Click to Print This Page

Korach and Chukat 5773: Lithuania: The Paradise We Lost

by in Korach, Chukat .

Reflections from my trip down the memory lanes of a lost world

On the surface many of them looked no different from the non-Jewish aristocracy of their time, but when they served Hashem in study and prayer, they were like angels of G-d. Their ways were the ways of pleasantness and all of their pathways were peaceful.


Straight From the Jungle

Last Sunday and Monday in South Africa I was tracking leopards in the bush, parked in the middle of a herd of elephant and staring at a large male lion less than twenty feet away. Isolated from the world and immersed in the wonders of the wild, a world that is no longer, I understood things you can never learn from books or movies. Some things only make sense when you see them in live context.

On Tuesday I flew to Lithuania[1]. In less than a day I traversed two continents and a century of time. In Lithuania I felt equally isolated from the world and again immersed in a world that is no longer. Previously I thought I understood Lithuanian Torah life through the eyes of my father and Rabeim. But quickly I began to understand things that can only make sense when you see them in live context.

The leader of our small group[2] of benei Torah, Dr. Schneur Leiman from New York, is a world-class academic, an historian and a talmid chacham of note. He brought pre-war Lithuania to life in front of our eyes. I could see Reb Chaim-Ozer Grodginski appear on the balcony of his second floor corner apartment in Vilna. I walked along the bustling alleys in the streets of the Vilna ghetto to the central square that housed countless batei midrash and the main centuries-old Vilna Shul that seated 3000 people. I saw the battle between the maskillim(secularists) and the leaders of Torah and visited the proud shul themaskillim built - the only pre-world war shul still in existence in Vilna. I walked the route the Chazon Ish followed every day during his time in Vilna from his home in Uzipio across the Vilnia River to the Beis Medrash of Reb Matisyahu Strashun. There he could research the notes of Reb Matisyahu's father, the Rashash, and use his vast library later bequeathed to the famous Strashun Library of Vilna.

I saw Reb Yisroel Salanter walk into his Beis Hamedrash in Vilna where he would mentor a small group of disciples to become the trail-blazers of the mussar movement. I saw the Devar Avraham, Rav of Kovno, as he took his afternoon stroll down the Laisves Aleja Boulevard watched admiringly by visiting non-Jewish tourists who came to see this majestic Prince of Torah. I even saw the Rav's number listed in the 1940 Kovno telephone directory. I saw Reb Yechiel Weinberg cross the Nemun river from Slabodka to Kovno and then the Neris river from Kovno to Aleksot and make his way up the hill to his kevius (fixed time of study) with Reb Naftoli Amsterdam, the Rav of Aleksot. I saw my great-uncle walk the streets of Kelm and my father visit with Reb Daniel in his tiny shack near the Kelmer Talmud Torah.

I attended the funeral of Reb Shimon Shkopp as I stood by his kever (grave) in Grodno. I heard Reb Ahron Kotler teaching in Kletzk and Reb Elchonon Wasserman meticulously deliver his shiur to his young students in Branovicz. I watched Reb Yeruchem deliver a shmuess(sermon) in the Mir Yeshiva and stood by the window of the Telshe Yeshiva listening to the Telshe Rav deliver his shiurei da'as andshiurei halacha. I heard Reb Chaim Soleveitchik and the Netziv alternate their brilliant daily gemarra shiurim in Vallozhin. I saw the Chofetz Chaim pouring over his writings in the tiny hamlet of Raddun with the sound of 250 talmidim learning Torah in his Yeshiva, just a stone's throw from his home.

Tragically, I also watched helplessly as a Lithuanian gang under Nazi direction beheaded the last Rov of Slabodka, Rav Zalman Osovsky and murdered thousands of Slabodka and Kovno Jews in their homes in the terrible pogrom of June 1941. I heard the machine-gun fire that killed 70,000 Vilna Jews over two years at the ghastly pits in the middle of the gorgeous Paneri forest resort. I saw the Telshe Rov and Reb Daniel of Kelm with regal bearing leading their talmidim to perform their final, and catastrophically glorious mitzvah in the forests on the outskirts of their towns. And I heard Reb Elchonon deliver his angelic derasha inspiring his community as he taught them how to prepare themselves in purity for the greatest sacrifice a Jew can make. Then I heard the gunfire. Then… the stunning silence… the loss… the unanswerable question. The agony. The faith. Vacuum.

The Lithuanian Brand of Torah

What did we lose in Lithuania? We lost great Yeshivas, giants of Torah, princely tzadikkim and nearly 200,000 precious brothers and sisters. But more than that, we lost the premium brand of Torah learning and living. I know there are said to be more people learning Torah today, only 70 years after the devastation, than ever before in Jewish history. But amidst all of this illustrious learning, other than perhaps among a few individuals, the brand of Lithuanian Torah is lost.

