Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer
"... You already know well the great benefit to be acquired for one's entire life in one Elul day in Slabodka." (A letter from 5670 , B'Ikvos HaYirah p. 195)
I was once privileged to spend Seuda Shlishis with one of the Gedolei HaDor shlita in Yerushalayim. In the course of our conversation the gadol remarked: "In this generation, everyone honors Rabbi X and Rabbi Y, because they can relate wonders that these rabbis are supposed to have performed. In my youth, the person we respected most was the Alter from Slabodka. You could not relate a single wonder that the Alter had performed. We respected him because he was the wisest individual we had ever met, and he had a deep understanding of our personalities, and how to help us develop our unique potentials."
Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan was the Alter's most beloved student. There was a close personal relationship between the two. Reb Avrohom Elya often contemplated leaving Slabodka - and did leave from time to time, feeling the intensity of the Avoda there was sometimes overwhelming. In the final analysis, however, he writes (ibid., p. 194): "One Sinai have we in our generation - Slabodka is its name! Anyone who leaves Sinai cannot hope to find another. More correctly, anyone who leaves the mountain falls into the valley..." Even when he was away from Slabodka, his heart and soul remained there.
Although this is not the place to dwell on Reb Avrohom Elya's greatness, a few words of introduction are necessary. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt"l once remarked that Reb Avrohom Elya possessed such remarkable powers that had he lived longer (he died at the age of 34), he would have restructured the entire derech halimud in the yeshivos with his proposed new commentary on Shas (Reb Yaakov p. 85). He was a wonderful synthesis of Telzer Machashava, Slabodker Mussar, Lithuanian Lomdus and German meticulousness. He was a gifted writer, poet and songwriter, and at the same time a talmid chochom and posek of the highest caliber.
When Reb Avrohom Elya became a Rosh Yeshiva in Berlin, he brought Mussar to Western Europe. His pleasant demeanor and refined personality were the foundations, and his discourses the framework that enabled his German students to develop and perfect their spiritual selves. His personal Avoda was exemplary: "One who has not heard him read the Pesach night Hallel in lofty ecstasy in the unique melody that he wrote yet in his youth - has not seen true Jewish life in our generation. One who has not seen him dance the Kotzker Rebbe's dance in the joy of Sukkos - has not seen true Jewish joy in our generation. He was alive and gave life." His talks: "ignited hearts with the lightning flashes of his ideas, heads were enwrapped in illumination, a purifying tremor enveloped all existence..." (ibid., p. 294).
It seems that talmidim in Slabodka were wont to keep diaries. The Alter himself kept a diary. The Alter kept the diary hidden. Clearly unbeknownst to the Alter, Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna zt"l discovered the diary in an attic. Interestingly, none other than Reb Avrohom Elya himself copied the diary word for word the day after Yom Kippur in 1914! It can be found in Rabbi Dov Katz's Tenu'as HaMussar (vol. 3, p. 220). Another Slabodker, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt"l (whom the Alter had room with Reb Avrohom Elya when the latter, after he had already moved to Berlin, would return to Slabodka for Yomim Nora'im) kept a diary as well. That diary served as the basis for Rebbitizin Beruria David shetichye's inspiring biography of her father in the Sefer Zikaron l'Maran Ba'al HaPachad Yitzchok. Diaries and private notes were tools often employed by the Ba'alei Mussar. These soul searching, intense chronicles wrestle both with personal avoda and with great issues. They offer rich inspiration and profound insight.
The passage we will pursue here captures the essence of such journals. Like many Slabodker students, Reb Avrohom Elya saw noble qualities in the great European movements and zeitgeists of the day. In the post-Holocaust era it is difficult for us to see significant value in cultures and ideas that did nothing to impede the worst atrocities imaginable. In those yet innocent days, however, many prevalent "isms" still possessed a romantic, even transcendent appeal, that generated contemplation. Thus, for eample, Reb Avrohom Elya has a diary entry from 5671 (1911) in which he analyzes and rejects the great Russian writer Tolstoy's perspectives (p. 250). It is hard to imagine any contemporary yeshiva bochur feeling it necessary to address the views of a secular thinker. At the time, however, such ideologies roused fervor and passion. Slabodka's young idealists found their emotions stirred. They would ponder an ideology: "How should we respond to it? What claim does it make upon us? And should we concede somewhat to it, or deny it altogether?..." (p. 154). This passage affords us a glimpse of how the Alter - who encouraged his students to grapple with great issues in their quest of growth - dealt with his students' internal struggles.
