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8 Sivan 5765 - June 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In the Proximity of Maran R' Yitzchok Zeev of Brisk Ztvk'l

Memoirs of Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz

Chapter Nine

We are very happy to be able to publish the continuation of Rabbi Lorincz's memoirs, beginning a series of articles about his experiences with Maran HaRav Yitzchok Zeev of Brisk, ztvk'l, also known as the Griz and the Brisker Rov. From the time of his arrival in Jerusalem in 1941 when it was still under the British Mandate, the Rov was a major figure in the leadership of Torah Jewry in Eretz Yisroel and throughout the world.

Fortunate is the Man Who is Always Fearing

"A disciple once followed R' Yishmoel bar R' Yossi to the market of Zion. R' Yishmoel saw that the disciple was in a state of fear and he said to him: You are a sinner, for it says in Yeshaya 33: `Those who fear in Zion are sinners . . . ' Said the disciple: But does it not also say, `Fortunate is the man who is always fearing'? And he replied: That only refers to divrei Torah. The Torah grants a person peace of mind, a natural serenity."


A person who conducts his ways according to the Torah and trusts in his Creator has no reason whatsoever to lose his inner tranquility; there is no creature in the entire world that can harm him. He is under the direct personal surveillance of the Creator. But on the other hand, this trust also demands from us a constant alertness to the very point of fear — lest we are not fulfilling our obligation towards our Creator, lest we fall short in our execution of the commandments, or lest we are not heedful enough to avoid those things which the Torah forbids.

In the same vein did Chazal interpret the verse, "And Yitzchok feared an exceedingly great dread." The Midrash Tanchuma states (Chapter 13): "R' Levi said in the name of R' Chama bar Chanina: Yitzchok feared two fears. One was when he was on the altar and the other was when Eisov entered. And we would have no way of knowing which was greater were it not for the description of `exceedingly great.' "

When Eisov entered Yitzchok's room and it became clear that the latter had blessed Yaakov in his stead, Yitzchok suddenly suspected that he had erred and sinned, as it is written in Rashi: "Why was Yitzchok in dread? For he said: What sin could I have [committed] to have [erred and] blessed the younger before the older and changed the order of their relationship?" And this dread was greater than the fear he experienced while laid upon the altar.

Fear and Serenity at One and the Same Time

By Maran HaGaon R' Yosef Zeev ztvk'l, one was able to see palpably how Chazal's words were fulfilled in full.

Famous is that constant sense of fear that accompanied all of Maran's ways and deeds. It was a fear that is incomprehensible to this generation. He lived in a steady state of tenseness, constantly testing and checking himself, minute by minute, to see if he was really executing his duties satisfactorily. He would barrage himself ceaselessly with the question: What does the Torah require from me at this very moment?

However, all this only applied to his world of Torah.

He did not feel or exhibit an iota of natural tension. That great dread only applied to matters connected to Torah and G- d-fear. When it came to personal matters, to his money or his personal honor, and in some measure also regarding his health — we saw only equanimity and tranquility.

The atmosphere in the home of Maran was one of constant joy, even in difficult times. Suffice it to cite here several sentences from a letter of the Rosh Yeshiva of Beer Yaakov, HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira shlita, a relative of Maran's, which was written in 5701 (1941) when Maran was in Jerusalem and his wife, together with some of his children, still remained behind in the valley of death in Europe:

"I long dearly for the life in Yerushalayim . . . First, I was most impressed by the joy that reigned in the home of Maran the Rov of Brisk shlita . . . for I saw again the personification of a life of joy. And this strengthened in me again the desire for a life that expresses the natural, innate joy within me. And I was reminded of this when I saw the house of the Rov, where I saw how a stable family life creates a cognizant joy . . . I had a pleasant surprise in seeing that there existed by us a family corner replete with such joy and jubilation."

