By D. Sofer
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission
"A yeshiva," Rav Yechezkel Sarna is quoted as saying, "is a whole world. It is a student's spiritual home, and its rosh yeshiva is even more than a father and mother to him. A young person who doesn't study in a yeshiva is like an orphan." As rosh yeshiva of the famed Chevron Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Yechezkel Sarna merited to be a father not only to his students, but also to generations of bnei Torah. During the 40 years in which Rav Yechezkel headed the Chevron Yeshiva, thousands of outstanding talmidei chachamim were inspired by his teachings, and then proceeded to transmit them to their own students.
ROOTS AND EARLY YEARS
Rav Yechezkel Sarna was born on 28 Shevat, 5650/1881, in Horodok, a town in Russia's Minsk district. His father, Rav Yaakov Chaim, was the city's shochet and melamed, and later its maggid. He was known for his outstanding acts of chessed, and he became particularly renowned when he aided his townsmen during a highly contagious epidemic.
Rav Yechezkel's mother, Aidel, was the daughter of Rav Shlomo Zalman Buxenbaum, author of Rechovos Ir, a commentary on Midrash Rabba, and a chassid of the Chiddushei Harim. She was also known for her outstanding middos.
Rav Yechezkel received his primary education from his father, as well as at the cheder in Horodok. When he was 11, his father sent him to the Or Hachaim Yeshiva in Slabodka, headed by Rav Tzvi Levitan, a student of the Alter of Kelm. In 5662/1902, he transferred to the Maltsh Yeshiva, led by Rav Shimon Shkop, and then returned a year later to the city of Slabodka to study under Rav Chaim Rabinowitz in the Knesses Beis Yitzchok Yeshiva. When Rav Rabinowitz transferred to Telshe Yeshiva, he invited Rav Yechezkel to join a group of select students that he took along with him. At that time, Telshe was in the throes of a controversy, with many of its students opposing the mussar approach of its roshei yeshiva. When the yeshiva temporarily closed in 5666/1906 as a result, Rav Yechezkel returned to Maltsh. One year later, he went to study in the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva in Slabodka, where he felt he had finally found his spiritual home.
Although he was only 17 at that time, he was considered one of the yeshiva's most brilliant students. Recognizing Rav Yechezkel's vast potential, the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, took him under his wing and played a major role in molding his spiritual character.
Describing his special relationship with the Alter, Rav Yechezkel once wrote, "Without the Alter, I would have been like a blind and a deaf person. He opened my eyes and my ears, and I acquired my entire approach to Torah study from him."
TIMES OF TURMOIL
With the outbreak of World War I, Lithuania's Jews were banished from their country and the entire Slabodka Yeshiva fled to Minsk. Like all of the yeshiva's students, Rav Yechezkel secured forged affidavits in order to avoid the draft. However, Rav Yechezkel was caught and imprisoned.
Miraculously, though, he managed to escape from prison and flee to the home of a relative, Rav Yehoshua Zimbalist. Soon after, Rav Yechezkel escaped to Smilowitz where the Chofetz Chaim and his students had taken refuge.
Meanwhile, shortly after the Slabodka Yeshiva had arrived in Minsk, which was near the battlefront, it was forced to flee to a safer city, Kremenchug. However, Rav Yechezkel chose not to join the yeshiva on its travels, but remained in Smilowitz, studying for a year and a half in an inn with the students of the Radin Yeshiva.
During this period, he developed close relationships with the Chofetz Chaim and Radin's Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Naftali Trop. This brief period, Rav Yechezkel often said, was one of the most beautiful in his life. Recognizing Rav Yechezkel's unique capabilities, the Chofetz Chaim held him in high esteem. Thus, when the Chofetz Chaim was asked to travel to Memmel to defend a student who had been accused of espionage on behalf of the Germans, he asked Rav Yechezkel to accompany and assist him. Rav Yechezkel never revealed the details of this affair. However, he often related that when he informed the Chofetz Chaim that in the end, the student hadn't been condemned to death, but only to six weeks in prison, the Chofetz Chaim cried out, "Fools! Is the Czar's army certain that it will last even six weeks?" In truth, the young man had been sentenced to six years in prison, but Rav Yechezkel chose not tell that to the Chofetz Chaim so as not to upset him.
Six weeks later, the Communist Revolution took place and the Czar was deposed. The student was freed a few days later.
RETURN TO SLABODKA
After the revolution, Rav Yechezkel returned to the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva in Kremenchug, where he once again assumed his status as a top student. Two years later, he married Pesha Miriam Epstein, the daughter of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, one of the roshei yeshiva.
Shortly after the end of World War I, the yeshiva managed to leave Russia and to return to Slabodka, which, after the war, was reannexed to Lithuania. With that, a new chapter in the annals of the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva began.
