered his father's handwritten chiddushim (Torah novellae) his
most valued treasure. During the Six Day War, when the yeshivah was
within range of Jordanian artillery fire, Reb Chaim sent some of the
manuscripts to America with his uncle, Rabbi Avraham Yoffen, with
specific instructions that he carry them by hand and not put them in
his luggage, because "Dos iz mein gantze leben - This is my whole
He often told of the time
the Mirrer Mashgiach, Rabbi Yerucham
Levovitz, passed through Stutchin, where his father, Reb Alter, was
Rosh Yeshivah. Reb Alter asked Reb Yerucham to stay on as Mashgiach.
I have no means to support
you, nothing to give you," he said, "but
the one shirt that I'm wearing. But I'll give it to you, if you'll
Reb Chaim explained this
incident in his inimitable manner: "Was it
really necessary to have Reb Yerucham as Mashgiach? The Rav of
Stutchin was none other than Reb Leib Chasman - a talmid of Reb
Yisrael Salanter, one of the pillars of the Mussar Movement. Didn't
Reb Leib suffice for the Mussar needs of Stutchin! We can learn from
here that for just one additional drop of Mussar, one must be prepared
to give away his only shirt."
In 5680 (1920), when Reb
Chaim was 17, both his parents passed away
within a very short time, orphaning him, a brother, and two sisters.
As the oldest, Reb Chaim felt the responsibility of supporting his
brother and sisters, so during the day he went to the marketplace to
earn a few groschen.
"That was during the
day," his brother Reb Shlomo recalls, "but the
entire night, I would see him writing his chiddushei Torah - which
must have occupied his mind during his day in the market!"
He was able to study Torah
and think in Torah under all circumstances
wherever he was. At a meal, at a simchah, taking a walk, or on the
bus, one could always see him with his brow furrowed in concentration
and his closed fist moving back and forth, punctuating his Torah
He committed to paper his
every shiur, shmuess, chaburah, vaad and
public address, leaving behind at his passing thousands of handwritten
pages, including chiddushim on every tractate of the Talmud.
With Reb Shimon in Grodno
When but eighteen, Reb Chaim
was invited by the world famous Gaon,
Rabbi Shimon Shkop to give the third level shiur in the yeshivah
ketanah (preparatory academy) in Grodno. Many of his students of those
years later became great Torah leaders - Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky (Rosh
Yeshivah in Ponevezh), Rabbi Yisrael Gustman (Rosh Yeshivah Netzach
Yisrael) and Rabbi Dovid Lipschutz (Suvalker Rav), to mention but a
When Rabbi Gustman was menachem
oveil Reb Chaim's family, he related:
"I was among Reb Chaim's first talmidim in Grodno. When he finished
his shiur we would return to the beis hamidrash. A while later he
would rush around the room, rounding up the bachurim of the shiur.
'Quickly, you must come at once!' he would exclaim. 'I just thought
a new approach to understanding the Yerushalmi.' This might happen a
few times a day, even late at night. We didn't listen to the shiur,
His four years in Grodno
with Reb Shimon had a profound influence on
his approach to Talmudic analysis.
The Move to Mir
At the age of 22, he headed
a group of students who transferred from
Grodno to Mir, and for the next 54 years, Reb Chaim Stutchiner (as he
was called) taught, guided, and inspired thousands of talmidim by word
and by deed, individually and collectively, with his way of life and
his approach to learning.
His hasmadah (diligence)
and the intensity of his efforts in Torah
study became a legend in his lifetime.
A friend once asked to study
with him before Shacharis. "Fine," said
Reb Chaim. "How about starting - at one in the morning?"
"I can't tell you when
he slept," said that friend - now a Rosh
Yeshivah; "but I do know that when I went to sleep at eleven p.m.,
was still up, learning. And he would awaken me at 1 a.m. for our
pre-Shacharis seder (session)."
During his years in Mir,
while still single, he ate the Friday night
meal at the home of the Mashgiach Reb Yerucham. After the meal, Reb
Yerucham gave a Mussar discourse in his home to scores of students,
but the Mashgiach would tell Reb Chaim not to stay: "Your mind
always occupied with your learning; during the shmuess it will be no
different. Go to the yeshivah and study in peace."
