The life and impact of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler the Michtav MeEliyahu
By Yonason Rosenblum
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Rabbi Dessler held the official title of mashgiach in Ponevezh Yeshiva, but he always insisted that the title did not fit him. I am not the Mashgiach, he would say. That title is reserved for someone who is involved with every single individual. I give shiurim in Hilchos Deios.1
The Ponevezher Rav continually pressed him to become more involved with individual bachurim, but he insisted with incredible firmness that he was incapable of doing so. He refused to be a policeman. He had been raised among those for whom it was enough to simply point out the light in the Torah and man, wrote Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg soon after his petirah.
The entire focus in Kelm was on producing individuals of the most elevated character, and in this Rabbi Dessler remained true to his roots. In the spiritual world, Kelm taught, all counting is from the multitude down to the solitary individual. Large and many are terms of the physical world, but they are meaningless in a spiritual context. The spiritual world is defined by its unity, represented by the number one, or the solitary individual.
Quantity has meaning, as far as Kelm was concerned, only when its starting point is a solitary point of perfection, no matter how small. Quality can produce quantity, quantity can never produce quality.
Any emphasis on numbers was repugnant to Rabbi Dessler.2 He stressed rather repairing oneself and only then influencing others. A poem entitled LAtzmi -- To Myself expressed his attitude:
To myself I record
in order that I can review the truth that I saw
I guard it and remember it ...
Is this [guarding for myself] not the outgrowth of self-love?
That is what the superficial view claims. [But the true view is]:
If my heart does not learn, how will it teach?
Only that which goes out from the heart -- a heart overflowing its banks -- can enter the heart of another.3
Following the principles of Kelm, Rabbi Dessler worked with a small group of talmidim, whom he saw as having the potential to influence others. In this regard, he had a particularly sharp eye. His closest disciple, Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, was one of his successors as Mashgiach of Ponevezh Yeshiva and was recognized, in time, as one of the leading Jewish thinkers and teachers of our generation.
Among those who learned privately with Rabbi Dessler were:
Rabbi Berel Povarsky, Rabbi Moshe Shimon Diskind, and Rabbi Dov Landau. All subsequently became prominent roshei yeshiva. Rabbi Povarsky and Rabbi Diskind each learned the Rambans commentary on Chumash with Rabbi Dessler once a week. In one year, Rabbi Povarsky remembers they almost reached the fifth aliyah of Bereishis. With Rabbi Dov Landau, he learned the Radvazs Taamei Hamitzos. They would share a single text, and as they read, the thoughts would just flow forth from Rabbi Dessler. Rabbi Landau doubts that they even finished the first mitzvah in this fashion.4
While Rabbi Dessler worked individually with a handful or so of close students, the actual supervision of bachurim in Ponevezh Yeshiva was left to Rabbi Chaim Friedlander and Rabbi Shmuel Harari, two members of the circle of Rabbi Desslers close talmidim. Rabbi Friedlander officially assumed the task of assistant Mashgiach in 1952 at the behest of the Ponevezher Rav. He and Rabbi Dessler ate breakfast together every morning, and Rabbi Dessler would give his young protege certain guidelines for his task. Afterwards they learned the works of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the Ramchal).
