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Shout with a Whisper

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(Photos: Lior Mizrachi Aharon Baruch Leibowitz Menachem Kalish)

I f you thought baalei mussar are supposed to be stoic and demanding you probably never met Rav Dov Yaffe ztz”l the elder mashgiach of Kfar Chassidim whose disarming calm and warm smile were available for anyone who sought what he had to give. Until his petirah last week he offered a piercing understanding of our inner struggles and for those who wished a recipe for happiness.

“Do you learn mussar?”

The Mashgiach Rav Dov Yaffe looked at me lovingly as he waited calmly for an answer as though there weren’t dozens of people in line behind me waiting to wish him gut Shabbos.

I was just a young bochur newly minted in yeshivah ketanah having gone to Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyahu in Rechasim for Shabbos in order to meet the Mashgiach — and now I couldn’t utter a word. Suddenly I found my hand clasped tightly in his while his kind warm compassionate eyes looked straight into my heart and never left.

I trembled. Did he know I thought to myself that over the past two months my mussar learning had mostly fizzled out? Did he somehow sense that the words of Rabbeinu Yona and the Ramchal were a mere buzz in my memory?

“Know ” he said slowly almost pleading with me as though he had all the time in the world “that mussar is the segulah for everything. It is a segulah for yiras Shamayim for success and even for memory.”


The Youngest Mashgiach

Zkan Hamashgichim. That was how Rav Dov Yaffe was known to the thousands whose lives he touched before his passing last week at 89 — both because of his expansive wisdom and because of his advanced age. “Today they call me the Zkan Hamashgichim” he told me on my last visit to him “even though I began as the ‘youngest mashgiach.’ But you know what’s so unnerving is that the difference between one and the other came so fast… It feels like just yesterday I was playing kugelach… So remember to maximize every minute in life.”

His entire demeanor was one of serenity contentment and gratitude.

For some people the term baal mussar conjures up an image of a critical or morose person constantly seeking to point out what others are doing wrong seated on a wooden bench in a tiny shtibel while repeating words of Chazal over and over to break his yetzer hara.

But Rav Dov Yaffe ztz”l broke many perceptions about a baal mussar. In complete control of every muscle in his body the Mashgiach exuded the self-authority of Kelm — yet his wit and warm smile were disarming making you wonder if this was the real thing. But then he would begin to talk selecting his words carefully before uttering them and you could see the images of his rebbeim Rav Eizik Sher Rav Elya Lopian and Rav Chatzkel Levenstein shining forth.

Yet his own obvious lofty levels aside Rav Dov would always remind talmidim that gadlus doesn’t come easily to anyone — gedolim had to fight to get where they were a lesson he learned from personal experience.

Born in Lithuania in 1928, the young Dov Yaffe immigrated to Eretz Yisrael with his family at the age of seven. His father, who worked as real-estate agent, sent him to one of the local schools in Tel Aviv, where the family settled. The young boy’s upbringing was far from the idyllic conditions under which one would imagine a tzaddik of his stature being raised. The streets of Tel Aviv were not sheltered, and unlike the wunderkind stories told about many gedolim, Rav Dov told his talmidim that he grew up like every other child his age — eating ice cream and playing chameish avanim and soccer. He once remarked that he believes that the reason he was zocheh to attend yeshivos altogether was because he had a grandmother back in Kovno who was a tzadeikes, and her tefillos were a zechus for him.

After his bar mitzvah, his parents sent him to learn at the Hayishuv Hachadash mesivta, but he once admitted that “at the time I was closer to being a chess champion than a mashgiach.”

In those years, the young yeshivah bochur became close to Rav Yoel Kloft, who invited him to become one of the first talmidim in the fledgling Yeshivas Kletzk, which he’d established in Pardes Chana. He was just 15 when he first discovered the beacon of mussar, and how changing even one habit was accompanied by tremendous effort and extensive thought. He never fathomed that within a decade he would become a full-time mashgiach, and the one who the Chazon Ish considered the mussar leader of an entire generation. Even back then, his message was clear: You don’t grow from nice brachos, you grow from actions, effort, and toil.

