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A Window into the Chareidi World

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








In the Proximity of Maran R' Yitzchok Zeev of Brisk, Ztvk'l

Memoirs of Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz

Chapter Fourteen

A Way of Truth Without Compromise: "He Is Wholly Truth"

The essence of the Brisker Torah which Maran HaRav Chaim and HaRav Yitzchok Zeev ztvk'l bequeathed is the uncompromising digging for the truth, without sidetracking, and with no additions.

But this did not only find expression in their approach in study: in every facet of his conduct, Maran was wholly true. And who was more qualified than Maran HaRav Chaim Ozer ztvk'l to testify of Maran that he was the ultimate personification of truth in his generation, as Maran, himself, once told me? This is how that admission came about:

One of the heads of Mizrachi passed through the cities of Poland and Lithuania, asking for an audience with the prestigious rabbis in each place, to present his ideology to them and to brief them on what was happening in Eretz Yisroel.

When he arrived in Brisk, he wished to meet with Maran — but Maran refused to receive him. The askon approached Maran's confidants and complained that he really did not know why he had been rebuffed, since he just came from Vilna where Maran HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky had granted him a visit and had received him very cordially. If he was worthy of an audience with R' Chaim Ozer, why was he rejected by the rabbi of Brisk?

These people went to Maran and asked him why — if everyone always relied on what Maran R' Chaim Ozer did and if he had accorded this person honor — Maran was not afraid of insulting him? On the contrary, perhaps that man might infer detrimental things about the chareidi community!

"I told those people," Maran told me, "that they must understand that R' Chaim considered him far less worthy than I did . . . "

They could not fathom his meaning. So Maran explained, "R' Chaim Ozer received him for fear that if he refused to see him, the man might somehow harm our community. He thus felt that was the best thing to do. I, however, do not suspect him of that. I do not believe that because I refuse to see him, he will go to such lengths . . . So, as a matter of fact, I regard him in a better light than R' Chaim Ozer, which is why I refuse to receive him."

On his way back, that man passed through Vilna again and asked to see R' Chaim Ozer in order to complain to him about the Brisker Rov. R' Chaim Ozer said to him, "There is in our generation one man of truth: the Brisker Rov. He is wholly truth! How can you come and complain about him?"

"The Brisker Rov Won't Sign"

Famous is the single-mindedness with which Maran fought against Sherut Leumi, forced public service for girls. He subscribed to the psak that this was a decree over which one should lay down one's life, yeihoreg ve'al ya'avor. He even personally participated in a demonstration against it, even though he felt that doing so was risking his life, for he suspected the Zionists of being prepared to shed blood. This was, in fact, the only time that he participated in any demonstration.

Notwithstanding all this, he was not prepared to outstep his own boundaries, even in this issue, by signing a letter that hinted at flattery and obsequiousness. This is what happened:

When it appeared that this battle was all but lost, when even after Maran the Chazon Ish's meeting with Ben Gurion the issue was at loggerheads, the Chazon Ish asked me what more could still be effected. I suggested that he write a letter to the prime minister on the matter. I explained to Maran — as one who knew Ben Gurion very well — that it was very difficult to influence him through a verbal confrontation since the latter's sense of self-righteousness was very developed. Whenever someone spoke to him, he was put on the defensive. He became altogether recalcitrant and unreceptive to what the other person was saying, since he was already thinking about his rebuttal.

On the other hand, I knew that Ben Gurion paid close attention to the written word, and we would stand a far better chance of influencing him if our arguments were presented on paper.

The Chazon Ish asked me who should be asked to sign the letter. I replied: Maran the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov.

"Your suggestion will only be partly fulfilled. That is, I will sign but we will not ask the Brisker Rov to sign."

"Why?" I wished to know.

He explained, "A letter of request to the prime minister of this nature cannot be altogether devoid of a smattering of flattery. And being that Maran is wholly true, kulo emess, he will be unable to bring himself to sign such a letter."

When I related this to the Brisker Rov upon occasion, he nodded in agreement.

