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25 Sivan 5760 - June 28, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Key to Torah Success: Ignore Material Pleasures

by HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz

Part II

In the first part of the discussion about success in Torah learning, R' Michel Yehuda discussed the life of learning Torah mitoch hadechak -- while living in a condition of material deprivation. He explained that in this state, it is as if one receives his wisdom directly from Hashem yisborach. He talked of the difficult material conditions that prevailed in yeshivos in the days when he was young in Europe, but how such things as having no food on Sundays had no effect on the level of Torah learning, and such conditions produced true greatness in Torah. Importantly, he suggested that today one can "simulate" that condition by attaching no value to material pleasures and setting Torah study as his main aim in life. He quoted the Chofetz Chaim as saying that the seforim he owned were acquired with money, that was time that is in turn life itself.

Continuing , R' Michel Yehuda discussed the concept of "being a talmid," and the extraordinary way that the rebbei'im that he knew in his youth related to their talmidim. He quoted R' Boruch Ber as saying that producing talmidim today is one of the most basic components of Torah learning itself, and gave examples from the behavior of HaRav Sholom Heiman and HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer. He continues with more examples of the way that R' Isser Zalman related to talmidim.

It so happened that once both Yeshivas Hebron and Yeshivas Eitz Chaim studied the same gemoras of Gittin and Pesochim. A chabura from Yeshivas Hebron would go to HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer every Shabbos afternoon to hear the shiur he had said during the week in Eitz Chaim.

One Shabbos when we were about to go to Maran HaRav Isser Zalman's house to hear the shiur it rained heavily and we decided to remain in the yeshiva. Later when we apologized to Maran, explaining why we could not come he answered modestly: "It's very good you did not come. If you would have come in such a storm I would not have had with what to pay you for doing so" (meaning that the Torah he had to teach them would not have been an ample reward for their suffering). The humility with which this was said is indescribable. People saw that Heaven helped him encourage every individual exactly in his needs, and in such a way that he could build that person's foundations of life and elevate himself in ruchniyus.

Equally we saw the loving attitude of Maran the Chazon Ish zt'l to each young man and even to fourteen and fifteen-year olds. He took time and effort to write them letters in which he would strengthen them, and his encouragement had a lasting influence on them. This attribute of deep love that a rav develops toward his talmidim is required for the sacred task of producing talmidim. When the rav is friendly toward the talmidim they become connected with him, and with the power of this relationship the talmidim absorb guidance and are influenced by their rav.

We have learned this principle in chinuch from Chazal (Taanis 8). "Rovo says: `If you see a talmid who has not succeeded at all in his studies, it is because his rav is not friendly toward him.'" Similarly, "HaKodosh Boruch Hu said to Moshe Rabbenu after the cheit ho'eigel: `Just like I was cordial to you, so should you act cordially to Yisroel.' R' Avahu said: `HaKodosh Boruch Hu said to Moshe: "People will now say the Rav is angry and the talmid is angry, and what will happen with Yisroel"' (Brochos 63)." When a bond of friendship is missing, the transmission of Torah to Yisroel is also missing.

Maran the Chazon Ish zt'l once told me privately that the tanna in Ovos (1:12) who said we should "love people and bring them nearer to Torah" is really telling us that the way to encourage talmidim to exert themselves in Torah must be through showing them love. Through "loving people" one can eventually "bring them nearer to Torah."

Though the rav devotes himself to help, the talmid must be prepared to accept the rav's guidance. "Accept a teacher upon yourselves" (Ovos 1:6)--someone can be a rav only if another accepts him as a teacher of Torah. This is the method of acquiring Torah knowledge, and this is how Jews have studied Torah throughout the generations.

When we studied with our roshei yeshivos the talmidim toiled to prepare the shiur, listened to the shiur attentively, and afterwards we would gather together in groups to review together what the rosh yeshiva taught. Each talmid carefully wrote down the shiur and if after the review we were still unclear on any point we asked the rosh yeshiva to repeat his shiur to us.

This is how all the mekomos HaTorah functioned. The talmidim cherished each word of the roshei yeshivos such as HaRav Elchonon Wassermann zt'l in Yeshivas Baranowitz and HaRav Boruch Ber Lebowitz zt'l in Yeshivas Kamenitz.

