(From the teachings of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztvk”l. written by his grandson HaRav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a. translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
[To What Extent Will You Go to Make an Effort to Study Torah and More so Halachah? The Determination of the Gaon of Brisk, Rav Yosef Dov Bear Soloveitchik z”l (1820-1892) to Study by Rav Shlomoh Kluger z”l (1785-1869)]
It states in Parashat Bechukotai, “If you will follow My laws and are careful to keep My Commandments, I will provide you with rain at the right time, so that the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit.” (Vayikra 26:3-4). Rashi explains the phrase “If you will follow My laws” – “that you should toil in Torah-study”. The intention is that a person puts himself out to understand the Torah. Happy is the person who toils in Torah-study and gives pleasure to his Creator! He doesn’t rest on his laurels and just read aggadic literature, but rather, he [also] toils in Torah to fathom each aspect with clarity to the extent that is able to rule on halachic matters according to the Torah. This is “toiling in Torah”.
The main thing is studying halachah. It is highly commendable that people study Daf Yomi but the main thing is studying halachah because we don’t rule directly from the Gemara. “We do not learn halachah [directly] from the Talmud”, this is what our chachamim in the Gemara state (Bava Batra 130a). Rather a person has to be proficient in knowing the posekim (halachists). Baruch Hashem we have the light of our eyes Rav Yosef Caro z”l, who authored the Shulchan Aruch and everything is carefully explained there. The best way is first to study the Bet Yosef in order to know the sources and reasons, and then afterwards to learn the Shulchan Aruch. Then he will be able to rule in halachic matters according to the Torah’s truth.
The Gaon of Brisk, Rav Yosef Dov Bear Soloveitchik z”l (1820-1892) was a [great] grandson of Rav Chaim Volozhin z”l (1749-1821) and he too studied in Volozhin. He was very assiduous and exceedingly sharp. He had the mind of a genius and was the father of Rav Chaim Brisk z”l (1853-1918).
One day, Rav Yosef Dov and his friends were studying Torah and Rav Yitzchak Volozhin z”l (1749-1821, Rav Chaim Volozhin’s son) entered and said to them, “My children, you know that you are studying Torah, may your hands be strengthened! But the main thing rabbotai is also to toil in halachah! Tomorrow one of you will be appointed as an Av Bet Din and they will come and ask halachic question from you, why will you do? Rule from the Gemara? He cannot do that!” Rav Yitzchak began to praise the Gaon Rav Shlomoh Kluger z”l (1785-1869) from the city of Brody. “This Gaon,” said Rav Yitzchak, “there is no one like him! I sent him a number of questions, on the spot he answered me! Each matter in a structured way! Literally like the halachah given to Moshe at Sinai! There is no rav like him in our generation.”
The city of Brody was far from Volozhin. Volozhin was in Russia and Brody was in Galicia (Southeast Poland and West Ukraine), yet Rav Yosef Dov heard, listened and decided at that moment, that if there is such a Gaon in halachah, I will go and study Torah from him! But he had one problem, he had no money to travel to Brody, a distance of three days travel by wagon.
Afterwards Rav Yosef Dov sat in the bet hamidrash and studied Torah. Suddenly he heard two traders talking amongst themselves. They were intending to travel to Brody for business and were preparing. They ordered a wagon driver and said to him get ready tomorrow morning we are travelling to the city of Brody! Rav Yosef Dov heard this and approached the wagon driver himself and said, “Sir, listen to me, take me with you to Brody and I will assist you the entire way!” The wagon driver heard and said, “You are a yeshiva student, go and study in the yeshiva, it is not befitting for you to assist a wagon driver!” Rav Yosef Dov responded, “You are right but now I have no choice, I must travel to Brody”. The wagon driver agreed.
He said to Rav Yosef Dov, “See over there is a barrel of hot pitch, you must smear the wagon’s wheels before we travel. Go and bring the barrel and smear the wheels with pitch.” Rav Yosef Dov went and with difficulty pushed the hot barrel. His hands were gentle, he began smearing the pitch until his skin broke and he bled. But he had no choice.
Afterwards the wagon driver said to him, “Go and bring straw for the horses to eat!” Rav Yosef Dov went and gave the horses to eat. One of the horses hit him in his face with his tail making his face swell. An atonement for sins but all worth it for the Torah.
Everything was fine and ready. The traders came, each one sat inside the wagon and the wagon driver on top. He called his helper and said, “Come and sit by me.’ From time to time he gave him the reigns, warning him to hold them tightly! So that the horses travel correctly! And he did this.
Two days passed and Rav Yosef Dov asked the wagon driver, “When will we arrive?” The wagon driver replied, “One more day and we shall arrive. But now I am tired, I wish to sleep, take the reins and pay attention to the horses so that they won’t stray from the path.” The wagon driver went to sleep and Rav Yosef took hold of the reigns. Then Rav Yosef began to think, when I will arrive at Brody I will have to say over some Torah before the Gaon Rav Shlomoh Kluger, what shall I tell him? He began to think intricate aspects of Torah-study, the Rambam says such and such, Tosafot say the following and the Meharsha says this. His mind became absorbed with study and suddenly his hands weakened their hold slightly and the horses strayed from the path and began to head straight for the forest. Suddenly there was a decline and the horses descended it. The wagon driver awoke from the bumps. He looked right and left and saw that they were in the forest! He began shouting at Rav Yosef Dov, “You fool! Idiot!” He began beating him vigorously, “What have you done? We are now in the forest!” Gradually the wagon driver managed to get the wagon back to the path whilst he continued to curse and insult Rav Yosef Dov. The whole journey Rav Yosef Dov remained silent because he realised that it was his faut that the horses strayed from the path.
