Rav Karlinsky Snr z”l, when he was a young boy in Europe, was sent to learn in a yeshiva called Yeshivas Slobodka. It was a famous yeshiva comprised of the top students from Europe. To get in there you had to be the best. He was considered an illui at the time, which means a genius or prodigy. The Yeshiva is made up of a yeshiva katana (literally: a small yeshiva – for the younger students) and a yeshiva gedola (literally big yeshiva – for people post high school age). When he was 11 some testers came, and tested him, and said he should be in the yeshiva gedola. So at 11 years old this young boy was studying with literally some of the top minds of the Jewish people! It’s mind boggling. Many of the Torah giants of recent times, such as Rav Hutner, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and others, came out of the Yeshiva of Slobodka.
The Rosh Yeshiva was a famous rabbi nicknamedthe Alter of Slobodka. Alter means grandfather. The Alter of Slobodka stressed more than anything the need to behave with Derech Eretz. To be a mentsch. To behave in a way that is upright and respectful to others, to Hashem, and also to yourself.
There is a passuk in this week’s parsha, Parshat Vayetzei, that the Alter used to emphasise over and over again, and that’s what I wanted to share with you this week.
We read this week the famous story of Jacob’s dream as he was leaving the borders of the Land of Israel. In this dream he sees a ladder whose feet were on the ground and whose top reached to heaven, and angels were ascending and descending the ladder. In this prophetic dream, Hashem appears to Jacob and tells him:
“I am Hashem, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac; the ground upon which you are lying, to you will I give it and to your descendants. Your offspring shall be [as numerous] as the dust of the earth,and you shall burst forth westward, eastward, northward and southward; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and by your offspring. Behold I am with you; and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this soil; for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken for you.”
It’s a beautiful promise that Hashem makes to Yaakov here. But when Yaakov wakes up, he says “Surely Hashem is in this place and I did not know!” (Bereishit 28:16). And the Torah tells us he became frightened. Rashi tells us that what Yaakov means when he says “I did not know” is that “If I had known, I would not have slept in a holy place such as this.”
The Alter of Slobodka points out the power of this statement.
Yaakov was shown incredible things in this dream. He had a revelation from God. He was promised a land for the Jewish people, and that we would be safeguarded, and that Hashem would never leave us. And yet he says: “I would have given it all up in order not to act in a way which is disrespectful and unbefitting of such a holy place.” If all these benefits and promises came at the price of not behaving respectfully towards Hashem by sleeping in such a holy place, he didn’t want them. Rather that he should be able to conduct himself in a proper manner.
The Alter of Slobodka said this attitude must be applied to all areas of our life. Nothing is worthwhile if it comes at the expense of treating ourselves, others, or Hashem with the utmost respect. As the gemara says: Derech Eretz Kadma LaTorah. Good behaviour comes before Torah. You can’t know the entire Torah if you don’t treat people well or if you don’t treat Hashem with respect. If you do, it’s not worth jack.
When Rav Karlinsky Snr z”l first entered the yeshiva, he was at Shacharit one morning, and when it came to shema he unbuttoned his shirt a little and started fishing around inside for his tzitzit to kiss them as he said shema, as is the custom. Afterwards the Alter called him over and asked him what he was doing. He said, of course, that he was taking out his tzitzit to kiss them during shema! Everyone does this! The Alter said: “No. We don’t do that here. To be unbuttoning your shirt in the middle of praying? That’s not derech eretz. That’s not befitting a shule.” That was the Alter of Slobodka, and it applied to every area of life and every type of interaction we have, be it with our parents, our friends, strangers, or with Hashem.
That is a talmid (student) of the Alter of Slobodka. I hope that we can all reach a level that we too can call ourselves students of the Alter!