Friday, May 24, 2024

The Poetry of Lita With an American Accent: Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin zt”l

Vashki has lost its last son.

Vashki was a quintessential Litvishe shtetel, where Jews lived for hundreds of years. Vashki, a primarily Jewish town in the heart of Lithuania, near Ponovezh and not far from Telz, has lost its only remaining son and a long glorious chain has been interrupted.

Led for decades by his grandfather, for whom he was named, it was populated by simple, goodhearted people whose lives evolved around avodas Hashem. Steeped in mesorah, driven by emunah and bitachon, engrossed in Torah, the seemingly simple people were not simple at all. With a burning determination to maintain the greatness of Klal Yisroel that they embodied, their simplicity was matched by their holiness.

Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin zt”l was the last serving son of that town and its great traditions. His outward simplicity shielded the depth of commitment and greatness in Torah that he embodied. His refinement was testimony to his solid foundations and upbringing, and a lifetime of constant climbing, ascending the ladder of greatness rung by rung.

I am having a mental block as I try to write about Rav Levin. My mind is numb; my fingers refuse to type.

Klal Yisroel lost a gadol. The United States lost a favorite rosh yeshiva. Chicago lost its Torah leader. Telz lost its crown. I lost my uncle.

He wasn’t just my uncle. He was the surviving member of the family that escaped from Vashki. He was my mother. He was my grandfather.

He was the personification of everything that made Lithuanian Jewry great. He was the person I looked up to. The one I spoke to when there was no one else who would understand. A person to consult with and present many of the issues that cropped up in the Yated over the years. He would read articles and comment, review ads and say yes or no. He was always supportive of me publicly and privately and that meant so much to me. He was a constant in my life. The pride of the family. The one who carried within him the middos and daas of Kelm. Of Radin. Of Vashki. And of course, of Telz.

I never learned in Telz, but whenever I visited my uncle and the Telzer Yeshiva, I knew that I was in the presence of greatness.

Everything in Telz was different than the places I had studied, the Chicago Telz bais medrash shined. There was always a certain seriousness you didn’t sense elsewhere. Everyone in that holy room was earnest and punctilious, with a smile indicating that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Even the shtenders are different there, throwbacks to a different era, each one with its own personality and charm.

A large pyramid. And at its crown, the focus of hundreds of pairs of eyes and heads, stood Rav Avrohom Chaim.

He stands no more. I am overwhelmed by a longing I cannot bear. He was the conduit to my heritage, the regal epitome of the Litvishe Torah royalty that once was.

To understand Rav Levin, you had to know his father.

I once asked his father, my grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin, what his rebbi, Rav Doniel of Kelm, was like. He said to me: “Reb Doniel iz geven ah malach.” He didn’t repeat any stories. No tales, no Torahs, no shmuessen. He didn’t look me in the eye, as was his habit when he spoke to someone. We were sitting in his study. He looked down at his well-worn desk. I still remember it like today. “Ehr iz geven ah malach,” he repeated. His rebbi in Kelm, who had a tremendous influence on him, could best be described as a malach.

He didn’t tell me more. He said I wouldn’t understand. It was a different era, a different world.

At the levayah, as Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin was being maspid, those words came back to me. As I heard Rav Sorotzkin say, “Rav Avrohom Chaim iz geven ah malach,” my mind drifted off and I was back in my zaide’s house, talking to him about Rav Doniel and Kelm. He was telling me, “Ehr iz geven ah malach, ober du kenst dos nit farshtein.” And I was telling him that his son is a malach – un dos ken ich farshtein.

At the levayah, the maspid was saying that Rav Avrohom Chaim hid his greatness, but if you knew who he was and watched how he conducted himself, you saw greatness in everything he did. And once again, my mind drifted back to me zaide’s house on George Washington Avenue in Southfield, Michigan.

My zaide learned in the Radin Yeshiva for many years and slept in the Chofetz Chaim’s home for a year and a half. I asked him what the Chofetz Chaim looked like. He responded that the Chofetz Chaim looked like a poshuter Yid. “If you didn’t know who he was, you thought he was a simple person. Az men hut nit gevust, hut men gornit gezen. If you didn’t know, you didn’t see anything. Uber az men hut gevust, hut men altz gezen. But if you knew who he was, then you saw everything.”

