Recently, I wrote in the Yated of a tale making the rounds in Eretz Yisroel. The story was printed in many of the religious papers and was passed around by word of mouth among Bnei Torah on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It related an anecdote in which Rav Chaim Kanievsky was asked by someone how many times the name Moshe is written in the Torah. Rav Kanievsky, the story went, was able to give the precise number.
We tried to track down and verify the background and details of the story, but weren’t successful. We therefore presented it as a story that is being retold and used it to make the point that it is possible for someone even today—in an age of relative mediocrity—to attain a phenomenal range of Torah knowledge reminiscent of earlier generations.
Surprisingly, this simple story unleashed an avalanche of invective in my direction. “How dare you print such a story!” was the gist of most of the complaints. “So-and-So checked with Rav Chaim’s gabbai and he said the story never happened.”
Others took an even more acrimonious tone. “How can I trust anything written in your paper if you print a story which is obviously false?” one person fumed.
“I demand an apology,” the letter concluded.
The complaints piqued my curiosity. There are many stories told of gedolim, of their dikduk hamitzvos, of mofsim attributed to them, and no one gets upset when they read these tales. Why are people so offended by this particular story? What was there in the tale that so antagonized them?
No doubt the people who were upset by the story are all nice, fine people, and they all meant well. Nothing personal was intended and I have no problem with their firing off a letter to the editor about something strongly felt. But I think there was something deeper here that needs to be explored.
We lull ourselves into being satisfied with our achievements by thinking that in our day and age, a Jew can not reach as high as was possible in preceding generations. With the lapse of each year we draw further and further from Sinai and the towering levels in Torah and avodah our ancestors attained. We tell ourselves that we cannot be expected to achieve a proficiency in Shas due to our generation’s diminished abilities. We can no longer be expected to master all the halachos of everyday life, or to thoroughly understand everything we learn. Nobody expects us to be able to achieve world-class greatness in Torah.
We read biographies of tzaddikim of generations gone by and they all seem the same to us. He was born to great yichus and was a genius himself. By the age of six, he knew all of Mishanayos. By the time of his bar mitzvah, he made a siyum on Shas, and at the age of twenty, he was appointed as dayan in a large town. He was kind to the poor, tough on the rich, and all the good people in the country respected him and flocked to him for his pesakim, eitzos and brachos.
We gobble up those articles and books and they warm our hearts as we read of the greatness these great people achieved. But they have little effect on us, because we easily dismiss their accomplishments as part of reality that is far removed from us. You can’t expect me to be like the Chasam Sofer, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the Satmar Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, and so on.
When the story relates to a moifes, a miracle, performed by a rebbe or a master of Kabbolah from a different era, we have no problem with it. But when someone tells us about a moifes performed by a man living today whom we can approach and speak to, many will react skeptically, “Oh, that can’t be.”
Why is that?
Is it because it punctures our bubble of self-confidence?
If there is someone today in Nahariyah who can heal the sick and to whom thousands of people flock to for blessings, then it means that it is possible, even in the demoralized world we live in, to reach very high levels of kedushah. If that man looks like a normal person and is middle-aged—as opposed to being a one-hundred-year-old ascetic who speaks some foreign tongue and is not conversant in the language of the masses—it makes it all the harder. It means that if we would apply ourselves, perhaps we could also reach those high levels.
If people tell you stories about the phenomenal yedios of the Rogatchover Gaon zt”l, you are amazed by what a person can learn and retain, yet you reason that he lived so long ago—obviously, nobody today can be that great.
Thus, when we read an amazing story about a man who lives, eats, breathes, walks and talks today in Bnei Brak, it bugs us. “If he can do it, maybe I could too; if he can know right off the bat how many times it says Moshe in the Torah, then why can’t I? If he can do it, maybe that means that if I would apply myself to Torah the way he does, I could also be thoroughly conversant in the Dalet Chelkei Shulchan Aruch.”
So we shrug it off as impossible, the story never happened; Lipschutz made it up; the Yated is irresponsible.
Now, while it may very well be true that the story never happened, it certainly could have. How do I know? Let’s take a cursory tour through Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s seforim.
Let’s look in his sefer Taamah Dikrah in Parshas Noach, where he cites 32 instances in Nach, Medrash, Rishonim and Acharonim where individuals were named for people who lived before Avrohom Avinu.
In Parshas Ki Seitzei, on the posuk of “Lo yilbash,” he discusses whether a man may be given the name of a woman or vice versa. He then brings 65 cases of men who had women’s names and women who had men’s names. The list is complied from Nach, Shas, Rishonim and Acharonim.
Let’s take a look at the hakdomah to his peirush on Maseches Kusim, where he lists over 150 places in Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi, as well as Medrash, where kusim is discussed.
Let’s examine his sefer Tashlum Yefei Ainayim, where he lists passages from Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Mechilta, Toras Kohanim, Sifri, Safra, and Medrashim which are missing from the Mesoras HaShas that is printed in our Gemaros.
