In honor of the first yahrtzeit of the Novominsker Rebbe, zt”l, on 13 Nisan, Hamodia interviews his sons, the Novominsker Rebbes Harav Yisrael, shlita, and Harav Yehoshua, shlita
A challenging year has passed since the petirah of the Rebbe, zt”l, which happened at the onset of the terrible mageifah during which many hundreds of Torah Yidden were korbanos, including Torah leaders and askanim. The klal was affected, and every yachid was affected in some way. With his last kochos, the Rebbe delivered a powerful message of chizuk shortly before his petirah. Is it possible once again to expound a bit on that message of chizuk as it applies to our current situation?
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: The main two points of the letter were points that permeated the Rebbe’s life, especially in the last tekufah, but really his entire life. The first point, which he was tovei’a (demanded) from himself as well as from everybody, was an aliyah in avodas Hashem, whether in Torah or yiras Shamayim, and dikduk bemitzvos.
At the same time as working on oneself, my father included a second point, which was including oneself in the tzaar, the pain and suffering of Klal Yisrael. He wanted us to view ourselves as part of Klal Yisrael, which was the prime force in his muhning (demanding) gemilus chessed, feeling close to and helping another Yid. He emphasized feeling the tzaar that people had gone through, whether in refuah or parnassah, and using that as an impetus to be gomel chessed with one another.
The Rebbe wanted two points at the same time: to grow in one’s own avodas Hashem, in Torah, yirah and kiyum hamitzvos, and to feel for other Yidden. That really was the yesod of his entire life.
In the aftermath of corona, do you think he would implement any systematic changes in Klal Yisrael to move forward, and grow from this challenge that hit us so hard physically, spiritually and emotionally?
Harav Yisrael, shlita: Chizuk. The Rebbe’s basic suggestion was always to “live more with the Ribbono shel Olam.” He urged everyone to make gashmiyus take up less of a place in our lives.
He would say that geshmak is an important word in Yiddishkeit, maybe the most important. The Rebbe tried to prevail on Yidden to make our taanug, our delight, in ruchniyus, and live in a less materialistic way. It bothered him when he saw Yidden living megushamdig. We need to internalize that ein od milvado, and to change from gashmiyus to ruchniyus.
My father used to say that both the driver and the passenger are riding in the same car, but the driver controls the journey, and the passenger is just along for the ride. He would say that each person has a guf and a neshamah, a physical body and a soul. “Make sure neshamah is in the driver’s seat, and not guf,” he often said.
Hashem does not give any nisayon that we cannot grow from. People must view a nisayon not as obstacles to our growth, but rather as a challenge to their growth. If we live with emunah, the shverekeiten (difficulties) are opportunities for growth.
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: I never heard my father say, “Dos meint men, dos darf men tuhn — This is the meaning of what happened; this is what we must do.” He was from the old school; he always felt that each individual knows what to do to perfect his individual life, and that in turn perfects the klal.
It was quite well known that the Rebbe always looked at Yidden as one, as it was ragil al leshono, he often mentioned the words of the Noam Elimelech, “beshem kol Yisrael.” Yet when it came to lemaaseh, what the Rebbe was toveia, he looked at every person as an individual. I do not recall that my father was toveia one particular thing from the entire Klal Yisrael; every individual has to improve himself. He used the passuk in Mishlei (14:10) “lev yodeia maras nafsho — the heart of a person knows the bitterness of his soul.” Every person has his individual nekudah that he has to better and work on. And that will automatically be a zechus for the klal.
That was my father’s general approach. People are not unconnected individuals; we are all part of Klal Yisrael, but the betterment of each individual is a betterment of the entire Klal Yisrael. That was his outlook on things.
In his later years, one of the Rebbe’s major messages was to be mishtatef betzaaran shel Yisrael, to join in the collective pain of Klal Yisrael. His backing of Project Witness, which teaches about what occurred to our nation during World War II, was based on his feeling that a Yid must empathize with other Yidden, and to consider yourself part of the klal.
However, when it came lemaaseh, the Rebbe’s approach was, “Do what you have to do.”
The Rebbe, zt”l, was a Rebbe, a Rosh Yeshivah, served as Rosh Agudas Yisroel, a prominent member of the Vaad of Torah Umesorah, and was also involved in leadership of many other communal issues, including myriad acts of gemilus chassadim. How did the Rebbe balance his time and attention to lead Klal Yisrael in so many areas? How did the Rebbe view his role in each of those areas?
