Reb Shraga Feivel
The Life and Times of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the Architect of Torah in America
By Yonason Rosenblum
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
The juxtaposition of the cold intellectual with the person of powerful emotions is by now a literary commonplace. Reb Shraga Feivel, however, proved that the dichotomy is a false one, for he was at once a thinker of depth and a man of the most powerful feelings. If anything, he demonstrated that thought at its deepest level must stir the emotions and that, conversely, only an aroused soul will be spurred to push the boundaries of intellectual inquiry. Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky captured well these intertwined aspects of his personality:
Reb Shraga Feivel was a genius of the soul, possessed of a powerful mind and a fiery heart. To a degree seldom found, he burned with love of Hashem, love of Torah, love of the Jewish people. But at the same time, his great intellect taught him how one must love Hashem and how one must love the Jewish people.
He understood better than others that the command Love Hashem, Your G-d includes the command Make Him beloved to mankind, and from his great love of Klal Yisrael he devoted his days to bringing the Jewish people close to their Father in Heaven.
Reading From the Siddur of David HaMelech
The entire created world cried out to Reb Shraga Feivel the presence of the Creator, and he tried to bring his students to the same level of sensitivity. One Erev Shabbos,1 Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern hid near Reb Shraga Feivels home next to Bais Medrash Elyon to catch a glimpse of Reb Shraga Feivel in an unguarded moment. From his hiding place, he watched Reb Shraga Feivel stand on the porch for a long period of time, with his eyes cast upwards, repeating the words of the Zohar: His glory fills the entire world; He encompasses the entire world, and there is no place without Him. All the wonders of the universe are but a representation of His glory that proclaims to humanity that there is a Creator.
Reb Shraga Feivel viewed the world as an open prayer book. He davened near a window and frequently looked out during davening. When a layman asked why he did so, Reb Shraga Feivel explained to his students, He thinks Im looking out, but actually Im looking in.2 Nature was for him the siddur of David HaMelech, who sang, the Heavens proclaim the glory of Hashem, and when he looked out the window, he was simply exchanging the printed siddur for that of David HaMelech.3
The natural world was alive for him. The sight of a slender branch of a tree broken under the weight of a heavy snow was enough to disturb him. When he watched the leaves rustling in the wind, he actually saw them singing praises to Hashem. During his year of confinement in Liberty, one of his doctors begged him not to become so excited by the sight of leaves waving in the breeze. Reb Shraga Feivel only laughed and asked, Is it really possible to view them like an unthinking animal? He might open a shiurby stating, Lets look at Yeshayahs prophecy, The Heavens shall be rolled together like a scroll (Yeshayahu 34:4). If the Heavens are a scroll, we should learn from them that there is a Creator. He would quote the Kotzker that the world is a book and the Torah is its commentary.
He was once walking with a group of talmidim when one of them absentmindedly picked a leaf off a tree. Reb Shraga Feivel stopped in midsentence. Dont you know, he asked the hapless offender, that the whole creation sings a song to the Creator -- every plant, every blade of grass? When you pulled that leaf off the tree, you cut off its song in the middle. One still day, he pointed out the window to a tree on which a single leaf on the very top was rustling in the wind. That leaf is the chazzan, he said, and all the other leaves are listening to his prayerful song. That is how he viewed nature -- as an ongoing song of praise.
And if he could see every leaf as part of the Divine plan, how much more so a human being. He was shaken by the news that atom bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if we had heard that so many cats, and not people, had been killed, it would cause us great pain, he said. He feared that America would be subject to Divine Judgment for not having first revealed the power at its disposal by dropping an atom bomb on an uninhabited island.4
Reb Shraga Feivel taught his students to see Hashems hand in nature. Viewing a majestic mountain range, he pointed out to a group of talmidim the harmony in the panorama before them. And yet, he added, if we were to view this scene from close-up, many of the elements that seem to us harmonious at a distance might well appear discordant. From that perspective, we might see only a disorderly mass of details, in no apparent relation to one another. It is the long view, which allows us to take in the whole scene at once, that provides the harmony. So is it with the Torah. A particular halachah may strike us as difficult to understand. Yet when viewed from the perspective of the entire Torah, the din is just one more perfectly fitted element.
