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18 Adar 5764 - March 11, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








One of the Remaining True Seekers of Mussar: The Thirtieth Yahrtzeit of HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein, ztvk'l, Mashgiach of Mir and Ponovezh

by B. Ehrentreu

In a letter, Rav Dessler zt'l wrote, "Please do me a favor and arrange that the gaon R' Y. L. should deliver his shmuess before me because I am simply ashamed to take the lead in his presence. He is one of the last remaining true seekers of mussar, who speak within themselves, addressing themselves" (Michtav MeEliyohu vol. IV, pg. 363).

HaRav Shach zt'l once said, "I am more grateful to Reb Yechezkel for having drawn me close to mussar study than I am to my mother who brought me to yeshiva to learn."

"And especially now, when heresy and apostasy R'l are about, nobody can make any excuse for exempting himself from learning mussar. One shouldn't say that mussar study is difficult or make other excuses because these are the yetzer hora's arguments; if half an hour used to be enough, we now need much, much longer" (Or Yechezkel, Igros #162).

After Shanghai Reb Yechezkel said, "Shanghai was a successful period. We toiled in Torah, we worked at tefilloh and we labored at mussar study -- they were five years of success."

To mark the thirtieth yahrtzeit of the mashgiach, who was one of the last mussar giants of our times, we present the following outline of him as a mussar personality.

How the Mashgiach Readied Himself

"And I would like you to know, my friend, that I have great satisfaction from the precious bochurim that you sent me . . .the bochur Yechezkel from Warsaw has been here but a short time but it seems that he has arrived well prepared to succeed . . ." Thus wrote Rav Tzvi Hirsch Broide zt'l of the Kelm Talmud Torah, to Rev Yeruchom Levovitz zt'l of Mir. What preparation had "Yechezkel of Warsaw" undergone prior to his arrival in Kelm?

It is said that Reb Yechezkel's preparation for Kelm took the form of a year and a half of yearning. As a youngster, he was learning in Radin when Reb Yeruchom visited the town. Tens of talmidim gathered at Reb Yeruchom's lodgings to listen to his pearls of mussar wisdom. One of the things that he said was, "Chazal tell us that the Torah instructs us to wear techeiles with our tzitzis because `techeiles' [the color] is like the sea; the sea is like the sky and the sky is like Hashem's Throne of Glory" (Zevochim 88). Chazal realized that these sights would draw us closer to faith. Can it be that we drape ourselves in tzitzis, contemplate the sea and the blue of the sky above and yet fail to strengthen our faith? A person can be surrounded with all the images that the Torah wants him to see yet he still makes his way in the world like a blind man groping in a brilliantly lit room. Only by adopting a mussar approach is one liable to pick up the message that Hashem transmits through our tzitzis and the blue of the sky!"

That shmuess shook Reb Yechezkel to the core and kindled a new spirit within him. He became friendly with Reb Yeruchom and, on his advice, decided to travel to Kelm in order to drink deeply from its wellsprings of mussar.

In later years, the Mashgiach commented that following the shmuess, he felt that his tzitzis were not proper tzitzis, that his tefillin were not proper tefillin and that his faith was not proper faith and as a result, he devoted his entire life to strengthening faith. Reb Yeruchom's words smoldered within him for a year and a half, feeding his desire to gain entry into the mussar crucible of Kelm. This was the preparation that brought Reb Yechezkel to Kelm "well prepared to succeed," so impressing Rav Tzvi Hirsch.

Reb Yechezkel wrote, "I heard from my master and teacher Rav Hirsch in the name of the Alter of Kelm that three levels must be attained in order to acquire mussar. He told me what two of them are but not the third. One must have feeling, for without it, one is like a cadaver. One must also have `a gutte kop (a good head).' We lack an elementary understanding of mussar and even those shmuessen that we do attend, we hear only superficially" (vol. VI, 20).

He said that when he came to Kelm, he told Rav Hirsch that the impression of what he learned in mussar works only remained with him for a day at the most. Rav Hirsch took exception to this and said, "Would that its effect last for an hour!"


