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Origins of Greatness
RABBI YISRAEL MEIR HAKOHEN, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, was wont to say that the Heavenly map of this world differs greatly from our own. In Heaven, major cities are not determined by population, level of industry, or seat of government; rather, a place is deemed worthy of note if its inhabitants are especially G-d-fearing, steeped in the study of Torah and meticulous in their observance of its mitzvos.
The village of Uzda was one such place. Tiny in size, it would most likely go unnoticed by someone scanning a map of nineteenth-century White Russia, but this small suburb of Minsk dwarfed a host of famous landmarks as a wellspring of holiness and purity. It was there that Rabbi David Feinstein, an outstanding talmid chacham, posek and tzaddik, served as Rav; and it was there that on the seventh of Adar, 5655 (1895), a son was born to Reb David and his wife, Rebbetzin Faya Gittel. Having been born on the birthday of Moshe Rabbeinu, the child was named Moshe.
It would seem as if a flash of ruach hakodesh had inspired Reb David and his Rebbetzin to give their child this name. For, like his namesake Moshe Rabbeinu, their son would one day sit from early morning until evening, studying and teaching Torah and answering Klal Yisrael's questions. And like Moshe Rabbeinu, their son would be so devoted to his people that he would always be ready to sacrifice himself for their benefit.
REB DAVID FEINSTEIN, who descended from a lineage studded with brilliant talmidei chachamim, was a direct descendant of the brother of the Vilna Gaon. He had been named after his paternal grandfather, who earned a livelihood as a common laborer, but was an exceedingly devout and G-d-fearing Jew, as can be seen from the following incident:
When Reb Moshe's great-grandfather was hired by a gentile employer, he stipulated that he be granted time off from work each day to recite the daily tefillos. While the gentile agreed to this condition, he seethed inwardly that precious time would be "wasted" because "the Jew had to say his prayers." His anger increased manifold when he saw that Reb David's Shemoneh Esrei was recited carefully and with intense concentration and took far more time than was necessary, as far as the employer was concerned. This the gentile would not stand for. He decided to send a message to his worker, one which the gentile was sure the Jew would not forget for a long time.
One day, as Reb David stood with his eyes closed, praying the Shemoneh Esrei, his employer moved stealthily behind him, a shotgun poised in his hands. As Reb David bowed at one point, a shot rang out and a bullet whizzed above his head. The gentile watched gleefully, expecting to see the Jew collapse from fright or make a mad dash for the door.
He was greatly disappointed. Reb David continued to pray as if nothing at all had occurred. The employer told Reb David later that he had been angry enough to kill him if he had run or even turned around when the shot was fired. But when he saw how intensely Reb David was concentrating on his prayer, he realized that Reb David was truly a G-d-fearing man. Never again did the gentile complain about the length of "his" Jew's Shemoneh Esrei.
The greatness of Reb Moshe's father and mother is described in the introduction to Dibros Moshe to Bdva Kama, the first of many sefarim which their son was to write during his incredible lifetime. Of his father, Reb Moshe writes: "He was a great gaon, a tzaddik, chassid and anav; there is hardly a likeness to him, in middos and in the performance of every deed for Heaven's sake alone, as well as his love of Torah and those who study it, and in his love for every Jew." Elsewhere he wrote, "I lived near his town, and as long as he lived I consulted him in all complicated halachic questions; his responses were as if from Sinai itself."
The Ponevezher Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, remembered Reb David as "an angel of Hashem." Another person recalled that "ahavas Yisrael simply gushed forth from him."
Reb Moshe's mother was of royal Torah lineage.
Her father, Rabbi Yitzchak Yechiel Davidowitz, was the scion of a rabbinic family that went back for many generations, and included Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (author of Tosafos Yom Tov), and Rabbi Yechiel Halprin (author of Seder HaDoros), while her mother's family traced itself back to Rabbi Yeshayah HaLevi Horowitz, the famed Shelah HaKadosh.
Reb Moshe writes of his mother, "She has no peer in fear of Hashem and love of Torah. All she aspired for was that we become great in Torah; she expended every effort in seeing that we not waste any time at all from our learning." All his life, Reb Moshe was awestruck when speaking of his mother's sublime righteousness.
He humbly credited his accomplishments in Torah to the merits of his parents, and said that his mother taught him the value of time.
There is an elderly woman on New York's Lower East Side who remembers the Feinstein family from Russia. The men and boys were always learning, she says, all of them; Torah was their life.
