Rav Zvi Dov Slanger, ZT'L: A Talmid’s Perspective

By Rabbi Yissacher Dov Krakowski

Posted on 02/14/18

Baltimore, MD - Feb. 14, 2018 - Most often memories fade as time goes on, this is certainly the case with people when they pass on. Chazal tell us that the memory of one who has passed away diminishes after twelve months. 

Even great people who transform into legends upon their passing fade into a historical personality of yesterday who's memories are only as strong as the precise tangible contributions they left behind. Whether writings, institutions or anything else. There are few who, as time passes, their memory becomes stronger and their legend becomes larger than life. 

(Photo Credit: Reb Eli Greengart)

Rav Slanger, Zatzal, is in this latter category. He did leave behind an amazing Yeshiva that he handcrafted and custom tailored it to his unique vision. Nonetheless, there is another aspect that will only be felt in the years to come. 

Rav Slanger was an immense, one of a kind Mechanech. He was a master at cultivating bonified  Bnei Torah. His pupils will likely be the greatest of tomorrow. He had a way of guiding each and every Talmid in an exacting yet non-controlling manner. He once noticed a superiorly intelligent talmid was becoming unengaged. How could he engage this talmid without losing the rest of his shiur? After all, he had an obligation to the rest of the twenty plus bachurim in the shiur. He decided he would ask this intelligent talmid to mark the bechinos. Another time he noticed a bachur who wasn't bad but just wasn't conforming to Yeshiva and was thus on the verge of being thrown out. Rav Slanger came to the conclusion that since this bachur is starting off his day on the wrong foot -- by coming late to Shacharis -- the rest of his day just couldn't be set right. Rav Slanger called the talmid over and asked him if he could take attendance for Shacharis. The bachur replied, "but Rebbi I don't come on time". Rav Slanger told him, "I know I can trust you and it's important." Rav Slanger continued "I'm sure you will come in time". 

Two years after opening his own Yeshiva, Rav Slanger opened a dormitory. For this purpose, he rented an apartment   complex nearby to house the new mini-dorm. One day we found a couch in the garbage that was in quite decent condition. We brought it into the dorm. The next evening Rav Slanger visited to make sure all was in order in the dorm. At once, Rav Slanger spotted the couch. He became extremely visibly upset. He explained that for many years he never had a couch in his own home until he needed one for guests and visitors. He explained a Ben-Torah should be sitting on a chair learning. If they're too tired he said: "they should go to sleep". He ordered that we remove the couch. None of us could argue because we knew he honestly believed what he said. He sat on a wooden chair in the Beis Medrash while the rest of us sat on upholstered chairs. The Rosh Yeshiva practiced what he preached. This was so with everything in his life. He had his Tallis and Tefillin and was in the Beis Medrash a half hour before shacharis learning mussar. He learned Halacha Seder, a full first Seder, and a full night Seder. He always davened with real kavana from beginning till the end. He never rushed out of a tefilla and was always there before it started. 

His honesty and integrity were astounding.  The Yeshiva started out in a local Shul. A well-meaning staff member prepared a gorgeous brochure for fundraising purposes. While doing so this staff member photoshopped onto the front of the building "Beis Hamedrash and Mesivta". When Rav Slanger saw this he instructed this staff member to dispose of the brochures and to make new ones without Yeshiva's name on the building. He explained that it is dishonest for him to present it as if the Yeshiva is big and has its own building.

Rav Slanger was stern and strict but with absolute fairness. When Rav Slanger would want to know what happened he made sure to know the exact and full story before acting. There were times that he called in each bachur individually to ask them what they knew of a certain occurrence. He would ask them where they were and who was with them. He would lovingly hold the bachur's hand with one hand while holding the bachur's wrist with the other. His holding onto the bachur's wrist was so as to be able to detect a rise in blood pressure if the bachur told an untruth. He would take notes and compare what different bachurim said until he had a full picture. He was not quick to throw a bachur out. In fact, Rav Slanger said that the Chazon Ish once told him throwing out a bachur from Yeshiva is dinei nefashos and therefore requires a Beis din of 23 judges. He, therefore, opted not to throw out bachurim. If he felt it necessary to remove a bachur from Yeshiva, he would first find him a new Yeshiva and then wait until Bein hazmanin to make the move. This way he removed the bachur from Yeshiva while preserving the bachur's dignity and seeing to it that the bachur has a suitable Yeshiva to continue his growth. 

