From Volozhin to Sanz, Gush Etzion to Talmon – A 5774 Retrospective

by Reuven Ungar

The following is written in memory of the boys and chayalim, may Hashem avenge their blood, who sanctified His Name. May their memory be a blessing.

Introduction: The outgoing year included events that gripped the collective Jewish People in a profound way. The following is an attempt to to reflect upon these events under the prism of Volozhin, highlighting the relevance of the flagship yeshiva of Lithuanian Jewry upon contemporary events. There is a pattern in the works- unity and the connection of the generations.

I Volozhin

The mere mention of Yeshivat Volozhin, Etz Chaim, founded by Rav Chaim of Volozhin, disciple of the Gra, generates the following associations: Torah Lishma, mastery of Torah, devotion to Torah, of the Torah shelo tehe muchlefet. Jewish leadership and love of The Land of Israel. Rav Chaim, the Netziv, the Beis HaLevi and Rav Chaim Brisker. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rav Baruch Ber Lebowitz, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

Although the physical doors have been closed, the Tree of Life of Volozhin flourishes. It has survived the Czar and the Bolsheviks, the 60’s and post-modernism.

It is perpetuated in Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan of Yeshiva University. The RIETS Chag HaSemicha which took place in March displayed how the Tree of Life of Volozhin is blossoming in that yeshiva. This point was driven home as Rosh Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva Rav Michael Rosensweig discussed the transmission of the Torah from the Batei Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu and his talmid Yehoshua to the present. It was intensified as Rosh Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva Rav Herschel Schachter continued the tradition of Rav Soloveitchik in addressing the musmachim themselves.

Contemporary Volozhin is not confined to Washingtone Heights . At the entrance to Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh, Volozhin thrives in Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, founded by Rav Kook. Our son in-law conveys that a frequent explanation advanced by talmidim for happenings in Mercaz is “this is the way it was done in Volozhin”. A little to the south in Givat Mordechai Volozhin pulsates in Yeshivat Chevron, whose leadership includes great-grandchildren of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. Volozhin is alive in both Lakewood East (in Ramot) and Lakewood West (in New Jersey), headed by great-grandchildren of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer.

Members of the Beit HaRav of Volozhin are prominent in Mesirat HaTorah. Great-grandson of Rav Chaim, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Beis HaLevi, passed the torch to his son Rav Chaim, who passed the torch to his sons, Rav Moshe and to Rav Yitzchak Zev (Rav Velvel), the Griz. The progeny of the Beit HaRav are continuing the family tradition of Mesirat HaTorah from Arei Yehuda in Alon Shvut to Chutzot Yerushalayim in Rechov Press and Sanhedria Murchevet, from Beit Shemesh to Block Shmonim, from the Land of Lincoln to the Empire State. The chain continues.

On that uplifting day in the elevated period between Purim and Pesach, a cloud on the horizon was the physical absence of the esteemed Rosh Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

II The Summer

And then they kidnapped and murdered our boys, may Hashem avenge their blood. They sent missiles by air and gunmen in tunnels. 3 precious families sanctified The Name and inspired and united the Jewish People. The rabbinic and communal leadership of 3 wonderful communities strengthened their flock. The Jewish People united and went to war, displaying tremendous mesirut nefesh and bravery, with 70 soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice, may Hashem avenge their blood.

It was the summer of the chayal who entered the tunnel to retrieve the body of Hadar Goldin, may Hashem avenge his blood. It was the summer of Racheli Fraenkel proclaiming that Hashem is not our employee. It was the summer of the Minister of Finance davening from his grandfather’s siddur and quoting the Arizal on Ahavat Yisrael. It was the summer of Ophir Sha’ar mentioning his desire to cover Gilad with his tallit in Birchat Kohanim. It was the summer of mayor of Elad, Sruli Porush, yelling Tehillim in ha’a’vara sefaradit. It was the summer of Rav Itzy Weinberger singing with chayalim on the yeshiva roof in Sderot and continuing to sing in the secure room after the siren went off. It was the summer of the Fraenkel parents instructing the American Ambassador that the US should extend the same effort to rescue all 3 boys, not only their son who was a US citizen. It was the summer of the Achdut Yisrael-chizuk trip of Rav Shay Schachter, whose email went viral.