Let me try to explain what this brand was. Years ago, when my daughters were being educated in the fine Beis Yaacov system, I showed them some pictures of Lithuanian Yeshiva students between the wars. I wanted them to appreciate the contrast between these colorful individuals and their monochromatic, generic counterparts of today. One of my daughters was shocked: "If you put Charlie Chaplain amongst them, you wouldn't be able to tell him apart," she said. I suggested we try. Fortunately I had a picture of Charlie and other celebrities of that period and I showed these to her. She looked at them for a moment, then her face broke into a smile as she said: "The difference is in their eyes." This was Lithuania: Emphasize the internal things that set you apart, de-emphasize anything external that is not a strict halachik requirement. You are Jewish because of the choices you make in your heart, not because of the way you appear to the public[3].

It is true, for example, that the Mishnah Berurah paskens (decides) that men should wear their tzitzis out. A rishon (medieval authority), the Mahari Brunah on the other hand, paskens that doing so constitutes yuhara (arrogance). How is this resolved in Lithuania? My teachers explained to me that in Lithuania no Torah scholar, young or old, was seen in public without his jacket on. Even in shiur and in the Beis Hamedrash they wore jackets. So while their tzitzis were out of their trousers, they were never visible to others. I remember how Torah giants like the Ponevezer Rav and my great uncle, Reb Eliya Lopian used to daven erect with hardly a visible external gesture. It is said that a great Chasidishe Rebbe once sent emissaries to Lithuania to investigate the nature of its Yeshiva students. They returned to the Rebbe reporting that "the young men look like gentiles but daven (pray) like angels." This was the Lithuanian way: Emphasize the internal things that set you apart, de-emphasize anything external.

Many people who saw Reb Yisroel Slanter, even just for a few minutes, reported that the experience changed their lives forever. One such person was my great uncle, Reb Elya Lopian. When he was a very young boy he saw Reb Yisroel in the distance from behind and that changed his life. My father asked Reb Elya what about Reb Yisroel it was that changed his life. "He impacted the entire Jewish world indelibly, yet he looked just like an ordinary businessman," answered Reb Elya. This was the Lithuanian way: Emphasize the internal things that set you apart, de-emphasize anything external.

The Lithuanian way was founded neither on a response to modernity nor on a response to the maskillim. The Lithuanian way was, according to their worldview, the quintessential derech Hashem (way of G-d). Its articulation can be found in many statements of Chazal(rabbinic literature). One such place is in the parsha we read while I was in Vilna, Parshas Korach.

Kashrus and Kedusha

Why did Korach question the choice of Kehunah to Aharon but not the allocation of the Leviah to himself and the other descendants of Levi? To understand Korach's thinking and Moshe's response we need to appreciate the difference between two separate ideas:Kashrut and kedusha (holiness).

The kashrut of an object is determined by a tangible and visible indicator. A fish is kosher if it has scales and fins, an animal, if it chews the cud and has a cloven hoof. However there is no tangible or visible difference between an item that is kodesh and one that is not. For example a sefer Torah or pair of tephillin written by a non-believer has no kedusha at all. Even though the most careful examination of their form and content would not highlight any differences between the two sifrei Torah or the two pairs of tephillin.

The people chosen for leviah were distinguished by clearly determinable criteria - they were all direct descendants of an individual named Leivi. However Ahron was in no way distinguishable from the other Levi'im. He, like them, was a descendant of Leivi. Korach accepted the G-d-given distinction ofLeviah but not theselection of Aharon from among the Levi'im. Everyone heard Hashem give the Torah at Sinai, he arguesd, but no one heard Hashem tell Moshe that Ahron and only his children were to be chosen as the Kohannim. To Korach this smelled of nepotism.

Moshe answers that while Leviah is determined by simanei kashrut(visible signs of kashrut), kehunah is determined by kedusha. A Leiviis a Leivi by virtue of his birth and genetics. The genetics of a Koheinare (certainly in the case of the first generation of Kohannim) no different from those of other Levi'im. The first kohein was chosen by virtue of his Kedusha, the choices he made in his life and not by external criteria of birth.

Now consider Moshe's response to Korach (Bamidbar 16:5): Boker ve'yodah Hashem etc. - "In the morning Hashem will make known who is his and who is holy that He draw him close to Him, and the one who Hashem chooses he will draw near to Him." Rashi explains that who is his refers to the choice of Levi'im, and who is holy refers to the choice of Kohannim". Note Onkelos's translation of these two phrases: Who is his (the Levi'im) he translates as "who is kosher to Him," whereas the Kohannim are referred to as "who is holy."

The difference between the natural criteria of kashrut and the intangible criteria of kedusha can be more clearly grasped by considering the two different kinds of boundaries that demarcate a territory. Sometimes the boundary is natural like an ocean or river, but sometimes the boundary is invisible and often not even marked by a fence. So too there are Halachik boundaries that are natural such as the boundaries of kashrut, and others that are intangible and invisible to the eye like the boundaries of kedusha and tahara.

