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A Mashgiach for Eternity: A Talmid Reflects

By Rabbi Moshe Zev Katzenstein


On Motzoei Yom Tov of the first days of Pesach, I received a cryptic message from a chaver who lives Eretz Yisroel. There were five words left on the answering machine: "It is the end of the z'man."

He did not want to break terrible news on Yom Tov, and I could have interpreted the message to mean that Yom Tov was over in Eretz Yisroel. But, indeed, I knew that there was much more hidden in those words. For many in Eretz Yisrael it was indeed the end of the z'man of Yom Tov, but to me and thousands of others it was truly "the end of the z'man." The Mashgiach was no longer with us.

Back in the days of yeshiva, while we were in Beer Yaakov, the z'man was indeed an ideal time, a time in which one had the availability to accomplish, to grow, to reach new levels of insight into oneself. For so many years, the Mashgiach zt"l was the source for all those goals to be accomplished. He guided us on the road to accomplish those goals. It has already been almost 25 years since I left Yeshivas Beer Yaakov, and until this day, my decisions and my actions are affected and influenced by the lessons and guidance that the Mashgiach gave us during those years.

The Mashgiach learned under the famed mashgiach Rav Yerucham Levovitz for two years and under Rav Yerucham's talmidim for two more years. Subsequently, when he was forced to go to Riga and Stockholm, he worked through the shmuessen of his revered rebbi, to understand them in depth and to incorporate them into his very being. Many times the Mashgiach would give a shmuess in which he would explain something that Reb Yerucham had said. The Mashgiach had told us that the statement of Reb Yerucham had bothered him for over twenty years. Then he would proceed to explain how he understood the words of his rebbe. We all knew that those twenty years were not just years of time that had passed by; rather, the Mashgiach had been constantly working to clarify for himself, his rebbi's deep words and illuminating concepts over that entire period of time.

The Mashgiach's goal was to make his Talmidim self-sufficient and focused on Avodas Hashem in this difficult world that we live in. He wanted us to constantly internalize concepts in mussuar and yiras shamayim as a way of understanding our mission in life – Ma chovoso b'olomo.

Before I left the Yeshiva, the Mashgiach told me that when he left the Mir to go to Riga and subsequently Stockholm, he asked the famed mashgiach Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, "Foon vahn zohl ich nem'n yiras Shamayim?— From where shall I receive the fear of Heaven?"

Rav Chatzkel answered simply, "Foon de fir vent - from the four walls."

The Mashgiach explained the mindset he used to accomplish this difficult task in the spiritual wasteland of Sweden. He said that when Rav Yerucham was forced by illness to go on "dache" (vacation), a bochur was needed to accompany him. Lots were drawn and an American bochur was chosen. The Mashgiach said everyone was envious of this bochur. In Yeshiva, everyone had to compete for Rav Yerucham's attention. This bochur now had Rav Yerucham all to his own. The Mashgiach explained to us that that was how he felt going to these spiritually undeveloped cities. In the Mir, everyone was vying to become close to the Ribono Shel Olam; in Stockholm he had the Ribono Shel Olam all to himself. He encouraged me to use that mindset in all of my endeavors.

At the same time that the Mashgiach prepared us for the nisyonos of leaving the confines of the Bais Medrash, he also encouraged to take on those challenges as they presented themselves. Upon expressing my concern about leaving Beer Yaakov and going to America in a very diverse and difficult environment. He replied firmly. "By the meraglim it says "Ach BaHashem, al timrodu v'al tiru - Do not rebel against Hashem and do not fear!"

He said "A mol tzu fil Yirah is oichet a merida - If one is too fearful of a challenge that he is presented with, it is a rebellion against Hakodosh Baruch Hu's decision that he is up to challenge! If Hashem gives someone a challenge, then it is evident that he can meet the challenge. Denying the chance to face the challenge is indeed shirking the responsibility - a form of rebellion!

However, the Mashgiach would never hesitate to remind us if the nisayon had indeed affected us. His constructive criticisms became part of the privilege of involvement in Avodas Hashem that promoted self-evaluation and critical analysis. It is the mussar movement that was popularized by Rav Yisroel Salanter and handed down from mechanech to mechanech until the Mashgiach, who was the link of this Mesorah to the next generation. And, indeed, he sought to hand it over in the purest unadulterated form - the way he received it.

We live in a very fragile generation. Much of chinuch has turned into an overindulgement in positive reinforcement. Much of hashpa'ah has turned into instantaneous inspiration which is more acceptable in our instant gratification mindset. But the Mashgiach encouraged, taught and exemplified Avodas Hashem through avodas hamussar. To work on oneself is to critique one's actions and then be healthy enough to accept the criticism and work on rectifying any flaw. The Mashgiach instilled in us the 'gezunt' - a self confidence - and the "mussardiker kook".

