Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

Living with the Mashgiach

Rav Noach Cheifetz spent many years living in Tzefas, the “city of the mekubalim,” where he spearheaded the kiruv movement during the years when very few people were involved in kiruv at all. Today, he lives in Yerushalayim and is one of the most sought-after speakers in the city's yeshivos. The Yated was privileged to an exclusive audience with Rav Noach, who shared reminiscences about Ponovezh Yeshiva, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l, and his experiences of yesteryear. “It is impossible to describe how the mashgiach appeared on Shavuos,” says Rav Noach Cheifetz.

When he refers to “the mashgiach,” there is no need to ask whom he means. Rav Noach is a talmid muvhak of the great mashgiach of the Ponovezh Yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l. Even today, in his eighties, Rav Noach seems to continue living in the Ponovezh of yesteryear.


“You have no idea how much Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach admired the mashgiach, as did the Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman. And not only did they admire him, they also feared him.”


They feared him? Why?


“Because they knew that he was anish Elokim, a man of G-d.”


Today, Rav Noach lives in Yerushalayim. He spent many years living in Tzefas, the “city of the mekubalim,” where he spearheaded the kiruv movement during the years when very few people were involved in kiruv at all. He is known for his rhetorical abilities. Hearing a shmuess from Rav Noach is an incredible experience, partly due to his talents, but mainly because of his spiritual intensity. Ever since he moved to Yerushalayim, he has been one of the most sought-after speakers in the city’s yeshivos, and he serves as a mashgiach of sorts in many yeshivos, especially Heichal HaTorah MiTzion in Har Nof, the yeshiva of Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky.


It does not take much to get Rav Noach to speak about Ponovezh. All you have to do is mention the name and tears spring to his eyes. And the mere mention of “the mashgiach” will cause those tears to flow. When we ask if he remembers what Shauvos was like in Ponovezh, the answer is a resounding yes. Of course he remembers. How could he possibly forget?


“We would learn all night in the bais medrash. The learning was incredibly powerful. The entire bais medrash was filled with Torah. We felt as if we were at Har Sinai. Every hour or hour and a half, the older bochurim would start a niggun, and the entire bais medrash would be swept along with them. We sang Chazu Bonai, Toras Hashem Temimah, Mi Metaheir Eschem


“We would learn the whole night, and even during the day we did not sleep much. The mashgiach infused us with the sense that it would be a shame to squander this day, and no one could imagine wasting those precious hours on sleep. After all, it was the yom hadin for our Torah learning. We learned during the day, as well, and the climax of the Yom Tov came as it was ending.


“Just before the Yom Tov was over, all of the bochurim would go down together to the dining room. We would watch the head table with reverence, as all the rabbonim of the yeshiva sat there. There was Rav Shach, Rav Dovid Povarsky, Reb Shmuel [Rozovsky], and, of course, the mashgiach. Rav Chatzkel looked like an angel. He literally had light streaming from him. I will never forget not only what he said, but even the intonation of the words…”


What did he say?


“He spoke about the value of the Torah and about how to acquire Torah. But the thing that remained most deeply engraved on my heart was the way he spoke about the bochurim. ‘I want to praise you,’ he would say, ‘for the way you learned, with such enthusiasm and such hasmadah. I am pleased by the inspiration that was evident in your learning last night. I want to thank the bochurim who learned here, and I give you my brachah.’ He simply stood there and thanked us, as if we had done him a favor. And then he said something that, for us, was the greatest thing to hear: ‘I am grateful to the bochurim!’ It thrilled us to the depths of our souls to hear that. To think that the mashgiach was grateful to us…”


What did Shavuos mean to the mashgiach?


“It was a time for inspiration – inspiration to serve Hashem, inspiration to learn and to work on our middos. All the time, he constantly reiterated the importance of avodas Hashem. And he did not do it with harsh words of rebuke or by shouting at us. On the contrary, he spoke about it with his sweet smile. He would say the most piercing things with incredible sweetness.”