At one point, the Alter asked Rav Yechezkel to deliver shiurim in the yeshiva, but he declined the offer, explaining that he preferred to devote the early years of his life to Torah study. Although Rav Yechezkel held no official position in the yeshiva, his influence there was keenly felt.
FROM SLABODKA TO CHEVRON
In 5684/1924, the Lithuanian government tried to enlist the majority of Knesses Yisroel's students into the army, threatening the very existence of the yeshiva. Since Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein was in America at that time, Rav Yechezkel tried to have the decree averted, but to no avail. After consulting the Alter of Slabodka, the decision was made to transfer the yeshiva to Eretz Yisroel. Immediately, the Alter sent a telegram to Rav Moshe Mordechai, asking if he approved of the plan. Rav Moshe Mordechai, in turn, wired back his consent, and promised to make every effort to raise the funds necessary for the yeshiva's relocation.
In Iyar of that year, the Alter sent Rav Yechezkel to Eretz Yisroel to choose a site for the yeshiva and to coordinate its establishment there. He also charged him with securing visas for the students. After evaluating various options, Rav Yechezkel chose the city of Chevron as the yeshiva's new home. Consequently, Knesses Yisroel became the first Lithuanian yeshiva to transfer to Eretz Yisroel.
During that year, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel arrived in Eretz Yisroel. They were joined the following year by the yeshiva's mashgiach, Rav Leib Chasman. It was at that point that Rav Yechezkel assumed a significant role in the yeshiva's leadership, delivering shiurim and coordinating study schedules. The Alter approved of his efforts and praised him highly.
In the beginning of 5687/1927, the Alter fell seriously ill, and Rav Yechezkel began to deliver mussar discourses in the yeshiva. That same winter, Rav Nosson Tzvi was niftar. At the levaya, Rav Yechezkel told Rav Yitzchok Hutner, "Two types of builders contribute to the establishment of every spiritual edifice. The first are "yotzrim," "masterminds and planners," while the second are "otzrim," "keepers and guardians." Now that the "yotzrim" have left us, we must don the mantle of the "otzrim."
THE CHEVRON MASSACRE
In the years that followed, the Chevron Yeshiva became a great citadel of Torah. Its students' hasmada was at its peak, and the sound of Torah study reverberated through its halls day and night.
But then, on Shabbos morning, 17 Av, 5689/1929, disaster befell the Jewish community of Chevron. Trucks filled with shrieking Arab rioters from Yerushalayim arrived in Chevron and drove through its streets. Mobs headed toward the home of the Grodzinski family, intent on shedding blood.
At that very moment, Reb Dan Slonim, the Jewish community's parnass, mounted his horse and rushed over to the home of the British governor, where he demanded that the governor control the rioters and protect the Jewish residents. "Lock yourselves in your homes, and nothing will happen to you," the governor replied.
Friday night arrived, and all of the city's Jews remained in their homes.
Despite the great risk to his own life, Reb Dan Slonim managed to inform all of the Jews that they should come to his home, because his Arab friends were guarding it and had promised that no harm would befall anyone in the house. Sheltered by the darkness, Chevron's Jews crept out of their own homes and took shelter in Reb Dan Slonim's securely locked house.
Shabbos morning, horrifying shrieks were heard: "Itbach Al Yehud. Jihad!"
The mob headed straight for Reb Dan Slonim's home. He tried to ward off the incited Arabs and to plead with them for peace. But no one paid him any attention. Moments later, a sharp iron rod landed on his head, and he fell to the floor wallowing in his own blood.
The mob then burst into the house, and brandishing knives and rods, went from room to room, beating and killing every Jew in sight.
By the end of the infamous Chevron Massacre, 69 Jews had been murdered, including 24 of the yeshiva's students. Many others were injured.
Although Rav Yechezkel was greatly pained by the tragedy, he did not plunge into despair, but rather directed all of his energies toward rebuilding the yeshiva. It wasn't easy to reassemble the yeshiva's survivors, many of whom had suffered traumas a result of their experiences. Nonetheless, Rav Yechezkel merited special Siyatta d'Shemaya and succeeded in reestablishing the yeshiva in Yerushalayim. He renamed the yeshiva "Chevron," in memory of the kedoshim who were massacred in that sacred city. While Rav Leib Chasman, the yeshiva's mashgiach, dedicated himself to encouraging the students, the task of raising the necessary funds for the yeshiva and ensuring its smooth functioning fell on Rav Yechezkel's shoulders. He traveled extensively to raise funds, even making a trip to the United States.
In a letter to Rav Isaac Sher of Slabodka, he wrote, "The first weeks were very difficult, since the students were both destitute and despondent. But by the 15th of Elul, they returned to themselves, and by Rosh Hashana, the yeshiva began to function in full force."
At first, the yeshiva was located in a shul in Yerushalayim's Achva neighborhood near Geula. Shortly afterward, Rav Yechezkel purchased a spacious building on Chaggai Street in Geula. This building not only housed the beis medrash, but also a dormitory and apartments for the yeshiva's staff. Once the yeshiva was established, Rav Yechezkel returned to his own spiritual pursuits.
