Fundamental Lessons from the Chazon Ish
The first gathering sponsored by the new Merkaz Chinuch (see here) was held at the Zeirei Agudas Yisroel (ZAI) shul Divrei Shir in Bnei Brak at the end of Nisan, 5769. Speaking there in public, for the first time in the 25 years since he retired as a member of Knesset for ZAI was Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz, father of the founder of the Merkaz Chinuch and long-time confidant of gedolei Yisroel. His fascinating speech brings many tales and illustrates fundamental principles of chinuch.
“We begin by citing the glory of the host.”
“Har Hamoriah was so-called because horo’oh went out from there to Israel.”
For many years, from this holy place [Note: Divrei Shir] Torah and hashkofoh of gedolei hador went out to the entire world. Whoever wanted to find out what true daas Torah is, came to here to listen.
We must be aware that many things that can be taken for granted today, as obvious principles that do not need lengthy defenses, were not always so. There was a time when even our own community was influenced by the wind blowing in the chiloni street. The Zionist Idea, the Pioneering Spirit, draining the swamps, and mainly setting up a Jewish State – all these set up a tremendous current that had a strong impact on the community of shomrei Torah and mitzvos, who are careful to keep every small point of the Torah. Many places used to say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut, including some of our anshei shlomeinu, but I do not want to name names. Only in the beis medrash of the Chazon Ish did they say tachanun on this day, and they did so even when there was a baal bris, to make sure that no one would get the wrong idea.
Today it is hard to believe that a chareidi newspaper of those days could write, in describing the move of the seat of the Knesset from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, that it was like building the Beis Hamikdash in Jerusalem.
It is clear that were it not for the gedolei Hatorah who stood watch, we would have all been swept along by the spirit of Zionism that dominated the streets. The clear hashkofoh of the gedolei Torah was heard here, from those who spent their time regularly in the homes of the gedolei Torah.
One of those who spread daas Torah and hashkofas HaTorah with great skill and a sharp pen was Rabbi Moshe Sheinfeld, who used to daven in this beit knesset. He used to stand humbly over there in the corner, rivers of tears running down his face during every tefillah. Maran the Griz, who admired his articles on hashkofoh that used to appear in Digleinu, asked him how he managed to always hit exactly the daas Torah. Rabbi Moshe answered: “I just listen to what they say in the street, to find out what is the daas baalei battim, and then I write the opposite… so as a result I reach daas Torah.
Another think that came from this shul is the desire to attend the yeshivos kedoshos, those based purely on Torah learning. It is hard to believe today that in those days even the most chareidi parents did not always send their children to yeshivos, and at best they sent them to a yeshiva tichonit (combination yeshiva and academic program) or miktzo’it (yeshiva and trade school). In this context we should remember Rabbi Avrohom Rein. If not for him the yeshiva world would not have enjoyed many of its current roshei yeshiva. He brought them to the yeshivas to learn. He also brought the Rosh Yeshiva, the great gaon HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman shlita to the ZAI yeshiva in Kfar Saba. HaRav Shteinman breathed a refreshing spirit of the yeshivas from the previous generation into the yeshiva in Kfar Saba.
I would like to tell an unusual story from those days. R’ Avrohom had managed to convince the mother of a boy from Haifa to send her son to the yeshiva in Kfar Saba. But when the father came home and heard that his son had left for yeshiva, he ran after them all the way to the Central Bus Station where he found them. He threatened R’ Avrohom that if he will not return his son, he will file a complaint with the police for kidnapping. In the end, the boy did make it to the yeshiva and he later developed into one of the gedolei horo’oh of our generation.
Subjects and issues were never dealt here out of routine, as formal obligations that people were accustomed to. We always searched for what was specifically necessary to meet the challenges of the time. Whenever we understood that our task had finished and there was no further need, we shrank back and did not seek to survive at all costs.
Now the time has come to seize the task of this time, to deal with the burning topic that must be addressed. Therefore we have founded the Merkaz Chinuch which we announced two weeks ago in the home of Maran HaRav Eliashiv shlita, to prevent problems and to develop solutions to the issues of our youth and to ensure that they will remain within a yeshiva, with proper care.
It is the view of the gedolei Torah that only an appropriate chinuch is the balm for the illnesses of our time. I would like [in this context] to tell over the content of my first ever conversation with the Chazon Ish zt”l that took place 69 years ago, and in which Maran gave me an extremely important yesod for the chinuch of bnei Torah.
The first time I visited Maran the Chazon Ish zt”l was at the beginning of 5700 (1940). It was only a short time after I reached Eretz Yisroel. HaRav Chaim Zeev Finkel zt”l, who at the time was the mashgiach of the Heichal HaTalmud yeshiva in Tel Aviv in which I learned, brought me to the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak.
After I introduced myself and I had told Maran where I had been born and in which yeshivas I had learned, I asked him a question about the derech of limud.
In Eretz Yisroel at that time there was a situation of kibbutz goluyos. Every one of the various approaches to learning that were customary in the yeshivas in the various lands, were in use at different yeshivas that had been founded here in Eretz Yisroel. There were yeshivas in which the learning was in the derech of amkus and havonoh (as was practiced in the Lithuanian yeshivas), and there were yeshivas that practiced the approach common in the Hungarian yeshivas, of emphasizing beki’us and understanding things bederech hapshat, and learning halochoh lema’aseh. There were also yeshivas following other approaches.
