Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel’s Emotional Drasha in Vilna

Drasha Delivered at a Dirshu Melava Malka During a Two-Day Visit to Lita with Leading Gedolim, with Visits to the Kevorim of the Chofetz Chaim and the Vilna Gaon


I feel a sense of cherdas kodesh, holy trepidation, as I stand here in front of senior and elder gedolei Yisroel. It is difficult for me to put my deepest feelings into words after spending such a Shabbos here in Vilna with an extraordinary gathering of gedolei Yisroel. The kavod haTorah that I saw this Shabbos, and the remarkable achdus between gedolim representing all of Klal Yisroel, was simply wondrous.

We are here in Vilna, the Yerushalayim of Lita, and my feelings, to paraphrase the words of Chumash, are: “Ma nora hamakom hazehhamakom she’atah omeid olov avnas kodesh.”

To be in this holy place, the center of Torah in Lita, the place where the light of the Vilna Gaon’s Torah shone forth, is overwhelming. Rav Chaim Volozhiner wrote about the Gaon that he was like the Rashba and perhaps even like the Rambam. The greatest gedolim trembled when they mentioned the Gaon’s name, and we now have the zechus to be here. The dybbuk said that in Shomayim, they tremble when the Gaon eats. Even the goyim, who had no connection to kedusha, began to tremble when they looked at his face. And we are here, in his city, near his kever.

We visited the kever of the Ger Tzedek, Avrohom ben Avrohom, known as Graf Pototzki. Two-hundred years of brutal Czarist rule and even more brutal kefirah of the Communists could not extinguish and quiet the famous niggun of “aval anachnu bnei brisecha, bnei Avrohom…” that the Ger Tzedek sang before he made the brocha of “asher kideshanu b’mitzvosav vetzivanu al kiddush Hashem.”

The Personal Connection to Vilna: “She’asa Li Neis Bamakom Hazeh”

We are here in Vilna, which was the makom of Torah of Europe led before the war by the kedoshim, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer [Grodzensky]. I also feel a very deep, personal connection to Vilna as the place where I personally must thank Hashem “she’asah li neis bamakom hazeh – who performed a miracle for me in this place.” Vilna was the place where the Mirrer Yeshiva and my ancestors were saved from the churban of Europe.

It was the place where bnei Torah found refuge in Europe. Just like in Yetzias Mitzrayim, before Krias Yam Suf, the bnei Yisroel found the Mitzriyim behind them, wild animals on each side of them and the sea in front of them, and they had no place to go, so, too, my grandparents and all of the bnei yeshiva had the Nazis on one side, the Communists on the other side, and an indifferent world on the third side, with nowhere to go. Suddenly, Hashem opened up a miraculous plan through the Japanese counsel, Chiune Sugihara, who signed thousands of visas despite the fact that Japan had been closed for years without a visa being signed and despite the fact that the Japanese hated the Jews and were allies of the Nazis. Hashem made a neis here in Vilna that led to the hatzolah of Torah and the hatzolah of the Mirrer Yeshiva.

The cities we visited – Vilna, Radin, Kovna – are holy places that made us tremble in awe. I feel that it is difficult to even open my mouth and speak here in Vilna, a place of such kedusha. As Hagaon Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Chevron, said earlier, “When they wanted to move the kever of the Gaon from the old bais hachaim to the new one [because the Communists were destroying the old one], the three people who were involved in moving the kever all died within that year.” Can we even comprehend the kedusha that is here?

Our generation is standing at the door of the geulah. We know that the geulah is almost here, but at the same time, we are terrified. The heilige Amoraim tell us (Sanhedrin 98b) that they were so scared of this period that they told Hashem that they would rather not live through it if they could be spared the pain and suffering. [Ulla says: Let Moshiach come, but after my death, so that I will not see him, as I fear the suffering that will precede his coming… Rabba says: Let Moshiach come, but after my death, so that I will not see him.]

It is said about the Sar HaTorah, HaGaon Rav Chaim Kanievsky,  that when he was young, by the time Ne’ilah arrived on Yom Kippur, he was so terrified of the din on the Yom Hakadosh. What did he do? He stood next to his father, the Steipler, because maybe the zechus of his holy father would stand him in good stead.

