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A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5766 - October 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Giving the World an Idea of What a Genuine Mussar Scholar Is . . .(from the Introduction to Ho'odom Biyekor)
Glimpses of the Mashgiach, HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, zt'l

by Rabbi H. Helman

The Secret of Growth

A pivotal aspect of the Mashgiach's character that underscored several seemingly unrelated things about him was his extreme self-effacement — examples abound throughout this article. He never accorded himself any special status whatsoever, and would recoil from any display of honor that was meant for him. Among the hundreds of written replies that he sent to questioners, he often expressed his wonder to them that they had addressed him as hagaon hatzaddik, since - - he would clarify — he was neither a gaon nor a tzaddik.

His talmid HaRav Uri Weissblum put it well when he pointed out that anyone who reads HaRav Wolbe's testament can easily discern his radiant character in every word. "Even if he wouldn't have written these things in his will everyone would have realized that this was what he wanted," he commented.

"To this day," HaRav Weissblum added, "I clearly remember him arguing on the telephone with someone and not agreeing to his name being put on a notice. After a while he told him, `Write, Shin Vov [his initials]. That's more than enough.' The Mashgiach was adamant about this and said that if they didn't do what he was asking he wouldn't attend the meeting in question."

In a shmuess to the bnei hayeshiva he once said that he knew that all who were present were greater than he. He added that the only reason that he was prepared to deliver mussar shmuessen to them was the fact that he had seen and had heard shmuessen from Reb Yeruchom zt'l for two years.

Arriving at a simchah, the crowd began singing Yomim al yemei melech in his honor. The Mashgiach was aghast and asked, "Who are they singing that for?" When he was told that it was for someone else, he joined the circle of dancers and sang along with all the others.

Though it might seem ironical, this very negation of his sense of self-importance (but not of self worth!) was the key to his maximizing his potential and achieving so much in so many different fields. Throughout his life he annulled himself completely to his rebbe, Reb Yeruchom, and to his teachings. He kept on exploring the profundity of Chazal through the prism of Reb Yeruchom's ideas and thereby merited developing a world of new ideas, interpretations and insights, all built on his teacher's foundations. He always felt himself to be a talmid (perhaps mislameid, an apprentice, is closer to our meaning), never a rounded, finished product.

And it was not only to Reb Yeruchom that he annulled himself; he constantly sought further wisdom and instruction wherever it was to be found. As a young man, he visited the gedolei Torah of the time and even when advanced in years he would travel regularly to hear words of yir'oh from a godol some twenty years his junior.

Thanks to his constant reworking and rethinking, he always continued growing and was a fount of freshness and novelty. He shared his rich inner world with countless others, both within the yeshiva world and without, in all walks of life, of differing ages and generations. He knew how to convey whatever lesson he wished to impart to the particular audience he was addressing, lucidly and in terms and language that made it relevant and immediate to them — because it was always relevant and immediate to him.

He succeeded in imparting not only his teachings, but the very essence of his own growth. It has been observed that HaRav Wolbe is unique in our times in having left behind a generation of genuine talmidim. They became his talmidim in the same way that he became Reb Yeruchom's. They built and developed themselves by devoting themselves unstintingly to his teachings and to implementing the practical guidance that he provided for them. This constant quest for new depth, new insight and new inspiration in eternal and already well traversed teachings is one of the cornerstones of mussar.

Accounting for Every Penny(1): One Yid's Example

He once told the members of a vaad about a solitary Yid in Bnei Brak who eked out a livelihood as a worker and sent most of his income every month to yeshivos. He valued Torah study to such an extent that he walked to work every day so that he could add his travel allowance to the amounts that he donated.

After he passed away, many roshei yeshiva participated in the stone setting at his graveside. Also present was a friend of the niftar's who had assisted him in sending off his donations. He described his friend's thrift and his frugal way of living, so that he would be able to give most of his funds to the yeshivos.

HaRav Wolbe was the next speaker. One of the points he made was that after learning about what great care the niftar took with every penny in order to divert most of his means to yeshivos, it was doubly incumbent on roshei yeshiva and directors of institutions to be scrupulous about knowing exactly how every penny they received was spent.

A Thorough Accounting

HaRav Wolbe's brother-in-law, HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt'l, said that HaRav Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt'l told him that after the war he received a letter from HaRav Wolbe containing a meticulous listing of every single expense he incurred in the course of his hatzoloh work during the war. He even returned the change.

"Amid the chaos that reigned in those days, he was the only one out of many from whom I received change from the funds that he'd received from me," said HaRav Kalmanovitz. When the Brisker Rov zt'l heard this he was extremely impressed.

