Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman
(1875 - 1941)
once testified that Reb Elchanan totally fulfilled the principle
I placed G-d before me at all times. In a generation renowned
for its many great Roshei Yeshivot, he was distinguished not only for
his great learning but for the impact his personality made on his students.
Reb Elchanan was born in Birz, Lithuania.
He studied in the Telshe Yeshiva under R. Shimon Shkop. In 1897, he
met R. Chaim Brisker and became his disciple. Whereas R. Shimon was
concerned with the why R. Chaim said One has to know
what is stated, not why. Reb Elchanan was deeply influenced by
both but eventually developed his own approach.
A new era began for Reb Elchanan when he met the Chofetz
Chaim in 1907. Though he had already served with noted success as
Yeshiva head of Amtchislav and was now a mature man of 32, he joined
the Kodoshim Kollel of the Chofetz
Chaim. Reb Elchanan viewed the Chofetz
Chaim as a living Torah and trembled in his presence. The Chofetz
Chaim became Reb Elchanans lifetime role model. In 1910, he
became a Rosh Yeshiva in Brisk until the outbreak of the war in 1914.
In 1921, he became head of the Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Baranovitch, where
he remained for the rest of his life. Because of his great influence
the Yeshiva grew and, in spite of its abysmal poverty, attracted many
hundreds of disciples.
Besides his role as yeshiva head, Reb Elchanan was
deeply involved in communal matters, and was active in Agudas Israel.
In addition to his lectures and Talmudic writings, he was also a thinker
and interpreter of contemporary events and his ideas were published
in a book of essays (Kovetz Maamorim). He maintained that just
as the Torah provides
guidance in strictly halachic matters, it also provides illumination
of the era in which we live. Thus, for example, his essay, The Footprints
of the Messiah, presented a sweeping view of modern life. Two of his
main points are the rapid pace with which the world is developing in
contrast to previous generations and the idol of nationalism which he
saw as striving to replace Torah as the central factor of Jewish life.
He visited America in 1939 and though he could have
remained and avoided the imminent catastrophe, he never considered it
as a possibility. He felt that he must return to his Yeshiva and be
with his students.
While on a visit to Kovno the Germans declared war on Russia and Reb Elchanan was unable to return to the yeshiva. On July 6, 1941,
Reb Elchanan was studying in the house of R. Avrohom Grodzensky, in
the company of a group of scholars, when four armed Lithuanians came
in shouting and taunting. It was obvious that the end was near and Reb
Elchanan spoke his last words:
Heaven apparently considers us righteous people,
for it wants us to atone with our bodies for Jewry as a whole. So we
must repent now...if we repent, we will thereby save the remaining Jews,
our brothers and sisters, so that they will be able to carry on as the
remnant of Jewry.