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Elul in Slabodka: From the Diary of Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan zt"l

Elul in Slabodka: From the Diary of Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan zt"l
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer


Excitedly and joyously I jumped from the train's steps. Within me
sparkled the happy thought: "Kovno!... Slabodka!..." [Slabodka is a
suburb of Kovno.]

Even though I couldn't find even one acquaintance among all the people
that I saw in the terminal and that traveled with me in the tram car,
they all seemed related to me. The streets through which I passed all
gladdened my still heart, as if they were calling to me and saying:
"Here you are, drawing closer to Slabodka. Another street, then
another, the bridge, the sand, Yorburg Street - and, then... the
Yeshiva, the Rav's [Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt"l, the Alter from
Slabodka] small house. And then... the Rav himself!" But who knows if
he's here? Perhaps he hasn't yet returned home... While walking on the
bridge, my eyes began to glance around with special eagerness. Perhaps
I might meet one of my friends. There at a distance, two young men are
coming closer! Who are they?... Perhaps Yechezkel [Rabbi Yechezkel
Sarna zt"l, later Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron in Jerusalem, then
a student in Slabodka, a close friend of Reb Avrohom Elya], or another
one. My heart started pounding... But I was mistaken: A young Ben
Torah that I did not know passed by.
I passed over the entire bridge and did not meet a single
acquaintance. I became angry. Another unfamiliar bochur passed by and
I greeted him angrily, thinking inwardly: "Be it as it may! Perhaps I
do know him but have forgotten..." So distorting was my powerful
desire to meet some Slabodker that I knew. This is a bit of that
Slabodker egoism!

By now I was already standing by Chaim Meir's [Reb Chaim Meir Gitelson
zt"l, later of Jerusalem, then a student in Slabodka, a close friend
of Reb Avrohom Elya] doorway. Before I managed to open the door, it
opened before me, and opposite me came, nodding and smiling -
Yechezkel himself. "Shalom Aleichem - Aleichem Shalom!..." - "Is the
Rav here?"

- "Not yet," answers Yechezkel, "tomorrow."
Two or three of our friends came over. The conversation dragged a bit,
as among people who have no idea what they should discuss. I could not
look into their eyes. I wanted to spill everything... to grab

Yechezkel from among them, to bring my mouth close to his ears - and
to spill everything. Within me were amassed so many fragments of
thought and emotion which had arisen from various events and
incidents. These feelings now demanded revelation from mouth to ear

Yechezkel arose and said: "Let's go!" We scattered, each to his own
way. Yechezkel and I remained to stroll on Slabodka's dusty and stony
main street, waiting for each other with a little embarrassment and
anxiety, wondering where to begin our conversation.

In the end I told him all that transpired with me. After I finished my
account I suddenly saw that it was all emptiness: I had only taken
leave of Slabodka for two months. I had imagined that it had been a
long time, because in the meantime I had ample time to pass through
several new segments of life and its events... Now, after I had told
him all these things over the course of a few minutes, I suddenly
realized that it was all nothingness. There was no significance to
those entire two months. The essence of it all was that I had bathed
in the sea and returned to Slabodka - and nothing more... Indeed,
"Fools when will you learn!"

The next day, Monday of the week of Ki Savo, was the great day of
Slabodka: The Rav has arrived! When I came to seem him a somewhat
amusing and uncomfortable incident occurred: He stood among a group of
younger students who greeted him by shaking his hand. They did not
kiss him. I, however, without thinking, bent over to kiss him... Of
course, he too "responded" with a kiss, but I was very embarrassed. I
felt compelled to hide behind their shoulders. The pleasant experience
that I always have when first meeting with the Rav after having been
away for a while was a bit marred. I stood hiding and listened to the
course of conversation between him and them...

"We come now from the material vacation to the spiritual vacation:
From the months of Tammuz and Av in the forests and the fields to the
months of Elul and Tishrei in the house of the yeshiva. What
distinguishes that vacation from this vacation? We know, of course,
that just as that vacation is essential to fortify the body, so too
this other one is necessary to heal the soul. Even more so, for all
are sick vis a vis Elul..."