A Caseful of Money

Similarly, family members relate that while he was in Sweden and engaged in setting up institutions for the refugees, he would carry a valise filled with money with him everywhere. In a rare moment of self-exposure he once observed that he had never once taken a farthing from those funds for his personal expenses. This was at a time when he lacked money for his basic needs. As he put it, he didn't even take "a lefele tei (a spoon of tea)" from the money in his case, even for expenses incurred in pursuing the purposes for which the funds had been given him.

When his friend HaRav Mordechai Zuckerman zt'l heard this he commented that it was surely in this merit that he received Heavenly assistance in spreading Torah and yiras Shomayim.

True Beauty

A carpenter who had not long before done some work in HaRav Wolbe's home on the yeshiva campus in Be'er Yaakov called on him one day and asked if he was pleased with the work. The Mashgiach replied quite sincerely that what pleased him most about the furniture was the fact that he hadn't used yeshiva funds to pay for it.

His friend Rav Benzion Kugler once gave him a ride home from the yeshiva in Yerushalayim. The Mashgiach asked him to drop him off near his home in Givat Shaul. He then took another ride to his destination in the nearby Har Nof neighborhood. Some time later, after Rav Kugler had learned that the Mashgiach was traveling on to Har Nof, he offered to take him there himself explaining that it was no particular bother for him.

HaRav Wolbe replied, "You take me home because that is the yeshiva's obligation. They want me to come and must arrange my return. My trip to Har Nof is for my own purposes and under no circumstances will I have you going to any trouble for it!"

Even in his later years he would not agree that anything should be done for him in Yeshivas Givat Shaul (recently renamed Mishkenos Yedidiah in his memory) that was not done for all the bochurim. He did not want any special foods or arrangements made for him and would say that whatever was suitable for the bochurim of the yeshiva was certainly suitable for him.

One year towards the end of his life a special seat was put in his place for the Yomim Noraim. He sat on it for Rosh Hashonoh but when Yom Kippur arrived he asked that it be taken away. His grandson tried to persuade him to use it but he adamantly refused and argued that everyone deserved to have such a chair. When his grandson pointed out that he was the oldest person present he replied, "I sat on it on Rosh Hashonoh und shpeter hob ich gechapt as dos hot mir geshtert mechavein zein (and later I realized that it interfered with my kavonoh)."

During his last days he was clearly worrying about something and his family tried to find out what it was. After repeated requests he told them that not long before he had received a Haggodoh shel Pesach to use at the seder and he hadn't managed to pay the author who'd sent it. "Now I don't know how I can find him and pay him . . ."

A Warm Heart and a Helping Hand

HaRav Wolbe told his talmid Rav B. Cahana that he had once been at a different talmid's engagement and a guest walked in who he didn't know at all, but who shook his hand so warmly that he might have been a close friend. "That's how people once were," the Mashgiach remarked. "They would thank Hakodosh Boruch Hu for every additional Yid they met, for being able to love yet another Yid."

HaRav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, rosh yeshivas Ateres Yisroel, recalled the occasion decades ago when he tried to get a bochur accepted to Be'er Yaakov. "Although the reply was negative," he remembered, "the thought, the careful weighing and the sensitivity with which he explained his reasons, stole my heart."

The Mashgiach actively pursued opportunities to help others. From time to time he would visit a home for the elderly and lonely to raise their spirits. On more than one occasion he brought needy individuals into his home to stay. He once asked a talmid to pray that he should still have the strength to engage in acts of kindness despite his advanced age, because chesed is such a great mitzvah.

Neighbors relate that whenever he entered the building's main entrance while children were also coming in he would hold the door open and allow them all in first and only then would he enter.

His neighbor Rav T. Jacobson recalls that the easiest way to get the Mashgiach to leave his home was to invite him to visit someone sick or to engage in some act of kindness. He would never refuse such requests, nor would he start deliberating whether or not he could manage it just then . . .

Attaining the Highest Levels (2)

It is impossible to convey the huge efforts that the Mashgiach invested in his prayers. He would say the brochos that begin the morning prayers at home and would regularly arrive at the yeshiva half an hour before the prayers started. Every word was pronounced carefully, "as though counting coins," and he kept his eyes on his siddur for hours at a time. Afterwards he would be exhausted from his efforts. To see him at prayer was a powerful lesson.

He used to say that when Chazal identify prayer as one of the most exalted things in the world (Brochos 6) they refer to its power to elevate a person to sublime levels. The need for constant effort in prayer was a subject that he always spoke about, up until the very last week of his life.