It had occurred to me, that it would be a good idea to classify talmidim and to guide them to the yeshiva that was most appropriate for their respective abilities. There are some bochurim whose abilities will not allow them to reach the level of expert lamdonim. Such bochurim, even if they learn in a Lithuanian-style yeshiva, have no chance of becoming true gedolei Torah, roshei yeshivas or marbitzei Torah. In any case they will eventually become baalei batim. Since “a thousand enter talmud and only one goes out to horo’oh,” and those who were not blessed with special abilities will certainly not manage to reach the level of the one-in-a-thousand, it would be preferable, it had seemed to me, to guide them in the first place to yeshivas in which the approach followed was to learn the gemora with straight understanding, to make sure to understand each and every word of the gemora, Rashi and Tosafos, and also to learn Shulchan Oruch halochoh lema’aseh, as was done in many yeshivas. In this way, at least they would come out to be outstanding baalei batim, who could learn gemora and halochoh at a high level.
I argued for my proposal by observing that if those bochurim who did not have great talent would learn in the way that the Lithuanian yeshivas learned, it is very likely that they would become confused in their learning, and they could come out without even the basic skills of the baal habayis who knows how to learn, which is surely a great thing. In my own experience, when I had learned in the Mir Yeshiva, I saw that talmidim who were not of outstanding intellectual abilities often heard deep concepts without truly understanding the depth of the matter, even though it seemed to themselves that they understood. On their [mis]understanding they would build entire edifices, and often produced ludicrous results. There was no resemblance between what was originally said to them and the vague and confused concepts that they grasped and subsequently repeated.
In contrast, the yeshivas in which the primary method of learning was that of pshat and havonoh produced baalei batim who were also talmidei chachomim chashuvim, whose Torah was the main part of their life and their work was transient. In Hungary there were baalei batim who got up at three in the morning to learn, and throughout the day they devoted a large part of their time to Torah learning. They typically were well-versed in gemora, Rashi, Tosafos and halochoh.
As a result of all these considerations, I argued that it was in the spirit of “educate each lad according to his personal path” (Mishlei 22:6). Since Eretz Yisroel had become a metropolis that included everything, was it not worthwhile to use this for the benefit of the youth? This was my question to the Chazon Ish.
However, Maran categorically rejected all my proposals.
This is not the way, he replied. Our obligation is to see to it that each and every one will be an outstanding godol beTorah, and we must give everyone the chance to grow into a godol beTorah. According to your approach, we will guide one who does not have much ability to become a baal habayis. To be sure we will see to it that he becomes a good baal habayis who make his Torah learning the focus of his life, but we have no right to do so and we are commanded to aspire to turn him into a godol beTorah.
Maran made two wonderful points in reply to my argument that not everyone of capable of being a godol beTorah. I am quoting [Note: In the original Hebrew] his words exactly:
“You are correct in saying that in order to be a godol beTorah one must be blessed with great abilities. But there may be a man without any special abilities, absolutely obtuse, who walks along, reaches a street corner, turns onto the second street, and suddenly all the abilities and founts are opened up to him, and he becomes a tremendous genius.”
Maran spoke thus, without immediately explaining his words further.
I think that his intent was that a man may change his measure of abilities. If he truly wants it and strongly aspires to it, the gates of wisdom are opened to him. That is how I understood what he said, and from his subsequent remarks I became convinced that this was truly his intent.
Maran continued, and told me about one of the most prominent gedolei Torah, who was not smart in his youth. “His head was so dense,” Maran said, “that when he was 18 years old he asked me to explain to him what Rashi meant when he said, ‘On every word that should have been written with a lamed at the beginning, Scripture put a hei at its end, such as Mitzrayim, Mitzraymoh.’ This boy asked me, ‘But Mitzrayim does not start with a lamed!‘
“Is it possible that there could be,” Maran said with a big smile on his face, “lack of intelligence and obtuseness greater than that? According to your proposal, you would certainly send that bochur who, at the age of 18 had gotten nowhere [in learning], to the style of learning designed for good baalei batim, and not to the style aimed at producing gedolim beTorah, in line with the spirit of “educate each lad according to his personal path” … but this person became one of the most popular gedolei Torah!
Another thing that he said: “Becoming a godol beTorah is not only dependent on innate abilities, but just as much no the tears of the grandmother and her prayers for her grandson…”
Maran’s meaning was that gadlus beTorah is dependent on merit, and how can one merit? It might even be from the prayers of a grandmother.
Maran zt”l spoke to me for a long time, to completely disabuse me of the idea that chas vesholom the meaning of “educate each lad according to his personal path” is to deny the opportunity to become a godol beTorah from those who do not appear to have the abilities. We must give each and every one the opportunity to become a godol beTorah and if, in order to reach gadlus it is necessary to learn in one particular way, then we must do all we can to see that every one will learn and excel in that way. We must ensure that each one should have the opportunity to be that one-in-a-thousand, even though it is manifestly impossible.
That conversation is very engraved upon my memory, both because it was my first conversation with Maran zt”l and it lasted two hours, and also because in it Maran gave me, personally, great encouragement and hope that every person, without exception, could progress and become one-in-a-thousand.
I will read you two letters from Maran the Chazon Ish zt”l so that we may properly understand how important chinuch was to Maran the Chazon Ish.
In Kovetz Igros (Part 2, Letter 47) Maran writes: “The concept is clear in the referenced letter, and it is understood that in our times saving a child for a Jewish education is not less than saving him from drowning in a river.” I repeat: “Not less than saving him from drowning in a river.” Everyone who deals with chinuch should review this sentence a hundred and one times. Maran the Chazon Ish says that chinuch of Jewish children is literally pikuach nefesh, “not less than saving from drowning.” Maran the Chazon Ish was careful with each of his words, and he did not exaggerate. We should reflect on how much this obligates every one of us.