According to Rav Yaakov Hillel, Hashem is broadcasting a loud and clear message: It’s time to create shalom bayis throughout Klal Yisrael
Photos: Mattis Goldberg
When Mishpacha sat down with HaGaon Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom, for what was meant to be a pre-Shavuos talk touching on some of the hot-button issues affecting the Torah community, the cloud of the Meron tragedy was hovering over the nation. Rav Hillel’s guidance is sought by many across Europe, North and South America, and beyond, and so our focal point became the question of a Torah perspective on the tragedy.
A descendant of Chacham Avraham Hillel, av beis din in Baghdad, Rav Hillel was born in India, and then moved to England where he studied in Gateshead Yeshiva. After moving to Israel, he became a close talmid of Rav Shach in Ponevezh.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Rav Hillel founded his yeshivah, Chevrat Ahavat Shalom in Geulah — named after the yeshivah of the 18th-century mekubal Rav Shalom Sharabi — where he’s taught many gedolim from both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Torah worlds.
The expansion of the Ahavat Shalom institutions has made Rav Hillel one of the preeminent Torah teachers globally, with yeshivos, a kollel network numbering thousands of avreichim, a beis din, a national kiruv organization, and schools under his leadership.
In a no-holds-barred discussion, Rav Hillel spoke decisively about the link between the tragedy, a year of COVID, and the rampant divisions within the Torah world; told of the spur for his own growth as a bochur; and was adamant that even for someone in today’s working world, gadlus isn’t out of reach.
Although we’d planned on discussing Shavuos themes, the Meron disaster is still so fresh and painful, and the significance of the timing — just as the world finally seems to be emerging from a year of debilitating trauma wreaked by COVID — is hard to miss. There’s a sense that the two events are linked; that Hashem is sending a message. Is that true, and if so, what are we meant to take away from this?
Normally, we can’t say exactly why a particular event happens in the world, but in this case, I think that the message of recent events is so pinpointed that we can’t just respond by saying that we need to do teshuvah in general.
Fifteen months ago, at the beginning of COVID, I spoke about what I thought was the message, which is the lack of kavod haTorah — the denigration of rabbanim from different streams of Klal Yisrael, in an unprecedented way. I said that we have to stop the great machlokes that has overtaken the Torah world. And after what happened in Meron, I think that the two are linked. But we have to look at the big picture here to understand:
Klal Yisrael are considered responsible for everything that happens in the world at large, because Hashem created the world for Torah and the Jewish People, and they depend upon one another. In galus, where we’ve been for 2,000 years, Hashem hides Himself from us, but we have to carry on learning Torah and doing mitzvos. If we fall short, Hashem sends us wake-up calls, as has happened throughout our history; all sorts of massacres and pogroms, and recently, the Holocaust.
So when things happen in the world which are mind-boggling and frightening, like COVID, we are meant to awaken and think how to improve. That’s the general approach when things happen to Klal Yisrael.
So, in terms of reading that message, how do we know that it was about machlokes?
We have to look at what happened over the last year. The students of Rabi Akiva perished in a plague called askarah, which is suffocation, just like COVID. And on the very day that the students of Rabi Akiva stopped dying, there was the tragedy of Meron. Tens of people died, young, old, Sephardim, chassidic, litvish. So we have to understand what happened with the students of Rabi Akiva to see how both are connected.
Why did they die? Despite their greatness, they were all lost because these students didn’t respect one another. What does this mean? Surely they were great people. Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains it by way of the Mishnah in Avos, “Shnayim sheyoshvim,” that when two people sit and there are no divrei Torah between them, it is considered a moshav leitzim, a meeting place for scoffers. Why? He says that if you have a beis medrash with the two gedolei hador sitting and learning there from morning to evening, each in his own corner, without learning together, it means that this gadol scoffs at the understanding of the other gadol. If they don’t appreciate one another, this makes it a moshav leitzim.
That’s a very deep lesson about how rabbanim should be connected. It means we have to give room to others and appreciate that they also have their way of learning and understanding.
But what’s happening nowadays is that the moment your rebbe has a different outlook than the other rebbe, now you can speak badly against him. And what has happened here is a total destruction of respect for rabbanim. This group will tear down all the pictures and all the posters of one rav, and this group will tear down and destroy all the pictures of the other rav. This is a very, very dangerous situation. We are allowed to have differences of opinion. We can truly respect the different derachim in avodas Hashem, the different methods and different ways.
