By Yosef Sosnow
How can one really discern a person’s deepest inner essence?
We are all accustomed to saying what we want. Especially when it comes to spiritual matters, we assure ourselves and others that we desire to learn Torah, we desire yiras Shomayim, we desire mitzvos, we deeply long for the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, we want to be close to Hashem. We are sure, in our heart of hearts, that those are our deepest, most heartfelt desires. Sometimes, though, a person is tested. He is placed in a situation of crisis when his true inner essence is revealed, when all the layers are stripped bare, when he has no chance to formulate beautiful poetic turns of phrase about his spiritual longing.
It is such a story that I heard about the venerated rosh yeshiva of Lakewood, Maran Hagaon Harav Aharon Kotler, zt’l. I heard the story some 30 years ago directly from Rav Sholom Schwadron, zt’l, who himself witnessed the event. There can’t be a more direct kli rishon than hearing it from the actual person who witnessed it and who, even 30 years after it transpired, still told over the story with a quiver in his voice and a hot tear rolling down his cheek onto his snow white beard.
The story transpired in Yerushalayim in 1954. Rav Aharon had come to participate in the Knessiah Gedolah of Agudas Yisroel. There was a festive atmosphere in Yerushalayim. This was the first major gathering of leading gedolei Yisrael from across the world after the conflagration of the Holocaust. Without a doubt it was Rav Aharon Kotler’s presence that most electrified the large assemblage. Wherever Rav Aharon went, a large entourage of people followed, latching on to his every word. His opinions on the burning matters facing K’lal Yisrael were sought with bated breath. From word to mouth stories were passed regarding what Rav Aharon did say, what he didn’t say. Some of them took on a life of their own.
The most powerful story, Rav Sholom Schwadron related, transpired not at one of the Knessiah sessions but rather at a wedding that Rav Aharon was attending while there, at the Bnos Yerushalayim Hall.
At that time, the Jordanians were in a state of bitter war with the fledgling State of Israel and there was much tension on the Jordanian border. There was fear that an attack was imminent and the country was on high alert.
Suddenly, in the middle of wedding, the air raid siren began to wail. The shrill, disconcerting wail wreaked panic in the hall. Before anyone even had a chance to run to a bomb shelter there was a massive thud followed by an explosion. A grenade or a bomb had fallen nearby; very nearby.
The siren began to wail again. Fear gripped everyone present; terror pervaded the atmosphere. All at once, everyone, every single person in the room, dove to the floor as another grenade whistled through the sky and fell with a thud, shrapnel scattering all over the place.
Rav Sholom related, “I was terrified. I was thinking about my wife, my children . . . I was wondering if I would ever see them again, I was in a panic, and the hallowed words of Shema Yisrael were on my lips.
“Rav Aharon Kotler had also dropped to the floor and I found myself right next to him. I saw him in a state of agitation. The gadol hador was spread out on the floor, the Torah itself was on the ground. And then I heard a low voice, the low, distinct voice of Rav Aharon. He too realized that with bombs falling indiscriminately one after the other his life was in grave danger. What, however, did Rav Aharon do? I heard him talking, talking to Hashem. Listen to what the Gaon Hador said!” The words that I heard next have remained etched in my memory to this very day.
“What did I hear Rav Aharon whisper?! I heard him begging Hashem, beseeching Him with every fiber of his being—‘Please Ribono Shel Olam, lomer doch leben! Ich vil noch lernen dayn heiligeh Torah—Please let me live! I still want to learn Your Holy Torah!’
“He did not think about his family, his Rebbetzin, his children and grandchildren; he did not think about his beloved yeshiva, he did not think about anything other than beseeching Hashem in what he thought might be his last moment on this earth, begging, ‘Ribono Shel Olam, lomer doch leben! Ich vil noch lernen dayn heiligeh Torah!’”
It is in such moments that a person’s true essence is revealed—on the floor, bombs flying, when no one can hear. The most intimate conversation between a person and Hashem Yisborach in the most trying of circumstances, when most people are too panicked to think about anything but their own safety.
Rav Aharon, too, was panicked, he was afraid, but what terrified him most was that he still had so much of Hashem’s heilige Torah to learn. Nothing else was on his mind in that moment of panic, only the most precious of things, Hashem’s heilige Torah.
In Parashas Acharei Mos, the Torah teaches us, “V’chai bahem.” The simple explanation is that you should live by the mitzvos. The seforim hakedoshim offer an additional, slightly different explanation. They say, v’chai bahem doesn’t just mean that you should live by them, but your entire life should just be them. Your life, your lifeblood should be Torah; nothing else.
Rav Sholom concluded, “At that moment, on the floor of Binyanei Haumah with Jordanian bombs flying overhead as I lay on the floor in terror next to the Gaon Hador, Rav Aharon, I learned the real meaning of how Torah can be one’s lifeblood!”