In 1944, 16-year-old Dov transferred to Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael-Chevron in Jerusalem, where he became very close to the roshei yeshivah and the mashgichim, primarily Rav Meir Chadash and the Alter’s son-in-law, Rav Eizik Sher, who lived near the yeshivah during that period (before founding Yeshivas Slabodka in Bnei Brak) — and he began to pay attention to the nuances of avodas Hashem.

Meanwhile, his parents worried about him and wanted to visit frequently to see how he was faring, but back then, traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a complicated affair, not like the 40-minute Number 400 bus ride that it is today. Eventually Reb Dov packed his things and headed for a nascent yeshivah in Bnei Brak by the name of Ponevezh.

It was while learning in Ponevezh that the teenage Reb Dov developed what would turn into a close relationship with the Chazon Ish. Many people who spent a mere few months in the Chazon Ish’s presence consider themselves “talmidim of the Chazon Ish.” But when someone would mention that Rav Dov — who spent six years developing his connection — was a talmid of the Chazon Ish, he’d scoff at the notion that he could legitimately be considered a disciple of the gadol hador.

After Ponevezh, Rav Dov moved back to Yeshivas Chevron in Jerusalem, where he was chosen by the rosh yeshivah, Rav Aharon Cohen, as a son-in-law. Rav Aharon and his wife were actually childless, but when their sister-in-law passed away at a young age, they adopted her children and raised them as their own. Rav Dov would refer to Rav Aharon Cohen as dodi chami — my uncle, my father-in-law.

After their wedding in 1951, the couple settled for a short time in Jerusalem; but it wasn’t long before an offer came from Yeshiva Knesses Chizkiyahu in Kfar Chassidim: the mashgiach, Rav Elya Lopian, or “Reb Eleh” as the Kfar Chassidim talmidim refer to him, asked him to join the faculty of the yeshivah as the junior mashgiach.

When Rav Dov’s rebbetzin balked at the suggestion, Rav Elya assured her that it was only on a trial basis, and if they didn’t like it there they could move back to Jerusalem. Six decades later, the Rebbetzin yblcht”a would quip that they’re still in Kfar Chassidim on a trial basis.


Filled Cups

Yeshivas Knesses Chizkiyahu was the first yeshivah gedolah established outside of the Jerusalem and Bnei Brak enclaves. Founding rosh yeshivah Rav Noach Shimanowitz, a premier talmid of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, went to the Chazon Ish for guidance in founding a yeshivah, and the Chazon Ish advised him to establish his yeshivah in the north of Eretz Yisrael, where there were no Torah institutions.

Together with his brother-in-law, Rav Dovid Mishkovsky, Rav Shimanowitz first opened Knesses Chizkiyahu in a shul in the town of Zichron Yaakov in 1949, but by 1955 the yeshivah had outgrown its original home, and so Rav Shimanowitz purchased a parcel of land in Kfar Chassidim on which he erected five primitive structures to house the beis medrash, dormitories, and a dining hall.

A mere five days after the move, Rav Shimanowitz suffered a stroke and was niftar, leaving the yeshivah in a state of turmoil, as some of the best talmidim, orphaned from their beloved rosh yeshivah, enrolled in other yeshivos. It was Rav Elya Lopian who sprang into action and summoned them back. He appointed Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Mishkovsky, another brother-in-law of Rav Shimanowitz and the rav of the town of Kfar Chassidim, as rosh yeshivah, yet Rav Elya was really the force who shaped the yeshivah until today.

Beyond the emphasis on learning mussar (the Torah’s teachings on how to perfect one’s character) on a theoretical level, Knesses Chizkiyahu, now home to approximately 300 talmidim, is known for its atmosphere of actually implementing those mussar principles. Rav Elya would say, for instance, that every person should be sure to do chesed every day. He would advise the bochurim that an easy way for a person to ensure that he does chesed each day is to fill up the netilas yadayim cup after he washes his hands, so that the next person has water waiting for him. To this day, when you approach a washstand in Knesses Chizkiyahu, you will invariably find the cups full of water.

