In the Footsteps of Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan zt"l

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer

...It is therefore imperative to commemorate him and his lofty thoughts even after epochs.

(Rav Kook's remarks ten years after Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan's death)

Over seventy years have passed since Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Kaplan zt"l's untimely death at the age of 34. He filled his major position as Rosh Yeshiva of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin a mere four years. Yet men who were much older than him praised him in extraordinary terms. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer zt"l wrote (B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, second edition, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1988, p. 273): "We were accustomed to see elderly tzaddikim, or at least middle aged ones. A young gaon and tzaddik is difficult to create, difficult to find... A great tree with many roots, yet at the same time a brilliant, eye catching flower. Old age and youth were at once at work within him with amazing strength." Ten years after his passing, at an Azkara in Yerushalayim, Rav Kook zt"l said (ibid., p. 272): "The greatness of the thoughts and of the project of the deceased should be remembered for generations. Attainments in talent, emotion, refinement of character, order, philosophical perspective, but above all, a deep fear of Heaven and a drive to influence the entire depth of life were gathered and fused in this great man." Who was this remarkable man?

I. His Life

Rabbi Avraham Elya Kaplan was named for his father, who had passed away suddenly at the age of 33 several months before his son's birth. The elder Rabbi Avraham Elya was a renowned illui (child prodigy), and a close friend of the Chofetz Chayim zt"l (ibid., p. 269). Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik zt"l related (ibid., p. 285) that his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik zt"l, had once said about the elder Reb Avraham Elya: "I do not believe in illuim whose reputations precede them - with one exception - the Illui from Rackov, who mastered the entire Torah." The younger Rabbi Avraham Elya was born and spent his early years in his maternal grandfather's house in the town of Kaidan, a suburb of Kovno, in Lithuania. An entry in Reb Avraham Elya's diary from 1902 (when he was twelve years old) portends the depth of thought he was to attain:

When the spirit is exhausted - when memory revives the shadows of the past and their chill penetrates the heart - when reflection, like an autumn sun, illuminates the confusion of the present, but scatters its rays angrily upon one place, lacking the strength to rise up and advance - during such depressing moments of spiritual exhaustion, I am wont to picture before me, in my imagination, the exalted image of man... ...Wandering in the desert waste, alone on a globe that hurtles through infinite expanses, alone, tortured unceasingly by the question that afflicts his soul: "For what purpose does he live? - alone he strives with courage - forward! And upward! In the path of victory over the secrets of Heaven and Earth - forward and upward...(ibid., p. 153).

At about this time, Reb Avraham Elya's mother remarried a man from Telshe (Reb Avraham Elya was very close to his stepfather, and called him "The Father" - ibid., p. 8). Reb Avraham Elya studied then for several years in the renowned Yeshiva of Telshe. At the age of 16, Reb Avraham Elya was drawn to the spirit of the Mussar movement1, and went to learn in the "Talmud Torah" in Kelm, the yeshiva founded by Rabbi Simcha Zisel Ziv zt"l. Reb Avraham Elya left Kelm, however, shortly after his arrival. He then went to the famed yeshiva in Slabodka headed by Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt"l, the Alter of Slabodka zt"l2, and Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt"l, the Levush Mordechai. Reb Avraham Elya studied in Slabodka for seven years, until the outbreak of World War I left him stranded in his mother's home in Telshe. In Slabodka Reb Avraham Elya found the derech that he had sought. On his twenty first birthday four years later, Reb Avraham Elya wrote in retrospect about his arrival in Slabodka: "Here the wheel turns! Here begins a new life! One evening, when I returned from the home of the Mashgiach [The Alter], after hearing mighty words of reproof which penetrated deep into my heart, I burnt all my poems and writings..."3 A note written shortly after Reb Avraham Elya's arrival in Slabodka contains the first glimmerings of the focal point of his later thought:

The sharpest sword placed upon our necks and not allowing us to stretch them out and proudly confront life, the heaviest steel rings, weighing down upon our fingers, and preventing us from clenching them to form a powerful fist to raise up against "arrogant" Europe that does battle with us - are those great reflections concerning the vanity of this world which Mussar has bequeathed to us, without teaching us when to make use of these reflections and when to turn to the other side...4 When we meet with the slightest disturbance in life, with one this-worldly obstacle, we immediately dismiss it as worthless, but, in the same breath, we flee from it, without reflecting at all: How should we respond to it? What claim does it make upon us? And should we concede somewhat to it [this claim], or deny it altogether?... All of our service of the God of Israel stems only from an enfeebled form of "fear" (not the great fear of sin of [Rabbi Moshe Chaim] Luzzato...), only from a nervous anxiety lest we stumble, Heaven forbid, and act improperly... Possessed by a blind anxiety, we grope about and stammer: "Maybe, maybe, maybe it's not so good... perhaps, perhaps, perhaps it's not so proper..." And with this [attitude] we consider ourselves to be yir'ei shamayim. Woe to this shame and disgrace! Where is that vigorous health of the Torah intellect? ... It is on account of this that our power of practical intelligence has been enfeebled, that we have become faultfinders who arouse loathing; and, therefore, we can not discuss matters with anyone, presenting our thoughts clearly in a concise and direct form... We are capable only of mouthing the phrase: "You are far from the Torah, sunk in the mire of life, therefore you do not understand us!..." What does the Torah, however, demand? "Respond to those who have deeply strayed..." Woe, nation of rabbits, how long shall you be rabbits! (ibid., p. 154).

