Parshas Bo has four distinct sections. The beginning of the parsha is the description of the final makkos building up to makkas bechoros. The Rambam writes that the story of Moshe confronting Pharaoh is a historical fact and simultaneously, it illustrates the struggles all human beings have between their yetzer horo and yetzer tov.

Pharaoh sees everything in Egypt has crumbled. All ancient societies built their economy on agriculture and animal power to produce wealth. Makkas borod and arbeh destroyed all the crops. In borod, all the animals were killed (besides those who feared Hashem and hid their animals inside shelters). So the economy, the food supply, has totally collapsed.

Pharaoh says he is letting the Jews go, but be careful—there are evil powers of the midbor coming to oppose you. Pharaoh doesn’t really have a choice but to capitulate. But when people are desperate to hold on to their sense of control, they use any sliver of a possibility to deny the uncomfortable facts.

For instance, when Moshe predicts makkas bechoros to Pharaoh and his court, he is careful to make an imprecise prediction. “At around midnight.” Rashi explains that if the prediction would be precise, and the timekeeping methods of the Egyptians would be a little bit off, they would dismiss the makka as a coincidence and Moshe as a fraud! This is astounding. Rashi is teaching us a deep lesson in human psychology. People who are desperate to avoid changing how they look at the world will use anything to preserve their old way of life. Even though nine makkos have been predicted and came to pass exactly how Moshe said it would, it doesn’t matter. If all the bechoros drop dead—a second before or after Moshe said they would—they now have an excuse to block out the truth and carry on life as usual. It could be the flimsiest of pretexts. It doesn’t matter. The reality is too uncomfortable and nothing will budge them to make them change.

The most amazing example of this was the fact that on the night of makkas bechoros, Pharaoh goes to bed. He has been going to bed every night the entire year of the makkos! Just imagine: Moshe has not been wrong for nine makkos—the entire Egyptian infrastructure is in ruins. Moshe now warns Pharaoh that his own son will die. But it doesn’t matter. Pharaoh wants to go through life making believe there is nothing to worry about. Nothing will disturb his fantasy.

Then there is a total explosion in Egypt—everyone screaming—and now he wakes up and leaves his bed in the middle of the night. This is the human condition.

The next part of the parsha is the korbon Pesach. Where does this korban fit into the scheme of yetzias mitzraim?

Hashem has been giving Klal Yisroel a powerful education for an entire year about the reality of the world. There is no other power in the world. All the avodo zoros are false. There is only Hashem’s power which causes everything to exist and causes everything to happen. He showed it with the Nile and with the sun. But these are brand new concepts. For generations, Klal Yisroel had been completely integrated into Egyptian culture and are virtually indistinguishable from the Egyptians. Before they leave Egypt, they have to demonstrate that they are different, that they are worthy of leaving.

Before Yaakov went down to Egypt, he was very excited to see Yosef before he dies. But then Yaakov comes to Be’er Shevah. This place is like a hard line between civilization and total midbor all the way to Egypt. He gets nervous about how the golus would progress over the years—perhaps we will never come back? Maybe this is a one-way trip?

Hashem appears to Yaakov and reassures him: I will go down with you and guarantee that they will return. But there are no free lunches in this world. Klal Yisroel have to deserve redemption. So Hashem has to give Klal Yisroel a crash-course in the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit for an entire year in the hope that they can extricate themselves from the influence they’ve been under for so long. But despite all this, for 80% of Klal Yisroel, it doesn’t stick. They think that Egypt is their permanent home and somehow justify everything going on around them. It was too hard to go back to being the children of the ovos and they will have to die in makkas choshech. For the rest, those who were ready to leave, it also wasn’t so simple. They have to bring a korbon pesach and perform bris miloh. These were preconditions for being worthy of geuloh.

Miloh is one of the few mitzvos which are a bris between Hashem and Klal Yisroel. Like Shabbos, it is what makes Klal Yisroel unique and without it, we lose our core identity as Hashem’s special people. On Shabbos, we testify that Hashem created the world and we pull back from creative activity on Shabbos to show that this world is not ours. If we violate Shabbos, we are treated like a non-Jew.

