Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Steipler Gaon

Bnei Brak: The city who's chol is kadosh, and who's kadosh is kadosh kadashim.
The Steipler Gaon (1899-1985) was in part responsible for making the Torah city of Bnei Brak the Torah beacon that it is today. Along with the Chazon Ish they settled into Bnei Brak before it was the famed city, and the rays of their Torah and tziddkus (righteousness), in time, attracted the multitudes. The Steipler relocated to Bnei Brak in 1934 from Pinsk, where he was Rosh Yeshiva of Novarodok. The name "Steipler" comes from the Ukranian town of Hornsteipel, where he was born.

Two short stories of the Steipler:

A man and wife who had been living in Bnei Brak had an argument. The man had decided that after many years of work it was time to retire and splurge a bit, and indulge in some of his material desires. He wanted to buy a new car. But not just any new car; the best car on the market; fully loaded; top luxury. His wife was afraid that this would attract undo attention to the car and its owner, and it would then stir up envy on the part of the residents of Bnei Brak. They decided to bring the issue to the Steipler. The husband and wife both presented their case, and the Steipler sat silent for a moment. He asked the man, "are you fluent in all of shas (Talmud)?" The man was a bit surprised, and answered that he was no talmid chacham, and that obviously he was not proficient in all of shas. "Do you know an entire masachta (tractate) in shas?" asked the Steipler. "No," answered the man. "Do you know an entire perek (chapter) of a masechta?" asked the Steipler. By now the man began to fumble his words. ", I..I don't." "Could you lain a single blatt (page) of gemara?" asked the Steipler." "No," said the man. "Buy the car," ordered the Steipler. "Nobody in Bnei Brak is going to be jealous of you."


There was once a young man who was a little bit slow. He had begun looking for a shidduch, and his slowness and lack of breadth in learning did not figure well into this new parsha in his life. He would steig and steig with little success. Years ago he had begun learning the second perek (chapter) of Bava Metzia, eilu metzios. After being taken under the wing of a superior Rebbe he had made it all the way through the perek. This was cause for large celebrations at home and in the beis midrash. But there were those that were not that easy on him. He had gone to a shadchan (matchmaker) for the first time, and the result was a major catastrophe. The shadchan spoke with the boy for about ten minutes. Sensing quickly that he was a bit slow and significantly behind his peers, he asked, "do you even know how to learn??" The young man was taken aback by the insensitivity. When he left the shadchan's apartment he began to cry.

For months the young man confined himself to his room. He became melancholy, and accepted not even his parents as visitors. He even had thoughts of suicide. His parents had become deeply depressed themselves until his father had an idea. He would bring his son to the Steipler in Bnei Brak. Perhaps he could talk to the boy, and give him a few words of chizuk to help him break through his anguish.

Upon meeting the Steipler the young man's father explained the situation. He was asked to wait outside of the room. He left the door cracked open so he could listen in. After all, the Steipler had his son's life in his hands. "What is it that you're good at learning?" asked the Steipler. "It took me years, but I made it through the second perek of Bava Metzia, eilu metzios," answered the boy. But that's in the past. I don't really know how to learn. I'm just not good at it, and everybody knows it." The Steipler looked at him intently in the eye, and answered in a vibrant voice with heavy emotion, "when you learn Bava Metzia Hashem is only listening to you! When you learn Bava Metzia Hashem is not concerned with the shiur in Ponovezh or Mir. Hashem is only listening to you, and you are giving him the greatest joy that any Yid could give his Maker! Keep on learning the second perek of Bava Metzia, and Hashem will be proud!" They young man left the Steipler's office a changed man. About a year later he married, took a job, and in addition to reviewing Bava Metzia, he was able to begin learning a new masechta, with which he succeeded in time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Talking to Hashem

The Klausenberger Rebbe used to tell a story on Pesach: There was a tzaddik (righteous person) who decided one year that he was going to out-due all of his work in previous years in regard to the mitzvah of clearing the house of chometz (leavened bread, which is prohibited on the Passover holiday). His soul was on fire as the month of Adar came to a close and the month of Nissan began. This year he would do all the shopping for food himself. He would bake the matzah by hand, supervising the entire process himself in the matzah factory. He would scrub the floors, clean out the cupboards, and inspect every item in the house down to the last strap and shoelace. He worked until the house was completely clean and chometz-free.