In the essay before us, we shall attempt to stress this by way of several facts which shall serve as examples of "Particulars which reflect upon the general," that is, reflections upon the whole. And we are not talking about isolated incidents but referring to what was the normal state of his daily life.

Concerning the "exceedingly great dread" which Maran experienced towards his fulfillment of Torah obligations, there is no need to expand. These things are famous; they are fully known to the public. We shall mention here two outstanding examples.

Maran's precision in Krias Shema and his utmost caution regarding tircha detzibura, causing the public undue discomfort:

Whoever was present at the time that Maran recited Krias Shema cannot forget how he repeated the words again and again, in all the possible manners of enunciation, a process which took a very long time. This is how he approached every single mitzvah. He did not rest or relax until he was certain beyond all possible doubt that he had fulfilled his obligation without any hint of question, according to all the halachic approaches.

One who was not familiar with Maran, would be under the impression that before him stood a man riddled by nervous tension, but see the wonder: when Maran was staying in Switzerland for vacation, and he led the prayers on the yahrtzeit for his father, Maran HaRav Chaim ztvk'l, he veered from his usual practice and his reciting of the Shema was smooth and fluent, without any pauses, for fear of causing the public undue discomfort.

Concern About the Tip

When he was vacationing in Switzerland, he inquired about the usual amount of the tip given to a cabbie. His accompaniers were surprised at the question. Was it really so important to him? What was so vital about paying a gentile a tip?

Maran thought otherwise and said, "When I give less than what is the custom, people look askance and it is a chillul Hashem. If I give too much, I am transgressing the prohibition of lo sechonem, not giving him something beyond what is coming to him. Therefore, I must be precise and pay exactly what is expected: no more, no less."

Concerning the Excavations by the Gravesite of the Rambam

As we have said, Maran's state of apprehension regarding keeping all the commandments did not adversely affect his peace of mind. In fact, his angst and equanimity complemented one another. He could be at the height of tension and trepidation, and at the very same time at the peak of quietude with regard to worldly things.

I would like to describe here what happened in his house at the time that archaeological digs were taking place near the tomb of the Rambam in Tiveria.

When they excavated there, Maran knew no rest or respite. Day and night his mind was preoccupied with the subject. He overturned the world and took all kinds of steps in order to repeal this decree.

Maran's distress during that period simply defies description. I entered his room one day and, upon looking at the couch where he lay, I noticed that the pillow upon which he laid his head was completely soaked. I thought that perhaps rain water was dripping upon it from some leak and looked up at the ceiling. Maran took note at my surprise and said, "You see my pillow wet? Know that it is wet through and through, on both sides, from the tears I have shed all night over the desecration of the holy graves."

Among other steps he took, he also asked the Minister of Religions, who at the time was one of the heads of Mizrachi, to come to his house. Maran accused him of being partially to blame for the situation, of being an accomplice to the fact. After listening to the harsh words, the minister promised to issue directives to stop the work by the graves.

Maran did not suffice with a mere promise however, and told him that his two sons would accompany him to the office of Vaad Hayeshivos, which was not far from his home, to make sure that the directive was issued from there by telephone to halt the excavations. Maran explained to him that only after he heard from his sons that the promise had been fulfilled would he be able to relax.

Maran told me that the Religions Minister was apparently very angry at this show of no-confidence. His sons told him how in response he immediately cursed Maran very loudly.

I expressed my surprise at Maran's words. What did he mean by "his sons told him"? Was he not present to hear the curses himself?

The fact is that I knew that he was, indeed, present after all and the curses, as he said, were shouted at the top of the Minister's voice.

Maran replied, "To my ears, none of his words penetrated. I did not hear and his words made no impression upon my ears."

I continued to press him. How could one be on such an exalted level as not to hear a vicious verbal attack against oneself issued at the top of the attacker's lungs?