We were full of yiras hakovod when we had to approach the Mashgiach of Yeshivas Rameiless, HaRav Simcha Plotkin zt'l, and we put on a hat. It was considered pritzus to go over to talk to him when just wearing a yarmulke. This was not done out of fear; it was simply yiras hakovod. It is difficult to describe the source of this yiras hakovod.

I remember that once an eminent bochur came to visit our yeshiva and spoke to the Mashgiach while his hand was resting on a shtender. We were dumbfounded. Where were his manners? This is how we regarded the Mashgiach and the rosh yeshiva. Also in Eretz Yisroel in Yeshivas Hebron the talmidim had a yiras hakovod for each of the roshei yeshiva.

Unfortunately, we now lack the awareness of the need to appoint a rav upon ourselves. We notice that even toward the elderly roshei yeshivos, talmidim do not act with yiras hakovod. This is because we have become accustomed to being spoiled, and this causes us to be proud and to presume that we already do not need a rav to show us how to study Torah, how to develop a solid understanding in the rishonim. Boys have therefore stopped reviewing the shiurim of the roshei yeshivos or studying them in depth. Talmidim peruse all sorts of seforim without proper understanding of them or capability of discernment between what is correct or not.

The kadmonim warned us: "We should study from sofrim and not from seforim." We can find mistakes in seforim and the rav can show the talmidim what is the correct way of understanding divrei Torah. If talmidim claim: "If we would have had roshei yeshivos like R' Boruch Ber, R' Shimon, we would have devoted ourselves to hearing their teachings, but today is different . . .." We must be aware that in every period HaKodosh Boruch Hu has appointed those capable of being the transmitters of Torah, and we must study the Torah from them since Torah study requires a rav.

"He has implanted eternal life within us" (Bircas HaTorah). Rabbenu Chaim of Volozhin explains that Torah is like a plant that will eventually blossom, but like every plant it needs supervision and care. To inherit Torah we must prepare our hearts to be clean from undesirable middos, from pride and desires.

This cleanliness of the heart is achieved through Torah study. When we study with the intention and desire that through our study the heart will be cleaned, HaKodosh Boruch Hu helps us attain this level of spirituality. If, however, we study for other reasons, such as for honor, or to attain a higher stature in life, such Torah study is far from the aim to which we should be aspiring.

The tanna (Ovos 6:6) enumerates among the forty- eight ways in which Torah knowledge is acquired "sharing his fellow's burden (nosei be'ol im chavero)." Through good middos we can acquire all the sublime qualities and depth of the Torah's wisdom.

I heard from a reliable source of an eminent rosh yeshiva of the past generation, an ish kodosh and gaon, who would toil over a sugya, preparing a shiur to say to the talmidim, and when he saw that the subject matter was deep and he wanted to clarify it further and say a chidush in the sugya, what would he do? He would walk into the beis midrash, and if he would notice a boy without shoes or wearing torn shoes, he would give him money to buy new shoes.

This was a real act of mesiras nefesh since poverty at that time was unbelievable. People did not have bread to eat, and roshei yeshivos were lacking bread even more than the boys. The roshei yeshivos would wear torn clothing, one patch upon the other. This was of no concern when the rosh yeshiva wanted to clarify a sugya. The way to accomplishment in Torah is dependent on doing chesed with another Jew. This is the gateway to succeed in understanding a profound section of the gemora, through "sharing his fellow's burden."

But what connection does this have with acquiring Torah? Sharing another's burden is apparently only connected to gashmiyus. We see that this is what HaKodosh Boruch Hu has implanted in the way He conducts the universe, through virtuous traits of bein odom lechavero one can attain the sublime heights and depth of the Torah's wisdom.

For yeshiva students this can make a difference in many ways and especially in spiritual matters. We must ensure that others study in an orderly fashion, and we must pay attention if his friend is pleased, if he is succeeding, what is his frame of mind. If he sees that someone is in a bad mood, he should find out the reason for it and try to solve the problem. Sometimes you can help with a good word of advice, and sometimes you can help by fixing up a chavrusa for him. A ben Torah suffers in a yeshiva when he does not have the right chavrusa, or has difficulty in understanding the shiur or the sugya. Just as one is interested in improving his own understanding so should he help the other person too.