The letter was duly sent with the signature of the Chazon Ish alone. Several years after his passing, I asked Mr. Yitzhak Navon, who had served as Ben Gurion's personal secretary at the time, for that letter, which I then passed on to some talmidei chachomim to peruse. They could not find even a hint of flattery in it. However, since the Chazon Ish did sense it he determined that the Brisker Rov could not, in all good conscience, sign it.

When I showed the letter to Maran's son, he read it and then pointed to one sentence: "I am inclined to believe that the Prime Minister's conscience twinges in issuing the call to mobilize women for national service, knowing that it strikes at the conscience of the public or the individual."

To this, his son said, "Herein lies a insinuation of flattery. Why should we judge Ben Gurion favorably as if to say that were he aware of how much pain he was causing us, he would desist from implementing his program of national service?"

Examine the Sacrificial Lamb

Maran was well known for his critical attitude towards a good many things, even when they appeared favorable and beneficial to many.

One person who felt that Maran exaggerated in his distrust, once came to Maran to ask forgiveness after he had learned the lesson that in one particular instance, Maran had been right in being circumspect. Maran said to him, "You should know that it never happened, not even once, that my misgivings were misplaced and not realized. I never exhibited more suspicion than the minimum measure indicated and deemed necessary according to halochoh."

Maran himself once explained that one should not conclude from his criticism that his attitude to a particular subject was negative. He explained his position by a very apt parable.

There was a lovely park in a city which was famous for its beauty and which attracted people from afar. Visitors would meander along its lovely paths and admire the flower beds, their colorful arrangement, the landscaping, etc.

There was one person, however, who always seemed able to find fault with the park: here a flower was wilting, there — a tree was dying, the grass was overgrown . . .

That severe critic was none other than the gardener, who would walk along and see what needed tending, what corner required his expert care. His inspection and criticism was altogether different. To be sure he knew the wonderful features of the park but, being responsible to keep it up and to maintain its beauty, he had to be on the lookout for its faults so that he could mend them.

An Invitation Implies that Respect Be Shown

HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira shlita once told:

When sheva brochos was being held in the Wagshall Hotel for R' Meir Soloveitchik shlita, Maran's youngest son, I was together with Maran in his room and accompanied him down to the dining hall. En route, Maran said to me, "I am inviting you to the sheva brochos. But you should know in advance that I won't be able to honor you with a brochoh since I must reserve that for family members."

I told Maran that it hadn't even dawned on me that I should receive such an honor. To that, he apologized again, repeating that his invitation was extended for the meal only, and did not include any honors.

Maran assumed that if he was inviting the distinguished R' Moshe Shmuel to a festive meal without explicitly stating that it did not include any honors, it would be tantamount to inviting a friend to a meal and not serving him anything to eat.

Mesirus Nefesh and its Reward

One of Maran's outstanding traits was consistency and adherence to a goal. Whenever he assumed a project upon himself, there was no power in the world that could swerve him from his goal. He was not thwarted by any natural obstacle, even when logic dictated that he capitulate. Maran paid no attention; he only saw the holy object before his eye and placed his trust in Hashem.

Maran told me the following story at the time that the battle against Sherut Leumi was at its peak, in 5713 (1953). The fight was a bitter one and, under the directive of the Torah leadership which included Maran, a mass demonstration of huge proportions was held in Jerusalem, surpassing any before it. Almost all the gedolei hador participated, including Maran, the elderly Belzer Rebbe zt'l and the Gaon of Tchebin zt'l, who never took part in demonstrations. But, as is sadly known, in spite of all the battles, the law was passed in its third reading in the Knesset.

During this period, I visited Maran as usual, to brief him on the latest developments. He asked me if there was anything that could possibly still be done to annul the law. I replied: Nothing whatsoever. Nothing still remained that had not been tried. We had done everything in our power, here in Eretz Yisroel and abroad, but to no avail. There was nothing left that we could still do.

Maran then said to me: "Chazal teach us (Brochos 10a) that even if a sharp sword is poised upon one's neck, he should not despair from mercy.

"The plain, simple meaning of this teaching is that our Sages are referring to a literal sword, not a figurative one."