Reb Avraham Elya's years in Slabodka were filled with growth - and contemplation. In his notes he openly and objectively explores the ideas and ideals of modern Europe on the one hand, and Zionism on the other. He discusses such diverse writers as Bialik and Tolstoy - accepting some concepts, rejecting others. He frequently examined his own Avodas Hashem, as he constantly considered and reconsidered his purpose and destiny in life. Although his penetrating self analysis clearly marks him as a Ba'al Mussar, he often wondered if he was indeed worthy of such a lofty label. Reb Avraham Elya was the Alter's most beloved student (Reb Yaakov: The Life and times of HaGaon Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Mesorah Publications, 1993, p. 85). There was a close personal relationship between the two, and Reb Avraham Elya felt that the Alter was privy to his deepest thoughts. In one conversation in 1913 the Alter referred to Reb Avraham Elya's occasional preoccupation with the prevailing zeitgeists and said to him:

You are amazed that all those matters that stand at the heights of the world, all those ambitions and aspirations and desires for which endless rivers of blood have been spilled for generation upon generation and in countless countries... in our four amos, are regarded as... shadows of no substance? I understand you, and I am as amazed as you are, but amazement does not lead to blindness! Truth is truth, even if others disagree! And I, in my understanding (if not [always] in my actions) do not see in any of these desires anything more than fruitless hallucinations!!

Reb Avraham Elya writes: "The last statement was expressed with such wonderful strength that it seemed to cut the air to shreds" (B'Ikvos HaYir'ah p. 160). Reb Avraham Elya understood: constant personal growth in Avodas Hashem is the supreme value in life, and it takes precedence over any other inclination, aspiration, or ambition, no matter how significant they might seem. The Slabodka perspective that became Reb Avraham Elya's outlook is perhaps best expressed in one of the Alter's shmuessen that Reb Avraham Elya himself transcribed (ibid., p.221). Chazal (Bereishis Rabba 10:6-7) say that every blade of grass is controlled by a malach that causes it to grow. Man casually walks upon thousands of blades of grass, not thinking of the great wisdom and transcendent purpose of the thousands of malachim upon which he treads. How uplifted should a person, in fact, become when he realizes how many malachim were created to serve him! His heart should fill with both the glory of this kedusha and emotions of gratitude for this gift. How can one not be ashamed to enter the sanctuary of kedusha that is this world with soiled shoes and dirty clothes? How is he not embarrassed to be engrossed in frivolities while at the same time making use of the malachim created to facilitate Man's destiny? The entire world - from its most general principles to its finest details - serves as a reminder at each step we take to be cognizant of G-d, and, bechol derachecha da'eihu, "In all your paths you shall know Him." Reb Avraham Elya's growth in Avoda was accompanied by remarkable talent in learning. When Rabbi Aharon Kotler married Reb Isser Zalman's daughter, Reb Aharon delivered an extraordinarily profound pilpul. None of those present fully comprehended its contents. Up stood Reb Avraham Elya with a smile, and repeated the entire pilpul clearly - in rhyme!5 Reb Avraham Elya often contemplated leaving Slabodka - and in fact did leave from time to time, feeling that the intensity of the Avoda there was sometimes too overwhelming. In the final analysis, however, he writes (ibid., p. 194): "One Sinai have we in our generation - Slabodka is its name! Anyone who leaves Sinai cannot hope to find another. More correctly, anyone who leaves the mountain falls into the valley..." Even when he was away from Slabodka, his heart and soul remained there. Reb Avraham Elya spent the war years in Telshe, immersed in study. He amassed a vast knowledge of Bavli and Yerushalmi at that time. At this time he also developed a close connection to the Rosh Yeshiva and Rav of Telshe, Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch zt"l. Although also affiliated with the Mussar movement, Reb Yosef Leib had a degree of affinity for Kabbala and Machashava based on Kabbala - an approach that was a novelty in Lithuanian yeshivos.6 Towards the end of the war Reb Avraham Elya, now in his late twenties, became more involved in communal work and Harbatzas Torah. He was one of the founders of a Torah youth movement "Torah v'Oz," and a parallel educational movement for girls, "Agudas Bnos Yisroel."7 After the war's end, in 1919, the Lithuanian government granted its Jewish subjects autonomous status. Reb Avraham Elya's movement then blossomed into a national organization known as "Tzi'irei Yisroel."8 Reb Avraham Elya represented this movement in the "National Committee" that had jurisdiction over the autonomy, and co-chaired its division of education. Reb Avraham Elya was, however, ambivalent about his involvement in tzorchei tzibbur, and wrote of his yearning to return: "to that broad and illuminating, mighty and lofty discipline known as lomdus..." He felt that perhaps his destiny was rather to be a Rosh Yeshiva (ibid., p. 200). The final period in Reb Avraham Elya's life began in 1920, when he both married the daughter of a distinguished family from Telshe, and became a Rosh Yeshiva at the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin. Reb Avraham Elya's remarkable ability to learn from any person allowed him to absorb the derech of Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffman zt"l, the Melamed L'Ho'il, Rosh HaYeshiva of the Seminary (ibid., p. 276), and he became one of the primary Poskim for German Orthodoxy. In 1922, upon Rabbi Hoffman's death, Reb Avraham Elya succeeded him as Rosh HaYeshiva at the Seminary. As the head of the major Makom Torah in Germany, he became one of the great writers and leaders of that country. Reb Avraham Elya brought hitherto unknown levels of learning to Germany. Two years after his arrival in Berlin he wrote: "When I first came here I would say to myself that a shiur from Telshe could not be said in Berlin. Now I say that a shiur from Berlin may be said in Telshe. The voice of Lithuania may be heard in the tranquil halls of Germany" (ibid., p. 204). One of his major accomplishments in Germany was his influence over many students to spend years learning in the great Lithuanian yeshivos.9 Above all, however, Reb Avraham Elya brought Mussar to Western Europe. His pleasant demeanor and refined personality were the foundations, and his discourses the framework that enabled his German students to develop and perfect their spiritual selves. His personal Avoda was exemplary: "One who has not heard him read the Pesach night Hallel in lofty ecstasy in the unique melody that he wrote yet in his youth - has not seen true Jewish life in our generation. One who has not seen him dance the Kotzker Rebbe's dance in the joy of Sukkoth - has not seen true Jewish joy in our generation. He was alive and gave life."10 His talks: "ignited hearts with the lightning flashes of his ideas, heads were enwrapped in illumination, a purifying tremor enveloped all existence..." (ibid., p. 294). Reb Avraham Elya died suddenly, on the 15th day of Iyar 1924. On his matzeva was engraved the following epitaph: "An Ish Yehudi, great in knowledge, and great in life, possessed of heart and pure spirit. A master of Torah, mighty in Emuna, powerful in understanding, and a pleasant songwriter. He loved his fellow man as himself, and was beloved by all who saw him. To his students he was like a brother, and their souls bonded to his. With the brilliance of the Heavens he illuminated East and West. The sun set at the heart of its day."11

