The great yeshiva of R' Chaim of Volozhin was handed after his passing into the trustworthy hands of his son, R' Itzele, who stood at its helm until his last day.
During the earlier years of R' Itzele's tenure as rosh yeshiva, his daughter came of marriageable age. Among the bochurim suggested to R' Itzele as a match were the most distinguished boys — the cream of Volozhin.
Rabbeinu, however, had an intuition that saw further than what met the eye of most. To everyone's surprise, he chose as a son-in-law, not the greatest illui, but a "good" bochur.
Considerably perturbed, R' Itzele's family tried to convince him that such a shidduch would not befit the future heir to the leadership of Volozhiner yeshiva.
Reb Itzele chose to remain silent and leave their questions unanswered.
Motzei Yom Kippur in Volozhin was an exalted, exultant time. The large crowd that had spent the entire day davening in the yeshiva hall pressed forward to pass, one-by-one, before the Rosh Yeshiva and to receive his blessing for the new year.
Among the last were those family members who had criticized R' Itzele's choice of son-in-law. After wishing them a gutte voch, R' Itzele beckoned to them to follow him. "I'd like to show you something."
He led them to a small room adjacent to the main beis medrash and opened the door. There sat the new chosson, deeply engrossed in learning.
"Hirsch Leib," called R' Itzele, "It's time to make havdoloh and break your fast."
Looking up momentarily, the young man replied, 'I've already made havdoloh and I've eaten, too," and turned back to his gemora.
"Nu," said Rabbeinu as he gently closed the door. "Now you all see what I understood much earlier. While we are still tarrying and wishing each other a gut yohr, this young man had made havdoloh, eaten and is already deep in his studies.
The above story was retold by the Chazon Ish to a talmid who asked him with what impression one should come away from the holiest of days. "This Hirsch Leib became later world renowned as the Netziv," concluded the Chazon Ish. We see from here, as did R' Itzele of Volozhin, that in order to become the godol hador one must learn at every opportunity, even immediately following ma'ariv on motzei Yom Kippur.
R' Itzele's was a very difficult period for Jews in Russia under Czarist rule. Many were the decrees and plots carried out against the Yidden, and perhaps even more were those plans that were foiled.
In this vein Rabbeinu explained the verse in Tehillim, "Hallelu es Hashem kol goyim — the goyim and nations praise Hashem — for He bestows upon us his kindness."
Asks Rabbeinu, why would the gentiles praise Hashem for doing kindness to us? His answer was apt for the times:
Currently there are so many decrees and evil plots that the goyim plan against us, and before we become aware of them they are foiled by Hashem. Only our gentile rulers themselves know how many of their gezeiros have been forestalled — and they therefore praise Hashem, Who guards His nation.
Sometimes R' Itzele was forced to enter the lion's den and intercede on behalf of the Jews before the Czar himself.
At one such meeting, the Czar turned to him angrily and posed a question.
"I heard recently that you Jews bless the ruler every Shabbos before your Torah and pray for the welfare of the kingdom, which I was pleased to hear. Now I've discovered, though, that it's just part of the ritual. We're in the throes of a bitter war against Germany and, although the Russian Jews officially pray for my success, what will that help me if the Jews in Germany pray for the victory of their Emperor. How will your G- d answer everyone's prayers?"
Rabbenu's answer was prompt and to the point.
"Did you notice when the prayer was translated to you that in the first sentence we say, `He paves a way in the sea and in the mighty waters . . . ' Why do we praise our G-d who helps people cross the sea and then ask Him to grant our rulers success?
"Let's imagine two Jews who wish to travel across the sea, one from west to east and the other from east to west. Each one prays that Hashem cause the wind to blow in his favor and guide his ship on the course that will bring him to his desired destination. Since Hashem, our G-d, can accomplish anything, He can indeed cause the wind to blow for one boat eastwards and for the other in the opposite direction.
"The same is true with the rulers. Although it may be beyond our understanding, Hashem grants success to each ruler in a different way."
The answer pleased the Czar and his anger abated.
The Griz of Brisk, HaRav Yitzchok Ze'ev Soloveitchik, would quote Rav Itzele's quick thinking on another occasion. Rav Itzele entered the royal court to plead for the nullification of a certain decree. A noble, upon seeing the Rabbi, spat in disgust and began cursing the Jews in general, "Who needs you in the world at all? All our troubles come from the Jews!"
Rabbeinu's only reaction was a demure smile, which only served to enrage the noble even further. "Fool," he seethed. "What are you smiling about when harsh decrees hang over your head and you are cursed from all sides?"
"In our Torah," replied Rabbenu calmly, "We are told that when the goyim say that Jews are not needed, that's when we will be strengthened."
"And where is that written?" sneered the officer.
Rabbeinu called for a Bible to be brought and showed him Parshas Bolok, " . . . it will be said to Yaakov what did G-d do," meaning the gentiles will say to us why did G-d create Jews at all. This verse is followed by, "Behold it is a nation that will rise like a lioness and raise itself like a lion."
"Seeing the first verse being fulfilled by you, my lord, I smiled and rejoiced, for I know that the next verse too will be fulfilled."
Rabbenu was extremely particular about the sanctity of his speech. Not only would he not speak words that are osur, but he was totally unable to talk derogatorily about a fellow Jew.
Once, he had to report that a Jew was a liar and could not bring the words to pass his lips. In the end, Rabbenu said: "This man has a phenomenal memory. There are some people who remember events that occurred ten years earlier, there are those who can recall twenty years on and some even over fifty years. But this man even remembers things that never took place at all!"