In his shmuessen, Reb Chaim
never spoke about increasing one's hours
of learning. Rather, he dwelt on the ruination that interruption
"Imagine a kettle of
water heated to 200o and then cooled down...
heated up to 200o, and again cooled... ad infinitum. With all the heat
expended, the water will never be brought to a boil. And if it is
heated up for sufficient duration but once, it will forever be boiled
His thirst for Torah knowledge
was always unquenchable.
A chavrusa of his recalled
studying together when this chavrusa's
pupil, a young novice, approached to ask some simple questions. Reb
Chaim leaned over, straining to catch every word. "What did he
What does he think? What did he say?" Perhaps he would hear a new
approach, a new insight, something too precious to miss. He thirsted
to learn from anyone, no matter how humble.
The importance of this eagerness
to learn Torah from anyone was a
thread that he wove through many a shmuess. In this context he often
dwelled on the story told in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 68):
The disciples of Rabbi Eliezer
HaGadol were gathered around his
deathbed and each, in turn, asked the nature and circumstances of his
own death. When Rabbi Akiva's turn came Rabbi Eliezer said to him,
"Your end will be the most severe because if you had studied under
properly, you would have learned much more Torah." And so it was.
Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death, his flesh torn from his body with
Let's pause for a moment,"
Reb Chaim would say, "and consider to whom
this happened. To Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of the Tannaim...
Rabbi Akiva about whom his contemporaries said, 'You are fortunate,
Rabbi Akiva, your fame has spread from one end of the world to the
other' (Yevamos 16). Rabbi Akiva about whom Moshe Rabbeinu declared:
'If such a man will exist, why do You find it necessary to give the
Torah to Israel through me!' (Menachos 30).
"And from whom was Rabbi
Akiva supposed to have learned? - from Rabbi
Eliezer, who was excommunicated by his contemporaries until his death.
Nonetheless, he died a horrible death because he had failed to learn
as much as he could have from Rabbi Eliezer. And we, who know so much
less than Rabbi Akiva - how much more is it incumbent upon us to learn
from whomever we can!"
Even in his youth Reb Chaim's
fame as a masmid with phenomenal memory
in all areas of Torah had spread throughout Europe.
Once, on a visit to Vilna,
he stopped in at the home of Rabbi Chaim
Ozer Grodzenski, the acknowledged leader of Torah Jewry. When Reb
Chaim entered the room where Reb Chaim Ozer was meeting with some
rabbinic leaders, Reb Chaim Ozer stood up. Upon being asked why he had
honored such a young man, Reb Chaim Ozer answered, "When the Torah
Library of the Mirrer Yeshivah enters the room, I rise in respect."
In 1929 Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah
Finkel, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, took
him as a son-in-law, and a scant few years later, at the relatively
young age of 31, Reb Chaim was appointed as a Rosh Yeshivah,
delivering regular lectures. The hallmark of his lectures was depth
combined with a fabulous breadth. On the subject at hand, he would
bring to bear countless references from all over Bavli and Yerushalmi,
Rishonim and Acharonim. It was not uncommon for him to cite 20 or 30
different sources from far-flung corners of the Talmud and its
commentaries during a single lecture.
The Beginning of the Years
With the outbreak of World
War II in 1939, the yeshivah was forced
into exile, beginning one of its most glorious chapters. Years later,
he would say that under these most trying circumstances, forced to
flee from one place to another, the yeshivah prospered as never
before. The ensuing seven years of galus - of exile in the most real
sense - serve as a shining example of the heights a united community
can scale, of the dimensions of greatness and strength of character
yeshivah can attain when its only nourishment is Torah, its only home
On the second day of Cheshvan
5700 (1939), the yeshivah bachurim, and
faculty fled from Mir to Vilna, where they stayed for about two
months, after which they moved to Keidan, where they managed to set
the yeshivah once more. Seven months later they were ordered out of
Keidan by the Lithuanian Communist authorities, whereupon the yeshivah
divided into four groups, each numbering between eighty and one
hundred students. So as not to attract attention, each group studied
in a different town in the surrounding countryside and Reb Chaim would
shuttle from one to another to say the weekly shiur, preparing it on
the bumpy ride between towns.
