My dear friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, was in the United States a couple of weeks ago, and we were discussing the loss of Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l. As head of Lev L’Achim and Chinuch Atzmai, he was privileged to interact with Rav Chaim on a regular basis. I asked him for stories only he could tell.
This is one of them.
Lev L’Achim accomplishes its phenomenal historic kiruv work through teaching people Torah. Groups of volunteer bnei Torah travel to secular areas and invite people to study Torah with them. As they study, they begin showing interest in the Torah way of life and many begin taking steps that lead them to Torah lives.
Some of the leaders had a custom that when a group would finish studying their first perek of Gemara, they would travel to Bnei Brak and make a siyum in Rav Chaim’s room. Rav Chaim did not participate. When he learned Torah, nothing could disturb him. He simply did not hear anything that was going on around him. The boys would gather around the table and someone would make the siyum. Everyone would make a lechaim, an attendant would alert Rav Chaim to their presence, and then they would pass Rav Chaim. The boys would look at him and say shalom. He would answer, “Buha,” and return to his learning.
Rav Sorotzkin related that, invariably, some members of the group would undertake to do teshuvah as they left the room. If he asked them what moved them to take the drastic step of adopting a Torah life, they would shrug their shoulders and say that they didn’t know why, but something came over them being in the room and seeing the tzaddik, and they just knew that they had to change their way of life.
Being in the very presence of a tzaddik is life-altering.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner would tell a story about a visitor to pre-war Vilna who retained the services of a local wagon driver. Baalei aggalah, wagon drivers, were notorious for their illiteracy. As the passenger made himself comfortable in the wagon, he removed a Gemara from his satchel and began to learn. The wagon driver took notice and turned around to ask the learned passenger what masechta he was studying. The passenger politely answered, certain that this would be the end of the conversation.
The baal aggalah persisted, asking what daf he was studying. The passenger responded without looking up, amused that a wagon driver would care not only what masechta he was learning, but also which page.
The driver asked one question, and then another, and, suddenly, a Talmudic pilpul ensued, with questions, arguments, and proofs being shared. The passenger was amazed by the scholarship of his driver and asked him what the secret of Vilna is that even the wagon drivers are talmidei chachomim.
“It is because we had the Vilna Gaon here,” responded the driver.
I assume that the story is apocryphal, because it continues that the visitor to Vilna asked the driver about the Gaon’s position in the city.
“Was he the rov?”
“No, he wasn’t.”
“Well, then, was he the rosh yeshiva?”
“Also not,” replied the wagon driver.
“So was he a maggid there, inspiring people to learn?”
“No, he was none of the above.”
“Then how did he succeed in infusing the people with such ahavas haTorah?” wondered the guest.
“Veil ehr iz da geven. Because he was here,” was the succinct answer.
Chazal tell us that at the beginning of time, Hakadosh Boruch Hu took the souls of the great tzaddikim and dispersed them throughout the generations, planting them at various junctures and stages in history – “shesolan bechol dor vador.” We were privileged to walk the same ground as Rav Chaim, be in the same room as him, and speak to him.
One of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach’s talmidim told him about his father-in-law, who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, enduring unimaginable torture. He said that he asked his father-in-law how he was able to emerge from such a dark, bitter tunnel with his faith intact. The man said that when he was a small child, the Chofetz Chaim visited his village. His parents felt that he was too young and fragile to join the crowd of people jostling for a view of the famed tzaddik, but his grandfather insisted that the boy go.
His grandfather carried him to where the welcoming took place, and as they approached the Chofetz Chaim, he lifted the child high in the air so that he could see the face of the tzaddik.
He recounted many years later, “How did I remain strong in my faith? It’s because I saw the Chofetz Chaim’s face, and that image remained imprinted in my mind in the darkest times, giving me chizuk and hope when things were very dark.”
We gather at the Seder and everyone is obligated to view himself as if he was in Mitzrayim and was redeemed from there. As the Baal Haggadah writes, “Bechol dor vador chayov adam liros es atzmo ke’ilu hu yotza miMitzrayim.” The Rambam famously changes the word “liros,” which indicates that the obligation is for a person to view himself as if he was redeemed, to “leharos,” to demonstrate to others you yourself were redeemed.
We wonder: Why is the obligation at the Seder to imagine as if we ourselves were just freed from Mitzrayim? Why is it not sufficient to celebrate that Am Yisroel gained freedom and independence after two centuries-plus of servitude and deprivation?
The Ramchal teaches that every Yom Tov brings along with it the special hashpa’os that were prevalent at the time of the original neis that we are commemorating on that holy day. On Pesach, at the Seder, we seek to recreate the special feelings of the night that changed and charged our people so that we may merit those extraordinary hashpa’os which were evident on the 15th of Nissan back in Mitzrayim and every year since.
But it goes deeper than that.