In Kiddush we say the posuk “asher boroh Elokim la’asos.” What does la’asos mean? It means the world is really incomplete and needs to be made by us. Hashem created us with an orloh for us to remove. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva—If Hashem despises the orloh, why did He create us with one? If He hates poverty, why did He create people who are poor?

Rabbi Akiva responded that these are good questions. But whose actions are better? Hashem’s or Man’s? Come back to me tomorrow with a handful of wheat kernels. Rabbi Akiva prepared for the meeting with a cake his wife made. He first told Turnus Rufus to eat the cake and then eat the kernels. He enjoyed the cake and then vomited from ingesting the kernels.

Rabbi Akiva shows him that man’s actions are better. Hashem created the world in its raw, unfinished state. Hashem wants us to complete it. Even Odom requires completion and perfection and the first step is through bris miloh. We have to make ourselves better people out of the raw material Hashem created. We can mold and form ourselves into someone who Hashem wants us to become. We don’t do “self-discovery”. Don’t accept yourself just the way you are. Push yourself to become more than who you started out to be.

This is bris miloh. Hashem created an imperfect world and expects us to finish the job. Sometimes it isn’t easy to raise ourselves up to levels that we aren’t used to being on. Hashem tells the novi that we survived Egypt through our blood. Nothing of any value happens in this world without sacrifice and pain of growth and elevation.

All this was a precondition to becoming Jewish. A bris miloh means we testify with our very bodies that we are Hashem’s representatives in the world—different from all other nationalities.

Chazal tell us how Dovid Hamelech labeled a mizmor of Tehillim. He was in a bath house and was mortified that he didn’t have any mitzvos on him—no tallis, no tefillin—to remind him that he is a Jew who serves Hashem. Then he was put at ease when he realized he still had bris miloh—an indelible sign that he is a servant of Hashem which can never be removed from him—on his very flesh.

Some people can subject everything they have to Hashem besides their very selves. Bris Miloh is who we are. This Mizmor doesn’t talk about miloh at all! It talks about loshon horo. Why? Because once we subject our very selves, we realize that even our speech and our mannerisms are subject to Hashem’s command.

Hashem told us to put the blood of the korbon on the doorposts. Why was this necessary? Hashem needs some blood to figure out which house is Jewish and which isn’t?

The answer is that this was a part of our demonstration that we are worthy of being redeemed. We had to take the avodo zoro of the Mitzrim in public, make it a sacrifice and put it on display on the doorpost for everyone to see. We had to make a total rejection of our previous identity. We are not subject to our human masters, we don’t fear their disapproval. We only fear Hashem.

This was the zechus that made us worthy of geuloh. We became spiritually mature and developed. But we had to take that maturity and put it into practice—make a public demonstration of our devotion to avodas Hashem. These are the two mitzvos asei which are chayav koreis. Without them, we are lacking the conviction that we are Jews whose very identity is that we are avdei Hashem.

In every generation, there are avodo zoros without number. We need to take the prevalent avodo zoro and culture and reject it publically. We don’t care if the world goes crazy and threatens to harm us.

When Klal Yisroel leave, the eirev rav leave with them. These are a very dangerous group of people. They were the source of Klal Yisroel’s downfall throughout their journey in the midbor and throughout the generations.

What is so dangerous about them? They were so taken by Klal Yisroel’s meteoric rise to greatness that they wanted to follow them. They saw all the wealth and majesty of Klal Yisroel when they left Egypt that they wanted to be a part of it too and jump on the bandwagon. But Klal Yisroel had to earn it first with painful lessons and mitzvos involving their own blood. The eirev rav wanted to enjoy all the benefits without making any sacrifices. But then, when things get hard, they were the first ones to complain.

Of course Torah and Mitzvos are the most uplifting and inspiring things in the world. But it takes effort and struggle of climbing a mountain, in slow, careful steps. There is no instant ruchniyus where you press a button and you gain sheleimus. You can’t expect real growth to come easy.

My rebbe once pointed out that we say in the beginning of the haggodoh—hoh lachmoh anyoh—a poor man’s bread. But at the end of the haggodoh, the matzoh becomes a symbol of freedom and geuloh. Once you go through a yetzias Mitzrayim, then the same matzoh you ate as a slave becomes transformed into a food of freedom.