When it came time for the seder meal the man had an unusual feeling of exhilaration. He lowered his spoon into his soup, and gasped. There was a wheat kernel in the soup! This now rendered the soup, the pot it was cooked in, and all of the utensils used for making and serving the soup, unfit. All of those weeks; all of that work for naught. He now had chometz in his home.

Through kabbalistic methods he inquired of the heavens, "how could it happen? How did it come to be?" The answer that came was that a bird had flown over the house, and dropped the kernel of wheat down the chimney. The kernel dropped down straight into the pot of soup that was being cooked underneath. The reason that the man was sent this tiny kernel which disrupted the entire festival? It was because in all of his weeks of preparations he had never asked from a blessing from above. He relied solely on his own efforts.

We could run ourselves ragged in an effort to make an endeavor successful. But we, down below, can only do so much. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes of talking to G-d, and asking for his blessing for our undertaking to be met with success.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bobover Rebbe Baking Matzah

Bobover Rebbe, Reb Shlomo zt"l in the matzah factory on erev Pesach. In the background the chassidim are singing "ani yeshaina v'libi er."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Divrei Chaim's Avodah in D'zikov

Once, Reb Chaim Halberstam, the Divrei Chaim, traveled to see Reb Eliezer of D'zikov. On the way, as he was passing through a certain village, he was recognized, and called into a house to be sandak (G-d-father) at a bris, right there on the spot. He accepted, and was led into the house. The father was very excited by his guest, and during the course of the seudah (celebratory meal), he went down to the cellar to fetch one of his best bottles of aged wine in Reb Chaim's honor. He poured a small cup for Reb Chaim, warning him that it was particularly potent and strong, but Reb Chaim drank cup after cup, after cup. All of the householder's protestations that he cease drinking for his own good went unheeded until Reb Chaim finished the entire bottle of wine. He begged Reb Chaim not to travel to D'zikov in his condition, but rather to sleep off some of the wine at his home. Reb Chaim payed his words no heed, and immediately resumed his journey.

When he reached D'zikov he decided to stop by his achsanya (host) before meeting Reb Eliezer. He was at least able to recognize that in his inebriated state he would not be able to meet with Reb Eliezer in holiness and purity, and so he sent his shamash (attendant) to the home of Reb Eliezer to explain that he had been to a seudas bris, had drank too much wine and so on, and that it was now difficult for him to come right away upon entering the city. When Reb Eliezer heard these words he immediately got up, and went out to greet Reb Chaim at the home of his achsanya. After a cordial meeting, Reb Chaim offered to accompany Reb Eliezer back to his home. He would not have it any other way. Reb Chaim's shamash then went back to sleep by the achsanya. But it occurred to him that it may have not been the best idea to leave him alone with Reb Eliezer in this situation. After all, Reb Eliezer was old and weak, as well. He hurried to the house, but before he got to the door, he saw Reb Eliezer hanging out of the window, gesturing to him to go back to the achsanya.

It was morning, and as the shamash returned to the home, he caught eye of Reb Chaim reciting krias shema (prayer proclaiming the name of G-d as One) by the mezuzah. Said Reb Eliezer to the shamash: "certainly, you think that he's reciting krias shema of shacharis (morning prayer). That's not the case. Rather, last night he began reciting krias shema al hamitah (the shema before bed), and he's still on the pasuk Shema Yisrael (the initial verse)." Reb Eliezer - or anyone else hearing this story presumably - could not believe that after drinking an entire bottle of strong wine, he had the strength to stand six hours on the first pasuk of krias shema!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bobov Purim Night Tish 2011

I taped this on Purim night at Bobov. The tish during the day is about ten times as big as this.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Groping in the Light

This morning we read: "Lo seva'aru eish b'chol moshvoseichem b'yom haShabbas. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath (Vayikra 35:3)." And so, the following mai'sah of Reb Nachum of Chernobyl.