Baruch Hashem they arrived at Brody. They all descended the wagon including Rav Yosef Dov. But he realised that all his clothes were filthy with pitch and his face too was covered in pitch and swellings. Nevertheless, he began to enquire where is Rav Shlomoh Kluger’s home. When he reached his home he said, “My master I am the [great] grandson of Rav Chaim Volozhin and the son of Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev, I have come to study from his honour!” Rav Shlomoh replied, “Have you brought a letter?” Rav Yosef said, “No I forgot”. “If so who can vouch that you are indeed the grandson of the gaon? You look like one of the thugs. Nevertheless tell me over some Torah.” Rav Yosef Dov opened his mouth with wise words and began to make known his brilliance in intricate Torah-study, ideas of considerable substance. Rav Shlomoh listened and said, “Indeed you are a talmid chacham, I greatly enjoyed your words. Now, there’s the bathhouse, go take a bath and after I will bring you clothes befitting a talmid chacham.” Rav Yosef washed and wore the garments of a talmid chacham.
Afterwards Rav Shlomoh said to him, “Listen, since I have heard your Divrei Torah, tomorrow I want you to give the shiur instead of me. I give a shiur every Friday night between 3 and 4 o’clock [this time may have been during the short winter days], great talmidei chachamim come, so prepare the shiur very well.” Rav Yosef attempted to avoid doing this. He said, “I came to study Torah from his honour, I didn’t come to teach!” Rav Shlomoh said to him, “I am the rabbinic authority of this city and I order you to give the shiur, and be careful not to embarrass me!”
Rav Shlomoh called his beadle and asked him to publicise through adverts in the entire city, “A Gaon has arrived in the city” and to publicise that Friday night he will deliver a shiur. Many many people packed the hall and came to see the visiting gaon. The wagon driver too came, since had stayed over in the city, he arrived to listen to the words of the gaon. When he entered the bet hamidrash his eyes darkened, he saw the young person that had helped him now giving a Torah shiur. He began to cry! The people next to him said, “What happened?” He replied to them, “Oh! Woe to me! How I abused him! I hit him.” The other people said to him, “No worries, righteous rabbanim are forgiving. Ask forgiveness and he will forgive you.” The wagon driver waited for the rav to conclude. The rav finished his shiur and they all came and blessed him, “yashar koach, yashar keyach”. After when he saw that everyone had gone, the wagon driver drew near, he fell on his knees and said, “My master, forgive me! My master, forgive me!” Rav Yosef said to him, “Listen, stand up. If you had hit me because you said I wasn’t a talmid chacham, you would have indeed been wrong, I know how to learn better than you, so you would indeed have had to ask forgiveness. But you hit me because I don’t know how to drive a wagon, and indeed you are right, I am unable to be a wagon driver…and I forgive you [nevertheless].”
This tzaddik went to such great efforts to enable himself to merit to study halachah from the mouth of the Gaon of the generation. Even if he hadn’t gone to Rav Shlomoh, he was already a great gaon but despite this he made an effort to hear Torah from the mouth of Am Yisrael’s Gaon. After some time he merited and they appointed him as the Rav in Slutsk [a city in Belarus] and subsequently in Brisk [on the Belarus Polish border]. He gave halachic rulings for Am Yisrael. In the merit of those days, all the difficulties he endured, were worth it for what he merited afterwards, “The protector of a fig tree will eat its fruit” [see Mishlei 27:18].
Therefore rabbotai, strengthen yourselves! Each person who takes his child to the Talmud Torah fulfils the mitzvah of, “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children” [Devarim 6:7] and, “You shall teach them to your children” [ibid. 11:19], happy is his portion and how delightful is his lot! The son merits his father! [Sanhedrin 104a]. What tremendous merit he has. A person who leaves behind himself sons who are talmidei chachamim, such a person has untold joy!
King David a”h authored the holy book of Tehillim. In Tehillim there are things which appear to contradict one another. On the one hand David says, “for I am poor and destitute” [Tehillim 86:1], and on the other he says, “Hashem, in Your might the king rejoices” [ibid. 21:2]. So is David a king or poor?
However King David had grandchildren and he saw his grandchildren through ruach hakodesh (Divinely inspired vision)). He saw righteous grandchildren such as Chizkiyahu the King of Yehudah, Yoshiya, Yehoshafat, who were righteous kings, good people. He saw them and was happy, “…in Your might the king rejoices, and in Your salvation how greatly does he exult” [ibid.]. Suddenly from the other side he saw his other grandchildren, Achaz, Menasheh and Yehoyakim, then David felt himself poor and destitute. Like someone who hasn’t left behind sons who are talmidei chachamim. There is no one as happy as a person who leaves behind sons who are talmidei chachamim. How much is a person required to admit the truth that this is our very existence. May Hashem merit us that, “All your children will be students of Hashem, and your children’s peace will be abundant” [Yeshayahu 54:13].