Rav Rami Berachyahu, mara de’atra of Talmon, home of the Sha’ar Family, organized an azkara to be held shortly after the shloshim of the boys. Shiurei Torah to provide nechama and to inspire. In order to approach the azkarah, we go back to New York of the mid-50s, a young yeshiva in The Land in the early 70s and an exalted night in Brooklyn in 1980.

III Chinuch Atzmai Dinner 1956, Yeshivat Har Etzion

While Rav Soloveitchik nurtured the Tree of Life of Volozhin in the Brisker tradition, Rav Aharon Kotler, perpetuated Torat Volozhin in Lakewood. Rav Aharon learned in Slabodka where Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein was Rosh Yeshiva (prior to his aliya with a large segment of the yeshiva to Chevron), attended shiurim from Rav Boruch Ber in a nearby yeshiva, married the daughter of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and was Rosh Yeshiva in Kletzk.

Rav Aharon was a powerhouse of Torah scholarship, learning with intensity and genius. He reached the US in WWII and was involved in rescue attempts for Jews trapped in Europe. He heeded the advice of rav of Lakewood, Rav Nissan Waxman and established the Beth Midrash Gevoha in that location. Rav Aharon was actively involved in the Chinuch Atzmai school system.

Rav Aharon invited Rav Solveitchik to be guest of honor at the Chinuch Atzmai Dinner in 1956. The Rov agreed. During his address the Rov movingly conveyed his respect and affection towards Rav Aharon stating that he reminded him of Rav Akiva Eiger and of his grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker. It marked an exalted moment- the Bostoner Rov and the Kletzker Rosh Yeshiva, teachers of Torah at the highest level, with different darchei limud and positions on several issues of the day- in concert together, warmly displaying mutual respect and focusing on what unites them. Ashreinu ma tov chelkenu that these are our Gedolim. The Tree of Life of Volozhin continues.

Rav Yehuda Amital survived the Shoah (“I have experienced a developed world, a destroyed world and a rebuilt world and my beard is not yet white”) and learned in Yeshivat Chevron under Rav Chatzkel Sarna (talmid and son in law of Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein). He married the granddaughter of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, niece of Rav Aharon Kotler. Following the 6 Day War he founded a yeshivat hesder located in Gush Etzion, Yeshivat Har Etzion, aka “the Gush”.

Similar to his uncle, he extended his hand to a leader of the Brisker branch of Volozhin. A decade and a half after the Chinuch Atzmai Dinner, Rav Amital invited the talmid and son in law of Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel in RIETS, to become Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rav Lichtenstein consented, and the two Roshei Yeshiva taught Torah together harmoniously for decades. At a yeshiva function many years into their blessed partnership, Rav Lichtenstein conveyed how he was asked what did he see so long ago that motivated him to tie his future into Yeshivat Har Etzion? “Rav Amital” was his response. A unification of the branches of Volozhin, lehagdil Torah uliha’adira.

IV The Farbrengen, 1980

On the evening marking the 30th year of the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Chassidim gathered at 770 in Crown Heights. An evening of elevation, of “didan natzach”. The Holy Fire of Chassidut that did not bow to the Czar or to the Soviet Empire, the Holy Fire of Chassidut that engages and reaches out to the collective Jewish People, including those estranged from their sacred roots.

In the midst of the farbrengen, Rav Soloveitchik, descendant of Rav Chaim Volozhiner, disciple of the Gra, arrived to honor the Rebbe. The scion of the author of Nefesh HaChaim, the sefer that outlines the philosophy of Mitnagdic Volozhin. The Rov who in Ish HaHalachah contrasts the Lithuanian derech to that of Chabad. The arrival of Rav Soloveitchik in 770 was electric; a great moment was happening. The Rebbe greeted the Rov with deep respect and warmth.

Reaching out to the great Chassidic leader was within the family tradition. Despite his ideological oppostion to aspects of Chassidut, Rav Chaim Volozhiner himself cooperated with Chassidic leaders in communal matters to strengthen Torah observance and reached out with warmth to students with Chassidic inclinations in Volozhin. The great-grandfather of the Rov, the Beis HaLevi related with respect and affection towards many Chassidic masters, including Rav Yechezkel of Shinove, the son of Rav Chaim of Sanz.