The hashgachah pratis (Divine
Providence) of the next few years was
patently evident. Miraculously, the yeshivah obtained transit visas
for the entire group, and after much travail managed to reach Japan
via the trans-Siberian railroad. Those involved saw Divine
manipulation of events every step of the way, and the pasuk "Lev
melachim ve'sarim be'yad Hashem - The hearts of kings and officials
are in the Hands of G-d" was for them a living reality.
Reb Chaim often mentioned
in his shmuessen that one of the most
important factors in its miraculous salvation was the yeshivah's
staying together at all times. In this connection he often spoke of
the power of the united community:
When the Jews reached Mount
Sinai, the Torah says, "Israel set camp
adjacent to the Mountain": Rashi comments that the Torah employed
singular, speaking of the entire nation as one individual - "As
person with one heart." The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh explains that
unity was a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. "Imagine,"
Chaim, "600,000 men, plus women and children, whose release from
Egyptian bondage was only to facilitate their receiving the Torah,
thereby becoming G-d's chosen people. They traveled to Sinai for this
reason and this reason alone. But that did not suffice. These
multitudes could not have received the Torah as individuals. It was
only as a nation, as a cohesive unit with one body and one heart, as
it were, that they could receive the Torah and fulfill their destiny."
He would elaborate further
on this theme: "Those who separated
themselves from the yeshivah - numbering 30 or so - and tried to make
their own way out of the European inferno, did not succeed. Only the
yeshivah as a unit managed with Divine Guidance to escape unscathed."
The yeshivah stayed in Kobe,
Japan, for about six months, and then
relocated to Shanghai for the next five years: living conditions were
extremely difficult, but the yeshivah prospered. Reb Lazer Yudel
Finkel had gone to Eretz Yisrael to obtain visas for the yeshivah and
was forced to remain there: so the entire responsibility of directing
the yeshivah was borne by Reb Chaim and the Mashgiach Rabbi Yechezkel
The refugee population of
Shanghai included contingents of students
from other yeshivos, including Kamenitz, Kletzk, Lubavitch, and
Lublin, among others. Each had its own place of learning, but Reb
Chaim was responsible for the financial needs of all. Exchanging
foreign currency in Shanghai was fraught with danger and Reb Chaim
lived with a perpetual fear of being apprehended by the authorities,
but this in no way deterred him from seeing to the needs of all the
yeshivos, while learning and teaching with unmatched zeal.
During the years in Shanghai,
Reb Chaim was like a father to all the
students, many of whom had been orphaned as a result of the war. He
himself would bring food and medicine to the ill. And he cared for
them spiritually and emotionally, teaching them, learning with them,
and raising their spirits in every possible way.
In Shanghai, the yeshivah
was confined to the ghetto, together with
most other Jewish refugees. As dean of the yeshivah, Reb Chaim had the
privilege of living outside the ghetto. Since he studied with a
chavrusa whenever possible, the chavrusa slipped out of the ghetto
every night without permission, to learn with him. In time, he was
caught and the two of them were thrown into jail for a day or so.
During his entire stay in jail, Reb Chaim was seen standing at the
window engrossed in his Torah thoughts.
A short while after arriving
in Shanghai, Reb Chaim received American
visas for himself and his family. He refused them, saying that he
would leave only when all the students had received their visas. This
ultimately meant staying in Shanghai for 5 1/2 years.
After the war, the yeshivah
had obtained visas for all the students
and was ready to leave - except for two boys who had become mentally
unbalanced as result of the trauma of war and exile. The American
government was not interested in admitting sick people to the U.S. The
enormous demand for the very scarce visas made falsifying information
for obtaining a visa highly dangerous, more so than in normal times.