Reb Nachum was a guest of the father of Reb Moshe of Savran for shabbos. It was the custom of the household to light a long candle before sunset so that if anyone wanted to learn before daybreak he could do so by light. A little after midnight, those in the house were awoken by a noise. They got out of their beds to see Reb Nachum groping as if it were pitch dark. Afraid that he was going to hurt himself, they asked if there was any trouble. He asked why the overnight candle had not been lit. Those around him were astonished, but later found out that the candle had gone out at some point, and had been re-lit by the non-Jewish maid. And since the candle had been lit on shabbos the tzaddik was not able to see its light.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rav Shimon Shkop in Montreal

Rav Shimon Shkop (1860-1939) was the outstanding Rosh Yeshiva of yeshivos Telz and Grodno. Based on the talmudic methods of his mentors, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and the Netziv, he synthesized his own method resulting in the deep and penetrating analysis of Rav Chaim with the straightforwardness and clarity of the Netziv. He embarked on fund-raising assignments for the yeshivos in England, Canada (as we shall see), and the United States. While in the States he stopped by Yeshiva University to deliver a lecture. He was so well received that he was asked to come onto the faculty as Rosh Yeshiva. After repeated attempts to get him to relocate to the States he finally acceded in 1928, and did in fact become Rosh Yeshiva of YU Rav Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary (this is what they don't want you to know!). He did though return to Europe after heavy criticism from leading Rabbonim. Rav Zelig Epstein, a grandson-in-law, later succeeded him as Rosh Yeshiva Grodno in the American branch of the yeshiva (which happens to be right around the block from where I am sitting and typing these words). Rav Zelig Epstien was niftar two years ago.

Rav Shimon Shkop (L) with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (R)

Rav Shimon Shkop had traveled to Montreal to raise money for the yeshiva. He stayed at the home of a certain wealthy man, who was known for his generous contributions to worthwhile causes. When he arrived on this particular occasion he found his usually magnanimous host in joylessness and frustration. He had conveyed to Rav Shkop that great trouble had loomed for him and his family. As his family grew it became apparent that more room was needed for the children and more space was also needed for a larger meeting hall for community activities which the man hosted on a weekly basis. An addition was built onto the side of the house, but it was found out later that the addition extended a total of one foot onto the neighbor's property, a very petty amount considering that both him and his neighbor had ample property to begin with. The problem was that a malcontent kvetcher lived next door, and demanded that something be done about the extension. But it wasn't just "something" that she was after. Under Canadian law at the time, if an extension had been built onto another person's property, purposely or inadvertently, the law said that the encroached-upon property's owner had the right to tear down the entire house of the neighbor, and not merely the addition. And this was the case with the kvetcher. She demanded that the entire house be demolished. Rav Shkop's host and his lawyer first fought with the old woman. They screamed and they yelled. He then tried entreating her, but she was not moved. He brought her flowers, then chocolates, and increasingly lavish gifts. And then their was more yelling.

Finally, upon Rav Shkop's visit, he asked him for an eitza (advice). Surely, Rav Shkop could think up some sort of solution. And this is what Rav Shkop had to say: "Go to shul. Go as quickly as possible the next time the Torah will be taken out. Make sure you're called up for an aliyah (to be called up to the Torah to make a blessing). Afterward, go with your lawyer to speak with the woman one more time." Was that all? Would getting an aliyah save his house from being demolished? The next morning, Monday, he went to shul, and requested an aliyah from the gabbai. He called his lawyer after minyan, and the two rushed to the stubborn woman's house next door. And the man said to her, pleadingly, "this is the last time; I promise you that this is the last time I will bother you about the house. Please, PLEASE don't let the city tear down my home. It's only one foot of land. I'll cut away at the extension if you would like, but please not the entire home." The woman, now confused, looked him in the eye, and said, "tear down your house? Why would I want to tear down your house? Who would be such a miserable person to tear down a neighbor's entire home over a disputed foot of land? Please do as you like. It's all right by me." The man and his lawyer were flabbergasted. They offered the woman a polite "thank you" and practically tip-toed out of the house in fear that she might regain her senses and retract her words.

