Rediscovery Trip to Lithuania

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On the Way to Volozhin

From Minsk we travel to Volozhin, whose name alone awakens the heart of every ben Torah. Volozhin, the mother of all yeshivos.

On the way to Volozhin we are thinking of how the foundation was laid there for all the famous yeshivos, how R' Chaim of Volozhin came to the Gra and enthusiastically presented his idea for a real yeshiva, a mokom Torah that would form a total environment for its talmidim instead of the study in a local kloiz or beis midrash that was customary until then. The Gra would not answer R' Chaim on that occasion.

Only much later, when R' Chaim came again to ask for the Gaon's ruling on his idea, did the Gra finally approve it and explain why he had been unwilling to give an answer the first time. "When I heard you speaking so excitedly about your idea, I was afraid that your intentions were not lishma, that some personal desire from deep in your heart was involved. But when you came back and presented your idea in a calm, detached manner, I could see you were lesheim Shomayim. That is the only way to found a mokom Torah."

We remember hearing about how R' Chaim's talmidim testified that when the cornerstone of the yeshiva was laid, he wept so much that no water was needed to moisten the mortar. The Chofetz Chaim concluded from this, "A yeshiva is built with tears."

As the bus enters Volozhin our eyes widen in amazement. The town looks almost unchanged, as if time had stopped sixty years ago. (Later we would see that Radin and Mir too, still wear the same rustic look.) The peace and quiet of these little towns, free of the restless hunt for pleasure that characterizes modern urban life in the West, explains somewhat why gedolei Yisroel chose them as the location for the yeshivos.

As R' Dov Eliach tells us in his book Avi Hayeshivos, it was this atmosphere (among other things) that led Rabbenu Chaim to turn down a tempting offer from Vilna's Jewish dignitaries: if he would move his yeshiva from Volozhin to Vilna, they would completely finance it, as well as make him rav of the city.

"Not everything can be moved from one place to another without damage," R' Chaim explained to them. "A stone or a beam of wood for example, no matter how heavy it may be, can always be dislodged and reinstalled in a new location. You could do that with the beams and benches of the yeshiva, too. But you could never move the cobwebs from the yeshiva and reinstall them. A yeshiva is more like a cobweb than a beam of wood. If you try to move it, you are liable to destroy it."

HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, who heard this ma'aseh while he was a student at Volozhin, explained it this way: "A yeshiva's existence is purely miraculous; it is based on things as delicate as a cobweb -- mainly, the give-and- take relationship between the local people on the one hand and the spirit that has been cultivated within the yeshiva on the other hand. These things can't be uprooted and transplanted in another location."

R' Zalman added that R' Chaim had another reason for preferring Volozhin to Vilna: "Conditions in a small town are more suitable and more advantageous for a yeshiva. We saw in later generations too, that the founders of yeshivos always tried to open them in small towns" (from HaDei'ah Vehadibur, p. 94). R' Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky ztvk"l expressed a similar view in a letter concerning R' Boruch Ber Leibowitz's yeshiva, which was located in Kaminetz: ". . . the administrators found that an urban location was bad for the yeshiva, and our geonim have always founded yeshivos in small communities, because there they will not be disturbed by the noise and crowds of the city" (Marbitzei Torah Umussar, R' A. Surasky, Part 2, p. 146). Similarly, R' Aharon Kotler wrote during World War II, "We are thinking of moving the yeshiva temporarily to Leonova, outside of Kovno, because a village is more suited to the ruchniyus of a yeshiva, as is well known" (Ibid., Part 3, p. 241).

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