Reb Chaim took the two boys to the consulate and somehow induced them
to sit still and not say a word. He did all the talking and managed
convince the consul that they were sane and eligible for visas. This
he did at the very real risk of being caught, but consistent with his
life-long practice, there was little he would not do to help someone
Move to Jerusalem
In 1947 the yeshivah moved
again - as always, as a single unit - this
time, to the United States, where Reb Chaim spent some six months
before rejoining his father-in-law, Reb Lazer Yudel Finkel, in the
Mirrer Yeshivah in Jerusalem. Someone studying in Mir-Jerusalem at the
time told this writer:
When Reb Lazer Yudel came
to Jerusalem a number of years earlier, he
had started the yeshivah with ten carefully chosen talmidim - ten of
the finest young men in local yeshivos - among them Rabbi Yudel
Shapiro (now Rosh Kollel Chazon Ish), Rabbi Chaim Brim, and Rabbi
Chaim Grainerman - today each an outstanding Torah personality. When
Reb Chaim joined the yeshivah, the yeshivah was still quite small and
all of the students went to visit him. As was the custom, the best of
them related some of their recent chiddushim (Torah novellae),
brilliant insights and interpretations on Shas and Rishonim. Reb Chaim
sat through their presentations without a word. They had felt that
they had suitably impressed the new Rosh Yeshivah from America.
Only then did Reb Chaim speak,
telling each in turn that whatever he
had said could be found in one Acharon (later commentator) or another
- and he told them where: "This you'll find in the Teshuvas Reb
Eiger, that in the Noda Biyehudah, the next in the Yeshuos Yaakov."
"We left in a daze,
awestruck that one man could have mastered so much
of such variety, with total recall."
Reb Chaim remained in Mir-Jerusalem
until his passing some 32 years
later, disseminating Torah and Mussar to thousands of disciples with
shiurim and shmuessen vaadim and chaburos (smaller groups convened to
discuss Mussar topics), teaching Toras Hashem.
His influence was felt far
beyond the confines of the Mirrer Yeshivah.
Groups of talmidim from yeshivos all over the country would come at
any time and request a chabura on this or that sugya (topic), in any
volume in Shas. "Come back in 20 minutes," he would say, and
would be treated to a chabura - deep, brilliant, and wide-ranging as
if he had just been delving into the very topic they had requested him
to expound upon.
In 1964, after the passing
of the Mashgiach, his brother-in-law Reb
Chaim Zev Finkel, Reb Chaim began to give shmuessen in the yeshivah.
Their fame spread, and people from all parts of Israel would flock to
Mir to hear his Sunday night shmuess. His eloquence, his ability to
drive home a point simply and lucidly, his wide-ranging knowledge, and
his emphasis on matters pertaining to man and his fellow were among
the reasons that they attracted standing-room-only crowds.
Reb Chaim had a habit of
standing by the bimah, waiting several
minutes before speaking. Reb Shlomo Wolbe explained: "He did not
the time to prepare his words. He needed it to prepare himself for the
shmuess. Until he was certain that his thoughts were mi'libo - from
his heart - he would not say them."
Hasmadah can be defined variously
as diligence or persistence. But the
term falls short as a description of Reb Chaim's single-minded
devotion to Torah learning. The Vilna Gaon explains that hasmadah is
an integral part of one's character, an ability to concentrate. But
there is a higher level - that of being davuk beHashem (cleaving to
G-d). When one is intensely devoted to G-d and His Torah, with Divine
assistance one can become davuk beHashem. This dveikus is not within
the range of human capability. It is G-d's gift to a chosen few whose
every fiber of body and soul has become permeated with Torah and
avodah. One can say that Reb Chaim was blessed by G-d with this
special gift, for his entire personality seemed to radiate it.
He once confided to his brother
Reb Shlomo, "The most difficult thing
for me is to refrain from my Torah thoughts when I'm in unclean places
where Torah study is forbidden."