II. His Thought

Reb Avraham Elya's role model, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt"l, is constant presence in Reb Avraham Elya's writings. Reb Yisroel represents, to Reb Avraham Elya, the paradigm of leadership and influence: "No `center,' no `committee,'... in all their glory, have in the eyes of the nation the significance of a great Talmid Chochom. Not someone who reveals himself as the emissary of a certain party to teach politics to the masses, but rather one who is perceived as a humble dweller in the tent of Torah. One who learns himself, and then teaches what he has learned" (ibid., p. 101). A true leader, Reb Avraham Elya writes, follows in the footsteps of Reb Yisroel, perfecting himself, then "spilling over" to his talmidim. Reb Avraham Elya strove to clarify the truth for himself, and that truth then overflowed to teach others. Many of Reb Avraham Elya's essays center on the approaches Reb Yisroel had or would have had to various issues. In an essay contrasting the Chassidus of the Rebbe Maharash zt"l of Lubavitch and Reb Yisroel's Mussar, Reb Avraham Elya writes:

Mussar does not disagree with Chassidus. Mussar is often satisfied with the Jewish strength of Chassidus; its capacity not to submit to the environment; its heartfelt openness bein adam l'chaveiro that softens petty superficial European etiquette; its readiness to dedicate itself to a lofty purpose, and so easily sacrifice for that purpose normal conditions of life; its youthful fervor in mitzvos, which extends well into old age. Mussar, however, also has a significant criticism of Chassidus: It sees Chassidus as too external, too theoretical and abstract. The Chasid deludes himself into thinking that he is getting more out of Chassidus than he actually is. Chassidus deals with profound thoughts and great deeds, but it remains outside the essence of the Chasid. Chassidus penetrates the depths of the greatest Torah problems - between both Man and G-d, and between Man and Man - but it penetrates too little the self of a person, so that he might engage in a reckoning as to where he stands in relation to his World and in relation to his obligations in his World... The average Chasid deludes himself into thinking that a nigun that he sings wells up from his heart, and that the dveykus that he experiences has its source in his soul, even though it is entirely possible that these are transient moods, not associated with his true essence.12 One should not judge hastily. We cannot say even to the simplest Chasid, when he experiences dveykus, that he does not truly cleave to G-d. But that constant self-critique: "Perhaps I am deluding myself;" the query that should accompany every step in life: "Have I not strayed in this instance from the path?"; and, finally, all that is encompassed in the thought that serves as a necessary precondition for Shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid ["I have placed G-d before me always"], namely, the thought, "I have placed my "self" before me always," - all this is more prevalent in Mussar than in Chassidus...13