We need to review yetzias Mitzrayim in the many mitzvos we repeat daily, because the lessons are so vital and so fundamental. The idea of subjecting ourselves entirely to Hashem without holding back, to denounce the avodo zoros being worshiped around us, to go through pain and hardship in order to achieve something worthwhile—in order to raise our level and be worthy of geuloh. That is what it means to be Jewish.

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Parsha Hashavua
Parshas Tzav - Thoughts, Words and Gra Stories

1) Olah Atones for Hirhurei Aveirah

We’re going to focus on some ideas of the Vilna Gaon regarding the concept of korbanos. We mentioned last week that the korban haolah means “haolah al ruchacha (forgiveness for) thoughts”, as Ramban says. It’s mechapeir on hirhurei haleiv, things that come up in your mind. The Torah is teaching us how important it is to have a pure mind.

Birchas HaTorah

One of the famous opinions of Vilna Gaon is specifically about using your mind for Torah. If we open up a Shulchan Aruch, we find a very interesting thing in Orach Chaim 47. It talks about if you think in divrei Torah in the morning before making birchas HaTorah. Is this permitted?  Or, must you stop and make birchas HaTorah before thinking in Torah? Beis Yosef says in the name of the Agur that we pasken like Rav Chisda in the gemara in Berachos 20b, that “hirhur lav k’dibur dami,” thoughts are not the same thing as speech. Therefore he concludes that one is allowed to think in Torah learning before making birchas haTorah, and one does not have to make the bracha prior to do so. Only if he talks, or, we’ll see later, perhaps writes, then he would have to stop and first pronounce birchas Hatorah. This is how we paskin. The rest is just a fascinating discussion about the Gra’s opinion.

Gra’s Criteria for Blessing

Gra argues that the Agur’s argument is incorrect. The bracha is an important part of the kiyum hamitzvah, and so, since we know that one fulfills the mitzvah of learning Torah by thinking in Torah (even though verbalization is better), this certainly requires a beracha! How could you say that there’s no mitzvah in the thinking of Torah. The pasuk says, “V’higisah bo yomam va’lailah”.  A person has to be yagei’ah in Torah, should involve himself in Torah day and night, and that means, the Gra says, in your heart. That’s “V’higisah bo yomam va’lailah”, in your heart.  And, one of the proofs the Vilna Gaon brings down is that the pasuk says, “V’hegyon libi,” which means the thinkings of my heart which means that even if you don’t say the actual words, you are still considered learning, and, of course, you would get reward for learning.  And, so, therefore, says the Gra, his famous opinion that one must make a birchas HaTorah even on thinking Torah.  That’s not how we pasken halacha l’maaseh, but that is the Vilna Gaon’s p’sak halacha.

Rashi: “Kol higyon sh’b’Torah baleiv”

If we look at the pasuk in Yehoshua that actually is the source of “V’higisah bo yomam va’lailah”, so we’ll find that Rashi says there basically like the Gra.  Not necessarily in p’sak, but what he says is that “v’higisah bo” means, “v’chisbonanta bo”.  You should think about it, and he says, “kol higyon sh’b’Torah baleiv”, that is Rashi’s comment. Anytime it says the word “hegyon” in the Torah it means thoughts in your heart, like it says in the pasuk, “v’hegyon libi lifanecha” which is Tehillim 19, or “libcha yehegeh eima” like we say in the bracha of Yom Kippur.  This is all brought down by Rashi.  It’s a pasuk in Yeshaya 33.  And, so this seems to be a valid question of the Vilna Gaon.

Pri Megadim’s Answer

There are a number of answers, and, again, this is not a halacha shiur, but there’s some fascinating ideas. Obviously, a person does get reward for thinking in Torah, as the Gra points out very clearly. The question is whether birchas HaTorah is required for those thoughts. Pri Megadim in the Mishbatzos Zahav says that of course you’re mekayeim a mitzvah through thought, however, the bracha of birchas haTorah was not established except on someone who is actually talking out loud. Just like we find in bitul Chameitz, when a person is mevateil his chometz, he relinquishes his ownership and his caring about the chameitz, he must do so verbally. Even though he thinks it in his heart those thoughts are not enough to make the bracha because we don’t make a bracha on things that are in your heart.  Rather, he has to say it verbally!

