By a talmid
The Messilas Yesharim writes that the highest levels of avodas Hashem are not generally reached by the general tzibur. However, in the zechus of those yechidei segulah that do in fact achieve those pinnacles of complete devotion and dedication, the entire Klal Yisrael is uplifted. For, ultimately, we are all one. Klal Yisrael, Knesses Yisrael, is as one unified body. Therefore, those rare individuals who climb to the heights of avodas Hashem are in fact Klal Yisrael at its best. They manifest the best and most wonderful part of what Klal Yisrael is. We are all uplifted through their very existence as a part of us.
Chazal tell us that not even the Malachei ha’shareis knew the true reason for churban Beis Ha’Mikdash. Ha’Kadosh baruch Hu himself had to reveal it. Chazal also tell us that when a tzaddik dies, it is like churban Beis Ha’Mikdash.
It is impossible for us to know why this tragedy happened. Only Hashem knows. As such, whatever we do say in an attempt to digest this terrible disaster, it is but our feeble attempt at internal, emotional management, and trying to somehow calibrate our reactions and responses to it.
The way this horrific tragedy occurred caused that Klal Yisrael deeply felt it as a communal tragedy. Although none of us can begin to imagine the pain and suffering of the almanos, yesomim, and other family members; we all still feel, though, that this indescribable loss is not only their private aveilus, but it is a heavy aveilus for all of us, for all of Klal Yisrael. Very heavy. This fact sharply brought into our collective focus the awareness of the kedoshim who were brutally cut down in their prime, and, in the context of this tribute, particularly my rebbi the great gaon Rav Moshe Twerski. In an instant, he went from being a relatively unknown tzaddik nistar to occupying the spotlight in Klal Yisrael‘s collective consciousness – something that during his lifetime he would have run from like fire. In his final moment of dying al kiddush Hashem, he finally became known to the Klal Yisrael that he uplifted throughout his lifetime. Finally, Klal Yisrael got to know this wondrous facet of itself. Woe to us that this is how we had to discover it! On the broad, communal level, we were unfortunately not zocheh to be aware of this great gaon and kadosh of ours during his lifetime. Hashem arranged, though, that at least in his passing we would come to be aware of and know him, if only a bit.
The truth is, that there are many talmidim who learned by him for much longer, were much closer to him, and knew him much better. But what can I do? My heart throbs with pain over this loss and the horrific way in which happened. My rebbi should forgive me for the presumptuousness that is inherent in my writing this tribute. Anyone who knew him would immediately realize, though, that he was never makpid on his kavod, and I am sure that now in his great place in the Yeshiva shel Maalah he is not makpid. On the contrary, he would probably say, “If you need this to feel better, then of course, go ahead!”
I do, so I will.
Perhaps the greatest facet of Rav Moshe Twerski was his beyond-describe devotion to learning Torah. Chazal tell us that there is something called a Sinai, the phenomenal baki who is so fluent in every corner of kol ha’Torah kulah; and an Oker Harim, the lamdan whose astonishing incisiveness and clarity simply dazzles the mind with its luminescent insightfulness. It is so rare to meet someone who embodies both of these characteristics. But Rav Moshe Twerski did. During the hespedim in Yeshivas Toras Moshe, Reb Matis Feld said it so well, “There were so many things about Rebbi that if you didn’t see them you just could not believe that it is possible.”
A thought that was shared by everyone is, “You just could not catch him.” No matter where in Shas – or any other part of Torah for that matter – you would start talking to him in learning, he was holding as if he had just finished now learning that sugyah. And not just in terms of being familiar with the topic in general. Even in the subtle details – the diyuk in Rashi, the machlokes about how to understand shitas ha’Rambam, or the three mehalchim of the Achronim on the sugyah, including the makom iyun on each one – he was holding. With such bekius and such behirus. He really knew kol ha’Torah kulah; l’rachbah ul’amkah. It is simply beyond describe. Someone once told me, although I never personally verified the story, that there was a certain talmid chacham who used to call up Rebbi from time to time to share with him a chiddush that he thought of. Eventually, though, he stopped. Why? “Because he had always already thought of what I was going to say anyway.” That was Rebbi. Torah was his life. Literally. He knew Torah so intimately.
