Contemplating our loss: Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt"l
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 12, 2005
Haman was delighted when the lot to determine the date of execution for the Jews of Persia fell on Adar. He knew that Moshe Rabbeinu had passed away on 7 Adar. But he did not know that Moshe Rabbeinu was also born on 7 Adar (Megillah 13b). Haman failed to realize that Moshe Rabbeinu's petirah was part of a great cycle of darkness giving way to light.
Awareness of the darkness creates a powerful surge towards light. Thus Adar, the month of Moshe Rabbeinu's petirah, is associated with the tribe of Naphtali, who symbol is the swift running hind. The darkness of Adar produces a rush towards the light, which precedes the birth of the Jewish people in Nissan.
The darkness left by the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, zt"l, created a similar urge on my part to comprehend the extent of the void. So I spent last week speaking with some of his closest talmidim and returning to his writings to better understand the source of his profound impact.
Of the 35,000 people who attended Rabbi Wolbe's levaya, there were few – from the close talmidim who participated in his small mussar vaadim in Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov to those who knew him only through the two-volume Alei Shor – who did not feel that their lives had been shaped in some way by the Mashgiach.
Many have commented that the Mashgiach's passing marks the end of the Mussar movement founded by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. But it could well be that the void left by the passing of the last exemplar of the mussar of pre-War Europe will lead to a resurgence of mussar.
From its inception, the Mussar movement was revolutionary. Battles between proponents and opponents of mussar raged in most of the great Lithuanian yeshivos at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.
And Rabbi Wolbe's message was certainly designed to be discomfiting. He described the battle against mitzvos anoshim m'limuda -- lack of reflection, self-satisfaction, going with the flow -- as a lifelong war. And he decried the tendency of people – the chareidi community included – to view themselves as a herd of sheep, each one looking over his shoulder to see what the next sheep is doing.
Rabbi Wolbe stressed the absolute individuality of each Jew, and the necessity for each individual to become conscious of his own uniqueness. When Nimrod threw Avraham Avinu into the fiery furnace, the Angel Gavriel offered to descend and cool the flames. But HaKadosh Baruch Hu replied, "I am singular in My world, and he is singular in his world. It is proper that One Who is unique should save one who is unique" (Pesachim 118a).
Each of Avraham Avinu's descendants inherited that quality of being unique. The fact that we dress alike or that we all structure our lives around the observance of the same mitzvos is no contradiction to that essential uniqueness. Indeed the external similarity only forces us to dig deeper within to discover our point of uniqueness. In the Torah, we often find that a superficial identity only heightens the fundamental difference: Yaakov and Esav were twins; the goat sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur and that offered on the Altar had to be externally identical in every respect.
Awareness of one's uniqueness leads back to Hashem. Already at the age of three, writes the Rambam, Avraham Avinu knew that there is one G-d. But only at 40 did he fully recognize His Creator. What was the difference between these two stages? asked the Mashgiach. Initially, Avraham Avinu perceived a far greater power outside himself. That awareness alone might lead to a desire to rebel, as in the case of Nimrod.
At forty, however, Avraham recognized Hashem as his Creator, and that every aspect of his being was rooted in the Divine. Through awareness of himself as a unique being fashioned by Hashem and placed in particular circumstances, Avraham understood that he was inseparable from Hashem.
As portrayed by the Mashgiach, there was nothing solipsistic about the process of self-discovery. Hand in hand with the discovery of one's individuality goes the discovery of one's unique mission in the world (ma chovaso be'olamo) . To recognize that one possesses a singular constellation of talents and weaknesses, that one was born into a different familial and historical situation than anyone who has come before or who will follow, is to recognize that Hashem has placed one in the world for a particular purpose.
That purpose, the Mashgiach taught, must always be related to the situation of Klal Yisrael. One cannot discover one's specific task if one confines his search to one's own four cubits. He told one of his closest students, "Klal Yisrael has not produced many like you. Now you have to give back to Klal Yisrael." The student felt simultaneously diminished to learn that he was a product of Klal Yisrael, not just his own efforts, and elevated to hear that an important task awaited him.
Rabbi Wolbe taught that all individual spiritual growth, all Torah learning must be understood as for the benefit of Klal Yisrael. One who has only Torah learning, without deeds of chesed, he said, quoting the Talmud, is likened to one who has no G-d. He felt that the way to inspire beginning Talmud students, who had not yet reached the level of deriving great intellectual pleasure from their learning itself, was to emphasize that their learning is for Klal Yisrael.
When the needs of Klal Yisrael demanded, Rabbi Wolbe did not hesitate to step outside of the confines of the beis medrash. During the Holocaust, he established a home in Sweden for 120 orphaned Jewish girls from Eastern Europe. And after the near miraculous Israeli victory in 1967, he lectured widely on secular kibbutzim to slake the thirst of non-religious Jews for a taste of Torah.
He urged his talmidim to follow his example. As the curve of a ben Torah's personal spiritual growth levels off, after the initial steep ascent, he counseled, he should start thinking about concrete ways of giving back to Klal Yisrael. He felt that every ba'al teshuva has experienced a special awareness of being guided personally by Hashem – certainly that had been true throughout his own life – and he stressed the importance of kiruv work to a generation of bnei Torah.
The Mashgiach's message of self-discovery leading outward to a deep connection with all of Klal Yisrael is one that will hopefully continue to resonate in the Torah world.
Related Topics: World Jewry
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