Did he learn in the bais medrash with you all night?


“No. Most of the time he sat and learned in his room. He also had the seudos at his home, of course.”


The mashgiach’s room was adjacent to the bais medrash of the yeshiva, just outside the door and up a short flight of steps.


Was the Ponovezher Rov present for the mesibah at the end of Shavuos?


“Of course he was there. And, of course, I also remember what he said. But, then again, it’s very easy to remember what the Ponovezher Rov said to us. ‘Only Torah!’ he would cry. That was the essence of his life. ‘Yidden!’ he would call out. ‘You have to learn Torah!’ He would be pleading with us and commanding us at the same time.”


Did the mashgiach also take advantage of the days of Sefirah to inspire you?


“Of course! You cannot imagine what was happening in the yeshiva throughout the 49 days of Sefirah. His shmuessen were like fire! I still relate the same things that the mashgiach said then, many years ago. Just this moment, I came back from giving a shmuess at the yeshiva [Heichal HaTorah MiTzion]. And what do you think I said? Exactly what the mashgiach told us!”


What is that?


“I spoke about the nature of these 49 days between Pesach and Shavuos. They are days of preparation, days when we ascend from the level of ‘they traveled from Refidim,’ which the meforshim explain to mean ‘rafu yedeihem, their hands were weakened,’ meaning that Klal Yisroel became lax in their commitment to Torah learning. That laxity was the archetype of spiritual failures. It is the greatest barrier between us and the Torah. All the meforshim speak about this concept of Refidim. The mashgiach used to quote the Mechiltah that Rashi quotes, which says that Klal Yisroel declared at Matan Torah, ‘Our desire is to see our King.’ That state of seeking and yearning is the key. As a result of that, Hashem gave the Torah. And how could He not accede to such a powerful request and desire?


“Today, I spoke in the yeshiva about Pesach Sheini. That is another subject about which the mashgiach spoke to us at great length. On Pesach Sheini, the Jews came and made a protest. And what were they protesting about? The fact that they had not been able to bring a Korban Pesach. For that, they went out to stage a demonstration! Yet, they were not able to bring the korban because they were tamei. They were impure. As we know, they were tamei because of a mitzvah that they had done. So what was the result going to be? They wouldn’t be able to bring the korban. What was wrong with that? They could simply bring it the following year!


“But they were not willing to accept that. They began to cry and scream and beg, and, as a result, Hashem created something new for them called Pesach Sheini. This was something that hadn’t existed before, and it was created simply because they cried out and pleaded, ‘Why should we be less fortunate than our brethren?’ They begged to be allowed to do the mitzvah and the opportunity was created for them. When a Jew doesn’t give up on a mitzvah, when he truly pleads for it, Hashem answers him. That is an astounding thing to learn, but it also places a great responsibility on us.


“That was also what happened in the case of Na’ami and Rus. Shavuos, as we know, is the yahrtzeit of Dovid Hamelech. Rus the Moavi, the grandmother of Dovid Hamelech, wanted very badly to join the Jewish people. Na’ami saw how hard she was trying to come along with her and she told her, ‘It simply isn’t worthwhile for you. It’s hard to be a Jew. There are so many obligations and so many prohibitions. It’s forbidden to cook meat together with milk, and there are all sorts of sins that are punishable by kareis.’ But Rus did not relent. Instead, she declared, ‘Where you go, I will go.’ Despite everything, she promised to cling to Na’ami. When Hashem sees that, He responds with an outpouring of blessing. Rus became the ancestress of Dovid Hamelech and of Moshiach. Why? Simply because she insisted on going with her mother-in-law and joining Klal Yisroel.


“In the yeshiva world, we have a word for this: sheifos, aspirations. The mashgiach used to speak about this all the time. He insisted that we must have sheifos. He spoke in Yiddish, but I will explain it to you in the vernacular of today. He told us that we had to go ‘full throttle.’ It wasn’t enough just to learn. We had to have the desire to master the entire masechta, to know all of Shas. And he taught us that if we truly wanted that, if we truly pleaded for it and toiled to attain it, Hashem would shower us with twice that much as a blessing.