Reb Matis Feld also mentioned a point that although I was inherently aware of I never really took note of it. Rebbi didn’t go to lunch. He just stayed where he was or went to the Beis Medrash of his next seider, and kept learning. He had his little bag of coffee grounds and another little bag of some sort of snack that he would make use of if he really needed, but he didn’t go to lunch. Or eat lunch. I guess I never really took note of this fact because there were certain things that were just taken for granted. After all, that was Rebbi. To my mind, it is doubtful if this conduct of his was for ascetic reasons. He never struck me as such. I imagine that I speak for a lot of the talmidim when I say that I never thought of my Rebbi as a parush in the generic sense of the word. He just learned. And he loved it so much that he simply could not be bothered to take a formal leave of it to go have a meal in the middle of the day.
I have another Rebbi, yibadeil l’chayim, with whom I feel very close and from whom I receive so much hadracha in life, Rav Aharon Lopiansky shlitah. Once, in the context of a discussion of the life-hadracha nature, he told me that there are very, very few people who “you could just put them in the middle of a midbar with a Gemara and a shtender and they’ll be happy. Rav Moshe Twerski is one of them.”
Whether it was bein ha’sedarim or bein ha’zmanim, Rebbi was learning. One time he told me something that to this day I cannot fathom. “It is possible to learn more when you’re married. For most people it’s the opposite, but it is possible.” Obviously, it goes without saying that this statement speaks untold volumes about, tibadeil l’chaim, the Rebbetzin, may Hashem continue giving her the incredible strength that she possesses, who was clearly a major, major part of the secret behind Rebbi’s phenomenal accomplishments.
I diverge for a moment to mention two things about the Rebbetzin that stand out in my mind. I hope that she will not mind too much. One was during kiddush. Rebbi’s kiddush on leil Shabbos was like a flame alight with the fire of dveikus ba’Hashem. I apologize for using such dramatic expressiveness. Those that know me would probably be surprised. I really am not given to that type of expression. But what can I do? That’s really who Rebbi was. One time, during kiddush, I was just kind of “spacing out” a bit and looking around the room, when I noticed the expression on the Rebbetzin’s face. It was a look that radiated such deep and intense respect, admiration, and adoration together with a joy the likes of which I do not think I have seen anywhere else.
Except on one other occasion, which brings me to the second vignette about the Rebbetzin. Again, it was a leil Shabbos. This time, though, during the seudah, or perhaps immediately before dessert. That part I don’t really remember. In any event, their son Avraham, who at the time was about nine or ten years old, was making a siyum on Mishnayos. While Avraham was reciting the last Mishna, the Rebbetzin was kind of peeking in from the next room, her face aglow with joy and unabated nachas. But when Avraham finished, apparently she could not contain her intense joy any longer and she practically burst into the room and immediately commenced smothering Avraham with kisses. Her joy at witnessing her son’s growth and achievement in learning was palpable. At that moment, I could not help but think to myself, “You know, those kisses that she just gave him are for sure going to be that which propels him to becoming a talmid chacham; much more than the maamad of the siyum itself.”
So coming back, yes, Rebbi’s comment about it being possible to learn more when you’re married is definitely a huge indication of the greatness of the Rebbetzin sheh’tichyeh. But, still, I just cannot fathom it. One time, before Rav Rubin’s Shul, Kehillos Yaakov was built, Rebbi was learning in the upper floor of “Ashkenaz” (less than a block from Kehillos Yaakov). It was bein ha’zmanim. I don’t remember how I wound up there. Probably, I had deliberately found my way there just so I could be in Rebbi’s proximity. At a certain point, I had a tremendous desire to speak to Rebbi in learning. But I just couldn’t do it. He was so engrossed and immersed that I just could not bring myself to bother him.
Despite my awareness of how great a masmid Rebbi was, his sons, yibadlu l’chaim, Meshulam and Avraham mentioned things that I would not have imagined. “In my entire life,” Reb Meshulam said, “I never once saw my father go to sleep on Shabbos. On occasion I would wake up in the middle of the night around 2:00 am, and I would see him learning.” Avraham added, “My father told me that the time on Shabbos is just too precious, and that he therefore simply could not use it for sleep. One time, I noticed that when he finally went to sleep, it was already the time that his alarm clock went off to wake him up.”
And that brings us to the next amazing facet of the great gaon and kadosh Rav Moshe Twerski zt”l. Despite his personal, intense desire to always stay deeply immersed in the yam ha’Talmud, he nevertheless was devoted to his talmidim. Whoever asked for a chevrusahshaft, he would make his best effort to make himself available. He learned with so many talmidim over the years. That, in addition to the innumerable shiurim that he gave and night sedarim that he spent answering questions. One time during shiur, after concluding his explanation of a certain point he said, “Are there any questions? Now’s the time to ask!” He wasn’t just teaching Gemara. He was teaching talmidim. His concern was that they should understand. If they didn’t, he would take the time to explain it again. And again, if necessary. Even if that meant that he would not get to the next topic that he wanted to delve into. Speaking of which, I remember once when he finished explaining a mehalech and there was only a few minutes left until lunch time. It was not enough time to begin the next topic; but, “Ok, not much time left, but a few more shuros of Gemara!” And with that, with his trademark restrained enthusiasm, he continued reading and explaining the Gemara.
