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8 Elul 5764 - August 25, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Elul in Slabodke

by B. Reim

Three Accounts of Elul in a Bygone World

In a letter written to HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt"l, HaRav Naftoli Yosef Silverberg zt"l told about his experiences in Slabodka over Rosh Hashonoh in the year 5664 (1903). "Elul in Slabodka" was a special concept that all alumni of that great yeshiva remembered. This letter was first published last year in the Hebrew edition of Yated, having been generally unknown until it was discovered erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5763, almost a hundred years after it had been written.


With the onset of Elul, new faces materialized day by day in the yeshiva. Every train that arrived in Kovna would spew forth dozens of youths and young married men, come to deepen their awareness and the trepidation of the pending Judgment. They came to prepare themselves for a soul-searching reckoning and truly, with every passing day, this apprehension was felt more and more in the air of Slabodka. The study of mussar, which was an integral part of the daily schedule throughout the year between mincha and ma'ariv, was doubled now and took place at two set times, before mincha and before ma'ariv.

Most of the year, the study revolved around the gemora and its commentaries, and sometimes it was difficult to wrench the scholars away from their energetic polemics even by a well-placed pounding on the table that announced the time for mussar study. During these days, however, the study was concentrated upon Mesillas Yeshorim, Chovos Halevovos, Sha'arei Teshuvoh and other such works. The whole atmosphere in yeshiva was permeated with the spirit of mussar which percolated even through the pages of the gemora.

The nature of the mussar study changed during Elul. The text and the dwelling upon the deeper meaning of the words served mainly as a means to open the gates of the heart for meditation and self-examination against the illumination of the ideas set forth. During this time, it seemed as if the soul was transcending the body and somehow merging with its source, its Creator, and making its own personal reckoning of cosmic parameters, a calibration of relationships, of acts between man and fellow man, and man and his Creator.

At one end of the yeshiva courtyard, stood the home of the Alter (the Saba of Slabodka, ztvk'l). Here he would sit and contemplate deeply, and hold forth, his mouth gushing out streams of wisdom and mussar like a veritable fountain. About him stood youths and young men, huddled close, trembling with awe, their ears cocked to catch every precious dewdrop that issued from his mouth, all holding their breaths so that an utter silence of holiness suffused the atmosphere.

The Alter would speak about the sanctity of the upcoming Day of Judgment, of repenting through love of Hashem, which is far greater and more exalted than repentance from fear, for it generates an inner spiritual revolution. From time to time, he would spice his words with teachings from Chazal and, wonder of wonders, the selfsame familiar sayings would receive new meaning, and an innovative illumination would shine forth. He would shuck off the outer peel to reveal the mussar- related core therein, through his power of analysis and his penetrating understanding in life, until even the elder disciples, the scholastic pride of Yeshivas Slabodka, would stand gaping in amazement at his brilliant dissertation.

One group would go and another would take its place, all day long. The Alter's house hummed with activity like a beehive, as each group came, remained for the two-hour session of pure mussar, and were succeeded by the next in line, with no breathing space in between. You watch this, overwhelmed by the sheer power of the soul that is latent in this man.

I remember one Shabbos Shuvoh in Slabodka. I was pacing the floor, engrossed in a personal cheshbon haneffesh, but my reckoning was somehow coming out all askew. I was embittered and depressed and decided to seek out the Alter in order to find some solace and encouragement in his proximity.

I came at Sholosh Seudos time. The room was filled from wall to wall, the men standing elbow to elbow, avidly and reverently drinking in every word. The Alter spoke about sin and repentance, explaining the mishnah that reads, "Whoever says, `I can sin and repent, sin and repent,' is not given the opportunity to do teshuvoh. [And one who says,] `I will sin and be pardoned on Yom Kippur' -- is not forgiven on Yom Kippur."

Suddenly, he stopped and announced that the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, would be speaking in the yeshiva immediately and that we must all go there. [We went.]

Unlike the delivery of the Alter, whose words were said gently, reflectively and with measured logical sequence, the Rosh Yeshiva's words flowed smoothly, but forcefully and with great vigor. He would impose dread and fear upon his audience, rouse them and fire them, exhorting them to be prepared for the awesome Day of Judgment. He used to conclude with a sudden direct appeal to the listeners: "Let us now unanimously declare, in unison, with hearts aligned together: `Return us, Hashem, unto You, and we will return; renew our days as of yore!'" And thereupon, all dispersed to their regular places, and simultaneously from five hundred mouths would burst forth in the sweet but lugubrious mussar melody that penetrated deep to one's inner core, to one's heart and keloyos.

When one of the students finally went up to the omud and began a mournful, very moving rendition of, "Vehu rachum yechappeir ovon," my heart was suddenly suffused with joy and confidence. All the bitter desperation simply melted away and I felt as if a heavy boulder had been rolled off of my chest. I felt atonement, cleansing, renewal and a sense of deep happiness and peace.