Harav Yisrael, shlita: The common denominator was that my father felt an achrayus. Of course, he did gib zich up with yechidim, he gave of his time for individuals, but he also felt an achrayus to the klal. He felt that these organizations, the Agudah, Torah Umesorah, do an indispensable service for Klal Yisrael. They were the face of the tzibbur, and certain things have to be done with the koach hatzibbur, so he gave of his time for them. My father did not enjoy it; b’feirush nisht. He enjoyed sitting by the Gemara and learning; that was his geshmak. It was done out of a sense of responsibility.
How did my father balance all those endeavors? He was a disciplined person; now is the time to do this, and now is the time to do that. As with the flick of a switch, he had the ability to block out distractions because he did it out of a sense of achrayus, and not because he enjoyed it. Toward the end of his life, he woke up very early each morning and learned for many hours before davening. This gave him menuchas hanefesh. He did not learn with a chavrusa, but his writing was his motivation; that was his “chavrusa.” The velt says “knei lecha chaver” can be interpreted to mean your kaneh, your pen, shall be your chaver, and that is what he did: He learned through his writing.
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: As by all Gedolei Yisrael, my father’s beginning was totally limud haTorah. It was his yesod and what he enjoyed doing most. He had a tremendous dedication for it, and he once exclaimed, “Ich hub gornisht gelerent heint — I haven’t learned anything today.” That was the basis of his existence.
But my father did have a way of putting everything on the side and compartmentalizing it. When he sat down with the Gemara, he was able to focus on the Gemara. He had a nature of being able to fight for what he needed. He fought like a lion to be a ben Torah; ehr hut zich gerissen. That’s what he did most, and what he enjoyed most.
At the same time, he felt a sense of achrayus to get involved. As the velt says, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” When the Rebbe became Rosh Agudas Yisroel, he did it with trepidation. Whatever he felt was important and he decided that he must do it, he took it upon himself completely. He did not take it as a kavod, but rather as an achrayus. Whatever he felt was his responsibility at that given moment, he did. I don’t think he made chesbonos; indeed, I think it was a lack of making cheshbonos that allowed him to do what he was able to do. He did not work it out; he just did what had to be done.
I said in my hesped that the words of the Mesilas Yesharim (Perek 1), “sheyisbarer v’yisameis eitzel haadam mah chovaso ba’olamo — that it should be clear and truthful for a person what his obligation is in this world,” were my father’s driving force. I later saw that he used frequently that lashon himself. “What am I mechuyav to do right now?”
Besides speaking for yechidim, he often assumed the role of the spokesman for Klal Yisrael. How did he view that role?
Harav Yisrael, shlita: I would venture to say the Ribbono shel Olam gave the Rebbe a certain koach of behirus, of clarity, in expressing the daas haTorah. The passuk in Yeshaya (50:4) says, “Hashem nassan li leshon limudim — Hashem gave a mouth which has the ability to teach.” I guess the Rebbe realized that he was given that ability, and felt it was his achrayus to use it when he was asked to. Not everyone has that kishron of expressing the daas haTorah in a way which it will be niskabel even for people who didn’t identify with it, not in a manner in which it is being shoved down people’s throats. At the same time, he would deliver it without diluting the truth. He had that koach, being niskabel without diluting. Perhaps it was a special matanah from the Eibershter, and his achrayus was to use these matanos for the service of Klal Yisrael.
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: The Rebbe spoke to Klal Yisrael, and if he felt the achrayus to speak was thrust on him, then it was his achrayus to do his best. If he felt he was responsible for something, he took it with a tremendous seriousness.
In the early years, the drashos were perhaps more specific messages. But most of the Rebbe’s drashos in the later years were “hu hayah omer,” they were drashos from his heart, “vos ligt mir oifn hartz.” This is the way he spoke, regardless if it was to melamdim at a Torah Umesorah convention or baalei battim at the Agudah convention.
The Rebbe, zt”l, had a special affinity for Eretz Yisrael. When he visited and got together with alumni of his yeshivah, he was noticeably enlivened by the experience. What were the roots of this connection, and how did it play out?
Harav Yisrael, shlita: My father was not mesiach daas from Eretz Yisrael. He spoke about Eretz Yisrael before tekias shofar, how we must daven for the Yidden living there. Indeed, at the Siyum HaShas, he addressed the non-religious Yidden in Eretz Yisrael and declared, “You, too, are the Am Hashem!” That left a great rosham on me.