His entire life, Rabbi Dessler was reluctant to give rebuke, and that did not change in Ponevezh Yeshiva. Instead of rebuke, he preferred to describe the elevated nature of good middos and how ugly and ridiculous are bad middos. His ridicule of defective middos could provoke hysterical laughter, but he always insisted that he was merely exaggerating some fault he found within himself.5
On at least one occason, however, Rabbi Dessler did publicly rebuke a group of bachurim.6 There was a kiosk near the yeshiva where the talmidim used to buy milk and other small items on credit. The students learned that there would be a devaluation of the Israeli currency. Rather than paying their debts immediately, they waited until after the devaluation so that they could repay in devalued currency. The owner of the kiosk complained to Rabbi Dessler about what had happened. In response, Rabbi Dessler publicly labeled the use of trickery to profit at anothers expense as extremely ugly behavior, even if it was halachically permissible.7
Though Rabbi Dessler did not have personal contact with most of the bachurim in the yeshiva, his personality made a great impression on all those who were privileged to be within his close circle. His middos and his whole personality, wrote Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, made a deep and lasting impression on all who came in contact with him. Each one felt that they were the recipients of a special closeness. Those who drew close found him easy to speak with on any subject. He possessed the ability to make the person with whom he was speaking feel that a deep connection existed between them.8
He treated his talmidim with the utmost kavod (respect). When they came to visit him on Chol HaMoed, he would exclaim, What an honor that you came to visit me. Then he would take out of an old cabinet some silver cups and some wine. I made this wine myself, he would tell them, and I only take it out for my most important guests.9 Once, after Rebbetzin Dessler had passed away, Rabbi Yaakov Edelstein visited Rabbi Dessler. When no milk could be found to serve with the coffee, Rabbi Dessler proudly demonstrated his technique for whitening a cup of coffee using an egg instead.
Such treatment was not reserved for his students alone. Once Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe was in Rabbi Desslers home. When it came time to leave, Rabbi Dessler was distraught that he could not find anything to serve his guest. Finally, he found a chocolate candy in the kitchen. When Rabbi Wolbe departed, Rabbi Dessler told him that he too had to go out, so that the younger mashgiach would not be embarrassed to have Rabbi Dessler accompanying him. Rabbi Dessler did not specify his destination and walked alongside Rabbi Wolbe to the bus stop, where he remained until his visitors bus arrived.
As eager as Rabbi Dessler was to honor others, he did everything possible to avoid asking others to do anything on his behalf. Even though Shalom Ulman was his official house bachur, after the death of his wife, Rabbi Dessler would not let him so much as make a cup of coffee for him. Similarly, he refused to consider the young mans offers to polish his shoes or to help him with the preparation of raisin wine for Shabbos. More than Ulman served Rabbi Dessler, it was said in the yeshiva, the latter served him.
The highest honor that Rabbi Dessler paid to his students was the seriousness with which he took their ideas. Rabbi Dessler and Shalom Ulman used to eat every Shalosh Seudos together, and at the meal, Rabbi Dessler would relate what he planned to say on Motzaei Shabbos. He actively sought Rabbi Ulmans critique, and encouraged him to ask questions and offer his own ideas on the subject. Rabbi Dessler always offered to repeat Shalom Ulmans insights in his name, but the young man begged him not to do so. Nevertheless, if Rabbi Dessler mentioned the insight, he was always careful to state that it was not his but someone elses.
Often, Rabbi Dessler would tell a talmid, You provided me with the yesod (the fundamental principle) for the entire shiur. Yet when the talmid subsequently heard Rabbi Dessler repeat the yesod attributed to him, he often found it unrecognizable.10 On several occasions, Dov Landau mentioned a certain idea of his or something interesting that he had read to Rabbi Dessler, only to have the latter immediately sit down, take out his notebook, and enter the idea in it.
Rabbi Dessler once received a letter from his old friend Rabbi Moshe Schneider in England. Rabbi Schneider pointed out that the Chofetz Chaim had, in his time, expressed the desire to go to war against the Bolsheviks, just as the Maccabees has warred against the Seulicid Greeks in their day. If so, Rabbi Schneider demanded to know, why were observant Jews in Eretz Yisrael not waging a battle against efforts to separate new immigrants from religion?
Rabbi Dessler shared the letter with Dov Landau, and asked him how he would answer Rabbi Schneiders question.11 With little gestures like these, and by showing such respect for their opinions, Rabbi Dessler built up the self-confidence of his young followers.
The same honor that Rabbi Dessler extended to his students, he extended to their parents as well. Dov Wein and his mother were in disagreement over how to handle a shidduch, and Mrs. Wein expressed her intention to discuss the matter with Rabbi Dessler. Wein was mortified at the thought of her doing so and did everything in his power to convince her that it would be inappropriate.
