In honor of the 15th of Elul, the day on which Yeshivas Toimchei Temimim Lubavitch was founded in 5657  we continue with the memoirs of Reb Nochum Shmaryahu Sussonkin, in which he describes his arrival in Lubavitch to study in ישיבת תומכי תמימים. This is the third installment. The first two, in which he describes his youth in Prepoisk and his studies in the Yeshiva of Reb Elchonon Bunim Vasserman הי"ד, can be found here and here, respectively.
From Left To Right: Reb Avrohom Elyeh Plotkin, Reb Nochum Shmaryahu Sussonkin and Reb Nissen Neminov
I finished learning in the Yeshivas for younger students at the end of the winter of 5665 . At that time the most famous Yeshivas for older students in the world were Telz, Volozhin, Slobodka, Mir, Radin and Lubavitch. I stood on a cross roads and did not know where to turn. Though I had studied in Krementchug, a city of Chassidim, I had not had much contact with them and knew nothing of Chassidus, especialy not Chabad Chassidus. I had met with students who had come from Telz, Volozhin etc and though I knew that not all the students in those Yeshivas were alike, I decided that I would not go to those Yeshivas for I knew too that the spirit of the [secular movement of] enlightenment had already permeated their study halls and was afraid for my soul lest I too be smitten.
First I thought that I would go to Radin to the Yeshiva of the "Chofetz Chaim", or to Lubavitch, for the students returned from there complete in their fear of G-d. But I quickly decided not to go to either. I did not go to a Yeshiva where they studied Musser [ethical works] due to the air of melancholy that hovered over the students of those Yeshivas, and regarding Lubavitch I heard that the study of Talmud was neglected there and that they spent most of the day studying Kabbalah.
His search for a Yeshivah brought him to the city of Kishnev:
With the passing of time I learned that in this city dwelt the in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Avrohom Shneersohn, [his daughter was married to the only son of Rabbi Shollom Dovber of Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok and he himself was] descended from the Rebbes of Chabad, and that from him I would be able to find out about Lubavitch and about Chassidus. I visited him and he was very gracious to me, assuring me that there was no better place for me than the Yeshiva in Lubavitch. He explained that all the rumors about Lubavitch were fabrications, that Chassidus is not Kabbalah but an intellectual discipline of phenomenal lucidity.
I remained in Kishnev till after the festivals. In the small synagogue where I studied one of the Rabbis of the city prayed. He was very gracious to me and throughout the festivals I ate at his table. Once he told with great excitement that he saw in a small book called "Tanya", written by "the Rav" - as the Alter Rebbe [the first Rebbe of CHabad] was known - A wonderful explanation on a matter that bothered him his entire life, the matter of Divine manifestation: Why is there a need for a specific house such as the Temple of old [in Jerusalem], or a synagogue nowadays - is it not true that "the entire world is filled with his glory"?! However there it is explained at length, by way of a parable, that while the soul does indeed fill the entire body, it is manifest and revealed mainly in one specific place, namely with the consciousness that resides in one's head. Similarly regarding G-d too, though the entire world is indeed filled with his glory, He is nevertheless more revealed in the Temple, and today, in the synagogue - a "small" Temple (see Tanya chapters 51, 52. 53). The Rabbi explained the concept at length and from his words I learned that the discipline of Chassidus that they learn in Lubavitch - whose source is the scholarly genius, the author of the Tanya - is not incomprehensible matters of Kabbalah, but rather concepts filled with logic and complete lucidity. This episode strengthened and inflamed within me the desire to travel to Lubavitch.
* * *
From afar we could see the courtyard of the Rebbe, before us appeared beautiful wooden buildings and towering over all of them a great hall (called by everyone der groiser zal [or Zal Hagodoil]), very long wide and tall, with large, high windows in three of its sides. We passed through almost the entire city before arriving at the Rebbe's courtyard and did not see a building as large or as beautiful as this. Even from some distance we recognized it as the Rebbe's courtyard, for the sound of Torah being studied by Yeshiva students reached our ears.
When I entered the Zal hagodoil, I was received with great joy by many of my old friends who had learned with me in the Yeshivas of Krementchug, and Amtzislav. I told them of my uncertainty that had gnawed at me on the journey, but they answered me with great joy and jubilant faces that everything is as it should be and that they are happy that Divine providence had brought them here. They added that they already gained a general knowledge of Chassidus, which is literally a remedy for the soul. For, as we have said, the disipline of Chassidus is not Kabbalah nor an explanation of Kabbalah, but a "chapter" in its own right: A discipline of depth, wisdom and deep inquiry into matters of Divinity [Elokus] similar to the study of Talmud.
