Reflections of a Talmid on his First Yahrtzeit
We were so shocked; we were crushed. Our great rebbi, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Yehuda HaLevi Levin was no longer with us. Gadol kayam shivreinu mi yirpe lonu. Like the ocean is vast, so too is our blow. During the weeks of sheloshim, as I listened to the hespeidim, I appreciated so much of what was said about rebbi. We were all grasping for every precious nekudah that we could take hold of, to take with us for the rest of our lives. We had so much to be nisorer from, there was so much for us to internalize. And, of course, it also provided some solace to hear the maspidim extoll the virtues of our beloved rebbi. However, perhaps, at that time, what resonated with me most, was the eruption of wailing, the cries of hundreds of talmidim in unison, that could be heard at the levayah in the yeshiva in Chicago. That so aptly expressed my feelings, and those of so many other talmidim.
However, as we reached the shloshim, a change of approach was in order. Chazal tell us that one should only cry for a meis for the first three days. However, over the loss of a talmid chochom, the yemei bechi, the days of crying, continue until 30 days. Bnei Yisroel cried for Moshe Rabbeinu for 30 days and there is no one greater than Moshe. Divrei hesped, however, are appropriate for a talmid chochom for the entire year. Bechi, crying, is hergesh, emotion. Emotion is a good thing. Hashem wants emotion, Rachmana liba bo’i. Hergesh is a very powerful force in our avodas Hashem. Nevertheless, it must be controlled by our seichel, our intellect. Everything that a Yid does must be with a cheshbon. Certainly, that is what we saw by our rebbi, Rav Shmuel. He was a tremendous baal regesh, but everything, everything, that he did was with a cheshbon.
At the end of parshas Vezos Habrocha, the Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was niftar and bnei Yisroel cried over him for 30 days and then: Vayitmu yemai vechi eivel Moshe — the days of crying and mourning Moshe came to an end. The following posuk tells us: VeYehoshua Bin Nun molei ruach chochma ki somach Moshe es yodav olov — And Yehoshua Bin Nun was filled with a spirit of knowledge because Moshe had placed his hands upon him. The Sforno explains that the chochma came to Yehoshua after the days of crying were over “Ki bemei habechi ein chochma ve’ein eitzah — because during the days of crying there is no knowledge and there is no advice.”
Rav Elya Meir Bloch, the great rosh yeshiva who reestablished Telz Yeshiva in the United States, expounds upon this thought in Peninei Daas. He explains that hesped requires iyun rav, deep contemplation. One must study the life of the talmid chochom in depth. It requires a level of focus and concentration that is absent in the early days of mourning. This task cannot be fulfilled until after the yemei bechi have come to a close.
Much has been said about rebbi. We have heard many hespeidim. Many excellent articles have done an outstanding job portraying so many aspects of Rav Shmuel. Nevertheless, it all barely begins to scratch the surface. Rav Shmuel was an ish eshkolos. There were so many facets of his avodah. He was deeply involved in so many things, quite literally more than most of us could ever imagine. He was a true adom gadol. Everything he did was gadlusdik.
Much can be written about the many aspects of his gadlus: his davening, his lomdus, ahavas HaTorah, hasmodah, his mussar, dikduk hamitzvos, ahavas hamitzvos, simchas hamitzvos, how he was mechanech his family, how he was mechanech the talmidim, his eitzos, the kesher he had with the bocherim, the kesher he had with his talmidim at all stages of life, all around the globe, his achrayus for the tzibbur in Chicago and across America. Still, these are all perotim, these are details, not minor details, major details, but details, nonetheless.
However, I believe that in a broader sense, we could define the essence of Rav Shmuel with the following thought that we heard from him.
The first Mishnah in the sixth perek of Avos begins: “Rabi Meir omer: Kol halomed Torah lishmah zocheh l’devorim harbei — Rabi Meir said: All who learn Torah lishmah are zocheh to many things. V’lo od eleh shekol ha’olam kulo kedai hu lo nikrah re’iah ahuv… — And not only that but the entire world is worthwhile for his sake, he is called a friend, beloved etc.” The Mishnah continues with a long list of maalos that the talmid chochom obtains.