The gezunt was instilled in us to not be afraid of any situation. Any instance has a solution and one must use all the resources available to reach the solution. One bochur asked the Mashgiach how to be mashpiah on a boy who loved sports and had no interests in Yiddishkeit. The Mashgiach told him "Play him a game of Futbol (soccer) - But make sure you win. Then he will be open to hashpa'ah."

The gezunt was portrayed by the clear knowledge of what is Yiras Shomayim and what is "frumkeit," what is not appropriate for a ben Torah - what is a helpful tool. The gezunt came from a clear understanding of the importance of limud hamussar while promoting first and foremost limud haTorah. All those ideas contributed to providing his talmidim with a sense of healthy purpose, of putting challenges in perspective and not being forced to dismiss them for fear of being swayed by them.

Upon this gezunt the avodas hamussar was imposed. The Mashgiach said many times that mussar is what saved him during his years in Riga and Stockholm. He showed and explained how mussar is not confining but is a mindset that applies to all of Torah. He used to say that Chazal say that when the Yidden stood at Har Sinai the Ribono Shel Olam lifted Har Sinai over them and said, "If you will be mekabel Torah fine and if not - Shom t'hai k'vuraschem - there will be your burial place."

The question is obvious. The Ribono Shel Olam should have used the words, "Kahn t'hai k'vuraschem - Here will be your burial place?"

He explained that if one is mekabel the restrictions of Torah, then it will be good. If not, Shom – there - in the very lack of acceptance will be the suffocation. One who looks at Torah (and all of mussar) as restricting will be the suffocated by it. One who looks at Torah and mussar as liberating, as giving meaning to life, will never be restricted by it."

Thousands of talmidim have been taught by the Mashgiach and through his seforim to be confident about their Avodah to a point where they can give that confidence over to others. His hashpa'ah and hadracha equipped his talmidim with ammunition to conquer the contradictory societal values. I was once zoche to travel with the Mashgiach to Toronto for a parlor meeting. When introducing him, I remarked that I feel that I am in a constant state of tug-of-war with the world and the Mashgiach's chinuch is what is pulling me in the proper direction.

The Mashgiach's love for his Talmidim was always clear. Many letters were written to talmidim who were in difficult situations – letters of encouragement and letters of direction- letters of love from a father to son.

The last few times I was zocheh to visit the Mashgiach, he made a point of stressing that ahavah is necessary to communicate any and every message. Even the last time that I visited him, only seven weeks ago when his health was clearly failing, the Mashgiach proclaimed clearly and strongly, "Alts darf gayin mit Ahavah".

During the Yom Tov of Pesach, as the mixed emotions of simcha and sadness were constant, the nechama was felt in learning from his kesavim. Working on his Torah was a way of continuing the hashpa'ah and chinuch he had given to me and thousands of other talmidim who had been zoche to be in his presence and under his tutelage.

As the minutes of Pesach were drawing to a close, I was reminded of an incident in which I was davening in a Yeshiva in Yerushalayim on Yom Kippur and the Mashgiach was davening Ne'ilah for the Amud.

The tefilla was ahead of schedule so the Rosh Yeshiva sent me to tell the Mashgiach to say each Avinu Malkienu individually. I went over and the Mashgiach ignored me. I wasn't sure if he heard or not and returned to my seat. The Rosh Yeshiva sent me to go and try to tell him again. I went and got the same results.

At the end of Neilah, the Mashgiach klopped on the Bimah and said, "Es is noch Yom Kippor – mir ken noch teshuvah tun lumir lernin mussar and tohn teshuvah!

It is still Yom Kippr, we can still learn mussar and do teshuvah!"

Afterwards, the Mashgiach said "I heard you – wasn't this better?"

We were taught to use those remaining minutes of Yom Kippur productively instead of just passing the time. The end of every Yom Tov was given a new meaning as a result of that lesson.

The end of the z'man has arrived. Every moment of chinuch, of hashpa'ah, of ahavah, of hadracha was an unbelievable opportunity. We, the Talmidim, were given a tremendous gift of clear direction in an unclear world. Our mission is to utilize every lesson that we had learned during the greatest z'mah that we had.

R' Yaakov Lipsky reminded me of a shmuess he heard before the Mashgiach left Yeshivas Beer Yaakov after 33 years, in which he set out to console his talmidim. He said "Chazal tell us that tzadikim are greater in their deaths than when they are still alive."

"The reason," he explained, "is because while a tzaddik is alive one does not necessarily 'shtell tzu' to his Torah as much, to delve into it, to be mevatel oneself to understand it because the tzaddik is still here. Once the tzaddik is no longer here to rely upon, one is forced to delve into his Torah to extract its full meaning - because that is the only source. This is a concept the Mashgiach lived by extracting all the yesodos hachaim from R' Yerucham's schmuessen. We, too, are now presented with that same challenge. The greatest hakaras hatov we can display is to become the link in the chain of Avodas Hamussar and pass on the legacy of life we were privileged to be taught.

Rabbi Moshe Zev Katzenstein is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Mesoras HaTorah of the Five Towns located in Woodmere, NY.

Other articles on Rav Wolbe tz"l:

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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