From experience we see clearly that the source of success is according to a person's good character traits. Many times we see talmidim who are not outstanding in their intelligence but they succeed and elevate themselves in their studies because of their outstanding middos. On the other hand, we also distinctly see some who are quite talented but decline in their studies since they cannot overcome their desires and fall into the trap of the yetzer. Although when they were young it seemed that they would emerge gedolim, in reality they become rotten and entirely declined in ruchniyus. It is impossible to enumerate all of the details.

I once heard Maran the Chazon Ish zt'l say about one young talented boy, a real illui: "Who knows how much Klal Yisroel will suffer from him?" This is what happened. The Chazon Ish saw his bad middos and it was crystal-clear to him what the future of the boy would be.

Mori verabi Maran HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l also told me about an extremely talented boy whom we hoped would become a godol beTorah but that hope never materialized. He said, "It stands to reason that when a child is talented, talent alone is insufficient. We must supervise the child, nurture him, and protect him."

People who have middos tovos live tranquil lives and their heads are open to absorb knowledge, and are able to ascend to greatness in Torah. They are not burdened by the pride and pursuit of honor that always pressure people. They live serenely and happily, and are therefore engrossed only in iyun of the Torah and toiling to understand it.

Our period is a thunderous one. The three types of talmidim of Bilaam Horosho (see Ovos 5:19): Those who have an ayin hora, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul, rule over the world. Unfortunately many bnei Torah, each age group according to its own particular characteristics, have these middos controlling them and guiding their lives. We need to try to uproot this from a young age. All good virtues must be imbued from a young age and continue until one reaches higher levels.

HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l said: "First a person is a good child, afterward a good boy in yeshiva ketana, and then after he has become a good child in cheder and a good boy in yeshiva ketana, he becomes a good boy in yeshiva gedola, and then he becomes a good young man, and not just a good young man but one with ma'alos, a young man full of virtues. He continues in this way until he becomes a godol beTorah. It all starts out from being a good child and a good boy."

The Yeshiva is a Desert

The Rambam (Hilchos Dei'os 6:1) rules: "It is natural for a person to be tempted to follow the ideology and acts of his friends and act the way people in his country do." HaKodosh Boruch Hu has implanted in a person an urge to follow how his friends, to behave and think as they think. In addition, not only does he imitate his friends, but he follows his fellow citizens in the way they act. Every country has its own particular characteristics, and the differences between children from one country and another are quite obvious.

"A person should therefore join with tzaddikim and keep away from reshoim who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their ways . . . Similarly, if a person lives in a country where people behave wickedly and the citizens do not go in the righteous way, he should go to a place where people are tzaddikim and act virtuously." Nowadays many tax themselves and undertake financial burdens to live in a mokom Torah.

"If in all the countries that he knows of he has heard about improper behavior, as is the present situation (!), or if he cannot go to a country where people behave virtuously because of war or sickness, he should isolate himself, as it is written: `Let him sit alone and keep quiet' (Eichah 3:26). If [the people] are wicked and sinful and do not allow him to remain in the country unless he mixes with them and behaves in their wicked fashion, he should go out to the caves and forests and deserts and should not act the way sinners do, as it is written: `O that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men' (Yirmiyahu 9:1)."

This is exactly how a ben Torah should feel about his yeshiva. Every time he leaves the yeshiva building to walk in the street, including the streets of the frummest neighborhoods, he is spiritually damaged. Whatever the eye catches enters deep within his heart and does almost irreparable damage. HaRav Yosef Dinkeles zt'l said that he once asked the author of the Leshem Shevo Ve'Achlomoh to decide about the kashrus of a certain item. He, however, refused to read what was written there and remarked that no soap is strong enough to cleanse the nefesh and the neshomo from reading matters that are posul. This anecdote demonstrates how careful we should be not to read questionable journals and weeklies.

HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz is the rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva LeTze'irim of Yeshivas Ponevezh in Bnei Brak and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Degel HaTorah.

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