Many years have passed since. Yeshivas Slabodka in Kovna went up in flames and smoke, but whenever Elul comes around my heart yearns for those holy and dear ruins and for the pure souls that were buried there. Those souls knew how to rise above the mundane, the meaningless things in life, and to attain sublime and exalted levels. They were versed in the art of rejuvenating their hearts and spirits each year. They were able to eject from within them all hatred and envy, and fill the void with a love for all creations. And my lips murmur a prayer: "Create for us a pure heart, O Hashem, and a knowing spirit renew within us."


There is another description of Elul in Yeshivas Slabodka -- Elul 5673 (1913), Elul some ninety years ago. It was written by HaRav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan, zt'l, one of the leading spiritual thinkers, disciple of Maran the Alter of Slabodka:

Carefree and exultant, I sprang from the iron steps of the train, happy at the thought of having arrived in Kovna- Slabodka. As I crossed the bridge, I looked about me with wide-eyed curiosity, hoping I might meet one of my friends. I traversed the entire bridge without encountering as much as one acquaintance, and felt irked. I wanted to accost at least one familiar person; this was some kind of Slabodka egoism. But I proceeded until I stood at the very gateway leading to C.M.'s courtyard. I was about to open the gate when the door of the house opened and before me stood, stooping and smiling, none other than Yechezkel (HaRav Yechezkel Sarna ztvk'l).

"Sholom aleichem."

"Aleichem sholom. Is the rov here?"

"He hasn't come yet," replied R' Yechezkel. "He will come tomorrow."

The following day was a great day for Slabodka. The Rov (the Alter of Slabodka) arrived! When I went in to see him, something interesting happened. He stood amidst a circle of young men who stretched out their hands in greeting but did not kiss his. Without even being aware of it, I bent forward to kiss it. He returned the gesture with a kiss of his own upon my hand. I was so embarrassed that I had to hide behind some tall shoulders, which greatly marred the usual pleasant impression that always gripped me whenever I met the Rov after a long separation. I stood there hiding, while listening to the dialogue between him and the others. . . .

"You are coming from a physical recreation to a spiritual recreation, from the months of Tammuz, Av, spent in the midst of forests and fields, to the month of Elul in the precinct of the yeshiva. What is the difference between the two? We all admit that just as the body needs rest and rejuvenation, so does the soul need invigoration. Even more so, since every soul is like an ill person when it comes to Elul."

I hear the conversation and I don't know what to do. Should I continue to listen, to pay attention, to examine my deeds straightaway? Am I a true Elul-seeker? A true G-d-fearing person? What then? Am I not an Elul-seeker, one who claims to be G-d-fearing? . . . How ridiculous it is and how sad to be asking these two questions, one after the other! Even so, they are not contradictory.

The Rov continued to speak, adding to his train of thought, speaking some more until he began to worry: "What shall we do about our prayers on Rosh Hashonoh? How will we presume to even open our mouths?"

And I stand there, listening, my heart feeling the truth of his reflections and my thoughts keeping pace with his footsteps and mindsteps. I feel myself wholly captivated by him, and I wholeheartedly accept the sublime ideas that are already familiar to me from his past teachings.

Soon, I hope to become a full-fledged baal mussar.


Elul 5694 in Slabodka

The Pesach edition of Musaf Shabbos Kodesh of 5757 published a talk with HaRav Simcha Zissel Broide zt'l, Rosh Yeshivas Chevron. It told about a visit in Slabodka in 5694, which includes following the account of Elul in Slabodka:

We were in the yeshiva in Elul and I heard talks from R' Isaac Sher ztvk'l and R' Avrohom Grodzensky ztvk'l, may Hashem avenge their deaths. It was a unique atmosphere that permeated the depths of one's very soul, stamped indelibly with the hallmark of the Mussar movement. R' Avrohom delivered a talk every day, and their impression carried for a long period afterwards.

What was Elul like in Slabodka?

"I was very young, then; the other yeshiva students were older, full-fledged Torah scholars. The solemnity was deep. The atmosphere was completely different. It was a special kind of Elul, with the seriousness of mature men of spiritual weight. There was an exalted feeling in the air, a spiritual elevation, a reverence . . . [it is apparent that R' Simcha Zissel remembers experiences that he finds difficult to describe adequately]."

Later on, he quoted a mussar saying which he heard from HaRav Avrohom Grodzensky, who delivered an hour-long talk every single day. His theme was repeated each time: A person must try his utmost to think and to question. A person should not remain static and lethargic, without contemplating and rousing himself.

R' Simcha Zissel quoted one source: When Do'eig Ho'edomi enumerated all of the good qualities that Dovid possessed, he included the trait of "knowing how to ask." To this, Shaul had no rejoinder. From here we can learn the tremendous advantage inherent in knowing how to ask, to question and to inquire. By constantly asking and seeking, a person will always aspire to progress and improve.

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