One of a person's tasks is to repent of his wrongdoing. Reb Yechezkel taught that a basic aspect of faith is the belief in a person's ability to alter his natural inclinations. "The reluctance of common folk to learn mussar is tainted with heresy. People don't shrink from mussar because of the sad chant that accompanies its study or because of the demands that it makes but because of their feeling that it represents a thorny path with no escape."

The Mashgiach employed many different illustrations in order to dispel fallacies about faith. For example, he expressed his displeasure at the fact that people will devote themselves utterly and completely to the welfare of someone who is dangerously ill, up to the point of his death. As soon as he is dead, all awareness of the need to help him vanishes!

He constantly spoke about faith and was continually developing new and profound insights into faith. Rav Shlomo Wolbe related, "I once traveled for an hour-and- a-half to Bnei Brak, climbed up to his room and spent a minute-and-a- half with him. He told me, `Go and tell the bochurim that there is a Creator in the world, and have a safe trip back home!' We can pray and constantly repeat phrases such as, im yirtzeh Hashem, Hashem ya'azor, be'ezras Hashem and bisiya'ato deShmaya, without truly knowing that there is a Creator. If we actually felt the Creator's Presence, we would become different people.

"On his last Shabbos, which was Shushan Purim, he grew very excited and cried, `What will remain after everything else? What there was before everything else! What was there? Hashem Himself! And what will there be? Hashem Himself! And now too, we have Hashem Himself -- there is none besides Him!' And he immediately concluded: `And that is Purim!' "

Mussar's Benefit

"Some folk argue," Reb Yechezkel said, "that mussar is of no benefit and that one sometimes sees mussar scholars who possess bad character traits. But they are mistaken. According to them, mussar is only concerned with character but that is wrong.

"Mussar implants a different outlook upon life within a person's heart and imparts virtues to him. Without mussar a person can imagine that he fears Heaven but be completely mistaken. Mussar shmuessen are not mere discourses. They build an entirely new world."

He related that the Alter of Kelm was once ill and it was dangerous for him to speak. His friends asked Reb Yisroel [Salanter] zt'l to instruct him to refrain from delivering shmuessen. Reb Yisroel's response was, "It's true that danger to life is involved but preventing him from giving his shmuessen also involves danger to life!"

The Mashgiach also repeated the Alter of Kelm's response to those who argued that mussar did not influence them to change their ways and that they were thus in a worse position because they were more blameworthy and that it was better for them not to engage in mussar.

He replied that while it was true that they were blameworthy, that paled beside the reward they would get for the very realization that they arrived at while learning mussar (vol. VII, 18). Furthermore, engaging in mussar feels new and unfamiliar. It is difficult for a person to break habits and uproot traits. In trying to do so, he subdues his yetzer hora and serves Hashem. The mussar student is thus a servant of Hashem!

Reb Yechezkel also taught that only through mussar is it possible to recognize Hashem in every aspect of life. The difference between those who learn mussar and those who don't is as stark as the difference between light and darkness. There is hope that the former will emerge from the darkness into the light but not for the others (Igros #60).

Chazal say that the posuk, "You reduce a person ad daco, to lowliness," (Tehillim 90:3) refers to "dichducho shel nefesh, to life's lowest ebb." We shouldn't think that this suffices to rectify the sin for the posuk continues, "and You say, `Repent, people.' " In other words, you must still continue repenting, more and more and more (HaRav Dovid Povarsky, quoting the Mashgiach).

Reb Yechezkel once compared a person who refrains from learning mussar to someone who hides his head under the blanket because he is scared of thunder and lighting. Not seeing the lightning doesn't affect the risk. Neither does refraining from learning mussar alter the truth about a person's situation (vol. IV, 215).

Pillar of Truth

Simchas Torah night in Ponovezh Yeshiva -- a night when bnei yeshiva relate to their learning with joy and companionship, when a pact of closeness with the daf gemora is finalized. It is a night in which all the bochurim share equally, when the top students in the yeshiva and the weakest ones are united. In the middle stands the Mashgiach, listening to the rousing singing of Tov li Toras picho (The Torah of Your Mouth is more precious to me than thousands in gold and silver) (Tehillim 119:72), with which the bochurim have been storming the beis hamedrash for a long time.