The gabbai will not deny that Rav Chaim wrote this sefer.
Now, these are but a few lists that come to mind. Look at the very seforim that Rav Chaim has authored. Who cannot be blown away?
Rav Chaim has published several volumes of Derech Emunah, a work akin to the Mishnah Berurah on Hilchos Zeraim, commonly accepted to be the most difficult portion of Shas.
The sefer Derech Sicha is full of answers to questions his gabbai asked him on almost every topic in Torah. The answers were given on the spot.
There is no way to overestimate what Rav Chaim knows and there is no secret to how he did it. It was by learning, and learning, and learning some more. There are no miracle stories of how he attained such vast yedios in Torah; it was through steadfast, incessant learning. There are no shortcuts.
Another true story about ameilus baTorah concerns Rav Chaim’s father-in-law. Someone was watching Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv as he was learning a shtickel Torah in the sefer Tzofnas Poneach from the Rogatchover Gaon. The sefer is basically a listing of marei mekomos and is extremely difficult to study and grasp. Rav Elyashiv was running through it with his finger one line after the next.
The man couldn’t contain himself and asked him, “Rebbe, how can you do that? How can you learn through such a difficult sefer so quickly?” Rav Elyashiv answered that it is “dorch lernen, lernen, lernen.” If you learn and learn and learn some more, you can learn and grasp what the Rogatchover is saying.
I am currently reading the newly published seventh volume of the fascinating work Maaseh Ish on the life of the Chazon Ish, Rav Chaim’s uncle. In the sefer, it is related that a person once visited the Chazon Ish and told him that he had trouble remembering what he was learning and that it bothered him terribly. He asked for a brocha that he should remember his learning. The Chazon Ish asked him how many times he reviewed his studies. The man answered, “Six or seven times.” The Chazon Ish told the man, “That is your problem. In order for me to remember what I learn, I have to review it twenty to twenty-five times. You don’t need a brocha; what you need is to chazer – review – more.”
How many of us review what we learn even six times and then want to know why we aren’t as successful in learning as we would like to be?
There are many people among us who are blessed with brilliance and G-d-given talents. There are even more people who, while not being geniuses, would be able to attain true greatness with the right amount of encouragement and support. We all know people in this situation. It is incumbent upon us to help provide them with the support they require in order to be able to reach their potential. We need to appreciate that there really are giants among us, and to recognize, respect and promote them. We shouldn’t belittle their accomplishments and tear them down with petty jealousy.
Chazal say, “Elef nichnosim v’echod yotzei…one thousand students enter the study hall, but only one of them masters the subject.” The question is asked, if that is indeed the case, why do the other 999 students study? Various answers are offered. I once heard Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l say that the other students are there to create the ruach in the bais medrash that is necessary for the ‘one’ outstanding talmid to reach his potential.
Even if we think that we cannot be that ‘one’, we can at least contribute to the ruach that the person requires. None of us can say that we can’t even do that much!
Chazal accept it as a given: it is characteristic of human nature that only a select few will attain the highest pinnacles of achievement. That reality does not get us off the hook and provide us with an excuse to say that we are not worthy of achieving greatness. If we would set our hearts to it, if we would really concentrate on our learning and not waste our time with silly pursuits, we would be able to rank among those privileged few in our mastery of Torah. If we wouldn’t let ourselves get sidetracked with shtusim and idle away our time, we could become great people.
It requires extraordinary perseverance and dedication to the goal. Though these traits are uncommon in our day, it is possible for every one of us to adopt them if we are sufficiently motivated.
This is no exaggeration. It’s not me saying this; it is the Rambam. He writes that every Jew has the ability to be like Moshe Rabbeinu – if he would only want to and apply all his energy and talent in that direction.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking how many times it says Moshe in the Torah, but how many potential Moshes are out there who could use some encouragement from us. We should be asking what we ourselves can do to become like Moshe, as the Rambam writes.
It’s not easy, but it is possible. But how?
Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Shlomo Kanievsky, was in the United States a few months ago and we had the honor of meeting him and speaking to him. My son asked him to relate something peledik – fascinating – about his father. He said that the most fascinating thing about his father is the way he learns and the amount of learning he does.
But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “You probably want to hear a peledikeh story. I’ll tell you one that happens daily. Every day, when he finishes eating his meal, my father asks my mother which brocha acharona to make, because he doesn’t know what he ate!”
There you have it. You want to be a Moshe? You want to achieve greatness in Torah? You want to be a peledikeh mentch? Stop being so areingeton in your food and Olam Hazeh and become more pre-occupied with your Olam Haboh! It won’t happen overnight, but day by day you can grow until one day you won’t realize what it is you are eating. You will then know that you are on the path to netzach.
May we each be zoche to realize our potential and help others realize theirs.
© 2007 Yated Neeman.