UZDA AND ITS ENVIRONS abounded with wondrous stories about Reb David. One such tale centered around his means of livelihood the sale of yeast by his rebbetzin.
The income from this business could not have been much, but together with the small salary Reb David received as Rav, it was enough to provide his family of twelve children with their basic needs.
Then, a gentile opened a store in Uzda in which he sold baking supplies, including yeast. His sales were enough to damage the Rav's business, to the point that he, his Rebbetzin and their children were actually going hungry. Reb David, however, steadfastly refused to seek help in having the gentile cease his yeast sales; instead, he placed his full trust in Hashem.
One day, the gentile's wagon, laden with yeast, chanced down a path that brought it past Reb David's house. As it came directly in front of the house, the horse pulling the wagon came to an abrupt halt, for no explicable reason. The driver's repeated whippings and commands were to no avail; the horse simply would not budge.
Well aware of what effect his business had had on the Rav's livelihood, the gentile understood the horse's strange behavior as a heavenly warning that he had done wrong. He jumped off his wagon, knocked on Reb David's door and begged forgiveness for having caused anguish to him and his family and he promised not to sell another speck of yeast.
The gentile then returned to his wagon and the horse started down the road without a moment's delay.
MOSHE'S BIRTH BROUGHT HIS PARENTS special joy, for his mother had suffered a number of miscarriages before receiving a blessing for a child from Reb Yisrael, the Karliner-Stoliner Rebbe. The joy of this noble couple surely increased manifold as it became apparent that their son possessed many rare qualities.
It was evident from his early youth that Moshe Feinstein was destined for greatness. He had been blessed with a brilliant mind, possessed sterling character traits and had an appreciation for the value of Torah study that belied his young age.
When about six years old, Moshe and a friend became involved in a "serious" discussion.
"When I grow up," the other boy said, "I would like to become a tailor, like my father."
"It is good for a child to go in the ways of his father," young Moshe replied. "When I grow up I hope to become a Rav."
He was a talented chess player in a country where chess was a popular pastime among Talmudic scholars. Yet, at age eight, he gave up playing the game. In later years he explained why. "I told myself that if one is already using his mind, it should better be used in the study of Torah."
An elderly contemporary remembers him as a child. He was popular and used to play with the other boys, but after five or ten minutes of play, he would excuse himself and go back to his sefer.
Reb David was his son's prime teacher in his youth. Before reaching his tenth birthday, Moshe already knew all the tractates Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Basra, a total of four hundred and ten blatt in three of the Talmud's most difficult tractates. On a Yom Kippur eve before his bar mitzvah, Moshe remained awake all night studying Masechta Yoma with his father. By the time morning services began, the two had completed the entire tractate.
Reb Moshe told how his father not only studied with him, but also carefully supervised his education. Reb David personally paid for a private Gemara rebbi for his son and three other boys, to foster their maximum growth. Indeed, the group completed the entire tractate Gittin with all of Tosafos that year. Here in the United States, Reb Moshe told that story to the president of a yeshivah who had argued that he could not afford the expense of a second rebbi for an oversized class.
Reb David knew that the youngster had unlimited potential and, as Reb Moshe wrote in the introduction to the first volume of his responsa Igros Moshe, "... my father said to me that he hoped and was virtually positive that many would inquire of me regarding Halachah, which is the word of Hashern, both orally and in writing, and that I would answer correctly, with G-d's help."
That comment illustrated a unique characteristic of Reb Moshe, a trait that represented another of his similarities to Moshe Rabbeinu. On the one hand, his modesty was unbelievable. He was uncomfortable with honor, never felt that he had learned or accomplished enough, and gave respect and honor even to children and unlearned people. On the other hand, like Moshe, he knew that he had a responsibility to lead, to rule on the most complex questions of Halachah, and even to disagree with other great rabbis if he was sure he was right. He had the very unusual ability to differentiate between himself as an individual Jew and the Torah that he knew. As a person, no one could be more humble; but he felt he had no right to be humble where Hashem's Torah was concerned.
EVEN AT THAT EARLY AGE, Moshe was committing his original Torah thoughts to writing. It is told that when a thought would come to him and there was no paper on hand, he would record the chiddush on any substitute available, even a stone.
When Moshe was about eleven years old, he once entered a room where his father was meeting with a number of prominent rabbanim, including Reb David's famous brother-in-law, Reb Elya Pruzhaner. As soon as they noticed Moshe's presence, the rabbanim all rose in respect for the young Torah genius. He turned red from embarrassment, and his father was terribly upset.
