By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In the blink of an eye, a year has passed. This Shabbos will mark the first yahrtzeit of the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l.
It seems like only yesterday that we saw ads announcing the rosh yeshiva‘s next visit to America. This week, we see ads with pictures of his glowing countenance, announcing commemorations of his first yahrtzeit.
Over the past twelve months, we have read and heard stories and insights relating to the life of the great rosh yeshiva. Through them all, there is a thread of two middos that define Rav Nosson Tzvi and his life. Most of what we hear about him can be classified within those two categories. One is ameilus, meaning hard work, toil and exertion, and the second is ahavah, the love that he felt for each word of Torah, for all Jews in general, and for his talmidim in particular. This love was reciprocated in double measure.
These two middos seem unrelated, but, in fact, they are closely bound together.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Hashem commands Avrom to leave his home and birthplace and move to “ha’aretz asher areka – the land that I will show you.” Many reasons are given why Hashem did not tell Avrom where he was headed. Rashi (Bereishis 12:1) suggests, “Lo gila lo hamakom miyad, Hashem did not initially reveal the land he was headed to, kedei lechaveva be’einov, in order to make it precious in his eyes.”
Think about what Rashi is saying and imagine an elderly couple embarking on a long, arduous camel-back expedition over hills and valleys, without even experiencing the sense of accomplishment that comes from having a clear goal. If someone wants to enjoy a trip, they generate excitement about their destination, doing as much research as possible about the place to which they are traveling. They get their hands on brochures, books and pictures, and they conduct many conversations with their family members to create excitement and whet their appetite for the trip.
Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon, asked how withholding the destination of the journey would increase the chibah, the love, that Avrohom and Sarah would feel towards it.
The Steipler answers that the depth of a connection that a person feels toward another person or thing is directly related to how hard he worked for it. Love is generated through toil, exertion, effort and eventual accomplishment. Hakadosh Boruch Hu was telling Avrohom to set out and walk that lonely, difficult path. He was telling him that, in traveling to his destination, he would be confounded by confusion, struggle and darkness, but, at the end of road, the hard work would create tremendous love for the place Hashem would eventually show him.
With this insight, perhaps we can appreciate the twin characteristics of ameilus and ahavah that defined the Mirrer rosh yeshiva.
With his legendary hasmodah and remarkable mesirus nefesh, he was a walking mussar shmuess. How could a human being put up with such torment, exert so much effort, and assume so much responsibility and still smile? If he could do all that, given his challenges, imagine what healthy people are capable of if they set their minds to growth and accomplishment.
Rav Nosson Tzvi delivered a shmuess every Friday. A friend told me about the shmuess he attended the week the rosh yeshiva had married off a son. The wedding was, as can be imagined, a spirited and joyous affair, with many hundreds of talmidim expressing their love and reverence for their rebbi.
The rosh yeshiva began the shmuess on a personal note. “I want to share something with you, rabbosai,” he said. “After the chasunah this week, my new mechutan said to me, ‘I never saw a relationship like the one you have with the Mirrer bochurim. Zeh kemo okiyanus shel ahava. It’s an ocean of love.'”
Rav Nosson Tzvi looked around the room, his eyes shining as he focused on every person there. Then he continued: “I just wanted to say thank you.”
An ocean filled with days of hardship and pain, challenges and obstacles that would drown a lesser person. And he was thanking them!
The last time I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Rav Nosson Tzvi was during his final trip to America to raise much-needed funds for Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim. He was in Monsey, at the home of a neighbor, a generous and committed machzik Torah, and I seized the opportunity. Anyone who met Rav Nosson Tzvi left filled with admiration for him.
During the breakfast fundraiser I attended, he shared a thought that still remains with me. He spoke simple words, as great people are wont to do. He discussed why Torah cannot be found amongst people who are consumed with gaavah and why most of the 48 tools that the Mishnahsays are necessary for kinyan haTorah relate to matters of interpersonal relationships. Rav Nosson Tzvi explained that the reason is because Torah is not the domain of any single person. It belongs to all of Klal Yisroel, and the more you make yourself a part of the klal, the more you can have a relationship with the Torah. In essence he was speaking about himself.
