Epoch of the Messiah
Reb Elchonon, zt'l, was born in 1874 in Birz, Lithuania. Circa 1889 his parents moved to Boisk, Latvia, at that time the Rabbinical Seat of Rabbi Cook, olov hasholom. From there he went to Telz where he studied under the illustrious gaonim, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, zt'l and Rabbi Shimon Shkop, zt'l. In Telz, he was noted for his unusual diligence and profound mind. After many years of intensive study in Telz, he went to Volozin to become a disciple of the great Reb Chaim Brisker who was Rosh yeshivah of Volozin at that time. In 1898, he married the daughter of one of the leading sages of the day, Rabbi Meir Atlas, zt'l, who was then the Rabbi of Salant.
Then came a period which impressed itself indelibly on the rest of his life. It began in 1906 when he went to Radin, the home of his master, the world-renowned Chofetz Chaim, zt'l where he studied until 1908 in the Kollel Kodshim. The Chofetz Chaim had founded this select institution for the future leaders of Israel. During the year 1908-1909, Rav Elchonon, together with the gaon Rabbi Yoel Baranchick zt'l started a yeshivah in Amsislav, Russia. In 1910, he accepted a call to become a rosh yeshivah in Brisk, the home of his teacher, Rabbi Chaim, zt'l. When World War I broke out towards the end of 1914, Brisk, situated on the line of battle, was vacated by its inhabitants, and R. Elchonon returned to Radin. In 1915, the Germans y"ni invaded Radin, and he rejoined the Chofetz Chaim and moved with his yeshivah to Smilovitch, near Minsk. Later, when the Chofetz Chaim decided to move deeper into Russia, to the city of Sumiatch, he left part of the yeshivah in Smilovitch under R Elchonon's leadership. In 1921, after yeshivah students were finally given permission to leave Russia, R. Elchonon returned to Poland, to Baronovitch, where he was asked to head the local yeshivah, Ohel Torah. Under his guidance it grew until it became one of the largest yeshivos in Europe.
Between the years 1921-1939 it exerted its influence not only on the whole of Poland but also on the world-wide Torah community. Yeshivah Ohel Torah continued as a dominant force in the world of Torah until 1939-40, when it ascended into Heaven martyred, after having wandered to Vilno, Truck, and Smeleshuk. During the period that existed between the two World Wars, R. Elchonon was accepted by the international Jewish community as one of its foremost leaders and spokesmen. In all matters pertaining to world Jewry, he cooperated closely with his master, the Chofetz Chaim, and his brother-in-law, the celebrated gaon, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zt'l.
R. Elchonon was an intellectual giant, a prober for truth who labored endlessly in Torah with a zest that was extraordinary. He tirelessly toiled and strove to plumb the profundities in all areas of Torah, while the teachings of the Chofetz Chaim were always on his lips. Imbued by his great mentors, he sought the truth. Wherever he went, he was greeted with reverence and admiration.
He shunned the rabbinate in order to devote his life to teaching G-d's Torah, lest the next generation be ignorant of its Divine heritage. He guided his students with kindness, and his devotion to them knew no limits. He helped carry their burdens, and he shared in their anguish. He sought for and succeeded in acquiring the services of outstanding roshei yeshivah, men like Rabbi Shlomo Hyman, zt'l, who later became Dean of Mesivta Torah V'daath in Brooklyn, Rabbi David Rappaport, zt'l, author of the classic, Tzemach David, Rabbi Leib Gavia, zt'I, and Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubtchanski, zt'l.
The influence of the Chofetz Chaim was clearly visible in every aspect of R. Elchonon's life. Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim had aught but the greatest respect for his beloved disciple. Each time R. Elchonon came to Radin, the Chofetz Chaim greeted him with a countenance radiant with joy and love. Notwithstanding the fact that R. Elchonon always stood before the Chofetz Chaim as a student before his master, the latter considered him his confident. He was the Chofetz Chaim's right hand in all communal matters. He was often called to Radin for an opinion on some urgent issue or to help activate some plan to strengthen Torah.
Versed in all aspects of Torah, Rav Elchonon's memory was phenomenal. He once borrowed The Responsa of the Revash from Rabbi Meir Obowitz, zt'l, the Rabbi of N'vardok, his son's father-in-law. For approximately one half year, he spent a little time each morning studying the work. Yet two years after he returned the sefer to its owner, we saw him write a letter and quote the responsa word for word from memory.
When he studied Torah, his only thought was on comprehending the full depth of the text. He had no desire to display his skill in giving novel interpretations. In his Introduction to M'asef Ohel Torah, he quotes the words of his renowned teacher, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, zt'l: "To give new interpretations is not our task; only the rishonim had this ability. Our job is only to comprehend what has already been stated."
He raised countless students and left his imprint on the best young minds of the Torah empire that flourished in Lithuania and Poland. He developed a unique method-to probe and to clarify the essence of complex Talmudic texts and then transmitted his findings to his disciples clearly and concisely. His method is best depicted in the Rambam, Hilchus Dayos, Chap. II: "Likewise when studying Torah and wisdom, a man's words must be few yet rich in content... he should not hurry to answer, neither should he speak at length. He must teach his students calmly and pleasantly without raising his voice or being verbose. This is what Solomon had said: 'The words of the wise are transmitted with pleasantness.'" He once said that a good teacher is someone who will not omit one necessary word or include a word which is superfluous.
