By Rav Aaron Brafman
There is ever so much that one can learn from a close association with great men. Our Chazal tell us that one can benefit greatly from absorbing their teachings, but one can gain even more from observing them in their day-to-day activities. How edifying would it have been, then, to have been granted the privilege of spending days, or even hours, in the presence of a Chofetz Chaim, a Lubliner Rav, or a Chazon Ish!
While the opportunity for such first-hand associations has been the privilege of only a select few, some knowledge of the personal habits and the private thoughts of great personalities is still available – long after their passing – through their writings. The Chazon Ish, of blessed memory, is very much revealed as a distinct individual of commanding countenance through his talmudic commentaries and discussions, his halachic work, his philosophic discourses, and his personal correspondence. They all unite to reveal him with an immediacy that cuts through befogging distances and changing times.
The Scope of His Works – a Labor of Love
Most striking about the Chazon Ish is the immense scope and volume of the works he produced. They range over every area of the Talmud. They cover all subjects with a profound depth and a mastery of the intricacies that can only amaze anyone studying them. Still, his clarity of style made many neglected areas of the Talmud accessible to the novice in these topics. For hundreds of years, few people ventured into Kadashim and Taharos, which discuss sacrificial laws and ritual purity. His works deal with every single Mishnah in these sections. In addition, upon his arrival in Eretz Yisrael in 1933, he devoted vast amounts of time and energy to Seder Zeraim, which deals mainly with laws pertaining to the land, to answer the many halachic problems inherent to a life in the Holy Land consistent with Torah.
His thousands of pages of writings are the product of decades of study with an unimaginable diligence and toil. He taxed his mental and physical faculties to their utmost in his pursuit of Torah knowledge – his primary goal in life. Here he experienced a supreme joy that he often attempted to convey to others:
Sweet experiences can impart a sense of pleasure to a person’s body and to all his limbs in a limited way; but this pleasure can never compete with the noble pleasures of toiling for wisdom, in which the soul of man is lifted above the atmosphere of this world to the heavens above, where it absorbs pleasure from the glow of elevated wisdom (Collected Letters, Volume I, 9).
Or as he writes another acquaintance:
I must take you to task for I see that you are not evaluating yourself properly, and without thought you are becoming irreverent toward the goal of knowing Torah. Take note of the person who has the good fortune of absorbing a knowledge of Torah; that is, his intellect strikes root into his being – akin to a seed planted into soil – uniting the man and his wisdom. He may walk among men and appear to be a mere person. But in truth he is an angel that lives among mortals. And he lives a life of nobility above and beyond all blessings and praises … (Vol. I, 13).
What then is good – to eat? to drink? If but this, then what advantage has man over beast? Shame on the insensitivity of your heart, that after your successes in your sacred endeavors – teaching Torah to Jewish children – you fail to recognize the good fortune that is yours! (Vol. I, 18).
Man of Torah and Science
To the Chazon Ish, knowledge of Torah required a knowledge of the physical world as well. In his person one saw a synthesis of the two in a manner that made general knowledge virtually a part of Torah. His mastery of the Jewish calendar entailed an exhaustive knowledge of astronomy, and for his command of the Laws of Eruvin he developed skills in related fields of mathematics.
When he was presented with the problems of Shmittah, he was not content with merely issuing decisions when asked. He also compiled a sefer that contained both halachos and practical advice for the farmers, and in it he displayed a keen understanding of the science of agronomy.
Man of the Shulchan Aruch
The Chazon Ish was a man of the Shulchan Aruch – and this was reflected in his writings as well as in his every move. In many respects, he was considered the posek acharon–the final halachic authority of his time.
In his writings, the Chazon Ish departed from the norm of the yeshiva movement in that he was not content to work on the theoretical level alone–concentrating on analysis of the Gemara without consideration to its further, practical application. Instead, he developed every subject from its source in the Talmud through pertinent commentaries, to the halachah as recorded in the Shulchan Aruch. He then united theory with its practical application by explaining the Gemara in a manner that reflected the halachah.