One day he told a grandchild that the only way to retain something from a prayer is by spending a few minutes afterwards thinking of some tangible result it has had. "I have a set time to think about what I take away from the day's prayers, when the prayers are over and I get into the car. Everything is like that — only if one invests a little thought can one come away with something."

Preparing for Prayer at the Kosel

Once during chol hamoed Pesach the suggestion was made that the Mashgiach visit the Kosel Hama'arovi, after his not having been there for decades. He agreed but asked for some time to prepare. Before leaving, he took out Or Yisroel and learned from it for half an hour; then he said that he was ready to go to the Kosel.

A grandchild asked, "But at the Kosel there's the same davening that we have three times a day."

The Mashgiach replied, "The Kosel Hama'arovi is where the Shechinah rests. One has to be worthy of encountering the Shechinah."

Following the visit he said, "I was at the Kosel for no longer than five minutes. On my return an entire approach to a complicated topic came to me. Only then did I realize that it came from those five minutes that I spent at the Kosel."

Why We Say Adon Olom (3)

He once remarked to a grandchild, "I don't know how it can be explained to children and young bochurim that when we stand in prayer we are literally standing before Hakodosh Boruch Hu and must ensure that we don't do so crudely.

"This is apparent right at the beginning of the morning prayers when we say Adon Olom. First we mention His rule in the past and present until, "when all is finished, He alone, awesomely will rule," speaking in general terms. Then the focus suddenly changes and we speak about the Ribono shel olom in personal terms: `He is my G-d and my living Redeemer and the Rock of my portion . . . And He is my banner and a refuge for me . . .' The relationship that each of us has with the Creator is deeply personal. If that is how we lead into our prayers, our whole approach would be like that."

He once observed to his grandson that interestingly, the better a person prays as a child, the more likely it is that he'll continue finding novelty in each prayer in his maturity and in old age.

"In Mir," he once said, "Reb Yeruchom used to lead the evening prayers after he delivered his shmuess in the yeshiva. The reason for this was that although his shmuess greatly inspired all who heard it, there is nothing like prayer for arousal and reinforcement. The Mashgiach therefore wanted to make full use of the arousal that his shmuess had created among the bochurim and bring it to fruition in prayer to the Creator."

The Mashgiach was once asked how to prevent foreign thoughts intruding during prayer. He asked the questioner, "Did it ever happen that you were speaking to a friend and in mid- conversation you started thinking about other things? Certainly not! If you're fully aware that you're speaking to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, your mind won't be able to wander!"

His advice to an older talmid who had still not found his match was that he should pray intensely, because prayer pierces the heavens.

What did he mean by `pray intensely'? the talmid asked.

"Crying," the Mashgiach replied. "I remember that after my marriage I didn't find a chavrusa for several months. One evening, I was so distressed that I burst out crying while praying. The next day someone approached me and asked me to learn with him. He was one of my best chavrusas."

Always Learning from Gedolei Yisroel

The Mashgiach always actively sought and followed the counsel of gedolei Yisroel. He once remarked, "Whenever I could I travel to the Chazon Ish and the Steipler ztvk'l, I would, to speak to them and to seek their advice." A grandson who was listening asked him, "Could one speak to them about avodas Hashem?"

"Of course," came the immediate reply. "One could ask them anything and receive a pure Torah viewpoint."

His talmid Rav Homnick recalled the Mashgiach having said, "There wasn't a person in the generation from whom there was anything to learn whom I did not learn from."

It was quite a sight to see him at a relatively mature age making the effort to travel to hear HaRav E. E. Dessler and HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein ztvk'l and standing in fear and awe listening to every word.

Even During Elul

Rav B. Z. Kook relates that he once asked for permission to travel to Bnei Brak to ask the Steipler something, a request to which the Mashgiach usually consented, even during Elul. "When I entered I told the Kehillas Yaakov that I was a talmid in Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov and that I had the following question . . ."

"His response was, `Go to your mashgiach; he'll surely be able to help you.'

"When I returned to the yeshiva and told this to the Mashgiach he was upset and said, `Oi, I forgot to tell you not to say where you learn . . .' "

Rav D. Abeles related that he went to ask the Steipler something and after receiving the response, he asked for some words of guidance for a chosson prior to his chuppah. The Steipler told him, "There's someone unique in giving this kind of advice — HaRav Wolbe. Go to see him and you'll certainly find what you're looking for."

The Shepherd who Brings All the Sheep into Line

Whenever it was relevant throughout his life, he annulled his own views in deference to those of gedolei Yisroel. As president of Talmud Torah Chavas Daas he was convinced that the first Chumash that young children learn should be Vayikra because it is easier for them to understand than the conventional study of Chumash Bereishis. He heard though, that HaRav Shach did not share this view and that in his opinion children should first learn the parshiyos of Bereishis, which impart the fundamentals of emunoh. He asked the Steipler, who told him that he didn't recall the parshiyos of Bereishis having been learned because they studied the weekly parsha and the parshiyos of Bereishis are usually read during the break for the festivals, so that they didn't manage to learn them.

