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Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel

“I Have No Strength – But I Can Do It Without Strength”

“My father showed us the meaning of gevurah… Where natural human abilities end and mesirus nefesh begins, that is gevurah… He would sometimes sit and learn with wet compresses on his head to ease his powerful headaches. He often learned until his head sank to the table of its own accord… You all saw how he would come here and sit on his hands so that they wouldn’t shake.”

These were the words of Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel on the fourth yahrtzeit of his father, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l.

This past Shabbos marked the fourth anniversary of the passing of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim. His yahrtzeit, 11 Cheshvan, is also the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu, a date that is difficult to forget.

Throughout the Mirrer empire, a number of asifos zikaron took place. The first, of course, was delivered by his son and successor, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, who has continued bearing the utterly impossible burden that Rav Nosson Tzvi carried for many years. Last Thursday afternoon, Rav Eliezer Yehuda delivered a shiur klali in the yeshiva’s bais medrash in Yerushalayim, concluding with a hesped for his father. That night, Rav Moshe Shapiro delivered a mussar shmuess in honor of the occasion, and on Friday, many people visited Rav Nosson Tzvi’s kever on Har Hamenuchos. Buses were organized by the yeshiva for the visitors’ benefit. On Shabbos, the day of the yahrtzeit, the talmidim of the various Mirrer yeshivos learned Mishnayos, and Rav Eliezer Yehuda spoke again at seudah shlishis.

Hespeidim were also delivered at Yeshivas Mir of Modiin Illit, the yeshiva in which Rav Nosson Tzvi invested endless effort. Rav Aryeh Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir-Brachfeld, spoke about Rav Nosson Tzvi at the Chumash shiur he delivers in his home, and Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Brazil, one of the roshei yeshiva, spoke in the yeshiva on Shabbos. On Sunday, Rav Nosson Tzvi was eulogized in the bais medrash of the yeshiva, with Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ateres Yisroel, serving as the main speaker.

Rav Boruch Mordechai’s address was preceded by a hesped delivered by Rav Shmaryahu Yosef Finkel, who serves as the yeshiva’s administrator and a member of its faculty. His address was incredibly powerful; the bochurim were captivated. Due to the incredible content of his speech, and for the elevation of the rosh yeshiva’s neshamah, we will quote the main points of his address here.

Tzaddikim Were Given to Us to Learn from Them

Rav Shmaryahu Yosef noted that the yeshiva in Modiin Illit exists and thrives as a result of his father’s mesirus nefesh. With his great love for the Torah and his endless capacity for mesirus nefesh, Rav Nosson Tzvi painstakingly cultivated this institution. “We all witnessed his tremendous love for this place, for the bochurim and the roshei yeshiva,” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef asserted. “We all saw the connection he felt and the dedication he displayed for this place.

“I will not give an actual hesped,” he went on. “I will simply relate what we saw, and perhaps we will learn something from it. Perhaps we will be fortunate enough to learn from his ways. It would be impossible to capture his entire personality, so I will simply focus on one point that typified so much of his avodah, something that we can learn as a way to elevate his pure soul.

“Chazal teach us that Hashem ‘planted’ tzaddikim in every generation. Rashi explains that this is so that each generation will have the merit to exist. The mashgiach of Mir, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, once said that in addition to that, tzaddikim were planted in every generation so that the people of each generation would have someone to learn from. And in every generation, Hashem placed a person who exemplified the type of avodah that that generation would need to learn.”

Gevurah Is Not Strength

Regarding Hashem’s instruction to Avrohom Avinu before the Akeidah to “please take your son,” the Gemara states (Sanhedrin 89) that the word na, please, invariably signifies a request. The Gemara illustrates this with a parable: “This can be compared to a mortal king who was faced with many wars, and he had a mighty warrior who won all of them. One day, he was involved in a very fierce war, and he said to him, ‘Please win this war for me, lest people say that the earlier [victories] were meaningless.’ So too, Hashem said to Avrohom, ‘I have tested you with several tests, and you withstood all of them. Pass this test for Me now, so that people will not say that the earlier [tests] were meaningless.”

“Both the moshol and the nimshol are difficult to understand,” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef declared. “Why would the failure to win this war mean that his previous victories are not indicative of his might? On the contrary, if he was triumphant in all of the previous wars, it must be that he is indeed a mighty warrior, even if he loses the present battle. In the nimshol, as well, Avrohom Avinu had already heroically passed all the other tests, and the Maharsha tells us that every nisayon he experienced was incredibly daunting. This means that in all of his previous tests, he proved his loyalty to Hashem. So while it may be true that the test of the Akeidah was beyond our ability to comprehend, and that it would take a superhuman effort to withstand it, why would his previous successes be meaningless if he failed to withstand this test?”

