By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
During the period of COVID-19 – everyone needs chizuk. It is appropriate, however, in the new zman, in the new semester of school – for the mechanchim and the mechanchos of our children to get a boost of inspiration and chizuk from one of the Gedolim of the previous generation who perhaps personified the concept of bringing the ideals of Torah, Mussar and dedication to chinuch to Klal Yisroel throughout America, Rav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz zt”l.
It is this author’s hope that this audio-enhanced, digitally cleaned, and re-mastered video will inspire thousands of mechanchim in their Avodas HaKodesh. It is being presented for the Refuah shleimah of three individuals:
Ruchama Devorah Leah bas Rochel, a remarkable tzaddaikes
Chaim Nachman ben Mindel, a remarkable tzaddik
Asher ben Nurit Leah (Obadia), a newly born baby from a wonderful family.
May HaKadosh Boruch Hu send them all a complete refuah shleimah.
A FURTHER PORTRAIT
Rav Leibowitz zt”l had an extraordinary impact on chinuch in the United States. He was the only son of his saintly father, Rav Dovid Leibowitz, zt’l, founder of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yisroel Meir HaCohen, commonly known as Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim. The yeshiva was first established in 1933 by Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, a nephew of the Chofetz Chaim. On December 5th , 1941, Rav Dovid Leibowitz passed away, and his son would take over at the helm of the yeshiva.
Rav Henoch Leibowitz molded the yeshiva in the image of the great yeshiva of his father’s rebbe, the Alter of Slabodka. Indeed, Rav Mordechai Shulman, zt’l, a rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael who had intimate knowledge of the Slabodka Yeshiva, commented, “Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim is Slabodka.”
Slowly but surely, Rav Henoch Leibowitz shaped and molded his talmidim. He imbued them with a sense of mission to do and work for Klal Yisrael. The greatest achievement for one of his talmidim was to merit to be a marbitz Torah in Klal Yisrael.
And harbatzas Torah they did. Rav Henoch Leibowitz’s talmidim opened up high schools across the nation and beyond—in Miami, Los Angeles, Rochester, Milwaukee, and Ottawa, to name just a few. Rav Leibowitz nurtured his talmidim and the mosdos they set up. Soon, Chofetz Chaim became a major force in American Judaism. Entire Torah communities were to spring up around the Chofetz Chaim branches. These communities yielded fruit. Many graduates of the Chofetz Chaim schools entered harbatzas Torah themselves, in every capacity. The attitude of Rav Henoch’s talmidim created a major turning point and shift in the field and in the public perception of Jewish education, which affected all other yeshivos, as well. A career of harbatzas Torah became a lofty profession, something that the elite should aspire to achieve.
Rav Leibowitz focused his efforts on developing his students in three major areas.
He felt that mechanchim—indeed, everyone—should strive to achieve the highest level of iyun (in-depth study) possible. Toward this end, Rav Leibowitz spent countless hours with his students, teaching them how to unfold the latent processes of reasoning in a Talmudic text. He taught them to highly esteem the words of the Maharsha and to hone in on the essence of an argument between a Maharam and a Maharsha. He taught his talmidim to truly appreciate the words of the Acharonim.
He taught them to focus very closely on the shift between a text’s initial supposition and the turning point in its final conclusion. “What is the shift between the havah amina and the maskana?” was a question he often asked. Most importantly, he taught his students the notion of “muchrach”ism, that each and every piece of Torah they spoke had to be both textually and logically compelling. He eschewed the methodologies of baseless chakiros (logical inquiry and differentiation) and the standard use of “reid” when understanding Torah texts. The yeshiva was well known for the thorough manner in which the talmidim examined the texts they were learning. Shiurim were not just heard once; they were worked on for days and sometimes weeks, so as to understand and appreciate every nuance. (This slow pace, however, was limited to the morning iyun seder. Indeed, for the afternoon and evening bekiyus sedarim, the rosh yeshiva instituted a quota system, where a minimum number of blatt had to be learned each week.)
GROWTH IN MUSSAR
The second area in which Rav Leibowitz “grew” his talmidim was in the area of mussar thought and texts. Talmidim were taught how to develop a genuine mussar insight, either in psychology or midos or some other area of Torah growth. Such insight, of course, also had to be logically and textually compelling. The true “Slabodka shmuess” was not a d’rush-filled exposition of any Torah thought that comes into the talmid chacham’s mind; no—it had to be derived from a previous Torah text: a Ramban, a Seforno, a Rashi, a Midrash. Otherwise, the integrity of Torah could be compromised, if people’s own ideas were read into the text and represented to the world as Torah.
SENSE OF MISSION
Thirdly, Rav Leibowitz imbued his students with a sense of mission toward Klal Yisrael. His talmidim were in the forefront of chinuch and the revitalization of Torah throughout North America. His students opened Torah institutions and branches in many cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis, Cherry Hill and Manalapan (New Jersey), Cedarhurst, Huntington, Monsey, New York City, Vancouver, Ottowa, Phoenix, and Dallas—and in places in Eretz Yisrael, too.
He personified the midah of emes, as well. Once, for example, a wealthy individual gave a $10,000 donation that was doubled by his corporation’s matching-funds program. The problem was that the donor’s check did not clear. Rav Leibowitz promptly refunded the corporation’s money. Any behavior otherwise was sheer anathema to him. He was a genuine Torah sage in every way, and he would never countenance any form of dishonesty, chalilah.
Rav Leibowitz had a remarkable Ahavas Yisroel to all of Klal Yisroel. He possessed a warmth and a smile that conveyed his love for each individual. He also had a great sense of humor, which he utilized to connect with talmidim, baalei batim, and other members of Klal Yisrael. Once, when my mother, aleha ha’shalom, met him, she asked him to compile the Kabbalistic writings of her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. For the next four weeks, he playfully teased me about it, but it was a loving, playful tease that served to connect. When I, a boy from California with no family in New York, had surgery during my first year in yeshiva, he and his rebbetzin put me up in their house to recover. His rebbetzin, zt’l, served her nurturing kasha, chicken soup, and kosher jello, and Rav Leibowitz patiently sat and learned with me.
SENSITIVITY TOWARD OTHERS
Rav Leibowitz personified the idea of sensitivity toward others and making sure that people realized what it means to cause anxiety to others. A typical shmuess of Rav Leibowitz involved examining Rashi’s comments regarding the person who cursed the name of Hashem, found at the end of Parashas Emor. The pasuk says, “Vayanichuhu ba’mishmar,” they placed him under guard. Rashi comments: “Alone—and they did not leave the person who gathered [sticks] with him.” Why? Rashi explains that even though they both committed their sins during the same time period, one of them, the gatherer of sticks, incurred the death penalty; they just did not know which particular death penalty. But regarding the one who cursed G-d, they did not know what his punishment was to be at all.
Rav Leibowitz asked, how does this difference explain why these two prisoners were housed separately? He answered that they were placed in separate locations to avoid the additional anxiety that the one who cursed G-d would feel if he observed that they housed him with someone who incurred the death penalty. How sensitive we must be to each tzelem Elokim, if even a criminal deserves this sensitivity. The lesson is even more profound when we examine the words of the Da’as Zekeinim. From there we see how particularly heinous the blasphemer who cursed Hashem actually was. And yet we see that we should be sensitive to his anxieties.
Rav Leibowitz, zt’l, was one of the gedolei ha’dor who personified the highest ideals of the Torah—in his words, deeds, teachings, and actions. His impact on Torah in America will be felt for centuries to come. It is hoped that these inspiring words will give chizuk to mechanchim everywhere.