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By: Rabbi Hanoch Teller

This dvar Torah is, I confess, a tad long and finding the connection to the parashatakes a modicum of patience, but in my unhumble opinion the effort will be vindicated.

SOMEONE once observed that in the yeshivah of Telz,[1] the concept of “adequate” was anathema to the students. To the connoisseur, adequacy is insulting.


This lofty standard was not unique to the yeshivah, founded in 1875. It pervaded that famous Lithuanian town where fear of Heaven was cardinal,chessed was the breath of life and Torah study was… everything. After the turn of the century, the Jews in the majority of European towns -- even those with a dominant Jewish population -- were irreligious and often anti-religious in outlook and practice. But Telz was a “college town” whose central focus was the yeshivah. Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented about the Telzers, “Even the wagon drivers are as full of Torah as a pomegranate is of seeds.”

             ONE Telzer wagon driver considered the possibility of the venerableRosh Yeshivah stumbling late at night through Telz’s dark alleys so appalling that he insisted on sleeping on the bench where the Rosh Yeshivah learned. When the Rosh Yeshivah would arise at the conclusion of his studies, deep in the night, the wagon driver would awaken to bring his illustrious passenger home. In appreciation for the wagon driver’s sacrifice on his behalf, the Rosh Yeshivahblessed the humble man with a long life. The wagon driver first divulged this story at the age of 109.

            One itinerant repairman in Telz would knock on doors and offer to inspect – for free – the kashering boards that were a fixture in every kitchen. His true intention was to engage the women in a discussion regarding the halachos of kashering meat to ensure that they clearly understood the laws. If repairs for the boards were necessary he would never charge more than a few pennies.

            Even the train depot in Telz was a nucleus of chessed. One Telzer couple would wait there until the last train made its stop late at night to collect the weary passengers who had not made lodging arrangements. Sometimes the couple was so successful that they filled every bed in their home, including their own – whereupon they would remove the doors from their hinges and sleep on these jerry-rigged “mattresses.”

            There was an elderly Jew who would wait at the depot to attract the attention of incoming travelers by yelling, “Help me! Help me!”

            The passengers had only a one-hour layover, so except in case of an emergency they were reluctant to detrain and jeopardize the continuation of their journey. “You must come to my house now!” the old man would continue to wail.

            “Is someone ill?” the anxious passengers would inquire as they hurried down to the platform.

            “No, no, there’s only a short time before the next train and you must allow me to feed you and give you a bed to rest. Please – my house is right across the street!”

            The Telzers’ love of Torah was so intense that during the yeshivah’s daily recess people would step outside to catch a glimpse of the scholars’ radiant faces. One laborer would loiter in front of his shop in the hope that a student would pass by so that he could provide a minor service like giving the time of day.

            The proceedings at one conference of the local, fire department are illustrative of the degree to which Torah permeated Telz. The Roshei Yeshivahsent some of the older yeshivah students to represent the Torah outlook to the conference and to demonstrate the yeshivah’s appreciation for the service that the non-religious fire-fighters provided. The department seated the yeshivah students up front in the section reserved for dignitaries.

            When the department’s burly, unlettered chief arose to speak, he wished to afford the scholars some honor, but he had nothing of Torah content to convey. So he commenced his address with a phrase that was the most commonplace expression in Telz: “Chazal zuggen - the ancient rabbis of blessed memory taught…” – and continued with words that bore no Torah content and were in no way connected to his opening idiom.

Printer’s flower

            WHEN RABBI YEHOSHUA HELLER vacated the position of Rav in Telz in order to become the Maggid of Vilna, it was understood that his replacement would have to be a scholar of the highest caliber and refinement of character. Several candidates were considered.

            Topping the short list was a resident of Telz, Rabbi Abba Werner, the av beis din, who was considered a shoo-in for the prestigious position. A different candidate, by all means worthy, but not as well known to Telz, was Rabbi Lazer Gordon, one of the great students of Volozhin and a disciple of Reb Yisrael Salanter. For reasons that will forever remain a mystery, Rabbi Gordon was selected. It was this very gaon who would subsequently be revered as the gadol hador.

Rabbi Werner was hurt that he had been passed over for what he thought was naturally his. In frustration and humiliation he left for foreign pastures. After a brief tenure in Copenhagen, he assumed the position of Rabbi in Machzikei Hadass in London’s East End.

            RABBI GORDON’S RESPONSIBILITIES as the new Rav of Telz included inspecting the slaughterhouse. There, he noticed one of the shochtim, Mendel Rappaport, shechting in a way that he felt could stand improvement. Rabbi Gordon suggested to Rappaport to employ a specific technique that would free his work of any shailos.

            The shochet took the recommendation as a personal affront. He was convinced that the new Rav did not care for him; and, not wishing to continue working under such circumstances,vanished from Telz.