His efforts were to no avail. One night he was learning together with Rabbi Dessler, when there was a knock on the door. Wein went to answer the door and to his horror found his mother standing there. He begged his mother to leave, but she refused. Weins delay in returning brought Rabbi Dessler to the door. The young man had no choice but to introduce his mother, but he apologized to Rabbi Dessler, I explained to her that she couldnt just come and talk to Rabbi Dessler.
Rabbi Dessler responded that, on the contrary, nothing could be a greater honor than a visit from the mother of Reb Dov. He sat and talked to her at great length and repeated a number of times what a pleasure it was to talk to the mother of a budding talmid chacham. Rabbi Desslers behavior made a tremendous impression on Rabbi Wein, and in his subsequent career as a rosh yeshiva, he has made it a practice whenever the mother of a talmid is present to solicit her opinion first.
Even for those in the yeshiva who had no direct personal contact with Rav Dessler, merely being faced with the constant image of so spiritually refined a person made an important impression.
Paradoxically, the first impression that many of the bachurim had of Rabbi Dessler was highly misleading, but in a way that made it easier for them to integrate into the yeshiva. In those days, a large percentage of the incoming students, even in Ponevezh Yeshiva, were tichonistim (products of religious high schools). These students tended to think of rabbanim as out of touch with the times and yeshivos as a way station, at most, before entry into the real world.
When those students spoke with Rabbi Dessler and discovered that he possessed wide knowledge of the modern world, including a familiarity with recent scientific discoveries, their stereotypes of talmidei chachamim being completely detached from the world were broken down. They were relieved to discover that they need not choose between serious yeshiva studies and any knowledge of the world around them.12 In time they discovered that Rabbi Dessler was, in Rabbi Dov Weins words, the frumest of the frum. And in that process of discovery, the talmidim learned that the highest spiritual demands were not incompatible with worldly knowledge.
The dominant impression left by Rabbi Dessler was of somone engaged in the most intense spiritual striving with a minimum of external show. The talmidim saw, for instance, how controlled and inward his davening was. Every Shemoneh Esrei looked to the outside observer exactly the same as every other. Each lasted precisely the same amount of time. All but the most obtuse students understood that such prayer could only be the product of intense concentration and never allowing ones mind to wander.13
On Rosh Hashanah, Shabbos Shuvah, and Yom Kippur, he did not speak at all.14 After Tashlich15 on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the bachurim would return to a darkened beis medrash and hear Rabbi Dessler repeat over and over the same maamar Chazal: uhgawk yhhs ek uktef uvk ehwc ucka eke ,v/hnv uthn yhcmgt yhswj ybhea -- It is not enough for the wicked that they are not fearful and forlorn about the day of death, but their hearts are as robust as a large hall (Shabbos 31b). The sound of his voice not only pierced the silence in the darkened beis medrash, it pierced hearts as well.16 One of the Torah worlds leading baalei hashkafah credits that experience with awakening him to the power contained in every word of our Sages.
The stories that circulated about Rabbi Dessler revealed a person of acute spiritual sensitivity. Before Rebbetzin Dessler joined him in Bnei Brak, he ate his meals in the orphanage established by the Ponevezher Rav for survivors of the Holocaust. Mrs. Munk, who ran the dining hall, used to show her high regard by saving some small delicacy for him that she did not serve to others. That made Rabbi Dessler acutely uncomfortable, and he asked Mrs. Munk on a number of occasions to refrain from doing so.
One day as he was coming into the dining room, Rabbi Dessler saw a young boy running out. He stopped him and asked him why he was running away. It turned out that the boy had stolen a cherry left out for Rabbi Dessler. When he realized what had happened, Rabbi Dessler turned to Mrs. Munk and told her, Either I eat exactly the same as everyone else or I cant continue.17
Rabbi Dessler once told Rabbi Yaakov Edelstein that he could look at a persons face and tell whether he had learned Torah that day. Rabbi Edelstein immediately challenged him to say whether he had learned so far that day. Rabbi Dessler replied that he had -- a fact which Rabbi Edelstein denied. Rabbi Dessler, however, was unconvinced and demanded that Rabbi Edelstein repeat everything he had done that morning from the time he awakened. In the course of his recitation, Rabbi Edelstein remembered that he had gone to the Ponevezh beis medrash prior to his meeting with Rabbi Dessler, and there two bachurim had approached him and asked him to resolve a difficulty in the Gemara they were then learning. Rabbi Dessler was delighted to have been proven correct.