The Mashgiach repeated this to HaRav Shach, who nevertheless did not agree. He maintained that the parshiyos of Bereishis convey the foundation of emunoh, which every child should grow up knowing. HaRav Wolbe set his own views aside immediately and announced that the children should be taught Bereishis first.

The following day, he delivered a shmuess in Yeshivas Mir in the course of which he said, "We are a generation that has a great leader; if one sheep strays from the flock he raps it and brings it back into line." The audience didn't understand what he meant but those close to him, who knew what had happened the previous day, got the message.

His Thrice Daily Prayer

The extent of his self-annulment to HaRav Eliashiv was astonishing. Whenever he had a query he would send his relative Rav B. Z. Kook to consult the Rov and ask for his opinion. A while ago, when he sought an opinion about an important matter, he said that he really ought to go himself to hear the response. He went in to HaRav Eliashiv and, as soon as he walked in, said that he prayed three times a day that the Rov should enjoy a long and good life. Then he spoke to the Rov at length and after leaving, remained under the impression of his tremendous admiration for the rest of the day.

I Should Decide?

Very infrequently in his yeshiva, the question arose of whether or not a particular bochur ought to be expelled. On one such occasion, the rabbonim of the yeshiva asked the Mashgiach for his consent to a painful step that was necessary for the general welfare. In his modesty HaRav Wolbe's reaction was "Am I the right person to decide such a matter? Go to HaRav Steinman and ask him how you ought to proceed."

To Bless Asher Cholak or Not?

After the Mashgiach eulogized his brother-in-law HaRav Boruch Rosenberg zt'l in the Slobodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, his chaperone asked him if he would come to visit HaRav Chaim Kanievsky. Initially the Mashgiach demurred, saying that he had nothing in particular to ask Reb Chaim and that in the past he wouldn't go to see the Chazon Ish or the Kehillas Yaakov either, unless he had something to ask them. When he was told that his visit would be an honor for Reb Chaim his response was, "Why on earth should it be?"

Later he agreed to pay the visit. On the way he deliberated over whether to make the brochoh ' . . .asher cholak . . .(who has apportioned of His wisdom to those that fear Him)' over Reb Chaim. He recalled having made the brochoh with Hashem's Name, when he came before HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, and Reb Chaim Ozer's having responded, " Omein," whereas when he saw Reb Boruch Ber zt'l he made the brochoh without mentioning Hashem's Name. The Mashgiach put the question to Reb Chaim himself, whose response was choliloh that he should do so. Reb Chaim then asked the Mashgiach if he remembered the time when the two of them shared a room in Yeshivas Lomzha in Petach Tikva. Then, in utter self- effacement HaRav Wolbe asked Reb Chaim to bless him and all his family.

Rav Ben Zion Kugler recalled the time when Reb Chaim visited Chavas Daas and related that he had been the Mashgiach's roommate in Yeshivas Lomzha. When this was mentioned to the Mashgiach, he was amazed. How did Reb Chaim remember such a thing? He was never in the room because he sat learning all the time. Perhaps he remembered it from the list that was displayed at the beginning of each zman.

When Reb Ben Zion called on Reb Chaim some time later, he told him what the Mashgiach had said. Reb Chaim responded simply, "Do you think I was the masmid? The Mashgiach was the masmid."

I Am Biased

A bochur once approached him for advice as to which yeshiva he should go to learn in, Kol Torah or Maalos HaTorah? The Mashgiach replied, "I can't tell you because I'm biased; I deliver shmuessen in Kol Torah. But go to HaRav Shmuel Auerbach [the Rosh Yeshiva of Maalos HaTorah!]. He'll tell you honestly which is more suitable for you."

In his last years, HaRav Wolbe often asked advice of his friend HaRav Mordechai Zuckerman and would follow his suggestions in all matters. They would have lengthy discussions about topical issues and in a revealing moment Rav Mordechai once remarked that he hoped that he would also merit being HaRav Wolbe's neighbor in Olom Haboh, just as he was in this world. (They lived close to each other in the Givat Shaul neighborhood.)

When he wanted advice he would even consult his juniors or inferiors and accept their opinion unequivocally. When he wrote his sefer, Hamitzvos Hashekulos he deliberated long and hard over whether or not to publish it. When members of his family asked him what his doubts were, he said that there would be many questions about the sefer and he wouldn't have the energy to provide answers. When he learned that someone who frequently visited him would be calling on a distinguished rosh yeshiva he requested that he consult him. The rosh yeshiva's response was that he ought to publish and HaRav Wolbe did so without any further ado.