What can we do? Where can we run? The only place we can run is the zechus of the Gaon himself, the light of the world. “Habeit mishomayim ure’eih – Look from Shomayim and see what they have done to your children.” We must beg Hashem. We cannot keep quiet anymore at a time like this.

“Making It” in Our World

I feel so small standing here in front of the elder gedolim, but please, allow me to share with you one small feeling about what we can take away from this remarkable Shabbos here in Vilna.

The story about the Dubno Maggid and the Vilna Gaon is well known. The Maggid once asked the Gaon, “Is it a chochmah to sit in your room with the door shut, the window hermetically sealed, and totally separate yourself from the world?”

The Gaon answered, “I am not looking to engage in chochmos! All I want to do is toil in Torah and perform the task that Hashem has placed on me. I am not a kuntz macher!”

People think that in order to really grow and be successful, you need certain requirements. You have to be smart or even brilliant. You need money, charisma, a degree, and oratory skills. You have to be a person who can address mass gatherings, build a chesed organization or a chesed empire. Unless you have these qualities, you haven’t “made it.” What does the regular yungerman do? What does an average bochur in yeshiva do? The average yungerman or an average bochur will never “make it,” right?

This entire premise is a terrible mistake! Gadlus baTorah is not charisma or oratory skills. “Lo b’raash Hashem, lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach.” Hashem’s present is not with “shock and awe.” The Novi says that armies and power are not what allows a person to prevail. Only Hashem’s spirit does!

We see through history itself that great gedolim did not get to where they were because of their oratorical skills or charisma. Every word they said and wrote reverberated from one end of the world to the other, despite not necessarily possessing those qualities.

How did they do it? By sitting in front of a Gemara learning, one daf after another, quietly and modestly. How did the Chazon Ish, who had no official position, become the gadol hador? Great people can grow to greatness in the corner of a quiet bais medrash. From that corner, their light can illuminate from one end of the world to the other.

It All Depends on Siyata DiShmaya: No Effort Goes to Waste

Everything depends on siyata diShmaya. A person must only do his part. Men darf ton, nisht oif ton. Our job is to do our part. Whether we will be successful is up to Hashem.

I was speaking with Rav Dovid Hofstedter today, and he admitted to me that he could never have dreamed that Dirshu would get to where it is today. At the end of the day, everything is siyata diShmaya.

Every person must realize that everything is in Hashem’s Hands. Our job is just to add a drop of mesirus nefesh. However, one doesn’t know what a drop of mesirus nefesh can accomplish!

There is a tree that originally comes from China called the bamboo. The bamboo stays in the ground for five years from the time it is planted till it begins to grow above ground. It is said that originally, someone planted it, gave it water and fertilizer, and left. He waited two weeks and nothing grew. He kept on watering it. He waited a month, six months, a year…and then, all of a sudden, during the fifth year, it began to grow a meter. Within a month, it was ten feet high! What a lesson! A person must keep at it. We should never look askance at even one drop of water, because all of the drops combine to eventually produce a mammoth plant. Sometimes it takes time, but in the end, one will see the fruits of his labor.

Indeed, no one can know what one daf of Gemara can do, what one brocha uttered with kavanah can do, what one tefillah can do. Even one more piece of guidance in chinuch. All of these eventually combine, and all of a sudden, one day, everything grows.

Why did we come here? Why did we come to Radin, to Vilna, to Kovna? Why davka did we come here to daven and pour out our hearts? Because, here, these holy places are the source of the mesirus nefesh for Torah and Yiddishkeit. Here is where everything was cultivated with kiddush Hashem. Can we even begin to comprehend the far-reaching repercussions of one Jew, two hundred years ago, such as Graf Pototzki sacrificing his life al kiddush Hashem? That power still has an impact today.

It Wasn’t the Vilna Gaon’s Genius that Made Him into the Vilna Gaon

Look at the [Vilna] Gaon. How did he grow to be so great? Do you think it was his genius of mind? No. It was his amal, his toiling, his backbreaking investment of effort into learning. It was his thirst for Torah and his yiras Shomayim that were even greater than his knowledge. It was because he didn’t sleep more than a half hour at a time. That is how he grew.

Look at what is transpiring with lomdei Dirshu. Tens of thousands of people learning, in virtually every corner of the world. I get goosebumps just thinking about the fact that it is projected that 50,000 new lomdim will join the new Dirshu cycle. All these people are not starving for food or drink. They don’t want gashmiyus. All they want is lishmoah es devar Hashem, to hear and understand the devar Hashem.

