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In Memory of Rav Gifter

Oct 21, 2009 by Rabbi Pesach Siegel


“Der Brillin fun Toirah”


In memory of Moreinu VeRabeinu Harav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l


By Pesach Siegel


It is certainly not my place nor within my ability to write “about” The Rosh HaYeshiva. He was beyond us, beyond us and yet he lifted up all those who came in contact with him. He changed our lives, gave us sight, in order to enable us to navigate through the darkness of this world. What follows is a small portion of the great light, the hashkafas haTorah,  he chose to share with us.


He would share with us a favorite “moshol” of his rebbe, Rav Mottel Pogremansky, z”l.


A cultured individual brought an acquaintance to the famed museum of art in France, the Louvre. He was admiring the masterful brushstrokes of a Rembrandt, the way the light struck the canvas and the skillful application of the paint textures, splendorous colors converging to create a masterpiece. His companion stood there, not impressed in the least. “Aren’t you amazed at the sight of this work of art, at the genius that went into it’s creation?”  The friend responds, “No, not at all. All I see is “zoir milch” (sour milk). The scene repeats itself time and time again by other works of art. Upon inspecting his friend’s spectacles, comprehension dawns. He sees that the lenses are coated with sour milk! When one’s glasses are smeared with sour milk, all one can see is sour milk!


Hashem created a wondrous “briyah”.  We see Hashem in every single facet of creation and come to love and stand in awe of Him. In order to be privy to this vision, we must remove the sour milk from our lenses, and view all of creation through “Toirah brillin” – (Torah spectacles).


And how he showed us!


Hashkafas HaTorah - A young bochur entered the high school intent on attending university upon graduating. He made his position quite clear and no one could talk him into spending perhaps another year or two in the yeshiva. He took the opportunity to ask the Rosh HaYeshiva something that was disturbing him. Why do yeshivos concentrate on studying irrelevant topics. The Talmud is rich with Torah topics that pertain to our daily life. Why not study them instead? To this the Rosh HaYeshiva replied, “You are belaboring under a mistaken notion of the purpose of Torah study. You think that we study Torah in order to amass information that will enable us to conduct our daily lives.  Torah study is much greater and all encompassing. When you devote all your energy in understanding the “heilige” words of the Rashba, you begin to develop and absorb within yourself the thought process of the Rashba. This produces a wondrous effect, for you begin viewing all things in creation through the perspective of the Rashba. It makes no difference if the matter under study is directly relevant or not. Toiling in Torah transforms a person and blesses him with the ability to see all things in the light of “emmes”.


True to his word, the bochur continued on to university. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the yeshiva. The Rosh HaYeshiva asked him, “What happened to your resolve? What changed your mind?”   “It’s like this, rebbe, I was enrolled in a philosophy course. One day I arrived late. The room was pitch black. In the corner of the room I saw the professor sitting cross legged on his desk surrounded by incense and burning candles. He was naked from the waist up. It was then and there that I decided I need more of the Rashba’s perspective on life!!”


(Indeed, there were those who he counseled to complete their university studies, but his view on the dangers of college was clear and uncompromising.  “Even one who refrains from the study of “treife” philosophy and elects to study mathematics must be aware that a college is an “ohel hames”. When one  extends a solitary finger into an “ohel hames”, his entire body is rendered impure!”).


When questioned on the relative advantages between studying within the framework of an institution that elevates secular studies to the level of Torah studies, versus studying in a yeshiva during the daytime while attending a secular run night school (with all its challenges and disadvantages), he responded that the latter would be preferable over the former. One would at least be assured that the Torah one learns would be “Toras Moshe Rabbeinu”. Learning Torah that is not Toras Moshe does not provide a safeguard even when one is ensconced in an all Jewish environment. Toras Moshe is Torah for the sake of Torah. Unadulterated Torah. Pure Torah, unattached to any other study or agenda.


The Torah is what defines life and death. A pregnant cow is ritually slaughtered. The baby exits the womb post-slaughter. It is running and jumping. Is it alive? No. The Torah says it has been slaughtered. An animal exhibits movement after slaughter. Whilst still moving, a limb is severed. In the world of the gentile the limb is considered “eiver min hachai” (a limb removed from a live animal). The world of the Jew is a separate reality. For him, the limb was severed after death.


The Torah determines what beauty is. The passages in Shir HaShirim extol the beauty of a woman’s hair….. up until her marriage. Once it becomes forbidden to be displayed in public, the same hair, considered so attractive and beautiful before the marriage, is transformed. The Torah deems it utterly disgusting (to anyone other than her husband). “Eckel hauftigkeit! ”, the Rosh HaYeshiva cried out, demonstrating his disgust by spitting on the floor.