And I couldn’t help thinking of my grandfather’s zechus to raise a son blessed with the attributes of his holy rebbi.

While he grew up in a home steeped in the Torah and mussar of Radin and Kelm, growing up as a young boy in Detroit was quite different than back home in Vashki. For one, there were no yeshivos in town. His father was friendly with Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch in Lita, and when the visiting Telz rosh yeshiva became stuck in America as the war broke out and didn’t know what became of his family, he spent Yom Tov with the Levins in Detroit.

As soon as young Avrohom Chaim became of age to leave home, he was naturally sent to Telz. But sending a son to yeshiva was not the natural thing back then. In a reminiscing mood, my grandfather told me that when he arrived in Detroit, there were 32 rabbonim there. They didn’t want him. They said that there were enough rabbis in town already and he should find someplace else to go. Sadly, he commented that “Fun zei alleh iz gurnit gebliben.” Those rabbis were forgotten, as their families assimilated and no religious children remained.

Ich hob em avek geshikt. I had one son, and I sent him away to Telz and therefore he remained.”

With an iron will and steel determination, Rav Leizer arrived in this country with nothing but the spiritual strengths and possessions transported in his heart and soul from Lita and transmitted that to his children.

When Rav Avrohom Chaim was sent to Chicago by Rav Mottel Katz to open the Telz Yeshiva, that spiritual heritage was brought to bear. A young man in a strange new city that didn’t want him, Rav Levin, soft with sterling middos, was strong and unbending when it came to ensuring that Torah would be replanted and take root in the capital of the Midwest. His determination was rewarded in ways he probably never imagined on the lonely day he arrived in the Windy City, but today Chicago is an ihr v’eim b’Yisroel, pulsating with Torah and all that flows from it.

He seeded it, shepherded it, fertilized it, pruned it, and presided over it. Thousands of bnei Torah now proudly say, “I come from Chicago. I come from Telz.”

Torah was his lifeblood. Torah is what charged him, what fueled him, and what empowered him. He loved to learn. He loved to learn with talmidim. His face shined as he said shiur, going back and forth with the shakla vetarya of the Gemara, citing Rishonim, Acharonim and his rabbeim, the giants of Telz. He smiled as he saw the young minds absorb the chakirah and follow along as he supported this side and then the other.

Nothing but Torah motivated him. It was never about him. It was always about Torah, Telz and the Ribono Shel Olam. Though he was exceedingly humble, he could not be pressured or swayed. Money meant nothing to him. Blessed with sound judgment and steeped in chochmas haTorah and yiras Shomayim, a loyal talmid to his rabbeim and a loving rebbi to his own talmidim, he was rock solid when it came to securing Torah causes and maintaining his mesorah.

That mesorah traces its way back to the Torah and mussar giant, Rav Yisroel Salanter. Rav Leizer Gordon, known as Rav Leizer Telzer, and the Alter of Kelm studied together under Rav Yisroel. They absorbed his greatness in Torah coupled with a lifelong mission of self-improvement and growth of mussar, motivated by a search for the emes – truth – in everything. Rav Leizer Gordon was rov of Kelm for some nine years. A short time after leaving, he was selected as rov of Telz and took over the small yeshiva there.

After a slow start, the fame of the yeshiva and its rosh yeshiva spread far and wide. When the famed Volozhin Yeshiva was closed, Telz became the largest yeshiva in Lita. Rav Leizer Telzer stood out for his love, his love of Hashem, his love of people, his love of Torah, and his love of his talmidim. As much as he loved his talmidim, that is how much they loved him.

When he entered the bais medrash to deliver shiur, an electricity gripped the talmidim.

That was the mesorah that was handed down by the roshei yeshiva of Telz, the mesorah that Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch transplanted to America and transmitted to Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin. He loved everyone, and everyone loved him.

Rav Levin was the poetry of Lita with an American accent.

He possessed gadlus in Torah coupled with a strength of purpose. He was dignified, refined and disciplined, reflecting a life spent attaining perfection. He was suffused with love, determination, happiness and an inner satisfaction that was always evident no matter the circumstances. His face shined as his eyebrows came together and he took charge of a situation, clearly sizing it up, doing what had to be done, and saying what needed to be said.