Even Rabbi Desslers external appearance conveyed to the bachurim a taste of Kelms emphasis on a neat and orderly appearance. His clothing was of the simplest possible quality, but always immaculate. While Rebbetzin Dessler was still alive, she used to personally inspect him and brush off his hat and tie before he departed for the yeshiva.18 After she passed away, Rabbi Dessler would always carefully examine his beard in the mirror to make sure it was neatly combed before leaving the house. The bachur who lived with him was initially surprised to see him show so much concern with his physical appearance. Later, however, he realized that Rabbi Desslers concern was a reflection of Kelms emphasis on avoiding anything that might cause a chilul Hashem in any way.19
The Beauty of His Ways
As we have noted, Rabbi Dessler divided people into two basic categories: givers and takers. Most people are not purely one or the other, but possess an admixture of both tendencies. Sometimes they are givers and sometimes takers. Rabbi Dessler, however, was as close to the pure giver as is imaginable.
His own effort or time seems not to have been a factor to be considered as soon as he identified someone whom he was in a position to help. He once met a lonely woman in Bnei Brak, who had lost her immediate family in the war. In the course of their conversation, she mentioned that she might still have one distant relative in a small town in England. The next time Rabbi Dessler was in England he traveled many hours by train just to find the relative and to put the two in contact with one another.20
Five days before his death, he called Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz to ask him for information concerning a possible shidduch for a girl from Gateshead Seminary. At the time, he could not even sit up, but he was still fully involved in trying to help the girl.21
Rabbi Desslers desire to give manifested itself as much in the small gestures as the large. Every time he visited Jerusalem, he brought with him eggshells he had collected to feed the chickens the Silvers raised and a box of special biscuits -- then unavailable in Jerusalem -- for the Silver children.22
He had an uncanny sensitivity to the feelings of others. For instance, he never put down the phone until he was absolutely sure that the other party had already hung up. One time in a shmuess, he asked a rhetorical question and answered it: What will become of such a person? Hell become a kneplach macher (a buttonmaker).
Unfortunately someone in the audience happened to be a manufacturer of buttons, and he was convinced that Rabbi Dessler had intended to rebuke him in some way. He told Rabbi Dessler, I know you meant me, and despite all Rabbi Desslers protestations to the contrary, the man remained unconvinced. Rabbi Dessler was greatly embarrassed by the incident, and mentioned it privately several times as an example of how careful one must always be to avoid speech that could possibly hurt anyone, however unintentionally.23
When Rabbi Naftoli Shakovitskys daughter was considering marrying a young man in Eretz Yisrael, the only opinion that the Shakovitskys would rely on was that of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Dessler. The Desslers made a special trip to Zichron Yaakov, where the prospective groom, Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg, was the Mashgiach, in order to put their stamp of approval on the match.
One time Rabbi Dessler heard that the head of World Agudath Israel, Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, whom he had known well in England, was visiting in Eretz Yisrael. Rosenheim had a granddaughter living in Bnei Brak, and Rabbi Dessler asked the granddaughters husband to inform him when Moreinu Rosenheim was to visit them so that he could come over and pay his respects.
Later Rabbi Dessler realized that Moreinu Rosenheim had too many grandchildren in the country to visit each one individually, and that he might have placed the granddaughter in the awkward position of having to admit that her grandfather would not visit her. To avoid that, Rabbi Dessler traveled into Tel Aviv to personally call on Moreinu Rosenheim. Afterwards he made a big point of telling the granddaughters husband that he need not tell him if Reb Yaakov visited since he had already met with him in Tel Aviv.24
In his Discourse on Loving-Kindness, Rabbi Dessler distinguishes between takers and receivers. Without someone to receive, he notes, there could be no givers in the world either. The difference between a taker and a receiver lies in their respective attitudes to the benefits they receive from others. The former views everything that others do for him as if it was coming to him by right. He has no compunction about being the recipient of others largesse. The latter, by contrast, lives by the rule one who hates presents shall live (Mishlei 15:27) and is filled with hakaros hatov for the slightest benefit conferred upon him.