"I would have expected otherwise," he remarked later in amazement, "from bnei Torah who live in the world of truth and who roar Tov li toras picho mei'alfei zohov vochesef, time after time for so long! Where were you yesterday during night seder? And how come on Friday night after the meal, your shtender, that is laden with thousands in gold and sliver, was abandoned?"

In Kelm, Reb Yechezkel undertook absolute subservience to the truth. Upon arriving in Kelm, Rav Hirsch suggested that he study Shaar Habitochon in Chovos Halevovos. Reb Yechezkel responded that he was still far from attaining the trait of trusting fully in Hashem. Rav Hirsch was displeased. "And other levels you have attained?"

When Reb Yechezkel was ready for marriage, Rav Nochum Zeev Ziv zt'l (the Alter's son) inquired as to whether he was interested in a wealthy match and received a negative response. Rav Nochum Zeev rebuked him: "Do you really hate money that much?"

Reb Yechezkel replied, "Wealth . . . a daughter of wealth [i.e. who is strongly bonded to money, as opposed to simply having it] that is what I despise."

He would avoid any utterance that was not the absolute truth. Talmidim relate that when they asked the Mashgiach the time, he would give the hour and the minute and add "approximately" because it was impossible to mention the exact number of seconds.

Towards the end of his life, he tried to refrain from emotional crying while learning mussar or reviewing his deeds. "An elderly man tends to cry," he explained. "If genuine tears are affected by external factors, that is the worst form of falsehood -- falsehood powered by emotion!"

It is known that Reb Yechezkel refused to eulogize HaRav Yitzchok Isaac Sher zt'l, because a grandson of his had passed away at that time and he felt that if he spoke, he might be affected by his personal loss.

While in Kelm, when he lodged in Rav Hirsch's home, Rebbetzin Nechama Leibe a'h, Hy'd, the Alter's learned daughter, asked her husband to try to arrange for Yechezkel to undergo voice training since she felt that he would become a public influence. Rav Hirsch told her, "He is a man of truth and he will speak words of truth. When one speaks the truth, it is understood whatever the delivery!"

The author of a new sefer once applied to him for a letter of approbation. The Mashgiach replied, "Why do you need a testimonial? A sefer itself testifies about its author. Moreover, one has to write in very exaggerated terms; even the term gaon isn't enough. Since the ways of mussar have accustomed me to refrain from using exaggerations and overblown adjectives, my testimony will be of no benefit" (Igros #177).

Self Discipline and Training

In a shmuess that he delivered in the yeshiva following the Mashgiach's petiroh, HaRav Dovid Povarsky said: "Someone who wants to climb higher in serving Hashem must reflect on his faith and strengthen it. This will increase his acceptance of the yoke of serving Hashem.

"We witnessed this in the Mashgiach's case. It was wonderful how nothing at all could budge him from his station of service. Nowhere else could one see such a thing. We must consider his conduct in this respect and learn from him how to control and regulate the way we conduct ourselves. We have seen how much someone like us, who lived in our own time (even though he belonged to an earlier generation) was steeped in this. Wherever he went, he was subservient to the yoke of authority. The Mashgiach's memory must remain with us and when we recall all this, it will be meritorious for the yeshiva" (Mussar Vodaas, vol. I, 33).

Quoting the Alter of Kelm, the Mashgiach would say, " `Train a youth according to his capacity; even when he grows old he will not stray from it' (Mishlei 22:6) -- `It' [also] refers to his training and education [not only his path]. He will always seek to learn and work on himself. He will never reach a stage where he believes that he has attained perfection."

Care About Halochoh

This continual state of preparedness and tension led to his meticulous observance of day-to-day halochoh. One motzei Shabbos, he was seen returning to the beis hamedrash in the middle of the seder, going over to his place and opening a siddur. It turned out that he had to finish saying Veyitein lecho and the Shaar Hatziyun writes, "It is good to say Veyitein lecho in the place that one prays."

