On the 82nd yahrtzeit of the Chofetz Chaim, a mission of prominent rabbanim and community leaders, led by Rav Dovid Hofstedter shlita, Nasi of Dirshu, traveled together to the burial place of one of Klal Yisrael’s most venerable leaders. Their aim: to daven for the hatzlachha of the nation at this time of great peril. They had been sent to daven for the entire nation, with special emphasis on those who study the halachic and mussar works of Chofetz Chaim on a daily basis.
This was Dirshu’s third time visiting Radin. A previous visit had taken place months earlier, in preparation for the Dirshu Daf HaYomi B’Halachah siyum on Mishnah Berurah. The trip had proven a resounding success, with some 20,000 names submitted to the Dirshu office to be mentioned at the Chofetz Chaim’s kever.
After the initial success of the earlier Dirshu trips to the Chofetz Chaim’s burial place, it was obvious to everyone involved that they would return yet again. The only question was when.
The early excitement generated in the weeks leading up to Dirshu’s third historic trip snowballed on the actual day of the visit, with the Dirshu team reporting an astounding 50,000 names phoned (not to be confused with the 500,000 people worldwide who joined in the Yom Limud and Tefillah) into the Dirshu office from people who had undertaken to learn the daily limud and have their names mentioned at the Chofetz Chaim’s kever.
“You have to remember,” said one of the rabbanim, “that these are not just names we are davening for. Behind every one of these thousands of names lies a heart full of tears and pain, and we are the messengers to daven for them at the rebbi’s kever.”
My trip to Radin really began a few months ago, when I covered the first test of the second cycle of Daf HaYomi B’Halachah - Mishnah Berurah. While waiting to leave with Rav Dovid for the first testing site in Bnei Brak, I had a conversation with a couple of people from the top echelon of Dirshu who had gone on the second groundbreaking trip to Radin. At the time, I had felt a sense of disappointment at not having been granted the zechus of davening at the kever of the Kohen Gadol. Little did I know that I’d be joining Dirshu for the third pilgrimage to the little (giant) town of Radin.
The night was dark and rainy as we landed at the airport in Minsk. The staircase leading down to the asphalt was slippery and there were puddles on the ground from an earlier rain. I was glad that I’d brought my coat along with me, though it had been hot in Eretz Yisroel just a few hours before. We passed through customs, walked through the arrivals hall and found the tables that had been set up for us with platters of cake and fruit and a generous selection of tea and coffee. We might have just landed in the Russian Federation, but it was clear that Dirshu’s organizational team was in full operational mode, leaving no detail to chance.
Three buses waited outside the terminal and we boarded them, leaving the airport behind and driving off into the dark Russian night. The roads outside the airport were smooth and seemed almost freshly tarred, showcasing the face of today’s Russian Federation.
It was four in the morning and we were on our way to Radin.
A yungerman sat next to me on the bus. We had never met before.
“What’s your connection to the Chofetz Chaim?” I asked him.
“I had the zechus of spending seven years of my life editing the Dirshu Mishnah Berurah, and a year-and-a-half editing the sefer Shmiras Halashon.”
“I heard the Dirshu Mishnah Berurah is extremely popular. Can you give me numbers?”
“Last I heard, we had sold close to 350,000 copies of the set. It’s flying off the shelves faster then we can print it!”
“What’s your feeling as we approach the town of Radin?”
“There is a segulas Chazal,” he replied, “that anyone who comes to the kever of a tzaddik with the tzaddik’s Torah in his hand, can say to him ‘I learn your Torah.’ And the tzaddik devotes special effort to help his talmid’s prayers be accepted in Heaven.”
He chose his next words carefully.
“Since I put so much work into the sefarim of the Chofetz Chaim, the end result of which has brought many hundreds of thousands of people to learn the Rebbi’s Torah, I feel a tremendous desire to both daven at his kever and to ask him to intercede for Klal Yisrael at the Heavenly Throne. And because almost every household owns a Mishnah Berurah, these individuals, too, can come to the kever with a real zechus and a right to ask for the tzaddik’s assistance.”
As we approached the town of Radin, HaGaon HaRav Aryeh Dinkel shlita was asked to say a few words.
“We are approaching Rabbeinu’s kever. There is a midrash in Shir Hashirim that relates the following incident. R’ Eliezer went to visit the bais midrash of R’ Yehoshua. R’ Yehoshua wasn’t there, but R’ Eliezer used the opportunity to kiss the stone which R’ Yehoshua used as a seat when delivering his shiur.