The answer, he explained, is simple. There are two types of people: a gibbor (mighty warrior) and a strong warrior. A strong warrior is one who is able to use his natural power to emerge triumphant in battle. But a gibbor is someone who is capable of overcoming his natural limitations. A gibbor is a person who doesn’t give up even when he has passed the limits of his natural abilities. He is a person who is prepared to sacrifice himself and to disregard his limits. That, he went on to explain, is why Yehuda ben Teima teaches in Pirkei Avos that a person should “be a gibbor.” If gevurah simply meant “strength,” it would be impossible to exhort a person to be a gibbor; one cannot command a weak person to be strong. Clearly, then, gevurah does not denote physical strength. Rather, it is a state that a person achieves when he moves past his natural limitations. To be “as mighty as a lion” is to ignore one’s limits, to always try harder and push further. Regardless of whether a person is weak or strong, he can always be a gibbor.

That, Rav Shmaryahu Yosef concluded, is the reason the warrior’s earlier victories would be considered meaningless. He had been triumphant in his previous battles through his strength, but now he was being tested not on his physical prowess, but on his gevurah. If he achieved victory in a war that was beyond his natural ability to win, it would be a clear indication that he was a gibbor. And the same was true of Avrohom Avinu’s nisyonos. The warrior’s final battle and Avrohom’s final test were both the same: Until now, each of them had proven his strength, but the time had come to prove their gevurah.

At the Akeidah, Avrohom demonstrated his willingness to go beyond his natural abilities solely for the sake of doing Hashem’s Will. The Akeidah was a test that no human being could possibly withstand. It was a test of mesirus nefesh, a test that called for gevurah and supernatural strength. And Hashem’s message to Avrohom was: “If you pass the test of the Akeidah, it will prove that everything you have done until now was driven by love for Hashem and not merely your own strength.”

“That was my father,” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef declared. “Now we can understand my father. Everyone saw that he was an incredible person. He was a gibbor. Anyone who never saw him would find it difficult to believe what he did. It was amazing to see his gevurah at work. It was impossible to tell where he derived his strength.”

Learning Beyond the Limit

“My father learned with incredible hasmadah,” he continued, “and in the most difficult of circumstances, in the midst of the most grueling illness and suffering. He was moser nefesh for the Torah since his youth. Those who knew him as a child told us that everyone thought he would be like every other young man. But ever since his youth, he was moser nefesh for the Torah, with unimaginable hasmadah and with supernatural strength.

“What we saw was mainly the last third of his life, when he was already suffering from a terrible illness. His illness was constantly growing stronger, and he was constantly growing weaker. But he gave himself over to the Torah in the most incredible way. During the first years of his illness, he suffered from terrible headaches that would have caused an ordinary person to become bedridden with pain. In order to ease the agony so that he could learn, he would put wet rags on his head and then sit in his living room and learn with his chavrusah. He usually learned with two avreichim at once, so that if his pain forced him to leave them and rest for a few minutes, they could continue learning without him and there would not be bittul Torah.

“His derech halimud was to learn every sugya with all the Rishonim. He would place a pile of volumes of the Rishonim on his table, and he would learn from one sefer after another, moving each one to the opposite side of the table as he finished it. When he completed the sugya and started again from the beginning, he would go over the seforim again and return them to the first side of the table. The avreichim who learned with him related that he was once overcome by such terrible weakness and such powerful headaches that they suggested that he take a rest, but he refused and insisted on moving on.

“Once, he became so weak that his head sank down until his forehead was resting on the table. He was unable to lift his head at all. But even in that position, he continued learning. Ultimately, the pain became so overwhelming that he told his chavrusos that he needed to lie down in his bed, but he asked them to accompany him to his room with their Gemaros. He struggled to make his way to his bed, and on the way, he continued talking to them in learning. Once he was lying down, they placed some wet compresses on his head and returned to the living room. Five minutes later, they were astounded when he returned to the room. He had come up with a different approach to the sugya, and he couldn’t hold himself back from rejoining them.

“That is gevurah!” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef exclaimed. “That is the heroism, the might, that begins where a person’s natural abilities end.”

He Gripped the Shtender Until His Fingers Turned Red

Rav Shmaryahu Yosef stood beneath the massive aron kodesh in the elegant bais medrash of Yeshivas Mir-Brachfeld, just a short distance from the spot where his father once delivered shiurim with the very last strength in his body.

I was reminded of my own experiences witnessing Rav Nosson Tzvi coming to the yeshiva to deliver the opening shiur of the zeman. I used to bring my sons to the yeshiva on the first day of zeman and stay for the shiur. Three of my sons have learned in Mir -Brachfeld: One was a talmid during the yeshiva’s very first cycle, the second moved on to Mir-Brachfeld from the yeshiva ketanah of Mir, and the third is still there. I felt no need to understand the rosh yeshiva’s shiur and, indeed, I am not certain how many people did understand it. It was almost impossible to comprehend. He barely managed to utter the words. His hands waved from side to side, his head moved back and forth (to the point that his hat almost fell off on one occasion), and he literally gyrated in his chair. This was all the product of the disease from which he suffered. Sometimes, he would grip the shtender before him so that his hands wouldn’t move, and one could see his fingers turning red from the effort. Despite the difficulty, he continued delivering his opening shiur. The shiur always concluded with a mussar thought, which I was able to understand from the word-to-word translation provided by a bochur sitting beside me.

