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20 Teves 5764 - January 14, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler, zt'l, His Fiftieth Yahrtzeit - - 24 Teves

Compiled by Rabbi Dov Wein

To mark the fiftieth yahrtzeit of HaRav E. E. Dessler zt'l, a two volume sefer containing hitherto unpublished or unavailable material is being issued entitled Sefer Zikoron: Michtav Me'Eliyohu. There are altogether over 500 new letter of Rav Dessler, plus hitherto unpublished shmuessen and other material. There are also many ma'amorim written especially for these volumes. Here we present excerpts from some of the articles of appreciation written by his talmidim in Ponovezh and letters he wrote to talmidim and acquaintances in chutz la'aretz.

A Man Whose Conduct Reflected His Inner Essence: His Teachings As He Recorded and Demonstrated Them

Compiled by Rabbi Dov Wein

Our Lives are Our Tools

An idea that HaRav Dessler often repeated was that every object and circumstance in the material world should be viewed as a means of serving Hashem. He used to deliberate over everything that happened to him in life, trying to ascertain its reason and the particular aspect of serving Hashem in which it was to help him.

One of the reasons that he agreed to undertake the task of establishing Gateshead Kollel was that his enforced separation from his family during the Second World War had left him temporarily free of all domestic duties and responsibilities. He felt that this circumstance obligated him to devote himself utterly and completely to holy endeavors, keeping none of his time or resources for himself.

Similarly, following his wife's passing in 5711 (1951), he immersed himself in his holy work to an even greater extent than previously (Introduction to Michtav Mei'Eliyohu vol. I).

Several passages in Michtav Mei'Eliyohu present aspects of this idea. "There are two well-known types of Providence: individual and general . . . The first is directed at the person who serves Hashem with pure motivation. Through his conduct and his use of free-will he reveals Hashem's glory in the world. His Providence is "individual" in the sense of its being personalized, i.e. fitting his own particular path in serving Hashem. It operates with great precision; under it, he receives all the means that he needs for his service. At times something may be withheld -- for such a person, being denied can also be a spur to serving Hashem by causing him to examine his deeds. It is of such a level that Chazal say, `Hakodosh Boruch Hu is exacting to a hairsbreadth with His pious ones.'

"General Providence is for those who do not serve Hashem at all, or whose service is routine, lacking any inner awareness. The deeds of such people do not reveal Hashem's glory directly. Their lives have meaning insofar as they are involved in the necessary preparations for a tzaddik's service. They are instrumental in creating the conditions in which the tzaddik serves. What they receive is not a function of their own deeds -- in their own right they deserve nothing at all -- but is dependent on the tzaddik's needs. Providence impacts on them indirectly and is thus `general.'

"For example, it may be necessary for the tzaddik's service that many people have a common lot in life despite individual differences in their conduct. This is the situation of the gentile nations and also of those members of Yisroel who are mainly occupied with the upkeep of this world, or whose Torah and mitzvos are external, done by rote, or with impure motivation . . . See . . . Seforno on Vayikra 13:47 (Michtav Mei'Eliyohu vol. II, pp.75- 6).

" . . . Whatever we see in the world is . . .an instrument given to us for the purpose of serving Hashem yisborach and created for this alone. A rich man is given wealth to use for tzedokoh. If he does otherwise, he is stealing from the poor . . . and from Hashem who gave him money, i.e. the means of doing tzedokoh. He misuses it by taking it for himself and for his pleasures. Whatever Heaven gives is to be used for serving Hashem, not for satisfying physical desires. Misusing means that are given for serving Hashem diminishes Heaven's bounty because the idea of blessing is an abundance of means for serving Hashem [i.e. misusing what has already been given causes future blessing to be withheld] . . .

"Chazal say (Nidoh 15) that before a fetus is formed a mal'ach asks Hashem whether the new individual will be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor -- but not whether he or she will be righteous or wicked. Before entry into this world, the tools that a person will need for fulfilling the soul's portion in serving Hashem are determined. He or she is given the abilities and the strengths that will be needed for doing the job. Chazal tell us that prior to birth, the soul itself is made to swear that it will `be righteous and not wicked.' In other words, it promises to use all its tools justly, for the purpose for which they were intended, not stealing them or misappropriating them.

