Modeling Bitachon, Creating Worlds: Remembering “Mr. Mendlowitz,” Zt”l

Today is the yahrtzeit of Harav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, the legendary founder of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, Beis Medrash Elyon and Torah Umesorah, who played a key role in the establishment of many other yeshivos and organizations, as well.

When Hagaon Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, took over what would later grow into Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., Rav Shraga Feivel, or “Mr. Mendlowitz,” as he insisted on being called, sent the 10 best bachurim from Torah Vodaath to create a nucleus of talmidim there.

The Maggidei Shiur at Torah Vodaath, understandably concerned about the detrimental effect this would have on their own yeshivah, expressed their concern. Rav Shraga Feivel replied with a chassidic thought:

“The Apta Rav, zy”a, said that if he would be asked whether he wished to change places with Avraham Avinu, he wasn’t sure if he would accept. For what will the Ribbono shel Olam have out of it? He would still have one Avraham Avinu and one Apta Rav. If the Torah is being learned,” Rav Shraga Feivel concluded, “what difference does it make whether it is in Reb Aharon’s yeshivah or in Torah Vodaath?”

Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, described Rav Shraga Feivel as the “father of all [American] bnei Torah in this generation and the coming generations.”

The Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a, said of him, “Reb Feivel planted the first seed of Torah in America, and from this seed everything grew. … Only thanks to this first planting was it possible for those who came later to spread Torah and Yiddishkeit here.”

The Skverer Rebbe, Harav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, zy”a, said that “Reb Feivel created the possibility for yir’ei Hashem to be able to live in this land. If not for his great accomplishments, it would not be permitted for shelomei emunim to live here.”

* * *

When he undertook to establish Mesivta Torah Vodaath, he faced enormous opposition. People told him that it was a crazy dream; that it was impossible to create a yeshivah in America along the lines of the great yeshivos of Europe. With mesirus nefesh he persevered, and accomplished the impossible. Yet despite his towering accomplishments, Rav Mendlowitz’s humility was legendary.

After three years of steady growth, he wanted the Mesivta to reach even higher levels in Torah and avodas Hashem. In his great humility, Rav Mendlowitz decided that it was time to bring in someone else — someone “better” than he, someone who could bring the Mesivta to an even higher level. He invited Harav Moshe Dov Ber Rivkin, zt”l, a noted mechanech from Yerushalayim, to take his place as menahel of the Mesivta he had founded.

(The arrangement lasted only two years, as it soon became obvious that although Rav Rivkin was a master mechanech, Rav Mendlowitz’s absence was sorely felt. Rav Mendlowitz initially refused to come back out of concern for the honor of Rav Rivkin. Eventually a compromise was reached: Rav Rivkin became the Maggid Shiur for the highest level of the Mesivta, and Rav Mendlowitz resumed his position as Menahel.)

* * *

Commenting on the words of the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, zy”a, “If my veins would be cut, Chassidus would flow out instead of blood,” Rav Mendlowitz said of himself, “if my veins would be cut, emunah and bitachon would flow out.”

Rav Avraham Abba Friedman, z”l, a close talmid of Rav Mendlowitz, wondered that his Rebbi, a paragon of humility who fled from any hint of honor and recognition, should make such a statement about himself.

Then he found a comment by Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah to explain it.

In this week’s parashah, the Torah stresses regarding the obligations of a Jewish king “so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren.”

The Shaarei Teshuvah uses the fact that even a king is prohibited from acting haughty, to illustrate the gravity of the sin of arrogance. He quotes Yirmiyahu (9:22-23): “Let not the wise man glorify himself with his wisdom, and let not the strong man glorify himself with his strength, let not the rich man glorify himself with his wealth. For only with this may one glorify himself — contemplating and knowing Me, for I am Hashem.”

Thus, Rabbeinu Yonah explains, the only thing one may [and should] glorify himself with is his bitachon and emunah in Hashem Yisborach, and his love for and cleaving to Him.

Hearing the preternaturally humble Rav Mendlowitz actually speaking of his total identification with these middos, it would seem to be our obligation to fortify ourselves and others by verbalizing our own emunah and bitachon frequently and sincerely.

* * *

With his sublimely elevated level of bitachon, Rav Mendlowitz was able to accomplish what was almost universally considered impossible.

Bitachon is not only for spiritual giants. It is for all of us. It is the key to a happy life, a safeguard against life’s vicissitudes.

A person with true bitachon has no worries about the present or fears for the future. He frets not about his competitor, for he knows that Hashem feeds all His children. He doesn’t get offended no matter how hurtful the other fellow may be, for he trusts that all that happens is for his benefit, and the aggressor is merely a messenger from Shamayim to help erase his sins. He is never alone and never depressed, and serves as a fountain of inspiration for his fellow man.

May we all merit true bitachon.

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