The Rosh Yeshiva guided us with a firm hand, yet with a warm touch. When a bachur would come late to Shacharis (even just five minutes late) he would pay a kenas. If a bachur would accumulate a bunch of fines the Rosh Yeshiva would sit the bachur down and discuss with him how he could earn his money back. This would usually entail coming early to Shacharis for several days. On an occasion that these fines failed to correct a particular talmid coming late to Shacharis,  Rav Slanger approached him in the corridor of the Yeshiva and told him that he has a hole in his pocket. He continued: "I watched you walking down the hall and I noticed you have a hole in your pocket and everything is falling out from it". The bachur turned to see what had fallen out but didn't notice anything on the floor behind him that could have fallen out. The bachur looked at the Rosh Yeshiva and said: "Rebbi, I don't know what the Rosh Yeshiva is talking about?" Rav Slanger explained to him that not davening Shacharis properly is comparable to having a hole in one's pocket. That even though he is learning well everything is falling out because he doesn't daven Shacharis properly. 

The Rosh Yeshiva truly cherished his mentors, the Gedolim of yore. He held them in the highest respect. He viewed them as super human celestial beings. Nonetheless, he could not comprehend why a contemporary Yeshiva student, could not reach the heights of those of generations past.  To this end he encouraged us to finish the Yeshiva's mesechta and to learn all sorts of other topics. This was true to the extent that it had become the unofficial standard in Yeshiva, for even the average bachur, to make a siyum on Yeshiva's mesechta. Halacha and mussar Sedarim are as vibrant as first Seder. 

Our Rebbi had pure ahavas HaTorah. Learning with the Rosh Yeshiva was learning with a live Gemora. Rav Slanger had such clarity in every (literally every) sugya. He knew the sugyos with everything that was printed in the Gemora: with the Maharsho, Rosh, Reshash, etc. There wasn't a Rebbi Akiva Eiger that the Rosh Yeshiva wasn't familiar with; Pnei Yehoshua was part of pshat. He would always say knowing what you don't understand is also knowing. The main thing was to have clarity, even if it meant remaining with questions. The Rosh Yeshiva would always remind us that Rebbi Akiva Eiger moved on after every unsolvable question he raised. 

The Rosh Yeshiva taught by example. It bothered the Rosh Yeshiva the manner in which american bachurim devour food. He wouldn't allow food to be served from a bar window. He explained that Bnei-Torah don't wait in line for food. The Rosh Yeshiva was determined to change the way his talmidim ate. It was to this end that he dined together with us in Yeshiva's dining room. He wanted us to observe how a Gadol baTorah eats.  

The Rosh Yeshiva was literally the embodiment of kavod ho'odom. When one looked at the Rosh Yeshiva one beheld the essence of Man's glory. The Rosh Yeshiva was always put together, always neat, and always clean. His presence demanded respect. There was something extraordinary about the Rosh Yeshiva, because despite his aura of respect, he was the essence of humility. How many times did we see the Rosh Yeshiva bend down in the Beis Medrash to pick up a used tissue from the floor, or a piece of food that fell on the floor in the dining room? How plain was the Rosh Yeshiva's love when he bentched each and every talmid on Erev Yom-Kippur? 

Chazal tell us based on the passuk --כי שפתי כהן וכו׳ ותורה יבקשו וכו׳ כי מלאך ה׳ וכו׳ --that one should learn Torah from a Rebbi who is similar to a Malach. The passuk says because he is a Malach; not because he is similar to Malach. It would seem that Chazal understood that while the passuk says to seek a rebbi who is a Malach, one cannot expect a rebbi to actually be as perfect as a Malach. 

The Rosh Yeshiva was a perfect compilation of humility and dignity all in one. His smile was as real and as wholesome as possible. Rav Slanger was a Malach. 

We were Zoche to learn from the Malach that chazal assumed no one could expect to find even in a rebbi. 

Rav Slanger's legacy will be most felt as his students who he guided so meticulously grow into Talmidei Chochomim. 

We cannot reproduce Rav Slanger. We can keep his legacy alive. The Rosh Yeshiva built our Yeshiva; we must keep that Yeshiva alive. 

It is being guided by his handpicked staff. It is our duty to see to it that it continues to blossom. 

The Rosh Yeshiva took so much pride in the expansion. During Bein Hazmanim he took a visiting talmid on a late night private tour of the renovations and expansion. Not because he was expecting a donation but because he was so proud of it. 

It is that pride and joy that is the Rosh Yeshiva's legacy. His handpicked staff will fill the koslei Beis hamedrash with Talmud Torah. We must see to it that this project is finished. May we all have a part in preserving and encouraging the Rosh Yeshiva's legacy.