A melamed of small children. This was the avodas
hakodesh that the tzaddik nistar Rabbi Moshe chose
to camouflage his true greatness, until the Gra instructed
him to reveal his holy ways.
So we are told by the elders of Vashilshok, Lithuania. The
story behind this introduction follows:
The Gra was once traveling on a Friday along a lonely road
between two far-flung towns, and stopped at an inn to spend
Speaking to the Jewish owner of the place, he asked him if
he had a private melamed to teach his children Torah,
living as they were in such isolation, completely separated
from any Jewish community.
His host immediately showed the Vilna Gaon into a room where
his hired melamed was sitting alone.
Upon seeing Reb Moshe, the Gra entered the room and closed
the door behind him. He spent several hours alone with Rabbi
Moshe getting to know the `simple' melamed.
When the Gra emerged, it was time to go to the mikveh
in preparation for Shabbos. Turning to the innkeeper, he
asked if he would spare the melamed for a few minutes
so that he could show him the whereabouts of the
"Rabbeinu Hagodol," replied the magnanimous host, "I would
not send a simple melamed to show Rabbeinu the way.
Rather such a deed I will carry out personally. After all
it's not often that I have the zchus to serve you.
Should I then give this over to a poshuter melamed?"
At this, the Gra retorted angrily, "I'll have you know that
this simple melamed of yours surpasses both you and
myself in nigleh and in nistar!"
Then to the melamed he said, "The time has come for
you to be revealed and to start pouring your fountains of
Torah and yirah over the face of the earth."
Rabbi Moshe continued to live from his work to provide for
his family. He would leave home for six months at a time,
serving as a private melamed in some far-flung Jewish
home, and then living frugally off of his earnings for the
second half of the year.
On one occasion when he came to the Gra to spend several
days in his presence, the Gaon entered his beis midrash
where his talmidim were learning and instructed
them to "go and learn from Rabbi Moshe hilchos middos
When the time came for Rabbi Moshe to return home, the
talmidim clustered around him to accompany him out and
to take their leave of him. Just as he was going, Rabbi
Moshe turned back to the talmidim and threw them a
"What do you all think of my trait of humility?" and with
that he was gone, leaving the surprised talmidim to
grasp the intent behind his words.
Is this the man from whom we were to learn middos
tovos? Is this the humble Moshe? His only thought when
taking leave of us is our opinion as to his humility? Surely
this is not humility, but misplaced pride.
Their rebbe, the Vilna Gaon heard their question and smiled.
"Here lies the greatness of my talmid," he exclaimed.
"He was afraid that once he leaves, you would all start to
praise his wonderful middos, so he asked you this
question to throw you off track and cause you to think he
has the terrible middoh of gaavoh lurking
beneath his pious exterior. See how he succeeded in fooling
We are told in the sefer Dvar Eliyahu in the name of
Reb Chaim Brisker zt"l, that the Gra once asked Rabbi
Moshe, "How were you zoche to that great merit of
"To which merit is Rabbeinu referring?" Asked a confused Reb
Explained the Gra, "You were zoche to hide your ways
from the world while I did not have this privilege."
The Grach would add here that it is evident from his
statement that the Gra considered Reb Moshe an equal, except
for this detail in which they differed.
In answer to someone's query as to why he traveled to the
Gra if his own yedi'as haTorah was so great, Rabbi
Moshe answered. "I consider myself one who knows Torah,
until I reach Vilna and the entrance to the room of the
Gaon. There I see the true meaning of yedi'as
Even after his greatness had been revealed, Rabbi Moshe
continued to daven by the humble Western side of the
shul. The Roshei Hakohol tried in vain to persuade him
to sit on the respected Eastern side claiming it was an
affront to kovod haTorah. In his self-deprecating
fashion Rabbi Moshe said, "Don't you see that it is
davka the Kosel Hama'arovi, the Western wall of
the Beis Hamikdosh that was not destroyed. The
presence of the Shechinah will never leave it, for
that is where the multitudes of ordinary, poor and lowly
Yidden stood and prayed, making it an important
In answer to the question as to why he did not fulfill the
dictum of Chazal who tell us that a talmid chochom
should have a shminis min hashminis, meaning an
eighth of gaavoh, and Rabbi Moshe had no gaavoh
at all, he said:
"I'll tell you the pshat of the gemora. A
talmid chochom must remember the eighth posuk of
the eighth parsha in the Torah. The eighth posuk
in Vayishlach begins with, `Kotonti mikol
hachassodim,' indicating that a person should always
consider himself small and lowly."
The Yesod Veshoresh Hoavodoh mentions that when Rabbi Moshe
would hear that a baby boy had been born to Yidden, he would
joyfully exclaim, "Our hearts rejoice, for yet another
servant has been born to serve Hashem Yisborach
throughout his life in this world."