"What are you doing to me?" he demanded of the others. "You are destroying my child! You will turn him into a ba'al ga'avah .."
When Moshe was twelve years old, his family left Uzda for Starobin, a city teeming with Torah scholars. It was said that there were one hundred Starobin working men knowledgeable enough to serve as rabbanim. This was a play on the Russian words sta (one hundred) and rabbin (rabbis), but it was an accurate description of the quality of Starobin's Jews. It was this golden community that chose Reb David Feinstein as its new Rav.
SHORTLY BEFORE MOSHE BECAME a bar mitzvah, his father deemed him ready to leave home and study under one of the foremost Torah giants of that time. Off to Slutzk he went, to the Yeshivah Eitz Chaim, headed by the famed Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. It was through his closeness to the Rosh Yeshivah that, in later years, Moshe became friendly with Reb Isser Zalman's future son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, with whom he worked hand in hand in guiding Torah Jewry in the United States and elsewhere after 1940.
In Slutzk, Moshe quickly earned a reputation for himself for his amazing brilliance and incredible diligence. The "Starobiner lluy," as he was known, would remain in the beis midrash far into the night, sleeping barely five hours. By the time he turned thirteen, Moshe was fluent in two complete orders of Shas. Forty years later, Reb Isser Zalman would relate with admiration some questions and chiddushim of the thirteen-year-old Moshe Feinstein.
Aside from being headed by a rosh yeshivah, most yeshivos of higher learning are guided by a mashgiach, who is responsible for the spiritual growth of the talmidim in areas outside of actual Torah study. Yeshivah Eitz Chaim's mashgiach was Rabbi Pesach Pruskin, who himself had been a student of Reb Isser Zalman when he studied as a young man in Slutzk. Following his marriage, Reb Pesach became a night watchman in an orchard, which afforded him time to study alone and meditate while he sat among the trees. He became well versed in areas of Torah hashkafah (outlook), completing the Rambam's classic, Moreh Nevuchim. Meanwhile rumors abounded that Reb Pesach was one of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim in whose merit the world exists.
During this period, he met Reb Isser Zalman, who invited him to return to Slutsk as mashgiach. After some delay, Reb Pesach accepted the offer, and proceeded to inspire the yeshivah's talmidim with his impassioned mussar talks and his own angelic ways.
WHILE REB PESACH was respected as a tzaddik and an expounder of mussar, he was deemed only average as a Talmudic scholar.
When a heated discussion on a topic in Bava Kama took place one day, Reb Pesach offered his opinion. Those taking part in the discussion were not impressed in the least by Reb Pesach's comment; they fell silent and a mocking smirk appeared on the lips of one or two of the participants. Reb Pesach noted the reaction and he retreated to his corner, deeply humiliated.
He began to weep until he fell asleep. He dreamt that he was commanded to continue his Torah study and was promised siyata diShmaya (Heavenly assistance) in achieving greater success in his learning.
Reb Pesach began to study with new confidence, and in a short time, a noticeable change had taken place. He spent a summer in the company of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, and, with his newfound depth and clarity, assimilated Reb Chaim's analytical approach to learning to an extent that amazed everyone. As time went on, he amassed a vast amount of knowledge and, combining this with diligence and his newly acquired sharpness of mind, Reb Pesach went on to become one of the foremost gaonim of his day.
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel ("der Alter" of Slabodka) advised Reb Pesach to leave Slutzk and start his own yeshivah in Shklov, which he would serve as rosh yeshivah. Seeking to assure the success of the new yeshivah, Reb Isser Zalman had lots drawn to select a group of outstanding ialmidim who would accompany Reb Pesach and become the nucleus of his new beis midrash. Among those selected was the Starobiner lluy, Moshe Feinstein, then all of fifteen years old.
Years later, when Reb Moshe was an acclaimed giant of his generation, a fifteen-year-old naively asked him, "Does the Rosh Yeshivah study only those tractates in Talmud Yerushalmi to which there is no Bavli, or does he study the others as well?"
Replied Reb Moshe with a warm and friendly smile, "By the time I was your age, I had already written chiddushim on the entire Yerushalmi tractates of Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Basra." It was his gentle way of encouraging young students to feel that they could accomplish much more in learning. He felt that people were usually held back not so much by lack of ability as by lack of confidence in themselves and ambition to attain major goals.