He saw that I looked puzzled, and explained, "Let me illustrate what I mean through a true story that happened to me in Brisk."

A short time before Rosh Hashonoh, it became known to Maran that the gabbai of the central synagogue of Brisk had decided to change the place of the choir that accompanied the chazzon. They had always stood near the chazzon, but they were to be relocated to the balcony. As is often the case, Maran only learned about this after it was too late to summon the gabboim and to prevent them from carrying their plan through. But he was determined, nonetheless, not to let the change take effect.

Maran stressed to me that his consideration was not that there was an outright violation of halochoh. But he understood that the gabboim were not doing this for a righteous reason but rather with the ulterior motive of introducing modernization and in imitation of the "progressive" synagogues.

Maran arrived at the synagogue on Rosh Hashonoh. The choir ascended to the balcony, as the trustees had arranged, and took their places. "I knew that the gabboim would not obey me," said Maran, "so I simply climbed up myself and addressed the members of the choir directly. I told them to go down. `You will not sing here,' I said." The members of the choir, simple baalebatim and children, obeyed, to be sure, and went down.

When they were down in the synagogue, the gabboim ordered them to go right back up. Maran went right back up and told them to descend. This scene replayed itself several times, with Maran climbing up the stairs to the balcony each time.

"I wondered how I could get my point across without conceding. It came to a point that I told myself that this would be the last time. I simply did not have the strength to go up once again if I had to. I did this time, and told the choir members to go right back down. They were met at the bottom of the stairs by the gabboim who ordered them to return."

"At this point, the windows from the women's gallery were opened and the women, including wives of the gabboim, began shouting, `What a chutzpah to treat the Rov like that!

"What I did not succeed in gaining through my own efforts," he summed up, "the women achieved by their shouting, and the choir remained at its usual place."

Maran turned to me and said, "You would surely have given up and said, `What more can I do?' I really don't know how many dozens of times I climbed up and down. What difference would one more time have made? What could I have changed by going up one more time, and then again, one more time?

"But I acted according to the words of Chazal, `Even if a sharpened sword is poised at a person's throat, he should not despair . . . ' The way I understand it, it means [even] a sword literally thrust at one's throat and not in the figurative way.

"Here too, regarding Sherut Leumi, so long as the sentence has not yet been passed, one can hire better lawyers. But, you may ask, once the court has passed judgment and the accused has been found guilty, and the sword, or the noose, is already round his neck to execute the death sentence — what more can one still do?

"Here is where Chazal declared: Even if the sword is already resting upon his neck, in a very real sense, one must not despair! Succor comes in supernatural ways, so long as one does not despair and exerts himself to the limit of his powers, for then Hashem will come to his rescue.

"What I did could not have made a difference through normal means; it was futile to try. Reason dictated for me to capitulate. But since I felt I still had a bit more strength left to carry out the directive of Chazal, I persevered. And consequently, I earned Heavenly assistance. I am telling you," he concluded, "that you must continue to act and do, even if logic tells you that there is no point to it, for in the end, the decree will be nullified."

We did what Maran told us; we carried on the battle against Sherut Leumi and, as the public knows, to this day that law has not been fully implemented, and we trust it never will be.

Maran's words were for me a vital lesson in public activism. Up till then, I had thought that my civic and moral duty went only as far as logic and reason still afforded some hope that my efforts could be effective. But after the battle seemed lost, and everything that we did would not only seem futile but would make us look ludicrous, we were no longer under any obligation to persevere.

Maran taught me that one should give no quarter, no concession — and not only in the matter of National Military Service for women, but in any battle, for any issue. One must do everything in one's power and then, ultimately, the victory and succor would come through Heavenly assistance.

Even If the Sword is Actually, Physically, Poised at One's Throat

Along the same lines, I heard another incident from Maran which reinforces his approach and proves to what degree it is forbidden to despair, and to what lengths one is obligated to go to make every possible effort, even if it goes against all reason and logic says we have come to the end of the line.

This incident took place in 1919, at the end of World War I. A Jew from Brisk was suspected of spying and was taken to court. It was clear that if he were found guilty, he would be sentenced to death.

