Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l: The Master Teacher A 40th Yahrtzeit Tribute

I am in trouble.

Ten years ago, upon Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s thirtieth yahrtzeit, I published in my tribute that Chazal (Avodah Zarah 5b; Rashi, Devorim 29:6) teach, “Ein adam omeid al daas rabo ad arboin shnin – A person does not fully understand his rebbi until 40 years have passed.” I bemoaned the fact that it was only thirty years and so I was incapable of doing him justice. To make matters worse, the rosh yeshiva himself (Sefer Hazikaron, page 111) explained that the expression “omeid al daas rabo” is not merely a greater intellectual understanding of one’s rebbi. It signifies attaining a new dimension of connection, a higher affinity and even joining of souls.

Alas, the fortieth yahrtzeit has arrived and none of this has happened. To be sure, the yearning for him is greater than ever; the appreciation is colossal. But the gap seems to grow ever wider, the chasm irreducible. All I can offer therefore are a few insights and lessons I have learned from our rebbi, who over the years and decades has all the more become the master teacher of Klal Yisrael in chinuch, machshavah, daas Torah, and so much more.

Actually and ironically, it was the rosh yeshiva himself who taught us that “tzaddikim in their death are greater even than when they were alive” (Chulin 7a). He wrote profoundly about the petirah of his rebbi, the Alter of Slabodka, in letters from Chevron 5687 (1927), when he was 21 years old. In them, he revealed that “many halachos in areas that stand at the top of the world about which I was unclear became illuminated to me with his passing.” We, too, have seen an incredible rise in interest in the Sifrei Pachad Yitzchok in the past ten years and cumulatively in the past 40. My goal here is to explore some of these insights which we have gained through this process of the power of tzaddikim after they have passed away. This tribute merely scratches the surface of the incredible depths that the rosh yeshiva left us in the past four decades.

One key insight that 40 years has only fortified is that there was no contrariety between the rosh yeshiva’s most profound thoughts and his day-to-day conduct. As a matter of fact, although he hid this, as he concealed so many aspects of his greatness, even his seemingly mundane expressions, actions and decision-making flowed from lofty ethereal places. Also, despite the rosh yeshiva’s profound understanding and chiddushim in devorim ha’omdim berumo shel olam, the most esoteric matters, he gave brilliant down-to-earth advice in all areas of life, especially to those in chinuch. Let us begin to illustrate with one of the areas closest to his heart and where he left his imprint upon several generations, indeed eternity itself. This is the sacred arena of rebbi-talmid relations.

The rosh yeshiva (Sefer Hazikaron, page 110) taught us that the source of the rebbitalmid relationship does not flow, G-d forbid, from any kind of evaluation he makes of his rebbi. As a matter of fact, “a talmid does not become a talmid because he recognizes the rebbi’s greatness. He recognizes that greatness because he is a talmid.” He then asks the fundamental question: “What is the basis, then, of this relationship?” His answer, which speaks volumes, is that “it is based upon the power of taanug (pleasure). This is not the intellectual gratification that comes from assessment and logical conclusions. He delights in his words, he delights in his conduct, and he takes delight in his comportment and all that he does. This is not translatable into words, for its source is far above the spheres of reasoning or cognition.”

It is noteworthy, since the rosh yeshiva’s yahrtzeit always falls just before Chanukah, that he first expressed this concept in spoken maamorim and in print (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah, Maamar 6:11) on Chanukah. He later reiterated this on Shavuos (Maamar 15, page 93): “In every mitzvah, one may choose to perform an aspect that gives him greater satisfaction. For instance, if one must choose between two patients to visit for bikur cholim, he may choose the one that will give him the greatest pleasure. However, in Torah, it is the halacha itself that dictates that one must learn what and where his heart draws him…the pleasure is the very soul of the learning. Without it, the intellect is as inert as an inanimate stone. Of all the mitzvos, the only brocha that expresses the pleasure of the commandment is Torah study. The brocha of ‘vehaarev na – please, Hashem, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths’is unique to limud haTorah” (see, also, introduction to Iglei Tal).

Now that we understand a bit about the rosh yeshiva’s vision of the talmid-rebbi relationship, let us explore how he actually conducted himself in this sublime area.  