This concern for precision in halochoh lent him the qualities of profound humility and submission. Each and every movement was measured and respectful. He never displayed noisy outbursts; neither did he tolerate them from talmidim. He cringed from the expressions and gesticulations that some talmidim made while they prayed. Besides the dishonesty of such behavior, he felt that the self-exposure was evidence of a certain brazenness on the part of creatures upon whom the verdict "it would have been preferable not to have been created" had been pronounced.

When the shaliach tzibbur clapped his hand on the lectern to signal the end of a portion of the prayers and the raised voices of those who had not yet finished continued to resound, he was annoyed. A person ought to train himself to conform to order and discipline. It is improper to fly in the face of communal arrangement because of one's personal devotions. Additionally, it is correct to submit oneself to the lead of every shaliach tzibbur, no matter who he is.

On Simchas Torah, when the circle of dancers started expanding just as the gabbai announced the end of the hakofoh, the Mashgiach would make his way into the middle of the circle and wave both his hands. Simple courtesy was then exercised, for the Mashgiach if not for the gabbai.

He used to say that taking an inordinately long time over saying the Amidah was not evidence of immersion in prayer but of dreaming rather then praying. "It is most important to hear what one is saying and to pronounce the words clearly, not to dream, or to [try to] snatch [the levels of] angels."

"Her vos du redst! (Understand what you are saying!)" was another of his maxims concerning prayer. He advocated following the repetition of the Amidah while looking in a siddur as training in regulating one's thoughts (Imrei Daas vol. II, 127).

In Kelm, he once related in a shmuess, strong disapproval was registered against those who learned mussar without wearing a hat "because it was difficult to learn with a hat on." Such an individual was derisively referred to as a "mussar learner in a yarmulke." How, it was charged, could one feel any hardship whatsoever while learning mussar, when one was supposed to be wholly involved in one's study and far from any personal feelings? We do not understand such a demand because we are far from experiencing genuine feeling while we learn mussar (vol. VII, 341).

"When one hears a mussar shmuess," the Mashgiach said, "he should reflect upon what he has heard and see what in it is new to him. There is a well-known saying, `What happens to Klal Yisroel will also happen to Reb Yisroel," meaning that an individual ought not to worry. He can trust in himself and not feel troubled. Apathy and noninvolvement are among the foremost reasons that people do not bolster their spiritual efforts. That is why we see people participating in a funeral or visiting a mourning house R'l, without feeling any worry. This has its source in a lack of yiras Shomayim" (vol. VII, 352).

Greeting Others

Following Yom Kippur, the Mashgiach drew attention to the importance of receiving other people pleasantly, "outwardly to begin with, showing others a smiling face. Then there is hope that he will change inwardly as well."

He wrote, "It is in human nature to become aroused from speaking about mussar and encouragement and then leaving it at that. In my opinion, this is [just] mussar talk. Someone who learns mussar can talk about mussar but someone who just talks about mussar and doesn't learn it -- one can't be sure whether he is really even talking mussar" (Igros #323).

In a shmuess, he explained the gemora which says that Rabbi Yossi used to refer to his wife as his home and to his ox as his field (Shabbos 118): "Human nature is to ignore the good and to bring forward the bad, to attribute good only to oneself and not to see any virtue or worthy achievement in anybody else. Rabbi Yossi attributed everything about his home to his wife for it depended entirely upon her, just as all the activity in a field depends upon the ox that tills it. He made a point of seeing in others only what was good and correct."

In a letter he wrote how even when another great mussar personality, the gaon and tzaddik HaRav Zalman Dolinsky zt'l, was in his death throes yet he did not cease encouraging others to serve Hashem. "Once he came to Kelm for a Simchas Beis Hasho'eivoh and was recognized as a man of vitality and a joyful heart" (Igros #21).