In a sense, he was considered a machmir – one who takes a stringent approach to halachah – but as he writes,
I have been physically broken all my days and I never savored any of the [earthly] pleasures of life …. The only pleasure for me is to do the bidding of my L-rd. I could suffer no greater hurt than to be ensnared by a sin. My teachers taught me that before any move, one must consult the Shulchan Aruch. And I am not at liberty to do anything without consulting those laws relating to the matter at hand. That is all I have in this world (Vol. I, 153).
His life, however, was not dry, nor was it bitter. As he admonished a young man:
Ever bend your heart toward happiness, for from happiness one can receive an abundance of wisdom from on high (Vol. 11, 9).
Man’s main vitality stems from self control. The righteous are in control of their desires, rather than finding themselves being governed by their desires. It is the sweetest of pleasures, the greatest of joys to rule over one’s animal instincts. It means constant happiness, and it restores one’s soul (Vol. 11, 13).
He went to great pains to see that mitzvos should be done with the utmost care, as one can see in this letter to the Brisker Rav
I am happy to inform you that I succeeded in finding someone who is willing to let me process the skins for the tefillin straps according to our wishes. I myself placed the leather in the first bath and said ‘leshem retzuos shel tefillin’ … [He continued the letter with a detailed description of the entire process] (Vol. 11, 134).
This deep immersion in Torah study, however, was only one aspect of his great personality. The other facets of his greatness did not fully emerge until he immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. In Europe, where he lived until 1933, he rarely stepped out of the four cubits of Torah study. In a sense he lived underground. Although Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzensky of Vilna consulted him on many difficult matters, he refused to become openly involved in general problems. This was perhaps due to his deference to others who were able to carry the burdens of the community, whereas he saw it as his own duty (as he later taught his disciples) to grow as much as possible in Torah, as an investment in later years of leadership. He thus devoted every spare minute and every ounce of strength to his studies and his writings.
When he arrived in Eretz Yisrael, however, a complete change took place. Here, in his concern over the future of Torah in the new Yishuv (settlement), he assumed the responsibility of leadership. He became involved in the construction of mikva’os –
In the northern part of Tel Aviv we are building mikva’os to be a pride and glory. We have already invested tens of thousands of pounds in the buildings, and many of our religious brethren are involved … (Vol. 11, 21).
He affixed mezuzos on new apartments in Tel Aviv. Concerned with the sanctity of Shabbos, he created a furor until he succeeded in having the farmers milk their cows on the Sabbath in a manner consistent with halachah. He worked toward the complete, unequivocal observance of Shmittah, and he succeeded in turning the tide, which would have made it a relic of the past. He was firmly opposed to the selling of the land to non-Jews as a method of circumventing the Sabbatical restrictions of farming the land during the Shmittah year. Although many authorities endorsed this practice, he viewed the Shmittah as an opportunity for living within G-d’s command that should be sought, rather than as a problem that should be avoided. (Vol. 11, 69 – a delightful letter records his own successful experiment in Shmittah restrictions.)
Above all, he worked to build Torah. Upon his arrival in Eretz Yisrael, he was determined to create a center of Torah in the new Yishuv – and that was to be in Bnei Brak. Through his encouragement and financial support, he had a hand in building almost every Torah institution in Bnei Brak.
He also worked for political power for the religious populace, even under the Mandate. He urged one of his disciples to return to his home in time for the elections in order to vote:
“lt is my opinion that many important aspects of Torah and the existence of Yiddishkeit are dependent on. .. [the election’s] outcome” Vol. I, 102).
Eventually, the Chazon Ish became recognized as a clear voice of Torah authority on countless issues. He spoke out most strongly against the conscription of girls into the Israeli Army, as well as on other topics, and it was out of recognition of the Chazon Ish in the role of perhaps supreme spokesman for the religious Yishuv that David Ben-Gurion paid his famous visit to him in his humble home in Bnei Brak.