The rosh yeshiva once instructed a rebbi never to punish a child by forcing to him to perform a mitzvah or some Torah-related act. For instance, he should never discipline a child, as was commonly done in those days, by making him write hundreds of times, “I will learn better, etc.” This seems to be in line with his teaching that a rebbi dare never teach in a way that presents a negative view of Torah or the conduit by which it is conveyed.

Rav Chaim Segal once invited the rosh yeshiva to farher his talmidim at Yeshiva of Crown Heights. His own class was a group of excellent students, but the other were all weak. The rosh yeshiva told the rebbi of the slower class that to be a rebbi for excellent talmidim, you have to be a gaon, but to be a rebbi for weak children, you must be a gaon hagaonim. This provided tremendous chizuk to that rebbi.

The rosh yeshiva had the brilliant ability to cut to the heart of a matter, eliminating any extraneous subjective considerations. He was asked whether the rebbi in one of the early Gemara shiurim should learn Tosafos with his class. The rosh yeshiva answered, “There are two reasons why we teach Tosafos to young talmidim: 1) A father comes to shul and someone asks him, ‘What is your son learning?’ He answers, ‘Gemara and Rashi.’ The fellow follows up, ‘Why not Tosafos?’ The father is humiliated and runs to the menahel to demand, ‘Why isn’t my son learning Tosafos?’ The second scenario is that a rebbi is asked by a colleague, ‘What do you learn with your talmidim?’ He must answer, ‘Gemara and Rashi, and he is therefore embarrassed, because deep down he wants to be a rosh yeshiva. In truth, it would be best if, at first, a rebbi would learn 50 or 60 blatt of Gemara and Rashi without Tosafos with his talmidim.”

He shared with a mechanech an epigram from one of his own major rabbeim, the Alter of Slabodka. It stated that the ideal format of a yeshiva would be to have three hundred mashgichim for every bochur. Unfortunately, the reality, of course, is the opposite. There is one mashgiach for three hundred talmidim. However, if we understand very well how things are supposed to be, we might get by. If we think that the current situation is fine and acceptable, the result could be quite bad. Another example of this stress upon looking at each talmid as a unique individual can be seen in his kepeidah about language used to describe a talmid. There was an otherwise excellent rebbi who had categorized his talmidim into three groups: idis (best), beinonis (evarage) and ziburis (lowest). The rosh yeshiva indicated his strong displeasure with ever referring to a talmid as ziburis.

Although the rosh yeshiva was an incredible genius, I remember him telling me, “Klal Yisrael did not have too much nachas from its illuyim.” In a well-known incident, he apparently inadvertently caused Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l to cry. The rosh yeshiva was speaking at a dinner to his fellow member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah and Rav Aharon ran out of the room. The rosh yeshiva was concerned that he had said something wrong and ran after him, only to indeed find him sobbing in the next room. It turned out that he had mentioned to the renowned genius who had founded Bais Medrash Govoah of Lakewood that when Chazal in Pirkei Avos say, “Torah comes mainly from the poor,” it also means those who are intellectually poor, meaning  those to whom understanding Torah has come with difficulty. Rav Kotler was afraid that since everyone had pronounced him a genius from childhood, perhaps true Torah could not come from him. The rosh yeshiva apparently was able to console him that even geniuses can be considered aniyim bedaas compared with the vastness of the Torah.

The rosh yeshiva taught that the potential for each child to grow into greatness must be maintained even in matters that others consider to be rather mundane. He insisted that children learn, even in hascholas Gemara classes, from an entire Gemara, not a single perek published alone. He explained that a child must hold in his hand and learn from the same type of Gemara that the Vilna Gaon held in his day.

Someone showed the rosh yeshiva a sefer on the parshiyos with pictures that the rosh yeshiva liked. However, he warned that there should be no pictures of the avos, since children have to be taught and absorb the idea that the avos were like malachim and cannot even be imagined.

Interestingly, on another occasion, the rosh yeshiva expressed strong disagreement with the approach that teaches that Eisav looked extremely frum and the difference between him and Yaakov was subtle and microscopic. The rosh yeshiva held that for children, Eisav should be depicted as a wild gorilla, etc. The rosh yeshiva added that if one teaches the overly subtle approach, the child will never learn to hate Eisav, etc., because he will always think of Eisav as a gadol with some challenges and a child must learn to hate evil. The rosh yeshiva gave a moshol that one should not teach a child Rav Chaim Brisker’s chiddush that every ganav is essentially also a mazik. On the contrary, the child must initially learn that a ganav is a ganav and a mazik is a mazik. Later, he will learn the chiddush of Rav Chaim as a novel approach, not as the primary definition.