Over the years, he had produced thousands of students, many of whom became prominent roshei yeshiva and rabbanim in Eretz Yisroel and abroad.
He also founded the Yavneh Talmud Torah and the Tiferes Tzvi Yeshiva, which served as a mechina, or preparatory yeshiva, for Chevron. In addition, he established kollelim for the yeshiva's alumni, not only in Yerushalayim, but also in Tel Aviv and Petach Tikva.
As the yeshiva grew, he was once again forced to travel to America to raise funds. At times, the yeshiva's financial situation was so dire that debtors issued orders confiscating Rav Yechezkel's property. But even when the Rav himself lacked food for his family, he made certain that the yeshiva students did not go hungry.
When his father-in-law, Rav Moshe Mordechai, was niftar in 5694/1934, five years after the Chevron Massacre, Rav Yechezkel was officially appointed rosh yeshiva of Chevron.
As tragedy befell Klal Yisroel with the start of World War II and the Holocaust, Rav Yechezkel expanded the scope of his activities far beyond his own yeshiva.
He was among the founders of the Vaad Yeshivos, and he was also active in the Vaad Hatzalah, alongside Rav Chizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky, the av beis din of Krinki. After the founding of the State of Israel, Rav Yechezkel played a vital role in the spiritual rescue of immigrant children, and he served as one of the leaders of the Chinuch Atzmai Torah School Network.
While Rav Yechekzel helped establish many new yeshivos, he firmly opposed the founding of yeshivos that sought to include secular studies in their curricula.
In a letter to a friend, he wrote, "It is a miracle that no alien hand had undermined the yeshivos hakedoshos and that they have remained in their traditional format."
Although he shunned political involvement, Rav Yechezkel had a strong affinity for Agudas Yisroel, and he was an active member of its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
Despite his involvement in numerous projects on behalf of the klal, raising and improving the spiritual and learning level of the students at Chevron Yeshiva remained Rav Yechezkel's lifework. He delivered shiurim in halacha and mussar every week at the yeshiva, as well as shiurim in his own home. For seven years, he also delivered discourses on the laws and meaning of Shabbos.
His students still fondly remember these shiurim, which were unique in their content and style.
Over the years, Rav Yechezkel functioned in complete harmony with the yeshiva's mashgiach, Rav Yehuda Leib Chasman. With Rav Yehuda Leib's petira in 5696/1936, Rav Yechezkel assumed that role himself.
As rosh yeshiva and mashgiach, he acted warmly toward his students, who brought him great joy. This attitude is apparent in one of his letters, in which he wrote, "Yesterday, I entered the yeshiva close to midnight, and found thirty students studying with exceptional fervor. At that time, I thought, 'Fortunate is the generation which has merited such young people. May Hashem protect them and bless them.'"
Over the years, his brothers-in-law, Rav Aaron Cohen and Rav Moshe Chevroni, were appointed roshei yeshiva of Chevron, while Rav Meir Chadash was appointed mashgiach. Later, Rav Hillel Paley, Rav Simcha Zissel Broide and Rav Avrohom Farbstein were also invited to become roshei yeshiva there.
During his final years, Rav Yechezkel decided to move the yeshiva from the bustling Geula neighborhood to the quiet section of Givat Mordechai. However, he was unable to bring this monumental project to fruition because he was niftar before the building was finished.
During the last few months of his life, his extreme weakness could not deter him from davening in the yeshiva, or from delivering his shiurim.
One motzaei Shabbos during his final weeks, he made a special effort to go up to the yeshiva for Ma'ariv. When he reached the staircase leading to the beis medrash, he learned that davening had ended. Nonetheless, he continued to climb the stairs.
When the bachur accompanying him remarked that Ma'ariv was over and that he needn't climb the steep staircase, Rav Yechezkel replied, "Davening in public is mi'derabbanan, while greeting the bnei yeshiva with a 'gut voch' is included in the mitzva of 'love your neighbor as yourself,' which is de'oraisa."
In Av of 5729/1969, Rav Yechezkel was taken to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital for intensive treatment. Two days before his petira, he told one of the roshei yeshiva, "It is Elul and the students are surely studying with added hasmada. My illness won't disturb their Elul mood." He was niftar on 6 Elul and was buried beside his father-in-law, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, on Har Hazeisim.
On Erev Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, the yeshiva moved to its new quarters in Givat Mordechai. All of the students assembled in the yeshiva's study hall on Chaggai Street. Sifrei Torah were removed from the arks, and amidst singing and dancing, the students climbed aboard busses that were to bring them to their new home. Many people from all over the city joined in this stirring and impressive procession. Although Rav Yechezkel Sarna was not there to see the realization of his dream, his spirit was keenly felt, as it still is today at the Chevron Yeshiva, some three decades since his passing.