The greatness of the Chiddushei Harim, the Gerrer Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Meir Alter, is well-known even outside of chassidishe circles. He was held in the highest esteem by such giants as Rav Akiva Eiger and the Nesivos, Rav Yaakov Lorberbaum. Sometimes, during an entrance bechinah for the Volozhiner Yeshiva, Rav Chaim Brisker would ask a prospective talmid a kasha of the Chiddushei Harim, and if he answered it properly, it was quite impressive. In addition to his Torah and kedusha, his middos were impeccable. The following anecdote related by the rebbe’s shamash and confidante, Rav Meir Landstein, attests to one of his outstanding attributes.
“Before one of many trips with the rebbe to visit the Kotzker, I noticed that the rebbe removed a very thick pile of chiddushei Torah from the shelf that contained his vast writings. Immediately, when we arrived at our destination, the rebbe took these with him as he entered the holy inner sanctum of the Kotzker. He remained there for a long time, much longer than usual. When he finally left, his face was illuminated, glowing brightly like a fire, and his eyes looked teary. To me, this was a mystery.
“When we returned to the rebbe’s room he lit his pipe and paced back and forth enveloped in smoke and deeply engrossed in his thoughts, not saying a word. A short while later, he asked me to get a hold of pieces of wood and kerosene to light a fire. Again, I wondered what this was all about. I brought these materials and he lit the fire, now explaining to me what he was doing.
“‘You should know,’ he said, ‘that for numerous years, I worked tirelessly on a lengthy commentary on Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat. This sefer is as precious to me as the pupils of my eyes. It is the choicest of all my chiddushim. I was careful that everything written should be completely l’sheim Shomayim and I have no feelings of honor or self-interest, no sense of provoking disagreement, chalilah.
“‘I invested in this chibur all of my kochos in order to establish the words of the Rishonim and to answer all of the questions that the Shach asked on them. I clarified their words through deep analysis in the way of emes.
“‘Now, upon my completing this work, I brought it to the Kotzker for his perusal and approval. He looked into it for a long time. When he finished, he said to me, ‘Your sefer is excellent and most praiseworthy, but I am afraid that if it is published, it will become so popular amongst the lomdim and dayanim that they will use it to pasken halachos and stop looking into the Shach. I therefore hold that you should destroy it so that a sefer from a later generation should not push aside the composition of the Shach, who learned Torah lishmah with great toil and perseverance.’
“The rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Meir, was deeply touched and amazed at the deep and elevated words of the Kotzker. He commented, ‘It is true that all of the wealth in the world is of no value to me in comparison to this work. Even now, after I heard the Kotzker’s words, I don’t fully understand why I have to destroy this work. However, it is a mitzvah to listen to the words of the chachomim, so I am totally negating my opinion for that of the rebbe.’
“That night,” concluded the shamash, “the Kotzker called me into his room and asked me what Rav Yitzchok Meir did after leaving his room. I told him everything that I had witnessed from the time he conferred with the rebbe until the writings were burned. The Kotzker commented: ‘It is outstanding how great this man is, and the middah of ayin tovah within him that he was able to subjugate his will to mine and destroy a composition of divrei Torah that were pure emes, written lishmah without any self-interest, is extraordinary. You should know that the light of his Torah is just beginning to shine and it will illuminate the entire world, for his chiddushim will be accepted by everyone’” (Sefer M’eor Hagolah by Rav Yehuda Leib Levin).
It should be noted that the Kotzker and the Chiddushei Harim were contemporaries, both equally capable of succeeding their rebbe, Rav Bunim of Peshischa, in leading their kehillah. Furthermore, as the Chasam Sofer once said, “There is no greater pleasure in the world than being mechadeish Torah and transmitting it to others.” This makes the story even more astounding, for even though they were equals and the Chiddushei Harim was forfeiting so much, he was still willing to submit to the opinion of the Kotzker and he did it with simcha.
The story sends shudders down one’s spine. It is beyond our understanding, because these are tzaddikim whose spiritual level we cannot begin to fathom. But as much as we can, we must learn from their loftiness and try to apply their ways to our lives. It is, in fact, a lesson found in our sedrah.