Some 40 years ago, a group of unlearned laymen gathered around a certain kabbalist who led them through a series of difficult tikkunim. They were putting on chains, dragging each other around in sacks, rolling in the snow, and administering lashes to one another. After all this, they were convinced that they had reached very high levels of piety — so much so that I heard one of the group make light of some of the great roshei yeshivah of the time. After all, had these distinguished Torah scholars ever put on chains and taken a dip in a snowdrift, like they had?
I told this man that you can put chains on a cat, toss it around in a sack, hit it, and throw it in the snow. At the end of the day and with all the rough treatment, it is still a cat…. Tikkunim do not come first.
And so, the last year was a wake-up call…
Yes, we should have learned this lesson and stopped all the fighting and insulting rabbanim. But unfortunately, we didn’t. So here we are, on the very day that the 24,000 students of Rabi Akiva stopped dying, Am Yisrael suffered this horrific gezeirah, of all types of Jews — children under bar mitzvah age, students in yeshivah, avreichim, rabbis, chassidic, Sephardic, litvish, Teimani, the entire gamut. Everyone was represented in this horrific punishment.
In other words, Hashem is telling us, I sent this whole COVID thing to you, that separates you from others, telling us that you have to learn how to live together. Be on your own and see what it’s like and learn how to accommodate each other. Learn how to care for each other. You were meant to learn how to change and improve but nothing happened. So now I’m really going to shake you up, you’re going to have to wake up and realize it’s you.
And why isn’t the message getting through? Without naming names, the machlokes and disunity seem even more prevalent — and across each group in the Torah community — than it used to be.
It didn’t work at the time of Rabi Akiva. V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha is a very difficult thing. It’s undoubtedly one of the big tests in our generation, to respect every Jew and love every Jew. The danger of the current situation is that if there are arguments in hashkafah, in halachah, in the way we live, at the end of the day it boils down to these gedolim versus these gedolim.
But we have to look at ourselves all as part of one team, doing the Will of Hashem, and love each other. We are all one nation, and we all have one Torah and one G-d. So we are expected to work as a collective team. Like in a soccer game, you have the goalie, the forward, the winger, each one has his place in the team. Klal Yisrael also had 12 shevatim and each one had a different type of avodah, as we see in Chazal. Today, we have different communities and there are differences, but we are all meant to work together as one team — to be in Hashem’s army and serve Hashem together with love and respect.
If that’s the goal, what’s the exit ramp from our current situation in which disrespecting rabbanim and different types of Jews is a way of life?
The root of changing our way of thinking is ahavas Yisrael. I’ll give you an example of this as an underlying attitude:
A friend of mine is extremely wealthy. Every time he leaves shul, he’s swamped by people asking for tzedakah. Some of them are in such dire straits that they’re totally neglected and unkempt. If my friend were to hand a small sum to each one and make his getaway, or assign his aides to pass out a few bills, he would certainly be fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah. But that’s not enough for him. Along with a small donation, he gives every one of these indigents a hug and kiss, greeting him as if he were an old and dear friend. He has a special word and smile for each of them. Their feelings of inferiority melt away, and they leave with their heads held high. If they are this man’s friends, the future still holds hope. That friend is the answer, because he loves other Jews.
There’s another beautiful story about Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that illustrates this attitude. The mashgiach of his yeshivah, Kol Torah, had moved into a new home, and shortly afterward, the Rosh Yeshivah surprised him with an unexpected visit. The mashgiach was deeply honored by this unusual gesture. After speaking for a few minutes, Rav Shlomo Zalman stood up, and the mashgiach assumed that he was ready to leave. Instead, he asked his host to show him around — a highly uncharacteristic request on the part of the Rosh Yeshivah. He then looked over literally every inch of the house. When he completed his inspection, the mashgiach respectfully asked why it was that Rav Shlomo Zalman had wanted to see the entire house, including even the utility porch. Rav Shlomo Zalman told him, “Just as there is a concept of an ‘ayin hara,’ there is a parallel concept of ‘ayin tov.’ I asked to be shown around all the rooms because I wanted to fill every corner of your new home with blessings that stem from ‘a good eye.’ ”
If many different approaches to Torah are legitimate, how does one know who is a legitimate gadol b’Yisrael — how far does the tent stretch?
It’s like this. Every community has its mesorah, and we all stem from the gedolei chassidus, or the Gra and his talmidim, or Rav Yisrael Salanter, or the Alter of Slabodka, or the great Sephardic communities. We know where we come from. Anything that changes is already not the original .
In the wake of the Meron tragedy, others have spoken of improving Torah study and other areas. Why can’t this be the message?