Nishmas Adam Idea

The Nishmas Adam (Chayeih Adam Klal 9) talks about this halacha of birchas HaTorah, and he was a relative of Gra. His son was married to the Vilna Gaon’s granddaughter, and he comes often to defend the Gra, and, once in a while, to argue with him as well.  He was a talmid of the Nodah b’Yehuda, and certainly one of the gedolei hador. 

He writes that the Gra is right technically.  However, what’s interesting is that since birchas HaTorah is learned out in a gemara in Berachos (21a) from the pasuk, “Ki sheim Hashem ekrah.”  (Devarim 32) I will call out in the name of Hashem, “Havu godel leilokeinu”, that’s when I should give honor to him through a bracha, we must read that carefully. Ekrah, means I will call out, verbally. Thus, the bracha was only established, not for thoughts, but for something that is recognizable which is calling out verbally. That’s what it means, “la’asok b’divrei Torah”.

Says the Chayeih Adam this means to involve yourself verbally with Torah. So, what does it mean “V’higisah bo yomam va’lailah”? The verse that Gra quoted. That means even if you can’t talk, you should at least be thinking about Torah.  It’s true that the pasuk is saying in Yehoshua that you should at least be thinking Torah, but, of course, we know it’s better, we know, “Chayim heim li’motzaeihem b’peh”.  The gemara in Eruvin says that the Torah is life to those that express it.

Rabbi Meir’s wife Bruria found one of the talmidei chachamim who was learning, and she kicked him because he was learning quietly to himself, and she said, “Chayim heim l’motza m’peh.” A woman understands that things need to be expressed and Torah needs to be expressed.  

Therefore, that’s the p’shat that is brought down from the Chayei Adam to explain the Vilna Gaon, and to answer for the Vilna Gaon.  And, this is a very interesting conversation.

2) Shulchan Aruh: Writing Torah

By the way, if you look further in Shulchan Aruch (OC 47:3) it says if you write divrei Torah, even though you are not reading them, you’re still chayav to make a bracha of birchas HaTorah. What’s the difference between thinking and writing? One of the simplest answers is that when you write you’re going to come to end up talking, but when you think, your mouth doesn’t necessarily speak words.

In fact there’s a very famous Chavas Yair which is very fascinating in siman 16 that he writes there that let’s say you write a shvua, you write that you swear to do something but you don’t express it verbally, does that count? So he writes that it is indeed binding because your writing is the same thing as your speech. He cites this psak of Shulchan Aruch as proof because it says if you write dvrei Torah, you have to make a bracha.  

However, one could argue that the Shulchan Aruch is not saying that the writing is actually ike speech. Not at all. The Shulchan Aruch is saying that since you might come to say it, therefore you should make a bracha beforehand. Based on the Gra, since anyway, even thinking is sufficient, so there it would count, but, certainly when it comes to a shvuah that would not be the case, and many people argue with the Chavos Yair, including Rabbi Akiva Eiger, siman 29.

3) Stories about Vilna Gaon’s Own Opinion

This story of the Vilna Gaon is very fascinating. It’s l’shitaso, according to his own opinion. Rav Chaim Volozhin brings down many stories about his rebbe, and we will go through a few of them, but I will start with one. There’s a sefer called Safra D’tzni’usah, which is a kabbalistic sefer that was written in the Tannaic age, and it’s meyuchas, perhaps to Adam. Arizal write a peirush on some of it, on the first perek and the beginning of the second perek,  and the Vilna Gaon wrote a peirush on it when he was very young. When it was printed after the Gra’s passing, Rav Chaim Volozhin wrote, basically, a hesped for his rebbe as the introduction to the sefer Safra D’tzniusah.  It’s printed in the back of the old prints of Nefesh Hachaim and Ruach Chaim. It’s very fascinating, so I’m going to quote some of the stories.