Reb Avraham Elya continued to bring examples of how Reb Yisroel's constant self criticism influenced Reb Yisroel's every step and deed. Reb Yisroel appraised every action, and checked if it had the slightest hint ("negi'a") of the any negative character trait or sin. Reb Avraham Elya yearned to bring Reb Yisroel's Mussar to Western Europe.14 One of Reb Yisroel's innovations was the Beis HaMussar, a place to rise above the constant din and confusion of daily life, take up a Sefer Mussar, criticize one's self and one's behavior, and assess one's destiny and goals. Reb Avraham Elya believed that more than any tefilla b'tzibbur or any lecture or essay, the power to reach one's own heart despite the great urban madness of Western Europe, was to be found in a Beis HaMussar - a place for individuals that seek G-d could go and fortify themselves and their like-minded friends in their quest, through contemplation and introspection (ibid., p. 121). Reb Avraham Elya viewed Mussar as the scale against which all should be measured. This opinion informs, for example, his perspective on "Chochmas Ha'Umos" (Non-Jewish Wisdom) and "Chochmas Yisroel" (Jewish Wisdom) (Chochmas Ha'Umos ve'Chochmas Yisroel, ibid., pp. 27-31, especially p. 28). Reb Avraham Elya begins his analysis with an exposition of four basic Halachic parameters which define the relationship between Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol: a) Torah study must be one's primary concern and not a peripheral matter; b) One's most regular and intensive study should focus on the acquisition of Torah wisdom;15 c) One must not define Torah concepts on the basis of secular concepts;16 d) One cannot say: "I have mastered Torah, now I shall concentrate on secular studies." Reb Avraham Elya then defines and contrasts Chochmas Ha'Umos and Chochmas Yisroel. Man's quest to know everything and define all - both the mundane and the divine - is the basis of Chochmas Ha'Umos. In these areas, the ultimate recognition is to recognize that we cannot know and understand everything. Despite mankind's quest to reveal and grasp, the mysteries of the distant past, the ultimate future, the minutiae of the atom, the vastness of the cosmos, and the "why" of it all, these questions will never be resolved. The scientific approach is limited. Ultimately, it cannot answer the basic questions that underlie its explorations. Chochmas Yisroel is a radically different approach. To Reb Avraham Elya, Chochmas Yisroel is the quest of the Oved Hashem to perfect himself. We say: "Yismach lev mevakshei Hashem" - the heart of those who quest G-d will be joyous. The popular adage states: "There is no joy equivalent to that of the resolution of questions." The quest for closeness to G-d is the Chochmas Yisroel that provides the answers. How? Chazal (Shabbos 31b) tell us there is only one true Chochma - Yir'as Hashem! Reb Avraham Elya notes that on the one hand: "Reishis chochma Yir'as Hashem" - the beginning of Chochma is Yir'as Hashem; and on the other hand: "Tachlis chochma teshuva u'ma'asim tovim" - the purpose of Chochma is Teshuva and good deeds. What is the middle? What is the bridge? Halacha and mitzvos. Christianity maintains that science and philosophy are intellectual disciplines, whereas fearing G-d is a matter of pure will - one who wants to fear G-d fears Him! The Torah vehemently disagrees. Yir'as Hashem is an Avoda, a Wisdom which must be pursued and acquired - beginning with Mussar, continuing with Halacha, and successfully ending with teshuva u'ma'asim tovim. The answers then come of their own accord: "So many questions are resolved - but not by resolving them! After several years one is astounded to realize that the questions no longer exist."17 This is what Chazal meant in their interpretation of the commandment "Acharei Hashem Elokeichem teileichu" (Devarim 13, see Sotah 14a) - you should follow G-d your L-rd - that to achieve dveykus to G-d, one must emulate G-d - just as He is merciful, so you must be merciful, et cetera. The resultant refinement of character and devotion to identifying and fulfilling ratzon Hashem comprise the good deeds that are tachlis Chochma. As Masters of this Chochmas Yisroel, we perceive the answers in our acquired dveykus.18 Reb Avraham Elya followed Reb Yisroel's derech to seek truth and growth wherever it might be found. To convey this approach Reb Avraham Elya relates that his grandfather, a renowned Rav, learned Chumash with Moses Mendelsohn's "Biur." The Rav was asked how he could learn from this questionable source. The Rav replied that his father had said that the primary problem with the Biur was its "Mavo'os," its Forewords,19 which adopted a secular attitude toward Nevi'im.20 Reb Avraham Elya's grandfather therefore rebound his Tanach with the Biur after discarding the Mavo. It was then perfectly fine to make use of Mendelsohn's excellent translation (B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, p. 139). Reb Avraham Elya adopted this approach in his attitude toward Zionism. Although secular Zionism's cultural doctrines made him uncomfortable with the Mizrachi's allegiance to the movement,21 he nonetheless recognized Herzl's accomplishment (ibid., p. 85):

He [Herzl] did not teach us Torah... because he was never taught Torah... He taught us, rather, to say two words [four words in English] on occasions that until he came we had neither dared nor been able to utter: "I am a Jew [Ivri]!" We were always able to recite these words in the Beis Medrash next to our shtenders, we were even capable of reading and writing them... We could declare ourselves a nation in any place we wanted, except in that one place where the nations of the world were... to be found - in the international political arena. There we were seen as wandering sheep, like one Telzer (Yehuda Leib Gordon22) once put it: "Not a nation, not a congregation, rather a flock." Not like sheep that are petted and fed, but like those that are shorn or slaughtered. When a European ruler asked a Jew: "Who are you?" Would he respond simply: "I am a Jew" - without any qualifications or explanations? He would answer: I am a Jew - but also German, also French, also English, etc. Along came Herzl, the first from among us to reach that international political arena that serves as a world court, and responded, openly, freely, effortlessly and guilelessly: "I am a Jew." Moreover: "I was stolen from the land of the Jews [Eretz HaIvrim], and here I have done nothing, for they placed me in the pit" [Bereishis 40:15]. The Jewish nation is a nation unto itself, like all other nations, indeed, it is special, and it possesses a unique life force that sustains it... Do you not sense the hidden workings of divine providence? I know that just as the rejuvenation of Jewish national spirit had to come, so will finally come, in the unseen future, the rejuvenation of our Torah spirit... We do not see the paths, we do not see the footsteps, but I know... that I must strive toward this. And G-d who returns to Tziyon [Zion] will return us also to Torah MiTziyon...23

III. His Commentary on the Talmud

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once remarked that Reb Avraham Elya possessed such remarkable powers that had he lived longer, he would have restructured the entire derech halimud (methodology of study) in the yeshivos with his proposed new commentary on Shas (Reb Yaakov, p. 85). Already in 1919 Reb Avraham Elya began pondering the derech halimud of Lithuanian yeshivos. He felt it was necessary to put more stress and expand upon the particular approach developed by the Vilna Gaon zt"l (B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, p. 21) and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. The underlying principle of this approach - the systematic application of which was to be his life's great unfinished work - was simple: a return to the derech of the Rishonim, from pilpul back to understanding (ibid., p. 163). In Reb Avraham Elya's opinion, the return to the Rishonim's approach began with the Gaon's, and, to a greater extent, Reb Chaim's emphasis on substance and understanding over structure and creativity. The trend among Acharonim until Reb Chaim's time was to resolve questions by answering them. This could be done essentially in one of two ways. One way is the refutation of the question's premise and the presentation of an alternate premise. The other method entailed the creation of an elaborate series of additional premises ("hakdamos") - not necessarily alluded to in the actual sugya - which would limit the application of the question's premise. Reb Chaim, on the other hand, did not answer questions. He would, rather, define the elements of a sugya conceptually, with such clarity and accuracy that any questions were automatically resolved (Divrei Talmud, vol. 1, pp. 23-24, and p. 42). Reb Avraham Elya proposed the systematic application of this approach to all of Shas. In and of itself, such a work would have been a milestone in the history of Talmudic commentary. Reb Avraham Elya, however, envisioned a much farther reaching accomplishment. Reb Avraham Elya set out to combine the lomdus of Eastern Europe with the scholarship of Western Europe.24 He identified eleven areas of interpretation, explanation, and conclusion that were to be incorporated in the new commentary. Indeed, it is in his essay: "On the Compilation of a Commentary to Talmud Bavli, its Necessity and Approach" and the addenda to this essay,25 that Reb Avraham Elya's extraordinary genius and scope is most clearly manifest. In brief, the eleven areas are: 1) Issues not completely clarified in earlier commentaries (Reb Avraham Elya brilliantly leads us through an example of such an issue: the definition of amud hashachar26). 2) Corruptions in the texts of the Rishonim. 3) Explanations that are found in one sugya, but not in a parallel one. 4) Crystallization of underlying principles. 5) Exposure of previously unknown or little known explanations found in the Rishonim. 6) Comparison and contrast of Talmudic sugyos with parallel sugyos in the Midrashei Halacha, Tosefta, Talmud Yerushalmi and Agada. 7) Full and deep understanding of each sugya (here Reb Avraham Elya notes that the capacity to engage in this pursuit was enhanced by the tools introduced by Reb Chaim. He notes, however, the importance of reaching equal depths in the understanding of Agada, and notes his intention to follow in the footsteps of the Maharal in this regard). 8) Following each sugya through to its Halachic conclusions.27 9) Introduction of possible textual emendations from alternate girsa'os. 10) Translations of obscure words (not necessarily foreign ones, as he demonstrates with an eye opening analysis of the simple word "midda"). 11) Dikduk and keria (for example, he notes, how many Talmidei Chachamim are aware that it is possible that the correct pronunciation is "kol vachomer?").