The primary purpose of this free translation is to inspire and motivate. The secondary purpose is to whet the reader's appetite to pursue Reb Avrohom Elya's writings. These writings so eloquently express his Master's spirit and derech, that they will inevitably lead the reader to aspire to greater attainments in Avodas Hashem.
I should add that while this is not the place to dwell on the topic at length, it is high time that we attempted to revive the Mussar Movement. May Hashem grant that such essays serve as an impetus for us all to proceed in that direction!
Excitedly and joyously I jumped from the train's steps. Within me sparkled the happy thought: "Kovno!... Slabodka!..." [Slabodka is a suburb of Kovno.]
Even though I couldn't find even one acquaintance among all the people that I saw in the terminal and that traveled with me in the tram car, they all seemed related to me. The streets through which I passed all gladdened my still heart, as if they were calling to me and saying: "Here you are, drawing closer to Slabodka. Another street, then another, the bridge, the sand, Yorburg Street - and, then... the Yeshiva, the Rav's [Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt"l, the Alter from Slabodka] small house. And then... the Rav himself!" But who knows if he's here? Perhaps he hasn't yet returned home... While walking on the bridge, my eyes began to glance around with special eagerness. Perhaps I might meet one of my friends. There at a distance, two young men are coming closer! Who are they?... Perhaps Yechezkel [Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna zt"l, later Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron in Jerusalem, then a student in Slabodka, a close friend of Reb Avrohom Elya], or another one. My heart started pounding... But I was mistaken: A young Ben Torah that I did not know passed by.
I passed over the entire bridge and did not meet a single acquaintance. I became angry. Another unfamiliar bochur passed by and I greeted him angrily, thinking inwardly: "Be it as it may! Perhaps I do know him but have forgotten..." So distorting was my powerful desire to meet some Slabodker that I knew. This is a bit of that Slabodker egoism!
By now I was already standing by Chaim Meir's [Reb Chaim Meir Gitelson zt"l, later of Jerusalem, then a student in Slabodka, a close friend of Reb Avrohom Elya] doorway. Before I managed to open the door, it opened before me, and opposite me came, nodding and smiling - Yechezkel himself. "Shalom Aleichem - Aleichem Shalom!..." - "Is the Rav here?"
- "Not yet," answers Yechezkel, "tomorrow."
Two or three of our friends came over. The conversation dragged a bit, as among people who have no idea what they should discuss. I could not look into their eyes. I wanted to spill everything... to grab Yechezkel from among them, to bring my mouth close to his ears - and to spill everything. Within me were amassed so many fragments of thought and emotion which had arisen from various events and incidents. These feelings now demanded revelation from mouth to ear ...
Yechezkel arose and said: "Let's go!" We scattered, each to his own way. Yechezkel and I remained to stroll on Slabodka's dusty and stony main street, waiting for each other with a little embarrassment and anxiety, wondering where to begin our conversation.
In the end I told him all that transpired with me. After I finished my account I suddenly saw that it was all emptiness: I had only taken leave of Slabodka for two months. I had imagined that it had been a long time, because in the meantime I had ample time to pass through several new segments of life and its events... Now, after I had told him all these things over the course of a few minutes, I suddenly realized that it was all nothingness. There was no significance to those entire two months. The essence of it all was that I had bathed in the sea and returned to Slabodka - and nothing more... Indeed, "Fools when will you learn!"