At the Shabbos table, while
his family was eating and conversing, he
would sit at the head of the table in his own world, totally engrossed
in Torah thoughts. His closed fist would describe small concentric
circles, his face tensed from his total concentration, and those
present would hear him saying "Als shtimt (It all adds up). L'fi
iz meyushav der Rashba (now the Rashba is reconciled)," or something
Even when he was involved
in the administrative work of the yeshivah,
his mind would be occupied with learning. "Nisht azoy iz p'shat
Rashba (This is not the explanation of the Rashba)," he'd say to
himself although involved in some task that apparently had absolutely
no connection with the Rashba - but anything and everything he did
reminded him of this Rashba, that Tosafos, or some other part of
On his way to America from
Shanghai, the ship was teeming with
refugees and it was almost impossible to move around. Under those
conditions it was quite difficult to study and almost impossible to
concentrate. Reb Chaim had brought along a copy of Shev Shmatsa, which
he studied avidly throughout the entire trip, oblivious to his
surroundings. A fellow passenger inquired about the duration of the
voyage: "Where are we!" he asked. "In Shmatsa Gimel (Third
the book)," replied Reb Chaim.
During his younger years
he would learn with a chavrusa every night -
all night. This time it was Reb Shmuel Rozovsky (late Rosh Yeshivah
Ponovezh). Their plan was to learn at night and catch a few minutes
sleep during the day. When day broke, Reb Shmuel went to sleep, Chaim
still had not gone to sleep. Two full days passed before Reb Chaim
realized that he had not eaten or slept for two consecutive days.
When he was older it was
no different - night and day he would be
sitting by his Gemara.
During intersession, yeshivah
students customarily rest up to gather
strength for the coming z'man. While Reb Chaim agreed that
recuperation was important, he nevertheless told us: "It's hard
to understand the whole idea of bein hazmanim (intersession). It's
like having a bein hachaim (an interruption of life). Does one ever
take a vacation from life?'
Reb Chaim's hasmadah would
seem to preclude any other involvements. He
had a strong sense of responsibility for community, however, which
impelled him to active involvement in Agudath Israel in Eretz Yisrael,
and its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) on which he
The writer recalls an early
morning several years ago when Reb Chaim
told his wife, "I'm going to daven, and then I must vote early,
I return home."
"You're in such a rush,"
she commented, "that you're forgetting how
early it is. You'll finish davening, and the polls still won't be
She happened to be right.
The Encyclopedic Grasp
His awesome clarity in every
part of Torah was such that Zeraim and
Taharos (sections dealing with agricultural laws and ritual purity),
which unfortunately are not studied with the same frequency as the
other Sedorim (sections), were as familiar to him as any more popular
mesechta. A colleague once remarked, "What really can one say about
man who knows every Rash in Taharos by heart!"
When quoting a source during
a shiur or shmuess he would open the
Gemara, leaf through the pages and read. Those standing behind him
would often notice that the sefer was not even turned to the
appropriate page. He knew the text entirely by heart, but in his
humility he made it appear as if he were reading.
A visitor to the Mir in Poland
remembered spending a Shabbos at Reb
Chaim's house: "Reb Chaim made Kiddush, quickly finished the fish,
joined a chavrusa waiting in the next room with a Tur Even Hoezer. Reb
Chaim would recite the Tur, Bais Yosef and Bach from memory while the
chavrusa read from the corresponding page in the Tur."
Once when learning with a
chavrusa, he mentioned that he had heard
that there were fourteen kushyos (questions) on the topic they were
studying. Together they thought of thirteen, but the fourteenth eluded
them. Reb Chaim was not satisfied. He reviewed the sugya again and
again, in his quest for the fourteenth kushya - to no avail. His
anguish at being unable to realize the last kushya was such that only
when he remembered it did he return to his normal self.
...A Character to Match
Reb Chaim's greatness in
Torah was matched by his sterling character.
He was a giant in Torah and a giant in midos. His all-encompassing
concern for his fellow Jew and his constant preoccupation with the
well-being of others were manifestations of the love that poured forth
from his great heart, a heart like that of a Prince in Yisrael: "His
heart is the heart of all Yisrael" (Rambam Hilchos Melachim).
Reb Chaim often said, "A
leader of Klal Yisrael must feel the joy and
suffering of his fellow Jew as if they were his own." He quoted
comment of Chazal that Aharon Hakohein merited wearing the Urim
Vetumim (special breast plate) over his heart as a result of his
profound joy at learning of the selection of his younger brother Moshe
to be the redeemer of Israel. Reb Chaim explained: "A heart that
the capacity to truly rejoice in the good fortune of another - that
heart was the appropriate place for the Urim Vetumim. Through the Urim
Vetumim, G-d revealed to Aharon the solutions to the most difficult
problems in a manner all but incomprehensible and unfathomable -
except to him whose heart could so totally identify with the problem
of his supplicant as to feel that problem as his own.