The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 16) questions why we have so many mitzvos to perform the night of the Seder. He explains that since on this night we began our trajectory to becoming the holy nation, every year, at that time, we undertake to perform actions that demonstrate the great heights we achieved on the same date and time. By performing those acts and imagining our feelings at that same time in Mitzrayim, we set those levels in ourselves for our lifetime. This, he says, is why there is an abundance of mitzvos on this night, because by performing them, our hearts and souls are changed and improved, and thus the more, the merrier.
Perhaps we can add that davka because the act of performing a mitzvah influences our character and changes us for the better, on a night when we are charged with transmitting the truths of our emunah to the next generation, we are given so many mitzvos. They change our very being. Therefore, as we do the mitzvos and contemplate what transpired on this evening so many years ago, imagining as if we ourselves were freed and formed into a free, holy, ambitious, growing person, we merit the special hashpa’os of this holy night. Not only our neshamos, but also our faces begin to glow with kedusha and taharah as we are transformed. Our children and grandchildren take notice, and those images are forever etched in their memories and neshamos.
I write from personal experience. When I was a young child, our family would travel every year to Detroit and partake in the Seder of my sainted grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin.
Back in those days, my father would pick up a Drive Away car that had to be driven from New York to Detroit. It was the cheapest mode of travel and we didn’t have much money. My parents would pack us into the car – this was before the advent of seat belts, car seats, and vans – and off we’d go. My father would drive through the night. We kids would fall asleep in Monsey and we’d wake up at Zaidy’s house.
We were all up for the Seder; we wouldn’t miss it for anything. My grandfather sat there looking like a Malach Elokim Tzvakos. He spoke to us about Yetzias Mitrzayim and the mitzvos of the Seder in a way that remains etched in my heart to this very day. He was mekayeim the liros es atzmo and leharos es atzmo lemehadrin, with overwhelming joy and devotion.
His maaseh mitzvos were mashpia not only on him, but on everyone who sat at that table. We felt the joy of leaving Mitzrayim, the simcha of being a Yid, of eating matzos, drinking Arba Kosos, and doing mitzvos in general.
As the Sefer Hachinuch says, those actions and feelings remain etched in my soul forever, impacting me and making me a better person and a better Yid.
The Seder is the time when we are best able to feel the cheirus afforded every member of Klal Yisroel. When we transport ourselves back all those years to Yetzias Mitzrayim, it becomes real to us. As we perform the mitzvos of the night properly, they influence and change us. The Seder has the ability to transfix us, as it grips us in the enthrallment of the moment. We become like little angels riveting our children and grandchildren with the splendor of our way of life, of Torah and mitzvos.
The beautifully set table, the kittel, the matzos, the wine, the Haggados, the Mah Nishtanah, the songs, even the pillows – all the disparate aspects of the glorious image come together and forge memories and people.
My Zaide is no longer here. Nor are my parents. Now it is up to me to carry on their traditions, to light the fires in the souls of my children and grandchildren. It is up to all of us at our Sedorim to charge the room, imagine ourselves leaving Mitzrayim, showing our families what it feels like, transmitting the glory and magnificence of the moment. It is up to us to transmit the holiness and dedication of our parents and grandparents to the next generations. It is up to us to present that image of holiness that our grandchildren will hearken back to for the rest of their long lives.
We, who have experienced the ups and downs of life, who know of defeat and triumph, who appreciate what it means to be an eternal people, who appreciate being part of the Am Hanivchar, have an obligation to transmit the glory of Yetzias Mitzrayim 3,334 years ago, and the subsequent Yetzios Mitzrayim that Jews have experienced throughout the ages, as well as those that we ourselves have experienced. The Seder is the time to give all of that over so that our children and grandchildren can have the opportunity to be as blessed as we are to live joyous Torah lives in freedom.
Is there a greater joy? Is there a greater opportunity for joy and fulfillment?
Adopt-a-Kollel is a remarkable organization performing historic work, bringing much needed support to kollelim across Eretz Yisroel. For Pesach, they sent me a fabulous Haggadah named Toras Chaim, containing divrei Torah and stories of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. It was written by Rav Shalom Meir Vallach, who annually produces a new Haggadah from a different gadol which is a pleasure to read and learn from. This one was published four years ago.
He writes that someone asked Rav Chaim for advice on how to achieve simcha. He responded that the question is out of place, and he explained. The Brisker Rov was once watching children running around, playing and smiling as they were having a good time. He asked the people who were accompanying him why the children were happy.
They answered that the children were joyful because they didn’t have possessions and other things to worry about.
The Brisker Rov was not satisfied with their response. He said that when Hashem created the world, He created a happy place. But as people get older, they become ruined and therefore lose their joy. Children are still straight, the way Hashem created them, and therefore they are happy.
Thus, said Rav Chaim, when you ask how to achieve happiness, that indicates that a person is a depressed, sorry, sad creature, and when Yom Tov comes around, it is incumbent upon him to change his nature. In fact, the opposite is true. Man’s natural state is to be happy and joyful; our task is return to that.
On Pesach, at the Seder, we have the ability to experience our natural state of joy. Let’s do our best to achieve it and bring everyone who is with us along. May we all feel it, and may it remain with us until the great day when we will all be in Yerushalayim habenuyah.