The next day, Monday of the week of Ki Savo, was the great day of Slabodka: The Rav has arrived! When I came to seem him a somewhat amusing and uncomfortable incident occurred: He stood among a group of younger students who greeted him by shaking his hand. They did not kiss him. I, however, without thinking, bent over to kiss him... Of course, he too "responded" with a kiss, but I was very embarrassed. I felt compelled to hide behind their shoulders. The pleasant experience that I always have when first meeting with the Rav after having been away for a while was a bit marred. I stood hiding and listened to the course of conversation between him and them...
"We come now from the material vacation to the spiritual vacation: From the months of Tammuz and Av in the forests and the fields to the months of Elul and Tishrei in the house of the yeshiva. What distinguishes that vacation from this vacation? We know, of course, that just as that vacation is essential to fortify the body, so too this other one is necessary to heal the soul. Even more so, for all are sick vis a vis Elul..."
- Indeed, Am I an "Elul"-seeker? Am I a yarei Shomayim?
What then - am I not an Elul-seeker? Am I not a yarei Shomayim? ...
How amusing and how pathetic, that I can ask these two questions in quick succession, yet they do not contradict each other.
When later I went out into the street I met Shaul Margolis [later a Rav in several cities in Polish Lithuania, then a student in Slabodka] walking alone, stick in hand, eyes fixed on it, pacing slowly and pondering. I saw him from a distance... I knew instantly that he had something to say to me. And indeed! "The man is amazing," Shaul said as I came to him, "He is mighty beyond compare. The man comes from Krantz, sits next to the table, surrounded by youngsters, and immediately begins from where he left off two months ago... He speaks pleasantly, clearly, sincerely, and [yet it is] his silence [that] is [most] profound, sure and penetrating to the heart... When he is silent, it seems that he has nothing at all to relate about all that transpired with him through the entire summer, what he met and whom he saw. He forgets it all, forgets himself [There seems to be a typographical error in the original Hebrew here. The Hebrew here reads "ve'eino yodei'a elah es atzmo." I translated the phrase as if it had read "ve'eino yodei'a es atzmo." Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan shlita (Reb Avrohom Elya's son) wrote to me, however, that he believes there is no mistake here, and that the intent here was that the Alter was only aware of atzmo in the sense of atzmi'us, essence, i.e., the lofty ideal that he lived, with which he identified and to which he constantly dedicated himself] - and is silent... This restraint of all emotions upon careful consideration is true mightiness. Mighty!..."
That evening I heard a shmuess. He [the Alter] stood in the middle of the small room, next to the table, and around him they gathered. The students packed together. They yearned to hear and to understand. They gazed with eyes partly happy and partly anxious, a decent number of young men, and immediately my heart began to absorb the warmth...
It is a time of true and thorough pleasantness: Every matter is clear, every thought succinct and every movement measured and balanced. The entire experience bespeaks tranquility and sincerity [ne'emanus]. There is no confusion nor haste.
He stands before us and states his complaint: People [outside Slabodka] lack belief in the power of Mussar. They do not acknowledge that the young men here genuinely involve their hearts, more or less, in the subject of yir'as Shomayim . Though he tries to impress this upon them, they remain adamant. They claim it is all superficiality, verbal pilpul, an empty and muddled waste of artificial ideas.
Immediately after this complaint he consoles himself: In the final analysis it is this [lack of appreciation] that provides all the contentment that there is in Mussar. If Mussar was not a hidden thing that the world does not recognize, it would be entirely worthless. It would stand only on the same level as "lamdonus," as a tool of public discourse. Let us be grateful to those who indict Mussar. It is because of them that the little that we do have is genuine and modest, in "hatznei'a leches"... After all, no matter how much positive publicity Mussar receives, all that the publicity achieves is that people will not mock Mussar, not complain against it. To recognize and believe in its depths [pnimiyus] and in the education of hearts in which Mussar deals - that will not happen!
