Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l On His First Yahrtzeit

It is difficult to believe that a full year has passed since the petirah of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l. He was the rosh yeshiva of everyone, from those who learned in his own yeshiva, Zichron Meilech, to the entire Olam HaTorah. In his quiet way, though desperate to avoid the limelight, he was the undisputed leader, defender, advocate and champion of bnei Torah everywhere. For advice, for guidance, for clarity, or simply for chizuk, people – whether talmidim, mechanchim, or just Jews from anywhere – turned to him. Without fail, they left invariably enriched from the experience.

When one loses a loved one, r”l, the seforim tell us that the unbearable void and ache lessens – at least to some extent – with the passage of time. When it comes to an adam gadol, besides the ache for the loss of our beloved mentor and guide, there is also the acute awareness that we suddenly have no one to give us that guidance. That awareness only grows more and more acute over time. The questions, the issues, the confusions, pile up, and we are hit again and again by the awareness that the rosh yeshiva is no longer here.

Another Shabbos without his shmuess; another Yom Tov without his inimitable, concise and incisive commentary; another world event without his uncanny ability to cut through the distractions and diversions and zero in on exactly what lessons we should be taking from this occurrence. With the inexorable passage of time, we may, somehow, get used to the eerie feeling of not having the rosh yeshiva here with us. However, his guidance, his teachings, his advice, his warmth, his direction and leadership are irreplaceable.

Rav Chaim had the astuteness and sensitivity to sense a breach long before others did, and he stood in that breach like a lion in defense and protection of her cubs. He was, however, remarkably unique in this regard, because while his resolve was steel and unyielding when it came to matters of Torah, kavod haTorah and the honor of those who learn Torah, he was at the same time almost impossibly hesitant and unassertive.

For every word he said when he spoke out, there were thousands of words he clearly held back, and no matter how much he was pushed, he could not be budged to speak. Even when he clearly and definitely understood the Torah path to be one way, if expressing or following that path could even conceivably cause or lead to machlokes, he twisted and bent painfully and readily accepted the worst heartache or humiliation if it meant somehow avoiding such machlokes.

The above, as well as a great number of the stories and vignettes about Rav Chaim, seem to have one major component at their core: Rav Chaim was a man who thought through each word, each action, each Torah and hashkafik point thoroughly and relentlessly, until his last holy breath left his body. He never “just did” or “just said” anything. Everything – everything – was thought out and calculated through the prism of emes and what Hashem would want.

Sure, he was an adam gadol, a mushlam, a kadosh whose depth and essence we could never fathom and whose heights we can never hope to reach unless we ourselves worked to reach the greatness he did. Even so, it was living a life of constant thinking – something he worked no doubt with great difficulty to attain – that was perhaps one of the unifying threads of his greatness. If we would only think through our words and deeds before we said or did them – as he did – we would find ourselves able to at least mimic a substantial percentage of his gadlus.

One of his oft-cited teachings was that it is to use our seichel iyuni, our thinking mind (as opposed to our seichel ma’asi, our book smarts), that is the purpose for which Hashem placed us in this world.

Before he gave his shiur, he thought: Am I saying this shtickel Torah because it is geshmak, or because it will help the talmidim to better understand the sugya? Looking through his copious notes after his petirah, one is shocked and awed by the brilliance, the depth, the breadth, clarity and grasp he had in every sugya is Shas. Shocked, because he rarely gave anyone even the tiniest glimpse into how much he truly knew. He said in shiur only as much as he felt was necessary to help the talmidim gain clarity in the sugya or learn how to learn. Anything more than that was unnecessary.

He kept his thoughts, his chiddushim, his knowledge inside for ten, twenty, thirty years and more. Many people would plotz with the need to divulge so much geshmakeh Torah. He thought before each word he uttered. If one word, one shtickel, was unnecessary to share, it never crossed his lips.

Before he gave a shmuess, he thought: Can anything I say be misconstrued? Will anyone in the crowd take my words personally where I don’t mean them as such? Will anyone be insulted? Will anything possibly cause machlokes? He would spend hours upon hours fine-tuning even just one sentence, if it meant being able to give over the proper hadrochah or hashkofah without causing ill will or machlokes. More than once, he didn’t say a shmuess he had worked upon for hours if he noticed at the last second someone in the crowd who he felt might take his words personally or in the wrong way.

Before – and during – every interaction, he thought about what to say, what to do, and why he was doing what he did. Is it right? Are my motives pure? Will it bring kavod Shomayim? He thought, constantly, about what our true purpose is in the world, what can help us attain it, and what can take us farther away from our goals. Is it any chiddush, then, that we hear story after story about how “in a split second,” the rosh yeshiva realized what would come about five steps from any given action or idea and was invariably right in his assessment? The thought that came to him in “a split second” was a result of a lifetime of constant thinking.

No doubt, his incisive, straightforward, “split second” clarity was also the result of a mind filled solely with Torah and daas Torah, of a lifetime of yegi’ah and ameilus, of siyata diShmaya granted to someone who had brought himself so close to the “Shmaya.” All that is surely true, but what might be most within our grasp to emulate is at least to simply think, as he did, before we speak, act or do. By thinking alone, we are already a significant part of the way there.

Rav Chaim was highly attuned to the most subtle nuances and gradations involved – or which could potentially result – from any action or, conversely, a lack of action. Many of his shmuessen highlighted small and seemingly insignificant changes or declines taking place in our lifestyles, our chinuch, our homes, our expectations, our ideals or our principles. He would remind us that change almost always takes place slowly, and usually below the radar. By the time we realize what is happening, however, it is often too late.