"So it is with all our resources. Eyes are for seeing for mitzvah purposes and for reading divrei Torah. Ears are for listening to the Hashem's living words . . . every limb has been given to us solely for use for Heaven's sake. The degree of use that Chazal felt should be made of the world's material pleasures is evident in such teachings as, `This is the Torah's path: Eat bread with salt and drink water by measure . . . ', `Make Torah your main occupation (Give it your full attention!) and your work secondary (without taking any interest in it whatsoever).'

"And what do we do? We steal to a tremendous extent! And from whom do we steal? From Hakodosh Boruch Hu!" (ibid. pg.156)

"Every person has a portion in Olom Habo, representing his portion in the revelation of Hashem's glory. All souls are hewn from beneath Hashem's Throne of glory. In other words, that is their source . . . Each one was created to play a part in achieving the world's purpose of revealing His glory, which will be ushered in and demonstrated through them. Everyone has a particular portion in this [process] . . . A person is given tools and assistance according to the precise requirements of his role. This also determines his partner in life; before birth it is announced in Heaven, "Ploni's daughter will marry ploni; this house is for ploni; that field is for ploni" (Sotah 2). These are all tools for a person's service of Hashem, assigned to him according to his soul's specific task . . . This is the meaning of mazel, destiny -- the mission and the tools that are assigned to each individual in advance.

"A tzaddik is someone who does not take a drop of what has been given to him for his own ends but instead directs everything back to his Creator. He uses everything solely for honoring Hashem, in keeping with the purpose of Creation. He doesn't steal a moment or a penny for himself, nor does he misuse even a fragment of thought. How awe inspiring is such a level!" (ibid. p. 158).

Frugal Living

One winter's night, I was fortunate to be learning with our teacher. It was freezing. He lit a little paraffin heater which was fitted with a wide wick and gave off a little heat. It was just enough to take the edge off the cold but the smell of the fumes made it stifling. I told him that since he travelled every year to England -- for the upkeep of the institutions that he founded there -- he should bring back an electric heater (of the type that was common in chutz la'aretz but not yet in Eretz Yisroel).

"It costs money," was his response. In innocence, I pointed out that he went in order to benefit the institutions.

"And not to benefit myself," he replied. "I don't have money for it."

His frugality and his vigilance in avoiding any benefit from communal funds were amazing. As is known, when he arrived at Ponovezh he was unwilling to derive any monetary gain from a Torah position and he stipulated with the Ponovezher Rov zt'l, that he should work in the yeshiva's office in the afternoons for his upkeep. At the beginning, we would actually see him sitting in the office but the Rov persuaded him that he needed him for other kinds of holy work -- giving va'adim to smaller groups and the like -- that would be his "work" in the yeshiva.

On this topic, we find in Michtav Mei'Eliyohu (vol. I, pg.30), "How foolish are those people who do not recognize how Hashem works -- their hearts remain attached to their material, animalistic desires. They live in the hope that everything will soon return to normal and everyone will do as he pleases. What a pity! They are like fish trapped in a net, or an animal inside a snare. They run back and forth to no avail.

"Let us acknowledge in our hearts that it is so, and rid ourselves of all kinds of baggage that we have become used to dragging about. Let us devote ourselves wholly to serving Hashem, genuinely and with complete trust. If the thought, `What will we live on?' occurs to us, we shall answer the yetzer (whose question it is), `And if you have your way, do you know what you will live on?'

"A person should refrain from having high material expectations from this world and should learn to manage on a little, as Chazal have said, `This is the Torah's path . . .' Earning a livelihood will then be easy for him, because Hashem yisborach has only decreed that a tiny number of people are to die of starvation and a person does not truly need more than bread with salt, water by the measure and to sleep on the floor.