IV. In the Footsteps of Yir'ah

Reb Avraham Elya left many moving and inspiring writings in the realm of Machashava.28 Indeed, we have here just scratched the surface of the inspiration one can draw from his essays, diaries and poems. Yet, one masterpiece stands out from among the rest, and is the work by which he is best remembered: "B'Ikvos HaYir'ah" - "In the Footsteps of Fear." Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna wrote about this essay: "This essay could have been written by one of the fathers of Mussar. I regarded him with great esteem and honor - but I would not have expected this much. In the final analysis, he was yet young. True, he had learned and toiled mightily in Torah - and especially in the realm of Machashava and Mussar, but even all his toil cannot explain the great depth and profound thought which I found in B'Ikvos HaYir'ah. This is not an essay, rather a unique synopsis of immersion in profound thoughts and ideas..." (B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, p. 284). In a letter written to Reb Avraham Elya (ibid., p. 281), Rabbi Sarna placed special emphasis on the style in which B'Ikvos HaYir'ah was written: "...strong and sweet, clear and deep, penetrating and captivating - robust and passionate, and that is why it makes a Mussar impression." The German philosopher and literary critic J. G. Herder wrote that it was worthwhile to study Hebrew for ten years just to be able to read Psalm 104 ("Borchi Nafshi") in the original!29 It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey the full inspiration of the original in translation; it is to be hoped, however, that the following translation will allow the English reader to catch a glimpse, and perhaps even more than a glimpse, of the essay's power and pathos.

...But one who has not traversed the actual pathway of illumination [that of the prophets and the sages],he who stands opposite the rays of light, at some distance, possesses little understanding of this term [yir'ah]. It would be better had he never known this term, and was now learning it for the first time. But this is his problem: He knows it, but does not know it properly. He possesses a dangerous translation of the entire concept, and cannot avoid its negative ramifications. For example, when we mention yir'ah to this person he can only translate it thus: Bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels. And he does not know that this translation is heretical for the one who knows what yir'ah is and what it means, the source from which it flows, and from whence it comes... There are times that demand tears and eulogies... It is necessary then to stoop like rushes and take up sackcloth and ashes. Times come upon the world when our sins require these. Such, however, is not Yir'as Hashem, not it and not even part of it. It is not yir'ah's essence, but only preparation for it...

Yir'ah is not anguish, not pain, not bitter anxiety. To what may yir'ah be likened? To the tremor of fear which a father feels when his beloved young son rides his shoulders as he dances with him and rejoices before him, taking care that he not fall off. Here there is joy that is incomparable, pleasure that is incomparable. And the fear tied up with them is pleasant too. It does not impede the freedom of dance... It passes through them like a spinal column that straightens and strengthens. And it envelops them like a modest frame that lends grace and pleasantness... It is clear to the father that his son is riding securely upon him and will not fall back, for he constantly remembers him, not for a moment does he forget him. His son's every movement, even the smallest, he feels, and he ensures that his son will not sway from his place, nor incline sideways - his heart is, therefore, sure, and he dances and rejoices. If a person is sure that the "bundle" of his life's meaning is safely held high by the shoulders of his awareness, he knows that this bundle will not fall backwards, he will not forget it for a moment, he will remember it constantly, with yir'ah he will safe keep it. If every moment he checks it - then his heart is confident, and he dances and rejoices...

When the Torah was given to Israel solemnity and joy came down bundled together. They are fused together and cannot be separated. That is the secret of "gil be're'ada" (joy in trembling) mentioned in Tehillim. Dance and judgment, song and law became partners with each other... Indeed, this is the balance... A rod30 of noble yir'ah passes through the rings of joy... [It is] the inner rod embedded deep in an individual's soul that connects end to end, it links complete joy in this world (eating, drinking and gift giving) to that which is beyond this world (remembering the [inevitable] day of death31) to graft one upon the other so to produce eternal fruit.

A Swedish wise man, when once discussing sanctity, said: "The sanctity of an individual proves that he who possesses it has a direct relationship with the strongest source of existence." In my opinion, in the conception of Judaism this is a definition of yir'ah (but sanctity - kedusha - is loftier still, we have a different idea of it, but this is not the place to define it). What is yir'ah? It is the broad jump over the vast gap between myself and my Creator... It is a mitzvah to separate - to separate from smallness! Fly over barriers! And from there quest Him, for there you will find Him...