And the same goes for anywhere Rav Dov Yaffe delivered shmuessen as well. In Yeshiva Kol Yaakov in Jerusalem, where Rav Dov delivered a weekly sichah for years, the cups by the washstands are also lined up and filled with water.


A Talmid Forever 

When Rav Dov was just 26, Rav Elya appointed him to deliver sichos mussar to the entire yeshivah. Rav Elya would shower tremendous honor on his young protege, sitting and listening to his shmuessen like a young bochur, despite being more than half a century older than Rav Dov. When the yeshivah sang “Ohr zarua latzaddik” to welcome Rav Elya to a yeshivah function, Rav Elya would turn around and sing it for Rav Dov. Yet when a talmid would try to goad Rav Dov into admitting to the veracity of the story, he’d do his best to deflate the legend. When the talmid pressed, “So who did Rav Elya sing ‘Ohr zarua latzaddik’ for?” Rav Dov finally conceded, “I didn’t always see him singing.”

Rav Elya, for his part, would roar like a lion through the beis medrash, making the walls shake: “Grasp mussar and don’t let go!” his voice would rise. “Guard it because it’s your life!” Soft-spoken Rav Dov’s vocal chords didn’t have that capacity. Yet with his quiet and calm, he was able to penetrate the fragile souls of this delicate generation, which are liable to shatter from loud demands. “You speak well,” Rav Elya told him at the beginning of their journey together, “but you lack the shout.”

But the Mashgiach read the young generation, which in his opinion had become too weak to handle the strict Kelm mussar approach. And so he screamed in his own way — his shout was heard in a powerful whisper.

Right from the start, the Mashgiach’s way was to invest a tremendous amount of faith in each bochur. To him, if a bochur had a flaw or a weakness in a certain area, that’s all it was: he didn’t see damaged people, but rather middos and flaws that could be rectified.

Rav Elya, however, wasn’t so generous. “Why do you trust these bochurim so unlimitedly?” he would ask Rav Dov. “Weren’t you once a boy their age?” To clarify, he added, “Even regarding myself, deep down I suspect that I am not acting as I should, and that’s why I also suspect others.”

Many of the young men who filled the heichal of the yeshivah in those days were high-school students who had come to taste the genuine flavor of Torah. Rav Dov’s heart overflowed toward them, often influencing them to become exceptional bnei Torah.

Sometimes such bochurim came to the yeshivah after having endured painful fights with their families. Once, in the middle of a seder, a furious father stormed into the beis medrash, strode over to his son who was in the middle of learning, and without preamble slapped him hard on the face. It turned out that the father had forced his son to come home, but the son could not disconnect from the yeshivah and came back to his beloved Gemara.

Rav Dov observed the scene with dismay and used whatever he had in his arsenal to persuade the father to let his son continue learning. (When I wanted to confirm the accuracy of this story, the Mashgiach told me that the bochur grew into a prominent avreich who today is much admired by gedolei Yisrael.)

There was someone else in the beis medrash watching the drama unfold — the elderly Reb Elya. From that day on, whenever someone approached him for a brachah, he sent him to Rav Dov, telling the person, “His mouth is blessed with Divine grace.”

In fact, Kfar Chassidim had become a popular site for American tourists seeking a brachah for any matter, big or small. Reb Duvy Honig, a noted Lakewood askan who learned in Kfar Chassidim and remained close to the Mashgiach, recalls being on an airplane when someone he was talking to heard that he had a connection to Kfar Chassidim. “Can you get me into Rav Dov for a brachah?” the man asked excitedly.

“In truth, with the simple atmosphere maintained in Kfar Chassidim, you didn’t need any special connections to have an audience with the Mashgiach,” Reb Duvy noted, “but I made a phone call for him anyway.”