An awesome moment- a link in the chain of Volozhin meeting with the leader of the movement founded by the author of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav and of the Tanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Recognition of the Holy Fire of Chassidut. This Holy Fire is manifested in:

Rav Leibele Eiger solving the kashya of his grandfather, Rav Akiva Eiger, concerning the gezara of not blasting the shofar on Shabbat.

The Torah greatness of the Chiddushei HaRim, Rav Chaim Sanzer, Avnei Nezer and Sefas Emes.

The chassid in the Modzhitzer shtiebel in Warsaw whom when asked by the young Rav Soloveitchik when would they would daven Ma’ariv to end the Shabbat responded “What is with you? Are you already longing for the weekdays to begin? What do you mean when will we daven Ma’ariv, are we lacking anything now?”

The fervent and warm tefilla found in the Sanzer shtiebel in Tzfat.

The grandson of Rav Chaim Sanzer, the Rebbe of Klausenberg who in the Shoah made a neder that if Hashem would enable him to survive he would build a hospital to bring Jews into the world. The Rebbe lost his family in the Shoah, established a new family and built the Laniado hospital in Netanya. Several of our younger children were born in Laniado.

Rav Grossman of Migdal HaEmek meeting with and inspiring young Gilad Sha’ar before his bar mitzvah- and 3 years later being menachem his family.

From Washington Heights to Crown Heights- The Tree of Life of Volozhin meets the Holy Fire of Chassidut with mutual respect and affection. Leaders of the Jewish People side by side, the Chassidim rejoice and the letters of the Torah are dancing in the air.

V The Azkara in Talmon

Bein HaMetzarim, a day before Tisha Ba’Av. Mara de’atra of Talmon, Rav Rami Berachyahu invites Mosrei HaTorah of the generation to bring nechama and to inspire. Ophir Sha’ar, father of Gilad, of blessed memory, is a talmid of Yeshivat Har Etzion, thus Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yaakov Medan is invited to speak and delivers the final shiur. Before he spoke..

Rav Schachter delivered a shiur focused on a principle formulated by Rav Chaim Volozhiner- Divrei Torah foster Tashmishei Kedusha, Torah yields sanctity. The Rosh Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva develops this idea in multifaceted spheres, quoting his rebbe the Rov and advancing his own insights. The supremacy of Torah, the all-encompassing scope of Torah. Similar to the elevating words of Rav Rosenswieg 4 months earlier one wants to dance. One remembers why there is an azkara and one wants to cry. Rav Schachter quotes the gemara concerning the Sifrei Torah burning with the letters floating in the air and he himself cries.

As the Volozhiner Rosh Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva speaks the Minchas Asher, Av Beit Din Rav Asher Weiss, talmid and chassid of the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, of blessed memory, enters. Rav Asher Weiss whom teaches Torah from Ramot to Sderot. Son of a survivor of Auschwithz, Rav Asher conveys Torah with great clarity and with great love to all members of the Jewish People. He offers an alternative explanation to the gemara mentioned by Rav Schachter. The letters of the Torah are dancing and crying in the air.

And then it happens…

Accompanied by his children, the Rosh Kollel and Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein arrives. The lengths a rebbe will go to, the efforts he will expend, to comfort a talmid and to be mechabed the Torah. Rav Lichtenstein, the talmid of the Rov, chaver of Rav Schachter, rebbe of Rav Rosensweig. Rav Weiss notices Rav Lichtenstein- sitting with his son Rav Moshe, Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat Har Etzion- and publicly honors this great Volozhiner teacher of Torah. After the shiur, Rav Lichtenstin and Rav Weiss meet. The talmid and son in law of the Rov and the talmid and brother of son in law of the Rebbe. The Tree of Life of Volozhin and the Holy Fire of Chassidut. Our oldest son hears Rav Lichtenstein remark to Rav Weiss “devarim niflaim- wonderful words”. The letters of the Torah are dancing and crying in the air.

Rosh Yeshiva in Har Etzion, Rav Yaakov Medan ascends to speak. Rav Medan a talmid of the first class of the yeshiva founded by Rav Amital, and jointly led by Rav Amital and yibadel lechayim tovim ve’aruchim, Rav Lichtenstein. Rav Medan who appears in the famous picture of yeshivot hesder talmidim at Kriat HaTorah during the first Lebanon War. Rav Medan who publicly displays his respect for Chareidi brethren.

