Long before he became rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Volozhin, Rav Chaim Brisker was a key figure there. He was head and shoulders above the rest in his brilliance, and talmidim – some of the best and brightest – naturally gravitated to him. For his part, he was humble and considered himself as just another member of the chaburah. But it was clear that they all looked up to him for guidance. They would repeat their chiddushim to him, and he would analyze and clarify these insights for them, adding novella of his own. He would take long walks with talmidim, often with his hand on their shoulders, as they were deeply engrossed in halachic concepts. His love of the pure truth was such that he wouldn’t hesitate to yield his way of thinking to someone of much lesser stature when necessary.
Leading a chaburah in the yeshiva was one thing, but being appointed to an official position was quite another matter. After all, this was Volozhin, the mother of all yeshivos, with alumni who were the greatest gedolim. Today, we can’t imagine the yeshiva velt without Rav Chaim, but at that time, it wasn’t so simple. When his shver, Rav Refoel Shapiro, left Volozhin for the rabbonus of Novoalexandrovsk, the position became available.
Of course, his many followers wanted him to take over, but there was much vocal opposition. For one, he was yet very young, just twenty-seven years old. There were talmidim in the yeshiva who were close to his age, and it was difficult for them to accept him as their mentor. Others, even gedolei Torah, objected for a different reason. Rav Chaim had brilliantly paved a new way of learning, but they were averse to changing the yeshiva’s mesorah in its derech, and then there were those who were just plain jealous of this young prodigy and murmured against him for no good reason.
It was decided that Rav Chaim would deliver a shiur in front of the yeshiva in the presence of three of the generation’s greatest gaonim, Rav Reuven of Denenburg (Dvinsk), Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector of Kovna, and Rav Eizik of Slonim. The day arrived, the stage was set, the bais medrash was jammed to capacity, and there was excitement in the air. The crowd knew exactly what was at stake.
Rav Chaim spoke about a very complicated topic in the first perek of Maseches Yevamos. He quoted a Rambam, asked a number of questions, and then began weaving a tapestry of keen insights with proofs to what he was saying. The crowd was mesmerized by the shiur. The listeners were gripped with an intense feeling of sweetness of Torah by the inner worlds of this young gaon. But even more impressive than what Rav Chaim said was what he didn’t say. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the shiur came to an abrupt halt.
As he was completing his illuminating explanation of the Rambam, a thought crossed his mind. He remembered a Rambam in his commentary on Mishnayos that did not fit with this interpretation and in fact contradicted it. Rav Chaim was certain that no one would remember that Rambam and no one would question him. There was a lot on the line. His future was in doubt. If he were to admit his mistake, the whole shiur would be for naught and his appointment would be in jeopardy. But to Rav Chaim, more important than his future and more important than his position was the pure emes.
He immediately declared, “Morai verabbosai, I just remembered a Rambam that does not coincide with my pshat, and therefore it cannot be said.” He promptly stepped down, not knowing what would follow.
To the elder gaonim listening to the discourse, what just took place was most telling. They were deeply impressed by his love of the truth to the extent that he was willing to admit his mistake publicly and suffer embarrassment in order not to give a false interpretation to the Torah. They declared in unison that davka Rav Chaim was worthy to be marbitz Torah in the Volozhiner Yeshiva.
Rav Yeshaya Vinograd, a rosh yeshiva from Yerushalayim in the early part of the twentieth century, came to Europe to collect funds for the old yishuv. One of his stops was in Brisk. While there, he woke up very early in the morning for his regular bekius seder, during which he reviewed forty blatt. That day, he attended a shiur from Rav Chaim. The shtickel Torah was beautiful, but it seemed to contradict a Gemara that Rav Yeshaya had just reviewed that morning. He started interjecting by mumbling that Gemara. The others present tried quieting him down, but he had said it loud enough for Rav Chaim to hear. He stopped speaking and said, “Nein… Ehr iz gerecht… He is right. The Gemara contradicts my pshat and it cannot be said.”
Before he left town, Rav Yeshaya asked Rav Chaim for advice. “What is the key to being a successful rosh yeshiva?” Without hesitating, Rav Chaim answered, “A successful rosh yeshiva must be able to be modeh al ha’emes. When he is asked a question that refutes his Torah, he must be able to say, ‘I made a mistake,’ even if it means his shiur comes to a halt and he has nothing else to say that day.”
In this week’s sedrah, we learn that as Yaakov was preparing to go down to Mitzrayim, “He sent Yehudah ahead of him to Yosef to prepare ahead of him in Goshen” (Bereishis 46:28). What was it in particular that Yehudah was preparing? Rashi quotes the Medrash that he went to establish a yeshiva that from there would emanate teachings for Klal Yisroel. The commentaries ask: Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to send Levi or Yissochor, who were more occupied with their learning, to start this yeshiva? Numerous answers are given.