Maran overturned worlds and pursued every possible means to save him. He collected money, hired the best lawyers, and approached everyone with possible influence upon government ministers to avert a death decree. All his efforts failed and the Jew was sentenced to death. Maran did not desist, but continued pulling strings and urging people to use their contacts to influence government officials to repeal the verdict. All in vain.

According to Polish custom, a prisoner was not executed before a religious figure was sent to give him his last rites. As rabbi of the city, it was Maran's duty to say the confession with the accused. It was no more than a formality, and the official rabbi was in no position to refuse. But before a rabbi fulfilled this duty, the execution could not take place.

Maran then declared, "I will never commit an act that will cause a Jew to be killed."

People close to Maran wondered what difference his refusal could make. He would not be carrying out his function willingly and would surely be forced to hear the confession in any case. But he was adamant. "I refuse to do this!"

The sentence was scheduled to be carried out on Rosh Hashonoh (or perhaps it was Shabbos Shuvoh). Maran arrived at the beis knesses to pray and in the middle of the service, a messenger came to inform him that the government authorities had sent to fetch him prior to the execution. Maran signaled that he was unable to interrupt his prayers. In reality he could have done so, but he pretended otherwise.

The messenger went outside to explain to the authorities the significance of the Shemoneh Esrei prayer and that the rabbi could not be interrupted. They waited a quarter of an hour, half an hour, an hour, two hours, and in the end they lost their patience and began shouting. They summoned the gabboim and warned them that if the rabbi did not emerge immediately to discharge his duty, they would have to arrest him. He was liable to be taken to court on charges of "sabotaging the war effort," a very severe crime.

Maran remained in his place and continued to gesture that he could not leave. Hours passed until it became clear to all that under no circumstances would Maran agree to say the confession with the prisoner.

When it became clear that the police were going to carry out their threat of arresting the rabbi, the members of the congregation came up with the idea to tell them that another rabbi in their midst could fulfill the duty of Rabbi Soloveitchik. They pointed to an elderly man in the congregation who, out of fear, agreed to be escorted to the prison. He did so and recited the vidui with the Jew, who was then led out to the execution.

Moments after, before the sentence was carried out, a special messenger arrived from Warsaw with an announcement that the sentence had been repealed. It had been a mistake!

Here, too, Maran had fulfilled Chazal's teaching regarding the poised sword — in a very real and literal application — according to his understanding.

His delaying tactics had seemed altogether futile. How long could a person stand at Shemoneh Esrei, after all? For how long could he have still detained the police at the synagogue threshold? In the end, they would surely have stormed in and forced him to go with them and discharge his official duty of hearing the confession. Of what use was there in stalling the inevitable and postponing it by three or four hours?

And yet, Chazal stated that one must never despair even at the eleventh hour. With the noose being positioned around the prisoner's neck, it was still not too late to act in fulfilling that rule, even if no hope was in sight.

In the end, that altogether illogical effort succeeded in saving a Jew from death. During the very time that Maran was detaining the government officials from executing their duty, Heavenly mercy was aroused. Had it not been for those delaying tactics, the small-minded people of the congregation would have sent a Jew to his death, G-d forbid. Maran, however, understood Chazal's teaching in its deepest, truest sense, and acted accordingly.

The Gates of Tears are Never Sealed

Maran's consistency and constancy were legend. But on the other hand, he had a heart that was wide open, and when a Jew came to him in tears, he overlooked his principles.

Maran, on principle, refused to write out letters of recommendation to institutions for fundraising purposes, no matter who asked. I was, therefore, extremely surprised, upon a visit to the U.S., to see such a letter in the hands of R' Chanoch Kronzack, who administered a relatively small institution.

Upon my return, I asked Maran about it and why he had made an exception to his rule when many other larger Torah institutions were denied such a letter from him. Was there any special significance to that particular institution? I wished to know.

Maran's reply was curt: "I am unable to stand up to tears. With his institution at the verge of total collapse, R' Chanoch came to me in tears. What could I do?"


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