Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Visit to Vilna

It was a different kind of flight. El Al Flight 3653 on that day was the scene of an emotional high. Anyone who boarded the plane in a state of indifference was quickly shaken out of it by the sight of the pages that had been left on his seat, on which was printed the “order of accepting a taanis dibbur while traveling to the gravesite of our master, the Vilna Gaon.”

“By order of our master, the rosh yeshiva and gaon, Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman shlit”a,” the papers announced, “and by order of our master, the prince of Torah, Hagaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a, we are accepting upon ourselves, bli neder, a taanis dibbur regarding all idle matters until after we begin the tefillah at the gravesite of our master, the Gra. Throughout the journey to his holy burial place, we will involve ourselves only in Torah, tefillah, and fear of Hashem in a state of purity.”


In the seat pockets before us, in place of the usual El Al monthly magazine, with its list of the films that would be screened during the flight, we found a personal letter from the CEO of El Al, Dovid Maimon, informing us that the airline was proud to have the privilege of transporting such an august group of Torah giants and roshei yeshiva on a historic pilgrimage to the burial site of the Vilna Gaon. It left us with the sense that we had entered the era of Moshiach. The letter continued with a few words about the Vilna Gaon and, at the same time, about the uniqueness of El Al, “the only shomer Shabbos airline in the world.”


Dovid Maimon added that out of respect for the illustrious personages who would be making the trip, he had asked El Al’s own rabbi, Rabbi Yochanan Hayout, to join the expedition and place himself at the rabbonim’s disposal to help with any issue that might arise. His letter ended with a request for the passengers on this unique flight to daven for the residents of Eretz Yisroel, the soldiers of the IDF, and the airline itself.


We knew from the outset, of course, that this flight would be different from any other. Along with the plane ticket, every passenger received a page of instructions “by orders of Maran shlit”a,” which asked, among other things, for one to immerse in a mikvah before the trip. As we waited to board the plane, it was impossible to ignore the sense of excitement we felt at seeing many of the foremost roshei yeshivos in Eretz Yisroel traveling along with us: Rav Yitzchok Scheiner and Rav Aryeh Finkel, both in wheelchairs; Rav Berel Povarsky, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Bornstein, Rav Moshe Yehuda Schlesinger, Rav Mordechai Gross, Rav Sender Erlanger, and Rav Shimon Galai. We were also accompanied by Rav Dov Yoffe, the zekan hamashgichim. At the cemetery in Vilna, we would be joined by Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, who traveled from the United States to rendezvous with us and later returned with us to Yerushalayim.


Kupat Ha’ir, which had organized this expedition, even had control of the plane’s public address system. They were the ones who made the in-flight announcements and asked the passengers not to stand when the seat belt light was on. They issued other instructions to the passengers as well, particularly to adhere to the taanis dibbur. The plane was rapidly transformed into a sort of flying bais medrash. Throughout the cabin, bochurim and avreichim alike were immersed in learning, some in pairs and others individually. In addition, the rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Ponovezh, Rav Boruch Dov Povarsky, delivered a shiur during the flight on the halachos of Viduy and teshuvah. Later on, Rav Aryeh Finkel, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir-Brachfeld, delivered a shmuess focused primarily on having gratitude to Hashem.


For a number of the passengers, an airplane flight was a completely new experience, but this special journey was well worth the expense. One young avreich told us that, with his wife’s consent, he had spent 2,200 shekels on his ticket. The couple is suffering from a painful situation, he explained — although he refused to share the details, even “off the record” — and they felt confident that they would find a yeshuah at the Gaon’s gravesite.


Most of the members of the expedition, in fact, had joined it in response to some personal troubles they were experiencing. The gedolim on the trip had been asked by Kupat Ha’ir, a tzedakah fund that dispenses millions of shekels annually to the needy, to daven for its supporters. I am personally acquainted with a number of the directors of the fund, and I can attest that every one of their actions is guided and supervised by the gedolei Yisroel. This trip, as well, was planned in the home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, and the gedolim who agreed to embark on the arduous journey did so only as a result of his request. At least two of them — Rav Yitzchok Scheiner and Rav Aryeh Finkel — told us so explicitly.