He showed his followers how David HaMelech had viewed the natural world. One shalosh seudos at Camp Mesivta, he went to the window and stared out at the red sky turning to night. Come, kinder (children), let us see how to view everything in the natural world, he said. Doesnt David HaMelech sing, The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from Hashem (Tehillim 104:21)? If we were asked why they roar, we would answer simply that they roar out of hunger. But David HaMelech saw it differently; he saw in their roaring a thirst for the Divine -- they seek their food from Hashem.
And with that, he sang, The young lions roar for their prey, in the niggun attributed to the Shpoler Zeide. He led the boys in lively dancing until the final verse -- may sins disappear from the earth. Then he abruptly brought the dancing to a halt. See how David HaMelech made a fine distinction: Let the sins disappear, not the sinners .
An Aesthetic Sensitivity
Just as the beauty of the natural world attests to Hashems presence, so too does mans Divinely endowed power to create works of beauty. Reb Shraga Feivel encouraged his students to develop their aesthetic sensibility as a means of drawing close to Hashem. He was fond of quoting Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on the verse (Tehillim 29:4):The voice of Hashem is in everything beautiful: The same Divine voice that one hears in the Law, and that commands man to develop all his talents in harmony with that Law, is the same voice that speaks to you whenever you perceive harmonious beauty in nature. The very same law through which Hashem carries out His will in every creature is the law through which Hashem commands you to develop your human personality.
Insisting that his students keep their possessions in order and garments neat and clean was one of the means by which he developed that aesthetic sensibility.5 When the first group of Aish Dos students arrived in Monsey in the summer of 1943, Reb Shraga Feivel asked them to clean up the grounds before they began learning.6 Reb Shraga Feivel hired professional gardeners to plant flowers and shrubs. If there was litter on the grounds, he expected his students to pick it up. Those who just passed it by were likely to feel his lash. How could they not perceive the litter as an offense against the beauty of G-ds world?
The janitor in the Mesivta once rebuked the boys for not keeping the premises cleaner. A religious person who learns the Bible has a greater responsibility to be clean, he told them. When the incident was reported to Reb Shraga Feivel, he exclaimed, What a chillul Hashem that the gentile understood that and the bachurim didnt.7
Arousing students sensitivity to anything unsightly was, in his view, a necessary prelude to a proper appreciation of the wonders of the creation. The long exile, he felt, had weakened the aesthetic sensibility of Jews. He used to say, Every Jew is by nature a poet, but galus has dulled our sensitivity.
No beauty so stirred Reb Shraga Feivel as that of music. He liked to quote the Baal HaTanya to the effect that anyone who lacks an appreciation of music also lacks an understanding of Chassidus.8 And he regularly demonstrated a deep understanding of music. One Seder night, a group of talmidim came to his home after midnight, as was their custom. They found Reb Shraga Feivel in a state of high exaltation. He asked Yitzchak Rosengarten, one of the boys in the Mesivta who was particularly musical, to sing a famous Chabad niggun. Rosengarten complied with the request, but for some reason left out the concluding stanza. As he was singing, Reb Shraga Feivel sat quietly, with his eyes closed in intense concentration, but as soon as he finished, Reb Shraga Feivel instantly snapped to attention and called out, You must have left something out. This niggun is arranged in ascending order of worlds from the lower to the upper, and I still do not feel that we have reached the world of Atzilus.
He used to explain that each of the instruments mentioned in the final psalm -- shofar, psalter, harp, timbrel, stringed instruments, flute, loud-sounding cymbals, and stirring cymbals -- arouses a different emotional response: This one arouses tears, another happiness, and yet another encourages deep reflection. Taken as a whole, the message is that one must serve Hashem with every emotion.9
Reb Shraga Feivel was extraordinarily responsive to music. Someone once shared with him one Rebbes explanation of the Yiddish expression: A chazzan iz a nar -- A chazzan is a fool. The Rebbe had explained that in the upper worlds the courtyard of melody and that of teshuvah are located close to one another, and thus the chazzan was a fool for not having jumped from one to the other. Reb Shraga Feivels dry comment on this vort: Whoever said that has no appreciation of music; otherwise he would have realized that anyone who is privileged to enter into the courtyard of melody has no desire ever to leave it.
