by Rabbi Nosson Zev Grossman
(Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne'eman and Rabbi Mordechai Plaut)
Almost a year has passed since that wonderful voyage of discovery to the roots of the yeshiva world in Lithuania, organized by the yeshiva Ahavas Torah-Baranowitz of Yerushalayim, led by HaRav Elchonon Baron. The trip was graced with the presence of several senior talmidei chachomim who have personal memories of those roots, including HaRav Leib Baron, the nosi of the yeshiva. The voyage was chronicled, so that we can all participate, to some extent, in the voyage and the lessons it has for us today.
The airport clerk stops in the middle of examining our tickets and looks up hesitantly. "I see you have just returned from Vilna," she says in heavily accented Hebrew. "I am from there myself; I came on aliya about a year ago. May I ask what you want in Lithuania -- I mean, Jews of your sort?"
Odd, we'd been asked the same question by another young, secular oleh chadash while waiting to board the plane at Vilna. He had gone back to visit his family, but obviously he had already adopted the Israeli style: "Tell me something - -- what is a Dos [Israeli slang for Ashkenazi chareidi] like you doing here in Vilna? Did you lose something here?" Then he answers his own question with a knowing look. "Wait, don't tell me -- I already know. You came to visit the Gaon's grave, right? Don't think I never heard of him. I went to the Gaon's grave myself on this visit. That's what you came for, right?"
The word "gaon" rolls off his tongue with a strong Russian accent that seems to augment the triumph in his voice, as if he had gotten to the bottom of the mystery. So this was why so many chareidim, rabbonim, and roshei yeshivos come to Vilna!
As a matter of fact, our visit to the kever of Rabbenu the Gaon of Vilna, ztvk"l was one of the high points of our recent trip to the destroyed Torah centers of Lithuania. But if anyone had doubts about whether they were really destroyed, this question would easily settle the matter: "What would Jews like you want in Lithuania?" - - clear evidence that only a wasteland is left after two hundred years of glory. Second and third- generation tinokos shenishbu, victims of Communist "reeducation," wonder what on earth bnei Torah could be looking for in Lithuania.
"What did you lose here?" they want to know.
The Lost World
We were a group of bnei Torah from Eretz Yisroel and America, who set out during last summer's bein hazmanim on a trip to what were once the greatest Torah centers of Europe: the Lithuanian yeshivos.
Our trip was organized by Yeshivas Ahavas Torah-Baranovich, a yeshiva for bnei Torah from America founded in Yerushalayim two years ago. The nosi of the yeshiva, R' Arye Leib Baron, is himself a talmid of the original Yeshivas Baranovich and of Yeshivas Mir. R' Baron and his son, R' Elchonon the rosh yeshiva (named after R' Elchonon Wassermann Hy"d), decided to found the new yeshiva as a memorial to the kehilla of Baranovich, which was famous for its love of Torah.
In addition to visiting the sites of the great yeshivos, we were seeking out the remnants of the modern Jewish communities of Lithuania, hoping to meet these Jews face to face and offer them some spiritual sustenance.
Our having with us rabbonim who were actually raised in the Lithuanian yeshivos added another dimension to the tour. At every stop the group was gripped by their reminiscences; the historical accounts they had read came to life as those who had been there described what had once been.
Besides R' Arye Leib Baron there was R' Osher Katzman, another talmid of both Baranovich and Mir, and also R' Nochum Zeldis of Lakewood, a talmid of Baranovich whose father had taught in the yeshiva ketana there, and R' Aharon Florans, also of Baranovich and Mir.
As a result of the political upheavals of recent years, the Lithuanian yeshivos are nowadays split between two countries, Lithuania and Belarus. The tour began in Minsk, in Belarus: a painful example of the devastation of European Jewry.
Pre-Holocaust Minsk was home to 140,000 Jews, well over half of the total population of 215,000 (the similar proportions were found in many towns and villages in the region). In this city, where such great men as the Nachalas Dovid and the Or Godol served as rav, not a trace of that glory remains. Even the Jewish cemetery is completely obliterated; only in the park that was planted in its place one may occasionally stumble over a fragment of an old matzeivah.
The Great Synagogue of Minsk is still standing, a beautiful building -- it now serves as a theater. Members of the local Jewish community showed us another former shul, now an art gallery. If they hadn't pointed it out to us, we never would have known it had once been a shul. All the obvious signs have been stripped away. But yes, now we can see it: there is the niche where the aron kodesh stood, and there is the ezras noshim up there and look! There are twelve windows!
The local Jews take us to see some more buildings. Here too was a synagogue, they tell us, and here there was a shtiebel. They say "was": everything is in the past tense.
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