Rebbi told us in the name of the Detroit rosh yeshiva, Rav Leib Bakst: One must ask, What are these devorim harbei? What are these many things that the Mishnah mentions? Why doesn’t the Mishnah tell us what they are? The Mishnah continues and lists at length so many virtues that the talmid chochom merits, so why doesn’t the Mishnah list the devorim harbei for us in detail as well?
I still can hear rebbi sharing the answer with us: Az der gantze leben fun a talmid chochom iz anderish! Yeder zach iz anderish! The life of a talmid chochom is different! Every single thing is different! That is what the Mishnah means when it says devorim harbei. The Mishnah could not enumerate the details here. Such a list would be too long. This maalah of a talmid chochom is wholly encompassing, affecting every aspect of their life! A talmid chochom lives and breathes like a talmid chochom. He eats and sleeps like a talmid chochom. He walks and talks like a talmid chochom.
This was who rebbi was. This was what he strove for. Everything about him was elevated. Every facet of his existence was special. This was true even in regard to his learning. He was always ligen in lernen, always engrossed in learning. Still, that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t satisfied to have a yedia, to ask a kashya or to say a terutz. The kashya had to be asked like a talmid chochom and the terutz had to be answered like a talmid chochom.
I remember that when I was in rebbi’s shiur, more than 20 years ago, he had almost no involvement with anything outside of the yeshiva. In those days, his father, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim was well, and all communal matters came to him. Rebbi would say that he doesn’t even want to know what is going on outside of the yeshiva. He was fully immersed in the yeshiva.
It was quite amazing to see how, as it became necessary, when the rosh yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Chaim, could no longer do it, Rav Shmuel took the achrayus upon himself and became involved in all aspects of the broader tzibbur in Chicago and beyond. It was certainly not easy for him to make such a drastic change in approach, but he readily stepped up to shoulder the load. Nevertheless, while taking on these additional responsibilities, his focus always remained on the learning and the yeshiva. Bochurim currently learning in the yeshiva came to the house during the shivah and expressed that they were amazed to hear in the hespeidim about how involved rebbi was with all the talmidim from earlier years, as well as so many members of the broader community. Rebbi was so fully engaged in the yeshiva, saying shiurim and speaking with the bocherim, they explained, that it was shocking to them that he could be involved in anything else.
He would encourage us talmidim to think about others. He would quote from the hakdomah of Rav Shimon Shkop in Sefer Shaarei Yosher that a person must expand their “Ani,” their “self,” to encompass more. Some people are concerned only for their physical selves, while others may include their spiritual needs in their “Ani.” Still others’ “Ani” will include their families, and some incorporate their entire community in their “Ani.” A yet bigger person will include the entire world in their “Ani.”
His “Ani” was so incredibly large. It encompassed his family, the entire yeshiva, the talmidim who had already moved on to other yeshivos or other stages in life, and eventually the Chicago community, the Midwest, and then North America.
He would urge us, on our level as bochurim in yeshiva, to see what we could do for others, and not think only of ourselves. “Don’t worry so much about your shtender, make sure yenem has his shtender.”
Rebbi was regularly saying shiurim. He would say a daily shiur to the bais medresh bochurim and on Erev Shabbos he would give a shmuess on the parsha. Then Friday night he would give a Chumash shiur late into the night in his house. Motzoei Shabbos he would give a Chumash shiur over the phone to talmidim who had left the yeshiva. At times he had a Shev Shmaysa shiur or Minchas Chinuch shiur on Motzoei Shabbos as well. Although he was flying to chasunos almost weekly, he was particular not to skip a shiur. He would give the shiur early on the day of his departure and then return to Chicago on an early morning flight the following day in time to deliver shiur. Additionally, at a chasunah, he would take the opportunity to say a shiur or shmuess to the talmidim as well.