He too rejoiced in the good
fortune of others as in his own, and he
literally became ill upon hearing of their misfortunes, as was
evidenced, for example, during the weeklong Entebbe incident when he
became physically sick with concern.
This writer was standing
near the Rosh Yeshivah when the yeshivah was
praying for the recovery of the late Gerrer Rebbe. His body was
shaking with sobs as he entreated the Almighty to spare the life of
this great leader.
His family often hid the
daily Agudah newspaper Hamodia to spare him
the anguish of seeing requests for public prayer for the recovery of
this or that ill person.
On a shivah visit to a friend
who had lost his wife, Reb Chaim sat
down and wept bitterly with anguish over his friend's loss. After
twenty minutes, he arose, said "Hamakom Yenacheim (May G-d console
you)..." and left, offering the greatest comfort to the bereaved
bearing with him the agony of his loss.
The baal kriyah (Torah reader)
at Mir, Reb Yechiel Zilberberg,
captured the profundity of Reb Chaim's emotions: "On Shavuos morning,
the drowsy assemblage could barely stay awake for the reading of
Megillas Rus; Reb Chaim, however, would stand and sob - Why? In
contrast to shallow emotionalism, which is activated by a few banal
sentiments, Reb Chaim's heart was stimulated by his mind. He thought
about Rus: The tragedy of a splendid princess reduced to the most
degrading poverty, picking kernels with the rabble; and the beacon of
light that would someday emanate from her, to enlighten a world - her
great grandson David Hamelech.
"How else can one explain
Reb Chaim's vivid portrayal of everyday life
tragedies," continued Reb Yechiel," - of an impoverished mother
child dressed in tatters, begs her for a pair of shoes, and she must
broken-heartedly refuse; of an agunah deserted by her husband over
twenty years ago, of her bitterness and hopelessness."
"I doubt that the women
themselves could have portrayed themselves as
vividly as Reb Chaim did. This was because he thought about people,
strove to understand their sorrows and rejoice in their fortunes,"
concluded Reb Yechiel.
In the same vein, we understand
Reb Chaim's shmuess about Yad
Avshalom: Reb Chaim told that he often would stand by Yad Avshalom and
say a tefillah. He was once asked, "Wasn't Avshalom a rasha - a
man? Why pray at his graveside?"
He replied, "Contemplate
Avshalom - he tried to kill his father; and
yet when he died, his father David was brokenhearted and prayed for
him. This helps me understand what is meant by a 'father's mercy,' and
I'm ready to beseech G-d: 'As a father has mercy on a son, so should
G-d have mercy on us!'"
Everyone's feelings are aroused
by standing at the Kosel. Who but Reb
Chaim could respond to Yad Avshalom?
Between Man and His Fellow
As his concern for fellow
Jews was exemplary, so were his shmuessen on
I Samuel recounts the rivalry
between Elkanah's two wives - Chanah,
who was childless, and Peninah who was blessed with ten children.
Peninah taunted Chanah incessantly about her barren state, causing her
much anguish; as a result, Peninah was punished with the death of her
ten children, two by two. Yet the Sages testified to the nobility of
Peninah's motives - to induce Chanah to entreat G-d for the gift of
children (Bava Basra 16a). Reb Chaim asked, "Is this the reward
her devoted concern for Chanah's welfare?"
Reb Chaim answered, "no matter how selfless and
noble the reason, provokes an unpleasant Divine reaction - not a
punishment, not retribution, but a reaction - pure and simple - cause
and effect. The purity of one's intent in no way mitigates the pain
inflicted; and inflicting pain on a fellow human being can be likened
to putting one's hand into a fire. There can be countless good - even
imperative - reasons for doing so, but the hand will be burned
Reb Chaim often went to hear
the shmuessen of an elderly ba'al Mussar
living in Jerusalem - even in his old age, when he was hard of hearing
and could not hear what was being said. His mere presence was an honor
to the speaker, and for that reason alone he would sit there, looking
for all the world as if he were listening to every word.
