The Literary Legacy of Horav Shlomo Wolbe
The seventeenth yahrzeit of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, the most published mussar and hashkafah author of our generation, falls on the 17th of Nissan. I would like to share with our readers what I wrote at the time:
Rav Shlomo Wolbe passed on to the yeshivah shel ma’alah during Chol Hamo’eid Pesach, leaving the following tzava’ah:
“I request and command that I not be eulogized in any format whatsoever. Furthermore, I should not be described by any title or honor, not as a gaon, and not as a tzadik, not even by initials such as zt”l.”
In keeping with the Rav’s wishes, we are providing a brief sketch of his life, followed by a description of part of the rich legacy of writings he left behind, but we are omitting the appropriate hesped.
Born in Berlin shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, Rav Wolbe’s early education was in Berlin, in the Frankfurt yeshivah, and then in Rav Botchko’s yeshivah in Montreux, Switzerland. In the 1930’s, he attended yeshivah in Eastern Europe, spending several years in Mir, Poland, where he became a talmid of the mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, and, after Rav Yerucham’s passing, of Rav Chatzkal Levenstein, his successor. Throughout Rav Wolbe’s life, he viewed himself as a talmid muvhak, a disciple, of Rav Yerucham and as a transmitter of the mussar tradition that traces back to Rav Yisroel Salanter.
THE WAR YEARS
When the Soviet armies overran the town of Mir in the opening weeks of World War II, the yeshivah fled to Lithuania. Rav Wolbe, who was a German national, was forced to separate from the yeshivah and spent the war years in neutral Sweden. While in Sweden, Rav Wolbe lectured to the local Jewish population, in essence creating what may have been the first kiruv rechokim program in the modern world. He and Rav Wolf Jacobson, who was the rav there, became the Swedish contacts for the Vaad Hatzalah. They created a seminary for young women, who were often the only members of their families that survived the inferno of Europe. During this period of his life, Rav Wolbe authored hashkafah sefarim in both Swedish and German for outreach purposes.
After the war, Rav Wolbe moved to Petach Tikvah, Eretz Yisroel, where he married a daughter of Rav Avraham Grodzinsky, Hy”d, the last mashgiach of Slobodka. Through his rebbitzen, Rav Wolbe was a nephew of Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, and a brother-in-law of Harav Chayim Kreiswurth, zt”l.
AS A MASHGIACH
In 5708/1948, Rav Wolbe joined Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro in opening the Yeshivah Gedolah of Be’er Yaakov. Rav Shapiro was the Rosh Yeshivah, and Rav Wolbe was the mashgiach, a position he held for over 35 years. Later, he served as mashgiach in the Lakewood Yeshivah, in Eretz Yisrael, and he opened Yeshivas Givat Shaul. Rav Wolbe gave “mussar shmoozen,” “va’adim” (more informal lectures, usually to smaller groups) and lectures in many public and private forums. He also created batei mussar, where he delivered shmoozen and va’adim to long-standing talmidim, seasoned talmidei chachamim who developed into great gedolim and mussar experts themselves.
Rav Wolbe published the substance of many of his lectures in several sefarim on a wide variety of topics. In each volume, he wrote a forward, explaining the purpose for that particular sefer and the place and context in which he had delivered the original lectures, shmoozen, or va’adim. His name does not appear in any of his sefarim.
DERECH HALIMUD – LEARNING STYLE
Rav Wolbe, himself, points out a key component to much of his teaching: “One must learn how to approach a statement of Chazal – to study the depths of its peshat and to experience it, until the hidden light of Chazal’s statement illuminates you” (Alei Shur, pg. 9).
What did he mean? This sounds very confusing.
Often, the simple meaning of Chazal’s statement is unclear. Yet, if we review the statement over and over, suddenly we realize a deeper and truer understanding of what Chazal meant. At this point, the meaning of the statement illuminates us – whereas before, it had eluded us.
Rav Wolbe published his first Hebrew work, Alei Shur, to provide today’s yeshivah student with a basic guide to assist him in becoming a ben Torah. This book, which the author spent thirteen years writing and revising, clarifies the basic areas to develop for someone to ascend to higher levels in his personal service of Hashem. It swiftly became a classic and is a standard, studied text.
Alei Shur defines a yeshivah as a place where one learns to live, not just to study (pg. 31). Based on sources in Chazal, Rav Wolbe contends that learning Torah with bad midos, such as hate, competition, or jealousy, is not considered learning Torah. Learning Torah must assist in the development of one’s midos, or it is without value.
In the same context, Rav Wolbe quotes the Rambam who notes that the word “chaver” carries two different meanings. It means a close friend, but it also means a talmid chacham (see Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayos, Demai 2:3). This is because talmidei chachamim become the only true, close friends, since their bond to others is based on their essence as giving people. Thus, someone intensely involved in learning Torah will be extremely careful that all interactions he has with people are pleasant.