In general, the Rebbe’s feelings for other Yidden were so powerful that at times he had difficulty restraining himself. When he davened for the amud on the Yamim Nora’im, there were certain parts of davening which reminded him of his father, and he endeavored to control himself, not to let it overtake him. But when he reached the parts which spoke about Klal Yisrael, he let loose and all his emotions were revealed. This is something that I’m not sure if others were aware of, but I knew.
On a trip to Eretz Yisrael, my father went one time to the yishuv of Komemiyus in order to work on the land. Before he began, er hut gechapt that he was about to do something lofty, so he quickly put on his gartel. He had such a chavivus. It reminds me of the Gemara in Brachos (43a), “Bar minei d’Rabi Yehudah, de’chavivah lei Eretz Yisrael — Rabi Yehudah is an exception, because he had an affinity to Eretz Yisrael.”
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: Generally, my father had a special feeling for Eretz Yisrael. I remember when he returned from Eretz Yisrael for the first time, when my zeide took him along 1969. For weeks afterward, he spoke about Eretz Yisrael. One story he told epitomizes his feelings about Eretz Yisrael. One Erev Shabbos, a taxi was taking them somewhere and it was taking longer than expected. The driver got a bit frustrated and excitedly said, “Gam etzli Shabbat hayom — For me, too, it will be Shabbos today!” This was from a simple taxi driver.
The Rebbe had a special relationship with the community in Washington Heights, where he was Rosh Yeshivah for a number of years. He kept up his relationship long after he moved away, and in fact, it has been reported that close to his petirah he took out time to say a shiur for them. Can you describe that relationship and why the Rebbe felt so close to them?
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: Initially, a lot had to do with the Rebbe’s feeling that there was a great degree of hashgachah pratis shown to that kehillah. It was the only kehillah from Germany that reestablished themselves here in America. Thus, the kesher he had with them came from a Klal Yisrael blik. He felt Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch saved Klal Yisrael; he saw the big picture.
Afterward, it became an emotional attachment. He liked the yashrus of the people, and he had gevaldige respect for them. There was a mutual feeling; the Rebbe gave them their chashivus, he told them who they are, how special they are. That was his way of being mechazek them. They reciprocated, and it became a bakavodig yachas between them. The Rebbe was machshiv them for who they were, and they responded k’mayim panim el panim.
Harav Yisrael, shlita: L’shvacham, to their credit, they are big baalei derech eretz, they are machshiv a talmid chacham, and my father was machshiv their mesorah and they recognized it. My father started a weekly Chumash shiur which continued for over 50 years. In the later years, when his time was consumed by klal inyanim, he only gave the shiur before Yom Tov. Over the years, he was meromem them. My father established a kollel, something they never had before. All the Rabbanim were machshiv him. He did not look down at them, never indicated that “our way is different.” They appreciated it, and the kesher lasted.
What was the Rebbe’s unique vision for a talmid? For a baal habayis?
Harav Yisrael, shlita: The Rebbe did not have a unique vision; he was a unique personality. As far as his vision, it was like all talmidei chachamim and Gedolei Yisrael, like everyone else. It was unique in the sense that he would say, “Tefillin must be from one skin, or echad. Ah mentch darf nisht zein mei’or echad.” The Rebbe was a combination of different traditions, whether it was mesores avos, his yeshivah where he learned, and in that sense he was unique in that he combined them into his personality.
But in his message to the tzibbur, I would not say that my father was unique. Perhaps he stressed certain things that were not always stressed, like kvod Shamayim, or maybe he underscored having an achrayus towards Klal Yisrael. But his message for talmidim was the same message as all Roshei Yeshivos give over. A hadgashah on Torah, yiras Shamayim, and on middos tovos.
My father never looked at his yeshivah as being unique. He felt moiredige hakaras hatov to the Ribbono shel Olam for giving him siyatta diShmaya in the hatzlachah of the yeshivah. He wouldn’t stop talking about it, but in the context of all yeshivos. Perhaps it filtered down a certain appreciation of not looking down on any chugim. By the annual yeshivah dinner they say, “You can hear the Beis Halevi and Kedushas Levi b’neshimah achas — in one breath.” It’s true, but not only in learning. They can hear a vort from the Chiddushei Harim and Alter fuhn Slabodka, and the bachurim take it with the same chashivus, it’s not considered muhdene, b’ofen klali, although some Maggidei Shiur are from a certain background and may be madgish one over the other. It that sense perhaps unique.