He built an empire. Sick, hobbled and incapacitated, he became a historic builder of Torah. With tremendous siyata diShmaya, he expanded the yeshiva by leaps and bounds, continuously erecting new buildings in Yerushalayim and Kiryat Sefer, and filling them with 7,680 bochurimand yungeleit looking to grow in Torah. There was nothing that could stop him. More Torah, another yungerman in the kollel, another bochurin the bais medrash, another bais medrash, more chaburos, more shiurim, and a larger budget. He continuously strove to build and increase the ohalah shel Torah and kedushah. Always with humility and love.
The Mirrer rosh yeshiva was sick, yes, but he was so alive. He accomplished so much despite his afflictions. He inspired so many. Who could see him in action and not be moved? Who can complain of aches, pains and lethargy after seeing him deliver a shiur or drag himself to a gevir to beg for a donation in order to sustain the empire of Torah he built?
Ravaged by illness, he did not succumb to self-pity. Instead, he pushed himself to the outer limits of man’s physical abilities. With Hashem’s help, he persevered, constantly expanding his yeshiva and the resultant budget. Despite his debilitating illness, he continued to tend to his garden of Torah, laying the foundations for and supporting an environment for Torah to blossom in our day.
Rav Nosson Tzvi left a lasting mark on Yeshivas Mir in particular and on Torah in our day in general. He did what healthy people could never conceive of doing, perhaps because, as the Steipler taught, his difficult journey caused him to love the Torah that much more. His exertion and toil over each page allowed him to hear its song. His commitment to master as much Torah as possible enabled him to feel its warmth. Hisameilus baTorah joined him to each talmid, and all Yidden who toil in learning, and all who drink from the well of Torah.
Among the many innovative programs he instituted in the Mir was one that sought to keep the end of the zeman as strong as the beginning. In order to maintain the intensity of learning, he conceived of a plan to incentivize talmidim to commit to learning twelve hours a day. The rosh yeshiva laid out a daily plan demonstrating how it is possible to maintain the rigorous schedule. He encouraged bnei yeshiva to sign up and maintained the list of those who signed on to his plan.
Two summers ago, while in Baltimore raising money to help alleviate the yeshiva‘s burgeoning deficit, he addressed the yungeleit of Yeshiva Ner Yisroel. As it was towards the end of the zeman, he spoke about the importance of not slackening off at the end of the zeman. He shared the program he implemented in the Mir and then amazingly offered the Baltimore bnei Torah the same cash incentive he offered to his Mirrertalmidim.
After Rav Nosson Tzvi left, a talmid who had accompanied him wondered about what the rosh yeshiva had offered. “We came to raise money, not to spend money,” he asked.
Rav Nosson Tzvi smiled. “It was too good a bargain to pass up,” he said.
That’s how one who loves Torah acts.
When he visited Lakewood, he was given a tour of the various botei medrash of Bais Medrash Govoah, and his eyes filled with tears – tears of emotion and joy over the growth of Torah at the yeshiva of another.
That is how one who is consumed by love for Torah reacts.
He showed that to be one with Klal Yisroel is to be one with the Torah.
Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, the rov of Antwerp, once visited Rav Nosson Tzvi. Later, Rav Kreiswirth was asked whether it was fitting for an elderlyrov to visit a young rosh yeshiva. He replied that a rosh yeshiva who has three thousand talmidim and knows each and every one of them is a person worth visiting.
This was repeated to the rosh yeshiva, who protested, “I don’t know if it’s true that I know each and every talmid, but it’s surely true that I love each and every talmid!”
And he did.