The chiyus of the Rosh HaYeshiva shone through with particular brightness during the years he was zoche to dwell in artzeinu hakedosha. In the foundling town of Telshe-Stone, there existed a group of religious Zionists. They hesitatingly asked the Rov if he would have any objection to the displaying of the Israeli flag on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. “Of course not”, he replied. In the United States of America we all fly flags on the Fourth of July to acknowledge the chessed of the American government who provided a refuge for the Jewish people in a time of need. “Why do you even feel you have to ask? Of course one may display a flag to recognize the benevolence one has received through the government of Israel”.  Does that mean that the Rov is a Zionist?” they queried. “Of course I am a Zionist, as the posuk says “Ohaiv Hashem es shaarei tzion – es hashe’arim hametzuyonim behalacha.” (Hashem loves the gates of Tzion – The gates that are outstanding in Torah endeavors). I am a Zionist, but you most certainly are not! And I will prove it to you.”   “Tell me the truth”, he asked them, “On which  of the days that you recite Hallel do you say Hallel with more kavanah (intent) – on Yom Ha’atzma’ut or on Shalosh Regalim?” They understood and answered, “HaRov hu tzadek” (The Rov is 100% right). The Rosh HaYeshiva continued, “I express hakaras hatov for all the chassadim that Hashem sends through his various emissaries, but what you have introduced into this day is kefira baHashem uvatoraso”. ( The Rosh HaYeshiva was no “fan” of the Israeli flag. His opposition to the flag  did not stop him from allowing the religious Zionists from displaying it in their own abodes).


Tefillah - He would regale us with stories related about the poshute Litvishe yidden.


During Shmoneh Esreh, the Telzer Rov, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, z”l, hy”d, would stand unmoving, at attention like a soldier, silently mouthing the words of Tefillah. The butcher of the town, Reb Itzileh Ratzkofsky (also known as “der roiteh”) entered the back of the bais medrash, gazed upon the Rov and exclaimed, “Ooy, ehr rehd doch mit Ehm alein!” (Ooy, He’s actually conversing with G-d). The Rosh HaYeshiva noted, that it was due to R’ Itzileh’s uncomplicated nature, his “pashtus” that he noticed that which had eluded the talmidim of the yeshiva.


Davening is not just a mitzva that is incumbent upon us to perform, davening is conversing with Hashem. What a privilege! One merits having a private appointment with the “Aibishter”, his beloved “Tatte”. He would enjoin us, “What type of person has the opportunity to converse with his father and fails to shlep himself out of bed in the morning to speak to him? A BABY! There is no other word for it. A BABY!”


Wouldn’t one attire himself in formal wear if he had a scheduled meeting with the President of the United States. Why should a meeting with the “Aibishter” be any different? As he encouraged us to put on a tie before each tefilla.


Learning Toirah? A chavrusa with Abbaye and Rava!!! During Elul, he would make “suggestions”. The first 15 minutes of morning seder each and every bochur should learn out loud without interruption….by himself, not really by himself…with Abbaye and Rava! And the rebbe? The “Aibishter”. Hashem’s proudest title is that of a “Melamed” – “haMelamed Torah Le’amo Yisroel”.  How could anyone tear himself away from such ecstasy?!


Emuna - Plagued by various health conditions the Rosh HaYeshiva was multi-experienced when it came to the medical field in general and doctors in particular. He suffered from the unbridled haughtiness of some specialists. Upon searching for a physician, he came across a specialist who greeted him with the words, “We know very little of the daunting task placed before us. We only hope and pray that our sincere efforts will be blessed with success by the One above”.  Amazing!! A doctor who admits that he doesn’t know everything? A doctor who attributes his success to Hashem? “You are going to be my doctor!”, the Rosh HaYeshiva exclaimed.


Upon contracting a sinus infection, the Rosh HaYeshiva was overjoyed (“maleh simcha”). Why? Because the doctor informed him that there is not much to be done for it medically. He should avoid going outside for a week’s time. A week’s time!!! A whole week to be left alone! A week of uninterrupted learning! What joy! In addition, the infection did not allow him to sleep much at night, so he stayed awake, to his intense pleasure, using the time to learn Nach with Malbim. What a chessed from Hashem!


In his later years, sadly, his memory failed him. He would learn and immediately forget what he had learned. He would extol the chasdei Shamayim and would say, “In all practicality I should be miserable. I learn and cannot retain what I have learned. I can’t explain it, but I am “maleh simcha”. The Ribono Shel Olam, in his infinite kindness, though he saw fit to take away my memory, did not take away my matzav haruach.”


Nifla’os HaBoreh – The wonders of creation! He often quoted for us the words of the greatest Baal Teshuva in our times, Rav Natan Birnbaum, who prior to arriving at the emmes worshipped every “ism” imaginable. (He actually coined the term “Zionism”, while influencing Theodore Herzl to turn his efforts towards founding a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisroel rather than in Uganda!) The moment of truth arrived when upon finding himself on an ocean liner he gazed at his surroundings and exclaimed, “The wonders of the heavens above, the vast expanse of sea, Es mus doch zein a G-tt! (There must be a G-d!).


