Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Torah Fire of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l

Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l (1892-1962) was one of the predominant Torah leaders of his time, in pre-war Europe as the rosh yeshiva of Kletsk, Poland, as the leader of the Vaad Hatzolah during the Second World War, and as the founder and rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Rav Aharon was the greatest advocate of the primacy of Torah learning on a scholarly level even during times when few believed that Torah scholarship of the level that was seen in the great yeshivos of Europe was possible in America. Rav Aharon’s accomplishments in raising the banner of Torah earned him the respect of gedolim of all spheres. The Satmar Rebbe said about Rav Aharon at his levaya a paraphrase of Rashi (Bamidbar 8:3) concerning Aharon Hakohein: “Lehagid shevacho shel Aharon shelo shina” – Rav Aharon did not change one iota from his mesorah of Torah primacy.

Rav Aharon was born in Svislovitch, Russia, where his father, Rav Shneur Zalman, was the rov of the town. His parents died when he was young and he was raised by his uncle, Rav Yitzchok Pines, dayan in Minsk. He learned in Krinik and in the Kloiz in Minsk. He went on to learn in the great Slabodka Yeshiva, under the tutelage of the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, and the rosh yeshiva, Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein. Rav Aharon developed into a gadol b’Yisroel and a gaon olam, recognized as such while he was yet young.

Rav Aharon married Chana Perel, a daughter of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, and joined his father-in-law in running the yeshiva of Slutsk. With the advent of the First World War and the takeover of Communism in Russia, Rav Aharon moved the yeshiva to Kletsk, Poland, where it thrived and produced Torah scholars up until the German invasion in 1939.

Rav Aharon’s Torah writings have been published under the title Mishnas Rebbi Aharon. Here are a few of his Torah thoughts.

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The Gemara (Shabbos 119b) states: “Ain ha’olam miskayeim ela bishvil hevel tinokos shel bais rabbon – The world exists only on the merit of the words of Torah of schoolchildren.” Rav Papa asked of Abaya: “My Torah and your Torah, what of them?” Abaye said to him: “Torah that contains the taint of sin cannot be compared to Torah that does not contain the taint of sin.”

Is it possible that the Torah learning of Abaya and Rav Papa, with all its purity and sanctity, will not carry the world, while the Torah learned by young children will? Furthermore, to those who say that mitzvos tzrichos kavana, mitzvos require intent, the actions of young children are not mitzvah caliber. How can it be that specifically their Torah learning sustains the world?

Rav Aharon (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon #4, page 9) teaches us from this Chazal a yesod that talmud Torah has an intrinsic value even without it being designated a mitzvah. Other mitzvos, such as lulav, are meaningless without the command of Hashem. Torah learning, however, is different. The entire world only exists because of the strength of Torah that is learned. The source of the neshamos of Klal Yisroel is the delving into Torah.

This attribute of Torah, however, only exists when the Torah is as pure as the learning of tinokos shel bais rabbon, the young children who learn Torah without the slightest taint of sin. Since Torah is in a different category than other mitzvos, the concept of mitzvos tzrichos kavana does not pertain to Torah learning. Even Torah learning without kavana remains Torah learning. Therefore, specifically a koton learning Torah possesses the greatest capability to sustain the world, more than even Abaya and Rav Papa.

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The Gemara (Kesubos 103b) relates that upon the passing of Rebbi, a bas kol pronounced that whoever is present at the petirah will merit Olam Haba.

Rav Aharon (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon #3, p. 220) derives from this incident that even Rebbi, who declared (Kesubos 104a) that he delved with all his ten fingers into the Torah and never benefited from this world, was not able to secure Olam Haba for the people of his generation.

This bas kol points out by its declaration that the moment a tzaddik departs from this world is a tremendous ais ratzon, as Chazal say, “Gadol tzaddikim bemisosom yoser mibechayeihem.”

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We have a tradition to observe certain aspects of aveilus during the days of Sefiras Ha’omer. This time period is when twenty-four thousand students of Rebbi Akiva, representing the epitome of Torah scholarship, passed away.

Why, in fact, did these twenty-four thousand talmidim die?