Reb Chaim's shmuessen on
the subject of hakoras hatov - gratitude -
are among his most famous.
Chazal tell us that Yoseif's
brothers sat in judgment on him and
deemed him deserving of death. In spite of this Reuvain came to his
rescue because he felt indebted to Yoseif for having mentioned seeing
eleven stars in his dream, thereby including Reuvain among the
brothers, and allaying Reuvain's fear of being excluded from the
family circle for his "sin" with Bilhah. Said Reb Chaim: "Let
consider what Yoseif had really done for Reuvain. It was only a dream
which involved no effort on Yoseif's part... a dream which served to
increase Yoseif's prestige, certainly not Reuvain's. But a dream that
nonetheless reassured Reuvain. And for such a seemingly minute favor,
Reuvain recognized such a profound debt of gratitude that he was
compelled to save Yoseif's life, despite the fact that he concurred
the brother's verdict that Yoseif deserved death.
"The requirements of
gratitude go even further: Yaakov instructed
Yoseif to inquire after the welfare of his brothers and their sheep.
Our sages deduce from this that one is required to look after the
welfare of anything from which he benefits. - But f r what reason? Are
the sheep consciously helping their owner? Does it comfort the sheep
that someone inquires after their well-being? - But herein lies the
principle: Gratitude on the recipient's part should not depend on the
effort expended on his behalf. Deriving benefit from someone or
something in and of itself requires an expression of gratitude. This
appreciation must be shown not only to human beings, but to lower
orders of creation as well."
His shmuess on this subject,
like all his shmuessen, was not only a
guide for others; it was a reflection of his very personality. For the
slightest favor he would be eternally grateful. The parade of
anecdotes regarding this aspect of his personality is endless... At
the last shiur of the zman, he would invariably thank his students for
giving him the opportunity to say the shiurim.
During his stay in Shanghai,
he sometimes had long talks with his host
about matters of no importance whatsoever - this from Reb Chaim, the
unsurpassed masmid. A talmid once asked him why he wasted his precious
time on such small talk. Reb Chaim replied, "This man provided
a home. How can I express my appreciation? By learning with him? He
has no background in learning and it would have no meaning for him.
I show m y gratitude by lifting his spirits, talking with him about
things in which he's interested, something he can more readily
Appropriately enough, the
last shmuess of his life, on Yom Kippur
about three months before his passing, dealt with the profound debt
gratitude a man owes his wife. "There is no one to whom one is
beholden as to his wife."
A few days after Succos,
5739 (1978), Reb Chaim was rushed to the
hospital and, for the next two months, his life hung by a thread. Even
during the weeks of semi-consciousness his lips moved, and from time
to time he could be heard mumbling divrei Torah - Torah Jewry the
world over stormed the gates of heaven pleading For his recovery.
On Monday night the third
of Teves, after the last of the Chanukah
lights had cast its glow, this great light shined its last - a great
light that for sixty of its seventy-six years had illuminated the
byways of Torah with loving kindness, joined his colleagues in the
Mesivta D'Rakia (Heavenly Academy).
Reb Chaim often told us that
the essence of life is giving. "What is
the purpose of life if not to give of one's self to others?" With
he explained the Gemara (Nedarim 64b) that states that there are four
types of persons who, although physically living, are considered dead
- a beggar, a metzora, a blind man, and a childless person. Reb Chaim
explained that their common denominator is their dependence on others
and their inability to give of themselves to their fellow: The beggar
needs the support of others; according to Jewish law, the metzora must
live outside the community and thus cannot help others; a blind man
needs constant assistance; and a person without children has no one
whom he can bequeath his legacy. In one way or another, they are all
limited in their ability to give of themselves in all respects and so
essentially they are not living.
It would seem to this writer
that we can similarly understand the
saying of our sages: A righteous man is considered living even after
his death because the living world is still feeling the influence of
his words and deeds. He is giving, so he is considered among the