It’s too simple a message to say it’s got to do with tzniyus or it’s got to do with learning more Torah. I’m not saying we don’t need chizuk in learning, but if it happened now in this way, after the comparison with COVID, the suffocation, this is telling us look, you have to take it seriously now. The time is extremely pinpointed — the 24,000 who died, and the five who continued the Torah of Rabi Akiva. The Zohar says that Rabi Akiva’s next five talmidim were at peace with one another, they were respectful of one another. This is the lesson we have to learn.
If we don’t learn this lesson, Hashem yeracheim. There’s no time to be wasted. We need to get to shalom bayis of Klal Yisrael.
Relating to how best to continue the Torah of Rabi Akiva, perhaps we can discuss the frameworks within which we learn Torah. Yeshivos are strong frameworks, but there are bochurim who feel institutionalized, who struggle to find their own individual path in Torah within a yeshivah. How do you develop your own Torah personality inside such a framework?
It starts with clarity about what we’re here to achieve. The Arizal teaches that each Jewish soul has a separate connection to a certain part of Adam HaRishon. It’s based on a pasuk in Iyov: “Eifo hayisa b’yosdi aretz — where were you when I created the world?” It goes on to explain: Was your soul in the head of Adam Harishon — in his eyes, in his ears, in his nose, in his hand, in his body, in his legs, or in his ankles?
The last generation is going to be from the ankles and that’s why it’s called Ikvesa D’Meshicha, and this is where we are. That means that we’re very small souls, but now everything depends on us because everything stands on the legs. Without the legs we have nothing. And it’s up to us.
So each soul is different, even with regard to the type of learning we’re expected to learn, the type of mitzvos we’re meant to do. The Arizal could tell his students why they came into the world and which mitzvah specifically they had to do. We don’t have people like that today. Yes, there are many “kabbalists” who will tell you where you come from and what you have to do, but most of that is nonsense.
So what about us? We don’t have prophets, we don’t have the Arizal. How are we meant to know what we came here to do? I tell people this: What do you find difficult? A daf Gemara? So that’s what you came in to the world for. You came into the world to do what’s difficult for you. Which middah do you have to work on? The middah that you see yourself most likely to transgress. For example, you feel you are a big baal gaavah or you have tremendous anger. Then you know why you came into the world. That’s the only sign we have today.
But it’s precisely that clarity that many people, and many bochurim, lack. They feel that they don’t count, so the drive that used to exist when the Torah world was small, is lacking.
The answer is that Hashem helps us in everything we do. When I was a young bochur in Gateshead Yeshivah, the mashgiach Rav Moshe Schwab told me, “Yankev, you have to become a rosh yeshivah. The Sephardic communities over the world don’t have enough roshei yeshivah. You have to be a marbitz Torah.”
I said to him, “Rebbi, you know me, that I’m less than average. There’s no chance that I’m going to become a rosh yeshivah. I’m not built for it. I wish I were, but I’m not built for it.” He said that’s what you have to do. And then I saw how Hashem helped me — in a big way. I see the miracles my whole life. I’m not going to go into it all now, but it was obvious to me that that the situations in my life should have made it clear that I had no chance of becoming a talmid chacham, and yet I worked hard, and Hashem built me up. This is for everyone to know. Anyone can be successful.
And it’s important to know that this is all a byproduct of the Torah world’s success.
In the last 75 years, we underwent two Holocausts. One is spoken about, Hitler’s Holocaust, but the other one is not discussed — that’s the spiritual holocaust where Torah was uprooted from Am Yisrael in a horrific way, and there was no hope. When the Ponevezher Rav started building his gigantic building on a hill in Bnei Brak, people told him, “You’re crazy. Rommel is around the corner. He’s going to come here and kill all the Jews, and anyway those who are coming as refugees from Europe or the Middle East don’t want to learn. They want to get jobs and be on a kibbutz and have a good time. So who is going to learn in your yeshivah?” And the Rav wrote then on the façade of the building, “BeHar Tziyon tihiyeh pleitah.” Hashem has promised us; He has a covenant that the Torah will never leave Am Yisrael.
Out of the churban, Hashem sent us the great builders of Torah: Rav Shach, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, the Ponevezher Rav and many more. In America it was roshei yeshiva like Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and Rav Moshe Feinstein who built Torah. In the Sephardic world you had Rav Ezra Attiya, Rav Yehuda Tzadka, Rav Benzion Abba Shaul. There were leftovers of this huge destruction, physical and spiritual, of Am Yisrael. So any problems that we have are against the background of the miracle of the Torah world’s rebuilding.
