It was a scene to which the residents of Telz were long accustomed: Reb Eliezer Gordon walking through the streets, his face radiating joy. A smile played on the corners of his lips, lips that were talking, perhaps to some invisible chavrusa. His hands waved and gestured, as when a talmid chochom argues a pilpul. Yet, the Rosh Yeshiva was walking alone.
So engrossed was he in his sugya, while truly fulfilling the mitzvah of uvelechtecho vaderech, that it was of no importance whether he was alone or in the company of others. The sugya was there and his mind was in it. That was all that mattered.
Reb Eliezer's love of Torah knew no bounds. His lips were constantly engaged in murmuring divrei Torah and in fact many of his chidushim were not thought out within the walls of the yeshiva. Often he was mechadesh on the way to yeshiva or on his walk home again.
In the introduction to his sefer Teshuvos Rabbi Eliezer (Pietrokov 5673), we find, "He who did not behold the joy of Rabbi Eliezer in Torah has not seen true joy in his life."
While learning in Kelm, where he lived for a while, Reb Eliezer formed a "kibbutz," a group of outstanding older bochurim who would learn and shteig together.
Once, two particularly talented bochurim of this elite group were recruited by force into the army. The danger to their lives was very real and a few askonim undertook to collect the funds necessary for pidyon shvuyim.
Sadly, after much toil and effort they were still far from the required sum. Taking whatever they had collected, the two went to Rabbenu to ask his advice as to their next step.
Reb Eliezer thought for a moment. Stepping over to the Aron Hakodesh, he stripped the sifrei Torah of their silver klei kodesh. Then, leaving the holy articles as a deposit, Reb Eliezer borrowed the enormous sums of money necessary to free the bochurim from the clutches of the army.
Aghast, the gabboim of the shul challenged Rabbenu's actions. Wasn't it an affront to the klei kodesh and the holy sifrei Torah to be placed as deposits for two boys? But Reb Eliezer silenced them by announcing firmly, "I assure you that the greatest honor and glory for the sifrei Torah is the Torah learning of these two precious bochurim. There's no bizoyon whatsoever!"
In Telz it was known that when it came to the needs of even the least student of the yeshiva, the whole town was nothing next to that bochur's immediate attention — for he sits and learns in the tent of Torah.
Rabbenu had his own particular reason for guarding the honor of the yeshiva bochurim. The so-called "enlightened" Jews had broken through in their campaign to modernize the Torah, their main target being the impressionable youth who tried to spurn the pleasures of olam hazeh and devote themselves to Torah. Their arrows were constantly aimed at them, scorning the yeshiva boys who "sat and did nothing all day."
With all his might, Reb Eliezer stood up for the pride of yeshiva boys, raising their prestige in the eyes of all. In all his droshos to the Jews of the town, he would exalt and praise the Torah learning of the yeshiva bochurim.
As a young man, Reb Eliezer lived in Kovno, supported by his father-in-law, where he learned in the yeshiva of the great Reb Yisroel Salanter zt"l.
During this time many offers for a post as rov were suggested to Rabbenu, but his father-in-law begged him not to accept since the burden of shouldering communal needs would decrease the time he had for Torah learning.
"I am personally biased in this," explained the older man, "for I have the great zchus of supporting you while you learn and devote yourself to Torah. I am sure that Heaven blesses me with parnossoh only in your merit."
Hearing her husband begging Reb Eliezer not to accept the various positions offered, Rabbenu's mother-in-law was not so convinced.
"Thank G-d we have enough to support ourselves, and as long as we can and have to, I'm glad to support our children and our choshuve son-in-law. However, if the opportunity arises, why should he not accept and have a livelihood of his own? How long can we continue to support two whole families?" she countered.
But her husband refused to accept her opinion. "You can never know who is supporting whom. Are we supporting Reb Eliezer or perhaps he is keeping us alive with his Torah?"
In an interesting twist to the above, Reb Leib Gurwicz zt"l, rosh yeshiva of Gateshead, related that when Reb Eliezer took on his first rabbonus in Slobodka, a strange tragedy took place in Kovno. On that very day Reb Eliezer's father-in-law returned home and passed away on his own doorstep.
Shocked and confused, his wife cried out, "You were correct! He was the one supporting us and not the other way around."
The family did not understand her strange comments and attributed them to her panic and sorrow, until she explained the argument she had had with her husband.
In the year 5670 a devastating fire broke out in Telz, ravaging houses and gutting the yeshiva building completely. There was no way that the money for a new building could be collected in Russia whose Jews had fallen on hard times, and the yeshiva was in danger of closing.
Seeing no alternative, Reb Eliezer decided to make the arduous journey to England to plead the yeshiva's cause to its wealthy Jews.
On motzei Shabbos, 4th Adar, the large hall was packed to capacity. In a passionate drosho, Reb Eliezer laid out in graphic detail before the wealthy and high society of England's Jews the trials the yeshiva had been through. From its founding days in the shul, until a building had been built to accommodate the many bochurim who sat and learned Torah day and night. With a trembling voice and tears in his eyes, Reb Eliezer described the horrendous fire that had now destroyed the great yeshiva of Telz, leaving its students without seforim and without a roof over their heads. "Rabbosai we may even have to close the yeshiva, chas vesholom," he cried out.
Reb Eliezer looked at his audience expectantly. In front of him was a sea of faces, grave and solemn, but cold and dispassionate. With a sinking feeling, the Rosh Yeshiva understood that these people were not going to help him realize his dream. All his visions of returning triumphantly to Telz and rebuilding the yeshiva's glory were dashed.
The disappointment was too great to bear and that night Reb Eliezer's neshomoh left him, after he was struck by a powerful heart attack.
London's Jews were thrown into a turmoil at the impact of Reb Eliezer's passing.
Regretting their passivity, they gathered enormous sums of money for the reestablishment of the yeshiva in Telz.
The yeshiva indeed was saved, but the price we paid was far too high — the very life of the great Rov and Rosh Yeshiva of Telz.