The two, elated, went back to Rav Shko Rav Shkop for some clarity. After all, the woman had been adamant for months about tearing down the house. It just didn't make any sense. Rav Shkop explained, "it is brought down in the mishna berurah that the person getting an aliyah should follow along with the ba'al koreh (Torah reader) by actually looking down onto the claf (parchment). One should also look into the Torah, close enough that he sees the osiyos (letters) during hagbah (the lifting of the Torah). During an aliyah, however, he sees the osiyos up close, and this brings him a special zechus. In addition, there is a special light that emanates from the Torah, and when one looks into the Torah he becomes infused with this light. You went to the woman's house almost directly after becoming infused with this light, and when she looked into your face, the radiance of the light touched her soul, and this woman who was formerly irrational, unreasonable, foolish and absurd, now became levelheaded, sensible, reasonable and decent. And this is how she came to change her mind."

This story became famous throughout the Jewish community of Montreal, and also among the family of Rav Shkop. The story is still told today by members of the family of Rav Zelig Epstein and other grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Rav Shkop.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The genius of Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein, the great gaon and posek of the 20th Century, was the decider of many sheilos (questions regarding Jewish law), many being questions warranted by the new technology as it emerged in modern times, and others relating to modern issues in American life. On one occasion, a not-too-religious father approached him at home regarding his son's possible college education. The story goes as follows:

The man and his wife dragged their son to the home of Rav Moshe so that he would convince their son that college was the next logical step in his life. The boy had attended yeshiva up until the end of high school, and now wished nothing more than to continue on with his yeshiva education. The father sat down at the table, leaned in to Rav Moshe, and said in a hard voice, "my son wants to go to yeshiva, but my wife and I want him to go to college. Now, I'm going to prove to You Rabbi from YOUR Torah that he goes to college. First of all, it says in YOUR Torah that majority rules, correct?" "Correct," said Rav Moshe. "Second, it says that each person has three partners in life: His mother, his father, and G-d. Correct?" "Yes." "Well let us make you G-d, Rabbi Feinstein, in this little arrangement. Taking my son's three partners into account, I say he goes to college, my wife says he goes to college, and you obviously say that he goes to yeshiva. That's two against one! We win. He goes to college!"

Rav Moshe thought for a second, and said, "you are absolutely right. Each person is made up of three partners, his mother, his father, and G-d. That means that I have three partners, you have three partners and your wife has three partners. Your mother and father say he goes to college, and G-d says he goes to yeshiva. That's two against one. Your wife's parents say that he goes to college, and G-d says that he goes to yeshiva. That's four against two. Now, my mother, my father and G-d all say that he goes to yeshiva. That's five against four in our favor. We win. He goes to yeshiva." The man looked at Rav Moshe squarely in the face, and said emphatically, "If THAT is what he is going to learn in yeshiva, then he is going to yeshiva."

And the matter was cleared up in just under ten minutes.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Famous Births Part I - Ba'al Shem Tov and the Divrei Chaim

The story of the birth of the Ba'al Shem Tov is taken from an earlier post on the subject of hachnasas orchim (hospitality to guests).

Reb Eliezer, father of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was known for the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. He would go so far as to send out emissaries to the town's crossroads, in order to see if anybody passing through might need a meal or refreshments, or even a place to stay for the night. He was also known for giving out money to travelers for provisions for the road. His actions were so great that his name became known up above. It was decided that he would be put to the ultimate test. The Satan immediately came forward and volunteered to carry out this test. But Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) said that it would be more proper for he himself to go down to this world. And so it was.