            Over thirty years later, in 1908, fire destroyed the Telz yeshivah building, thrusting the yeshivah into a financial crisis. Considerably more money was needed to restore operations than had ever been collected before. Faced with such an awesome debt, Rabbi Gordon decided to employ an innovative approach. In those days, the standard collection route included the major cities in the area: Vilna, Kovno, Warsaw. It was a well-beaten path, one meshulachim trod often.

Innovatively, Rabbi Gordon sailed to untapped, virgin territory: London. Upon his arrival, Rabbi Gordon, who did not know a soul in town, appealed to a rabbi who he hoped could provide lodging and direction. That rabbi was none other than Rabbi Abba Werner.

Rabbi Werner was honored to have such a distinguished guest, but he informed his unsuspecting visitor that there were some accounts to be settled – and explained what had brought him to London.

Rabbi Gordon became slack-jawed for he had not known of “the short list,” nor that he had competed against his London host. He immediately begged, and received, Rabbi Werner’s forgiveness.


            ALAS, ideas that are theoretically sound are not necessarily practicable. The primary reason London was not a collection hub was that Anglo Jewry had not yet evolved into a community of donators.

            Several days into the campaign, Rabbi Werner inquired how his guest was faring. The report was far worse than Rabbi Werner could have feared. After knocking on numerous doors and visiting virtually all of the area shuls, all Rabbi Gordon had to show for his efforts were a few pennies. The trip was a disaster for the yeshivah, an embarrassment for the Telzer Rosh Yeshivah, and a fiasco forkavod haTorah.

            Rabbi Werner could feel the pain and offered assistance. He had an idea that he thought would help which he proposed. Rabbi Gordon was delighted to be escorted by his host to the home of an alter Telzer (former resident of Telz) who had become an affluent Londoner. After the preliminaries at the door, Rabbi Gordon was ushered into the gvir Rapapport’s parlor.

            In the interest of conversation Rabbi Gordon began, “It is a long way from Telz to London; what brought you here?”

“You,” the former shochet said, pointing a finger of accusation.

Rabbi Gordon was an intelligent man, but this was beyond him. “How so?”

Mendel Rapapport reminded the Telzer Rav of his arrival in the famed Lithuanian town and his first visit to the slaughterhouse. “I was the one whose work you found sub-standard. I understood that that meant it was time for me to pack my bags.”  

Rabbi Gordon cringed. “Nothing, simply nothing,” he exclaimed, “could be further from the truth.”

He had never had the slightest grudge against the shochet; he had only sought a more mehudar performance of the mitzvah. Once again Rabbi Gordon apologized profusely for an affront of which he had been totally unaware. With sincere remorse evident in his words he managed to appease Mendel Rapapport.


LATER THAT NIGHT, Rabbi Gordon’s lofty soul was summoned to the Heavenly Yeshivah. Undoubtedly, the two conceivable impediments to immediate access to the Almighty’s inner sanctum had just been removed, but they required a trip all the way to the British Isles to be actualized.

Rabbi Gordon could not have known this, nor do we know the consequences of what we do, even unwittingly, as Dayan Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman hinted in his eulogy.

It was a eulogy and burial that took place on soil very foreign to Telz, Lithuania. Because of strained relations between the governments of England and Lithuania the body could not be sent back, and was to be buried in London. This only exacerbated the tragedy. A city that had been so unfriendly, ungenerous and disrespectful would have the eternal honor of having the gadol hador interred in its earth.

And now, finally, our connection to the parasha….

His words muffled by tears, Rabbi Hillman compared the tragedy to that of Yosef:

“’Kee gunav gunavti m’eretz ha’ivrim’ (Breishis 40:15). For indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews.

“Rabbi Lazer Gordon was uprooted from his familiar territory of Lithuania, the bedrock of Torah scholarship. He departed from the holy town of Telz, the center of chessed and yiras Shamayim. Swept away from all he knew, to act on behalf of his community. But what did he get for all of his efforts?

“’V’lo aseesi meumah kee samu osee babor.’ And even here I have done nothing for them to have put me in the pit.

“He accomplished nothing in his fund-raising mission. The great Telzer Rav could not raise even a penny from the tight-fisted populace that has ultimately placed him in the pit. You didn’t know how to award kavod haTorah,” Rabbi Hillfand thundered, and then his voice dissolved in tears, “but you sure knew how to bury it.

“Perhaps we can derive a modicum of consolation from the fact that Reb Lazer Gordon left this world pure and sinless, having finally resolved any grievance against him. But we should not be too quick to be consoled before we internalize the lesson of how deep and demanding are the consequences of resentment. Rancor is the fire but an eternal grudge is the ash. Let’s bury that too, today, and let the Almighty have mercy upon us all.”




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