Rabbi Dessler personified the receiver. He tried as much as possible to avoid reliance on others. The first time he met his daughter-in-law Miriam in Cleveland, she marveled how he hesitated to trouble her even for something as simple as a cup of tea. It took him minutes to verbalize the request and when the tea arrived he thanked her profusely for any exertion he had caused her. Those who witnessed the way he thanked his wife with tremendous enthusiasm for bringing him a cold drink on a hot day never forgot it.25
The slightest act of chesed done for him by one of his students invariably elicited a profusion of thanks. When the students protested that he was being excessive and begged him to stop, he replied, Also that little thank-you you want to take from me? Youll make me into a debtor, and eventually Ill have to give din vcheshbon (a spiritual accounting) on that.26
Kelm inculcated a certain fineness in its products. They conducted themselves like aristocrats of the spirit, and few more than Rabbi Dessler. Rabbi Moshe Turk once came to visit him around 9:30 in the morning. In the course of their conversation, Rabbi Dessler whispered something in the ear of a yeshiva student who was present. The student then told Rabbi Turk that Rabbi Dessler had not yet eaten and needed to do so. Rabbi Dessler simply could not bring himself to tell Rabbi Turk directly that he could not continue the conversation.
He never lost his temper or even showed any signs of irritation. Among the many shiurim that he gave around Eretz Yisrael was one which he delivered in Jerusalem for a group of people with academic backgrounds. The educated audience did not simply accept Rabbi Desslers conclusions on the basis of his authority, especially when he touched upon subjects in which they considered themselves to be equally expert. Nor did they show him the deference to which he was accustomed in yeshiva circles. Yet no matter how challenging their tone or comments, remembers Professor Zev Low, who was a member of the group, Rabbi Dessler never allowed himself to become excited. At most, if someone spoke to him in a particularly provocative fashion, he would delay for a few seconds before responding to him.
Kelm emphasized an honest searching within ones self and a rigorous avoidance on any action that might be in any way questionable. Rabbi Dessler was once waiting at a bus stop in a driving rain when Katriel Munit, a former student of the yeshiva, drove by in a van. He stopped and offered Rabbi Dessler a ride. But before he would get in, Rabbi Dessler asked who owned the van and whether he had permission to pick up passengers. Munit assured Rabbi Dessler that his employer was a religious Jew and that permission was implicit in such circumstances.
Rabbi Dessler remained reluctant to accept the lift, and Munit continued to insist that giving lifts within the city was an everyday practice in the trade. For a moment Rabbi Dessler was persuaded and put his leg up on the dashboard, but he quickly changed his mind and went back to standing in the rain.27
The ultimate enemy of the self-scrutiny demanded by Kelm was self-love and an elevated opinion of ones own attainments. Anything leading to self-love -- for example, honor or flattery -- had to be avoided, and anavah (humility) cultivated. Few succeeded to the same extent as Rabbi Dessler. He once came to visit the Chazon Ish in the latters sukkah, and the Chazon Ish stood up for him when he entered the sukkah. Unable to conceive that the Chazon Ish was standing for him, Rabbi Dessler instinctively stepped to the side, and turned around to see what distinguished talmid chacham had entered behind him.