“Hashem said to Avrom: Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Bereishis 12:1). The Mishnah (Avos 5:4) states, “Avrohom Avinu was tested with ten trials and withstood them all…” Chazal list this command of lech lecha as one of the ten nisyonos (Avos D’Rebbi Nosson 33). The Medrash quotes Rav Levi: “It says lech lecha twice…once over here and a second time by the nisayon of the Akeidah: ‘Go for yourself to the land of Moriah’ (Bereishis 22:2). And we don’t yet know which one was more beloved to Hashem, the second one or the first. From the fact that the land of Moriah is mentioned in the second one, we know that it is more beloved than the first” (Bereishis Rabbah 39:9).
What is the comparison between these two nisyonos? In the first one, Avrohom Avinu was promised children, riches and fame, whereas in the second, he was asked to sacrifice his beloved son, Yitzchok. Secondly, it would seem that the challenge to Avrohom in the first nisayon was parting from the place of his birth and his family, but at this point in time, he was no longer a youngster. He was 75 years old, having already acquired the status of Avrohom Ha’ivri, standing up strong in opposition to the idolatry of the rest of the world. Furthermore, he had already established a community of his own, “the souls they made in Choron.” Is it then feasible that the familial links would make it difficult for him to leave for the land of Canaan?
Otzros Peninei HaTorah explains that the difficulty in leaving stemmed from a different factor. For decades, from the moment he recognized Hashem and the fallacy of idolatry, Avrohom Avinu tried spreading the word of Hashem to the masses. Together with Sarah Imeinu, they brought people under the wings of the Shechinah. And for what purpose? Only to spread the honor of Hashem.
Avrohom’s career was set. He was the rosh yeshiva and Sarah was the rebbetzin. What a noble life to live. Suddenly, Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells him to leave this endeavor, become a wayfarer, and wander in a place where no one knows them. It defies logic. What was wrong with his occupation until now? Why shouldn’t he continue on that path until he is mekareiv everyone to recognize their Creator?
Yet, Avrohom did not question. He did not hesitate. Although it did not seem reasonable, he submitted his own interests and thinking for the Will of Hashem. Despite the fact that by leaving he was disbanding an organized community of avodas Hashem, he was willing to give it all up, for that is what Hashem wanted. “It’s not about me,” taught Avrohom Avinu. “It’s about fulfilling Hashem’s word. And that is the greatest kiddush sheim Shomayim.”
Now we understand why leaving his land was such a nisayon despite Hashem’s promise of great benefits, because it meant dissolving a center in which he had invested so much energy and spirit, and it was indeed flourishing successfully. Yet, regardless of this, he left it all behind, moving on to an unknown place to follow the ratzon Hashem.
This is quite similar to Akeidas Yitzchok. Not only did Avrohom and Sarah daven for this son throughout a good portion of their lives, but they were zoche to miracles with his birth in their old age. He brought them tremendous personal nachas, but even more importantly, he was their future. Not only would he carry on their legacy, but he would add a pillar to the avodah of Klal Yisroel. Now Hashem tells Avrohom to sacrifice him on the mizbeiach. Not only would he be losing a precious son, but, in addition, his entire life’s work would be ruined. There would be no one to perpetuate his teachings, and because it seemed like a cruel act, people would abandon their belief that Hashem is a G-d of chesed.
This is why the Medrash at first questions which one was the greater nisayon. In both trials, Avrohom Avinu subjugated his entire essence for the will of Hashem, teaching us that it’s not about me, but about what Hashem wants.
We are living in most challenging times. Because of the pandemic, we are being tested in our avodas Hashem, our sense of achrayus for others and our middos. In times of danger, the initial reaction is to pursue what we think is best and most convenient for ourselves and our families. And when things don’t go our way, our knee-jerk reaction is to lash out against those who are complicating our lives.
It is precisely at a time like this, when there is widespread fear and tensions are high, that we must ask ourselves, “What does Hashem want from us?” Because things are so murky and complicated, we have only one path, the way that has helped us survive throughout our history: to listen to what our gedolim are saying and to follow their lead. And even if we don’t understand or we feel differently, we must submit to their thinking.
In the zechus of following daas Torah, the will of Hashem, may we merit great yeshuos soon.