Vilna Gaon Forgot Torah Thought

A number of very close talmidim visited the Gra on one Pesach afternoon. It was the first day of Pesach in the afternoon, and two of these close talmidim, talmidim hachashuvim of the Gra were sitting there (I would imagine that one of them was Rav Chaim Volozhin, but he doesn’t write this -ed. note) and they knew the Gra very well, he was always happy, especially on a Yom Tov, but, yet, he looked a little bit, not as happy as usual, and so they asked him: Rebbe, what’s going on?  Is everything okay?  Are you okay?” And, he did not want to tell them. 

But, then, finally, they kept saying: Rebbe, “Torah he v’lilmode tzarich.” We need to learn. Tell us what’s going on.  So, he told them: Okay.  I’ll tell you what happened.  He said: Only because it says, “Daagah b’leiv ish yisicheneh l’acheirim,” the gemara says: If you have a worry you should share it.

What happened? Last night Eliyahu Hanavi came to me, and in my dream he was teaching me all types of chiddushim nora’im ad ein cheiker on the pasuk of “Alu zeh b’negev. When I got up in the morning, I was so excited because I remembered what he taught me, and I started thinking about what he taught me before making birchas HaTorah, and Hashem punished me.  (Remember this is the Gra l’shitaso, you’re not allowed to think Torah without making birchas HaTorah.) Immediately I forgot all the Torah that I was taught.”

The students were mispaeil, they were astonished by what they heard, btu they also knew their rebbe, he was the Gra, he was the great Vilna Gaon. So they said: Rebbe, we give you a bracha that Hashem should return it back to you!

A few days later, they asked him: Rebbe, what happened?  Did you get it back? He said: Baruch Hashem, it was revealed to me a second time. I was taught 2260 p’shatim in that pasuk “Alu zeh banegev.” Said the Gra: “Once I figured out why I lost it, so there was a lot of other reasons besides for what I told you, but now I also recognize why Hashem gave it back to me a second time.”  That’s all he explained.

That was the Gra who was in touch with Shamayim, and the Gra said about what he was taught that in one p’shat out of those 2260, I could explain all the purposes of every single creature in the entire world, and every single limb of the body what it’s topic and what it’s lesson is.

We don’t know if he explained it to them, but there’s nothing else printed there. I would like to know what that is.  So, that is what we have from this introduction.  That’s the Vilna Gaon’s opinion about thoughts.

4) Nefesh Hachaim: the Jewish mind is Kodesh Kodashim

We see that thoughts are very powerful, and like the Nefesh HaChaim himself writes that the maaseh, the action that Titus did where he desecrated the Kodesh haKedoshim, the holiest place in the world by bringing a sefer Torah, putting it on the floor, bringing a zona into the Beis Hamikdash, his act that he did there, does not compare to a Jewish mind which is the sanctuary, the Kodesh Hakodashim, and a person has a bad thought, rachmanah l’tzlan, negative thought about anything tamei that he’s not allowed to think about, so he is doing more damage to the Kodesh hakadoshim, k’viyachol, to the holy abode, says the Nefesh Hachaim, than anything that Titus ever did because Titus was a rasha and he was a goy, and he had no impact.  But, we’re a Jew, and our minds and our bodies are holy, so how careful we need to be about our thoughts.  And, so one of the ironies I always say is that the Vilna Gaon’s thoughts were pure, the Vilna Gaon’s thoguhts were his power, and so for him he gave chashivus to that, and even that needed birchas HaTorah.  Halivai our actual words that we actually express the words deserve a birchas HaTorah, but we should strive towards the Vilna Gaon, that thoughts that we have should be pure and holy.