His consistency was resolute. There were no visible discrepancies between the conclusions he drew from his study of Torah and what he practiced in his daily life. Nothing could ever muddle the clarity and the simplicity of his insights. He always used to say, “The Torah itself testifies that bribery ‘blinds the wise.’" The greatest sage, therefore, must necessarily err if he is plagued with a vested interest. Conversely, by ridding oneself of vested interests, all that previously appeared crooked is rendered straight, and everything
that was complex is made obvious. In one of his essays, he explains at length that all errors of the intellect have their source in the heart. Without vested interests every truth is obvious and self-explanatory.
His diligence in Torah study was incredible. In his writings he explains that when someone is confronted with a mitzvah which no one else can perform, he is freed of his obligation to study Torah [in order to fulfill that mitzvah] just as he is freed of his obligation to study Torah when he must attend to his physical needs... Thus it follows that every other moment must be utilized for Torah study. As he preached, so he practiced. He never refused to participate actively in any matter which urgently affected either the community or an individual; he never ceased in his work to support the yeshivah materially; he wrote numerous articles for magazines and newspapers presenting the Torah view on all current issues - then returned to his studies as if he had never forsaken them. Many times when he had to travel, he would stop at the yeshivah with his suitcase to give a shiur (lecture) on the way to the train station - The eminent Dean of the noted Ponivezer yeshivah, Hagaon Rabbi Yosef Cahanaman, zt'l, told of the time he was studying with Rav Elchonon. The latter received a telegram saying that his wife had given birth to a son. At that moment, they had been engrossed in a Tosefos in Chulin. Rav Elchonon read the telegram, rose, pronounced a blessing [because of the good news] and immediately returned to the Tosefos, and he continued to probe the text as if nothing extraneous had ever happened.
At the eulogy that he delivered in the yeshivah at Baranovitz for his teacher, the Chofetz Chaim, zt'l, he explained what the Rambam meant when he said, "Every man can become as great as Moses." This does not imply that everyone can excel in every respect like Moses, but rather, that we can equal him in the act of Serving G-d. Just as a servant possesses nothing of his own and only exists to serve his master, so too Moses only lived to serve his Creator. This specific perfection can be attained by everyone. Rav Elchonon then testified that his sainted mentor had achieved this. Even when the Chofetz Chaim signed his name upon receipt of money sent by post, when he dipped his pen into the ink he would say, "For the Glory of G-d." Those who had the privilege of knowing R. Elchonon know how well these words describe him also.
He always used to say that Torah is called Tosheya [advice] because no person really knows what is best for him. Only Torah can solve these questions with certainty. There is no problem which concerns either the group or the individual which Torah does not answer, and no issue to which it does not elude. We must only search and learn how to search. He frequently said, "Humanity's concept of justice varies according to time and place. However, 'Your justice is just forever' - because - 'Your Torah is true,”” (Sabbath Afternoon Prayer).
Whenever he worked to strengthen and to propagate Torah, he saw it as an act of saving Jewish lives even in the physical sense. In the letter he sent to the Young Israel in 1938, enjoining them to form Torah-study groups and to organize elementary yeshivos, he explains that the ultimate cause of all our suffering is our having forgotten Torah. Thus, by encouraging Torah study, one saves our nation physically as well as spiritually. Anyone who remains indifferent to a program of this nature obviously transgresses the passage, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother."
The martyred demise of Rav Elchonon was the climax of a lifetime devoted to
Kiddush-Hashem, to selfless self-sacrifice for G-d's honor. It is an overwhelming experience simply to quote from the memoirs of an eye-witness, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, shlita, (Rabbi Oshry publicized the incident in his sefer, in newspapers in the United States and in Israel, and it is quoted by Rabbi M. Yosher, shlita) which relate the last words he addressed to his sainted companions as they closed their folios - Tractate Nidah - for the last time, from whence they were led to sanctify the Divine Name by offering their lives on the altar, on that blackest of days, 11 Tammuz, 5701:
"R. Elchonon spoke quietly and calmly as was his practice. Not even the sound of his voice was changed. On his face, his customary earnestness. His tone betrayed no feeling for self, and he did not attempt to say good-bye to his son, Rav Naftali: He spoke to everyone, to the whole of Israel.
"In Heaven it appears that they deem us to be righteous because our bodies have been chosen to atone for Jewry. Therefore, we must repent now, immediately. There is not much time. We must keep in mind that we will be better offerings if we repent. In this way we will save the lives of our brothers and sisters in America.
"'Let no thought enter our minds, G-d forbid, which is abominable and which renders an offering unfit. We are now fulfilling the greatest mitzvah. 'With fire she was destroyed, and with fire she will be rebuilt. 'The very fire which consumes our bodies will one day rebuild the Jewish people.'"
On that fateful day, the Sefer Torah and its appurtenances was taken into Heaven. Our sainted teacher, and after him his sons the renowned genius R. Naftali Beenush, and the righteous and beloved R. Tzvi Yehuda Lieb, departed this earth.
"You who have shown us great distresses and misfortunes will revive us, and from the depths of the earth will You bring us up again" (Psalms 71:20).
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