WHY DO WE KEEP MITZVOS
Rav Wolbe points out the following anomalous problem that sometimes afflicts Torah Jews. Many people observe mitzvos because of habit – that is how they grew up – but not because they enjoy observing the mitzvos. If you ask them, “Why do you keep mitzvos?” their true answer is, “Because that’s how I was brought up.”
Rav Wolbe notes that this is equivalent to asking someone, “Why are you eating lunch?”, and he answers, “Because that’s how I was educated.” This answer is obviously ridiculous. We eat because we are hungry.
Similarly, we should be observing mitzvos because we are hungry for these mitzvos. Therefore, we should perform mitzvos with enthusiasm, because we enjoy them (Alei Shur, Pg. 51).
ALEI SHUR AS A GUIDE
Rav Wolbe felt a yeshivah bachur must develop expertise in four basic areas, aside from the regular Gemara curriculum of the yeshivah.
1. He must know the halacha that affects him. In Rav Wolbe’s interpretation, this means he should learn all of Mishnah Berurah.
2. He should know Chumash with Rashi and Ramban. This forms the basis for one’s hashkafah on Yiddishkeit.
3. He should know Pirkei Avos, with the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah. Chazal gave us Mesechta Avos as a basic primer in midos, and Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary on Avos is the best method for internalizing this primer.
4. He should be conversant in Mesilas Yesharim, which Rav Wolbe calls “the dictionary for midos.”
Rav Wolbe contends that one who devotes a small amount of his yeshivah learning to each of these pursuits, consistently, will complete all four projects within four years.
This assumes, of course, that the person is highly organized. Rav Wolbe believed strongly in being structured. In his own words, “The greater the person is, the more organized is his life” (Alei Shur, Pg. 68).
In the second chapter of Alei Shur, Rav Wolbe discusses the importance of tefillah to a human being. “The ability to pray defines a human being. Animals also wage war, construct homes and live social lives. But only mankind can relate to the Ribono shel Olam and daven” (Alei Shur, Pg. 27). Thus, someone who does not pray properly performs daily activities no differently than does an animal. Only one devoted to tefillah demonstrates the uniqueness of the human being.
“Each davening performed with understanding is a qualitatively different experience and has its own unique feeling and quality. It is indeed impossible that two tefillos should be identical — even though the words are identical. One can compare this to riding a train watching a beautiful landscape. Although the scenery may appear the same, the experience is different from moment to moment. At each moment, one sees the scenery from a different perspective.
Similarly, someone davening should constantly see himself and his relationship with Hashem from a different perspective — just as the traveler is looking at the scenery with a different, fresh perspective.”
UPS AND DOWNS
Alei Shur even addresses the emotional ups and downs of the typical yeshivah bachur.
Chapter 6 consists of a correspondence with a yeshivah bachur going through a difficult time, where he sees no success in his learning — he is not remembering what he learned, nor is he focusing enough to understand the shiur or the sugya.
Rav Wolbe points out that a person goes through cycles. Sometimes a bochur is not learning well, and his davening and midos also suffer. Rav Wolbe notes that the source of this difficulty is usually because he is comparing himself to others. Instead, acknowledging my one’s skills and qualities and recognizing my shortcomings is a much better approach. Although I may not remember a sugya as well as others do — if I need to review it many times to retain it, I will have a much greater kinyan on the information than those who absorb the information quickly. (Apparently, Rav Wolbe wrote thousands of such chizuk letters during his lifetime!)
Rav Wolbe focused on his talmidim’s needs, both individually and as a group. He directed his topic and the intensity of his delivery to his audience. One talmid, who returned to Yeshivah Be’er Yaakov many years after he had studied there in the ‘50s, noted that Rav Wolbe’s shmooze was less intense. When he asked the mashgiach about this, Rav Wolbe answered: “You belong to a different generation. The generation born before the war received shmoozen that were very intensive experiences. Today’s generation cannot tolerate this type of shmooze.”
Yet, when Rav Wolbe published the second volume of “Alei Shur,” thirty years after the first, he notes that the style of the second volume is more intense — since the audience for these shmoozen were his older, more seasoned talmidim. Thus, there is a vast difference between Volume 1 of Alei Shur, which is general hadracha for a ben Torah, and volume 2, which reflects the result of “workshop va’adim” for developing elevated midos.
A talmid once asked Rav Wolbe how long it takes to prepare a shmooze. He answered: “It takes five years to learn how to give a shmooze, five years to learn how to give a va’ad, and five years to learn how to talk to someone.”
This was, indeed, another facet of Rav Wolbe’s personality – the ability to empathize with the suffering of another. Someone bringing him a problem could see the intensity and anguish on his face, as he identified with the questioner’s difficulty. Recently, someone related that he was unable to discuss a personal matter with Rav Wolbe, because of the latter’s weak condition, and, instead, discussed the matter with one of Rav Wolbe’s talmidim. He described how he witnessed the same intensity and anguish on the talmid’s face that he was familiar with seeing on Rav Wolbe’s. Thus, Rav Wolbe had successfully trained a new generation of leaders of mussar for Klal Yisrael.
