By Rabbi Nachman Seltzer
Throughout the generations, there have been numerous individuals who swam against the tide and accomplished exceedingly great things. While those around them shake their heads and ask them why they’re bothering to try when the odds are so stacked against them, these men ignore the naysayers, toil endlessly for their dreams, and many times live to appreciate the ramifications of what they’ve accomplished.
Let us go back in time. The Romans, under General Vespasian have Yerushalayim under siege from the outside. The Biryonim (zealots) have locked the gates from the inside and are not allowing anyone to leave the city walls. Food is close to non-existent. The people are starving to death. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai calls Abba Sikra, the head of the Biryonim (who happens to be his nephew) to his home, where together they come up with a plan.
On Pesach, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai falls ill. All Yerushalayim gathers to daven for his recovery. Unfortunately, they were answered with a no. His two closest talmidim carry him through the gates of Yerushalayim and out towards the hillside for burial. They are stopped by a Roman patrol and Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai is brought before General Vespasian himself.
There follows a fascinating interchange between Rabbi Yochanan and the commander-in-chief of the Roman forces, culminating with Vespasian offering Rabbi Yochanan the choice of three gifts.
One of the gifts that Rabbi Yochanan chose was that Vespasian grant immunity to the city of Yavne and the wise men living there. Essentially Rabbi Yochanan was requesting that the newly crowned emperor of Rome save the yeshiva of the times.
Unrealistic? Perhaps, yet it worked. Yavne was spared destruction and the mesorah of Torah learning outlived the Romans and has survived until this very day. Rabbi Yochanan’s vision had come true.
Fast forward two thousand years to the middle of World War II. Field Marshal Rommel, known as “the Desert Fox,” a brilliant officer who commanded Hitler’s, yemach shemo, Afrika Corps, sits in Egypt, poised to swallow the Middle East and destroy the Jews of Israel.
“Tomorrow,” boasts Rommel, “I will drink my morning coffee in Jerusalem.”
While all this is taking place, the Ponovitcher Rav, a determined tzadik and gaon, purchased a certain hill in Bnei Brak which would go on to become the site of his world-famous yeshiva. While those in the know incredulously asked the Ponovitcher Rav why he would do such a foolish thing, the rav ignored them and proceeded to build what would become the center of Torah and Yahadus in Bnei Brak.
As for Rommel, he inexplicably decided to fly home to celebrate his wife’s birthday. The Allies attacked, and his officers, used to awaiting orders, did not fully respond until Rommel returned, by which time the tide had turned against the Germans. Meanwhile a dream called Ponovezh got off the ground.
Maybe the Ponovitcher Rav was a dreamer, but he watched his dream flourish and grow and become one of the most prominent yeshivos of the day.
Though no army was poised at the outskirts of Lakewood when Rav Aharon established his yeshiva, there was another, existential threat facing American Jewry. A threat of assimilation.
While America had flourishing yeshivos and communities, the tide was clearly moving in the wrong direction. Valiant efforts by great leaders such as the famed R’ Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz and numerous others were being overwhelmed by a crazed rush for the exit doors from Yiddishkeit by the masses of Jews. The early waves of Jewish immigration from Germany in the late 1800’s and from Russia in the 1920’s had turned into one of Jewish history’s most tragic epochs, with legends told of massive amounts of tefillin covering the bottom of New York Harbor, tossed overboard by new immigrants eager to abandon their heritage for a new and “better” world.
Now the post-war generation would arrive. Would they too meet the same fate? Rav Aharon’s answer, of one small yeshiva, with a meager handful of 13 talmidim, met mass public denunciation. “This does not belong in America,” was the definitive statement.
Yet, Rav Aharon paid them no heed whatsoever and simply went about building the greatest makom Torah in the United States. When Lakewood grew out of its makeshift home and it was time for a more permanent solution, the rosh yeshiva spelled out his vision to the world in a way that left an indelible impression on all who read his letter, written in the early 1960s.
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“The Torah is literally Am Yisrael’s nishmas chaim and our sole purpose of being in this world. When Torah learning is weakened around the world, Klal Yisrael’s very existence is weakened, as the wellsprings from which we draw our very life begin to dry up.
“The existence of Torah among the Jewish people is dependent on the availability of true talmidei chachamim as they are the transmitters of Torah from generation to generation . . . if we lack men of such caliber, other men will arise who will present counterfeit ideas to our world, in the beginning unintentionally, and in the end with intent to harm . . . which will eventually uproot the very foundations of Torah and Yiddishkeit, chas v’shalom.
“The only way to the establishment of future gedolei Torah is through complete mesiras nefesh to Torah. . . . With all of one’s strength and kishronos. . . . That was the only way they succeeded in the previous generations . . .yigiah and amul are from the very things that allow a person to acquire Torah knowledge. Without them there is no kinyan in the person’s nefesh . . . and it won’t change his essence or become a true part of him . . .
“After the terrible destruction of European Jewry, where the centers of Torah learning were wiped off the face of the earth leaving us on desolate earth, the burden for the future of Torah learning lies on us, the Yidden of America and Eretz Yisrael, to establish fortresses and citadels of Torah and yiras Shamayim . . . to cultivate an air of mesiras nefesh for Torah without allowing other things to distract us . . . for only in such circumstances will we be able to raise another generation of pure and complete Torah scholars.
“Baruch Hashem we have been successful. . . . The greatest of learners and those with agile minds have been drawn to our yeshiva to be mikabel Torah and yiras Shamayim . . . and they are learning with great intensity . . . with excitement and mesiras nefesh.
“Our yeshiva has had a tremendous impact on the world of Torah in our country. . . . Many of our talmidim have gone on to serve as roshei yeshiva in prominent yeshivos and mesivtos, both in the States and Eretz Yisrael . . . and they have even established new yeshivos in a number of places in America with the yeshiva’s assistance . . . and the level of the Torah being learned in our yeshiva has helped to raise the bar of learning in many other yeshivos as well.
“And therefore . . . because of this tremendous outpouring of growth . . . our beis midrash is no longer capable of containing all our talmidim . . . and the existing buildings do not portray the necessary kavod haTorah. . . . We would therefore like to begin the construction of a building for the yeshiva . . . which will include not only a brand new beis midrash but multiple shiur rooms and assorted halls for the talmidim to study both in pairs and groups, and a library. . . . We were forced to take this tremendous responsibility on ourselves because the need is great . . . and this despite our numerous previous debts.
“I hope that all those who worry for the future of Torah b’Yisrael will join us in the completion of our building . . . which will b’ezras Hashem be a bayis gadol for Torah . . . and this will allow us b’ezras Hashem to add more benches and to further the boundaries of our fortress of Torah.
“May all those who join us be blessed with the blessings given at Har Grizim to those who help establish the covenant between Torah and the Jewish people. Baruch asher yakim es divrei haTorah hazos.”
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Certainly Rav Aharon’s vision of the Lakewood concept must have seemed far-fetched when he first spoke of such an idea. Yet the rosh yeshiva never ceased to dream and never hesitated to plan.
Fifty years later, we look back with wonder, as we see how this great gadol’s vision became the very foundations for the Jewish people. How all that he predicted came true. And how his vision was no dream and his labors were not in vain.