Advisor and Mentor
It is remarkable that despite all of this communal pressure and his own great devotion to Torah that did not permit him to waste a minute, the Chazon Ish never lost sight of the individual and he always made time for him. His two-room dwelling was open to all. People from all parts of Eretz Yisrael came to him with their personal problems. He worried and cared for countless yeshiva students and often intervened on their behalf. Many of the sick came to him for brachos and for the expert advice he was able to offer. (He had a very detailed knowledge of medicine and surgery.) Others came for comfort, and still others for him to settle their disputes. He took many orphaned boys into his home and personally cared for them for many years. Today many of them head yeshivos in their own right.
The following letters are but a small sampling of the many published and unpublished letters that portray his deep concern for the individual and his understanding of the human personality in all its complexities. The variations in style and nuance of expression reveal the different approaches he applied to each person and each situation.
In a letter advising someone to recommend a youngster to a yeshiva:
He possesses a gifted mind and is personable. He is also distracted by his inclinations – as are many bright fellows. He therefore needs constant guidance. But these are the ones who are destined for greatness. Therefore first tell the administration the brighter part, so they will accept him. Then it might be prudent to reveal the rest… (Vol. I, 75).
Just recently a young father passed away leaving a widow and two small children. They are extremely poor. The widow wants to place the children in an orphanage run in accordance with Torah. Please see if you can assist … (Vol. 11, 56).
He was constantly concerned about the health and welfare of yeshiva students:
I arranged for … to take a vacation at the home of… as his health is wanting (Vol. 11, 67-d).
Perhaps you can arrange to go to a resort for a month for recuperation. Ask your soul to be kind to your body (Vol. 11, 2).
Please let me know of your health. What of the health of …? I heard he was suffering intestinal distress … I wish him a complete recovery and a happy Yom Tov … (Vol. 11, 103). It is sometime now that I have not heard how you are faring, and it is that that my soul yearns to hear. M y preoccupations have prevented me from inquiring, but when I think, I find it difficult not to know… I eagerly await your letter… (Vol. 11, 121).
A student by the name of … came to me with his bitter story. Due to family problems, he cannot remain in Jerusalem. Therefore he turned to your yeshiva. But it is already a week that he is wandering about in your yeshiva. I understand that, according to the administration, he cannot be accepted, and he has no place there. I cannot possibly give him the positive answer he expects from me; that is for your administration to do. And for me to tell him that matters are outside of my realm – this response was long ago disqualified, as has been said: ‘Is that a way to answer a bitter soul?’ I therefore told him that I would try [to gain him admission], but could not guarantee anything definite. I am keeping my word to him with this letter, and because the situation of this student is such a difficult one – especially in our days when those attending yeshivos are so few … If you can answer affirmatively please do not keep the good news from me (vol. 11, 53)
In our days, the saving of a boy for a Torah training is no less urgent than saving him from drowning. Because of his age … can be developed and elevated to the level of a scholar in a very short time, but he needs special attention. Perhaps private tutoring can be arranged mornings and evenings. This could be handled by one of the older boys (vol. 11, 57).
I have received your letter. There are no words with which to console you. But there is nothing to prevent the One who can comfort you from bringing you good on this world, to console your lonely soul. Towards this end I send my blessings … (vol. 11, 117).
You are missing the experience of sharing the pain of another. The way to achieve this is by trying to help him and shelter him from suffering. The actions will then affect the heart. Also attempt to pray on behalf of the next one, even though you do not yet fully feel his anguish (vol. 11, 123).
A full appreciation of the Chazon Ish’s personality can best be gained by studying his own writings. There is a most fitting tribute that can be applied to him, however, that was written some twenty centuries ago by Rebbe Meir:
“Whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah for its own sake merits many things; and not only that, but the entire world is worthwhile because of him. He is called friend, beloved, one who loves G-d, one who loves mankind. He brings joy to G-d and joy to mankind …. [The Torah] clothes him with humility and reverence … People enjoy from him the benefit of counsel and sound wisdom, understanding and strength … To him are revealed the mysteries of Torah, and he becomes as an ever-flowing fountain and as a river that never runs dry …” (Avos, 6:l).
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.
Rav Aaron Brafman is menahel of Yeshiva Derech Ayson of Far Rockaway.