He measured his words carefully, never speaking out of place, never saying the wrong thing, and many times, especially in his later years, preferring the mode of silence over speech.

A posuk (Bereishis 38:26) in the parsha of the week in which Rav Levin was niftar states, Vayaker Yehudah vayomer tzodkoh mimeni.” Rashi (ad loc.) quotes the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 99:8) which states that Hashem said to Yehudah, “You admitted – hodisu – to the incident with Tamar, your brothers will praise you – yoducha – to be their king.”

Rav Levin’s rebbi muvhak, Rav Eliyohu Meir, writes that usually, when we think about a king, we think of a person with many ministers who jump at his command and an army to defend his country and police it. Upon deeper thought, however, you realize that such a king is not empowered by himself, but rather by his minions who keep him in power. His kingdom depends upon his finding favor in the eyes of his countrymen. The monarch doesn’t control his own destiny. His followers do.

The Torah teaches that a person worthy of the title king is someone whose positive attributes place him on a higher plane than everyone else. A real king is one who controls himself and doesn’t let others control him. Before ruling over others, he rules over himself.

Therefore, Chazal say that Yehudah merited serving as king because he had the strength of character and purpose not to fear the embarrassment he would suffer from admitting the truth. He could have easily preserved his dignity and hidden what really happened, yet he stuck to the truth, even though that meant degrading himself.

That is malchus. That is the malchus the avos longed for and the Torah praises. A person who is loyal to the truth at all costs has the attributes of a powerful king, for he rules over himself.

Rav Avrohom Chaim ruled over Telz, Chicago, the Midwest and national Agudah and Torah Umesorah, but he was a melech because he ruled over himself.

He was steeped in mussar and self-control, the mussar of Telz, of Rav Eliyohu Meir, of Kelm, of his father, and of his wife’s grandfather, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein.

The Gemara in Eiruvin (13b) states that Hashem raises people who are humble and puts down those who are conceited. High positions elude those who chase after them, but pursues those who run from them.

Rav Avrohom Chaim never sought to be anything more than a loyal talmid to his rebbi, and no matter what he accomplished, he always viewed himself humbly in that vein.

Chazal say (Tana Devei Eliyohu 25) that every person is obligated to ask, “When will my actions reach those of my forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov?”

We are obligated to ask, “When will I have their dedication to the emes, their strength of purpose, their perseverance despite many obstacles and people who mocked them and didn’t appreciate their mission?”

Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin viewed himself as a talmid on a mission, but every day he asked those questions and every day he got closer to matching up.

He eschewed honor and attained malchus.

The Vilna Gaon writes in Even Sheleimah that the parsha of the week in which Rav Levin passed away, Vayeishev, is the parsha of ikvesa deMeshicha, hinting to the period in which we live, prior to the coming of Moshiach.

Rabi Elazar taught (Sanhedrin 98b) that the way to be spared from chevlei Moshiach, the terrible pains that will precede Moshiach’s arrival, is to study Torah and engage in acts of kindness.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman explained that the relationship of Yosef with his brothers is akin to the relationship of the Bnei Yisroel with the nations of the world. Gemillus chassodim involves people acting peacefully with each other.

He cites the Gemara (Sotah 49b) that says that chevlei Moshiach primarily involve hatred between people. Therefore, husband and wife should seek to maintain harmony between themselves and their children. The most important factor in raising children is that the home be one of peace and happiness. That way, the children will also be happy and content. However, if they experience tension in the home, they will be tense, sad and angry.

There must also be peace between us. The posuk states that when Yaakov Avinu arrived in Eretz Yisroel, “Vayei’oveik ish imo,” the Soton, the representative of Eisov, did battle with him to hold him back from entering the Holy Land.

The Soton causes Jews to quarrel with one another, preventing the geulah. Increasing peace and brotherhood among the Jewish people weakens the power of the Soton and brings us closer to the redemption.

In our day, as we daven for Moshiach and dance around the candles, which represent purity and Torah, we should seek to increase peace and brotherhood among our people so that Moshiach can arrive with a minimum amount of pain.

Rav Levin aspired his whole life for peace between brothers, for greatness in Torah and avodah, for middos tovos and seriousness in tefillah. Let us emulate him.

Tehei nishmaso tzerurah betzror hachaim.



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