During Elul, in his daily shiur, he would frequently mention the date, calculating how many days of Elul had already gone by and how many days of avodas Elul remained before Rosh Hashanah. He would say additional shiurim in preparation for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Motzoei Yom Kippur he would say additional Yom Kippur Torah and then he would say a piece of Sukkos Torah before the talmidim went home for Sukkos. During Pesach bein hazemanim, rebbi would say shiurim on Arvei Pesochim from Rosh Chodesh up until the day before Erev Pesach.
On Yom Tov he would say shiurim in his home almost every day. Although there was no shiur scheduled, almost invariably, after davening, when we would go to say Gut Yom Tov, rebbi would mention that: “I’m saying at 5:30, if you can make it, good.” Particularly imprinted in my memory, is how we came to rebbi’s house for the shiur one Pesach and his shver Rav Shmuel Faivelson was sitting and learning at the head of the dining room table. Without mentioning a word, we all filed into the back of the house and crammed into the rebbi’s small study for the shiur. Chol Hamoed was very similar. There would be one night that he was scheduled to say, but somehow, he would end up saying Torah almost every night.
Rav Shmuel was the amud hatefillah. His “Amen yehei shmei rabba” was thunderous. Ahavah Rabbah, Ezras Avoseinu, Shomra Zos Le’olam and Boruch Elokeinu in Uvo Letzion stand out in my memory distinctively. He would say Nishmas on Shabbos with every fiber of his body. When he said Tehillim after davening, the entire tzibbur was swept up in his fervor. The yeshiva davening in Telz was always something special. However, Rav Shmuel lifted the entire yeshiva to new heights with his davening. Many visitors would comment that the yeshiva Maariv on an average weeknight felt to them like Yom Kippur.
Several years after I left the yeshiva, I had the occasion to be in Chicago and I davened Maariv in the yeshiva. It was a beautiful and very impressive yeshiva davening. Be that as it may, a bochur, seeing that I was a guest, came over to me and, after introducing himself, apologetically explained that that night’s Maariv was not a typical Maariv in Telz yeshiva. One of the rabbonim in town was making a chasunah and the Mashgiach, Rav Avrohom Lipschutz, who was at the chasunah, wasn’t in yeshiva for Maariv and hadn’t been available to send up the right bochur to the amud. Additionally, he said, Rav Shmuel was at the chasunah as well, and without Rav Shmuel it is a different davening.
Rav Shmuel didn’t just do things. Everything was done with thought. He was a very deep person with an extremely quick mind. He had the ability to size up a situation in seconds. He would immediately grasp the heart of the issue, yet he would pick up on even the seemingly minor details as well.
When people spoke to him about their personal matters he would frequently, on his own, recall additional pieces of information that the individual may have mentioned about themselves in the past and he would add those factors to the equation.
He was always shteiging. While we were in the yeshiva, seeing him on a daily basis, it may have not been so discernable. However, once we left the yeshiva, whenever we would come back, rebbi would always seem to be somewhat different. He was always growing. Indeed, his son, the current rosh yeshiva, Rav Mordche, said at the levayah that while he was living in Lakewood, whenever he would come back to Chicago, his father, Rav Shmuel was always a different person than the previous time.
In addition to his shiurim and lomdus, Rav Shmuel would constantly impart to the talmidim divrei mussar v’hashkofah. He regularly would mention concepts from the Bais Halevi, Rav Chaim, or the Brisker Rov. He would frequently share a penetrating thought from Rav Yeruchom, the Alter of Kelm, or the Chofetz Chaim. Rebbi was particularly drawn to the shmuessen of his zaide, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, and would quote from his many seforim (Ohr Yechezkel, Mimizrach Shemesh and others).
Following the petirah of his father, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Avroham Chaim Levin, Rav Shmuel started saying a vaad multiple times a week in Peninei Daas (by Rav Elya Meir Bloch) carefully perpetuating the mesorah of his father and the yeshiva.