After Rav Elya Lopian’s petirah in 1970, Rav Dov became Kfar Chassidim’s main mashgiach, but that didn’t stop him from considering himself a perpetual talmid, willing and eager to learn from anyone who had something to teach. He would sit humbly with his notebook at the shmuessen of well-known rabbanim and mashpiim — for the past 17 years, he could often be spotted at Rav Tzvi Meyer Zilberberg’s weekly sichos — and wasn’t embarrassed to sit at the feet of those half his age.

And it wasn’t only famous rabbanim or mashgichim who received this sort of honor from Rav Dov. A young man named Reb Dovid Stern — who came to learn in Kfar Chassidim shortly after the passing of his rebbi, Chevron mashgiach Rav Meir Chodosh ztz”l — asked Rav Dov for permission to use one of the shiur rooms in the yeshivah to deliver a shmuess in memory of his mashgiach. Rav Dov granted him permission.

To Reb Dovid’s surprise, when he arrived to give the vaad, who was sitting in the front row, notebook and pen in hand, ready to take notes? None other than the Mashgiach himself. The Mashgiach never waited for such opportunities to arise. If, for example, he discovered that someone was the grandson of a gadol, he’d pull the young man aside and sit him down, asking him, “Tell me about your grandfather.”

“Gedolim” photographer Shuki Lehrer was once the recipient of such humility. “Last Succos I went to Kfar Chassidim to visit Rav Dov Yaffe in his succah, and he called me up to the front,” Lehrer says. “‘You’re a photographer, so you’ve probably spent time with Rav Aharon Leib [Steinman]. Please tell us some stories,’ the Mashgiach urged me.”


Growing Makes Us Happy

On my last visit to the Mashgiach, I observed my young son, whose hand was enveloped by Rav Dov’s, and I took a step back. It was a de ja vu moment, and I wanted to be able to observe it from the side.

In Rav Dov’s eyes, everyone was considered a chavrusa for spiritual elevation, no matter the age, place, or status.

“You should be a lomed Torah, a tzaddik, and a baal middos tovos,” he said.

He chose his words carefully; every sentence was well considered. “Today parents ask for brachos, that their child should be a gadol, a rosh yeshivah, a leader — where does it say that a person needs to daven for his child to be a gadol hador?”

Sometimes, if a parent would ask the Mashgiach for a brachah that his child should grow in Torah, Rav Dov would ask: “And what are you doing toward that end?” One of his favorites stories was about a Yid who came to the Kotzker Rebbe with a request that he bless his son. Replied the Kotzker, “If he doesn’t do anything but asks for brachos, then his son won’t do anything either, except take his own son to get brachos…”

But Rav Dov understood keenly the struggle of today’s bochurim, how so many of them seem to be set up for failure and how they need to be treated with kavod and many, many good words. He related that years before his appointment as mashgiach, the Chazon Ish told him, “Why is it that there is one mashgiach for a hundred bochurim, and not the other way around? There should be a hundred mashgichim for each bochur, or at least one masghiach for each bochur, like a yetzer tov versus the yetzer hara.”

The Mashgiach didn’t give brachos that a particular bochur should become a gadol hador, but did that mean that he advised boys who didn’t seem to be cut out for major success in learning to seek vocational training from a young age?

The Mashgiach recalled a conversation with a father who felt that since his son wasn’t destined to be a rosh yeshivah, he might as well send him to learn some sort of vocation.

“And if he goes out to work,” the Mashgiach replied, “it doesn’t seem to me that he’s destined to become Reichmann. So you might as well let him sit and learn.”

The Mashgiach would quote several leading gedolim who testified on themselves that they would not have been considered major learning prospects in their youth.

“Rav Shmuel Wosner once told me that if there had been such a thing as a class for children with learning disabilities when he was young, he would have been in that class. Rav Chaim Kamil [rosh yeshivah of Ofakim, and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s rebbi] said that his mental capabilities were the lowest of his entire class. And Rav Shach said publicly, at a bar mitzvah, that he had a rosh shel keresh [that he was a “blockhead”] as a child.