If you want to know about koach, what power we have to storm the heavens with our tefillos, it is the power of the quiet lomdim, learning in their quiet corners all over the world, reviewing and knowing Hashem’s Torah. That is all they want in Shomayim.

Perhaps, when people see amazingly successful organizations, they may think: What is the big deal? It can’t be that difficult to get an organization going. All you need is an abundance of wealth, cleverness, a bit of energy, and to be a talmid chochom with a vision, and presto! You can establish such an organization!

No! Anyone who thinks that way is making an egregious error. I am not talking lomdus to you here. I am sharing my own experience with you. Look at the last two years. Let’s say you have a large yeshiva like the Mirrer Yeshiva. People think that you make a large dinner, you invite wealthy people, you make a great program, and automatically you make a lot of money for the yeshiva. What happened in the last two years? Barely anyone made a dinner. Most of us didn’t travel to America or Europe, and you know what? The yeshivos are still in business. Not only that, but they are more successful than ever.

It is only siyata diShmaya. If you have siyata diShmaya, you have everything, and without it, you have nothing.

The Secret of Dirshu

My dear friend, Rav Dovid Hofstedter, has many good qualities. He has a vision and a dream. He is a talmid chochom and he has a staff devoted heart and soul to Dirshu. But that is not the secret of Dirshu’s success. The secret is siyata diShmaya. Many others have tried to implement great and sweeping projects. But he was successful, and they weren’t. Why? He has the ruach Hashem with him. He has the siyata diShmaya that Dirshu has been accepted with love and enthusiasm by all of Klal Yisroel. We have to thank Rav Dovid for what he has done, because without a doubt, one needs zechusim to have such siyata diShmaya. “Ein lonu shiur rak haTorah hazos -We have nothing left but the Torah…” Rav Dovid was chosen by Hashgocha to elevate the keren haTorah in this lowly generation. He was chosen to somehow synthesize in harmony all of the varied shevotim in Klal Yisroel, led by their respective gedolim, thereby unifying bnei Torah not only in Eretz Yisroel but in every community in the world where frum Yidden can be found. This creates kavod haTorah in a profound way.

I also want to speak about a related matter, and that is what is unique and special about this Shabbos that we just spent together. Rav Dovid has brought gedolei Torahrebbes and roshei yeshiva, and dayanim from the entire spectrum of Chareidi Jewry, together here in profound achdus. So many countries and so many Yidden of all stripes are represented here today. What an amazing sight see!

Chazal tell us that one of the most beautiful sights in the world was when all of Klal Yisroel was oleh regel, going up to the Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim on Yom Tov. The posuk refers to this as “Ma yafo pa’amayim bane’alim – How beautiful are your footsteps [when you go up to the Bais Hamikdosh].” All different types of Yidden went up in harmony to be oleh regel.

I feel that harmony here today. From Bnei Brak, from New York, from Meknes, Morocco to Milan, Italy, to Gibraltar to Marseilles, to Rome and to Yerushalayim…all of you are here in harmony.

Rav Dovid has infused us all with koach through this achdus that manifests itself though Torah learning and raising the banner of Torah.

The Heartfelt Tefillah that Pulled at the Heartstrings

Since our primary objective in coming here was to daven, let me end off with a tefillahRibono Shel Olam, look from high up and see that from among the thirteen million Yidden in the world who nebach don’t even know Shema Yisroel and are going down into the abyss, a small group of elder talmidei chachomim have come to beg for mercy for them. Hashem, look at the tears of the thousands of Dirshu learners who are shteiging  in Torah and learning Your heiligeh Torah with such cheishek and hasmodah. What do they want in life? What are they asking from You? All they ask is that You give them the ability to learn more. One daf and another daf and another…

Please, Hashem, in their zechus, let all Yidden feel and taste the sweetness of the Torah. Its sweetness will save them from the culture of Greece and decadence that permeates the world. Ribono Shel Olam, see how much the Yidden are suffering but at the same time are so attached to You.

May Hashem accept these tefillos and may we all continue to strengthen ourselves in Torah and receive siyata diShmayaDirshu Hashem v’uzo bakshu Ponov tomid!




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