The Wings of Morning -
A Torah Review

Yaacov Dovid Shulman

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Volume III, Issue 42

Tammuz 5759 June 99

Translations and original material copyright (c) 1998 by Yaacov
Dovid Shulman (unless otherwise noted)


* The Sea Called the Night
-by Yaacov Dovid Shulman

* The Rebbetzin of Volozhin
-by Rabbi Meir Berlin

by Yaacov Dovid Shulman

What a storm wind this one word comes out of,
What a flood of spilled dreams.
We ride a ship of words of Torah
Through the sea called the night,
And at dawn a line of love illuminates the east,
And on the ruddy plain, we see Abraham camping.
Such words of Torah,
Canoes shot through narrow rapids,
Bring us to forget ourselves
Before the Maker of this tremendous valley,
This insouciant globe.
And when our heart turns within us,
How much of a nothing do we become,
And the light of our shame
Illuminates the world.
It is the sun of the tefillin
Upon which the nations gaze in awe.
This is the unbound energy of our song.
by Rabbi Meir Berlin (son of the Netziv)

If the inner and outer life of the yeshiva students in Volozhin was different from that of the students in other yeshivas, this was due in part to the influence and dedication to Torah and kind deeds of the rebbetzin in Volozhin. The rebbetzin--or, more exactly, the wife of the chief rosh yeshiva--was not a passive figure, as is sometimes the case regarding famous woman, a decorative part of the environment, but she was active in the yeshiva leadership. In addition, she of course had not only extraordinary talent and intellect but also dedication and understanding in regard to the Torah in general and in relation to the yeshiva in particular. In addition, we need to evaluation the activities of my mother, who was indeed a rebbetzin and leader.

.... My mother of blessed memory worked in two areas: helping the yeshiva students and supporting those Volozhin residents who had anything to do with the students: that is to say, home-owners who rented out rooms to the students. As was mentioned earlier, the chalukah--the stipend that the yeshiva paid every two weeks to the yeshiva students--was given to them not directly but to their landlords (or, more frequently, to their landladies), who came and received payment every other Sunday. The money was distributed in the yeshiva office by the mashgiach. However, not all landlords or their wives came to pick up their stipend at that time. A large number received their money in larger amounts, in advance. They might need fifty or a hundred rubles, or sometimes even more, for the expense of housing the yeshiva students, and the yeshiva would make good these loans bit by bit [?].

This was no longer a regular yeshiva matter. It belonged to the area of "higher finance" operations. And all financial matters that in a broad sense involved income and expense involved the activity of my mother.

With her inborn intelligence, deep understanding and active spirit, she handled the yeshiva's financial concerns with broad authority. She not only managed the money that was on hand, but she also sought to make money that was not available. The entire financial burden lay upon her. When it was necessary to borrow money--which very often was--and when it was necessary to pay money that was not there, my mother carried the burden of those concerns. She earned, borrowed, stretched things out--just as was done in normal affairs--with ability, patience and, as must be done in such matters, by "putting a good face" on things. The first concern was to make sure that my father did not know of the daily difficulties, which can overwhelm [tzureibn] even the greatest person.

Besides this, the fact that the yeshiva accounts were in order and payments were made on time improved the situation of the yeshiva students and the respect that they were accorded. It was known in Volozhin that renting out rooms to yeshiva students would bring in a steady, reliable income. The storekeeper received the necessary amount of money he needed to borrow, the craftsman received the goods he needed by putting up his chalukah. This was because the rebbetzin, my mother, stood behind the loan and guaranteed that she would make sure that every two weeks she would collect the sum and disburse it. As a result, the landlords and landladies had respect for the yeshiva students. And when a student was exceptional in his studies and thus received a correspondingly greater chalukah, he was more respected, for the income was more certain in those homes where better yeshiva students were housed, and the owners could receive money in advance in greater amounts and more easily.

Naturally, this was very tiring and stressful, as well as involving skill, for my mother took care of all the bookkeeping herself. In the years following the fire, a great percentage of the houses of Volozhin were rebuilt with the help of such loans, and many stores that had been destroyed were in this way re-established. But none of this was too difficult for my mother, when she knew that this involved the good of the yeshiva as well as that of hundreds of individuals. And who was as capable as she when it came to making the greatest sacrifices for the sake of the Torah and extending kindness to others--particularly, when these two came together as one?

When my mother came to Volozhin in her youth, people marveled at her beauty and elegance in speech and character. When she went into the street, people gazed after her, and when she had to deal with someone, people talked about it. She combined in her extraordinary persona an outstanding appearance and inner self. There were houses and families, even of rabbis [beis harav], whom long years of argument and dispute had broken apart. She, the "young rebbetzin," brought them together and brought peace.

When she first came to Volozhin, people spoke of her appearance and education. In those times, when a woman understood Hebrew, spoke Russian, read German and took an interest in worldly problems, this was considered a very high level of education. Those who knew of her background, that she had foregone the possibility of becoming a proprietor of great capital, of profitable earnings and comforts, luxury and contentment, because of one goal--to be close to Torah and to have the spiritual satisfaction of hearing the learning of Torah and of helping support Torah--spoke of this with great wonder as well. Later on, her strong energy and her broad heart, her interest in and helping everyone with the greatest intensity was also marveled at. Under the most difficult circumstances, with the unshared worry of how to provide for that day, she never ceased doing others favors with the greatest patience, with the greatest friendliness. And when what was involved was helping a Torah scholar, then one saw the pleasure she took.

Her soul contained such a fullness of love and enthusiasm for Torah and those who learn Torah that everyone could sense how, when she heard Torah learning, happiness and satisfaction stream forth from her.

Her outlook was not like that of many others, whether men or women, even those who are higher than average, who are concerned only with one good deed, one particular person, one particular circumstance, one particular time. Her interests went much further. She always had great things in mind, she thought about communal matters--yet at the same time she did not forget the individual, and endeavored to give help that would solve problems at the core. When the crisis struck the yeshiva, even before there was any fear that the government would shut it down, the financial situation grew very difficult. Opinions were heard that "expenses must be limited"--which meant sending away some yeshiva students, giving less chalukah funds, or both.

At that time, my mother stepped forward with her infinite energy and surprising optimism and helped the situation. She introduced the system of promissory notes. Every other Sunday, instead of ready cash, each landlord was given notes for particular sums to be paid at certain times. These notes became known and they won the people's confidence: not only in Volozhin, but in the surrounding area as well; and not only among Jews, but also among the non-Jewish population. The village gentiles took notes as good as money for their wood or food articles, and the nobles took notes as though they were normal cash for their merchandise that they sold to merchants.

Naturally, this multiplied my mother's work and effort. She herself had to write out the notes, number them, record them and keep the strictest control against counterfeiting and to make sure that those which were issued should be paid exactly. But for her, nothing was too hard when it had to do with the needs of the yeshiva. The same dedication was apparent when letters would arrive in Volozhin, not only with money for the yeshiva from the various meshulachim and individuals' donations, but also money that many yeshiva students received from their parents or friends. In order that the yeshiva students need not go to the post office and wait a long time, and thus forfeit their learning, my mother did all this. When the mail arrived two or three times a week, she went to the post office, took the mail and disbursed its moneys. Nothing could prevent her from doing so, neither snow nor rain, neither a fast day nor illness. How could she let a yeshiva student wait an extra day when he certainly needed the money as soon as possible?

It was therefore no wonder that all the yeshiva students, even when they left Volozhin, considered my mother to be an important part of the yeshiva. Many yeshiva students, among them famous gaonim and leaders, considered themselves her students in the love of Torah--for in this, she herself was a gaon.

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Jerusalem, Israel