At the dedication ceremonies for the new yeshivah in Shklov, attended by many prominent rabbanim, Moshe offered a halachic discourse that amazed the entire gathering. Sixty years later, he included this shiur with only minor changes in a volume of his Dibros Moshe.
IN 1911, UPON THE ADVICE of Reb Chaim Soloveitchik, Reb Pesach accepted the invitation of the Jews of Amtsislav that he serve as their Rav. The community accepted Reb Pesach's condition that his yeshivah be relocated in their city. Thus, when Reb Pesach departed Shklov he was joined by his talmidim, including Moshe, who studied under Reb Pesach until he was nineteen, and always considered Reb Pesach his primary rebbi.
By age seventeen, Moshe had already mastered all of Shas with Tosafos, and in another two years he had completed all four sections of Tur and Shulchan Aruch. It was then that, at his father's urging, he began to write halachic responsa. One of these teshuvos, dealing with the complex laws of shechitah, was later printed in his classic Igros Moshe, a multi-volume collection of teshuvos [responsa], spanning a breathtaking array of halachic topics.
Around this time Reb Pesach remarked with pride about Moshe, "I have a student who has surpassed me in learning as well as in Halachah."
In 5729 (1969), many of Reb Pesach's lectures were published by his grandson under the title Shiurei Rabbi Pesach MiKobrin. (Kobrin, Reb Pesach's birthplace, was where he spent the last seventeen years of his life, serving as both Rav and rosh yeshivah.) The work contains a haskamah (approbation) from Reb Moshe, in which he writes, "I was extremely joyful to hear that the writings of my rebbi, the great gaon ... (are being published) ... Many great giants and geniuses in Torah became great by serving him and learning his holy ways in the method of Torah study. I recall the great pleasure I experienced when hearing his shiurim and chiddushim in the years I merited to serve him ..."
More than fifty years after Reb Moshe had taken leave of his rebbi (who passed away in 1939), he sent a wedding gift to one of Reb Pesach's grandchildren, with the following note: "This gift which I send you is nothing in light of the deep appreciation I feel towards my rebbi ... "
AT THE OUTBREAK of World War I in 1914, Moshe left Amtsislav and rejoined his father in Starobin, where they studied together and where he soon began teaching local youths. His shiurim gained broad acclaim and he was soon being hailed as a young giant of Torah and p'sak.
During the second year of the war, with the Czar's army being mauled on the western front, a conscription order went out for all young men of Moshe's age. Aside from the dangers of fighting in a war, serving in the Russian Army meant forced transgression of certain mitzvos and, of course, little time for Torah study. To Moshe and his parents, these considerations were sufficient reason to seek a deferment from service through any means available. He traveled many miles to see an attorney who was said to have connections with government officials. However, the attorney proved to be of little help and Moshe began his journey home empty-handed.
On the way back to Starobin, Moshe stopped off in Smilovitz where the Chofetz Chaim and his yeshivah had been forced to relocate because of the war. Moshe headed for the yeshivah's beis midrash to seek the blessing of the Chofetz Chaim, whom he had never met.
When Moshe entered the beis midrash, he found the Chofetz Chaim with his most famous disciple, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman. As Reb Moshe retold the story to his students half a century later, "I went to see the Chofetz Chaim and he was sitting with Reb Elchonon. We spoke in learning and when he saw that I knew (ven ehr hot gezehn az ich ken), he gave me his blessing." *
* It was typical of Reb Moshe's modesty that all his life he never said much about his visit to the Chofetz Chaim. Even to his family, he would say only that he had spoken to the Chofetz Chaim very briefly, and only to ask for his blessing. On Purim afternoons, his students used to visit his New York home to celebrate the festival with him. At those times he would be unusually jovial and outgoing, and on a few occasions, told about the conversation with the Chofetz Chaim.
The Chofetz Chaim had heard much about the "Starobiner Iluy" and was concerned when Moshe explained the gravity of his situation. The Chofetz Chaim and Reb Elchonon both rose and escorted their young visitor out of the beis midrash. The Chofetz Chaim then turned to Moshe and said, "Our Sages tell us, Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah the yoke of government and of worldly responsibilities are removed from him (Avos 3:6). It would seem that, rather than 'removed from him,' a more proper phrase would have been 'are not placed upon him.'
"There is, however, a fundamental message in this carefully worded statement of our Sages. One whose deeds are purely for the sake of Hashem will merit that even decrees that have already been proclaimed upon him will be removed." With these words, the Chofetz Chaim bade Moshe farewell.