"We are aware that those who are attached to worldly pleasures will argue that this is extreme. [It is quite true.] By the same token, anyone who attempts to uproot an evil trait from himself is being extreme. All those who acquired their portions in the next world in a moment (Avodoh Zora 10, 17, 18) were extreme and there were only three of them altogether. They all utterly did away with their former ways of thinking and behaving and they attained an inner state of willing self-sacrifice through tremendous enthusiasm, thus acquiring their spiritual reward. What we are currently lacking is the fanaticism that results from strength of feeling and great enthusiasm. The general principle is that it is very easy for us to return to Hashem but only with enthusiasm alone."

Genuine Bitochon

Elsewhere, in discussing making do with little and trusting in Hashem, he warns against confusing reliance in Hashem with laziness and explains why in dealing with others, one must make efforts and not rely on Hashem (ibid. pp. 194- 5).

"When the focus of his life is on spiritual goals, a person automatically diminishes his material endeavors and the time he spends on them. To the extent of his yearning for spirituality, he is not dismayed by the lack of material success, for dismay is only felt where there is unfulfilled ambition.

"However, one should beware of confusing laziness with bitochon. Some refrain from making an effort out of laziness, while claiming that they trust in Hashem. One must be aware that one will remain without whatever one neglected from one's work. Only trust in Hashem brings Heavenly assistance . . . not laziness. And nobody should mistakenly imagine that he can exploit a tendency to laziness in order to bolster his bitochon in Hashem -- not for its own sake, as it were. Trust in Hashem cannot be built up this way because the goal here is not to refrain from work but to attain certainty in bitochon in Hashem that leads to lessening worldly endeavors. Moreover, someone who works less out of laziness will also neglect his spiritual affairs and will end up idling. His remedy is to engage in arduous labor . . .

"Some ask: If our worldly endeavors are ultimately ineffectual and I live up to this in my own life, why must I exert myself for the sake of someone else's affairs, advising him and building him a means of earning a livelihood? Why can't I trust in Hashem where others are concerned too?

"The answer that is given in the name of the Baal Shem Tov zt'l -- that nothing was put into the world without a purpose and lack of trust in Hashem exists to be employed in attending to others -- is very hard to understand. If this really is lack of trust, how can one draw on one trait at one moment and another the next? How can one use trust for oneself and switch to lack of trust for others?

"The gemora (Bovo Basra 10) tells us, `The wicked Tinneus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, "If your G-d loves the poor, why doesn't He provide for them?" Rabbi Akiva replied, "So that we should have the merit of doing so." ' A person should ensure that he conducts himself in accordance with his Creator's wishes. If Hakodosh Boruch Hu has sent us the needy for us to assist, how can we send them back to Him and say, `You provide for them?'

"The posuk (Tehillim 55:23) says, `Cast your burden upon Hashem,' i.e. your own affairs. Hashem wants us to leave our needs to Him and He will meet them. When it comes to others, he sends them to us so that we should supply what they lack, so that we should learn how to practice kindness. If we have trust, there will be no way for us to practice kindness. He has therefore commanded us to make similar efforts on behalf of others to those made by someone who lacks trust in his own affairs. Of course, we have to remember that here too, everything comes from Hashem and what we are doing is purely to train ourselves in acting kindly."

Respect for One's Fellow Men

One of the nights that I was in his house there was knocking at the door. I opened it to a woman who wanted to speak to the Mashgiach about her son, who was learning in the yeshiva. I explained to her that in the yeshiva it wasn't usual for a mother to come and discuss her son with the Mashgiach but she was adamant. While we were talking, the Mashgiach came over and asked what the matter was. His reaction was, "The mother of a yeshiva bochur wants to talk to me? . . . Please come inside . . .a yeshiva bochur's mother . . . "

The woman related all her concerns about her son's future, particularly with regard to shidduchim that appealed to her and that did not appeal to her . . .the Mashgiach listened and vindicated her wishes . . . I followed the conversation carefully, amazed at how, just a moment earlier he had been occupied with lofty and sublime matters and had now descended to the delicate emotions of a concerned mother.