“But like the Chazon Ish said,” the Mashgiach continued, “nearly every bochur who applies himself can be among the gedolei hador — even if he’s not a baal kishron. Rav Chaim Kanievsky says about himself that he wasn’t blessed with tremendous kishron. He succeeded because he followed the one piece of advice his father, the Steipler Gaon, gave him when he sent him to learn in Lomza: ‘Be careful not to kill time.’”


Travel Light

And that, said the Mashgiach often, is why everyone has to learn mussar. “The yetzer hara convinces us that gashmiyus is what makes us happy, but it’s not true,” he would explain. “Working on ourselves and growing is what makes us happy. When we learn mussar, we become happier because we are growing.”

He would advise beginners to start with the sefer Pele Yo’eitz. “It’s written in very simple language, and in a few words he crams so many different topics for a person to work on. It’s straightforward enough for a beginner, but many gedolei Yisrael would keep it on their table and learn from it daily,” Rav Dov said. “In addition, there are no reshaim in Pele Yo’eitz, there are only people who are better or worse. No one is inherently bad; he writes in a way that is encouraging, not depressing.”

And Rav Dov wasn’t only referring to men with his suggested learning; he would offer the same advice for women as well. A few years ago, a talmid visited Rav Dov in his home in Kfar Chassidim, and he mentioned that he followed the Mashgiach’s advice and began learning Pele Yo’eitz with his wife shortly after their wedding — and they had recently completed the work for the third time. The octogenarian Mashgiach immediately turned to his wife and said, “You hear this? Maybe we should start learning Pele Yo’eitz together?”


What’s Mine is Hers

One subject that would always come up in the Mashgiach’s shmuessen and in private conversations with avreichim was about the women of the generation. “We have merited that today, many women excel in ahavas haTorah and yiras Shamayim and are ready to live frugally so that their husbands can learn Torah,” he would say to young men, “but are you showing your wife how grateful you are for that?”

He shared a story he heard from Rav Mishkovsky about a bochur who was considering breaking off a shidduch with a girl who told him that she wanted him to sit and learn, on condition that he appreciated her efforts for that. “Maybe this demand shows a lack of ahavas Torah,” the bochur wondered.

“What do you think? That you have everything coming to you?!” Rav Mishkovsky exclaimed.

The Mashgiach related that there was an avreich who complained to the Chazon Ish that instead of being diligent in his learning after his marriage, as he’d planned, he was busy helping his wife shopping and going with her on other errands. “If she will see that you are really a masmid, she won’t disturb you,” the Chazon Ish replied. “But if you only run to learn just when she needs you, then obviously, she doesn’t hesitate to disturb that kind of hasmadah.”

He would also tell chasanim that when they are told to be careful about offending their wives, it does not mean overt insults — that is obvious. But “even if you are two hours late, don’t wait to excuse yourself after you come home. Tell her ahead of time. Otherwise, that is offensive and hurtful to her.”

Rav Dov related to a vaad that when Rav Yechezkel Sarna came home once, several important askanim were waiting for him. Nevertheless, he first went in to his wife and spoke to her about her day, and only then did he turn his attention to the visitors. And then he said about his own wife, how when she once fell at home and badly injured her leg, she exclaimed, “Thank you Hashem that I was injured and not Reb Dov. What would have happened had he fallen…” He said that when he went to the camp of the bnei yeshivos, the Rebbetzin told him that now he would have a bit of vacation from her. “From such a woman I need vacation?”

Being in Rav Dov’s presence meant wishing you could emulate his approach to life. Despite his frail physical condition — in his last years, he would be led by at least one person, sometimes two people, from one room to the next — his entire demeanor was one of serenity, contentment, and gratitude. And if this seemed to be in conflict with the essence of mussar, which requires that a person be aware of his inner struggles and notice his failings to try to improve, Rav Dov proved that you can demand a lot from yourself, but be happy with your ability to grow.