The Prophet Yeshaya proclaims, “Se’u marom aynaychem ur’u mi bara ayleh” – Lift up your eyes and see who created these. Modern science focuses on “The What”, while ignoring “The Who”. The posuk stresses “The Who”.  The “naarishkeit” of the scholars of astronomy who see so much yet understand so little. The Rosh HaYeshiva was well read in all areas that he felt were necessary.  He shared with us a science article he had seen. Based on certain evidence, a fellow was convinced of the existence of a yet undiscovered constellation. The discovery of this constellation would wreak havoc upon decades of scientific calculations (and on the theories based upon the calculations) regarding the inter-workings of the heavenly bodies. He was determined to find it and spent six months garbed in a snow suit upon Mount Palomar, gazing up at the heavens. HE FOUND IT!! The Rosh HaYeshiva was overjoyed. Now, they will finally understand. They will see the folly of their ways. Their haughtiness will come tumbling down. He was sorely disappointed. In a follow up article on the subject, six new theories, filled with heresy, popped up, one of them advanced by a Jesuit priest!


He would be enraptured upon telling of the Torah embedded in the flowers of Eretz Yisroel. A wildflower, the Rakefet, indigenous to Eretz Yisroel. A veritable feast of colors, rising in all it’s splendor on a slim and delicate stem, upon reaching the top, bending over it’s plume (keppeleh) in a show of humility. (He treasured a framed picture of the Rakefet given to him by a talmid and displayed it prominently in his breakfront).


Those who were present can never forget how tears of dveikus filled his eyes on a Shabbos afternoon when telling of how bright the firmament shines in Eretz Yisroel. “There are places in Eretz Yisroel where one can learn Toirah by the light of the Levana!”


 Marital Harmony – He once made a distinction between the terms “Nedivus HaLev” and “Nesius HaRuach”:  A husband passes by the sink on his way out to the bais medrash. Don’t  be oblivious, dishes don’t wash themselves, offer to do the dishes!!!! This is Nedivus HaLev. The tayareh vaibeleh (dear wife) reacts, “No, you go learn. I will wash the dishes instead of you.”  Each and every dish the wife washes is another line of gemorah. If she would have accepted the kind offer, her husband, instead of studying the heilige toirah would be washing dishes. The husband’s sensitive offer has transformed what would have been a mundane task into something that transcends this world. Had he not offered, the washing of the dishes would have been plain ordinary dishwashing. This is Nesius HaRuach. A home built along these lines will be as the Mishkan and merit the presence of the Shechinah. (The Rosh HaYeshiva, against the wishes of the Rebbetzin, shetichye, would on occasion wash the dishes at home, thinking in learning all the time. He would scrub the pots with Brillo and “grubzich ois” – grind out -  the Tosafos!).


The words of Rav Yisroel Salanter sent to his son-in-law Rav Elya Leizer, the Vilner Dayan, were never far from his lips. Rav Yisroel was consulted as to the worthiness of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky as a shidduch for Rav Elya Leizer’s daughter. “From the kuntress of chidushei Torah sent to me, I see az ehr ken lehrnen (he knows how to learn), but you did not write me anything about the mentch. Dovid HaMelech’s parting words to his son Shlomo were , Vechazakta vehayiso li’ish. Un du zolst zein a mentch. He did not instruct him to be a great philosopher, a tzaddik, or a ga’on, but a mentch!!!”


A chosson consulted with the Rosh HaYeshiva as to the worthiness of receiving hadracha from publications providing guidance to those entering the parsha of matrimony. He responded, “If you’re a mentsch you have no need of any marriage pamphlets and if you’re not a mentsch, no pamphlet in the world is going to help you!!!” (It was well known that the Rosh HaYeshiva tailored his words to match the supplicant of the sha’aleh. His intent was not to convey criticism on pamphlets of this nature or to deny their effectiveness in regards to others who are in need of assistance in developing their “mentschlechkeit”).