"Nonsense. There are no spiritual levels to talk about," said Maran. "During these days and weeks, I have been so busy and overwrought about the very subject of the graveside violations that I was unable to absorb anything not directly relevant to the subject. People have spoken to me about all kinds of matters and I was deaf to their words, in the very literal sense of the word. The curses which that Mizrachi party figure expressed were personal; they were not directly connected to the heart of the matter of the desecration of graves of holy figures and therefore, my ears did not absorb them. I was only able to hear them from my sons who later repeated them to me after the decree was suspended."

Is it possible to describe greatness of this caliber? Throughout the entire night Maran wept over the desecration of the grave of that heavenly angel, the Rambam. He shed tears until his pillow was drenched. The aggravation he was experiencing is indescribable. And in this very condition, when someone grossly insults him, he remains even-tempered and calm in the face of those imprecations to the point that he didn't even hear them! And if he had not been told of it, he would not have known about it altogether!

Attending Torah Leaders is Greater Than Direct Study

Come and see how vast is the distance between Maran, a giant among giants, and us.

I, who dedicated all of my efforts to the holy mission of preventing the excavations near the tomb of the Rambam and who exerted myself in every possible way, sparing no time or effort — can I say that I shed even one tear? Did I lose any sleep over it?

I must admit the truth; had I not seen the drenched pillow with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it.

On the other hand, how would we have reacted were we attacked in such an outspoken, rude manner?

Would not the feeling of biting shame have pushed aside the very project, and all of one's thoughts would have been concentrated on what suitable reaction one could and should make to such an affront? But by Maran it was the very opposite: it was not a personal insult alone, but an insult to the honor of the Torah. Even so, the angst and pain over the desecration of the honor of the Rambam were so deep and palpable that he did not even register the insult to his own honor.

This incident was, for me, a very poignant lesson, a lesson which could not have been gained by studying the subject in depth but only through actually attending a talmid chochom in practice. I felt that here I was witness to the realization of Chazal's teaching, "Attending those [who are learned] in Torah is greater than learning it [oneself]" (Brochos 7b).

One who did not see that pillow completely soaked with the pure tears of Maran cannot understand how such a thing could be. And that is because it is of a level so far removed from us. Still in all, we cannot help but be impressed by it and have that lesson penetrate deeply.

And from this understanding, I attempted to take advantage of the opportunity and remain close by to him as much as I could. All that I saw and experienced in the proximity of the Brisker Rov ztvk'l gave me the spiritual strength to act for the sake of nullifying decrees, knowing that I was toiling on his behalf, and being fully aware of the pain Maran felt during every moment that the matter was not satisfactorily settled.

Serenity — Even in the Headquarters of the Russian Police

With everything connected to his physical body, his welfare and the welfare of his family, he was always calm and collected. Nothing fazed him. I heard the following story from Maran's son, R' Dovid Soloveitchik shlita, who heard it recently from a person born in the town of Brisk, R' Yaakov Neiman, now of Chicago.

When Maran came with his family to Eretz Yisroel, he possessed two immigration certificates: one for his family and the other for his son R' Yosef Dov zt'l who was too old to be included with the family and needed one of his own. The older sister Lifsha however, who was also too old to be included and needed her own certificate, did not have one. A document was forged for her showing that she was a twin sister of R' Meshullam Dovid and was thus still a minor. But the forgery was not so expert since her brother's (real) birth certificate had been issued in Brisk, whereas the `twin' sister's was registered as having been issued in Warsaw. The infamous Russian police, the NKVD, caught on to the anomaly and summoned Maran for questioning.

Interrogations of this kind usually ended with the subject of the interview in prison. Whoever received such a summons would be seized with dreadful trembling. Maran, however, went forth without fear, completely at peace, accompanied with HaRav Yaakov Neiman. They arrived at the police headquarters and the interrogator asked Maran how it could be that a pair of twins would have two separate places of birth, Brisk and Warsaw, as their birth certificates seemed to indicate.

Maran replied immediately, in a firm, very self-confident, even belligerent, tone, "What kind of a strange question you are asking? When I was in Brisk I made a birth certificate for my son. Later, when I went to Warsaw and I was required to make out a birth certificate for my daughter, I did so."