A mechanech asked the rosh yeshiva what to ingrain in the new generation. The rosh yeshiva answered, “Kedushas Yisroel.”He told a veteran mechanech (a dear friend of mine) that we must ingrain Atah Bechartanu in our young talmidim. The mechanech noted that children (and adults) ask that the gentiles we know also have good middos and are honorable, moral and ethical, so what is the basic difference between us? The rosh yeshiva said that we must convey the difference and he was asked how to do this. The rosh yeshiva answered with an amazing story. Although I have published this before, the current discussion requires that we review it once again.

“When I was in Slabodka, I was present in the house of the Alter, when several other great people were there, including Rav Avrohom Grodzensky (author of the Toras Avrohom and mashgiach of the yeshiva), the Alter’s son, and Rav Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan, who had just returned from Berlin. The Alter asked Rav Kaplan to relate any good middah he had learned in Berlin, something we could gain from the Germans. Rav Kaplan noted that there is an expression in German which impressed him. When a person asks a question, even something very basic as “Where is such and such a street?” they answer and then add, “Nicht wahr?” This means “Not so?” or “Isn’t that correct?” Rav Kaplan lauded this semantically proper usage by claiming that it allows the one who is answering the question to include his interlocutor in being needed. In other words, this is not a case of one person being hopelessly ignorant and the other being the triumphantly knowledgeable one. On the contrary, “nicht wahr” allows the seeming helpless questioner to be as necessary and needed as the wise expert who knows the answers. Rav Kaplan thought that this was a sign of decency and gentility.

A lively Torah argument arose from these words. Some claimed that perhaps one may not even utter such praise, since there is a prohibition in the Torah called lo seichaneim, one of whose meanings is not to praise idolaters. Rav Grodzensky agreed with this objection, as did the Alter. However, there was another strong-minded bochur there who angrily dissented. “What difference does it make if the person who said something is a Jew or an idolater? If someone has a good middah, we should give him credit and respect!”

The rosh yeshiva fast-forwarded many years and related that one day he was sitting in his office at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin preparing a shiur. “Suddenly, someone banged on the door, asking to meet with me. I explained that I was preparing a shiur and respectfully asked that he return after the shiur. The man insisted that he must speak with me immediately because he had to leave shortly. He came up close to my desk and inquired sharply, ‘Honored rosh yeshiva, do you recognize me?’ I answered, ‘Yes, indeed, you were present in the Alter’s home when we had that fiery discussion long ago.’ ‘True,’ responded the visitor, ‘but you were but a bochur then.’ He took his hand out of his sleeve and pointed to the prosthesis which was there instead of an arm. ‘This is the mechanical arm I needed after the Nazis chopped off my arm. With each agonizing cut, they asked me, ‘Does it hurt, nicht wahr (not so)?’ The mutilated victim of German cruelty concluded, ‘When I heard that there was someone still alive from that fateful debate in the Alter’s house, I had to come to ask mechilah for the chutzpah and foolishness that I displayed against my rabbeim that day.’”

The rosh yeshiva was extremely moved by the man’s apology and the powerful lesson about true morality and ethical languages. As we shall see, he spent a lifetime teaching how to look beneath the surface in discovering the truth.

The rosh yeshiva was always against those pedagogues who followed a “new” approach to teaching the letters of the Alef-Bais by reading entire words first and assuming that they will later know the letters automatically. He taught that a child must know that each letter has its own identity and soul. He gave a moshol about this concerning a man he knew who was fluent in six languages, but after he had a stroke, he knew only German, which was his “cradle language.” A child also learns Lashon Hakodesh only once and must learn it with the kedusha of the letters, for later it will no longer be his cradle language.

