We all feel a thrill as we approach the site of the Volozhin Yeshiva. It is no small thing to enter this holy place, on which today's whole Torah world was built.
But as great as our anticipation is our disappointment. We find a cafe instead of a yeshiva. The local population took the building over as soon as the Jews had been "removed," and the building that once rang with the sound of Torah is now full of young gentiles sitting around and drinking beer. Only when we walk around the building can we discern, from the outside, the outline of the aron kodesh. Near the roof is engraved the year the yeshiva was built: 1806 (5566).
The members of our group go inside and stand around as if rooted to the spot. The woman behind the counter gawks at us. Before her very eyes are Jews, who haven't lived in Volozhin for the past sixty years, standing there uncannily silent, like ghosts, ignoring her wares of cakes and drinks and staring at the walls.
Our eyes wander over the barren walls as we try to recreate the past, to see the young men walking among the benches with gemoras and Rambams in their hands, to hear the roar of voices battling in rischa de'Oraisa.
The stark reality of the present, like the scenes that await us in Mir, Radin, and Baranovich, wakes us from our daydream. It hurts more than everything we've heard before about the churban. All the kedusha that we have conjured up from our imaginations is no more. The yeshivos are a desolation and foxes roam through the kodshei hakodoshim.
When we leave the building our feelings pick up a little. Someone points out that despite what we've lost, the Jewish soul is not bound to buildings and benches, but to the spirit of Torah that these buildings absorbed. After all that has happened, is that spirit not still alive in our botei midrash? There Rava and Abaye live on, and we learn the Torah of Volozhin to this day.
R' Leib Baron has an anecdote to tell us; everyone pricks up his ears. In his youth he once came to Volozhin with his brother to visit the yeshiva. They searched among the old seforim in the beis midrash hoping, as young boys will, to have the thrill of finding some famous names written in the flyleaves. In the first gemora that came to hand they found the name "Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky," and next they came upon a gemora signed "Chaim Nachman Bialik" -- a juxtaposition that concretized for them Chazal's saying, "For he who merits, [the Torah] becomes the elixir of life; for him who does not merit, it becomes the elixir of death."
We might add that it also epitomizes the Gra's famous peirush on the verse, "Let my doctrine drop down like rain": Divrei Torah are like rain, which causes every seed and plant to grow according to its nature. Fruit trees blossom and bear fruit, whereas thorns and thistles also grow in response to rain -- becoming even thornier and pricklier.
But R' Baron had a further message in mind for us, seeing our mood as we left the desolated building. Some time later, when he happened to tell this story of finding the gemoras to an antique dealer, the man yelled, "Why didn't you take them? You could have gotten a good price for them!" The dealer added, thoughtfully, that at any rate he could have taken a tidy sum for a book signed by the "poet laureate" of Israel, but he probably wouldn't have found many collectors who would pounce on R' Chaim Ozer's gemora. After all, people who can appreciate the Torah of the Achiezer are not the people who would spend a fortune to acquire his worn-out personal effects.
That is the difference between them and us, R' Leib concluded. Those who are bound to an empty culture which is continually changing have nothing but inanimate objects to link them to the past, but we cling to the living Torah, which is still as fresh as if it had just now been given at Sinai.