Rabbi Dov Yaffe once addressed Rabbi Dessler in the third person as HaRav. Rabbi Dessler told him, You can injure a person speaking like that. Another time, Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, the famous maggid, approached Rabbi Dessler on the street in Jerusalem and said, When can I come to speak to the Mashgiach? Again Rabbi Dessler looked behind him, as if checking to see who was being addressed, and then explicitly asked Rabbi Schwadron whom he was addressing. When Rabbi Schwadron indicated that he was speaking to Rabbi Dessler, the latter replied, Whenever it is convenient for you.28
Anavah, however, did not mean for Rabbi Dessler merely an awareness of ones faults. If such an awareness did not serve as a spur to action, it was of itself of no value. As he wrote to the organizer of the Beis HaMussar in Jerusalem:
There is anavah and there are those who merely know all their internal contradictions. The latter is not called anavah. A humble person is a baal madregos (person of stature) who cannot bear the internal contradictions and corrects them. One who sees the contradictions and doesnt correct them, however, is nothing.... [It is merely] laziness masquerading as modesty.29
The rigorous self-examination to which Rabbi Dessler subjected himself was the prod with which he formed a personality whose beauty was apprehended by everyone he met. The Chazon Ish himself attested to the level of perfection attained by Rabbi Dessler when he applied to him the words of the Sages: HaKadosh Baruch Hu saw that the truly righteous would be few. [What did He do?] He planted them in every generation.30
1. Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg.
2. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro.
3. Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. III, p. 299.
4. In addition to his sichos and his learning with individual bachurim, Rabbi Dessler also led a number of vaadim (smaller groups). (How many such vaadim there were is a matter of some dispute among the talmidim from those years.) These vaadim were less formal presentations than the sichos, and Rabbi Dessler was freer in turning his scorn on the vanities of the world. The vaadim would focus on a particular topic, like tefillah (prayer). Rabbi Menachem Cohen and Rabbi Meyer Munk.
5. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Dessler.
6. The rebuke was not personal. It is unlikely that Rabbi Dessler even knew whom he was speaking about. His intention was to describe the type of behavior that is unacceptable for any yeshiva student using an example that had been brought to his attention.
7. Rabbi Dov Wein.
8. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, the youngest of Rabbi Desslers close disciples in Ponevezh Yeshiva.
9. Rabbi Dov Wein.
10. Rabbi Dov Wein.
11. Rabbi Landau does not recall what, if anything, he answered at the time or whether Rabbi Dessler ventured an answer. But the fact that Rabbi Dessler asked his opinion left a lasting impression.
12. Rabbi Dov Wein and Rabbi Shmuel Shulsinger.
13. Rabbi Menachem Cohen, who sat next to Rabbi Dessler every day in davening. In his early years in Ponevezh, Rabbi Dessler did not sit in the front row, but in a seat off to the side in the very back row.
14. Rabbi Meyer Munk.
15. Rabbi Dessler himself did not perform Tashlich, in accordance with the custom of the Vilna Gaon and the minhag of Kelm.
16. Rabbi Shmuel Shlusinger.
17. Rabbi Meyer Munk and Rabbi Dov Wein.
18. Rabbi Avigdor Silver.
19. Rabbi Shalom Ulman.
20. Sorasky, Marbitzei Torah UMussar, Vol. III, p. 70.
21. Rabbi Dessler was actively involved in many shidduchim though, as a rule, he only suggested a shidduch when he knew both parties personally. One such match was that of Rabbi Shalom Ulman, who shared his room after the passing of Rebbetzin Dessler, with Avigayil Silver, who had lived in the same house with Rebbetzin Dessler in Melbourne.
22. Rebbetzin Avigayil Ulman.
23. Rabbi Moshe Turk.
24. Rabbi Moshe Turk.
25. Rabbi Meyer Munk.
26. Marbitzei Torah UMussar, Vol. III, p. 70.
27. Rabbi Yaakov Edelstein. Rabbi Desslers actions on that occasion were reminiscent of those of Reb Leib Chassid of Kelm in similar circumstances. It is even possible that Rabbi Dessler may have heard of Reb Leib Chassids behavior during his younger years in Kelm.
In his later years, Reb Leib used to take a daily walk on the road between Kelm and Tavrig. One day a young man passed in his wagon and offered Reb Leib a ride. Reb Leib asked him whether he had permission from his father to pick up riders.
Do I really need permission? the young man asked.
Yes, said Reb Leib, without permission you are stealing from your father.
Many years later, the young man in the story told Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky that the exchange left a lifelong impression on him, and that he had learned from Reb Leib Chassid to flee from any monkey business.
28. Rabbi Dov Wein.
29. Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. IV, p. 363.
30. Marbitzei Torah UMussar, Vol. III, p. 50.