Even in the context of mussar, Rav Shmuel’s tremendous depth would manifest itself. Oftentimes, Rav Shmuel would take just one line out of an entire piece from any of these seforim and develop the thought until the point where that single nekudah was an entire shmuess in its own right.
Rebbi was zocheh to the devorim harbei of the Mishnah. Every facet of his life was exceptional. Whatever he did, and how he did it, it was hecher, on a higher plane. He was lomed Torah lishmah. He was an extraordinary talmud chochom. Every facet of his existence was “talmid chochomdik”.
But he didn’t just keep those “devorim harbei” to himself. Rather, he had the unique ability to lift up his talmidim and share with them, to the extent that the talmidim were able to grasp, so many aspects of his avodah.
Rav Shmuel was extremely dedicated to his talmidim. A talmid living out of Chicago was going through a difficult time and called rebbi to discuss his situation. Rav Shmuel listened to him and was mechazek him over the phone. Rav Shmuel then quoted part of a particular sefer and suggested that the talmid should learn and review it. He asked the talmid if he owned the sefer. At the time, this particular sefer was not so readily available, and when the talmid answered that he didn’t have one, Rav Shmuel said that he would fax a copy of the relevant pages to him. The talmid objected and said that he would search for the sefer and make copies himself. The rebbi should not be matriach himself. Rav Shmuel insisted, this is my job, he explained, my job is for the talmidim.
He asked: when saying Birkas HaTorah in the morning, we say “v’nihyeh anachnu v’tzetzo’einu v’tzetzo’ei kol amcha Bais Yisroel,” at which point should a rebbi have his talmidim in mind; while saying “v’tzetzo’einu — our children,” or while saying “v’tzetzo’ei kol amcha Bais Yisroel — the children of your entire nation Bais Yisroel?” Rav Shmuel proceeded to explain that for a rebbi, the talmidim are included in “v’tzetzo’einu,” they are like the rebbi’s children.
Rav Shmuel once mentioned regarding some of his hanhogos, that it would be proper for him to do them b’hatzne’a leches, privately, but if I do that then who will be mechanech the talmidim in these inyonim.
Rav Shmuel once related a thought, that his son, Rav Mordche, recounted at the levayah, regarding the Gemara in Maseches Brachos that Rabi Akiva was saying Krias Shema while he being killed by the Romans. The talmidim asked him about it: “Rabbeinu, ad kan?” and Rabi Akiva answered them with the drosha of “b’chol nafshcha — afilu notel as nafshecha — even as he takes your neshamah.” “Kol yomei hoyesi mitztar al posuk zeh…” Rabi Akiva said that his entire life he was concerned, wondering when would he have the opportunity to fulfill this posuk. Now that the opportunity has arrived, he would fulfill it by being mekabel Ol Malchus Shomayim with Krias Shema. Rav Shmuel pointed out that, considering that this was something that Rabi Akiva was preparing for, we might have expected that he would tell his talmidim that now is not a time for questions. Right now, he is at the pinnacle of his lifetime’s avodah and he must not lose focus. Yet, that is not what Rabi Akiva did. Talmidim were asking and teaching them took precedence over his own personal avodah, as lofty as it was. Due to Rabi Akiva’s selfless devotion to ha’amodas talmidim, Rav Shmuel continued, we have Rabi Akiva’s drosha l’dorei doros, for all generations.
It is now a year since rebbi’s petirah, ovar kotzir kolah kayitz… We no longer have our great rebbi to be melamed, madrich, mochi’ach, mechazeik, and meromeim us. The void is still gaping. What we do have, however, is everything that Rav Shmuel worked so hard to instill in us, everything that each one of us was mekabel from the rebbi. Mir darf gain vayter. Mir darf gain vayter b’simcha. We must continue b’simcha. Chazak ve’ematz.
Yehi zichro boruch.