By Eliahu Meir Klugman
The scene: The third level lecture in Reb Shimon Shkop’s yeshivah in Grodno.
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 I was as old as he is now, I did not even stand as tall as his ankles in 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 the Kosel.”
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 entire life.
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 further on 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 years of the life of Sarah.” Rashi comments, “They were all equal in virtue.”
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 consistently perfect.”
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), a 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 life.”
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 stay.”
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 thoughts.
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 few.
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 of 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, we lived it.”
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., he 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 is 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 causes:
“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 water.”
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 ask? 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 me 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 iron combs.
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 of Exile
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 a yeshivah can attain when its only nourishment is Torah, its only home Bitachon.
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 up 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 the singular, speaking of the entire nation as one individual – “As one person with one heart.” The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh explains that this unity was a prerequisite to receiving the Torah. “Imagine,” said Reb 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 Levenstein.
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 to 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 else.
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 Akiva 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 they 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 need 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 zeh iz meyushav der Rashba (now the Rashba is reconciled),” or something similar.
Even when he was involved in the administrative work of the yeshivah, his mind would be occupied with learning. “Nisht azoy iz p’shat in der 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 Torah.
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 section of 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 in Ponovezh). Their plan was to learn at night and catch a few minutes of 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 for me 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 served.
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, before 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 open!”
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 a 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, and 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 the 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 had 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 by 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 whose 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 wicked 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 Man
As his concern for fellow Jews was exemplary, so were his shmuessen on this topic.
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 for her devoted concern for Chanah’s welfare?”
“Hurting someone,” 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 nevertheless.”
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 us 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 in 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 me with 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. So I show m y gratitude by lifting his spirits, talking with him about things in which he’s interested, something he can more readily appreciate.”
Appropriately enough, the last shmuess of his life, on Yom Kippur about three months before his passing, dealt with the profound debt of gratitude a man owes his wife. “There is no one to whom one is so 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 this 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 to 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 living.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.