5) Safra D’tzniusa is the mishanyos of the Zohar

A couple more stories.  So, Rav Chaim Volozhin explains a number of stories.  I’m going to go through a couple of them because they’re fascinating.  So, he says the tanaim chachmei haZohar Hakadosh wrotes sefer Safra D’tzniusa, and Safra D’tzniusa, by the way, if you want to know what it means, it means the sefer of tznius, of the private, secret sefer.  And, some people are miyacheis it to Yaakov Aveinu, some people bring it back earlier, and we know that the Arizal had he’aras that were written on it, and we have a little bit of the peirushim, and Rav Chaim Volozhin says: what a great day that we have that we’re able to print the Gra’s p’shatim on the sefer.  He says: Even though there are very few he’aras that he wrote, but still, each one is an amazing addition.  So, he writes a number of very interesting things, but he says all the things that were added, all the breisas that were added that we find throughout Shas, he says they’re all hinted to in the mishna itself.  He says: Not only that, all the gemaras and sugyas in Baavli, Yerushalmi, they all go back to the mishna itself.

If you learn mishnayos, that is the foundation of everything.  And, when a person learns poskim and Shulchan Aruch, that’s only to remind you of the halachos that are found throughout the yam hatalmud, so that you’ll be able to go back and learn it properly.  Of course, nowadays, many of the gedolei haposkim have come and tried to simplify it for those that are not able to learn to that level.  Therefore, the Gra says that this sefer of kabballah, Safra D’tzniusah is kind of the mishanayos of all of kabballah, which is very fascinating.  And, it’s based on the pasuk, “V’es hatznuim chochmah.”  That to the private people that’s wehre wisdom goes.  So, Rav Chaim Volozhin writes that min Hashamayim they agreed that the Zohar could be written by the Rashbi and the Zohar is based very much on Safra D’Tzniusah.  So, again the sefer is kind of mishanyos of kabballah, and he says that there is nothing in the Zohar and in Tikkunim that is not hinted in the small mishnayos Safra D’Tzniusah, and the Zohar is like the Bavli, Yerushalmi to this mishnayos.  So, this is a very important kabbalistic sefer, and Rav Chaim Volozhin was very excited about the Gra’s peirush.  And, he writes a number of things.

6) Ramchal, Gra and Rav Chaim Vital Exclusive

Rav Chaim Volozhin brings down that one of the only people who understood Kisvei Ha’Arizal properly is Rav Chaim Vital himself, and the Arizal testified to this that out of the people that understood it was only Rav Chaim Vital.  There is another quote brought down that the Gra says that there are only three people that understand Kisvei Ha’Arizal, and they are Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal, and the Vilna Gaon himself because he says it’s all a mashal, it’s all a parable, and you have to understand what the nimshal is, what the lesson is behind everything in the Zohar, and he says Rav Chaim, and the Kisvei Ha’Arizal are very hard to understand, and he says that Rav Chaim Vital understood it, but he hid his understanding and he made it look that he didn’t understand it, but it’s nikar from the writings he said that he did understand it.  Whatever that means.

7) Gra: A person must learn the Zohar and Tikkunim with Yigiyah

Rav Chaim Volozhin writes that his rebbe, the Vilna Gaon used to have giluy Eliyahu and sometimes he would have Moshe Rabbeinu come to him as well, and he would sometimes tell his talmidim about this as well.  And, he also warns that there are different parts of Kisvei Ha’Arizal that were added later that are not really from the Arizal, and a person has to be careful, and the Vilna Gaon used to teach people that when it comes to learning the Zohar and Tikkunim you have to learn them well, and you need to be miyagei’ah because that is the only way to accomplish it, and the Gra used to say that there were many pieces that it took him weeks to understand properly.  And, this is another famous story which is very related to the one that I started off with, but a little bit different.  Just listen to this.

8) The Gra Lost Explanations

Rav Chaim Volozhin says that my rebbe the Gra told me a very interesting thing, and that is that he was one time studying a maamar in the Zohar about Rosh Chodesh and twelve Rosh CHodeshes and the secret and he couldn’t understand it at all, and then it was one Rosh Chodesh and he was davening Shachris and all of a sudden, in his thought, he thought about that maamar of the Zohar and he had seven p’shatim that just came to him.