The interrogator was so taken aback by Maran's assertiveness and onslaught that he apologized, closed the case immediately and sent him off back home.

No One Who Listens to Me Loses Out

In wartime when he fled from Warsaw to Vilna with his family, he was in grave danger for three whole days. Yet he was able to fulfill the words of Maran R' Chaim of Volozhin ztvk'l: He writes in Nefesh HaChaim that one who does not waver from concentrating the entire time upon the idea that "ein od Milvado — there is no one outside of Hashem," is invulnerable; no creature in the world can harm him. In spite of his perilous situation and the chaos and constant fear which they were exposed to, Maran was able to concentrate upon this concept for the duration of the entire trip, as will be told here in the future.

When the time came to pray, Maran ordered the wagons to stop so that he could get off and pray properly, standing on firm ground. He did so despite the grumbling of the other passengers who wanted to reach their destination as quickly as possible because of the danger. Maran said that as far as he was concerned they could continue on and he would somehow follow behind. To be sure, they waited out of respect for his stature.

When they reached Vilna, they found it deserted. One Jew ventured out of his hiding place to greet them and said, "You are lucky that you were not here before. The Germans gathered up all the Jews and transported them. They just left the city now . . . "

All of the passengers expressed their amazement at Maran's "divine intuition" but he simply said, "Don't regard this as a wonder on my part. It was merely an act of pure logic. I thought to myself: Why hurry? We are in danger wherever we go; there as here. And that being the case, there is no reason why I shouldn't pray properly. Whoever conducts himself according to the halocho will be blessed with what Chazal said in the Midrash (Devorim Rabba 4:5): `No man listens to Me and loses out.' "

Maran Sat on his Place as if Nothing Had Happened

His son HaRav Meshullam Dovid shlita tells the following:

"When we left Vilna during the war to go to Odessa, a Jew came to our house to fetch our suitcases and bring them to the train station. The many belongings aroused the suspicion of the Russian police and they arrested him. He told them that all the baggage belonged to the Brisker Rov and Maran was summoned for questioning.

"We were all terrified, not knowing what would happen to our father. Would they detain and arrest him? Aside from sheer fear from the police, we were certain that we would miss our train and then our plans to go on to Eretz Yisroel would be canceled. The minutes ticked by as we sat there in extreme tension. Fifteen minutes to go, ten, only five . . . and Abba had still not returned.

"He arrived at the very last moment, calm, serene, and climbed aboard the train. He took a seat as if nothing at all had happened.

"This marvelous composure disappeared, however, during the journey when Maran noticed that the train seemed to be slowing down and there was the chance that this delay would cause us to arrive in Odessa after the ushering in of Shabbos."

When he began to realize this, Maran sat in a state of abject fear until, by a miracle, the train slipped into the station minutes before Shabbos. The entire episode will be told in detail in a future article, but here is the place to note the amazing melding of equanimity in worldly matters with the simultaneous dread for matters of heavenly import.

Where There Was No Danger, Maran did not Fear for his Health, Either

With regard to concern for his health, there was a fine line between Heavenly matters and worldly matters. Where — according to halochoh — there was reason to fear a danger, there was also reason to fear for one's health. Whereas in circumstances of physical suffering where there was no danger to one's body, there was no place for concern, either.

Maran suffered from frequent colds and really suffered great physical discomfort from them. The doctors expressed their opinion that Maran's living quarters were not suited to his condition because there was no sun in them. HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky zt'l, who was friendly with Maran, once approached one of his acquaintances with the request that they arrange an alternate apartment for Maran where there was sunlight. Since I was staying in the U.S. at the time, he addressed the request to me and indeed, I was able to find a relative, R' Yehuda Bodenheimer z'l, a ben Torah who was eager, able, and willing to buy a suitable apartment for Maran.

