Rav Moshe Twersky Hy”d On the Parsha


moshe-twerski1By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

ויקח מאבני המקום…ויקח את האבן (כח:יא,יח

The primary focus of parshas Vayeitzei is regarding Yaakov’s departure from Be’er Sheva and the founding of his family as well as the establishment of Bnei Yisrael.

When night falls and Yaakov avinu is forced to sleep in the open, he took twelve stones and laid them under his head. In the morning, he awoke and found that they had become one. Chazal tell us that this was alluding to the twelve righteous children that he would bring into the world, and no corruption would develop from him.

The famous question is asked: Why did Yaakov merit to have 12 righteous children, while both Avraham and Yitzchak had Yishmael and Eisav respectively?

The reason stemmed from the middah which they embodied. Every aspect of the Avos is noted for us to learn from. Avraham represented chesed. Although chesed is an amazingly wonderful thing, it is possible to sometimes take kindness too far.  You can have “chesed gone wrong”. So too, with the middah of gevurah, which is the power of control.  Control is meant to manifest primarily as self control, but the middah of control can also go wrong. However, emes, the middah of Yaakov avinu, can never go wrong.  There is no emes that one can take too far.

We find that Yishmael was entrenched in immorality. We also find that some immorality is considered a chesed, e.g. marrying one’s sister. This is because giving in that way to one’s sister is the ultimate chesed, but it is chesed that has been taken too far. It’s chesed gone wrong.

Similarly Eisav took the middah of control – which Yitzchak used for self-control – and he used it to control others. He took this attribute and misdirected it in order to satisfy his own needs. In this way, the middos that Avraham and Yitzchak stood for were misdirected by one of their children. However, the middah of emes cannot be misdirected, so all of Yaakov’s children were tzaddikim.

(From Reb Binyamin Blau)

[Ed. note: The mashal about the potential victim hiding under the bed, the murderers bursting in and demanding “where is he?!”, and the homeowner saying, “I cannot tell a lie, he’s under the bed”, is well known, and would seem to be a kashya on this.  But really it’s not, because adherence to factual accuracy is not the true definition of emes.  Yaakov avinu’s middah of emes is also known as a) Torah, and b) Tiferes.  Torah of course encompasses all the myriad factors of the demands of morality upon a person.  Tiferes is generally understood to mean balance, wherein all varying components are perfectly placed, organized, and united such that the result is a beautiful, harmonious tapestry of morality. The real definition of emes, then, is the demand to take into account all ethical considerations and angles in any given situation and to use the power of intellectual, Torah-based reasoning to determine what conclusion is correct given all the considerations and angles at hand.  And, that, of course, is impossible to take too far.  See Michtav Mei’Eliyahu, vol. 1, page 94.]


וישכב במקום ההוא (כח:יא) אבל י”ד שנים ששימש בבית עבר לא שכב בלילה שהיה עוסק בתורה (רש”י שם)

Steal the Time

Prioritizing one’s spiritual growth is a matter of priorities, true, but this in turn manifests in the nuts and bolts of one’s daily timetable. Rav Twersky once urged a close talmid to undertake a particular topic of study. The talmid objected: “My day is already so full; how could I possibly fit it in?”  Rav Twersky countered, “Steal the time!”

Steal the time is a phrase that perhaps encapsulates one of Rav Twersky’s key behaviors: he was always striving and working to squeeze out every moment possible for learning Torah.  Further, he deliberately sought to make Torah study the central fixture in his life, no matter the time, place, or circumstances. His son Reb Avrohom relates with pride:

My father would never just walk into the house.  The first thing he would do, no matter what, was to sit down and learn.  Even if only for a bit, and even if it was already very late, like 11:30 pm, and he still had not eaten supper.

After Rav Elyashiv’s funeral, my father returned home around 3:00 am.  Other than a bit of fruit, he had not eaten any lunch or supper. For breakfast, he had eaten his regular of pita with raw techina.  But that had been about nineteen hours earlier. He must have been famished.  Still, he insisted on sitting down to learn for a few minutes. Only then did he eat something.

When Rebbetzin Twersky was asked what time her husband would come home from night seder, she responded that it varied during the different stages of their life together. “In the most recent years,” she said, “he would come home somewhere around midnight, and that was early for him.”  Although the hour was late, Rav Twersky did not retire for the night. In addition to the dining room table, he had another venue of intensive learning that his sons fondly referred as the Talner Beis HaMedrash, his study. Rav Twersky spent countless hours poring over his sefarim at both.

Reb Refael Twersky said that although he and his siblings almost never saw their father going to sleep for the night, his impression was that, in general, he went to sleep around 1:30-2:00 am and woke up around 5:30 am.  Rav Twersky would also sometimes put his head down for a few minutes during the day to catch a quick nap.  Reb Yoni Ash, a close talmid who knew to pay close attention to his Rebbi’s behaviors, noticed a peculiarity about those catnaps.

