It was a cold winter day in Tzfas as the Ridvaz, Harav Yaakov David Wilowski, made his way into shul. It was his father’s yahrtzeit, and he had come early. He leaned against a shtender, deep in thought, and then began to shed copious tears.
The emotional scene evoked considerable surprise among the other mispallelim, since the Ridvaz was elderly and it had been many years since his father’s passing. One of the older Jews present could not contain his curiosity and approached the Ridvaz for an explanation.
“When I was a child,” the Ridvaz began, “my father was determined that I study under the best melamed in our town. A bricklayer, my father barely earned enough to pay the basic household expenses, and couldn’t put away any money for the melamed. For the first three months the melamed waited for his payment, but finally he notified my father that he too had a family to support, and unless he would be given his due, he could not agree to continue teaching me.
“My mother soaked her sefer Tehillim with her tears,” the Ridvaz continued, “while my father keep on repeating with great agitation, ‘What will be? What will be?”
“Suddenly my father rose from his place and declared, ‘This will not be!’ He left the house; when he returned hours later, he took his tools and painstakingly began to take apart our oven, brick by brick.
“As in many homes at the time, the oven was the only source of heating in the bitter Lithuanian winter.
“When we asked him what he was doing, he said that the wealthy Reb Zundel was about to marry off his daughter, and was renovating the house he had purchased for the new couple. He asked me to get him a brick oven. However, the factory that produces the type of bricks needed for an oven recently closed down, so right now there is no way to obtain these bricks.
“‘I decided to take apart our oven and use the bricks to build an oven for Reb Zundel’s daughter,’ he said resolutely. ‘With the money I will be able to pay the melamed.’
“And that is exactly what he did. The next day I brought the melamed the money.
“‘Yaakov Dovid,’ my father said to me, ‘remember how much we are sacrificing for your learning, and try to learn well.”
“It was a terribly cold winter,” the Ridvaz related emotionally. “We huddled together trying to stay warm, but the piercing cold penetrated our bones. We trembled from the cold, and could hardly fall asleep at night, but my father was satisfied; for him it was all worth it — his son was learning Torah from the best melamed!”
* * *
Many meforshim ponder the question: Why did Hashem arrange it so that Yitzchak should originally intend to give the brachos to Esav, and only by dressing in the clothes of Esav and pretending to be him did Yaakov manage to receive the brachos?
Hagaon Harav Avraham Yaakov Pam zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaas, once said in a shiur that his “heart told him” the following explanation:
When Yaakov feared that the deception would be discovered and he would receive a curse rather than a blessing, his mother Rivkah told him, alai kil’lascha bni — “your curse be on me.”
Rivka knew that she was risking losing both worlds if a tzaddik like Yaakov Avinu would curse the one who sought to fool him. She acted on a sublime level of mesirus nefesh for her beloved son.
The Ribbono Shel Olam knew that Yaakov would suffer for twenty years at the hands of Lavan. He would need a great deal of strength during those difficult years, said Harav Pam, and so Hashem arranged the matter in such a way that his mother’s mesirus nefesh was activated, and its memory would be there for Yaakov Avinu to give him the chizuk to endure.
Though few have as striking an example before them as the father of the Ridvaz taking apart the family oven, many of us can nevertheless look to and draw inspiration from the mesirus nefesh of our parents and grandparents. We must consider where our children will draw their inspiration from in their own avodas Hashem. All of us have opportunities to exhibit mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the day-to-day chinuch of our children. May we be granted the wisdom to do so.