Sometimes, there were talmidim who would ask him any question at all that occurred to them. Literally, any slight query that popped into their head. At times, these questions could be so silly or nudnik-like to the extent that it would make some of the other bachurim feel embarrassed that such a question was just asked to Rebbi. But Rebbi never brushed off a question. If it was a question on his personal hanhagos that he so much wanted to keep private, he might have sidestepped it. But to brush off a question as silly or irrelevant, never. His respect and care for his talmidim was just too great.
Once, I personally got to fill that role of nudnik-questioner. It was the first day of Elul zman. It was also the first day of our second year in Toras Moshe and thus our first shiur that we were going to hear from our new Rebbi, Rav Moshe Twerski. Many of the bachurim were writing Rebbi’s name at the beginning of their notebooks. A machlokes broke out regarding how to spell Rebbi’s name in Hebrew. Some guys were insisting that it is with two vav‘s, but others were equally insistent that it’s with a veis. As soon as Rebbi walked in, before anything else was said, I asked him, “How is Rebbi’s last name spelled?” Without the slightest trace of disapproval of my over-eagerness-bordering-on-presumptuousness, he told us that it is spelled with a veis. He then added, “The mesorah in the mishpacha is that our family originally comes from Teveriah.” Even before he started actually teaching us, he taught us that first lesson of how a Rebbi is meant to show patience and respect for his talmidim.
This consideration and caring was not limited only to his talmidim. He knew a certain man who was not “all there”. When this man was around, he would frequent Rebbi’s house a lot. Odd questions and comments, or even things like abruptly singing racheim in the middle of bentching were pretty much standard fare with this unfortunate individual. Rebbi wasn’t just nice to him and patient with his odd behavior. He treated him with respect. He showed this man that he was valued and held in esteem. Even if the man said something that was off, Rebbi would just kind of nod to acknowledge that something was said without indicating agreement to the statement, but he would not correct him. Kavod for others was just too important for him.
Even when a situation forced him to say something negative about another person l’toeles, he was extremely careful to not say more than was absolutely necessary. Even what he did say was with the utmost restraint. One time, as Purim was coming to a close, one of the bachurim mentioned a certain individual in superlative terms. The bachur was extolling this individual’s tremendous breadth of knowledge. Rebbi happened to know that person well and was aware that his outlooks and approach on numerous matters could be quite detrimental to young, budding talmidim. Rebbi made a comment that indicated very succinctly and in not a harsh manner at all, that the bachurim should be very careful what they pick up from this person. When pressed to elaborate, Rebbi responded, “What I said was mutar [and necessary] to say, and nothing more needs to be said.” That was it. End of story. Guarding what came out of his mouth was as important to Rebbi as what went into his mouth.
Once, also on Purim, he spoke a lot about the topic of hakaras ha’tov. He applied it l’maaseh in that context in terms of appreciating the Rebbetzin. She was, after all, the one who put together the whole seudah. It was probably the following Shabbos. As was often the case, he had many bachurim over for the leil Shabbos seudah. The meal ended late. We said thank you and left. After exiting the building, I mentioned to the bachur who was walking with me, “We forgot to thank the Rebbetzin.” He agreed with my assessment that, particularly given Rebbi’s comments on Purim, the right thing to do was to go back and express our appreciation to the Rebbetzin as well. We knocked on the door. Rebbi opened it. He was already in his shirtsleeves and suspenders because he had already started learning. “We forgot to thank the Rebbetzin.” I cannot describe how his eyes lit up with joy at hearing those words. But he did not simply tell us that he’d relay the message, say good Shabbos, and leave it at that. He invited us back in, told us to take a seat, and commenced preparing for each of us a bowl of ice cream (another; we had already had one at the end of the seudah). We protested, but to no avail. He felt that he absolutely had to reward what in his eyes was such wonderful behavior. We really were quite full – the Rebbetzin’s food has almost no match – and were not at all interested in more ice cream. Furthermore, we didn’t feel that what we had just done was such a big deal. But Rebbi insisted. He just felt that he had to give us that positive reinforcement. When he finally set the two bowls down, though, he said, “If you really don’t want it, you don’t have to eat it.” How could we not, though?