Immediately after this consolation (that followed his original complaint) came another complaint: We have acquired something, we feel inside ourselves traces of the impression Mussar has made upon us. When, however, we analyze this impression deeply, we realize that it has only come about because we habitually steer our thoughts in that direction. Our minds constantly review the realizations that they have absorbed from the [literally: "kneaded from the dough"] words of Chazal and the Rishonim. Because of this habit, our hearts have been conditioned to identify the negative components that the Torah perceives as "evil" in any situation. Naturally, the heart then distances itself somewhat from that situation - because it has become conditioned to thinking of it as base - but not because of yir'as Shomayim.
In other words, it is not because I fear the sin [that I avoid it], but rather because it is unpleasant for me to get involved in something that I have already become conditioned to hear of and consider as a "sin". If, however, some powerful issue overcame that unpleasantness, then I might no longer distinguish between good and bad, and I would do what my heart desired... - I contemplated: "This is the crux of the matter!..." [Literally: "Here the dog is buried!" Rabbi Gershon Eliezer Schaffel pointed out to me that the Alter from Kelm zt"l discusses this subject in Chochma u'Mussar vol. 2. chapter 8.]
The following day - Reb Avrohom [Rabbi Avrohom Grodzhenski zt"l hy"d, Menahel Ruchani in Slabodka]. came to me and began to "check my pulse." I saw in him all the characteristics of an expert physician. He did not want to surprise the patient under examination, so he came "from the side of the left ear," and began by discussing simple things. He succeeded. Only a few minutes later, I already stood before him like a priest before the altar, and I was sacrificing my heart upon it...
... Several bochurim stood around us. They did not understand the process that was appearing within their daled amos, that Avrohom Elya was standing and revealing his heart before Reb Avrohom... because we were talking in "the third person," i.e., [I would say:] "Some say thus," and he would respond: "And some say thus, and the second opinion is correct - the first one, meaning: yours, is distorted..." ...
The next day (Wednesday in the week of Ki Savo), I harvested the fruit of my heart's revelation. Several times the Rav alluded to the themes I had expressed before Reb Avrohom. The mail had already achieved its purpose. My heart's meditations had already reached the proper address, following the simple route: From my mouth to Reb Avrohom, from his mouth to the Rav, and from him back to me.
"You complain," the Rav remarked to me, "about our abstract words, about the disputes that float in the air, [you say] that they barely touch upon practice, that they lead to inactivity and quibbling, and that they cast a fog over the eyes so we can no longer see anything simply and satisfactorily," thus the Rav reported my criticisms to me. He did not deny them, but rather battled me on my own terms: "Nu, on the contrary," he stood and asserted, "turn as you say to matters of substance, check and analyze your deeds and your self. Don't become involved in abstraction, for why, indeed, do you need it?"
I stand and hear the simple, yet profound, words: "The primary part [ikkar] of Torah is the Torah of Middos. At the core of middos [that we must fight] are delusion [dimayon] and falsehood [shav], no more. Jealousy, lust and pride - these are fancy terms for concepts that seem to possess substance, but in reality do not. The only reality worth pursuing is the intellect [seichel]. The intellect alone can recognize the true essence of every entity. Only intellect, therefore, can accurately judge how man should conduct himself vis a vis any entity [for more on the Alter's perspective on intellect, see Reb Yaakov p. 48]. A drive born of the middos, however, will only lead to mistakes. A drive is constantly and always mistaken. There is no hope to be saved from a drive's mistake. One who but opens his eyes widely will realize the degradation of that mistake. Then his heart will no longer pursue it..."
[This Slabodker perspective, is developed in one of the Alter's shmuessen that Reb Avrohom Elya transcribed (ibid., p. 233). In that shmuess, the Alter said: "All of creation, except for the intellectual reality that man attains within himself, is insignificant! Concede the truth: All of creation is but the knock that a person in a foyer [prozdor] knocks upon the door of a banquet hall [traklin] so that the door may be opened for him to enter. Does that knock possess any independent value? Does the person who has already entered the hall even recall that he once knocked on the door?!... The essence of reality is, therefore, only the goodness a person toils to pursue and then finds. Everything else is but a fleeting shadow..." The rest of the shmuess resembles the one Reb Avrohom Elya recorded here. After negating the ambitions and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of mankind, that are but pale shadows of the purpose the Torah has set forth for humanity, the Alter concludes: "If so much light may be found in the shadow of a reflection of a reflection, how great is the light concealed [or haganuz] in the concealed light itself!"]