Shortly before we landed in Vilna, excitement spread throughout the plane. Soon, we would be arriving at the cemetery where both the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky are buried. The flight manager announced that the in-flight staff would be selling duty free items, but no one was particularly interested. At that moment, it all seemed far too mundane, not to mention that it is difficult to make such a purchase while one is in the middle of a taanis dibbur. The most sought-after commodity on the flight was a proper netilas yodayim cup.


– – – – –


And then we were in Vilna. It was an emotional landing, with the knowledge that we would be treading on ground soaked with the blood of countless Jews, walking on the soil of a country where the natives slaughtered Jews with glee. At the same time, though, Vilna was once a thriving hub of Torah study and Jewish life, the city known as “the Yerushalayim of Lithuania.” It was here that the Gaon lived and that the greatest Torah leaders in the world came together to meet. It was to this city that the Chofetz Chaim traveled by horse and wagon from Radin.


Even in the airport, we could sense the hostility of the border guards as they gazed at our group of hundreds of black-clad Jews. At passport control, there were only two windows that were manned, and we moved slowly through that section of the airport. A worker was sitting idly at a third window, which was marked for European passports only, but he adamantly refused to allow any members of our group to approach him. An exception was made only for the most elderly members of the group, along with Rav Yitzchok Finkel, son of Rav Nosson TzviFinkel zt”l, who was in a wheelchair due to his illness. The Lithuanian border guards’ expressions left us with no illusions as to the hostility in their hearts. We let out a collective sigh of relief when we made it past the inspection and into the lobby of the airport. None of us had brought any luggage, and we did not even cast a glance at the baggage carousels. Just a few minutes later, we boarded the buses that had been waiting for us at the door. It was truly incredible how well this trip had been organized.


A word about Rav Yitzchok Finkel. He reminds us of his father not only on account of his external appearance, but also by virtue of the nobility of his personality. He has his father’s refinement and radiant smile, and despite his physical limitations and the great difficulty involved, he made the effort to join us on this trip. He was accompanied by his brother, Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel, one of the rabbeim at Yeshivas Mir in Modiin Illit, who cared for him as only a dedicated, responsible brother can. The two were also accompanied by Rav Menachem Zaritzky, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Letzeirim in Ramat Shlomo, Yerushalayim, the onetime right-hand man and closest confidant of Rav Nosson Tzvi zt”l. Today, Rav Zaritzky continues to serve as the right-hand man of the current rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel. Together, the threesome were like a living mussar sefer for all of the other participants on this trip.


– – – – –


The buses discharged our group, hundreds of people strong, at the cemetery, and we went inside. The organizers had brought chairs and shtenders for the rabbonim, which were lined up in a straight row next to the ohel at the gravesite. Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein began reciting Tehillim and Selichos aloud. The loudspeaker amplified his voice to such an extent that the gentiles living near the cemetery began to appear, gazing with a mixture of curiosity and fear at the hundreds of Jews who had come to disturb their quiet.


Rav Borenstein recited a posuk and the rest of us repeated it after him. And so it went, posuk by posuk and kappitel by kappitel. The atmosphere was highly charged. Everyone shed tears.


The cemetery is massive, with a wide array of graves, some of them of world-class Torah giants, while the majority are of “ordinary” Jews. Some of the gravestones bear images of the deceased, a phenomenon that does not exist in Eretz Yisroel.


Despite the advice we had received to bring sweaters, the temperature was average, neither overly cold nor overly warm. It was only within our hearts that a storm was raging.


Rav Borenstein began leading us in Selichos. As we all uttered the timeless declaration that we rely on the Thirteen Middos and the merits of our forefathers, part of our hearts whispered, “And the Gaon.” We went on to recite the standard passages of Selichos along with the Thirteen Middos. The atmosphere was literally like that of Yom Kippur. When Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi arrived, he delivered a tearful speech, then swept the rest of us away with a powerful Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim.