The rosh yeshiva was asked if it’s proper to search for talmidim, as many roshei yeshiva and mosdos do. He answered by quoting the Tosafos Yom Tov (Pirkei Avos 1:6), who comments in the name of the Maharal on the Mishnah which states, “Aseh lecha rav ukenei lecha choveir,” that it doesn’t say “kenei lecha talmid.” No one should say, “Learn from me.” The rosh yeshiva made it a point to convey to talmidim that it was their privilege to learn from their rebbi.

A fascinating chinuch answer was given to the following question from a veteran mechanech: “To which talmid should I give extra attention? What characteristic, talent or proclivity should I use to decide which child requires added consideration? The rosh yeshiva’s pithy answer was, “To the one who has a sense of chashivus.” In many maamorim (see, e.g., Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos 8:9; Shabbos 5:9; Rosh Hashanah 1:4), he alerted us to the concept of chashivus, discovering the inner importance and nobility of the Torah and its mitzvos. For instance, we learned that the sights and sounds of Mattan Torah, besides the actual content of the Torah, were designed to change and uplift our essence as the Jewish nation, lending the ultimate sense of chashivus. 

Someone once asked the rosh yeshiva to explain the language of the Gemara (Chulin 137b) which states that “bolts of light were traveling back and forth between the mouth of Rebbi and the mouth of Rav.” Don’t words travel from one’s mouth to someone else’s ear? The rosh yeshiva answered that this maamar Chazal reflects a fundamental goal of all Torah teaching. “The obligation of teaching Torah is not only to create talmidim, but to create rabbeim, new teachers of Torah, those who will carry on the mesorah of the Torah. That is why the Gemara uses the terminology of mouth to mouth rather than mouth to ear. Something that ends up in the ear has stopped. Something that goes to the mouth will continue.”

Rav Hutner spent endless days and nights with individuals and maamorim instilling the ideal of teaching Torah to numerous generations, creating a cadre of professional and inspired rabbeim for Klal Yisroel.

The rosh yeshiva added that this guideline has a practical application when making prioritization decisions concerning talmidim. A rebbi has two students. One – let us call him Reuvein – is extremely bright and will understand the shiur better than his friend, Shimon, and will presumably become a greater talmid chochom. However, Shimon has greater talents and abilities in the teaching of Torah and will be a better rebbi. According to the standard set forth above, the rebbi will be obligated to give preference to Shimon. One of the current roshei yeshiva suggested that the basis for this ruling was that the Torah source for teaching students is rooted in the words veshinantom levonecha, which literally means to teach Torah to your sons. Now, we know that when one has a son who cannot have children of his own, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah of peru urevu, having children. The same is true of talmidim, as well. Torah teaching must be an eternal never-ending process resulting in new generations.

The rosh yeshiva once commented to a noted mechanech that it was a good idea to plant beautiful trees on the yeshiva campus. He explained that a talmid who is exposed to “growing things” (tzomeiach) will grow as well. However, if he is surrounded only by inanimate objects (domeim), he, too, will become somewhat inanimate. This seemingly mundane lesson would seem to be rooted in the Kuzari and the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem and other machshavah classics, teaching that there are five levels of creation and we must always strive to elevate ourselves higher and higher on the spiritual ladder.

An important mechanech (mashgiach) said to the rosh yeshiva that these days, a bochur needs to receive a spoonful of kavod once a day or at least once a week. The rosh yeshiva responded that today, a spoonful is not sufficient. They need a plateful. The rosh yeshiva, who taught generations about giving hakoras hatov to their rabbeim, also expressed the necessity for rabbeim as well to be grateful to their students (Sefer Hazikaron, page 109), for it is they who ignite the fire in the rebbi’s soul.

Someone used to drive the rosh yeshiva often on Erev Shabbos to the sea. The rosh yeshiva stayed in the car and just watched the ocean for a long time. Although the driver asked the rosh yeshiva for an explanation, he never answered. Once, he asked the rosh yeshiva why people never tire of looking at the ocean. He answered that water is the only thing we have in this world that comes directly from heaven.

My own feeling is that another aspect of these visits was alluded to in a Purim maamar (Kuntres Reshimos 14, page 105, printed in Yiddish). He cites the posuk (Tehillim 89:10), “You rule the grandeur of the sea; when its waves rise, You calm them.” Chazal ask: What exactly is the praise that Hashem calms them, since the word for calm used here comes from shevach, which means praise?