- Indeed, Am I an "Elul"-seeker? Am I a yarei Shomayim?
What then - am I not an Elul-seeker? Am I not a yarei Shomayim? ...
How amusing and how pathetic, that I can ask these two questions in
quick succession, yet they do not contradict each other.
When later I went out into the street I met Shaul Margolis [later a
Rav in several cities in Polish Lithuania, then a student in Slabodka]
walking alone, stick in hand, eyes fixed on it, pacing slowly and
pondering. I saw him from a distance... I knew instantly that he had
something to say to me. And indeed! "The man is amazing," Shaul said
as I came to him, "He is mighty beyond compare. The man comes from
Krantz, sits next to the table, surrounded by youngsters, and
immediately begins from where he left off two months ago... He speaks
pleasantly, clearly, sincerely, and [yet it is] his silence [that] is
[most] profound, sure and penetrating to the heart... When he is
silent, it seems that he has nothing at all to relate about all that
transpired with him through the entire summer, what he met and whom he
saw. He forgets it all, forgets himself [There seems to be a
typographical error in the original Hebrew here. The Hebrew here reads
"ve'eino yodei'a elah es atzmo." I translated the phrase as if it had
read "ve'eino yodei'a es atzmo." Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan shlita (Reb Avrohom
Elya's son) wrote to me, however, that he believes there is no mistake
here, and that the intent here was that the Alter was only aware of
atzmo in the sense of atzmi'us, essence, i.e., the lofty ideal that he
lived, with which he identified and to which he constantly dedicated
himself] - and is silent... This restraint of all emotions upon
careful consideration is true mightiness. Mighty!..."

That evening I heard a shmuess. He [the Alter] stood in the middle of
the small room, next to the table, and around him they gathered. The
students packed together. They yearned to hear and to understand. They
gazed with eyes partly happy and partly anxious, a decent number of
young men, and immediately my heart began to absorb the warmth...
It is a time of true and thorough pleasantness: Every matter is clear,
every thought succinct and every movement measured and balanced. The
entire experience bespeaks tranquility and sincerity [ne'emanus].

There is no confusion nor haste.

He stands before us and states his complaint: People [outside
Slabodka] lack belief in the power of Mussar. They do not acknowledge
that the young men here genuinely involve their hearts, more or less,
in the subject of yir'as Shomayim . Though he tries to impress this
upon them, they remain adamant. They claim it is all superficiality,
verbal pilpul, an empty and muddled waste of artificial ideas.
Immediately after this complaint he consoles himself: In the final
analysis it is this [lack of appreciation] that provides all the
contentment that there is in Mussar. If Mussar was not a hidden thing
that the world does not recognize, it would be entirely worthless. It
would stand only on the same level as "lamdonus," as a tool of public
discourse. Let us be grateful to those who indict Mussar. It is
because of them that the little that we do have is genuine and modest,
in "hatznei'a leches"... After all, no matter how much positive
publicity Mussar receives, all that the publicity achieves is that
people will not mock Mussar, not complain against it. To recognize and
believe in its depths [pnimiyus] and in the education of hearts in
which Mussar deals - that will not happen!

Immediately after this consolation (that followed his original
complaint) came another complaint: We have acquired something, we feel
inside ourselves traces of the impression Mussar has made upon us.
When, however, we analyze this impression deeply, we realize that it
has only come about because we habitually steer our thoughts in that
direction. Our minds constantly review the realizations that they have
absorbed from the [literally: "kneaded from the dough"] words of
Chazal and the Rishonim. Because of this habit, our hearts have been
conditioned to identify the negative components that the Torah
perceives as "evil" in any situation. Naturally, the heart then
distances itself somewhat from that situation - because it has become
conditioned to thinking of it as base - but not because of yir'as