When Yiddel Turner played the heartrending Keili, Keili, lamah azavtani, My G-d, My G-d, why have You abandoned me? on his violin, Reb Shraga Feivel would sit there, his eyes tightly shut and a look of intense concentration on his face. So emotionally wrenching was Turners playing for him that it not infrequently provoked one of his ulcer attacks.10 Yet when he was in excruciating pain, it was often the sweet sounds of Turners violin that provided him with his only relief. At those moments, he would say, Yiddel, please make sure to be there as well at the moment when my soul leaves this world . . . In those few moments of your playing, I was able to think as deeply as I normally can in six hours.11 Motzaei Shabbos he often asked Turner to play the Modzhitzer Rebbes niggun to Mimkomcha Malkeinu Sofia -- From Your dwelling place, our King, appear. He once told Turner, Yiddel, I marvel at your playing, but even more do I marvel at the violin itself. How can strings of catgut speak so deeply to the soul?12
Alive to Hashems Presence
Reb Shraga Feivel was by nature unusually emotional and sensitive. Yet it would be a mistake to understand the constant outpouring of feeling as merely the result of a sensitive nature. The powerful feelings that constantly surged to the surface came from something much deeper. Every Jew, writes Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in The Kuzari, is endowed with a special capacity for awareness of Hashem. Prophecy is the highest expression of this capacity, but every Jew has the potential to feel a closeness to Him.
That sensitivity to Hashems presence was found in Reb Shraga Feivel to a particularly acute degree. He frequently quoted the words of the Baal HaTanya on his deathbed, as he pointed to the beams of the ceiling above his head: I dont see here just wooden beams, but the Divine words of Creation that brought them into existence.
Even Reb Shraga Feivels everyday speech reflected the degree to which his thoughts were constantly on Hashem. No joke was without a double meaning. Passing out the drinks on his last Simchas Torah, he jokingly referred to the liquor as firewater. The next day he confided to one of his students that he had been thinking about what Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in his Likkutei Torah on the statement of Chazal: Even though the fire [on the altar] was from Heaven there was a mitzvah to add earthly fire as well.
He lived with a sense of obligation to give of himself entirely to Hashem. You shall love the L-rd Your G-d with . . . all your resources meant for him that one must use whatever plenitude he has been blessed with -- i.e., all his talents -- to serve Hashem.13 The anthem of Torah Vodaath under Reb Shraga Feivel was drawn from Sefer Chareidim: In my heart I will build a tabernacle to His glory . . . And there I will bring an offering -- my highest soul. There were few boys in the Mesivta who did not know the words by heart and sing them with great fervor.
Years of the deepest reflection had given the most abstract ideas an overwhelming immediacy for him. His voice trembled as he read the kvittel (personal petition) that the Ohr HaChaim had sent to be placed in the cracks of the Kosel (the Western Wall), in which he addresses the Shechinah with the words of Shlomo HaMelech: My sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one (Shir HaShirim 5:2). Tanya describes a person who sins as having disgraced the King Himself -- i.e., the sinners own head, which was created in the image of Hashem -- and adds that there is no greater manifestation of the Exile of the Shechinah. These words were no mere metaphor for Reb Shraga Feivel. They pierced deep into his heart, and every time he taught this section of Tanya, he was visibly shaken by the metaphor.
On the last Simchas Torah of his life, Reb Shraga Feivel sat in the waning light with his talmidim in Bais Medrash Elyon singing the haunting melody of R Aisik of Kahliv, Galus, galus, vie lang bist du, Shechinah, Shechinah, vie veit bist du -- Exile, exile, how long you are; Shechinah, Shechinah, how distant You are. He told his students how the Divrei Chaim used to send his chassidim to R Aisik, as the Divrei Chaim put it, to study in the yeshivah of galus HaShechinah. For his students Reb Shraga Feivel was a rosh yeshivah in the same yeshivah.
Reb Shraga Feivel sought to give his students the same awareness of Hashems presence. He once gave a parable to illustrate how the awareness of Hashems presence depends on sensitizing oneself to it. Twin brothers were separated at birth: One was raised in the house of a well-to-do banker and the other on a farm. Many years passed and the two brothers were reunited one day in the bustling city. As they stood talking on a busy street, the brother raised on a farm suddenly stopped to listen to the sweet song of a lark. His banker brother heard nothing. On the other hand, when someone nearby dropped a coin, the brother raised in a bank heard its jingling on the pavement immediately while the other brother heard nothing. Each heard what he had trained himself to hear.14 Reb Shraga Feivel trained his students to sense Hashem everywhere.