Indeed, this is the direct relationship. Indeed, this is the true vision that we call yir'ah... And this, therefore, is the reason that we dwell so much on fear of sin ("yir'as ha'onesh"). This is also vision - seeing things as they really are... One who refuses to see his future shortchanges only himself. Only if he sees (re'iyah) will he fear (yirah), and only if he fears will he repent... And from here we proceed to the fear [awe] of loftiness ("yir'as haromemus") - that is the vision [the perception] of loftiness. From here - "The maid servant at the Red Sea saw loftier visions than the Prophet Yechezkel." From here comes the direct view, across all the dividers, to the source of existence. This is an unceasing inner gaze toward the matter that is one's responsibility [the bundle of his life's meaning] (that he must safeguard lest it fall...). The gaze is one that leads to remembrance, remembrance that leads to care, care that leads to confidence, confidence that leads to strength ("oz") - an inner, bold, uplifting, strength ("Hashem oz li'amo yiten) and a strength that leads to peace ("shalom") and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed ("Hashem yivareich es amo ba'shalom"). Indeed, This is the wisdom of life: "Reishis chochma yir'as Hashem." A fear that is vision. "And remember" - "And see" - "Shivisi Hashem l'negdi tamid..."

Oh G-d our L-rd! Who would grant that we would for a moment forget this oppressing thought: That everything has happened before, thousands upon thousands of time. That the great ones have already spoken, and that the small ones have already closed their ears. That all was without benefit, without blessing... that nothing can fix distorted hearts, that there is no escape from twisted concepts. Who would grant that we would for a moment forget this!... In forgetting this smallness we would suddenly remember greatness. In destroying this despair we would suddenly renew souls. Evil would dissipate. Stupidity would dissipate. Surely a bridge would be built between man and his brother, a ladder would rise between Earth and Heaven.

A moment... Yes, that is what I said: "That they would forget for a moment!" For greater is the glory of one short moment than vast stretches of time enwrapped in desolation. What a moment can achieve years cannot... Let us not wait [for this moment] till we come to shame... If it does not exist, let us create it... But when will this moment come? When will it be sought? When will it be found? In every generation they ask this same question, and every generation answers with greater despair than its predecessors: "Who knows?" But one [truth] "I"32 know! This response can only suffice for all Mankind, or for Israel as a whole. For an individual, the specific person who sits and writes or reads these simple lines, can he respond any other way to the question "when?" than with the reply of Hillel: "If not now... when?" Now. Immediately. For now - and for all generations...

And now, not pride ("ga'ava") is our downfall, but humility ("anava").33 We have become humble without strength, our souls are like widows - deprived of confidence and security, without strength of mind ("da'as"). This is not humility for the sake of Heaven; it is for the sake of inactivity that comes from despair, and for the sake of despair that comes from inactivity. We have become paupers happy with our lot in our [limited] spiritual property. The Lithuanian Jew is happy with the glory of his lomdus; the Polish Jew - with the majesty of his mysticism and lightning pilpul; the Hungarian Jew - with his Torah fervor and detailed grasp of Talmudic topics; the German Jew - with his meticulous mitzvah observance and secular acquisitions. The common denominator among us all is that we suffice with what we have, placidly and quietly, each of us in our own [portions], slumbering deeply... [nothing] contains enough spirit of life to arouse and encourage, to uplift and to lead... G-d said to our first forefather: "Do not fear Avraham!" The Tanna d'bei Eliyahu says: "One only says `do not fear' to one who is truly fearful of Heaven..." He who has walked in the footsteps of fear until he has reached its truth will feel even now the great call to G-d: Do not fear! Do not weaken! Do not be poor in your own eyes and humble in the eyes of others, enrich yourself so you may fulfill yourself, and go among the people of this world. And like your forefather in the days of Nimrod who proclaimed the goodness of G-d, plant an oasis for those lost on the way, and pray for Sodom and Amora. And then when you come to the community of Israel, and you arise up on its stage - even if it must be a political, a partisan stage - you shall call out from upon that stage to the nation that it should renew its heart; that it should open its heart to Torah and fill its heart with the love and fear [of G-d] (yes, in such simple terms). Let these direct and clear words, devoid of metaphor and criticism, be heard from atop every high stage and penetrate every vigorous heart. To know, to inform, and to clarify (gsuvku ghsuvk gshk), that we have but one slogan: Yir'ah and good deeds... We certainly know that the only redemption for our spiritual and material national crisis is the robust return ("Teshuva") to the lofty yir'ah of Judaism - and are we permitted to be embarrassed by to those who mock us, and therefore refrain from diligent, constant public proclamation of this sole redemption? Who guarantees that the nation will not listen to us? If hundreds may not listen, perhaps tens might. Who seduces us to deny the possibility of a mighty society ("chavura") of refined Jews - and youth - who, truly and guilelessly, will begin to immerse themselves in the purification of hearts and deeds? Why not? It is indeed possible! If it is truly impossible, it is only for one reason: because we, the individuals who strive for this goal, deny its possibility. The nation is not yet barren - if there is barrenness it is in you, the individuals...34

Reb Avraham Elya stood out in a generation in which spiritual giants trod the face of the Earth. Yet from the examples of that vanished world even we can derive inspiration to aspire to spiritual heights. Reb Avraham Elya's model of true yir'ah and his derech can guide us in our quest to be mekadesh shem Shamayim in all aspects of our lives.

"There was a man,"

A man whose life was creation,

A man whose creation was life.

There was a man who sang and who learned and who taught,

And who thought and who rejoiced

And who loved and who grieved.

And all of his words were alive and illuminated

With the light of Avraham Avinu's furnace,

A brilliant light that escapes from between his words

That like a hammer shatters rock,

The light of the secrets of Yisroel,

The light of the secret of the world.