“That was his way,” Rav Nosson Tzvi’s son went on. “He fought for every seder. He refused to give up on a single hour of learning. He learned with incredible gevurah and indescribable mesirus nefesh. An ordinary person suffering from his condition would make a slight effort, give up, and go to bed. But he did not do that. He fought to learn for the first seder of the day, and then the second seder of the day, and then bein hasedarim, and then the third seder, and then into the night. He fought until his strength was completely depleted.

“One very interesting point was the degree to which he was immersed in learning. He was in full control of his brain. Even when he was preoccupied by raising funds for the yeshiva, managing the yeshiva, directing it, and worrying about every individual, he was still absorbed in his learning. Everyone who learned with him related that he tried never to interrupt his learning at all, unless it was for a matter that could not tolerate delay. Even then, he would stop learning for a short time, and if it was necessary, the two avreichim who learned with him would leave the room. But when they returned, he would never go on speaking about the subject of the interruption. Instead, he would go right back to the place where they had been interrupted, and he would continue moving forward with the same intensity and fervor.”

When the Rosh Yeshiva Couldn’t Say a Word

“There was a certain avreich who used to learn with my father every day during third seder. On the night before Shavuos, my father told him to come back the next afternoon to learn. Of course, he came and found that my father had just finished learning first seder. The avreich was surprised and asked why he didn’t rest to conserve his energy for the night of Shavuos. My father replied, ‘How could a person not learn on such an important day?’ And he learned until Yom Tov began.

“That night, of course, he learned in the bais medrash throughout the night along with everyone else, ignoring his family’s pleas for him to sleep a little bit before davening. ‘How can a person sleep on a night like this?’ he asked. He learned hour after hour, with virtually no energy left, until davening in the morning. When he took his leave of the avreich who had learned with him, he asked him to come back immediately after Havdalah so that they could continue learning from where they had left off. The avreich inferred that the rosh yeshiva planned to sleep during the day in order to have the strength to learn after Yom Tov.

“But my father sat down to learn again after davening, and he returned home only in time for the seudah. After the seudah, he said to everyone, ‘Who could go to sleep on such an important day?’ And he sat down at the table in his living room and learned until Minchah. After Minchah, he davened Maariv and made Havdalah, and then there was a knock at the door. The avreich had come to learn with the rosh yeshiva….

“My mother, the rebbetzin, couldn’t understand what was happening. My father had spent the entire day learning. He had no energy left, after a full 24 hours without sleep, and it was clear that he couldn’t go on anymore. The avreich said, ‘The rosh yeshiva told me to come. I never dreamed that he wouldn’t sleep at all today…’ My father heard that the avreich was there and immediately sat down at the table to learn with him. They learned until he completely collapsed, and then he went to sleep. That was the mesirus nefesh he displayed.”

Rav Shmaryahu Yosef made note of the shiurim his father delivered in this very bais medrash in Modiin Illit. “He was so incredibly dedicated to those shiurim. He came here with tremendous mesirus nefesh. There were times when he would come and stand here, and he would start to say a shiur. He would say, ‘Tosafos says,’ and then he would stop and wait for a moment and then try again, ‘Tosafos says….’ He wouldn’t be able to get a word out, but he would insist on continuing. The older bochurim here witnessed it with their own eyes. Sometimes, the shiur would end like that, but there were times when he would sit on his shaking hands, and his entire face would be red with exertion, and then, with unfathomable gevurah, he would deliver an entire shiur.”

The “Argument” with Rav Shteinman

“Where did he get this gevurah from? How did this happen?” Rav Shmaryahu Yosef asked. “Perhaps the answer lies in something my father himself once said. Once, he was visiting Rav Aharon Leib Steinman at a time when the yeshiva’s finances were in a very poor state, and he asked Rav Steinman if he should go to chutz la’aretz to raise money. He was pained by the fact that the avreichim hadn’t received their stipends for months, but he was also utterly drained.

“Rav Shteinman asked him, ‘Do you have the strength for such a trip?’

“My father replied, ‘No.’

“‘If you don’t have the strength to do it, then you are potur from going,’ the rosh yeshiva told him.

“‘I have no strength,’ my father replied, ‘but I can go without strength.’

“This is the end of the story, but it may give us the answer to the question of where his gevurah came from. It was simply the foundation of his personality. This was his attitude: I have no strength, but I can do it without strength. How can a person do anything without strength? How can a person deliver a shiur when he isn’t strong enough to utter a single word? How can he sit and learn when he has no energy? This can be done only by a person who is capable of finding renewed strength when he has reached his natural limit. Where a person’s strength ends, that is where the battle begins.

“The rosh yeshiva was a living lesson in geuvrah, day in and day out. His avodas Hashem was far beyond his natural abilities. We saw with our own eyes how he lived on a different plane. And the knowledge that we have of the gevurah of this tzaddik who was planted in our generation places a hefty obligation on us. If we succeed in learning from his character traits, even if we take something small at first, if we fight to pass even a minor test, then we will have siyata diShmaya to win the more difficult battles in our lives. We will gain a measure of gevurah, and that will be a source of elevation for his pure neshamah.”