Accepting Suffering With Love
R Shalom Ber of Lubavitch once said of himself that if his veins were cut they would be found flowing with Chassidus. On this comment, Reb Shraga Feivel added, And if they cut my veins, they would find them flowing with bitachon (trust) in Hashem. Nowhere was that bitachon more manifest than in the way he dealt with his lifelong ulcer attacks,15 which sometimes left him totally immobilized. Somehow he was able to use his ability to concentrate on the most profound Torah concepts not only to overcome the pain but to lead a life of almost unparalleled productivity.
From time to time, when the pains were the most intense, he would call the Mesivta office and ask that a student be sent over to be with him. Invariably the student would arrive and find him with a sefer in hand. He would apologize for having summoned the student and explain that the only relief he could find was in works that required his full concentration. His son Shmuel remembers being awakened early one morning by the sound of his father pacing back and forth in his room. When he knocked on the door, he found his father with the Ramchals 138 Gates of Wisdom16 in his hand. Only by immersing himself with all his concentration in this work, he told his son, could he find relief from the terrible pains he was then suffering.
Of course no amount of immersion in Torah could help him forget the pain all the time. Other mental stratagems were needed as well. The trick of overcoming debilitating pain, Reb Shraga Feivel told one talmid, is to remember that life is a long series of individual moments. With that in mind, there is no pain that cannot be borne for the moment. And as for whats ahead: Theres no sense in worrying about what one does not yet feel.17
Finally, when nothing else helps, the recognition must come that even the pain comes from a benevolent G-d. Reb Shraga Feivels matzeivah (gravestone) describes him not just as having accepted suffering but as having rejoiced in it. He used to explain the verse (Tehillim 62:6): Only for G-d my soul waits quietly, for my only hope comes from Him, in the following manner: Elokim refers to the Divine quality of strict judgment as reflected in the bitter afflictions that cleanse and purify the soul, and without which Man would be utterly without any chance to stand before Hashem. Therefore my soul remains silent, in the face of these afflictions, for my hope comes only from Hashem Who has thus afflicted me in order to purify me.
1. During the summer, when the days are long, Reb Shraga Feivel went to the mikvehand completed his Shabbos preparations six or seven hours before Shabbos. Those hours were spent in anticipation of the Shabbos Queen. By the time he reached Lecha Dodi, in Kabbalas Shabbos, he was already transported to a higher world. Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern.
2. Chinn, Ohr Shraga, p. 10.
3. That is how he explained his habit of looking out the window to his student Elias Karp.
4. Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman.
Reb Shraga Feivel was acutely sensitive to any human suffering. He found it hard to be a sandek at a bris because the pain of the infant troubled him. His grandson, Rabbi Moshe Linchner, recalls that when Reb Shraga Feivel was a sandek he would look straight ahead, and avoid watching the circumcision.
5. Rabbi Moshe Wolfson.
6. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz.
7. Rabbi Yisrael Spinner.
Reb Shraga Feivel lived in fear of any trace of chillul Hashem, often saying that it would be better to close the Mesivta than for there to be a trace of chillul Hashem associated with it. During World War II, he forbade the talmidim from walking in large groups to Tashlich for fear that the sight of a large number of Orthodox boys not serving in the army, when so many families had sons serving overseas or who had been killed, would create animosity toward Orthodox Jews. For the same reason, he flew the American flag in Monsey. Rabbi Shmuel Mendlowitz.
8. In the same vein, he would quote the Chasam Sofers observation that niggun is an aspect of ahavas Hashem. Yonah Zev Herskowitz.
9. See Hirsch, Tehillim 150.
10. Chinn, Ohr Shraga, p. 10.
11. Rabbi Yisrael Spinner.
One Shabbos, the boys began singing a niggun to Mizmor LDavid (Psalms 23) that Benzion Shenker had brought back to Torah Vodaath from the Modzhitzer Rebbes tisch. Reb Shraga Feivel called for the boys to sing it over and over. He was especially moved by the melody to the words, Though I walk in the valley overshaded by death, I will fear no evil for You are with me. Finally, he told them that he hoped that this niggun would be sung at the moment his soul departed from the world.
12. Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman.
13. Rabbi Hershel Mashinsky.
14. Rabbi Elias Schwartz, Delving Within, pp. 189-90.
15. Milk and crackers were his daily fare for a period of sixteen years.
16. This work was particularly dear to Reb Shraga Feivel. One day his student Yisrael Spinner noticed that he was especially happy. Reb Shraga Feivel told him that he had just finished 138 Gates of Wisdomfor the fifteenth time.
17. Chinn, Ohr Shraga, p. 14.