One day on shabbos, Reb Eliezer got a knock on the door. He opened it to find a disheveled and slightly confused-looking man holding a sack over his back with a walking stick in hand. He was clearly being mechalel shabbos (desecrating the Sabbath). But Reb Eliezer promptly invited him in, prepared the third meal of shabbos for him to eat, and did not say one word to put him to shame. After shabbos he lavished him with a melavah malkah (meal that symbolizes taking leave of shabbos), and the man ate his fill. In the morning, Reb Eliezer gave the man some money for his upkeep, and escorted him to the door. Walking over the threshold he turned back to Reb Eliezer, and said, "you should know that I am Eliyahu HaNavi, and I have come down to give you a test. You did not make me feel ashamed, and due to this, you have been found worthy to beget a son who will illuminate the eyes of all of Israel." The blessing was subsequently fulfilled, and Reb Eliezer's wife gave birth to a baby boy within the year. Little did they know just how much light and fire he would bring to Israel and just how far it would spread.

The father of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, Reb Leibush of Ternigrad, often visited Reb Moshe of Pshevorsk. On one of his visits the daughter of Reb Moshe, who was a mature twelve year-old, passed by the kitchen where the two gaonim were standing. Reb Moshe jumped backwards as she passed, and needed a second to catch his breath. His preeshus (separation from earthly things) was so great that he did not even recognize his own daughter (he, like many tzaddikim, went to great lengths to guard their eyes from temptation, especially from the sight of women, although not recognizing one's daughter is beyond the call). He did not even know her age. The Rebbetzin looked at him incredulously, and asked, "is this not our own daughter?" Answered Reb Moshe: "If we have a daughter that is already that age then we need such and such an amount of money to marry her off." Reb Leibush was standing with a small sack of money in his hands. He had planned on traveling to Danzig for business after he took leave of Reb Moshe, but when he heard Reb Moshe's words, he simply handed over the package of money. Reb Moshe, astonished at this gesture, knew not what to say or how to respond to such generosity, so he bentched Reb Leibush "b'zera shel kodesh," and said, "may you have a son that will illuminate the world," because up until that point he had no boys. The beracha came to fruition, and soon after was born the Divrei Chaim.

Have you ever heard a story of such preeshus as describe above involving Reb Moshe?

This is a bit of a different matter, but it reminds me of the story of a Rebbe who was walking with his gabbai (attendant), when the gabbai jumped back, and did a little dance. The Rebbe asked what the matter was, and the gabbai responded, "I bumped into a poll, but I thought it was a woman!" The Rebbe said, "Fool! When you bump into a woman you're supposed to think that it's a poll."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reb Nachum of Chernobyl and the Mountain Jews

Reb Nachum of Chernobyl, founding Chernobyler Rebbe, was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. Early on, the Maggid told Reb Nachum to become a maggid himself (preacher; someone who goes around rousing people to repentance), and travel to off-the-beaten-path communities to provide inspiration and hope to downtrodden Jews.

During his travels, Reb Nachum happened upon a small community in an even smaller town. As was his custom, he would go to the town square, and announce himself. "I am a traveling salesman. I have needles, in case anyone needs prodding. I have perfumes if anyone needs to be uplifted. And I have soothing balms for the soul." He would then tell the townsfolk to assemble in the shul at a particular time so that he could preach inspirational words. Next to this particular community stood a mountain. The townspeople informed Reb Nachum that there was a small community of Jews up top, just a few minyanim (quorums) worth of Jews, but it was no easy feat getting up the mountain. They were a community of woodcutters and lumberjacks. There was also an elderly affluent man who lived atop the mountain, not because he particularly wanted to live there, but because he had a lung disease, and the fresh mountain air was good for his health.

Reb Nachum resolved to make his way up the fairly steep hill. Atop the mountain he found the local shul, pulled out a sefer (religious book), and waited until the people assembled for mincha (afternoon prayer). Nobody came for mincha, nor did anyone show up for maariv (evening prayer). He went for a walk, and bumped into a Jew. Upon inquiring as to why nobody in the community davened mincha or maariv, he was told, "you know, it's tough for a Jew to make a living. Nobody really has the time to daven daily. And besides, when we do daven, we do so at the old man's house. He has trouble making his way to the shul, so we assemble in his house on particular days of the week." Reb Nachum, frustrated, began to walk around. Word got out to the community that this was Reb Nachum of Chernobyl who was gracing their town. Various people vied for the honor of having Reb Nachum spend the night at their home, and after some debate, a host was chosen.