EDUCATING A GENERATION
Among his many works, Rav Wolbe authored two very important guidebooks: one to teach chassanim how to be good husbands, and the other on the Torah’s fundamentals of childrearing. In both instances, the purpose of the sefarim was to teach principles to a larger audience.
Rav Wolbe noted that sometimes people think they are giving their children proper chinuch, but, in reality, just the opposite is happening.
He provides the following examples:
(1) Insisting that a child remain at the Shabbos table, when he is too young to do so.
In this instance, although the parents feel that this is important for the child’s chinuch, it is totally counterproductive to force a child to do what he is not ready for. The expectations for a child must always be appropriate to his age.
(2) Parents who grew up in impoverished homes often raise their children by spoiling them- to “make up” for their own origins. However, this is counterproductive for the child’s needs.
(3) Often parents say, or imply, that their child should achieve what the parents accomplished, or what the parents aspired to accomplish – even when this may not be within the child’s capabilities or inclinations. The parents may want their son to be a rosh yeshivah or at least to be involved in full-time learning, but the child’s personality is more appropriate to being an elementary school rebbe, an outreach professional, or a frum businessman!
The result is that the child never learns to serve Hashem in his own, unique way. He is being forced to be what he cannot be, and, therefore, will not be successful at it — while, at the same time, he is being hampered from developing to his own, greatest potential. Eventually, he ends up becoming a non-success.
Timing is everything in child-rearing. One should neither start too early nor wait until too late. Also, there must be a tremendous balance between too much involvement in the child’s growth and too little.
Rav Wolbe was opposed to hitting children, both by parents and by mechanchim. He had his own original way of explaining the passage from Mishlei (13:24) “Chosech shivto soneh beno,” “One who withholds the rod, hates his child.” To fully appreciate Rav Wolbe’s explanation of this passage and his approach, I refer you to read what he writes, himself. (The book is available in English translation.)
Possibly the most unusual of Rav Wolbe’s writings are his books “Bein Sheishes Le’asor” and “Or Lashav,” which are based on lectures he gave to non-observant audiences, after the Six Day War.
During the Six Day War, a new teshuvah movement began, as many secular people recognized the miracle of the war. Rav Wolbe asked a shaylah from Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, who was at the time the mashgiach in Yeshivas Ponevitz, whether he should become involved in outreach, in addition to his other responsibilities. Rav Chatzkel ruled that whoever is capable of being involved in kiruv rechokim is obligated to do so, and that Rav Wolbe should be involved to the extent that it did not disturb his responsibilities in the yeshivah.
As a result, Rav Wolbe gave lectures on the basics of Jewish belief at army bases, in secular Kibbutzim and to academic audiences. Rav Wolbe began his first lecture with these words, “You invited me to tell you about Judaism, and why the religious parties often create problems for the general public.” (Bear in mind that non-observant audiences in Israel are, unfortunately, often hostile to Torah and observant Jews.) Another lecture began, “Many ask, is it possible to change halacha to accommodate the modern world, and how can a modern world be run according to halacha?”
Notice that he was unafraid to deal with controversy and felt that he could convince his hostile audience of the beauty of Torah. As a well-known mechanech once told me, “I doubt that there is a ba’al teshuvah today who is not influenced by his teachings.”
In these lectures, Rav Wolbe blended halacha and hashkafah in such a way that someone who was totally non-observant would be drawn to the beauty of Yiddishkeit, while, at the same time, someone halachically committed would suddenly gain new insights into his observance of mitzvos. A secondary purpose in publishing these lectures was to teach frum people how they could influence others and be mekareiv rechokim.
Rav Wolbe’s scientific knowledge of the world shows through in these lectures, as well as the importance he placed on being able to communicate the beauty of Torah in a sophisticated manner. Indeed, a talmid told me that he once gave a va’ad in the yeshivah on the correct way to write a letter!
BECOMING A “BAR DA’AS”
Personally, I have found one of Rav Wolbe’s smaller sefarim to be even more powerful. A few years before his passing, he published a volume entitled “Pirkei Kinyan Da’as,” “Chapters on Acquiring Da’as.” (I have intentionally not translated the word “da’as,” because translating it defeats the purpose of Rav Wolbe’s work.) This book is based on seventeen lectures (shmoozen) given over a period of 40 years.
Rav Wolbe notes the following:
To grow as a Torah Jew, a person must have da’as.
Most individuals do not have a natural sense of da’as and need to be taught. Our generation is particularly short on da’as. This can be demonstrated by the following:
1. The rampant problem today of lack of self-confidence, which he contends is a modern phenomenon.
2. People being frozen into indecision by their “feelings.”
3. Accepting certain realities that we should endeavor to change, while at the same time attempting to change things that we should accept.
4. Overreaction to frustration.
5. Lack of marital stability.
What is da’as, and how does one achieve it? This is the subject of the sefer, which is a “must read.” But then, all of Rav Wolbe’s writings are “Must Reads!”
יהא זכרו ברוך