The Nesivos Shalom of Slonim says that involvement in learning is one thing, but building a yeshiva is quite another. For that, one needs special strength to withstand all of the nisyonos that come, especially in the beginning. Yehudah possessed that special gevurah, as it says, “Gur aryeh Yehudah” (Bereishis 49:9). He is compared to a lion.
The Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, explained that a rosh yeshiva must take responsibility for the creation, the maintenance, and the development of the yeshiva, both in its ruchniyus and in its physical sustenance. Yehudah had this special characteristic of taking responsibility for others, as evidenced by his taking responsibility for his brother Binyomin when he told Yaakov: “I will personally guarantee him: from my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned for you for all time” (Bereishis 43:9). This means that he would even forfeit his share in Olam Haba. And it was only Yehudah who confronted Yosef, the ruler of Mitzrayim, on behalf of Binyomin by declaring, “For your servant took responsibility for the youth” (ibid. 44:32). It is this special trait that is so essential in building a yeshiva.
Who can attest to this better than the Ponovezher Rov? He took responsibility for numerous Torah institutions, and like Yehudah, who sacrificed his Olam Haba for Binyomin, the Ponovezher Rov gave up his ruchniyus for the klal. He was well known as an ilui who could have produced profound chiddushim. But he gave up his own time for learning in order to spread Torah to the rabbim.
But there is another characteristic that Yehudah possessed that made him the most appropriate to found a yeshiva: the ability to admit a mistake even when it is uncomfortable, even when it is embarrassing, and even in public. “Yehudah, your brothers will acknowledge you!” (Bereishis 49:8). The Medrash says that this posuk was only said regarding tzaddikim who overcame their inclination and admitted their actions. Whoever admits his wrongdoing merits Olam Haba.
It was very difficult for Yehudah to admit his relationship with Tomor, especially since he did it while sitting on the bais din together with his father and grandfather, Yaakov and Yitzchok. Yet, he said those two most difficult words to say at the time: “Tzodkah mimeni! She’s right in what she says. Her children are from me” (Bereishis 38:26). This took tremendous inner fortitude. Because of this, all of his brothers acknowledged that he was fit to be king.
But what else could Yehudah have done? Could he possibly have remained silent and allowed Tomor and her to offspring to be killed? Why, then, is this considered such a great deed on his part?
Rav Leib Chasman explains that it is man’s nature, even if he is straight and proper and fears Hashem, that if he makes a mistake and it later becomes clear to him that he erred, he will most definitely do everything possible to rectify what he had done so that it won’t adversely affect anyone else. However, he will try to do it in a clandestine way so that no one finds out about it. He will reason, “What good will come if people find out about it? Furthermore, if it becomes known, it would be a chillul Hashem.” But if we really plumb the depths of his subconscious, we will see that what he is really concerned about is saving his dignity and to erase any hint of wrongdoing.
Yehudah did not do this. He made no attempt at hiding anything. The moment he realized Tomor’s righteousness, he didn’t hesitate to admit publicly, “Tzodkah mimeni!” He didn’t look for ways to save her in a way that wouldn’t be embarrassing to him. Instead, he revealed the entire truth. Because if the true story would not come out, Tomor’s reputation and the lineage of her children would be besmirched forever.
This trait is necessary in founding a yeshiva, and this is why Yehudah was charged in particular with the task of founding the yeshiva in Goshen. One must be able to admit that he is wrong, whether it pertains to an approach in answering a difficult question in halacha or whether it involves dealing with talmidim. One must be able to admit and say, “I made a mistake.” It is one of the most difficult things to do. People tend to think that they are right, especially when they have formed their opinion after considerable thought. And even when they realize that they are wrong, there is the pride factor. It hurts one’s dignity to admit both that he was wrong and the one who questions him is right. It is especially crucial for one who leads others to be able to change course when he realizes his mistake. Otherwise, he will be leaving his followers astray, which could spell disaster. This is also why he was zoche to malchus.
We are witness today to countries suffering from the mistakes of ideologues who refuse to admit that their policies are wrong. Many millions of people have lost their lives in the name of communism. Yet, their leaders continue to run their countries based on their failing policies. We see what is happening in America, where progressive ideas are being followed despite their detrimental effects on the economy, on law and order, and the general welfare of the country.
But why delve into what it takes to be a rosh yeshiva when the vast majority of us will never be at the helm of a yeshiva? Because, in reality, we are all roshei yeshiva. Whether we are in the field of chinuch as a profession or as parents, we are leading institutions. And above all, each and every one of us is leading our own private institution – ourselves, and that is perhaps the greatest challenge of all. For man is comprised of many varying forces, each pulling him in a different direction, and each capable of pulling him off the right track.
Being in these various positions involves countless decisions every day, formulation of opinions, and taking courses of action. The odds are that along the way, one will make mistakes. If we have the ability to admit we are wrong, and can change course and our opinions, then we are at a great advantage. But when ego and self interest get in the way, one is trapped in his own subjective path, which can easily lead to failure.