In other words, it is not because I fear the sin [that I avoid it],
but rather because it is unpleasant for me to get involved in
something that I have already become conditioned to hear of and
consider as a "sin". If, however, some powerful issue overcame that
unpleasantness, then I might no longer distinguish between good and
bad, and I would do what my heart desired... - I contemplated: "This
is the crux of the matter!..." [Literally: "Here the dog is buried!"
Rabbi Gershon Eliezer Schaffel pointed out to me that the Alter from
Kelm zt"l discusses this subject in Chochma u'Mussar vol. 2. chapter

The following day - Reb Avrohom [Rabbi Avrohom Grodzhenski zt"l hy"d,
Menahel Ruchani in Slabodka]. came to me and began to "check my
pulse." I saw in him all the characteristics of an expert physician.
He did not want to surprise the patient under examination, so he came
"from the side of the left ear," and began by discussing simple
things. He succeeded. Only a few minutes later, I already stood before
him like a priest before the altar, and I was sacrificing my heart
upon it...
... Several bochurim stood around us. They did not understand the
process that was appearing within their daled amos, that Avrohom Elya
was standing and revealing his heart before Reb Avrohom... because we
were talking in "the third person," i.e., [I would say:] "Some say
thus," and he would respond: "And some say thus, and the second
opinion is correct - the first one, meaning: yours, is distorted..."
The next day (Wednesday in the week of Ki Savo), I harvested the fruit
of my heart's revelation. Several times the Rav alluded to the themes
I had expressed before Reb Avrohom. The mail had already achieved its
purpose. My heart's meditations had already reached the proper
address, following the simple route: From my mouth to Reb Avrohom,
from his mouth to the Rav, and from him back to me.
"You complain," the Rav remarked to me, "about our abstract words,
about the disputes that float in the air, [you say] that they barely
touch upon practice, that they lead to inactivity and quibbling, and
that they cast a fog over the eyes so we can no longer see anything
simply and satisfactorily," thus the Rav reported my criticisms to me.
He did not deny them, but rather battled me on my own terms: "Nu, on
the contrary," he stood and asserted, "turn as you say to matters of
substance, check and analyze your deeds and your self. Don't become
involved in abstraction, for why, indeed, do you need it?"

I stand and hear the simple, yet profound, words: "The primary part
[ikkar] of Torah is the Torah of Middos. At the core of middos [that
we must fight] are delusion [dimayon] and falsehood [shav], no more.
Jealousy, lust and pride - these are fancy terms for concepts that
seem to possess substance, but in reality do not. The only reality
worth pursuing is the intellect [seichel]. The intellect alone can
recognize the true essence of every entity. Only intellect, therefore,
can accurately judge how man should conduct himself vis a vis any
entity [for more on the Alter's perspective on intellect, see Reb
Yaakov p. 48]. A drive born of the middos, however, will only lead to
mistakes. A drive is constantly and always mistaken. There is no hope
to be saved from a drive's mistake. One who but opens his eyes widely
will realize the degradation of that mistake. Then his heart will no
longer pursue it..."

[This Slabodker perspective, is developed in one of the Alter's
shmuessen that Reb Avrohom Elya transcribed (ibid., p. 233). In that
shmuess, the Alter said: "All of creation, except for the intellectual
reality that man attains within himself, is insignificant! Concede the
truth: All of creation is but the knock that a person in a foyer
[prozdor] knocks upon the door of a banquet hall [traklin] so that the
door may be opened for him to enter. Does that knock possess any
independent value? Does the person who has already entered the hall
even recall that he once knocked on the door?!... The essence of
reality is, therefore, only the goodness a person toils to pursue and
then finds. Everything else is but a fleeting shadow..." The rest of
the shmuess resembles the one Reb Avrohom Elya recorded here. After
negating the ambitions and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of
mankind, that are but pale shadows of the purpose the Torah has set
forth for humanity, the Alter concludes: "If so much light may be
found in the shadow of a reflection of a reflection, how great is the
light concealed [or haganuz] in the concealed light itself!"]
"If anyone wants to disagree, let him come and do so, let him come and
prove otherwise!" the Rav calls out to us. He lifts his head, and he
looks into our eyes with a gaze that caresses with love and pinches
with the strength of perception. You feel him drawing out the
complaints and criticisms that you have against his words. His gazes
draw all that you think about him. The mail will soon bring these
matters to the right address, via the simple route: From your heart to
his heart, from his heart to his mouth, from his mouth to your ear,
and from your ear once more to your heart, to uproot and to plant, to
destroy and to build... Another moment of silence quickly passes.
Again he speaks, with strength and hidden love:

"I understand your difficulty... I know what you must be thinking
right now. You are amazed that all those matters that stand at the
heights of the world, all those ambitions, aspirations and desires for
which endless rivers of blood have been spilled for generation upon
generation in countless countries, all those middos that prevail among
the living... You are amazed: How can we regard these matters, in our
four amos, as irreparable broken potsherds, as shadows of no
substance? I understand you. I am as amazed as you are, but amazement
does not lead to blindness! Truth is truth, even if others disagree!
And I, in my understanding (if not in my actions), do not see in any
of these desires anything more than fruitless delusion!!" This last
statement was expressed with such wonderful strength that it seemed to
cut the air to shreds...

Erev Shabbos - immediately after I finished breakfast, I rushed to the
Rav's house. After a whole day of unhappy desolation I was hungry for
a thoughtful word. I yearned to hear. I cannot explain, even to
myself, the meaning of these longings, what they are and from whence
they come - but I feel that they emanate from my heart, and are often
The Rav's words that I heard that day were boldly expressed and
clearly spoken. It seemed as if they were primarily intended to lift
my dark mood. The Rav based his talk upon these words of Chazal: "
Blessed is He from whose food we have eaten, and in [u'be'tuvo] whose
goodness we live.' Anyone who says from his goodness' [u'me'tuvo] and
not in his goodness' - is a boor" (Berachos 50a). Hashem's entire
bounty of goodness is compressed into a small loaf of bread. Anyone
who sees in the loaf just a part of His goodness is an ignorant,
uneducated boor. Just as we know that there is none like our G-d, the
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and all the Olamos, so we must
also know that there is none like our G-d the Creator of a small loaf
of bread; both are acts of G-d. Were it not for the Creator, no
creature could make such a thing. We must therefore recognize Hashem's
entire bounty of goodness in this loaf...

"The Gemara then asks: "Does it not say, and from Your blessing may
the house of your servant be blessed' etc.?" The Gemara answers: "A
request is different." Rashi explains: When a person makes a request,
he asks like a poor beggar standing in the doorway that dares not lift
his head to make a large request. If so, how much should he request?
If all Hashem's goodness is compressed into one kezayis - what then
should a person request for his sustenance? Should he ask for less
than a kezayis? Of course not! Rather, man is indeed forced to request
for himself all of the Creator of the world's goodness, yet at the
same time he makes his request he must feel the great weight of his
prayer. [He must be aware of] what he is asking for himself..."
[This Slabodker perspective, mentioned briefly here, is perhaps best
expressed in another one of the Alter's shmuessen that Reb Avrohom
Elya transcribed (ibid., p. 221). In that shmuess, the Alter discusses
Chazal's statement (Bereishis Rabba 10:6-7) that every blade of grass
is controlled by a malach that causes it to grow. Man casually walks
upon thousands of blades of grass, not considering the great wisdom
and transcendent purpose of the thousands of malachim upon which he
treads. How uplifted a person should become when he realizes how many
malachim were created to serve him! His heart should fill with both
the glory of this kedusha and emotions of gratitude for this gift. How
can one not be ashamed to enter the sanctuary of kedusha that is this
world with soiled shoes and dirty clothes? How is he not embarrassed
to be engrossed in frivolities while at the same time making use of
the malachim created to facilitate man's destiny? The entire world -
from its most general principles to its finest details - serves as a
reminder at each step we take to be cognizant of G-d, and, bechol
derachecha da'eihu, "In all your paths you shall know Him."
All these many great malachim were created to enable man to develop
his spirituality. Man is the "Rebbe", and all the spiritual forces are
"talmidim" created to serve him. How terrible it is, when a Rebbe sins
in front of his students! Yet at the very moment that the malach of
the blade of grass serves the man who treads upon him, the man who is
supposed to make use of all the vast spiritual potential underfoot,
that great Rebbe involves himself in frivolities and corrupt behavior.
This Rebbe suddenly becomes an animal in the eyes of his student, the
A loaf of bread also contains the great wisdom and transcendent
purpose of the thousands of malachim that comprise it. The goodness of
Hashem manifest in the bread is another aspect of the great weight
involved even in a mundane loaf of bread. The entire creation demands
serious consideration, and demands of man that he use its great
potential for the right purposes and lishem Shomayim.