The tefillos then ended, and each of the rabbonim received a notebook filled with names of people who had made contributions so that the rabbonim would daven for them. Rav Shimon Galai, a rosh yeshiva who only recently became a public figure, cried brokenheartedly as he read account after account of the donors’ heartbreaking circumstances. It was an incredible sight to behold, and it was impossible not to be moved to join him in his tears.


We davened Minchah and then made our way to the grave of Rav Chaim Ozer. I watched as Rav Boruch Mordechai approached Rav Yitzchok Scheiner next to the grave, and I leaned over to hear their exchange. The two wished each other a good year, and Rav Boruch Mordechai said to Rav Yitzchok, “Please daven for my son to have a refuah sheleimah. His name is Bentzion ben Shulamis Machla.” Rav Scheiner’s eyes clouded over as he learned the details of the situation.


Many tears were shed in the cemetery in Vilna that day. May we be protected from all sorts of misfortune by those prayers, as we know that no tefillah goes unheard.




One of the high points of the trip was the address delivered by Rav Aryeh Finkel. He didn’t say much in the way of chiddushim. As usual, he quoted a Rashi, a Medrash, and a Gemara, but when he utters the words, they take on a distinctive dimension of meaning.


“The posuk says in Sefer Mishlei, ‘Pas chareivah [dry bread] and tranquility are better than a house filled with sacrifices of discord.’ Rashi makes a statement that should cause every heart to tremble: ‘It was better for Hashem to destroy [lehachariv] His House and His city so that there would be tranquility than to endure the sins of the Bnei Yisroel, who would offer sacrifices of discord in His House.’ In other words, Hashem removed His Shechinah from the Bais Hamikdosh because He considered that preferable to having the Bais Hamikdosh exist but be filled with ‘sacrifices of discord.’


“What are ‘sacrifices of discord’? The novi Malachi says, ‘Accursed is the deceitful one, who has a male in his herd yet pledges and sacrifices a blemished one to Hashem.’ The ‘accursed’ person who brings ‘sacrifices of discord’ is a person who owns an animal that is fit to be a korban, but brings in its place an animal with a blemish. What is this man thinking? He thinks that he doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to Hashem, since Hashem does not give him everything he wants! He is resentful of the Master of the universe; he is in ‘dispute’ with Hashem. Hashem despises this type of ‘discord,’ to the point that He is willing to destroy the Bais Hamikdosh and remove His Shechinah in order to do away with it.


“On the other hand, the Mishnah says, ‘Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.’ A person who is happy with his lot in life says the opposite: ‘Master of the universe, I know that You give everyone what is best for him and that what You have given me is what is best for me, and I am happy with that. You are the King of judgment, and I am content with what You give me.’ Such a person, despite whatever difficulties he has in life, lives in peace with Hashem, not in discord.


“But not only must a person be happy with his lot in life and rid himself of resentment over what he doesn’t have, he must teach himself to actually be displeased when someone else is lacking something. This, unfortunately, is something that we do not often observe. Avrohom Avinu was such a person. He fought with Hashem, so to speak, for the people of Sedom and Amorah. Was Hashem angry with him? On the contrary, the Medrash says that Hashem praised Avrohom for his efforts. According to the Medrash, Hashem told Avrohom, ‘You have been arguing with Me so that My creations will not be condemned. Therefore, you will be Mine.’


“We must always think of the needs of other people. That is our mission: to daven for other Jews not to suffer, and for this long and terrible golus to end. We are traveling to the kever of the Vilna Gaon because we were asked by our rabbonim to fulfill that obligation. Let us daven that we will never be ‘in dispute’ with Hashem, Who dispenses only righteousness and good things. May every living thing declare that Hashem is King, and may He sit on His Throne of mercy. That way, we will be forgiven for all our sins, and we will be inscribed for a good new year for ourselves and the entire Jewish people.”



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