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: For a talmid, the Rebbe stressed to be a ben Torah, a lomed Torah. One of the phrases he used was “ehrnsteh Yidden,” to have a serious approach. “What am I doing? Why am I doing it?? A mitzvah, a Yom Tov, take it seriously (although my father was a freiliche mentch). He was toveiah to take it seriously.
For a baal habayis, I would say that someone who was koveiah itim laTorah but at the same time was osek betzarchei tzibbur b’emunah, with an ehrlichkeit, that by him had a big chashivus. The Rebbe liked someone who did not live for himself. A person who lived just for himself wasn’t tofes makom. Whether it was chessed, tzarchei tzibbur, different ways, that was a davar chashuv. I think that’s why the baalei battim of Agudas Yisroel had a chashivus by him.
A unique aspect of the Rebbe’s leadership was that he successfully meshed the world of Chassidus of his roots together with the olam hayeshivos. What was his secret? Who were his mentors, other than his own father, zy”a?
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: My father’s Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, had a big hashpaah on him, as he noted in the introduction to his sefer. Rav Hutner gave him great chizuk, and opened his eyes to remain in learning. He opened his eyes to the words of the Maharal, as well, and the Maharal was a major figure in his life. People can understand divrei Torah l’fi the Maharal. Besides Rav Hutner and his father, Harav Yaakov Moshe Shurkin, zt”l, and, ybl”c, Harav Aharon Soloveichik had hashpaah on my father’s learning in his younger years. But essentially, he was an original.
The Rebbe was a mizug of the Chiddushei Harim, and before Kabbalas Shabbos he learned Chiddushei Harim, and would say, “My Rebbe in Olam ha’Elyon will be the Chiddushei Harim.” He felt the Chiddushei Harim was his connection to the Kotzker.
The Rebbe never knew his grandfathers, but he lived with the frierdiger doros. His father’s father was a Rebbe, an oved Hashem; his dmus was before him all the time. His mother’s father the Sokolover, who was a manhig b’tzibbur in a different way. His personal avodas Hashem was fashioned after his paternal zeide. But his veltlichkeit was rooted in the Sokolover.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I would drive my father to kever of his father. Generally, he didn’t talk much in the car, but once he said, “Di tzeit fuhn yahr ver ich tzubruchen. Far vos? (This time of year I become disheartened. Why?)” He had heard from his father the avodas Hashem of his zeide, who davened long tefillos and said Torah for hours on end. The zeide talked about it, and my father absorbed it. “Vos fahr a shaychus hub ich tzu dem?” he would say. All year round, he was more of a Rosh Yeshivah than a Rebbe. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he was Rebbe. He davened for the amud, and he felt a teviah of not reaching the level of his ancestors.
After the Rebbe’s petirah, it was revealed that quietly, behind the scenes, he played a vital role in establishing TAG offices in Boro Park and Lakewood. The misuse of technology remains a very serious threat. What words of chizuk can the Rebbes, shlita, give to those who are struggling with this issue, and to the askanim trying to assist them?
Harav Yisrael, shlita: The Rebbe felt strongly about nisayon of technology, and there was a tekufah when he spoke constantly about it. In the last tekufah, he was asked to help out both TAG in Boro Park and Lakewood. Both organizations needed to acquire buildings, and Boro Park TAG wanted a certain philanthropist to donate the use of his building for the organization. My father traveled to the country to meet with him in his summer home, and it was a big shlep. But he made the pitch, and the owner gave them use of the building. My father felt it was important and did what he had to do.
The acquisition of the Boro Park building was a one-time thing. TAG of Lakewood had to purchase a building, and Rabbi Nechemia Gottlieb asked him to make telephone calls to help raise the down payment. At times, due to his exhaustion, the Rebbe fell asleep on them, but he pushed himself, and they raised the funds for the down payment. He said, “Men darf zechusim.” He was machshiv what they did.
Before the internet asifah at Citi Field, the Rebbe worked hard to get all the Roshei Yeshivah and Rabbanim on board. Harav Mattisyahu Salomon was in charge, and my father deferred to him, and said he would do whatever was asked of him. He stood behind him, and they got all to join. He did not stand on ceremony. At the Agudah convention he took the lead because that was his place. But here, it was Rav Mattisyahu’s endeavor, and he helped in the background.
The nisayon of the internet is different from the one we had decades ago with tv. For that, we were able to tell the olam haTorah it was treif. Concerning the internet, it is often needed for business. People wonder, “For this it is kosher and not for that?” It is a difficult situation; its use is a bedi’eved shebedi’eved.