Rav Medan- in close proximity to the advent of Tisha Be’Av- calls attention to the following fact. This year marks 100 years to the outbreak of WWI, which occurred on Tisha Ba’Av. That war marked a low in the annals of the Jewish People- Jew vs. Jew on the battlefield. And now..such Jewish unity. The Rov and Rav Aharon Kotler, the Rov and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A generation later, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Amital, Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Asher Weiss. The Tree of Life of Volozhin, the Holy Fire of Chassidut. Not a blurring of differences; rather◊™ mutual respect and affection for fellow Mosrei HaTorah. With our leaders so united, may this influence all members of the Jewish People.

VI Elul

Volozhin guides us to rise up from tragedy….

While in Slutsk, the wife of the Beis HaLevi died. The Netziv arrived to be menachem avel. Upon noticing him, the Beit HaLevi burst into tears exclaiming “Rabi Hirsch Leib, my wife Tzirel was a tzaddeket, and I worry that perhaps she died for my sins for wounding your honor during the rivalry in Volozhin and you still harbor feelings of hurt. Oy that I have caused her to die before her time. Please, Rabi Hirsch Leib, forgive me and remove anger from me”.

The Netziv assured the Beis HaLevi that he harbored no hard feelings, as they both had acted leShem Shamayim. As a proof, the Netziv mentioned how he implored the Beis HaLevi to remain in Volozhin.

After a few minutes of silence when the Netziv realized that there were no strangers in the room he approached the Beis HaLevi and said: “Rabi Yoshe Ber, from above it can be testified that I harbor no hard feelings and there is nothing to forgive you for. But to prove to you that my heart is at peace with you, I propose a shidduch between us. Your son Chaim should take for a wife my granddaughter Lipsha, daughter of Rabi Refael”.

And so it was…and the branches of the Beit HaRav were united and the Volozhiner/Brisker dynasty marched forward.

The forming of new Jewish Homes, Batim Ne’emanim BiYisrael, is the ultimate nechama and inspiration. This Elul marked 4 uplifiting weddings that I was privileged to attend. Present in all the weddings were those who figured so prominently in the uplifting and tragic events of this year.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rav Rosensweig- talmid of Rav Lichtenstein, carrier of the torch of Volozhin- was mesader kiddushin as his daughter married his talmid. Similar to Chag HaSemicha a meeting of the generations as his father in law sang the Ketuba and his father spoke beneath the chupah. The Tree of Life continues- hachut hameshulash.

The following evening, Rav Itzy Weinberger, who had recently sang near the Gaza border in the midst of a missile attack, sang Im Eshkachach Yerushalayim (to Carlebach) under the chupah at his sons wedding, as his father was mesader kiddushin. Roshei Yeshiva of Volozhin in the Heights were the eidei kiddushin. The Tree of Life with the Holy Fire of Chassidut ablaze.

A week later Rav Schachter- in the presence of his son Rav Shay- was mesader kiddushin for a couple who met via a seforim sale. A month after delivering the shiur outlining the supremacy of Torah, 2 months after his son Rav Shay’s trip of nechama and connecting to fellow Jews- the carrier of the torch of Volozhin sat with a chatan who made a siyum on Masechet Kiddushin that he began to learn at the time of his engagement. The chain continues.

The following week in The Land, Rav Rami Berachyahu read the ketuba at the wedding of a son of Talmon. After providing leadership in the most tragic of times, connecting with fellow Jews in The Land and with our brethren worldwide in the White Shul, Bnai Yeshurun and the OU, Rav Rami merited to celebrate in the establishment of a new Jewish home. Not by accident, under the chupah prior to Im Eshkachach, everyone sang Chamol Al Ma’a’seycha. Always a nice idea, but quite fitting at the conclusion of the year of 5774.

May the year of 5775 be a year of besurot tovot, yeshuot venachamot for the entire Jewish People.

Reuven Ungar is the Director of Alumni Relations of Yeshivat Sha’alvim. He is a graduate of MTA and resident of Talmon.

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