Sharing the Community's Distress

During the Shanghai period, he repeatedly urged sharing the distress that the rest of the nation was experiencing. He pointed out that Chazal even encourage sharing the distress of vegetation: "A tree that casts off its fruits is marked with red dye so that people should see it and pray for it" (Shabbos 67). The nature of someone who can feel his friend's distress is such that he can even feel the distress of a tree that loses its fruits.

What shall we say about the distress of Klal Yisroel?! It is awesome to contemplate! The fact that we can feel tranquil is a sign of [how lowly] our traits [have become] R'l. We must make spiritual sacrifices for Klal Yisroel's sake and do all we can for them!"

In an appreciation of Rav Yechezkel, HaRav Shlomo Wolbe ylct'a described him as having been, "all heart. Whenever he heard that a family was in any trouble, one could see how he was shocked to the depths of his heart. The stark truth mandates [such] kindness [that is] ultimately all heart." Talmidim relate that one of them once came to ask him something and Rav Yechezkel immediately bade him be seated. "How can I sit while someone created in the Divine Image is standing?" he explained.

HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz ylct'a, related that he once saw the Mashgiach returning from visiting someone who was sick. He recalled how he stood, describing the patient's situation and thinking deeply about it, how he was feeling, what he thought about when undergoing difficulties due to his condition and what he suffered at such times. This was truly sharing another's burden!


The anecdotes presented here shed just a little light on Rav Yechezkel's wondrous mussar personality and conduct. In eulogizing the Mashgiach, the Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Shmuel Rosovsky zt'l said that he had been "a servant of Hashem all his life, who cleaved uninterruptedly to his Creator. His stature reached the heavens but at the same time, he fulfilled the words of the posuk, "Behold I shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Tzion." How much thought and concern he devoted to improving others, to straightening them, [helping them] face to face and to an even greater extent in their absence. We will be able to tell our children that we saw what a servant of Hashem looks like!"

Despite the passage of three decades, his words and teachings still echo in the hearts of those who listened to him and those who listen to them, yielding a bountiful harvest of mussar and yiras Shomayim. Anyone can listen in, draw closer to his Creator and become a genuine servant of Hashem!

His Hearty `Gut Shabbos!'

"He never uttered a word that he was not completely at peace with . . . He lived at a tremendously high level of tension in avodas Hashem, that deprived him of the time it would have taken to leave behind anything in writing."

HaRav Wolbe recollected: "I have known Reb Yechezkel for almost forty years and I have never found him sitting leaning against the back of the chair. That is avodoh -- and he was no youngster! He was a very elderly man. How often do we see someone who watches how he holds his spoon and how he puts it into his mouth? That was also avodoh! Do we have any idea of what it means for someone to work on his every movement and to control every word of his speech? His entire day was a succession of small but significant acts. He made no haphazard, unsupervised movement.

"He told me that he had undertaken that when everybody flew past him on leil Shabbos to say Gut Shabbos, `to wish them with all his heart that this should really be a good Shabbos.' Nobody could guess that he roused himself to give each one of the four hundred people that passed him, both at night and in the morning, a heartfelt greeting, making it a real avodoh.

"He once remarked that when Yitzchok Ovinu is described as having been "old and satiated with days" (Bereishis 35:29), it means that the days themselves were satiated and full. They were crammed with avodas Hashem because every small act was an act of avodoh. He didn't speak about `big' things, about the Shechinoh or about cleaving to Hashem. He only spoke about faith, without using a single unnecessary word!"

Torah's Honor and Reb Aharon's Levayoh

For the levayoh of HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l the yeshiva emptied out completely. The Mashgiach was shocked at the ease with which the talmidim completely closed down a center of Torah study. In a shmuess that he gave afterwards, he rebuked them.

"Everyone is speaking about kovod haTorah. Are you really concerned about the Torah's honor -- sleeping till late and missing the last time for saying Shema and whiling away long hours in idle talk while the gemoras lie open in front of us? How, as a group, can we purport to be concerned about Torah's honor, when all that we do, without any break, is a terrible injury to the Torah's honor?

"The wish to attend the levayoh has nothing to do with Torah's honor but is simply the wish to follow the stream of those going. It is an act done by rote, without any thought . . ."


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