Knowing Maran very well, I doubted that he would be pleased by the idea and I sent him a cable asking for his agreement in the matter of buying the apartment for him. On that selfsame day, I received a return cable with three words, "By no means!" It was signed, "Soloveitchik."

When I returned to Eretz Yisroel, I went to visit him and he asked me, "What in the world made you ask me such a question?"

Then he added that he did not want to accept any benefit from flesh-and-blood, even at the cost of his suffering and of his ill health. (This full story will appear in the future.)

How Maran Acted When All His Property Was Stolen

How would we react if we were to learn that a scoundrel had forged our signature and transferred to his possession all of our property? We would surely not be able to sleep at night; we would drop everything in order to salvage whatever could still be salvaged, and many of us would undoubtedly suffer heart failure or a nervous breakdown.

Not so, Maran. How did he react when this very scenario took place?

An evil person actually forged Maran's signature and took over a large building in Warsaw that belonged to him. He thus actually dispossessed him of the entire property which he had received from his father-in-law.

But Maran remained completely calm and collected. After weighing the matter over in his mind, he decided to keep silent. He did not take the man to court, though he would have been perfectly justified in doing so. Can one describe evenmindedness greater than this?

"When I am in the Frontlines, I am Absolved from Anxiety"

The following story took place during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, at the height of the siege on Jerusalem.

Maran was sitting, engrossed in study, in a room facing the street and he was exposed to shelling. During the shelling, when everyone sought shelter in a safe place, he remained put, delving even deeper in Torah and with greater concentration. The roaring of the flying shells falling very near the house did not seem to penetrate his ears nor disturb him in any way. His son R' Meshullam Dovid told me, "We quaked with fear but Abba reassured us and his tranquillity had a most positive affect on us."

"One time during a very heavy round of shelling, we begged our father to leave the room and that one time he agreed. When the noise died down, we all returned to his study, only to find a heap of stones resting on the very couch where he used to recline, having fallen there after a direct hit. The family shuddered to think what might have happened, G-d forbid, had he remained there. But he replied in even tones, `Those stones fell precisely because I left the room. Had I remained on the spot, they would not have fallen!'"

And so, afterwards, Maran continued to stay at his post, that is, in his study and would not leave it even during heavy shelling.

On the other hand, when there was no shelling in his vicinity Maran would be tense and very anxious as to what was happening in remote areas. When he was asked to explain this, he replied that so long as the shells were falling nearby he was considered an oness, helpless, and absolved of helping others since he was in mortal danger himself. And in such a state of affairs he had no reason for disquiet.

But when things were quiet all around him, he could not cease wondering what he could possibly do to help others in distress and this concern robbed him of his peace of mind.

All of these vignettes will testify that Maran possessed a calm, tranquil demeanor and anxiety was not something on his agenda. Still, fear of Hashem and fear of sin burned fiercely in him and these molded his mental and emotional composure.

Uprooting from the Source

When the Mizrachi people decided to build Heichal Shlomo as a ceremonial home for the chief rabbinate, Maran fought tooth and nail against this idea. He feared that by establishing a new center they would publicize to Diaspora Jewry that a rabbinical world center had been created from which would issue forth Torah and horo'oh to all of Jewry, and people would henceforth direct all of their halachic questions to this new body.

In time, he feared, they would succeed in converting the institute of the chief rabbinate into a latter day Sanhedrin that could boast of being the spokesman for all halochoh but would do what they wished with the Torah with no one able to say nay. Indeed, whoever is familiar with the schemes of the Minister of Religions and the heads of the Mizrachi of those times knows that Maran was able to size them up very clearly and precisely. Were it not for his uncompromising, fiery battle, who knows what damage they would have caused through this establishment?

At the time, however, not too many understood the crux of the battle nor its inherent threat. Most people, even from our own camp, interpreted his position as the product of a mistrustful, overly-concerned personality, as if Maran was the kind of person who was by nature suspicious and nervous and therefore, he saw danger lurking in every corner where every fly appeared like an elephant.