Why Carry a Gas Mask?

Rav B. Finkel recalled that during the Gulf War Israeli citizens were advised to carry their gas masks with them everywhere, but people mostly didn't pay attention. HaRav Wolbe however, always had his mask over his shoulder. Meeting Rav Finkel, he said, "You must be wondering why I'm going about differently from everyone else. You surely know the incident involving Rav Yisroel Salanter zt'l when he refused to stand and speak in the usual place where other speakers stood because there was a loose chandelier overhead that could have fallen and . . .everybody deserves the death penalty . . . I don't want to put myself in a position of danger to life."

A Talmid Remembers . . .

Rav Moshe Samsonovitz, menahel ruchani of Kollel Beis Abba in Kiryat Sefer and a close talmid of HaRav Wolbe, recorded some of his recollections of Be'er Yaakov under the Mashgiach's stewardship and has shared them with Yated Ne'eman. Selected extracts accompany this article.

The Value of a Lirah

The Mashgiach was careful about money. ("The money of tzadikim is more precious to them than their own physical well-being," Sotah 12.) Once in a shmuess he loudly berated the bochurim who traveled to Ramle to ride in a shared taxi to Yerushalayim instead of going by bus. The whole difference in fare was one lirah. At the time he said, "Someone who doesn't know the value of a lirah will end up stealing money. It's imperative to learn the value of money."

When we opened the Beis Hamussar in Yerushalayim I proposed to the Mashgiach that he take a taxi at the Beis Hamussar's expense but he refused. He would travel by bus to give his vaadim.

A Talmid Remembers: Discussion Groups

The Mashgiach's purpose in holding the discussion groups (vaadim) was to take a particular topic and work it through over an extended period. The group members would make a particular undertaking each week and would then discuss among themselves whether or not it had been successful. The Vaad was for bochurim only and meetings took place in the Mashgiach's home; to avoid arousing jealousy, the Mashgiach said that the idea to hold the vaadim had come from the bochurim, not from him.

One of the topics that was discussed was impressionability — the things that one ought to be impressed by and on the other hand, when to remain unmoved by the environment and other people's disparagement. This is the first hurdle that a ben aliyah [a seeker of spiritual advancement] must overcome. If you try to say bircas hamozone slowly, your tablemates will look on you askance. If you try to spend a little longer in prayer they will say that you've become a tzaddik. That vaad afforded immunity against the surroundings.

The Mashgiach told me that when he returned home to Berlin from yeshiva and went to pray in the beis haknesses the townsfolk realized that he'd changed and was praying like a ben Torah. He heard one of them say to another, "Don't worry, it's just the way of youngsters. By the time he's twenty-two he'll take his head out of the clouds and will be more realistic." The Mashgiach added that when he turned twenty-two and was concerned that his yiras Shomayim might really cool off, he took various measure to bolster himself and make sure that it wouldn't happen, chas vesholom.

A Talmid Remembers: Daily Prayers

I arrived in the yeshiva following the petiroh of HaRav Eliyohu Lopian zt'l. The Mashgiach adopted his practice of waking up the bochurim in the dormitory. He would start saying Pesukei Dezimrah while he woke up the bochurim and would arrive in the beis hamedrash for Vayevoreich Dovid.

During the Amidah the Mashgiach would stand absolutely still, in a state of emotional tranquility that brought him to a state of prayer — standing before the Creator! Utterly disconnected from whatever was happening in the world . . . as I write I feel a longing for those minutes of [his] Amidah.

On one occasion, the Mashgiach said that anyone whose prayers always take him exactly the same amount of time is not truly praying, for a person is human. How is it possible for him not to sometimes be a little shorter and sometimes take a little longer?

He once said in a shmuess: "[The posuk refers to] `paths within their hearts' (Tehillim 84:6). There are many paths within the heart. Sometimes prayer will be an articulation of one's faith; sometimes it will be an expression of mussar."

That is an accurate way to describe prayer in Be'er Yaakov. Every prayer arose from an aroused inner state — "paths within their hearts."

I never saw the Mashgiach swaying during the Amidah, with the exception of one Rosh Hashonoh (I think it was that of 5741) [when] suddenly he began swaying and also started perspiring profusely. After fifteen minutes his strength gave out and he sat down on a chair, then he got up again and started [showing] external arousal — it was an extraordinary occurrence.

Anyone who tasted prayer in Be'er Yaakov will long for it all his life.


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