Rav Aharon (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon #3, p. 17) establishes that Rebbi Akiva was the underpinning and foundation for the continuity of the Oral Law, and his students were designated to pass on the Torah to future generations. These students had to therefore comport themselves on the highest level of spirituality, fulfilling the forty-eight qualities that Torah is acquired with (Avos 6:6). If they were lacking any of these forty-eight qualities, their kinyan Torah was faulty.

One of these forty-eight qualities is dibbuk chaveirim, being close to friends. The lack of respect that existed amongst the talmidim of Rebbi Akiva was a strong indication of their not fulfilling this ideal. If they lacked dibbuk chaveirim, their level of Torah was undeserving of being the conduit of Torah for the generations of Klal Yisroel to follow. This is because to be able to give over Torah to future generations of Klal Yisroel, one must fulfill the Torah with all forty-eight dictums. Otherwise, their Torah is lacking and not deserving of being transmitted to future generations. Furthermore, as the Rambam (Hilchos Rotzei’ach 7:1) declares, the entire life of a Torah sage is Torah. If his Torah is lacking, then his existence is at risk.

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Moshe dedicated shevet Levi to be the teachers of Klal Yisroel, as he blessed them (Devorim 33:10), “Yoru mishpotecha l’Yaakov veSorascha l’Yisroel – They shall teach your laws to Yaakov and your Torah to Yisroel.” This is why shevet Levi was not given a portion in Eretz Yisroel. Hashem wanted shevet Levi to focus exclusively on their Torah scholarship and not be involved in the mundane tasks of earning a livelihood from the land. Rather, the Leviim were entitled to maaser rishon and the kohanim to the twenty-four matnos kehunah.

 Practically speaking, there are built-in loopholes for people to avoid giving the Leviim their maaser rishon. People can exchange produce among themselves and avoid bringing in their harvest through the front entranceway of their homes. In fact, this was already being done in the times of Chazal (Brachos 35b).

It emerges that the members of shevet Levi were not at all secure about their entitlements, as there were numerous ways for the Bnei Yisroel to avoid paying them. How does this anxiety and insecurity mesh with the Torah prestige we purportedly endow the Leviim with?

Furthermore, properly learning Torah with all its intricacies requires menuchas hanefesh. Having the Leviim rely on the goodwill of the Yidden will unduly add to the pressure placed upon them. Would it not have been more sensible to obligate all of the Bnei Yisroel to support shevet Levi without exception?

Why, in fact, did Hashem allow shevet Levi to obtain what they were entitled to only in this not-so-honorable manner?

Rav Aharon (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon Al HaTorah, p.259) states that Hashem was concerned that members of shevet Levi might become conceited with their lofty position in Klal Yisroel. With their great Torah knowledge, they are liable to act arrogantly and haughtily. This arrogance would detrimentally affect their ruchniyusdige growth, hurting their ability to positively influence Klal Yisroel. Therefore, Hashem arranged for their needs not to be handed over on a silver platter. The fear that one may embrace arrogance is greater than the fear of any other impropriety that may come a Levi’s way.

Rav Aharon continues by saying that every person has to appreciate that any concern and worry one may have for his situation in life is a protection from falling into the trap of arrogance. Of course, a basic tenet of life is, as Dovid Hamelech says in Tehillim (55:23), “Hashleich al Hashem yehovcha vehu yechalkelecha – Cast upon Hashem your burden and he will sustain you.”

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Chazal (Avodah Zarah 20b) teach us, “Torah study brings to zehirus – heedfulness, zehirus brings to zerizus – diligence, zerizus brings to nekiyus – moral cleanliness, nekiyus brings to perishus – abstinence, perishus brings to tahara – purity, tahara brings to chassidus – piety, chassidus brings to anava – humility, anava brings to yiras chet – fear of sin…”

Rav Aharon (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon Al HaTorah, p.130) understands this Gemara to mean that each of these attributes contributes to bringing about the following attribute specifically when combined with Torah learning. Torah with zehirus brings to zerizus, Torah with zerizus brings to nekiyus, and so on and so forth for all the attributes mentioned in the Gemara.

 This is because the only way to become close to Hashem is through Torah study. When you combine Torah with an attribute stated in the Gemara, this raises the person to the next level. Pertaining to the next attribute as well, only when we combine it with Torah does it bring one to the next level.

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R’ Mendy Pollak learns and teaches Torah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.



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