The distinction between these two types of halachik boundary underpins Rashi's comment (16:5 d"h Vehikriv): "Hashem distinguished His world with boundaries, just as you cannot reverse the boundaries between morning and evening, so you cannot reverse this distinction (between kohannim and levi'im). The termvayavdeil (and He divided) is used for both." The moments that start the morning or the evening are determined by mathematical andhalachik criteria and are often not distinguishable to the eye. If you looked out of your window a minute before the time you can start putting on tephillin and a minute after, you would not notice the difference. Only the cock with its G-d given instinct can sense that moment: Hanotein lasechvi binah. Korach missed the distinction between simanei kashrut and kedusha when it came to Kehuna andLeviah.

Bein Yisrael La'amim

The distinction between the Jew and the gentile is not genetic nor is it any tangible, visible siman (sign). You will find no scientific difference between the genetic material of a convert to Judaism and a gentile, yet one is 100% Jewish and the other is not. (Any genetic similarity between Jews is a function of their marrying one another, not a function of their Jewishness.) We are Jewish because of the choices our direct ancestors made and a convert is Jewish because of the choices he or she makes. What made us Jewish at the outset was not our physical appearances or our birth. What made us Jewish was our choice to accept the Torah. If birth were the criteria of Jewishness we would be a race and conversion would not be a possibility. This is declared every motzei Shabbat in Havdalah when we compare our uniqueness to the uniqueness of kodesh as opposed to chol and the distinction between light and dark. We do not compare our difference to that between kosher and treif or between water and dry land. These differences, unlike the difference between Jew and gentile, are tangible and visible.

This idea that kedusha is not externally visible underpins the Lithuanian view of Jewishness. We are a goy kadosh (a holy nation)not a goy kasher (a kosher nation). The choices we make, the attitudes we adopt, the beliefs we live by and the character we expect of ourselves are what differentiate us from the gentile. We are not different because of our appearance or external images and clothing[4]. This was the Lithuanian way: Emphasize the internal things that set you apart, de-emphasize anything external. People should know you are Jewish by the choices you make in the way you interact with them, with G-d and with yourself, not by the clothes you wear.

Paradise Regained

So back to Charlie Chaplin: You tell him apart from a Lithuanianbachur Yeshiva by his eyes, not by his fashion. The eyes are windows to the soul whereas clothing is just an artificial image. The choices we make affect the way we look and the way we see; they affect our essence, you can tell it in our eyes. The clothes we wear and our external exhibits of religiousness do not affect us in any deep way at all.

Lithuania is a very beautiful country but not in a loud or imposing way. Its landscape is gentle and tranquil composed of lusciously green meadows, bubbling streams, fast flowing rivers and thick forests peppered with little hamlets and villages. Lithuanian Torah Jewrywas the same. They were often brilliant people, noble and smart but mostly in refined and gentle ways. Their brilliance did not glare at you and they did not wear their piety on their sleeves. You needed to observe their behavior, hear their insights and look closely into their eyes to discern their sanctity. On the surface many of them looked no different from non-Jewish aristocracy of their time, but when they served Hashem in study and prayer, they were like angels of G-d. Their ways were the ways of pleasantness and all of their pathways were peaceful. With all its poverty, Lithuanian Torah was paradise, a paradise we have lost[5].

My journey through Lithuania renewed my passion for the works of the giants of Lithuanian Torah. With renewed vigor I will study and teach the profoundly modern insights of Reb Shimon Shkopp and Reb Boruch Ber and the brilliant halachik methodology of Reb Yechiel Wineberg. I will probe the brilliance of Reb Chaim and his son the Brisker Rav and continue to share them as I have in the past together with the exquisite mussar thoughts of greats like the Chafeitz Chaim, Reb Simcha Zissel, his disciple Reb Yeruchum, the Alter of Slabodka , Reb Avrohom Grodginski and my great-uncle, Reb Elya. I will apply my mind to unveiling the phenomenal depths of the Vilna Gaon's pithy comments on the Shulchan Aruch, for this is where it all really started.

In this way as I forever mourn the paradise we lost I will, bs"d, try to play my tiny little part in reclaiming the paradise we must still regain.



[1] See the iAwaken Facebook page for pictures I took there.

[2] My tour was meticulously organized and flawlessly executed by my cousin and Jewish tour operator, Zvi Lapian (

[3] See footnote 4

[4] There is an halachik concept of Jewish dress. The Jews in Egypt distinguished themselves not only by their names and language but also by their dress. However, Jewish dress throughout the ages has manifested in ordinary Jews dressing like the nobility of their era, not like freaks from a different land or a gone-by era! (I say this with absolutely no judgment on the alternative view, prominent today, that Jews should dress in ways that are externally different from any non-Jew. This simply was not the Lithuanian worldview.

[5] I recognize that I am somewhat glamorizing a society that, like any other, had its flaws and blemishes. I wrote this piece as a hesped for Lithuanian Jewry, highlighting the positives that we have lost and from which we can learn. Doing so adds luster to the teachings and lives of the gems we lost al kidush Hashem.

Latest update: October 18, 2014

New Member

Register Account

By creating an account you will be able to save shiurim to your personal library for later listening, download audio shiurim to your local computer, receive email communication from Rabbi Lapin and comment on the Shiurim.


Returning Member