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A Sheifa L’gadlus – Yearning for Greatness

A young boy, growing up in the early half of the twentieth century, would likely not have found America to be a source of Jewish inspiration, a place where he could see growth in yiddishkeit and Torah study. Yet one boy, one remarkable American teenage boy, was inspired and infused with a spirit so strong, that he set his lifetime achievement goal to the highest level and worked all his life to reach it. His parents sent him off to Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan and his days were full of Torah, while at night he slept in the yeshiva dormitory. He started a collection of pictures, whatever he could get his hands on at that time, of Gedolim and Roshei Yeshiva, and arranged them orderly as he hung them on his wall over his bed. However, he left one spot empty. Directly in the middle of the collage of photographs was a blank space with a handwritten inscription inserted at the bottom. The inscription read, “WHAT ABOUT YOU?” The boy grew up to be none other than the great Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Harav Mordechai Gifter ZT”L.

The famed Cleveland Rosh Yeshiva passed away two years ago this month, on the 23rd of Teves – January 18, 2001, and many Jewish newspapers and even a few non-Jewish publications wrote extensive biographical sketches about Rav Gifter’s early days; Born in Virginia, grew up in the small Jewish community of Baltimore, through his years learning in Telz in Europe and as Rosh Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. Details about the magnitude of his character, the breadth of his knowledge and the intensity of his learning with which he attained that knowledge, was well documented. Therefore, I don’t feel it’s my place to reiterate these words, but rather, as a talmid, to discuss a facet of the Rosh Yeshiva that many of the papers missed. Rav Gifter’s life-long mission was a sheifa l’gadlus – a yearning for greatness, a campaign to promote the idea that the greatest thing in this world is Torah and it’s study, and every single Jew, young and old, has the ability to restore the greatness of the Torah to it’s rightful place in the eyes of the world. Whether it was through his own personal examples that he set, diligently studying and striving to make himself into a gadol and leader in Torah, as the above story poignantly illustrates, or by constantly and tirelessly coaxing and pushing his students to see the beauty of the gemara, the timeless wisdom of the Rishonim and Acharonim, harking back to the days of old when yiddishkeit and Torah knowledge reigned supreme – as opposed to today’s “Pepsi Generation” – as he was wont to say! Just about anyone who has heard Rav Gifter speak, publicly or privately, in a shiur or at the Agudah convention, will surely have heard the gifted orator that he was, harken back to the days, “Aver L’yam” – overseas, a reference to the pre-war yeshiva life in Europe, a life so pure and spiritually uplifting that mere photographs and occasional narratives from people who were there, could never truly capture it’s essence. The Rosh Yeshiva was there and felt its special flavor and would never fail to speak about it illustratively in the hope that it can be restored on our shores today. This was his most fervent wish and it came out in his everyday routine, his casual conversations and sense of humor – this tremendous sheifa l’gadlus.

The Rosh Yeshiva once gave a shiur before the Yom Tov of Pesach and he quoted the Ba’al Haggadah, “One is required to view himself as if he himself went out of Egypt”. The Meforshim explain that for this reason, we do many unusual things on the seder night – we drink four cups of wine in a leaning position, we place the matzah on our shoulders and later we eat it, dipping the maror in charoses – all these things and more, to help us feel what our ancestors felt thousands of years ago during the enslavement and subsequently, the exodus from Egypt. We are meant to experience the high level of holiness that the Jewish people achieved during those days of old when they elevated themselves from the depths of impurity to the heights of G-d-liness. Rav Gifter explained this statement in a new light: Although we live in a different world, where conditions are improved and we are free to live our lives and express ourselves religiously, we must never lose sight of where we come from. American Jewry is merely the heir apparent to the Torah-rich lifestyle of the European cities, towns and shtetlach, and in order to attempt to retrieve that lost heritage and supplant it on distant shores, a person must feel, in himself, as if he went through the Golus of Europe, absorbing the richness and bringing it over here. As if he learned by the Netziv in Volozhin or by the Alter in Slabodkah. As if he saw the Chofetz Chaim and R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzenski at the Knessiah Gedolah, heard the first Daf Yomi shiur from R’ Meir Shapiro, or an intricate pilpul from R’ Chaim Brisker. And even though Rav Gifter was a Litvak, he appreciated the rich heritage of the Chassidishe masters of yesteryear, the royalty in the Rizhiner court and the angelic melodies in Modzhitz and Bobov, and wanted us to feel it just the same.