What about when someone is working, and doesn’t have the motivation of the yeshivah or kollel — how is it possible to grow then?
I’ve been saying publicly in all my derashos abroad that there is a great misconception in Klal Yisrael. The misconception is that avreichim whose lives focus on Torah have to learn day and night, and that balabatim don’t. We think that they should learn halachah, daf yomi, mussar, and they’ll help the yeshivos and build Torah in that way.
This is a total distortion. It’s not true. Many people are aware of the Rambam who says that you’re not allowed to say, “I’m sitting and learning and I want to be supported by tzedakah.” But the next line says that you have to earn a living by working three hours and learning for nine.
Now we know of gedolei Yisrael of previous generations — both in Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, such as Rav Menachem Ziemba in Poland and Rav Shimon Agassi in Baghdad — who had stores that were open for business for about an hour a day. They had parnassah, they didn’t take money from a kollel, but they were learning day and night.
Rav Chaim Palagi writes that one day the dayanim, the rabbanim, and the seven leaders of the city came to his uncle Eliyahu Chazan in his shop and said, “Rebbi, we want you to become the chief rabbi and av beis din in Izmir.” He was ready — Shas, poskim, everything. He knew it all. In other words, it’s a total misconception that working means just daf yomi.
But how is that relevant when working today as a professional means at least 9 to 5?
If you’re meant to become rich, you’ll become rich anyway. It doesn’t depend on many hours and killing yourself working. The biggest batlanim can become billionaires. How do they become rich? Me’ashpos yarim evyon. Hashem gives them the mazel and they become rich.
And who works for them? All the professionals, with their diplomas from the most famous universities — and they are barely earning a wage. It doesn’t depend on crazy hishtadlus. In other words, you can learn most of the day, serious learning, like a talmid chacham learns, and grow, and you can work a little bit.
Most people don’t really see Hashem raining millions on them. Is it practical, then, for people to cut down their working hours?
Yes. Hashem proved to us by COVID that it is doable. You know I haven’t traveled this year to collect. I have a huge budget so I’m calling people, and they say “Rabbi, you know, this year it’s COVID, so I can’t give.” I say, just a minute, let’s be honest — this year you made more money than any other year. They are shocked. I’ll tell you why. Because when you use your brains, you lose money. When Hashem is running your business for you, you make money, you don’t lose. And they say, you know, Rabbi, you’re right.
People really made more money this year, when we know of so many who lost fortunes?
Yes. Hashem is running the show. How does our yeshivah exist? The total budget is five million shekels a month. Is that possible without traveling? Impossible! So you know, if Hashem wants a balabos to make money, he’ll make money without having to kill himself, and he can kill himself working like a slave day and night and he’ll be a pauper. That’s all. He can be stupid and make money, and he can be brilliant and have no money. That’s what we have to know. Rav Chaim Volozhin writes that even according to Rabi Yishmael that a person is permitted to work for his livelihood, that’s only to live simply, and even then to choose a form of work in which they can carry on serving Hashem simultaneously. So every person should learn as if he’s a talmid chacham, and can work a few hours a day. That’s the hishtadlus. The result will be that one can live simply, lechem le’echol and clothes to wear.
And yet besides parnassah, the reason many go out to work is also because they feel they are not cut out to sit in front of a sefer nine hours a day.
Then there is a problem in how they’re learning. All of us, for the sake of our children, have to find and see the pleasure in learning. The Ohr Hachaim writes that if we’d see the beauty of Torah, we’d run after Torah like crazy people. So if children don’t have the internal cheishek to learn, we have to give them something geshmak.
Let the father prepare a small pilpul, a question and an answer — something beautiful. Make him jump with happiness. And then you’ll see how children will have cheishek to learn. There’s a guy in Mexico who takes advice from me. He started teaching baalei teshuvah, so he asked how to learn with them. He’s very talented in learning, and he also works. I told him to prepare a small pilpul each time, and show them the beauty of Torah. It will change their lives. So really, it’s the responsibility of the roshei yeshivah and roshei kollel to find the way to show those who are still learning how to love Torah and enjoy learning. It should be the biggest simchah.
So are you saying that the Rambam’s nine hours a day are realistic for us?
Today people commute to work, but you can certainly learn five hours a day. I’ve spoken often at the Yarchei Kallah of Agudas Yisrael and I say over this idea, and every year a few American balabatim come over to me and they say, “Rabbi, you’ve changed my life. I followed your advice, I’m now learning a full seder everyday. And it’s going very well. We’re enjoying our lives and learning Torah.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)
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