A 19-year-old average American bochur who learned in the Mir would daven sporadically in the yeshiva. He would enter the bais medrashthrough the door near where the rosh yeshiva sat. As he would enter, he would say, “Good morning,” to the rosh yeshiva and the rosh yeshivawould respond, “Good morning.” One morning, upon entering, as he approached the rosh yeshiva, he saw that Rav Nosson Tzvi only had on his tefillin shel yad and had not yet put on the shel rosh, so he didn’t say, “Good morning.”
The bochur made his way to his seat in the back of the bais medrash and davened . When davening was over, the boy noticed that the rosh yeshiva had stood up from his seat and, with great difficulty, was walking across the bais medrash and making his way slowly to the rear. It was so difficult for the rosh yeshiva to walk that he was wheeled in and out of davening in his wheelchair. All eyes turned to watch the scene, as they tried to figure out what was so pressing for the rosh yeshiva to undertake such a strenuous walk through the bais medrash.
He stopped at the shtender of the bochur and said to him, with a voice full of love, “Good morning,” and then turned around and made his way back to his seat on the Mizrach.
Like so many others, the bochur was overcome and inconsolable upon hearing of the rosh yeshiva’s sudden passing. The rosh yeshiva loved him so. He made him feel like a prized talmid. In fact, he was. Every talmid was prized and special. Every Yid was prized and special.
Like the tent of Avrohom Avinu, under his leadership, Yeshivas Mir had four doors, all open to anyone who wanted to learn. Rav Nosson Tzvi welcomed lomdei Torah from everywhere.
For those who saw their mission as supporting kiruv rechokim, Rav Nosson Tzvi could point to the hundreds of baalei teshuvah who grew in learning at the Mir, basking in its rarefied atmosphere.
Chassidishe Yidden gave generously to the yeshiva where so many of them learned. The rosh yeshiva formed a special chaburah forchassidishe bochurim, giving them their own place for tefillos and events.
He loved them all. He loved the Torah, their joint legacy. And he did what he could to ensure that they appreciated that heritage.
We all have so much to learn from him. We can all do better in appreciating bochurim in yeshivos and doing what we can to help nurture them and keep them on the straight path, with love and support. With love, we can accomplish more than with hate. With a smile, we can reach farther than with a frown.
At the end of this week’s parsha, the posuk says that Avrohom took his son Yishmoel and the other male members of his household and circumcised them as Hashem had commanded. The posuk (17:23) states, “Vayikach Avrohom es Yishmoel beno,” meaning that Avrohom took his son Yishmoel. Targum Onkeles translates this as “Udevar Avrohom yus Yishmoel brei – Avrohom spoke to his son Yishmoel.“
Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz points out that the Targum teaches us that the way to be mekareiv children, and the way to ensure that children andtalmidim honor your wishes and act as you wish them to is not by using the whip and not by utilizing force, but rather by speaking to them calmly and lovingly.
That was Rav Nosson Tzvi. He inspired thousands of talmidim and Jews everywhere b’mesek sefosov, with love and sweet words.
In addition to the announcements about the first yahrtzeit, there are many other developments at the Mir involving expansion, new shiurim, and visits undertaken by the current rosh yeshiva, Rav Leizer Yudel.
We are heartened that the yeshiva and the olam haTorah are marching on. Yeshivos around the world are commencing their long, difficult journey through the winter zeman. New Gemaros, still smelling of print and glue, are being opened. Bava Kamma and Yevamos, Kiddushinand Nedarim, Bava Basra and Gittin. Each ben Torah is embarking on his own personal path, his own personal fulfillment of the eternal words of “Lech Lecha.”
At winter’s end, those same Gemaros will be worn, their margins filled with notes and insights, and their bindings cracked. And every time their owners will hold them, their hearts will be filled with love, the chibah that Hashem showed Avrohom Avinu at the end of his journey.
A love that is the result of hard work. Hard work embodied by the Mirrer rosh yeshiva. Hard work of bnei Torah everywhere. Hard work by which we live each day.