And the light became life,

The light of life, a life of light.

"And he is no longer."

Is he no longer?

Wasn't the brilliance of his smiling eyes absorbed

In the light of my eyes, in the light of your eyes,

You, my brother in sorrow, who knew him?

Will it not happen that his image will flash out and illumine us?

Will it not happen that we will see him smiling at us?

Accompanying us in our determined pursuits, in attempts to be "alive,"

In our ascents, in the joy of our creations?

Let us impart to all who come within our precincts

From the light of his eyes, from the light of his soul.

And they will live by them.

And he will live in them.

(by Dr. Fyvel Meltzer zt"l, ibid., p. 299. First published in the Telzer HaNe'eman, 1929)35


Author's note: A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in Jewish Action magazine. The author wishes to acknowledge the guidance and direction of the magazine's literary editor, Rabbi Matis Greenblatt; the assistance of Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan of Jerusalem; and the notes and constructive criticism of Prof. Lawrence Kaplan of Montreal used in improving this work.

1It is significant that Reb Avraham Elya's famous poem, Shak'a Chama, was written at this time. The poem expresses a sense of depression and searching, which may be the voice of a young man in a state of rootlessness. It begins: "The sun has set... my soul has set / In the depth of its sorrow as great as the sea..." (ibid., p. 171). A personal note: My first exposure to Reb Avraham Elya was as freshman in high school in Yerushalayim. Our Rebbe took us on a class outing to Har Herzl, told us about Reb Avraham Elya and taught us the words and tune to Shak'a Chama.

2The Alter was one of the great pedagogues of the Mussar movement. His major emphasis was the unique potential for greatness that each individual possesses, and the necessity to spend one's lifetime developing that potential. Some of the Alter's great talmidim known for their accomplishments building Torah in America were Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt"l, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt"l, Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman zt"l, and Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner zt"l. See Rabbi Dov Katz, Tenu'as HaMussar, vol. 3 (Tel Aviv, 1967); and Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Musar Movement (New York, 1978), Chapter 8.

3ibid., p. 249. One often perceives in Reb Avraham Elya's later writings - even in lomdus - an underlying Simcha - sometimes bordering on playfulness.

4Reb Avraham Elya did not mean to criticize the Mussar movement, rather a negative trait possessed by some of its adherents.

5ibid., pp. 277, 297. Reb Avraham Elya was quite adept at this. He did the same with the Alter's first shmuess upon the Yeshiva's return to Slabodka after its exile during the first World War (Reb Yaakov, ibid.).

6This more mystical approach is perhaps reflected in his 1920 poem that begins: "Did it ever happen to you / At night, midnight, / Resting silently, with your eyes / Half closed, / To forget all / Your yearnings, / And think / Of Man and World / And feel that / Your soul has nothing / Except it itself / And its G-d... (ibid., p. 182 and p. 257).

7My great aunt, Mrs. Leah Holzberg shetichye of Yerushalayim, was a student of Reb Avraham Elya's in this period, and l'havdil bein chayim l'chayim, my grandfather, Rabbi Dov Yehuda Schochet zt"l, was much influenced by Reb Avraham Elya as well. In recent conversations with my aunt it was remarkable to behold the strength of the impression left by Reb Avraham Elya some 70 years later.

8Reb Avraham Elya even wrote an anthem for this movement, which began: "Brothers in Avoda we are all, together, / Let us work, let us toil, prepare a generation, / A healthy, fresh generation, a generation of Ovdim, / Let our Torah be its sun of light. / A generation alive in Torah, a generation alive in Judaism, / A generation that is a free nation, free of the yoke of slavery, / A generation of sons of a holy nation, a nation that is Oved Hashem. / Let us be oved, prepare for that life!" (ibid., p. 181.). The second stanza focuses on Eretz Yisroel (Reb Avraham Elya ardently loved Eretz Yisroel, and constantly thought and wrote of moving and being active there) and Loshon HaKodesh. One cannot escape the impression that this anthem was meant to counter the HaTikvah.

9Heard from his son, a noted scholar and author, Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan shlit"a of Yerushalayim. See the essays in Divrei Talmud, vol. 1 (Mossad HaRav Kook, 1958) by Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna zt"l, Iggeres, p. 7 (this letter originally appeared in the Iyar-Sivan, 1929 issue of HaNe'eman [Telshe], an issue devoted to Reb Avraham Elya's memory); and by Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan, "Editor's Introduction," p. 12.

10B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, p. 297. Even in Berlin, his diary is full of yearning for higher levels of spirituality (ibid., pp. 165-7). He regularly spent his Yomim Nora'im in Slabodka, in quest of kedusha. Rabbi Matis Greenblatt shlit"a related to me that the Alter would arrange for Rabbi Hutner to room with Reb Avraham Elya during these visits.

11My great uncle, R. Yosef Dov Holzberg shlit"a of Yerushalayim, related to me that both Reb Avraham Elya and his father died when, immersed in deep concentration in a sugya, blood vessels burst in their heads. The following passage from the Berlin journal Jeschurun is quoted in translation from Three Generations: The Influence of Samson Raphael Hirsch on Jewish Life and Thought by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld zt"l (Jewish Post Publications, London, 1958, p. 77): "It is generally agreed that never had there been witnessed in Berlin a similar scene of lamentation as on the day when Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan was laid to eternal rest (16th Iyar 5684-1924). The expressions of desperate grief, the continued sobbing of West European men trained in self- control cannot be explained merely by the tragic event that a young father had been torn away from his family and that a very promising career had been cut short. It was far more than that; from the depths of our subconscious minds a feeling arose, breaking with all elemental force through all conventional behaviour and telling us that this death was a blow which had struck down everyone of us and had put an end to a sacred conviction which we all shared; that this man was destined to bring about a revival and renewal of German Judaism." (Beginning on page 74 of Three Generations there is significant biographical material on Reb Avraham Elya and his successor, fellow "Slabodker" and friend, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt"l, the Seridei Esh - whose hesped on Reb Avraham Elya was published in LePrakim, Bilgorai, 1936, p. 155).