The rosh yeshiva’s interpretation of the answer is that just as the waves know very well that they will break on the shore, yet they keep storming until they reach the end, we, too, must try our very best for as long as we can.

“What does it bother me?” he asked rhetorically, “if after Pesach I am left with a bit of cheirus (freedom)? What does it bother me if after Shavuos I have a bit of Torah? What does it bother me if after Rosh Hashanah I have a bit of yirah (awe and trepidation)?”

My basic understanding of these words and the rosh yeshiva’s ocean visits is that the pounding waves provide us with the inspiration to go on even when we have accomplished everything that we have attempted, although there is still a long way to go.  Each Yom Tov gives us something lasting, even if it wanes and diminishes somewhat with time.

In the fortieth year, perhaps we begin to understand the purpose of all the inspiring Yomim Tovim together that the rosh yeshiva gave us. He always reminded us, “Do not say, ‘Es is avekgegangen ah Yom Tov – The Yom Tov went away.’ Say, ‘Es iz tzugekumen ah Yom Tov – A Yom Tov was added to our lives, to our arsenal of middos and kedushah.’” That is one of the multitude of lessons the rosh yeshiva taught us. We must keep storming, like the waves.      

            Today, after 40 years, we can easily reflect upon the fact that the rosh yeshiva formed and virtually created numerous great leaders of Klal Yisroel. Like his rebbi, the Alter, the rosh yeshiva understood the essence of each individual and pointed and guided them to become the person for which their unique capabilities were suited.

Indeed, as his daughter, Rebbetzin Bruria David, writes (Sefer Hazikaron, page 112), the foundations of this approach were already set in place in 5694 (1934). At that time, the rosh yeshiva was already on the path of yetziras gavra, molding great people for Klal Yisroel. The rosh yeshiva explained this one Shavuos (Maamar 29, page 175), when he derived from the order of the Vilna Gaon’s citations (Yoreh Deah 245) that there is halachic preference to teaching talmidim muvhakim (outstanding and distinguished students) over regular pedestrian ones. The rosh yeshiva concludes, in fact, that “there is priority in the establishment of one talmid muvhak to many talmidim who are not muvhakim.” Once again, the rosh yeshiva established a policy and direction based upon solid Torah sources and spent a lifetime “raising” such talmidim muvhakim. Many became poskim, authors of numerous seforim, mechanchim of note, roshei yeshiva, mashgichim, rabbonim, and Chassidic rabbeim and mekubalim. But each one was a talmid muvhak following the direction set for him by the rosh yeshiva.

The rosh yeshiva was fond, in more private moments, of relating stories he may have heard in his youth in Warsaw about the Chiddushei Harim, the first Gerrer Rebbe. One of these was that on Simchas Tiorah, after all the dancers had tired and retired, two continued with great energy. Someone asked the rebbi which one he thought would continue after the other gave up. He identified one of them and so it was. When asked how he knew, the rebbi explained that the one who stopped dancing first was dancing in honor of the Torah he had already learned, but the other was dancing in honor of the future Torah he planned to study. For the first, there was a limit; for the latter, the possibilities were infinite and limitless.

This is reminiscent of the lesson we often heard from the rosh yeshiva about the Medrash which points out that the word Adam and the word me’od, which means “very,” share the same letters. The rosh yeshiva explained that one might say that a table is very large or that a food is very tasty, but a human being is limitless in his potential. His “very” is endless.

This was the rosh yeshiva’s timeless lesson to us all. He imbued all of his talmidim with the incredible notion that we can make a singular contribution to Klal Yisroel. Often, he told us exactly what it is that we have the power to do; sometimes it was with more subtle hints and encouragement. However, all those who followed his guidance succeeded in this sacred quest. His creation of a thriving yeshiva, mesivta, bais medrash and kollel, his revival of the learning of Maharal and penimiyus haTorah, and, above all, his nurturing of future leaders in Klal Yisroel are just part of his remarkably lasting gifts to Klal Yisroel. I miss hearing his penetrating voice. I miss his mussar and I miss his limitless love.

Although he belongs to all of Klal Yisroel, the past forty years have only increased both the pachad and the ahavah he implanted in my heart and soul.

May his memory indeed be a blessing to his beloved nation.

            Zeicher tzadik vekadosh livracha.                     




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