Chinuch HaBanim – The posuk in Parshas Toldos says, “Vaye’ehav Yitzchok es Eisav ki tzayid befiv” – And Yitzchok loved Eisav for he was a hunter and provided Yitzchok with the fruits of his labors. Is this a legitimate reason for Yitzchok to favor Eisav, seemingly over Yaakov? Furthermore, Chazal add a deeper dimension to these words. Eisav was a trickster. He trapped people with the power of speech. Certainly Yitzchok possessed the insight to see the tremendous difference between his two sons. The Torah is teaching us a valuable lesson. No two children are alike, and no two children may be treated alike. Yaakov Avenu was consumed with the passion of Torah study. Yitzchok was well aware of this. Yaakov Avenu shikt min in Bais Medrash!! (The proper manner of being mechanech Yaakov is to send him to the Bais Medrash). That is what he truly needs. Eisav a totally different story. He needs warmth, sensitivity, and special attention.  Eisav is in danger. That is what is meant by the words of the posuk - “Yitzchok demonstrated  a special love to Eisav.” Why? Because Eisav was a hunter, because he was a trickster. There were times throughout our history that our survival amongst the  nations was due to some semblance of a recognition on the part of Eisav to his filial relationship with Yaakov. This was a direct result of the warmth and the closeness that Yitzchok saw fit, in is wisdom, to treat Eisav with.


Chinuch Hatalmidim – A wealthy father whose daughter had come of age came to see Rav Leizer Gordon, The founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of the Telzer Yeshiva in Lithuania. He would be willing to extend support to his son-in-law, and his daughter is fit to marry a true ben Torah. Rav Leizer brought him into the Beis Medrash. The g’vir (wealthy man) espied a bochur who was kochin in lehrnen (investing all his energy in learning). “Who is that bochur?” He asks. “That bochur? That is mein ben yochid (my only son)”, answered Rav Leizer. The g’vir did not think so highly of his own status. Surely that shidduch will never come to be, the Rosh HaYeshiva’s ben yochid? So he proceeded to seek out an alternative. A bochur who was learning with tremendous simchas hanefesh caught his eye. “who is that bochur? “ He asked. “That bochur? That is mein ben yochid”, answered Rav Leizer. The g’vir thought he hadn’t heard properly. When the same thing happened a third time, the wealthy father turned to Rav Leizer and asked , “I just don’t understand, the first bochur is the Rosh HaYeshiva’s ben yochid and so is the second and the third. How could someone have more than one ben yochid?” Rav Leizer replied, “ There are five hundred bochurim in the yeshiva…and every single one of them is my ben yochid. Ich farshtey dos aych nisht!” (I also have no comprehension how this could be). This was the derech of the Rosh HaYeshiva. Each talmid was a yochid.


Darkei Hashem - One Purim, the Rosh HaYeshiva addressed the bnei hayeshiva at the seuda. He related the story of the time he was “zoiche” to gaze upon the countenance of Rav Shimon Shkop. He was a young child at the time and davened in the shul of Rav Moshe Datnover in Baltimore, and was a playmate of his children. Rav Moshe was a talmid of Rav Shimon and he acquiesced to address his student’s small congregation  in the middle of the week. After the drasha, Rav Shimon bentched Rav Moshe’s children. Rav Moshe brought his children’s playmate to Rav Shimon and asked him to bentch him as well.  Rav Shimon blessed him “oz ehr zol kennen lehrnen”. The Rosh HaYeshiva described the impression that it made on him. The face of Rav Shimon was like the face of a Malach Hashem.  In his ultimate humility, the Rosh HaYeshiva  said that if he has attained any connection to the accolade of “kennen lehrnen” it is due to that brocha.


A Kollel yungerman followed the Rosh HaYeshiva and the Rebbetzin out of the dining room and walked them home. On the way, the yungerman said to the Rosh HaYeshiva, “Halevay, that I should be zoche to bring my son to the Rosh HaYeshiva for a brocha “oz ehr zol kennen lehrnen”. The Rosh HaYeshiva replied, “Why not? What’s stopping you?” The Rebbetzin answered the question, “But, he doesn’t have any children.”  (A couple of years had passed, and the couple’s prayers for children were as of yet unanswered). The Rosh HaYeshiva responded, “But avada (certainly) you will have children, avada and avada!!”  And with that he went into his house. The Rebbetzin turned to the yungerman  and said, “R’ …. You will see, within the year you will be blessed with a son.”


At the end of that very month the young couple received the besura tova that they would be blessed with a child. The yungerman approached the Rosh HaYeshiva with the good tidings. He summoned up the courage to ask….”How did the Rosh HaYeshiva know?”  The Rosh HaYeshiva said, “You think that it’s a moifes. (a miraculous event brought about through a tzaddik’s blessing). “Dos iz nisht gevein kayn moifes” (It was not a moifes). What is it that you want? You are someone who wants a child in order to be megadel him liTorah uliYirah. That is exactly what Hashem wants. So, if you want the same thing that Hashem wants, why wouldn’t He give it to you?” That is what I meant when I said “Avada”!


Nine months later, the yungerman brought his newborn son directly from the hospital to the Rosh HaYeshiva’s house where he joyfully bentched him.


Every moment spent in his presence was as if one were basking in the light of a great luminary.

With the passing of the Rosh HaYeshiva the light of our eyes has been extinguished.


Yehi zichro boruch.

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