"If anyone wants to disagree, let him come and do so, let him come and prove otherwise!" the Rav calls out to us. He lifts his head, and he looks into our eyes with a gaze that caresses with love and pinches with the strength of perception. You feel him drawing out the complaints and criticisms that you have against his words. His gazes draw all that you think about him. The mail will soon bring these matters to the right address, via the simple route: From your heart to his heart, from his heart to his mouth, from his mouth to your ear, and from your ear once more to your heart, to uproot and to plant, to destroy and to build... Another moment of silence quickly passes. Again he speaks, with strength and hidden love:
"I understand your difficulty... I know what you must be thinking right now. You are amazed that all those matters that stand at the heights of the world, all those ambitions, aspirations and desires for which endless rivers of blood have been spilled for generation upon generation in countless countries, all those middos that prevail among the living... You are amazed: How can we regard these matters, in our four amos, as irreparable broken potsherds, as shadows of no substance? I understand you. I am as amazed as you are, but amazement does not lead to blindness! Truth is truth, even if others disagree! And I, in my understanding (if not in my actions), do not see in any of these desires anything more than fruitless delusion!!" This last statement was expressed with such wonderful strength that it seemed to cut the air to shreds...
Erev Shabbos - immediately after I finished breakfast, I rushed to the Rav's house. After a whole day of unhappy desolation I was hungry for a thoughtful word. I yearned to hear. I cannot explain, even to myself, the meaning of these longings, what they are and from whence they come - but I feel that they emanate from my heart, and are often intense...
The Rav's words that I heard that day were boldly expressed and clearly spoken. It seemed as if they were primarily intended to lift my dark mood. The Rav based his talk upon these words of Chazal: " Blessed is He from whose food we have eaten, and in [u'be'tuvo] whose goodness we live.' Anyone who says from his goodness' [u'me'tuvo] and not in his goodness' - is a boor" (Berachos 50a). Hashem's entire bounty of goodness is compressed into a small loaf of bread. Anyone who sees in the loaf just a part of His goodness is an ignorant, uneducated boor. Just as we know that there is none like our G-d, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and all the Olamos, so we must also know that there is none like our G-d the Creator of a small loaf of bread; both are acts of G-d. Were it not for the Creator, no creature could make such a thing. We must therefore recognize Hashem's entire bounty of goodness in this loaf...
"The Gemara then asks: "Does it not say, and from Your blessing may the house of your servant be blessed' etc.?" The Gemara answers: "A request is different." Rashi explains: When a person makes a request, he asks like a poor beggar standing in the doorway that dares not lift his head to make a large request. If so, how much should he request? If all Hashem's goodness is compressed into one kezayis - what then should a person request for his sustenance? Should he ask for less than a kezayis? Of course not! Rather, man is indeed forced to request for himself all of the Creator of the world's goodness, yet at the same time he makes his request he must feel the great weight of his prayer. [He must be aware of] what he is asking for himself..."
[This Slabodker perspective, mentioned briefly here, is perhaps best expressed in another one of the Alter's shmuessen that Reb Avrohom Elya transcribed (ibid., p. 221). In that shmuess, the Alter discusses Chazal's statement (Bereishis Rabba 10:6-7) that every blade of grass is controlled by a malach that causes it to grow. Man casually walks upon thousands of blades of grass, not considering the great wisdom and transcendent purpose of the thousands of malachim upon which he treads. How uplifted a person should become when he realizes how many malachim were created to serve him! His heart should fill with both the glory of this kedusha and emotions of gratitude for this gift. How can one not be ashamed to enter the sanctuary of kedusha that is this world with soiled shoes and dirty clothes? How is he not embarrassed to be engrossed in frivolities while at the same time making use of the malachim created to facilitate man's destiny? The entire world - from its most general principles to its finest details - serves as a reminder at each step we take to be cognizant of G-d, and, bechol derachecha da'eihu, "In all your paths you shall know Him."