He was able to discern which changes were truly insignificant or were merely a sign of the times, and which could potentially – perhaps even ten or twenty years down the road – bring about far more insidious or destructive results. He was always, uncannily, on the mark. No doubt, his conduct of continuously thinking things through – using a Torah lens unclouded by personal negi’os or prejudice – was instrumental in allowing him to see what so many others failed to appreciate or recognize.

In this, too, he was merely following in the ways of the Rishonim he so often quoted, notably among them the Chovos Halevavos, who enjoin us to never be satisfied or fooled by short-term or immediate outcomes and developments, but rather to always be ro’eh es hanolad, to see what might be, what can result and what may be longer-term ramifications.

Certain new methods of teaching that somewhat lessened the esteem and awe in which rabbeim, the Torah they taught, or letters of the Alef Bais, had always been held were suggested. Proponents of the system pointed to positive results they had found with their new methodology. Rav Chaim didn’t necessarily argue with those results. He asked, though, whether anyone had taken all possible long-term results into account as well. Was short-term gain worth a long-term lowering of the talmid’s esteem and awe in which he had always held his rebbi and every letter of Torah until now? Why are we learning and teaching in the first place? What are the goals? Are we after knowledge or yiras Shomayim?

He asked, probed, scrutinized and never lost sight of the true goals we were after. He saw through the fluff and facades, the shams and delusions, the self-interests and the propaganda. His one interest was ratzon Hashem, and he could not – would not – be distracted.

His vision was so fine-tuned and nuanced, that people often had no idea what he wanted until much later when, in hindsight, everything came into such crystal-clear focus that it left one breathless.

He would point out how easily we are fooled into thinking that two items on the radio – the traffic and weather reports – are indeed completely kosher from a Torah viewpoint. What do the traffic reports tell us? A tractor trailer overturned, a fatal accident is blocking two lanes, a three-car pileup is causing massive rubbernecking… And what should we do? Take the alternate route to avoid any disturbances.

“What does this do to our sensitivity?” Rav Chaim would ask. “True, we might need to get someplace and need to know how to get there, but do we think about whether our feelings, our sensitivity, our empathy for others is in any way dulled by listening day after day to horrific, life-altering occurrences taking place in other’s lives, and thinking no further than, ‘Take the earlier exit?’”

The weather report has what to contemplate as well. Is it supposed to rain tomorrow? Is it supposed to cool off? “Supposed to?” he would ask. “Ver zogt?” Of course the current weather pattern may indicate rain if that pattern continues. Rav Chaim possessed a wealth of knowledge in a great number of secular wisdoms – engineering, medicine, history, meteorology and so many others – and he understood quite well how the models worked for predicting weather.

One must never forget, though, he taught, that if we are deserving of rain, it will rain. If not, then it won’t. Sure, Hashem runs the world as if there is a natural way, a scientific explanation. We must never forget, though, even for a second, that a weather report is nothing more than a prediction of what can occur. Changes take place quite frequently, however, with no scientific explanation, simply because Hashem willed it so.

(This is not to say that the rosh yeshiva allowed or disallowed traffic or weather reports. It is to point out that there is far more to even the most seemingly “innocuous” things we hear and absorb than we might first realize, and that these things bear contemplation.)

Another example of Rav Chaim’s nuanced thinking is a Merdash Rabbah in Shir Hashirim (1:20). The Medrash tells of the bais medrash where Rav Eliezer delivered his shiurim. There was a stone in that bais medrash upon which Rav Eliezer would sit when he gave the shiurim. One time, after Rav Eliezer’s petirah, Rav Yehoshua walked in to that bais medrash. He proceeded to kiss that stone reverently. “This stone is like Har Sinai,” he proclaimed. “And he who sat upon it (Rav Eliezer) is like the holy Aron, the Ark of the Covenant.”

What lesson would we learn from such a Medrash? Perhaps, that we, too, should try to attain, hold, or kiss similar items associated with our great men?

Rav Chaim did not see it that way. Clearly, the Medrash is teaching us that even physical items associated with our great sages become imbued with their own intrinsic holiness. It is due to that very holiness, Rav Chaim said, that he could never bring himself to even go near such holy items. Perhaps Rav Yehoshua was worthy, but us?

When someone told Rav Chaim about his visit to Volozhin and how excited he had been to walk in to the Volozhiner Bais Medrash, the very bais medrash where the holy Rav Chaim of Volozhin walked, Rav Chaim blanched.

“I could never bring myself to walk into such an awesome place of holiness,” he maintained. “Rav Chaim Volozhiner walked there! How could I have the temerity to step foot in the same place?”

(Again, he did not necessarily tell people that they should not visit. Only that he could never do so.)

Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, his “great rebbe” whom he constantly quoted and of whom he lived his entire life as a talmid, would give an example, Rav Chaim explained, of the awe that one should feel when standing on Rosh Hashanah before our Creator. It is known that anyone who found himself in the presence of the great Gaon of Vilna would be overcome with an unnatural awe. Their teeth would chatter and they were completely awestruck before his great and holy presence. If this is how it was before the Vilna Gaon, Rav Aharon would say, how should we feel when standing before Hakadosh Boruch Hu Himself?

Rav Aharon’s moshol is our nimshol, Rav Chaim said. What he took as a given, that everyone could relate to the awe of standing before the Vilna Gaon, is something we, today, need to learn and internalize. Do we stand in awe before gedolim and talmidei chachomim today, he asked, or are we busy getting a good picture?

The true value of Torah, of talmidei chachomim, of kollel yungeleit, of a seder in learning, of keeping each and every mitzvah, of thinking, of growing, of sensitivity to others, of living with a constant awareness of why we are here and what Hashem wants us to accomplish through any given nisayon and at any given moment – these are but small glimpses of the greatness with which Rav Chaim lived and the legacy he left us to follow.