It was arranged that Reb Nachum would daven with the minyan in the old man's house in the morning. He awoke early, and asked his host to direct him to the mikveh (ritual bath). "The know Rebbe" said his host sheepishly. "What's the problem?" asked Reb Nachum. "Well," said his host, now stammering, "we..we don't have a mikveh. You see, at one point we wanted to build a mikveh, so we got craftsmen from the next town to give us an estimate. It came out to 300 gold coins, and we can't afford anything near that price. You know how it is. They would have to dig very deep being that we're on top of a mountain." Reb Nachum was dumbfounded. After shacharis at the old man's house he stood up, and announced that the entire community should meet at the shul at such and such a time. "Everyone," said Reb Nachum. "That includes men, women and children."

When everyone was assembled later that day, Reb Nachum took the podium. A few minutes into his speech the small crowd was aghast. The Rebbe was extolling his own virtues. He delved into each period of his life; how when he was a child his father taught him how to daven, and how he cultivated his avodah (worship) to celestial heights over the years; how he began learning at a very young age, and how people were amazed at his precociousness; how well he excelled in the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit... Why would the Rebbe talk about himself with haughtiness, they wondered! When he was finished speaking, he said, "and all of the zechus (merit) that I have amassed up until this point, the entire bounty of my reward for all endeavors and successes I have just enumerated; my entire chelek in olam habah (portion in the world to come) I am willing to sell right now to the highest bidder. This means an actual kinyan, a sale, with a written contract. Somebody make me an offer." The old man stood up. "I am willing to buy all that you have acquired up until this point for 100 gold coins." Reb Nachum, like a seasoned salesman, said, "100 gold coins? I don't think so. You're going to have to do a lot better than that." "150...175...200 gold coins." "That's not good enough," said Reb Nachum. "225, 250 cold coins," said the old man. "And that's my final offer." Reb Nachum said that this would just not due. He would not sell his zechusim for under 300 gold coins. The old man stood up, once again. "Rebbe, as you know I am an affluent man. I have my share of wealth. But I don't have 300 gold coins." Reb Nachum stayed firm. "Take it or leave it." The old man stood with his head downcast contemplating just what this acquisition would mean: A life of mediocrity replaced by one of infinite virtue; a free pass on the Day of Judgment due to a lifetime of good deeds. And so he raised his head high. "OK Rebbe, I will pay 300 gold coins." The crowd assembled around the old man to wish him mazel tov, and to share in his new-found joy.

Later in the day, the two wrote up a contract, and counted out the gold coins. Reb Nachum left with the money, and went over to the community leaders. "Here, go call the craftsmen from the next town, and build yourself a mikveh. NO Jewish community should be without a mikveh."

Later, some of the men came up to Reb Nachum, and questioned how his countenance shined with joy at the completion of the sale in the shul. "Rebbe, you lost everything you've worked for up until now. You've lost all of your zechus. And you're still besimcha." And Reb Nachum answered, "you see, up until this point in my life I've always suspected that I've had an ulterior motive when performing a mitzvah. I've never been quite comfortable with myself. But now, for the first time, I know for sure that I did a mitzvah lishmah (for the sake of doing the mitzvah). The community was lacking a mikveh, and I am helping them get one. By giving away my zechus for the sake of the mitzvah there is no way that I could have had an ulterior motive this time. I have given away that which I would have wanted to gain from a mitzvah, namely zechus. And aside from performing this mitzvah, now I get to start over with a clean slate."

The chassidim used to tell that shortly after this incident took place he heard a voice: "Don't worry Nachum. You didn't lose anything." Not that the old man didn't get his share, but rather they both got Reb Nachum's complete share.