The simple truth Rav Eliyahu Lopian expressed so movingly 70 years ago still reverberates
This Elul marks an entire Yovel since the passing of the great master of mussar, Rav Eliyahu Lopian, in 1970. As one of the relatively small number of great baalei mussar who emerged from the decimation of European Jewry, he played a significant role in transplanting its teachings and worldview to new locales, first in England and later in Eretz Yisrael.
Reb Elyah was firmly rooted in the mussar tradition of Kelm, and the heads of the famed Talmud Torah there held him in the highest esteem for his greatness in Torah and yiras Shamayim. His son-in-law, Rav Leib Gurwitz, who headed the Gateshead yeshivah, Beis Yosef, related that each year, Reb Elyah would be asked to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah in the Talmud Torah.
As it happens, Reb Elyah’s efforts as baal tokeia were usually not very successful. Each year, the scene would repeat itself, as after a few tries it would become necessary to replace him with someone more adept at shofar-blowing. Nevertheless, the following year the menahalim of the Talmud Torah would once again request that Reb Elyah serve as baal tokeia, because, they’d explain, “just a few tekios of Reb Elyah are sufficient to soften the Divine judgement.”
There was another reason, too, for Reb Elyah’s stellar standing with the great men of Kelm: He was a man of action, who went looking in the cities of Lita for young men of promise, hoping to draw them near to Torah. It’s well known that it was he who discovered the young lad who went on to become Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, the Torah genius and baal mussar who was a legend in the prewar European yeshivah world, as well as later in postwar France.
But lesser known is Reb Elyah’s similar role in the life of another famous gadol b’Yisrael. In the winter of 1962, Agudas Yisrael MK Rabbi Menachem Porush arrived in New York on a mission on behalf of Agudah in Eretz Yisrael. Hearing that Rav Aharon Kotler had been hospitalized, he went straight from the airport to visit Reb Aharon. In the course of giving the Lakewood rosh yeshivah a report on Agudah activities in the Holy Land, Rabbi Porush mentioned an event where Rav Elyah Lopian had been the speaker.
At the mention of his name, Reb Aharon teared up and then began crying. Seeing Rabbi Porush’s astonishment, Reb Aharon said, “Were it not for Reb Elyah, who knows where I’d be today?” He explained that his older sister, an accomplished mathematician and an acolyte of the communist ideology then captivating so much of the Jewish youth, tried mightily to get her little brother, aged nine or ten, to devote his life to mathematics.
Said Reb Aharon, “She taught me advanced math, and I grasped it easily. I found it enjoyable and satisfying to use my newfound knowledge to solve knotty problems, and all the while my sister kept telling me, ‘With your brilliant mind, there’s no question you can become one of the world’s leading mathematicians. If you dedicate yourself to Torah,’ she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, ‘nothing will come of you.’ Around the same time, however, Reb Elyah met me, and, assessing that ‘something could come of me’ in Torah, he convinced me to come along with him to Kelm. I boarded in Reb Elyah’s home for an extended period of time, until I was old enough to enter the Slabodka yeshivah.”
Although Reb Elyah, known simply as “the Mashgiach,” gained renown as a transmitter of mussar teachings, he was also a talmid chacham of great stature, having completed the study of the entire Shulchan Aruch with the Gra’s commentary by his early twenties. For most of his life he was a marbitz Torah, first as head of a yeshivah ketanah he founded in Kelm and later as rosh yeshivah in London’s Etz Chaim Yeshiva.
The little-known reason for his move to London in 1928 was that while on a fundraising trip on behalf of his yeshivah in Kelm, a large sum Reb Elyah had collected was stolen from him. He felt personally responsible to restore the purloined funds to the yeshivah and took the position in Etz Chaim as a way to earn the funds needed to do so.
It was only with his move to Eretz Yisrael in 1950, when he was already well over 70, that, at the urging of the Chazon Ish, he began to disseminate mussar teachings in earnest, first in Yeshivas Kamenitz in Jerusalem and then in Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyahu in Kfar Chassidim. But even then, as Reb Elyah himself had once told the students of the latter yeshivah, his initial motivation in coming to Eretz Yisrael had not been to become a mashgiach, but in order to advance in his own Torah learning.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein ztz”l, a rosh yeshivah in Yeshivas Chevron in Jerusalem and later in Bnei Brak’s Kiryas Melech, related that Knesses Chizkiyahu was originally located in Zichron Yaakov under the leadership of Rav Noach Shimanovitz, but on the very day the yeshivah was to relocate to its new quarters in Kfar Chassidim, Rav Shimanovitz suddenly passed away. The many boys who had joined the yeshivah hoping to study under Reb Noach were thrown into a quandary, with some of them now looking to return to their previous yeshivos.
Reb Elyah, who had already joined the yeshivah in Zichron Yaakov, took decisive action to save the institution from disintegrating. First, he saw to it that Rav Eliyahu Mishkovsky would become rosh yeshivah. Next, he gathered the students together and implored them to remain. In his humility, he told them:
Do you know why I moved here from London? I wanted to learn Kodshim in-depth, so I came here hoping to enter the shiur of the Brisker Rav. I went to the Rav’s house and I asked to join the shiur and he said, “No.” I figured his refusal was because he didn’t have the money to give me a stipend like the other students, so I told him I didn’t need to receive any money, but he said, “No.”
I said, “Maybe the Rav is concerned that I’ll ask too many questions during the shiur, but I give my word that I’ll sit quietly the entire time. But he said, “No.” That’s when I understood that the Brisker Rav’s shiur is for metzuyanim and that’s why he didn’t want to accept me…
Look how Hashem runs His world! I came here for an entirely different purpose, to learn Kodshim, but I ended up saying shmuessen in Kamenitz and then in Zichron Yaakov. I had my plans, but Hashem, who knows what’s best, made things go in another direction. You boys, too, came here to get chizuk, but Hashem arranged things so that you have the opportunity to help save the yeshivah. Please don’t forsake it at a time like this.
The boys listened, and the yeshivah thrived in Kfar Chassidim.
As we end this year, 5780, a year that has been filled with such upheaval and uncertainty, and tragedy, the simple truth Reb Elyah expressed so movingly 70 years ago still reverberates. Hashem runs the world, and despite all our plans, we know nothing. All we can do is to make the most of the reality of how things are, not how we thought they would be.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 828. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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