This incident would be noteworthy enough just in terms of demonstrating Rebbi’s powerful appreciation of middos tovos. What makes it simply phenomenal, though, is that every second of his was measured and treasured. Particularly, as his son Avraham said, on Shabbos. For him, swimming in the yam ha’Talmud was like a fish needing water. It was his life. But to encourage middos tovos and to demonstrate caring and respect for his talmidim, he would make the time to do so.
Because he was an individual who seemed to always be pushing himself to the maximum, it is very difficult to imagine how it was possible for him to push even more during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. But he did. As incredible as it was to see, it was unmistakable. These days were so priceless to him. He would talk a lot about the incredible power and value they contain and how every moment is so precious and needs to be fully taken advantage of. One day during Aseres Yemei Teshuva, there was something I wanted to discuss with Rebbi. I went over to him during bein ha’sedarim when he was learning in the Novardok Beis Medrash. “Does Rebbi have a minute?” His response was so classic Rebbi, “A Yid doesn’t have a minute during Aseres Yemei Teshuva, but if you need to make the time you make the time.” Because for a talmid Rebbi strongly felt that you need to make the time. And he did.
Rebbi was an amazing person. In a certain sense, a study of contrasts. He was a descendent of a distinguished Chassidish lineage and very much learned Toras ha’Chassidus, embraced those teachings, and fashioned his unique derech in avodas Hashem in accordance with that rich heritage. On the other hand, he was a grandson and close talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (of Boston) and a talmid of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik (of Yerushalayim) as well. He very powerfully and completely imbibed the litvisheh Mesorah of Brisk. The Torah of the Beis Ha’Levi, Reb Chaim, and the Brisker Rav was in his blood. To a great extent, it was his very blood. He breathed and lived their Torah and their Mesorah. We never saw contradictions, though. He synthesized – in his singularly unique way – not only the analytical prowess of Brisk together with the fire of Chernobyl and Tolna; but even in machshava, hashkafah, and hanhagah. One time, during a Chanukah mesibah, one of the bachurim gave a derasha in which he mentioned a thought from one of the great Chassidisheh Rebbes and another thought from the Beis Ha’Levi. Later in the evening, Rebbi was slated to speak. He made reference to that bachur‘s derasha and joyfully exclaimed, “That was the first time that I heard both of my zeides mentioned in the same derasha!” Somehow, Rebbi, with his prodigious mind and tremendous heart, managed to incorporate it all into his life. He put it all together in a way that everything fit, seamlessly. He was a pure embodiment of Torah lishmah and talmud Torah k’neged kulam together with a complete and total hislahavus and mesiras nefesh in avodas Hashem.
One of the most amazing things about all this is that it was done without any fanfare. As Rav Moshe Meislman, yibadeil l’chayim the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe and Rebbi’s close relative, so succinctly and clearly put it, “He never made a fuss about himself. Everything was done in the manner of ‘shayif ayil shayif nafek‘. Many people have different audiences in their life. Rav Moshe Twerski, though, had but one audience: the Ribbono shel Olam.” “His middah of hatzneiah leches,” added Rav Michel Shurkin, yibadeil l’chayim a fellow Rebbi in Toras Moshe and Rebbi’s close friend of many years, “was something to behold. He was a gaon and a tzaddik, and everything he did was b’hatzneiah leches.”
Rebbi’s son Avraham mentioned that there were many spectacular efforts, hiddurim, and chumros that his great father did, but he emphatically warned Avraham to never ever tell anyone about them. I once heard one of these legends from an eyewitness and close friend of Rebbi’s, yibadeil l’chaim Reb Chanoch Teller. “Before they installed drains on this street, people would call it Nachal Yakim because it would become like a river during the rainy season. One time on Shabbos it was just pouring. Coming home from Shul, I noticed Rav Twerski standing perfectly still in the middle of the street getting absolutely soaked. Late in the afternoon, I saw to my bewilderment that he was still rooted to his spot. Apparently, his socks had gotten soaked through and he was concerned that walking may be a violation of sechitah according to some shitos.”
His son Avraham did relate one particular incident, but only to show how modest Rebbi was about the way he lived. “One time, we awoke on Sukkos at 3:30 am so we could walk to Ezras Torah and use someone’s dalet minim there. On the way back home, my father told me, ‘Do you think that we are any better than anyone else because of what we just did? Not at all! We did what we did because that is what we understood as being necessary and the right thing to do. But it does not make us better than anyone else by one iota!” That was Rebbi. Mesiras nefesh for Torah and dikduk b’mitzvos at the highest level while concomitantly insisting, “I am no better than anyone else”.
