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Ahead of the Game

It’s the very difficulties a ben Torah encounters that create the merits that will bring eventual success


A reader emailed me to comment on my column in the Pesach issue, in which I mentioned how things didn’t go so easily in learning for a young Chaim Kanievsky and that his uncle, the Chazon Ish, tailor-made a different approach for him: “The line you wrote as a preface to the difficulties Reb Chaim had in learning as a youngster, ‘Although one might not know it from reading what has been recently written about Rav Chaim…’ left me with a sigh of relief, of ‘Finally!’ It is a fact that he and his family have actually repeated on many occasions. I find it frustrating that Rav Hutner’s letter disparaging biographies of gedolim is quoted often, and yet, when there is an opportunity to profile a gadol honestly — because he has made his limitations public — no one has the guts to do it. To me, the biggest lesson from Rav Chaim is look what a person can become if he has the desire and is willing to put in the work. The mofsim, etc. are only meaningful in that context.”

The idea that hard work and the will to learn are by far the two most essential ingredients for growing great in Torah is one that the gedolei Torah in Rav Chaim’s own family emphasized repeatedly. So too did they insist that one need not be anything like a child prodigy to reach the loftiest heights.

The Chazon Ish wrote numerous letters to struggling bnei Torah, encouraging them and seeking to spur them onward toward success in learning. In almost every one, he stresses that everything turns on making an unshakable decision to learn diligently. To one ben yeshivah he writes:

“All beginnings are difficult, but nothing can stand in the way of one’s will, and he who comes to purify will be assisted to do so. The main thing is the decision of the heart and not to retreat in the face of the challenges you encounter at the very beginning” (Collected Letters 1:17).

And in another:

“Know, my precious one, that everything depends on a firm decision, and many of the gedolei olam began their learning when they were already mature. But when they made a fierce, vigorous decision in their souls to train their focus on Torah and cast all the worldly noise behind them, that resolute decision is what stood by them. They went forth and grew and produced fruit…. My dear one, make a firm resolution about diligence in Torah, and you’ll discover life and pleasure unlike anything to be found on earth.” (Collected Letters 1:44).

He speaks not just of any talmidei chachamim, but those he calls “gedolei olam” — and it’s not that they didn’t win the “Best in Class” award at eighth-grade graduation, but that they didn’t even “begin learning until they were “b’ymei bagrusam.” (In his sefer Emunah U’Bitachon (3:27), he writes that “many amudei olam only fixed themselves upon learning when they were already ba’im bayamim,” a phrase that might indicate an even later stage in life.)

The Steipler Gaon, too, testified in a letter (Karyana D’Igarta 1:21), “I’ve seen many who were thought in their youth to be incapable of succeeding, yet over time they grew to have a solid knowledge of most of Shas and a luminous understanding of halachah.” In his sefer Chayei Olam (2:12), he tells the story of a 17-year-old who presented himself before the Chasam Sofer, never before having learned Torah. But the young fellow had a strong desire to do so, and the Chasam Sofer paired him up with several of his talmidim. At first, he failed miserably, incapable of grasping a mishnah, even after learning it a hundred times in a row — failing to retain even briefly whatever he did manage to understand. But he held the Torah tight and learned on and on, and eventually grew to become a great talmid chacham and tzaddik, a renowned big-city rav and dayan who is mentioned repeatedly in the Chasam Sofer’s own responsa.

In his sefer B’mechitzasam, Rav Shlomo Lorincz quotes a conversation in which the Chazon Ish told him that every talmid, even one who is not “kishroni [talented],” deserves the chance to develop into a gadol b’Torah. When Reb Shlomo argued that some talmidim simply aren’t capable of that, the Chazon Ish replied, “You’re right that to be a gadol b’Torah one has to be blessed with kishronos. But there can be a person who is utterly lacking in kishronos, whose mind is completely sealed, and as he walks down the street and turns the corner, all the kishronos and all the wellsprings open before him and he transforms into an immense baal kishron.”

Rav Lorincz understood from the conversation that the Chazon Ish was referring to what the willpower to learn Torah can achieve. The Chazon Ish proceeded to illustrate the possibility of such a transformation with the example of one of the most outstanding of the then-contemporary gedolei Torah (whom he did not name) who at age 18 couldn’t comprehend a simple Rashi in Chumash. He added, “And becoming a gadol b’Torah isn’t dependent solely on kishronos, either, but equally on the tears of a child’s grandmother.”

In Orchos Yosher, Rav Chaim Kanievsky writes:

It’s well known in yeshivos that, in general, it’s not the baalei kishron who succeed but the masmidim… and even someone who’s very weak in kishron, if he perseveres, Chazal have guaranteed he’ll succeed, so long as he has yiras Shamayim.” Observing that bochurim sometimes think learning ought to come easy and when it doesn’t, they think they’re not cut out for it, become despondent and stop learning, he writes that “this is a major mistake, because Torah cannot come easily. Still, the main difficulty is at the outset, but once he acclimates to Torah and enjoys it, the difficulty dissipates, although nisyonos always remain.”

It’s the very difficulties a ben Torah encounters that create the merits that will bring eventual success, Rav Chaim writes, and “he needs to devote his all to Torah, and the stubborn one will prevail.” Regarding the importance of singular focus, he cites his father’s advice that “a ben Torah in his years of ascent in learning should not be busy with anything else, not reading newspapers of any kind, nor getting involved with any political party of any sort, all of which undermines the dedication to Torah that is the very purpose of Creation.”

The reader whose words I quoted at the top of this column was on target. It has become de rigueur to complain about gedolim biographies that seem to airbrush out of their lives any sense of struggle and conflict. But the desire for realistic portrayals of our great leaders ought to translate into taking every opportunity to convey an alternative message about how real Torah greatness is achieved — for everyone, the naturally gifted and those not so blessed alike.

When we can point to an immensely inspiring illustration come to life of all the things that the Chazon Ish, the Steipler and his son, Rav Chaim tell us bring success — firm resolve and stubborn application; shekidah and ongoing chazarah, specifically with a chavrusa; yiras Shamayim and heartfelt tefillah — how can we not do so?


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 909. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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