The overwhelming economic hardship facing our community is obviously not a situation that anyone would choose. This past leil Shabbos, the head of the Tomchei Shabbos of my neighborhood spoke in shul in heartrending terms of the families in our neighborhood who are literally without bread to eat. And ours is a relatively established neighborhood. In many of the younger neighborhoods, the situation is far worse.
Yet in every situation, there has to be a positive side, an opportunity for growth – "everything G-d does is for the good." There is no question that the present situation has the potential to deepen and strengthen the attachment to Torah. Today the decision to dedicate one’s life to learning Torah lishma requires a heroic commitment.
In Europe between the two world wars, no one spent long years in yeshiva because it was the accepted practice. To be a yeshivaman meant to turn oneself into a figure of ridicule and derision. Yet the yeshiva students of those days achieved levels in learning that seem almost unimaginable to us today. Not because it was easy, but davka because it was so hard, and so much strength had to go into the decision to remain in Torah learning. The more one sacrifices for something the more precious it becomes in one’s eyes, and the more precious, the more it enters into the very fibre of one’s being.
As we look for direction in the midst of this process of intensification no figure has more guidance to offer than Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, whose fiftieth yahrzeit we celebrate this coming Sunday, 24 Teves. In his first letter to Rabbi Dovid Dryan, his original partner in the founding of the Gateshead Kollel, Rabbi Dessler began, "The world errs in thinking that from a large quantity comes quality. The truth is the exact opposite." In the Beis Midrash of Kelm, in which Rabbi Dessler learned for eighteen years, the terms "large" and "many" were inherently suspect. Only quality counted.
The Alter of Kelm taught that the prerequisite of all Divine service is the uprooting of self-love. The regime that he developed to do so had several different aspects. The first was substituting a love of others for love of self. Rabbi Dessler’s best know essay, Kuntras HaChessed, in which he divides all people into two categories – givers and takers – had its roots in Kelm.
The second aspect of uprooting self-love consisted of breaking all one’s own desires, whether the desire for honor or the more physical desires.
When Rabbi Dessler arrived in Kelm, shortly after his bar mitzvah, Rebbetzin Nechama Liba Braude, the Alter’s daughter, served him a tasteless porridge for breakfast the first morning. That same tasteless porridge continued to be his fare for years. That was Rabbi Dessler’s introduction to Kelm's method of "the breaking of ones desires."
The point was not asceticism for the sake of asceticism. The ultimate goal was not affliction of the body, but to supplant the connection to Olam Hazeh (this world) with a deeper, more intense attachment to Olam Habah (the world to come). Rabbi Dessler exemplified that complete lack of attachment to Olam Hazeh. Someone in Gateshead once explained to him that he could purchase a two-family house for the same amount of money that he was then paying in rent. With the proceeds from renting out the second apartment and the same amount of money he was then paying in rent, he could pay off a mortgage in ten years.
"Chas ve’Shalom, that I should be so connected to anything in the physical world," Rabbi Dessler replied. In his last years in Ponevezh, he expressed the desire to leave the world without a single possession. There is no verb in lashon hakodesh (the Holy Tongue) for possessing, he often noted.
"He was a living example of what is important and what is not," remembers Rabbi Wolf Kaufman, today Rosh Kollel in Manchester. "He made us embarrassed to talk about money." The young couples in the Gateshead Kollel were typically both penniless refugees. They considered themselves fortunate if they started married life with a few place settings and a handful of cheap cutlery that quickly rusted. (No one dreamed in those days of an exchange of thousands of dollars of jewelry prior to the wedding.) They often lacked a chicken for Shabbos, and each cigarette in the Kollel was divided into three.
Yet – and this is the key point – the Kollel members considered themselves fortunate. Rabbi Dessler created such an atmosphere of spiritual striving that the members of the kollel and their wives were able to ignore their very strained circumstances. The opportunity to learn Torah lishmah was all they asked. When Rabbi Naftoli Friedler was offered a position as Rosh Yeshiva in the Gateshead Yeshiva, he did not view it as a step up from being a member of the Kollel. And when Rabbi Leib Grossnass left the Kollel to take a position as a Dayan on the London Beis Din, the other members of the Kollel could not understand why he would do such a thing.
Rabbi Dessler’s blessing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) to his younger cousin Rabbi Simcha Zissel Dessler and his bride was that they should never experience the test of material wealth (a berachah that Rabbi Simcha Zissel’s son, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler of Ponevezh Yeshiva, says was fulfilled in full). For Rabbi Dessler there could be no more difficult test than material wealth.
Shortly after his arrival in England, whose rampant materialism disgusted him, Rabbi Dessler wrote to his father Rabbi Reuven Dov Dessler that since the breaking of the Luchos HaRishonos (the First Tablets), all material goals must necessarily be at the cost of spiritual goals. The first Luchos were from Above – a physical creation from ruchnios (spirituality). As long as the physicality was from Above, it represented no contradiction to the World of ruchnios. But that lack of contradiction was lost forever with the shattering of the First Tablets. Since then, with every subsequent spiritual decline in the world, a higher price in ruchnios (spirituality) is paid for every ounce of material plenty.
But Rabbi Dessler’s great achievement was not that he scorned the material, but that he made the world of ruchnios so real, so palpable that his talmidim were inspired to devote themselves to matters of the Spirit. That was true with the small group of well-to-do private students he assembled upon first arriving in England. Solomon Sassoon, for instance, came from an aristocratic Bombay family, and the Sassoon children were playmates to British royalty. It was not uncommon in the early days of Solomon’s learning with Rav Dessler for him to arrive for their lessons in tennis attire. Yet under Rabbi Dessler’s tutorage, Rabbi Solomon in time turned into a Torah scholar of exceptional profundity.
What Rabbi Dessler first did for young teenagers in London, he would subsequently do at a different level for the budding Kollel scholars in Gateshead, and for the bochurim in Ponevezh Yeshiva.
His secret in each place was the same – conveying through word and deed the joy of plumbing Hashem’s Torah. The rich man, he observed, is made miserable by his excess of wealth, and the poor man by his lack of it. Yet it is impossible that Hashem created man in order to be miserable. The answer is that Hashem gave Man the greatest gift possible: the ability to draw close to Him through spiritual pursuits. A life absent such pursuits, in Rabbi Dessler’s view, cannot be considered a life at all, for it is lacking the fundamental quality that makes us truly human.
Rabbi Dessler’s greatness lay in his ability to convey this message to all who came within his ambit. He remains, fifty years after his passing, a guide and teacher for a generation in which Torah will go forth from "the children of the poor."