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: In the end, we are going to win the war because the Eibershter is on our side. It is a difficult baal davar, but tzad hakedushah is on our side. We can’t underestimate it; we must daven for ourselves and for others to overcome it.
My father felt it is a terrible klipah that can lead to she’ol tachtis. We must make people aware, to recognize the ra, to know your enemy. Mir darfen kemfen. It is different from years ago when our nisayon was concerning emunah. Everyone should know what Hashem wants, and there are no two ways about it.
The Rebbe often encouraged or demanded from Rebbeim that they deal with the weaker talmidim, and they show them recognition for their achievements. Where did this concern come from?
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: The Rebbe was a Maggid Shiur on all levels. He taught elementary school and mesivta; he was not just a Rosh Yeshivah. He felt an achrayus for talmidim, and he had an understanding of them. That’s where it came from.
My father would stress to me that a bachur has to feel that you care about him. That was the alef-beis of a melamed. He also had a special-needs child, and he spoke openly about it, which was a chiddush at the time.
For this reason and others, he stressed that they succeed on their own level, since they are part of Klal Yisrael, part of the shishim ribui.
Harav Yisrael, shlita: Part of it came from the Rebbe’s daas Torah, that it’s the right thing to do. In addition, in a certain sense he was liban shel Yisrael. He had a hartz fahr Yidden. The Ribbono shel Olam was chonen him with a hargashah of liebshaft for Yidden. The Rebbe channeled it to be sensitive to the pain of people who didn’t make it. When people would giss ois der hartz to him, he would break down. He had a sensitivity, and he felt it had to be addressed. At the same time, he understood yeshivos had to emphasize “excellence,” otherwise there won’t be kinas sofrim. He knew it was a seesaw, a juggling act. The yeshivos and Rebbeim have to be meromem those who are struggling.
The Rebbe grew up in pre-World War II New York City, and lived through the rebuilding and growth of Torah and Yiddishkeit of the subsequent years. What about the matzav of Yiddishkeit did the Rebbe view as its greatest success and would make him kvell the most? What did the Rebbe view as the greatest challenge and muhn from us going further?
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: My father took the greatest chizuk from the ribui of the olam haTorah and frum Yidden, because he lived through times when there were many “isms” in Klal Yisrael. He saw people were meyuash after the war, with the attitude that we had to pas tzu tzum velt — we had to adjust to the world. These people were not mechallel Shabbos, but it was not emeseh Yiddishkeit. He keenly felt the problems before the war and after, the lack of commitment, and he witnessed how it took off afterward. He always talked about it. He spoke of the leadership of Harav Aharon Kotler and the Satmar Rav, zichronam levrachah, how it was a nes shelo k’derech hateva.
The Rebbe spent many years in Chicago where he said shiur in the yeshivah in Skokie, and today it is an ihr v’eim b’Yisrael. He attributed the hatzlachah in Chicago to the Telshe Yeshiva. There were other Rabbanim there; the Veitzner Rav, zt”l, had a big hashpaah, and my zeide who was a big machnis orach. But he always gave credit to the Telshe Yeshiva. He felt they built up Chicago, and he gave credit where credit was due.
Harav Yisrael, shlita: My father was not mesiach daas from siyatta diShmaya that Hashem gave us after World War II. He was almost obsessed by it. He saw the condition of Yiddishkeit in America, and he saw people that thought, “This is the way it’s going to be. Yiush.” In one dor, es hut ibbergedreit. He was not mesiach daas from the ha’oras panim of Hashem in our chug which brought about this renaissance. He always said that Rav Aharon and other Gedolim raised all the standards.
What do you think would be your father’s “call of the day”?
Harav Yehoshua, shlita: We are living through the chevlei Moshiach, and the way to endure is through Torah and gemilus chassadim. In addition, my father was careful not be mekatreg on Yidden as a klal, especially in times of middas hadin.
Harav Yisrael, shlita: To live more connected with Hashem, through Torah, tefillah, sur meira, to develop a real connection, and not do things melumadah. Do with cheshek. Generally, the Rebbe was not a mussar zugger. On Shabbos Shuvah and other times, he would be tovei’a the tzibbur, but he was more comfortable being melamed zechus. He would want everyone to live a more meaningful life for the Ribbono shel Olam.
Hamodia thanks Rabbi Avraham Heschel for participating in the interviews.
Photo credits: Agudath Israel, Hapardes, Moreshes Chachmei America, Rabbi Lipa Brennan, Yitzchak Alfasi.