Not long afterward, the government proclaimed that, in view of the successful mobilization of the Russian Army, all call-ups of rabbis were suspended until further notice. In that proclamation, Reb David saw a legal way to protect his son from the draft. Uzda, Moshe's birthplace, had no rabbi at the time, so at Reb David's suggestion they accepted Moshe as their Rav. His trials were not over, however, because he was ruled too young and able-bodied for a deferment. Nevertheless, he eventually succeeded in gaining an exemption. Despite the superficially natural means through which he gained his freedom, he attributed his success to the Chofetz Chaim's blessing.
WHEN REB MOSHE WAS INVITED to serve as Rav in Uzda, the inhabitants were filled with pride over the glowing reports concerning twenty years old and as yet unmarried, Reb. Moshe assumed his first rabbinic position. Years before, his father had declared his confidence that his son would become a respected posek. In Uzda it became clear that Reb David's words were indeed prophetic.
In his very first year as Rav, a delicate halachic query came before him, involving a man and woman who had been wed in a marriage ceremony whose validity was questionable. After carefully reviewing the case, Reb Moshe issued a thirteen-page teshuvah in which he concluded that the ceremony was invalid, thus permitting the woman to remarry without obtaining a get. Forty-four years later, this teshuvah too was published in Igros Moshe (Even HaEzer 82).
Reb Moshe's halachic rulings were also sought by many people outside of Uzda, for already then his p'sak was known to be clear, concise and based on a knowledge of Torah that was breathtaking in range and dazzling in depth.
In his first years in Uzda, Reb Moshe wrote an intricate teshuvah (found in Igros Moshe) on the complicated laws of ribis (interest). Many years later, Rabbi Tuvia Goldstein, Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivah Emek Halachah, expressed amazement to Reb Moshe that he could have had such a broad scope of knowledge at so young an age. In one of only two occasions when Reb Tuvia saw him display a touch of pride, Reb Moshe responded by commenting that he had sent the teshuvah for review to Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer, and his former rosh yeshivah had lavishly praised the piece as ernes la'amitta, the quintessential truth.
IN UZDA, as wherever he went, Reb Moshe was loved and admired not only for his greatness in Torah, but for his angelic character traits and his love for every Jew. The Jewish community in Uzda provided him with all his basic needs, some of which were slightly unusual for a Rav, since Reb Moshe remained unmarried during his years there. One of the local women was assigned the task of cooking his meals, a task she performed with relish.
One day, Reb Moshe's sister, Chana (who later became the Rebbetzin of Rabbi Isaac Small of Chicago), arrived in Uzda to visit her brother. "I see you are being treated very well," she commented upon seeing him. "You've put on a little bit of weight."
"I am being treated well," Reb Moshe replied. "The woman who cooks for me prepares a heaping plate of food for each meal. I always finish all that is served, not wanting her to think I find her food lacking. However, she sees my clean plate as a sign of hunger and she promptly serves me seconds which I also partake of, for her sake. And so, yes I have put on weight."
Later that day Chana joined him for a meal at the woman's house. She took one bite and found it tasted so awful that she was tempted to spit it out. With a heaping plate of food staring at her and not wishing to insult her hostess, she saw no way out of her dilemma but to clear the food off the plate when the woman was not looking.
In later years, Rebbetzin Small would relate this story to her grandchildren, expressing her admiration for her brother, who day after day, for three years, ate this woman's cooking, two portions at a time! Difficult as it may have been to eat the badly prepared food, Reb Moshe, who would one day be remembered as "a gaon in middos," found it far more difficult to hurt the woman's feelings.
IN THE YEAR 1920, Reb Moshe accepted an invitation to serve as Rav in Luban, a town twenty miles from Slutzk. Torah and fear of Hashem were found in abundance in Luban. A group of working men formed a Chevrah Shas, in which the members divided the entire Talmud among themselves for study, with a siyum being held each Chanukah. Most parents sent their sons to study in the great yeshivos of Eastern Europe, where many of them developed into outstanding Torah personalities. Luban was the birthplace of Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, legendary mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshivah in Europe; and Rabbi David Povarsky, currently rosh yeshivah at the Ponevezher Yeshivah in Bnei Brak.
That Reb Moshe was chosen for such a distinguished position at so young an age says much for his stature in the Torah world at that time. Reb Moshe did not disappoint the people of Luban. There his brilliant light would shine forth ever stronger. There he would emerge as a courageous leader of his people.
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