I was once at a sheva brachos of a chassan who learned in Toras Moshe. Rebbi was there and he spoke. He mentioned the Rashi in parshas Nitzavim on “lo ba’Shamyim hi“. Rashi says there, “If the Torah would be in Shamayim you would have to go there to get it.” Rebbi went on to praise the chassan by saying that he is that type of person – a person who, if Torah would be in Shamayim, he would actually go there to get it. A person who pushes himself to do whatever it is that is necessary to make it happen. I knew the chassan pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, he is a really great guy, but I could not help but feel that Rebbi’s description just did not quite fit him. It dawned on me that Rebbi, in his incredibly humble and magnanimous spirit, was actually describing a characteristic that resonated so powerfully within himself and was projecting it onto that chassan. Because, really, that is exactly how Rebbi was in Torah and avodas Hashem. He pushed himself beyond normal human limits. Way beyond. Because Torah was literally his lifeblood. He absolutely had to have it. And he would do whatever was necessary to get it. Even to go to Shamayim if he had to.
Now Rebbi is in Shamayim occupying his incredible place in the Yeshiva shel Maalah. And we are left behind reeling from the trauma of the horrific tragedy and our terrible, indescribable loss. Perhaps we can gain a word of comfort from something Rebbi himself once said in the wake of a horrific tragedy. It was just after 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center and all the lives that were so cruelly snuffed out created shockwaves throughout the world and within the soul of every decent human being, particularly us Yidden. Who wasn’t looking for a word of solace, comfort, and direction at that time of intense sorrow? So, where did I go? Naturally, to Rebbi. I asked him, “Rebbi, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to react to this?” Rebbi’s response was simple and short, but contained within it a depth of meaning that touches the deepest chord of the neshama. “Talk to Hashem. I don’t mean during Shmoneh Esrei. I mean to just talk to Him.”
Intellectually, we realize that we are like that city-dweller watching the farmer plowing the field, cutting down the stalks, and grinding up the kernels into flour. Not knowing a thing, it all looks like senseless destruction to the city-dweller. In our brain, we can be aware that we are like the guy looking through the keyhole and all he sees is a hand holding a knife and cutting into someone’s body. We cannot see more than that so, to us, it just looks like unbridled murder. Yes, we know that Hashem knows what He’s doing and that everything ultimately is for our good. But that awareness is way up in the olam ha’atzilus of our rational thinking. It is our emotions, though, that are heaving and throbbing with pain. Those emotions are what we feel right now. It is that intense, seething anguish that is our reality down here in the olam ha’maaseh. So what are we to do?
Talk to Hashem.
After all, we already know in the logical part of ourselves that it all somehow makes sense even though it’s beyond our comprehension. So, what do we need? We need to somehow be able to feel that despite all the incomprehensible pain and destruction, that even in the depths of tragedy, Hashem is with us. That He never leaves go of us. That He is always holding our hand and giving us the strength to live and go on, and to grow from our distress. That’s why we need to talk to Him. This is perhaps one of the greatest lessons I ever learned from Rebbi. Talk to Hashem. Tell Him how it feels. Share your pain with Him. Allow yourself to connect with Him even in your most difficult moments. For that is where you will find your strength and solace.
This is no easy endeavor. When we’re throbbing with pain we feel like just going into our shell and closing up. Sometimes, we don’t want to talk. Maybe we are even angry. Still, talk to Hashem. That is what Rebbi would say. Of course, as in any relationship, even when you’re upset, hurt, and angry, you have to be careful to maintain a respectful tone and not cross red lines in what you say. All the more so when speaking to the Ribbono shel Olam. But talk to Him. Tell Him everything you’re feeling, and ask Him to help you feel His guiding hand despite the terrible tragedy and pain.
Rebbi, I ask your mechila because I know very well that as much as we knew of you it was but a drop in the ocean. There is no way that what I wrote here could possibly do you justice. Still, surely from your place in Shamayim you know that I meant well, and that I tried. Rebbi, you were a legend in your lifetime to those relative few that were privileged to know you, and now in your passing your memory will become a tremendous Kiddush Hashem – just as you lived your whole life – as all of Klal Yisrael will get to know this incredible, beautiful facet of its being that was manifest in your amazing personality. Rebbi, your presence in this world is and will forever be sorely missed.
From one of your talmidim, forever.