"The root of our obligations in this respect lies in what we owe every other person as a person . . . And let us not imagine that this is some pious measure. It was not Hillel but Shammai who said, `And receive everyone with a pleasant countenance' (Ovos 1:15). This is an halachic obligation and whoever refrains from meeting it is stealing from others. Chazal tell us, `Whoever knows that a particular individual usually greets him, should offer his greeting first as the posuk says, "Seek peace and pursue it." If he greeted him and he did not return the greeting he is called a robber.' Rashi explains that this is like stealing from a poor man `who has nothing to steal except for not returning his greeting' (Brochos 6).

"The poor man has nothing but his own self-respect. If you take that away from him by trampling his feelings, it's the worst kind of robbery possible." (Michtav Mei'Eliyohu vol. IV, p. 246)

Givers and Takers

There is a kiosk in the square in Rechov Bartenura in Bnei Brak, towards the bottom of the east slope of the hill on which Ponovezh Yeshiva stands. The owner used to supply bochurim with glasses of milk on credit and they later settled with him. Some, with his consent, would pay their bills every few months.

One Friday, a rumor went around that there was going to be either a currency change or a devaluation, which would automatically deprive the old currency of a significant portion of its worth. Some of the bochurim rushed to pay their debts. The owner of the kiosk poured out his sorrows to the Mashgiach, explaining that the bochurim had amassed debts and now, just before the currency crash, were hurrying to pay them.

In a Friday night shmuess, HaRav Dessler spoke about the lack of honesty and integrity evident in paying off old debts in such a situation and the danger of a person's becoming a taker rather than a giver.

He explains, "In his heart, the giver is unwilling to accept any free gifts; he yearns only to give and not to draw things that lie outside him towards him. When he receives something from another person, he thus feels the urge to pay for it and if he can't do so, he carries a feeling of indebtedness with him. This is what is called hodo'oh, meaning acknowledgement or thanks.

"The continual aim of the taker however, is to pull whatever he can towards himself, whether by stealing, trickery or receiving gifts. In his heart, he feels that everything is his and is all meant for him. Thus, when he receives a favor from someone else, he doesn't feel at all obliged in return. He is the sort that is called a kofui tov, an ingrate. If, on occasion, you see him expressing thanks -- sometimes very nicely -- don't be taken in. It is just talk, without any inner conviction. It is because he wants to receive many more favors and generous gifts that he displays a facade of gratitude. Such thanks are thus just another form of taking. The general rule is that gratitude is an outgrowth of the wish to give, while ingratitude comes from the wish to take." (Michtav Mei'Eliyohu vol. I, pg. 46)

Deserving of Gratitude

Rav Dessler would often be heard saying to the workers in the yeshiva who did jobs that he also benefited from, "Mit voss ken ich eich danken? (How can I thank you?)" Occasionally he would give them a small, rare sefer as a present, with a suitable inscription, as a token of his gratitude. We would sometimes wonder at this: The workers were duty-bound to perform their tasks -- why did they deserve thanks?

Another passage in Michtav Mei'Eliyohu (vol. III, pp. 98-9) addresses this question. "The most elementary level of gratitude is for a person to realize that he should express gratitude -- even if only with a few words -- to a person who has done work for him or gone to trouble on his behalf.

"The miser may still argue that there should be no obligation of expressing gratitude to parents for all their efforts in raising and educating their offspring. He will point out that parents derive tremendous personal satisfaction from devoting themselves to their children. Hakodosh Boruch Hu implanted the love of children in their parents' hearts, so that the parents will not despise the great trouble involved in their upbringing (as the Chovos Halevovos writes). What they do is for their own benefit and, he therefore maintains, deserves no thanks or appreciation. The Torah takes a completely different view of gratitude in general and of the honor that is due to parents in particular.