My friends had changed very much. Their clothing had changed, their sentiments and aspirations had changed, and even their faces had already altered somewhat. Even when in Yeshiva we had been very poor in the spirit of Torah, the details of Mitzves and their beautification, we almost had no idea of such things. The "small Tallis" [Tzitzis], for example, was indeed "small", for we did not know at all to ensure that it was of the correct [Halachic] measurements. As small as it was, it was "large" in our eyes, and since we were very careful not to transgress G-d forbid the caution "it shall not be seen" [a tongue-in-cheek reference to the prohibition that Chamatz should not be seen on Pesach] we hid it completely in our pants so that they would not be seen at all...
Also regarding Tefilin we did not think to be particular, and we would buy both Tzitzis and Tefilin from the peddlers who circulated from town to town, or in any store. It was enough for us that we believed the seller to be a religious Jew. Our only aspiration was to be a great scholar of Torah, and even in our studies we only concentrated on those areas in which sharp scholarly arguments and explanations are reflected.
Everything, including prayer, we did by rote, without energy, coldly and inattentively. Being that time was very precious to us, with the main aspiration being to acquire wide knowledge of the Talmud, everything else was secondary. It is self understood that since this was the goal, even those who learned much Torah - this sort of study did not inspire the spirit of Torah at all, and there was no visible difference between us and the youths of the marketplace and the street. In our external appearance and even in our inner sentiments we were the same. On our faces one could not discern the subtlety and refinement of a Ben-Torah [student of Torah] as the Rebbe Rashab complained in "Kuntrus Eitz HaChaim".
It is no surprise, therefore, that I didn't recognize my friends, their features were already more refined and their clothing had already changed. Their Tzitzis were in accordance with the [Halachic] measurements and more specificaly of wool. They were particular that their Tefilin should be made of one piece of leather, as well as other details. In order to fulfill these Mitzves in the most beautiful way, in accordance with the dictum of our sages in the Talmud (Shabbos 133), there were G-d fearing experts who specialized in preparing these articles.
The sense of attempted uniformity had already disappeared, for why should they attempt to assume the habits of the wider world if they had already realized that the world and all that fills it are not true entities? Since the autonomous existence that the world grasps for itself is an utter fallacy, the world itself is of no account. On the contrary, this recognition dictates that the outer world should seek to become like Bnei Torah [students of the Torah] for the true existence of the world is essentially the Torah with which it is was created and the true purpose of the world is the practical fulfillment of the Mitzves. As our sages say (Brochos 17), "The verse does not refer to those who study them but to those who practice them..."
Their aspirations too had changed. Indeed, their desire to become great Torah scholars had doubled, however the motive and purpose had changed. The motive for their study was that the Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d, and just as He is infinite so His wisdom and will are infinite; just as "no thought can grasp him", so no thought can grasp is infinite wisdom, for He and His wisdom are one (Zohar, Rambam and Tanya). However, "in the place where you find G-d's greatness, there you find his humility, and G-d contracted his will and wisdom into the 613 [Taryag] Mitzces of the Torah, in their Halachos, in the combination of letters that form the Tenach, and in the tales and parables in the Medroshim of our sages, in order that each soul that is invested within the body of man may intellectually grasp and practically fulfill His will and wisdom". By way of this contraction we are able to grasp the Torah, and since G-d and the Torah are one, it transpires that we are in fact grasping G-d Himself. "And although the Torah is manifest in terms of lowly, physical matters, the study of Torah may be compared to one who embraces a king, where it makes no difference to the exalted intimacy and grace if he is wearing one garment or many, since the body of the king Himslef is within those garments." Similarly it makes not difference if the terminology of the Torah refers to mundane matters, since G-d himself has chosen to make Himself manifest in that terminology (Tanya Chapter 4).
Likewise regarding the fulfillment of Mitzves, since they are G-d's statutes and laws, a great exactitude is inspired in study and an aspiration to attach oneself to Him with ever greater strength. It is self understood that once a change in outlook and aspiration takes hold, the way in which one studies Torah changes automatically and slowly one is divested of one's coarse form and begins to take on the appearance of a true Ben Torah, one's clothing and general conduct too changes accordingly. This would be achieved naturally, with the passage of time, through study and the spirit of Torah that permeated the Yeshiva.