“We are not visiting Radin to study the town from an historic perspective. This town is the place where our Kohen Gadol, the Chofetz Chaim, sat and taught Torah. His sefarim have kept Klal Yisrael alive even now, eighty years later, and his legacy spans the entire Torah. Every child and adult is familiar with his wisdom and parables, and has heard suggestions from the Chofetz Chaim on how to fight the yetzer hara, along with advice on how to live one’s life.
“Everyone knows that tzaddikim are even greater after they pass on to the next world, and the Chofetz Chaim’s strength is infinitely more powerful today then it ever was. In fact, Rav Chaim Ozer compared the Chofetz Chaim’s Torah to the man that fell in the desert, where every person was able to request the taste he desired. So too,” he explained, “it is possible to taste whatever flavor we desire in his Torah even today.
“This is a place,” he concluded, “that should inspire a person to want to guard his tongue as we set out to daven for the entire Jewish people. The eyes of Klal Yisrael are upon us as we embark on this vital mission.”
HaGaon HaRav Yisroel Meir Weiss shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Nachlas Haleviim, was the next speaker. He shared a number of personal stories involving his father and the Chofetz Chaim, drawing the audience into his unique memories of the Chofetz Chaim’s Radin.
“My father, Rav Shamshon Rafael Weiss, had come from Germany to learn in the Mir,” he began, “when he took sick and was told by the doctors that he needed to undergo surgery.
“‘You need a brachah from the Chofetz Chaim,’ Rav Yeruchom told him. ‘Travel to Radin immediately!’
“The mashgiach had decreed, and my father left Mir for Radin. When he reached the Chofetz Chaim’s house, he knocked on the door and the shamash, a Yid by the name of Rav Leizer, opened it and asked him what he wanted.
“‘I’ve come to ask for a brachah from the Chofetz Chaim.’
“Reb Leizer left my father standing on the threshold and told the Chofetz Chaim that someone had come for his brachah.
The Chofetz Chaim inquired who had come.
“‘A yeshiva bachur,’ Reb Leizer replied.
“‘A yeshiva bachur is standing outside? How could you possibly leave a yeshiva bachur standing outside?’
“Reb Leizer bade my father enter, and the Chofetz Chaim sat him down right next to him—holding his hand throughout their conversation to make him feel better for having been left outside.
“My father remained with the Chofetz Chaim that entire day. If he had originally imagined that the author of the Shemiras Halashon would be a man of few words, he quickly realized that he had been mistaken. The Chofetz Chaim did talk, and he had much to say. He was interested in what was happening in the world around him and had a comment to make in response to everything my father told him. However, you didn’t hear one word of lashon hara or rechilus from his pure mouth. He spoke, but every word was holy and pure. Everyone who entered his courtyard felt the presence of the Shechinah and instinctively understood that they had to guard their tongue, just the same as he.”
HaGaon HaRav Shimon Galaei shlita, spoke next.
“My father merited eating at the Chofetz Chaim’s table,” he began, “and he became very close with the gadol hador. He told us about a bachur named Efraim Memel who was arrested and sent to trial on trumped-up charges of spying for the Germans. The Chofetz Chaim was devastated when he found out what his talmid was facing, and he decided to go testify in his favor. People tried to talk him out of it, but he refused to listen to them.
“‘A Yid is in danger,’ he said. ‘How can I think of myself in a time like this?’
“In the end, the judge sentenced Efraim Memel to ten years in prison. When the Chofetz Chaim heard the ruling he said, ‘They don’t know what’s going to happen in ten months. They don’t even know what’s going to happen in ten weeks. And they’re sentencing him to ten years?’
“The Brisker Rav, upon learning of the Chofetz Chaim’s reaction said, ‘That’s the end of the Tzar. The Chofetz Chaim has just ended his reign.’
“And, indeed, Tzar Nikolai was overthrown a short time later.
“The Chofetz Chaim cared about every single Jew. If a Jew was in the Russian army, he would write a sefer so that Jew would know the best way to keep Shabbos in his unique set of circumstances. That’s the sign of a real leader!
“Today we stand at our rebbe’s kever as the messengers of Klal Yisrael. Hashem knows what we need, but He gave us the zechus of standing up and asking for things ourselves, in order to let us maintain the eternal connection between Him and us. And our requests have to emanate from within the depths of our hearts, just the way the Chofetz Chaim used to daven.”
We entered Radin shortly afterward.
It was 8:08 in the morning when we pulled up outside the Yeshivah of Radin. After a heartfelt davening and the shofar’s resounding cry, made all the more memorable by the fact that it was taking place in the yeshiva of Klal Yisroel’s Kohen Gadol, there was a beautifully and inspiring surprise.