Maran's suspicions, as in the chapter of Heichal Shlomo, were interpreted as a result of his "nervous character," and they proved it by pointing to other leading Torah figures who did not see this as a world-shaking threat or a danger worthy of an all-out campaign.

In truth, he was simply carrying out the words of Chazal, "Fortunate is one who is always fearful — in matters of Torah." The actual threat, as he saw it, was still far from developing into a real danger, but Maran's approach was to extirpate the seeds of weeds and wormwood before they took root and produced their bitter, prickly fruit. In his sharp vision, he always foresaw future developments, even at a time when others did not discern even a hint of approaching danger, and he was already busy doing whatever he could to uproot it at the source.

Proper Dread

Another aspect of Maran's sense of dread in the keeping of mitzvos can be learned from the story of the esrog, which will appear in later chapters.

When the customs authorities detained the special esrog which was sent to Maran from abroad and great efforts were made to free this fruit which was certified to be of pure stock and not hybrid, Maran was in a state of tension and anxiety throughout the festival of Succos. When I had to inform him, with a heavy heart on the last day of Chol Hamoed that all chances of still acquiring it were gone, his anxiety suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by a mood of pure serenity.

This fact comes to teach us that even in matters of yiras Shomayim, Maran's sense of fear was not an emotional state. It was critical, analytic, and guided by the parameters of halochoh. So long as there was a chance that effort on his part could obtain what he wanted, tension and fear that he had not discharged his full obligation were appropriate — and there was no limit to his anxiety. But when it became very clear that all possible steps had been taken and every effort had been made, and that according to halochoh there was no further demand upon him, then the anxiety completely vanished as if it had never been.

Suffice it to say that every logical person can understand that the tension and concern exhibited by Maran stemmed from pure yiras Shomayim. Maran stood all his life like a servant attending his king who is, at every moment, in a state of apprehension lest he is not fulfilling his duties properly. But at the moment that the king dismisses him, he returns to his natural state of tranquility and peace of mind.

"Feeling in his Pocket All the Time"

Maran himself said, "The world thinks that I am overly edgy and uneasy but that is not true. I resemble more what Chazal say, that a person should `feel around in his pocket at all times' (lemashmesh bekiso bechol sho'oh — Bovo Kammo 118b). If this is said of a person who has only a few coins and it is said that he does not take his attention away from them all the time, how much more so for someone who possesses a million; he is constantly wary and concerned for his money and keeps vigil over it like the apple of his eye. As for me," he continued, "I regard the obligation of keeping Torah and mitzvos as worth millions. That is why I am in a constant state of uneasiness." (Heard from HaRav Avrohom Erlanger)

"This is How a Great Man Looks"

In Hilchos Dei'os, Chapter One, the Rambam explains that a person must distance himself from extreme measures. For example: he should not be quick to anger. On the other hand, neither should he be apathetic. He must embrace the middle path, the Golden Path in life, as he explains in detail.

By Maran, there was no concept of natural character traits. His traits were custom-tailored. They were like raw material to be molded by a craftsman. By him there was no such thing as natural fear, innate anger or even inborn pride. He was in a state of dread when that was what the Torah demanded of him.

When the Torah required him to show anger, he did so. When it was necessary to display pride for the sake of the Torah, "And his heart was uplifted in the ways of Hashem," he displayed pride. Dread did not come at the expense of peace of mind; anger did not compromise his equanimity, nor did pride contradict humility. Everything stemmed from one pure source. All of his traits were of one block; none existed separately but as a part of his execution of the commandment, "And you shall walk in His ways" (Devorim 29:9).

No wonder that by Maran so many contradictory traits dwelt in tandem. At the same time that he was angry, he was also calm — each emotion according to the actual need. Of Maran it can be said what Chazal noted, "This is not a person" (Eruvin 24a). He is a veritable angel. This is how a great man looks!


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