So, the Gra says: What was I supposed to do?  So, he asked his talmid: What do you think I should have done?  So, Rav Chaim Volozhin answered him: Well, you should have waited a little drop, get them clear, and then move forward.  So, the Gra says: I admit that I did that, but it was wrong.  It was about a quarter of a minute.  I waited fifteen seconds and I put them in order, and then I went to go finish my davening.  However, to my dimay, when I finished davening, I thought about the maamar to try to review the p’shatim, and I totally forgot the p’shat.  And, I was very, very upset about this, and not only was I so upset that I forgot those seven amazing p’shatim,  that it took me a half hour to clear my mind in order to be able to say Hallel properly.  You see how, even though the Vilna Gaon had very strong intellectual powers, but he had very strong emotions as well, and he only wanted to daven with a full heart to Hashem.

And, so he said: What did I do?  I was me’sakein this.  I started to daven.  I finished Hallel and I davened Musaf, and all of a sudden all of the seven p’shatim came back to me just like they did in the beginning.  All seven of them started coming to me in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei.  So, instead, I didn’t stop.  I ignored them because I’m in the middle of davening; I’m talking to Hashem, and I didn’t think about them at all.  And, when I finished davening tefillas Musaf, then I thought back to it, and I had them all, remembered all seven p’shatim and I had them.  We see how in touch the Vilna Gaon was with his emotions, and it’s a phenomenal thing.  We see how important davening is and not interrupting davening.

9) The Gra Declined Chavrusah

There’s another very famous and fascinating thing about the Vilna Gaon which his student, Rav Chaim Volozhin writes about him.  And, this is actually the source, a lot of people don’t know that it comes from here, is about his yigiyah in Torah.  He writes about how hard the Vilna Gaon studied Torah, and how much effort and energy he put into it, and not only that, but the Vilna Gaon told Rav Chaim Volozhin that many times there were malachim, angels, and maggidim, different types of angels in Heaven that offered to teach him Torah, and he always declined and said: I don’t want free gifts.  I want to learn it by myself, and that is he wasnted it through his own effort.

The Gra told Rav Zalman Volozhin to Say No

Not only that, the Vilna Gaon says that one time he sent his talmid, Rav Chaim Volozhin to deliver a message to Rav Zalman Volozhin.  Rav Chaim Volozhin had a brother whose name was Zalman Volozhin.  He was legendary, and he was supposed to be the next gadol hador, but he ended up dying very young.  But, he was a younger, Rav Chaim Volozhin describes him as “my younger brother who is bigger than me.”  “Achi hakatan", my younger brother, “V’gadol mi’meni b’chol milei d’meitav chassidah kaddishin.”  He was a chassid and a kadosh.  Rav Zalman.  And, the Gra sent me to tell him the following message.  He said: Don’t accept the maggid that you’re being offered.  There’s an angel that’s offering to learn with you.  He says: You’re going to ask me: What about the Beis Yosef.  He learned with a malach.  He wrote the famous Maggid Meisharim which is all the things that the angel taught him in the 1500s.  So, the Gra answered that the Beis Yosef, first of all, he lived two hundred years ago, and so the generations were more worthy and it was okay, and also he was living in Eretz Yisrael, he lived in Tzfat, in fact, and therefore it was allowed.  But, here, don’t do it.  And, that was the message that was sent to his brother.  So, we could just imagine what was going on in all their worlds.

10) Gra knew how to Create Golam

Gra also told over that he knew the secret about how to create a Golam.  I know we talked about the Maharal’s Golam which was in the fifteen hundreds.  This was the Gra, and he said that he started building one when he was a child, and ended up stopping because he got a hint from Shamayim that it should be stopped, and so he disbanded the project.  We don’t know exactly why he was building it and what he was doing, but that’s what the story goes.

We know that Rav Chaim Volozhin reports that when his rebbe would sleep he would tell him that he was learning sodos HaTorah at night, and he would kind of choose which Mesifta d’Rebbi Akiva he wanted to join at night to get answers and understandings.  And, also, the Gra says that sometimes a person has to sleep.  Remember, the Gra slept two hours a day for four half hour periods because there’s certain sodos haTorah that are only revealed in one’s sleep and not while one’s awake, so there’s certain understandings one could only understand while they’re asleep and so that was what was going on.

