In the late 1800s, Torah in Lithuania was suffering an awful fate. The once great yeshiva of Volozhin founded a century earlier closed due to Russian religious oppression and there wasn’t a single well established yeshiva to provide a breeding ground for the next generation’s torah leaders and Talmidei Chachomim. Yeshiva students were ridiculed and disgraced by their more “enlightened” counterparts who were taken in by the various ideological movements of the day. The yeshiva student was on the verge of extinction.
Enter Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was born in 5609/1849 in Lithuania. After being orphaned at a very young age from both his parents he was raised by cousins in Vilna. He became well known as an “Illuy and a Gadol BaTorah already at age 15. When he reached marriageable age the Av Bais Din of Kelm took him for a husband for his granddaughter. After his wedding he would travel from city to city giving his incredibly inspiring “Drashos”. After returning to Kelm his grandfather in law who had occasion to hear him speak wrote a letter to Rav Simcha Zisel (The Alter) of Kelm describing Rav Nosson Tzvi with awe.
In 5631/1871 Rav Nosson Tzvi was introduced to the Alter of Kelm who embraced this budding star and shared with him all his torah. After a short while the Alter of Kelm made Rav Nosson Tzvi in charge of a Talmud Torah that he started. A number of years later Rav Nosson Tzvi left for Lithuania where he was to make his everlasting contribution to the continuation of the Lithuanian Yeshiva world.
His first venture was to help start Yeshivas Telz and then afterwards the famous Kovno Kollel which consisted of a Minyan of great Talmidei Chachomim who went on to become famous in their own merit. This small venture became the future Slabodka yeshiva. In 5649/1899 Rav Itzele Ponevezher was appointed Rosh Yeshiva. Five years later the two brothers in law Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Issur Zalman Meltzer joined the Yeshiva staff. In 5657/1897 the yeshiva split into two in a dispute over the emphasis of learning Mussar.
Rav Nosson Tzvi had a special talent for understanding the inner working of each Talmid’s individual mind and bringing out the best in him. He was an expert psycho analyst. He demanded that each individual challenge himself with any question that may stir inside him. No topic was taboo. Each doubt and question had to be dealt with and put to rest in an honest manner. He was not scared to have his talmidim question their aspirations against those of the secular world. He also believed that a Yeshiva student needed to carry the physical appearance of a King by the way he dressed and groomed himself and be proud of who he was and what he stood for.
After wandering dangerously around Russia during the First World War the Yeshiva finally regrouped back in Slabodka in 1920. During the subsequent years Rav Nosson Tzvi set into motion the move of part of the Yeshiva to Chevron in Eretz Yisroel. This group was head by the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Nosson Tzvi himself. Rav Isaac Sher remained behind to lead the Yeshiva in Slabodka. In 5685/1925 Rav Nosson Tzvi made Eretz Yisroel his permanent home. He was niftar two years later on 29 Adar 5587/1927. Yehi Zichro Baruch. (Based on Gedolei HaDoros from Rav YM Stern)