"Chazal instruct us: `Do not cast a stone into a well that you have drunk from' (Bava Kammo 92). We are to demonstrate appreciation even to inanimate objects, although they went to no trouble for us and certainly in no way intended to help us. Chazal are telling us that our debt of gratitude is entirely independent of the motivations or efforts of our benefactor. Every recipient should feel it, simply because he has received something. A person who has adopted the trait of kindness, who aspires to give to others in every possible way, is capable of appreciating even the smallest of favors that he receives. He will want to do the giver some good in return and will want to return more than he received, or at least to express his wholehearted thanks. He will feel grateful because he received something; he won't deliberate over whether the other person went to any trouble for him, whether he even meant to help him at all, or some other motivation that he might have had.

"Even if parents derive satisfaction from caring for their children, it in no way lessens the children's boundless debt of gratitude towards them. Children receive tremendous benefit from their parents who give them all that they have in life and are the channel through which they receive everything. Isn't this reason enough to earn parents their children's lifelong gratitude?

"Chazal say, `When someone upsets his father and mother Hakodosh Boruch Hu says, "I did well by not dwelling between them for had I done so, they would have upset Me." '(Kiddushin 31). If a child distresses parents, it is a sign that he feels no debt of gratitude towards them because he tells himself that they had their own benefit in mind. Chazal show us here that this outlook can chas vesholom lead a person to imagine that he has no obligation to honor and love Hakodosh Boruch Hu. He could argue that since Hakodosh Boruch Hu created the world and its inhabitants with all their needs and wants, it is only correct that He should benefit them, have pity on them and supply all their needs. Furthermore, he reasons, the idea of work and toil are irrelevant to Him; He lost nothing in the process of creation. Why then, he will ask, should one be obliged to be grateful to Him? A miserly character, who is far from kindness and who only feels he has received something if someone else toiled on his behalf, is liable to arrive at such conclusions. He is incapable of grasping the extent of Hashem's kindness and remains far from thanking Him and serving Him.

" `Whoever denies the benefit he has received from his fellow man will ultimately deny the benefit he received from Hakodosh Boruch Hu.' Whoever is incapable of proper gratitude towards another person lacks the means of being grateful to Hashem and to the extent that one adopts the trait of acknowledging another's kindness, he will be able to understand the countless demonstrations of Hashem's kindness."

Did You Know I've Stopped Smoking?

Rav A. Schwab told the following story about Rav Dessler that teaches us an important lesson about how to compel ourselves to repent, even where it is very hard.

Before the health hazards of smoking became public knowledge, Rav Dessler used to smoke. It happened that I went to see him on the day that the dangers of smoking were first publicized. The Mashgiach greeted me warmly, as usual, and asked, "Did you know that I've stopped smoking?"

Some time later, another talmid went to see him and Rav Dessler also told him that he'd stopped smoking. He told the same thing to the tens of talmidim who went to see him in the course of the following days.

His intention was simple. When someone tells a large number of other people that he's stopped smoking, even if his desire to smoke later gets the better of him, it will be very uncomfortable for him to lapse. He thus provides himself with strong peer pressure, enabling him to break even a strong habit like smoking.

This can serve as an easy and efficient way of repenting for sins that we have been guilty of transgressing repeatedly, that weigh on us heavily and are very hard to break away from.

How to Collect Tzedokoh Funds: Giving, Not Taking

In an essay entitled, "How to Collect Tzedokoh" (Michtav Mei'Eliyohu vol. III, pg. 91), Rav Dessler discusses a very common practical problem: the correct approach for someone trying to raise money for tzedokoh or to support Torah. In dealing with donors, the fundraiser should behave as a giver, not as a taker. This is what he says:

Even though the fundraiser's aim is selfless -- to benefit the party in need -- the outer form that his application takes, from the donor's standpoint, is one of taking. This is an instance of "substance opposing form" -- the occasion's outer, material aspect is at variance with its inner, spiritual form. The material aspect is liable to contaminate the spiritual form; there exists a danger of the fundraiser's getting used to being a taker, for any one of several reasons: he is physically taking, he is involved with getting money out of someone else, he develops a love of money etc. etc.