Rav Gifter himself learned in the hallowed halls of the Telzer Yeshiva in the Lithuanian city of Telz and he would spare no opportunity to vividly paint a portrait of his experiences and the life he lived there, so as to help bring that same lifestyle here. The Rosh Yeshiva would tell over his first experience in the great Telzer Yeshiva. With a bright smile that lit up his face from just thinking about this fond memory, he would eloquently paint the picture – he would use large, fancy words so gracefully and effortlessly, some of the younger bochurim couldn’t even understand his English! – how as an American teenager right off the boat, he opened the door to the Telzer Beis Medrash and was struck with awe. For quite some time, as the Rosh Yeshiva would tell it, he was rooted to his spot, unable and unwilling to move, the sight of hundreds of Torah scholars shouting, singing, arguing, pacing and Koching in learning, loud voices joyously recounting the holy words of Torah scholars before them – this was his everlasting memory of what Torah overseas represented. This was what a yeshiva was supposed to look like. And this was just one of the great European yeshivos; could you imagine, he would say, that this was the typical normal atmosphere in hundreds of yeshivos all throughout Europe! But he wouldn’t just say this for the purpose of telling stories. Rav Gifter believed that the American yeshivos could, and should, be exactly the same. The intensity and spiritedness would be supplanted on American shores and some young teenage bochur from a distant country would one day open the door to an American Beis Medrash and he too, would be struck with awe at the beautiful sight of Torah learning in its purest essence.

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The prototypical yeshiva bochur of today was different from the way the students acted and portrayed themselves in those golden days in Europe. Rav Gifter spared no words in describing how he, and the rest of the student body of the Telzer Yeshiva would behave, even up to the most minor detail. I recall, as a bochur hearing a shmuess from the Rosh Yeshiva, and midway through the shiur, he went off on a tangent about the middos and derech eretz that the yeshiva bochurim possessed “overseas”. To illustrate the point, Rav Gifter recounted forcefully, “When a bochur would take a sefer out of the bookshelf, as soon as he was finished using it, he would immediately return the sefer to it’s proper place. Not like today, where they leave the seforim on the shtenders and benches and a “seforim collector” comes around at night with a cart collecting and putting back all the seforim. In Europe, we had kavod for the seforim – that was derech eretz!” We were young at the time and not only didn’t we understand, we thought that maybe the Rosh Yeshiva was overexaggerating a bit! Boy, we really didn’t get it!

The Rosh Yeshiva had a picture in his mind of what a proper Yeshiva bochur was supposed to look like. We, as bochurim, were able to get a glimpse of this image from time to time in the way that the Rosh Yeshiva reacted to us in different situations. Although, certain older bochurim would smoke in those days, it wasn’t proper respect to puff away in front of the Roshei Yeshiva and Rebbeim. Rav Gifter lived for many years in one wing of the yeshiva dormitory and would always meet and greet bochurim outside the dormitory when they were walking. One night, a few bochurim were up late, talking and smoking in the hallway of the dormitory. All of a sudden, Rav Gifter, the Rosh Yeshiva himself, wrapped in his bathrobe walked into the hallway, obviously disturbed by the sound of their voices. Shocked and embarrassed, the bochurim quickly tried to put out their cigarettes, but the Rosh Yeshiva had seen them. His reaction was unforgettable. He pointed at them and said, “You?! You smoke?! You go to this great yeshiva and you smoke?!” More than anything, he was dismayed at the sight of yeshiva bochurim with a dirty habit! This was not the image that one who studies and learns Torah for a living, should epitomize. It was sobering and fascinating at the same time – though at that time, I’m sure they really didn’t look at it that way!

Rav Gifter loved Eretz Yisroel. In almost every conversation that one would have with the Rosh Yeshiva, this was crystal clear. In fact, Rav Gifter had moved to Eretz Yisroel in the late 1970’s and established a branch of the Telzer Yeshiva in Telz Stone. Many times, Rav Gifter would say that this was the happiest and most memorable period of his life. However, it was short-lived. Within a short period of time, the Rosh Yeshiva in Cleveland, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin passed away and Rav Gifter felt that he had a responsibility to the bigger Yeshiva in Cleveland and to the many talmidim that needed him. If the Telzer Yeshiva was to remain great, emphasizing the importance of Torah and teaching thousands of students this yearning for greatness, than Rav Gifter himself, who had seen it first hand and knew what it would take to create such a model atmosphere, must return and lead the way. Even if it meant giving up the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisroel and the happiness and fulfillment that he found there. Such was the way of the Rosh Yeshiva.

Boruch Hashem, America has seen the establishment of hundreds of such hallowed halls of study, with thousands of students all working to garner further knowledge, insight and understanding of the wisdom of the Torah. This was Rav Gifter’s dream. And this remains Rav Gifter’s legacy. There is no limit, no cap, on how high a person can rise. The Rosh Yeshiva taught us this, not just with his words and eloquence in portayal, but in his mannerisms and his actions. Look at what he became and what he achieved! The picture of Aver L’Yam – overseas, was always in his mind, leading him and guiding him, and it eventually allowed him to become the great Rosh Yeshiva and leader of American Jewry that he became. His fervent wish and lifelong mission was to get us to see this picture, to absorb it and emulate it, and shape the scope of American Torah Jewry on these shores. And he did! 


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