His seforim L’avdecha B’emes — a compendia of his shmuessen and his thoughts on the parshah — are classics among those seeking practical, probing, and yet encouraging insights into their own avodah.

In a public shmuess, he noted that whatever is most needed in the world, Hashem makes available to us in the greatest quantity. “Emunah is our most basic need, and Hashem therefore makes it abundantly available to us,” he said. “Every aspect of Creation can fill us with emunah. But since we have bechirah, Hashem makes it possible for us to ignore all those signs.”

Despite his advanced years, he would travel to Jerusalem each week to deliver vaadim in Yeshivas Mir and a shmuess to the entire student body in Yeshiva Kol Yaakov in Bayit Vegan. Although Rav Dov’s style was understated, his audiences didn’t seem to mind. In fact, his style was so undecorated that he once remarked to a talmid, “I hope people don’t miss what I do have to offer in my shmuessen because of what I don’t have to offer.”

When he was first asked to deliver the shmuess in Kol Yaakov, there were no direct buses from Kfar Chassidim to Jerusalem, and Rav Dov had to take three buses — from Kfar Chassidim to Haifa, from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On one of the first weeks, he looked up from the sefer he was learning on the bus back from Tel Aviv to Haifa, and to his consternation, he found himself back in Tel Aviv. He had gotten onto the wrong bus.

Rav Dov decided that this was a sign from Heaven that he should not be traveling to Jerusalem, and he informed Rav Yehudah Ades, the rosh yeshivah of Kol Yaakov, that he could no longer deliver the weekly shmuess. Rav Ades refused to give up the opportunity, and insisted that Rav Dov accompany him to a gadol for an arbitration. The gadol ruled that it was indeed a sign from Heaven — a sign that Kol Yaakov should be paying for Rav Dov’s cab to Jerusalem instead of him taking buses. But Rav Dov felt very uncomfortable with the yeshivah spending so much money to bring him in every week, and as soon as direct bus service was established, he stopped taking cabs.


Are You Jealous?

One of the Mashgiach’s biggest concerns was the effect of the pull of the street. “You know, those in the street know their life is no great shakes, but those in the beis medrash, whose yetzer hara goads them to envy the ‘freer’ people outside, don’t know that,” he once remarked to me.

The Mashgiach fixed me with a gaze and then opened his arms in an expression of questioning. “Do the ones sitting in the beis medrash really envy the secular?”

“They don’t really envy them,” I answered, “but there is a yetzer that tells them that perhaps on the outside it’s more fun.”

Rav Dov caught my eyes with a look of pure compassion.

“What’s to be jealous of them about? The yetzer hara can give us pleasures, but it cannot ever give ‘osher,’ happiness.”

As I sat down to write, I realized that there was no way, no how, to reduce the venerated mashgiach, Rav Dov Yaffe ztz”l, into a few thousand words. There are countless remarkable stories, innumerable words of chizuk, and elevated moments that you need to feel because words cannot possibly do them justice.

All you can do is try to bring fragments of vaadim and sichos, to say — there was an angel there in the north, Rav Dov Yaffe, who was the epitome of avodas Hashem, avodas hamiddos, a paragon of mussar who was able to influence the entire world — if they only sought it from him. And all he wanted was that every Yid, wherever he is, should take himself in hand, should open a mussar sefer every day, and should begin this remarkable journey that was capable of elevating a person to great heights.

The thoughts flash back to a conversation I had with him just a few months back.

“So, are you learning mussar?”

With a few years’ experience this time, I didn’t have to pause before answering: “Indeed, baruch Hashem, I try.”

The Mashgiach smiled and then asked again softly: “Not ‘trying.’ It’s a yes or no question. Do you learn mussar?”

That is what he meant to ask me and you and the whole world. To change, to upend, to be better.

Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz, who conducted an extensive interview with Rav Dov Yaffe in the summer of 2015, contributed to this report

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 685)

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