The Netziv was born in 5577 (1817) in the city of Mir. As a small child he was not too successful in his learning and his poverty-stricken parents considered dismissing his melamed and sending their Naftoli Zvi Yehuda to learn a trade or skill. However, Hirsch Leib, as he was lovingly called, broke into tears and begged his parents to allow him one more year with the melamed. It was in this year of grace that he rose to a high madreigoh.
Already at the age of ten he left home to study in the Yeshiva Eitz Chaim of Volozhin. After three and a half years (age thirteen!), the Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Itzele of Volozhin, took him as a son-in-law. He stayed then in the yeshiva, steeped in learning. For the next twenty-five years, the Netziv learned sixteen hours every day of the year. In 5600 (1840) he began writing his sefer on the Sifrei: Eimek HaNetziv and following that he wrote Haemeik Sheiloh on the Sheiltos, Sheilos Uteshuvos Meishiv Dovor and his perush on the Torah — Haemeik Dovor.
At thirty-six, he was appointed rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, where he disseminated Torah almost until his demise.
In 5652 (1892), when law required that the yeshiva provide secular studies part-time, the Netziv decided to close the yeshiva and he moved to Warsaw.
A few days before his passing, he said to his son, Reb Chaim, "Do not think that my leaving this world is a punishment for closing the yeshiva. Know that if one mixes divrei Torah with divrei chulin, not only do the secular studies not contain kedushah, but the Torah learning becomes tainted and impure by the secular studies!"
The Chofetz Chaim was wont to say that had the Netziv agreed to allow even one hour of secular studies in the yeshiva, he would have set a precedent for all the yeshivos throughout the generations, chas vesholom. In his farsightedness, the Netziv stood firm as a rock, preferring that his yeshiva close down so that in the future all yeshivos would continue to cleave to the derech haTorah and mesorah.
On 29th Av, 5653 (1893), the Netziv passed away in Warsaw and was buried in the Gensha cemetery there.
At the seudah celebrating the printing of his sefer Eimek Sheiloh, the Netziv recounted the story of how he cried as a child to be given one more year of learning. Then on a serious note he added, "Imagine what would have happened had I not cried then. I would have learned a trade, say I would have been a shoemaker. I would have lived my life as a pious Jew, keeping mitzvos and perhaps attending a daily shiur. Then I would have come to heaven after a hundred and twenty, expecting to receive my just reward. However, the Heavenly court would demand to see my seforim: `Where are your great works?'
"Boruch Hashem that I cried those tears and was zocheh to fulfill my mission in this world."
Reb Chaim Brisker related a story in which he took part that indicates the incredible hasmodoh of the Netziv. For many years while Reb Chaim was in Volozhin, he had no money to buy an esrog for Succos and would use the arba minim of his grandfather, the Netziv.
One year, on the first night of yom tov, Reb Chaim told the Netziv that since it was motzei Shevi'is — the year following Shmittoh — and the esrog was gidul nochri, which Reb Chaim Brisker considers as perhaps having kedushas shevi'is, he was considering not saying a brochoh over this esrog.
The Netziv replied that one has to look into the sugya properly, and the two of them sat down to study it. After a number of hours late into the night, the two of them parted so as to fulfill the mitzvah of sleeping in the succoh.
Barely at the crack of dawn, Reb Chaim was awakened by a rapping on the door of his succoh. The shamash of the Netziv told him that his grandfather wanted to see him. Alarmed by this summons in the early hours of the morning, Reb Chaim hurried to the succoh of the Netziv and found his grandfather radiant with joy.
"Boruch Hashem I went through the sugya for several hours and at last I found that one can make a brochoh lechatchiloh on this esrog!"
The Netziv wanted to launch into a detailed discussion of his chiddushim for Reb Chaim, but the latter murmured that he could not speak divrei Torah as he had not yet said Bircas HaTorah for he had come immediately upon awakening. So saying, Reb Chaim stood at the side and began reciting Bircas HaTorah with due fervor.
His devotion was interrupted by the Netziv, who burst into bitter cries, tears rolling from his eyes. The Grach finished his brochoh and anxiously asked his grandfather for an explanation — why the bitter tears?
"How can I not cry?" retorted the Netziv. "Here we are pinning all our hopes on you, the young avreich, that you'll grow to be the godol hador and at this hour of the morning you haven't yet said Bircas HaTorah, when a question in halocho lema'aseh hangs in the balance. What will the next generation look like?"
Reb Chaim told this to his son, the Brisker Rov, zt"l, and added: "This was after we had sat and learned for hours at a stretch until late into the night, but the Netziv could not understand how I could sleep if the halocho was as yet still unclear."
Rabbi Shimon Shkop, one of the great talmidim of Volozhin, related an amazing fact. He once found it difficult to understand the Rashbam in maseches Bava Basra and went to ask his Rebbe, the Netziv, to reveal to him the pshat. When he showed the Rashbam to the Netziv, the latter told him, "My dear Shimon — do you know, my son, how many times I threw myself on the grave of my forebear, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, begging Hashem to enlighten my eyes so that I should understand this Rashbam? And as yet I have not merited an answer!"
The Manchester Rosh Yeshiva — Reb Yehuda Zev Segal, zt"l — used to repeat this in his mussar shmuess and would ask rhetorically, "When are we accustomed to go and daven at the graves of tzaddikim? When choliloh there is someone ill in the family or a person has some other tzoroh. However, here we see a new chapter in the way of limud Torah — we learn from the Netziv that when one doesn't understand the words of the Rashbam it's as great a tzoroh as having an ill member of the family, ch"v, as the Netziv immediately went to daven that the harsh decree be removed and he may understand clearly."