For a period of many months, I would learn during the mid-day break in Rebbi’s room.  I saw how he would sometimes put his head down for a few minutes.  He would always do the exact same thing: make both his hands into fists, put one on top of the other, and then put his head down on the upper fist.

What was amazing, though, is this: the second he woke up, he would continue learning as if he had not taken a break at all. There was no deep breath. No stretch or looking around the room to collect himself. He just maintained the position of his head facing downward, but instead of his hands being in front of his face and his eyes being closed, a sefer was now under his gaze.  It was an awesome thing to witness.  And it was unchanging in its consistency.

On Shabbos, in particular, Rav Twersky strove to make the absolute most of the time for learning Torah.  A close family friend who spent many a Shabbos over the years in the Twersky home, recalled his fascination when, one Friday night, he woke up multiple times.

The Friday-night learning sessions between Reb Mosheh and his sons are very memorable for me.  Sometimes I would listen in.  The boys would often speak in rapid-fire Hebrew.  It was on a high level, of course, and I couldn’t follow everything.  On occasion, I’d ask them to repeat what they had just said in English, and they would graciously acquiesce. 

It even happened that I would sometimes ask a good question on what they had said, and they would rehash and reboil the sugya as a result of my question.

I certainly didn’t have the stamina to stay up until Reb Mosheh had finished learning. One Friday night, I had been sleeping for some time— I’m not sure exactly how long— and I woke up.  To my surprise, there was Reb Mosheh, still sitting at his dining room table, learning.  I went back to sleep, only to awake again some time later.  I couldn’t believe it, but there he was again.  He hadn’t budged!  Or maybe he had moved from the table to his tall, tall shtender.  I don’t remember.  But he was awake and learning.  That part I cannot forget!

The last Friday night of Rav Twersky’s life, his son, Reb Avrohom, came home from the Beis Medrash around 1:40 am, and had an unforgettable interaction with his father.

Although it was late when I came home, I obviously assumed that my father would still be in the dining room, and of course he was there learning.  I got myself something to eat from the kitchen.  Then, around 2:00 am, when I was finished, I started making my way out of the kitchen. As the dining-room table came into view, I noticed that my father had apparently fallen asleep over his Gemara.  I knew well how hard he always pushed himself to the maximum, and I therefore made sure to walk as quietly as possible so as not to awaken him. 

It didn’t work. 

My father lifted his head. “Please wake me up!” he implored. “Do you think you are doing me a chesed?  It’s not a chesed!  The time on Shabbos is way too precious to use for sleep!” 

Rav Twersky did go to sleep at some point during the night on Shabbos.  Although, not always.  One of his sons remembers seeing him head toward bed one Friday night, only to realize that his alarm clock was already ringing!  Rav Twersky would take a forty-minute or hour nap on Shabbos afternoon.  Shabbos was the only day of the week that he would sleep on his bed during the daytime.

This was more than an intellectual imperative: Rav Twersky felt that learning on Shabbos was qualitatively different from learning during the week—and it exerted a magnetic pull on him. This came to light in one of those infrequent moments when his enthusiasm bubbled to the surface, and he exclaimed: “If a non-Jew would taste what it is like to learn Torah on Shabbos, he would immediately want to convert!”

(Excerpt from upcoming biography)


וישלח יעקב ויקרא לרחל וללאה…(לא:ד-יג), שאין ראוי לאדם כשירצה דבר מה מאנשי ביתו שיכריחם על זה על צד האונס והנצוח אבל ישתדל לפתות אותם ולהכניעם…כדי שיתעוררו לזה מעצמם… ולזה תמצא שאמר יעקב לנשיו דברים נכוחים…(רלב”ג)

In general, Rav Twersky wanted the bottles to be recycled, so the Twersky children would put the empty bottles on the landing of the staircase right outside their apartment.  When there would be a number of bottles there, someone would take them to the recycling bin on the street down below.  One time, there was an appreciable pile of bottles, and it was way overdo for someone to take them out.  Rav Twersky picked up the cordless phone in front of his children and made as if he was dialing Oded, a fix-it man who had once fixed some things in their home.  “Hello Oded,” Rav Twersky mock said into the phone, “this is the Twersky family.  We have lots of bottles here that are ready to be taken out for recycling.  When do you think you’ll be able to come and get them…Ok, great.  Thank you.”  This was an inside joke in the Twersky family and it had them all in stitches.  The kids got the message loud and clear – in such a sweet and pleasant way – and they did the job post-haste.

(Excerpt from upcoming biography)

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