“The mashgiach used to tell us something that is quoted in the name of the Chasam Sofer and the Rashash: The avodah of a Jew all year long is dependent on the days of Sefiras Ha’omer, and especially on the fiftieth day, which is Shavuos. These are holy days, days of great potential. It is enough for us to simply remember that these days have the ability to raise the Jewish people from the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity all the way to the bottom of Har Sinai to the level of those who received the Torah and saw the Shechinah and practically to the level of nevuah. And all of that happened because Klal Yisroel declared, ‘Our desire is to see our King.’ That spiritual growth is a product of the desire, the yearning, and the aspirations – the sheifos. The mashgiach spoke about this constantly. ‘You must aspire to be a gadol baTorah!’ he would exhort us.


Did he speak about having proper middos, as well?


“Of course! What sort of question is that? Is there such a thing as Torah or hasmadah without proper middos?”


The mashgiach was very fond of his talmid, Noach Cheifetz. When Rav Noach got married, his wedding took place in Tel Aviv, and the mashgiach surprised everyone by announcing that he would attend the wedding, despite the fact that he had made a resolution never to travel to Tel Aviv. The mashgiach was known to say that a single visit to Tel Aviv could cause a person to lose the effects of years of mussar, yet, despite all of that, he was prepared to go to Tel Aviv for Rav Noach’s wedding. The mashgiach arrived at the wedding in a car with curtained windows.


When Rav Noach, who was then one of the most prominent students in the yeshiva, began to take interest in the Breslover chassidus, he was uncertain if the mashgiach would approve. Rav Chatzkel, after all, was a firm proponent of the style of Mir and Kelm. Indeed, the mashgiach would often greet Rav Noach by saying, “Nu, how is our chossid?” The two spoke about the situation on a number of occasions and the mashgiach would often wonder, “What were you lacking in the yeshiva that you found in chassidus?” The young Noach explained to his rebbi that he found chassidus to be an aid to his avodas Hashem. “When the mashgiach saw that it helped me serve Hashem, not only did he not oppose it, but he even encouraged me. He said to me, ‘I see that this is also a derech in avodas Hashem, and I give you a brachah that you should continue pursuing it and be successful…’


“I want you to know,” Rav Noach tells us, “that I am still deeply affected by the mashgiach’s shmuessen even today. And I am not the only one. Ask any of his talmidim. Ask Rav Don Segal or his talmidim in the Mirrer Yeshiva in America. You will find that they are all profoundly influenced by him even now.”


What would the mashgiach say we should take with us from Shavuos?


Shavuos is a Yom Tov that affects the entire year. It is a time for a new beginning in learning Torah, in understanding the Torah, and in the development of middos. But there is one condition: It has this effect only if we have unity among ourselves. Klal Yisroel came to Har Sinai ‘like one man, with one heart.’ When the Torah says that they encamped at the mountain, it says vayichan, in the singular, because they were like one person. That is what Shavuos is about. This is the spiritual potential in Shavuos that we must draw upon. If not for the unity that existed among us, we would not have experienced Maamad Har Sinai.


“It took generations for that to happen. In a shmuess last week, I spoke about the talmidim of Rebbi Akiva, who passed away between Pesach and Shavuos. As we know, Rav Shimon bar Yochai was a talmid of Rebbi Akiva, and he was one of those who survived. Lag Ba’omer was the day the plague ended, and it is therefore a Yom Tov in the middle of Sefirah. The Zohar relates that Rav Shimon bar Yochai said, ‘My peers died in a plague, but you should not be that way.’ That is Rav Shimon barYochai’s command to all generations: for all of us to treat each other with respect. If we achieve that level of unity, we can repel all those who seek to do us harm.”




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