11) The Man who Saw Private Matters

There was one time that the Gra told over that he was talking over the parsha, Parshas HaAzinu and saying over.  Rav Chaim Volozhin writes that there was a man going  around Vilna who seemed to have some supernatural power where he was able to tell people what they were doing in private, what they were thinking, and people were very, very shocked by him, and they brought him to the Gra, and the Gra looked at him and said: Go ahead, you could talk.  And, so the man said: With rebbe’s permission, I’ll tell you what you were doing last week.  He says: Last Thursday you were sitting in the room, and you were talking about Parshas HaAzinu on the following pasuk, and he quoted a pasuk, and on your right side was sitting Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, and on your left side was sitting the Arizal and the Gra was shocked that someone knew about this.  And, the Gra told the man to stop doing what he’s doing.  It was not appropriate.

12) The Gra did not want to be Distracted

Rav Chaim Volozhin writes something that has to be taken with a grain of salt, but, he basically says that, of course, the Gra was a loving father and caring father, but he very much focused, the gemara tells us that a person sometimes has to be like an Oreiv, like a Raven, in the sense that he can’t be distracted by outside things, by his family.  And, so, he says about the Gra that the Gra was very focused on his learning and his family supported him,

13) Mofsim vs. Gra

There’s one other story that is not brought down in this introduction, as far as I recall, but it is brought down in the Nefesh HaChaim, from Rav Chaim Volozhin, and it’s one of my favorite stories that kind of puts everything in perspective.  So, the chassiddim were fighting against the Vilna Gaon, and Rav Chaim Volozhin, and one of the things that the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim Volozhin were upset about was that there were all these mofsim, this discussion about these mofsim that all the rebbes were doing.

Rav Chaim Volozhin was questioned the following question.  He said: I don’t get it that you tell over osos and mofsim about the Vilna Gaon as well, so why are we any different.  We’re telling over osos and mofsim about our rebbe.  So, Rav Chaim Volozhin said: There’s a stira in the gemara.  On the one hand it says that all the tannaim and amoraim were capable of doing techiyas hameisim and great things, so we see even in the time of the gemara there was a discussion about the greatness, the kabbalistic and spiritual greatness of the tannaim and amoraim, but yet, at the same time, there’s a gemara in Brachos that says there was a certain man, “hahu gavrah”, there was certain individual, we don’t know who it was, and he was raising a girl who was an orphan and there was no mother to nurse the baby, and a miracle happened and the man was able to nurse the child and keep her alive.  And, the gemara says that this miracle happened.  The gemara comments that this is discussed and “kama meguneh” and this miracle is disgusting and an insult.

Rav Chaim Volozhin said: What’s going on over here?  Is it a great thing that a miracle happened, or is it a bad thing?  So, he says like this: If you’re known for your Torah and chesed and you’re known to be a great person and that’s who you are, and then on the side you happen to do some miracles, okay.  So, then great.  It fits in with the profile.  A person is a tanna and an amora, and he happens to do miracles on the side, fine.  But the gemara isn’t filled with miracles; the gemara is filled with lumdus, with learning Torah and yiras Shamayim.  But if you’re just “hahu gavrah”, you’re some random guy.  Noone knows anything about his Torah, then all of a sudden we just start talking about these osos and mofsim, these miracles that he does, then that’s worthless.  And, I’ll finish the sentence, and no one misunderstands it.  He wasn’t insulting anybody, but he was saying that if you’re known as a gadol baTorah and yiras Shamayim and you teach Torah and mitzvos and middos and then it happens to be on the side there’s some osos and mofsim that come out because a person that accepts Torah on himself, Hashem changes the world around for him, that’s great, that’s wonderful, that’s the Vilna Gaon.  But, if you’re just telling me stories about nobody, about a nobody who all of a sudden does osos and mofsim and that’s the reason that you want to be close with him and spend time with him, then that doesn’t justify it.  And, that is as Litvish as it comes.

Greatness of the Vilna Gaon

I hope that these stories inspire us to become greater and better people and to understand the greatness fo the Vilna Gaon.  Some of the tip of the iceberg about what this.  There’s a lot of other stories and a lot of other comments if you want to take a look at Rav Chaim Volozhin’s introduction to Safra D’tzniusah.


Rabbi Yosef Tropper is a rabbi and psychotherapist. Subscribe at

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