The curtain on the stage at the front of the room was moved to the side and the assembled found themselves face to face with a hospital bed, a mohel in white coat, a young Russian boy about to undergo a bris mila and Rav Dovid Hofstedter who would be serving as the sandek. Rav Dovid supported the head of the eleven year old boy who was approaching the upcoming operation with admirable mesiras nefesh. Indeed we could hear him singing in Russian “it’s good to be a Jew! It’s good to be a Jew!”
When it was time to call out the boy’s brand new name, a gasp filled the Radin yeshiva.
“V’yekaraei shmo b’Yisrael, ‘Yisrael Meir’!”
How fitting it was that a boy who had received his bris on the day of the Chofetz Chaim’s yahrtzeit, in the Radin Yeshiva, should be crowned with that particularly royal name.
The bris was followed by an even more heartfelt selichos led by HaGaon HaRav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Kiryas Melech, who cried out the ancient words with concentration and emotion that sizzled with sheer intensity. The fact that we were all standing in the Chofetz Chaim’s yeshivah turned the third selichos of the year into a davening somewhat akin to erev Rosh Hashanah.
After Shacharis, Rav Dovid delivered his daily Mishnah Berurah shiur to a packed room. Later, when the assembled were eating breakfast, I took advantage of the temporary lull before we set out for the Chofetz Chaim’s kever to speak to Dirshu’s Nasi for a few minutes.
“The first time we visited Radin was a few years ago,” he told me. “You see this room? You see the stage? The goyim use the Radin Yeshivah’s main sanctuary as an auditorium to put on plays! It can break your heart! The locals are so comfortable here that when I stood up to give a shiur during that first visit, they filed into the room and took seats in front of the stage, intent on hearing what I had to say.
“But today – today was different. Suddenly we heard the sounds of an Elul davening, of an Elul selichos, and it was as if the walls themselves were releasing the decades of Torah learning and davening that are trapped inside them.”
Listening to Rav Dovid’s enthusiasm, and knowing how symbolic both the Choftez Chaim and the Radin Yeshivah are to Dirshu, I cannot help but hope that one day the holy building presently being used by the wider Radin community will soon be reclaimed by Dirshu and turned into a yeshivah for serious Torah students.
There was an emotional hesped delivered outside the yeshivah by HaGaon HaRav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky shlita, who pointed out that the Kohen Gadol’s davening on Yom Kippur was mostly focused on the physical needs of Klal Yisroel as opposed to their spiritual ones.
“The Chofetz Chaim also devoted tremendous attention to the physical needs of his nation,” thundered Rav Chizkiyahu.
“Do you know why? Because the physical needs of my fellow Jew, should be considered my spiritual needs!!”
His message reverberated through the streets of Radin, the sound of a prince of Torah begging his people to follow in the footsteps of the Chofetz Chaim, to accept upon themselves a commitment to guard their tongues from speaking evil of one another. It was with Rav Chizkiyahu’s holy words in our hearts that we left the Radin Yeshiva and boarded the buses once more for the short ride to the kever.
This was it. The reason so many gedolim had traveled so far, in the middle of Elul. To stand at the kever of the Rebbi and daven for Klal Yisroel with every particle of their souls and every fiber of their beings.
We entered the cemetery with the rain coming down, singing Avinu Malkeinu. A wooden stage had been constructed for the day and there were chairs set up for the gedolim to sit on.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenstein opened up the historic event with words that emanated straight from his heart and which were accompanied by his hot tears.
“We have reached the kever of the tzadik whose sefarim have been accepted by every segment of our nation. You will find the sefarim of the Chofetz Chaim in every home and yeshiva, for they are the basic staples of every Torah Jew.
It is davka at such a place that we can and should beg the Master of the World to provide our people with the necessary strength to fight the constant spiritual challenges facing us on a daily basis. May the merit of learning the Chofetz Chaim’s holy sefarim serve as a shield for the Jewish people.”
The Gerer Rebbe’s son, HaGaon HaRav Dovid Alter, shlita, discussed the importance of learning halacha on a daily basis with emphasis on the retention of the material. He explained how impossible it is for a Yid to live his life in the proper fashion if he doesn’t possess a true grasp of halacha.
“Without a proper knowledge of halacha, there is no way to know the difference between a d’oriaisha, d’rabbanan, minhag, or a middas chassidus.”
His words of chizuk, delivered with classic humility entered every heart and helped prepare his listeners for the daunting task of davening on behalf of Klal Yisroel.
HaGaon HaRav Raphael Alkrif, shlita, told the assembled how so many of his talmidim had accepted upon themselves to join the worldwide partnership in Dirshu’s Daf HaYomi B’Halacha program. He described the numerous names he’d been asked to daven for at the kever.