All these many great malachim were created to enable man to develop his spirituality. Man is the "Rebbe", and all the spiritual forces are "talmidim" created to serve him. How terrible it is, when a Rebbe sins in front of his students! Yet at the very moment that the malach of the blade of grass serves the man who treads upon him, the man who is supposed to make use of all the vast spiritual potential underfoot, that great Rebbe involves himself in frivolities and corrupt behavior. This Rebbe suddenly becomes an animal in the eyes of his student, the malach.]
A loaf of bread also contains the great wisdom and transcendent purpose of the thousands of malachim that comprise it. The goodness of Hashem manifest in the bread is another aspect of the great weight involved even in a mundane loaf of bread. The entire creation demands serious consideration, and demands of man that he use its great potential for the right purposes and lishem Shomayim.
The Rav continued on. He began to worry: "What shall we do in our tefillos this coming Rosh haShana?! How can we open our mouths?..." As I stood and listened, my heart felt how authentic his outlooks were. My thoughts followed in the footsteps of his ideas. At that moment, I imagined that I was already belonged entirely to him, that I was completely directed toward all those great and lofty ideals of the Rav's Torah, and that soon I would become... a true Ba'al Mussar...
That Shabbos (Parashas Ki Savo) passed over me quickly, without the emotions I had expected would flow from my longing for the Rav's table, at which I sat for Shalosh Se'udos... I passed Sunday of this week (Nitzavim) in a similar fashion, until evening. That evening another mighty wave came, and again shook my soul...
I came into the yeshiva at the beginning of mussar-seder. In order not to distinguish myself from the tzibbur, I took a sefer from the shelf, and I sat at my place to look into it. As I glanced at it, I immediately saw that it was the sefer "Reishis Chochma". A desire to learn it and immerse myself in one of its sections suddenly filled my heart. All my life I have so intensely loved this holy sefer, this boundless encyclopedia of all the depths of kedusha in the heart; of all the inner heights of tahara; of the thousands upon thousands of Chazals that sparkle in the light of their Torah that penetrates the heart [the next phrase here: "u'bochen kelayos" cannot be translated!]; and of thousands of the Rishonim z"l's comments, each of whose words casts a new light on Torah horizons broader than the ocean... There came to my hand a page from the Sha'ar haKedusha, where he discusses the truth in the heart. "The essence of the matter - is the intent of the heart. Hashem is close to all who call unto Him, to all that call unto Him in truth. The call to us is that our hearts not focus on matters of falsehood. One should worship neither man, nor glory, nor anything else that is in reality just sputtering wind." The pure sefer with its small letters spoke more of this to me. My heart pursued its words. My soul was aroused by the sound of the statements aflame with fervor [eish dos] that my lips pronounced. My spirit blissfully concluded: I shall indeed return from now on. I shall improve my pathways in the future. From this moment I will redirect my thoughts, and purify them for the sake of truth. All of my conduct will be kissed by the directives of the Torah in Hilchos Dei'os and Ma'asim... I thought a great deal along those lines at that hour, and I consoled myself that I would yet do complete teshuva. I forgot all else and remembered only teshuva! ... And I hid my face in the pages of that beloved sefer, like a child in the embrace of his beloved mother, like a child whose cries spilled forth on all that was, and all that chas veshalom was yet to be... In short: Why should I reflect at length on that hour? I can succinctly describe it to myself in two short words: "[I] learnt mussar!..." I then davened Ma'ariv with the tzibbur! With that great and impassioned tzibbur, whose constituents' heads shook as if in a storm, and whose whispered voices cascaded like waters gushing down a waterfall...
Note: I am indebted to Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan for correcting several errors and to Rabbi Yisroel Leichtman for critiquing and editing my translation.