12Reb Avraham Elya was not negating the power of nigun - he himself wrote nigunim of dveykus (see B'Ikvos HaYir'ah pp. 217-218).

13ibid., p. 22. Reb Avraham Elya noted that the founders of Chassidus did know and impart the need for Mussar-like introspection to their followers, but sufficient stress was not placed on this component, and over time it was forsaken (ibid., p. 136).

14A goal Reb Yisroel himself had set many years earlier - see ibid., p. 120.

15Reb Avraham Elya, does, however, recognize the inevitable need to master certain preliminaries in order to understand non-Jewish disciplines. He does not, however, discuss the parameters and limitations of such pursuits.

16i.e., the two disciplines must not be mixed or combined. In his review of Asher Gulak's Yesodei Mishpat Ha'Ivri, ibid., pp. 67-74, Reb Avraham Elya does recognize the value in acquiring: "...the accumulated historical and linguistic knowledge, and the like, necessary for the optimum clarification of the halachic sources" (p. 74). He never, however, addresses the question of how an exact and proper balance might be struck.

17ibid., p. 30. Reb Avraham Elya cites this in the name of the famous nineteenth century French scholar, Ernest Renan.

18Another pasuk with a similar import is: "Ta'amu u're'u kitov Hashem" - taste and see that G-d is good.

19The Hebrew word for Foreword, Mavo, also means an alley. Reb Avraham Elya's grandfather called these Forewords: "Mavo'os Afeilim," dark alleys.

20Prof. Lawrence Kaplan noted, in a personal communication, that Reb Avraham Elya was probably referring not to Mendelsohn's Biur on Chumash, but to the Biur on Nach, written in the early part of the nineteenth century by Mendelsohn's followers. The reference to the "Forewords" alludes to their secular attitudes toward books of Nevu'ah. Perhaps Reb Avraham Elya's grandfather used these works to study Haftaras.

21ibid., p. 92. Reb Avraham Elya wrote extensively about both the Mizrachi and the early Agudah.

22The most prominent Hebrew poet of the nineteenth century and a notorious Maskil, Gordon was generally known by his acronym, YaLaG, that, in a play on words, would be pronounced by Orthodox Jews as "yil'ag," the Hebrew word for "scoffer."

23Besides his essays on Hashkafa, Reb Avraham Elya also left many "Reshimos," short notes on topics in Mussar, Machashava, and Avodas Hashem, some of which are beautiful vignettes of life lived in a Torah true and Mussar suffused way.

24He stresses several times, however, that his spirit was far closer to the lomdus of the East than to the scholarship of the West. See B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, p. 67 and pp. 208-209.

25Divrei Talmud, pp. 9-88. The addenda were compiled by Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan from the notes his father left, and they are attempts to apply the principles defined in the essay to specific sugyos. The Commentary on the beginning of Masseches Kiddushin is particularly impressive.

26R. Pinchas Kehati zt"l quotes the Divrei Talmud in his Mishnayos Mevu'aros commentary on the first mishna in Masseches Berachos.

27Such a project had already been proposed, as Reb Avraham Elya notes, by Rav Kook, and the Gemaros in the Halacha Berura series and Rabbi Yitzchak Arieli zt"l's Eynayim LaMishpat represent efforts in this areas.

28His published works are: Divrei Talmud, 2 volumes, published by Mossad HaRav Kook in 1958 and 1970; and B'Ikvos HaYir'ah, also published by Mossad HaRav Kook. The first edition was printed in 1956. The current, 1988, edition, is an expanded one. Reb Avraham Elya's writings were collected, edited, and in part translated, by Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan.

29cited in the Introduction to the Birnbaum Siddur, p. XV.

30An allusion to the bari'ach hatichon, the inner rod in the middle of the Mishkan's walls that went all the way through from one side to the other.

31Alluding to Chazal's way to combat the yetzer hara: "Yazkir lo yom hamisa."

32See Rabbi Shimon Shkop zt"l's Introduction to Sha'arei Yosher, where he explains the "I" in Hillel's statement, "Im ein ani li mi li."

33Reb Avraham Elya's transition requires an explanation. In another essay (ibid., p. 137) he writes that true anava (humility) is a higher level than yir'ah (Tosafos, Avoda Zara 20b, d.h. Anava) and that where yir'ah ends anava begins (Yerushalmi Shabbos 1:3). He writes that to be a true anav one should not equate oneself with the point of a pin in stature. One must realize, rather, that one's stature is akin to that of the Himalayan Mountains - and then realize how small one is in comparison to the Infinite. True greatness is a prerequisite to true Torah anava. The mighty yir'ah Reb Avraham Elya describes is a precondition for this anava.

34ibid., pp. 11-17. Chavuros devoted to the dissemination of such lofty ideals were formed by alumni of the great yeshivos. One was the Histadrus Talmidei Slabodka. Another one was the Telzer Agudas Emes V'Shalom. Most of the participants in such endeavors were murdered by the Nazis yimach shemam.

35Prof. Kaplan, in a personal communication, noted that the first lines of both stanzas are a direct quotation from the second line of Bialik's poem Acharei Mosi. The poem's first stanza reads: After my death eulogize me thus: / "There was a man - and look: he is no longer; / He died before his time, / and the music of his life stopped in the middle; / Alas! There was another song in him - / Now that song is forever lost, / forever lost!" Dr. Meltzer, unlike Bialik, focused not on the obvious tragedy, but on the unlimited inspiration yet to be drawn from Reb Avraham Elya's life and writings.

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