“But how did all these Yidden come to feel such an incredible connection to the Chofetz Chaim,” he asked.
“Once we remember who the Chofetz Chaim was,” he explained, “everything becomes clear. So much Torah passed through our rebbi and on to the rest of the Jewish people. So much fear of heaven, so much in the realm of midos tovos…. And our rebbi didn’t just write about all these ideas and concepts. He lived them. No wonder every single one of us feels such an overwhelming bond with the Chofetz Chaim!”
And then the actual davening began. Voices were raised and it was obvious how seriously the gedolim were taking their mission, and all the people they had promised to mention in their tefillos.
The rain grew steadily stronger as the davening progressed.
As Tehillim was recited at the kever, the rain started to fall in heavy, sleeting drops.
We recited the Yud-Gimmel Middos, and the rain intensified, pouring heavenly tears down onto the muddy earth. Then a quiet round of tefillos for all the people who had signed up to learn the Chofetz Chaim’s Torah, and for the Jews around the world… as the rain took on a life of its own, beating down harder than ever.
It was a interesting thing. Because when we were finally ready to leave, the rain quieted down as well.
It had been an intense and authentically genuine davening experience. I had witnessed the gedolim’s fervor, their passion, the depth of their feeling for Klal Yisrael and their powerful connection to the Chofetz Chaim, even now, after so many years.
Like I said, a powerfully intense experience.
But then, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be when you visit your rebbi?
We left Radin for Volozhin, famous as the cradle of the yeshiva world, as established by Rav Chaim Volozhiner, who envisioned and saw through to fruition the original yeshiva system that we still use today. On the way to Volozhin HaGaon HaRav Shlomo Kanievsky shlita was asked to deliver words of preparation.
He did his job well.
Rav Shlomo began by explaining how much gratitude we owe to Rav Chaim Volozhiner for his outstanding contribution to the Torah world. He then brought the lesson home in a very authentic way using personal examples from the lives of his two grandfathers, the Steipler Gaon, HaRav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky z’l and HaGaon HaRav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv z’l, showing how those two paragons of Torah study actually lived the concept of hakaras hatov in every aspect of their lives, with mesiras nefesh and attention to the feelings of those around them.
As we entered the town of Volozhin and pulled into the narrow street just adjacent to the kever of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, Rav Shlomo concluded his drasha by entreating his listeners to redouble their efforts and repeat the prayers they had recited earlier, with true intensity.
“Tell Rav Chaim the following – ‘Rebbi, we are studying your Torah! We are continuing your derech in our yeshivos around the globe, carrying on the traditions you taught us and maintaining all that you built for the Jewish nation!
We are doing our part in the battle! Please do your part as well! Please entreat Hashem to have mercy on our yeshivos so that they may continue to educate their talmidim in purity. Please stand before the Master of the World and beseech Him to ensure that our bochurim have the abilities to withstand the numerous temptations that are to be found in every pocket.
Let us daven that Dirshu may enjoy continued success in its lofty goals of educating and enriching Klal Yisroel with Torah and Halacha.”
Rav Shlomo’s words were extremely powerful and escorted the assembled over to the kever, where they recited Tehillim with emotion and genuine hakaras hatov.
This was followed by Mincha in the Volozhin yeshiva, a building where if you listened hard enough, you were able to hear the voices of the past, of Rav Chaim, of the Netziv, of the hundreds of prominent talmidim who had emerged from the guiding light of Europe to take their posts amongst their people.
To be granted the opportunity to stand and daven in the legendary Volozhin yeshiva! How could one not be moved by the experience?!!
All you needed to do was close your eyes and imagine how it must have been not so long ago. With so many gedolim davening Mincha in the Volozhin hall of Torah, it wasn’t a very difficult thing to do.
And finally the gedolei hador returned to their buses to begin the journey back to Eretz Yisroel. But whereas the original flight had been filled with hopeful expectation, that had been replaced with the happiness people feel at the successful conclusion of a mission accomplished. The gedolei Yisroel had poured out their hearts at the kevarim of the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Volozhiner. They had heard and delivered words of chizuk and said Tehillim. They had cried and begged Hashem for mercy. They had davened for thousands and thousands of Yidden. They had done their absolute best and given the trip everything they possessed.
And now they were returning, glad of heart and filled with true Torah satisfaction.
What a day it had been!
What a day it would yet be again.
The Kohen Gadol would draw them back and they would come, to stand at his side and beg him to intercede above, as he had always done in the past and no doubt continues doing until this very day.