He should therefore be careful to act as a giver, i.e. to provide the donor with the merit of tzedokoh or of supporting Torah. Similarly, Chazal tell us that when asking for a donation, the poor would say, "Gain merit through me." Donations should also be solicited in a way that is pleasant for the donor, so that he gives willingly and derives spiritual benefit from having done so. On the one hand, a fundraiser should find an approach that will help him achieve his aim while on the other, he should ensure that he always tries to benefit the donor. He will thus achieve all his aims:

1. By conducting himself properly and having the right intentions, Hashem yisborach will certainly assist him in gaining his objective.

2. He will adhere to the mishnah's advice, "Which is a straight path that a man should choose? Anything that gives glory to those involved in it and brings them glory from their fellow men" (Ovos 2:1), for he will sanctify Hashem through what he is doing.

3. The character of his actions will be that of giving, not of taking.

4. The donor will fulfill the mitzvah with a happy heart and willingly.

5. He will accustom the donor to further generosity in the future.

6. The money will reach the person in need in a spirit of benevolence, not begrudgingly, and there will consequently be blessing in its use.

7. He will engender greater love between his fellow men because his deeds unite three parties -- himself, the donor and the party in need.

Rabbi Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler, zt"l

A hesped written at the time by HaRav Alter Halperin zt"l

The Torah world is mourning. Rabbi Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler, zt"l, is no longer with us. Of the vast amount of teaching he gave to many hundreds, the greatest lessons are contained in his life itself.

It demonstrated how a ba'al mussar lives; how he is able, by the dictates of his understanding, to change his bodily habits and develop new powers which the world thinks must be either inborn or else unattainable.

How else can one understand this man undertaking voluntarily (at the age of 50, suffering from diabetes, bad eyesight, and never too strong) the activities needed for founding and maintaining the Gateshead Kollel, involving a weekly round of traveling between Gateshead, Manchester, wartime London, Letchworth and Chesham as a minimum routine? He preferred to travel at night so as to fill his days with new duties and old.

How can one understand how a man, living in such a way, can find the energy of soul and mind to create the most profound thoughts and deliver them, sometimes whilst keeping himself awake by an effort, sometimes whilst walking a station platform waiting for the night express, in such a way that the listeners felt themselves being transformed?

How can a man do such things and refuse to be admired or to admire himself?

He seems to have tried to answer such questions in the course of an inyan which he said at about the time when the success of the Kollel became apparent. The inyan was to the effect that whenever someone is urgently needed to do some special task for Klal Yisroel, Providence does not wait for a person worthy of it, but takes the first one who can become suitable and who is willing to try, overwhelms him with siyata deShmaya and molds him to fit the task.

But we may allow ourselves to add that in his case the miracle worked through the medium of mussar. Only a ba'al mussar is capable of things such as these.

Never mentioning the immense family fortune lost in the Russian Revolution -- except by a jocular reference to the suitcase stuffed with ruble notes that lay for years in his aunt's attic, to illustrate a point on the illusory nature of "security."

Never showing his distress at being separated from his loved ones throughout the war -- and for a long time not knowing what had become of them -- but expressing instead his woe at the suffering of Klal Yisroel in a whole period of inyanim, in depriving himself of physical comforts to partake of their pain -- and in exhausting work to build Yavne VeChachomeho.

Building the Kollel but refusing to derive from it a salary, a title or even more voting power than any other senior member.

Turning himself from a "scholar of independent means" into such things as private tutor to children of baalei batim (making of most of them remarkable mashpi'im), large-scale fundraiser (an activity particularly against his natural inclination), personal advisor to a large number of individuals (and how understanding and conscientious his advice was)! Mashgiach to a large Yeshiva, and all the time the prime mover in the creation of organizations for harbotzas haTorah (Boarding School, Seminary, Pe'ile HaTorah, etc.)

These things require different, even mutually exclusive, characteristics. Only a great ba'al mussar can adapt and readapt his powers to all of them.

But if mussar can do all this, must we not then accept also mussar's claim that anyone who chooses to do so can become a ba'al mussar?

Is it not the only fitting memorial for this prince and hero in Israel that we all, each according to his field, shall resolve to increase our work inside ourselves, and with others, to try to fill between us all, some of the vacuum left by his departing?

Is this not our duty?


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