The Rav continued on. He began to worry: "What shall we do in our
tefillos this coming Rosh haShana?! How can we open our mouths?..." As
I stood and listened, my heart felt how authentic his outlooks were.
My thoughts followed in the footsteps of his ideas. At that moment, I
imagined that I was already belonged entirely to him, that I was
completely directed toward all those great and lofty ideals of the
Rav's Torah, and that soon I would become... a true Ba'al Mussar...
That Shabbos (Parashas Ki Savo) passed over me quickly, without the
emotions I had expected would flow from my longing for the Rav's
table, at which I sat for Shalosh Se'udos... I passed Sunday of this
week (Nitzavim) in a similar fashion, until evening. That evening
another mighty wave came, and again shook my soul...
I came into the yeshiva at the beginning of mussar-seder. In order not
to distinguish myself from the tzibbur, I took a sefer from the shelf,
and I sat at my place to look into it. As I glanced at it, I
immediately saw that it was the sefer "Reishis Chochma". A desire to
learn it and immerse myself in one of its sections suddenly filled my
heart. All my life I have so intensely loved this holy sefer, this
boundless encyclopedia of all the depths of kedusha in the heart; of
all the inner heights of tahara; of the thousands upon thousands of
Chazals that sparkle in the light of their Torah that penetrates the
heart [the next phrase here: "u'bochen kelayos" cannot be
translated!]; and of thousands of the Rishonim z"l's comments, each of
whose words casts a new light on Torah horizons broader than the
ocean... There came to my hand a page from the Sha'ar haKedusha, where
he discusses the truth in the heart. "The essence of the matter - is
the intent of the heart. Hashem is close to all who call unto Him, to
all that call unto Him in truth. The call to us is that our hearts not
focus on matters of falsehood. One should worship neither man, nor
glory, nor anything else that is in reality just sputtering wind." The
pure sefer with its small letters spoke more of this to me. My heart
pursued its words. My soul was aroused by the sound of the statements
aflame with fervor [eish dos] that my lips pronounced. My spirit
blissfully concluded: I shall indeed return from now on. I shall
improve my pathways in the future. From this moment I will redirect my
thoughts, and purify them for the sake of truth. All of my conduct
will be kissed by the directives of the Torah in Hilchos Dei'os and
Ma'asim... I thought a great deal along those lines at that hour, and
I consoled myself that I would yet do complete teshuva. I forgot all
else and remembered only teshuva! ... And I hid my face in the pages
of that beloved sefer, like a child in the embrace of his beloved
mother, like a child whose cries spilled forth on all that was, and
all that chas veshalom was yet to be... In short: Why should I reflect
at length on that hour? I can succinctly describe it to myself in two
short words: "[I] learnt mussar!..." I then davened Ma'ariv with the
tzibbur! With that great and impassioned tzibbur, whose constituents'
heads shook as if in a storm, and whose whispered voices cascaded like
waters gushing down a waterfall...