Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg
Reb Mendel Futerfas once related:
two talmidim in Tomchei Tmimim in Lubavitch who went by the
last name of Kurnitzer — Berel Kurnitzer and Zalman Kurnitzer.
The two bachurim
weren’t related; Berel’s real last name was Garfinkel and
Zalman’s was Alperowitz. But in those days everyone went by the
name of the town he came from, and both boys had come from Kurnitz.
I knew them
both personally, having met them when they were only 13 years old,
around the time the Russian revolution was first starting. They
were both studying in the yeshiva ketana of Reb Shmuel
Barisover in Krementchug.
days, most of the study schedule in a yeshiva ketana was
devoted to Nigla – Gemara and Poskim. The mashpia
Reb Yechezkel (Chatche) Himmelstein would give only a half-hour shiur
in Tanya, and it was on a very elementary level.
suffered terribly from consumption (tuberculosis). But he was the
kind of person who was always joyous.
was very short. One time, a group of bochurim was arrested
by the K.G.B. The Russians wanted to teach their teacher a lesson,
but Reb Chatche was so small that they couldn’t figure out who
was the teacher and who were the students. The agents decided to
make everyone pass under an iron bar; whoever was tallest, they
reckoned, must be the one in charge. Reb Chatche was so short that
he passed right under, with inches to spare, and they never did
find out his identity.
difference between the two Kurnitzers was profound. Berel was an
absolute genius. He grasped even the most difficult concepts
immediately and had a photographic memory. Once he had learned
something, he automatically knew it by heart.
contrast, had been blessed with only average abilities, and maybe
even less. But he was the biggest masmid you ever saw. He
slept only four hours a night, and every minute of his day was
spent in a concentrated effort to acquire knowledge. By three
o’clock in the morning he was already up and learning, which he
continued without interruption till nine. You could almost see the
wheels turning in his head, so great were his efforts at
labors paid off! By the age of 15 Zalman had committed three
tractates of the Talmud to memory: Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and
Bava Basra. (Reb Peretz Chein knew these tractates word for word,
whereas Reb Zalman had memorized “only” their content.)
the meantime, had also been learning with hasmada (diligence),
and, given his wonderful intellectual gifts, had far surpassed
years I lost contact with Reb Berel, and didn’t meet up with him
again until he was 20. (I was 17 at the time.) By that time he had
worked his way through half of Shas.
used to learn the Gemara with Rashi and Tosefos on Sunday, Monday,
and Tuesday. On Wednesday he would learn all the other
commentaries, and on Thursday he would review everything he had
learned. Friday and Shabbos were devoted to learning Chassidus –
he was proficient in all the sifrei Chassidus that were
There was a
period of time when Reb Berel decided to learn Tanya by
heart. Each day he would learn a chapter; in the course of an hour
he would have it memorized. Chapter 37, which is particularly
long, took him two days – two hours in all.
A few years
later I caught up with him again. When I asked him how he was
progressing, he told me that he had completed the entire Shas.
And he wasn’t exaggerating! Wherever I opened the Gemara and
asked him a question, it was as if he had just learned it with all
may have been a genius by birth, but eventually Reb Zalman caught
up with him. (I don’t mean to imply that they were competing; it
just worked out that way). Reb Zalman became just as proficient as
Reb Berel, with the same depth of knowledge.
Kurnitzer was later appointed mashgiach in charge of Nigla
in Tomchei Tmimim. The biggest talmidei chachamim would
‘go out of their keilim’ whenever they learned with
One time the
Iluy of Volozhin, one of the greatest Torah scholars of that
generation, came to Lubavitch for a visit. After conversing with
Reb Zalman, he declared that he had never met anyone of his
caliber, and pronounced him an iluy, a prodigy.
remember, Reb Mendel would say, that the main point is not an
individual’s talents, but the amount of effort he puts in.
It’s much more difficult that way, but with hard work a person
can achieve more than someone who relies only on his innate
Melech HaMoshiach shlita would often expound on the verse,
“If a person says, ‘I have toiled and I have found,’ you can
believe him.” It doesn’t say that by working hard and
expending effort a person will achieve; rather, it says that he
will find. Finding occurs only by hesech hadaas,
when a person has diverted his attention and isn’t expecting to
find anything at all. When one expends the effort, he is given
extra strength to achieve from Above. But the proper vessel for
receiving this blessing is the effort itself, not one’s inborn
talents and abilities.
certain people, Reb Mendel would say, whom G-d has “cursed”
with extraordinary intellectual capacities. When a person is born
smart, he often feels as if he doesn’t have to work. Why bother,
if he already understands everything and has perfect recall? But
people like that don’t grow. They never progress beyond whatever
G-d has given them. By contrast, people who are less gifted
intellectually but work hard at learning, find much more than they
could ever imagine.
Reb Mendel would explain, is that innate talents are metziyus,
whereas effort is bittul. Metziyus is only as much
as a person is given, but bittul means being nullified
before something greater, with commensurate rewards. When a person
is battel, he receives much more than he could ever attain
through his own efforts. This is true regardless of how lofty his
innate talents might be.
declared that the principle of “I have toiled and I have
found” applies to gashmiyus as well, as evidenced during
his years in Soviet labor camps:
One of the
things Reb Mendel was forced to do in Siberia was mine for gold.
Many times they would dig for weeks and months and find nothing.
But it also happened that every now and then they would uncover a
big chunk of pure gold, which justified all of their previous
labors. If they hadn’t expended the effort, they would never
have found anything.
more so is this true in ruchniyus! Reb Mendel would insist.
When a person works hard on himself to become battel, what
he finds is infinitely more valuable than mere gold.
fateful times, we must not be “chachamim.” “The nasi
is everything” is the principle we must take to heart and live
by. Without the Rebbe, there is nothing. Not a Rebbe who exists
“up there,” distant and uninvolved, but a Rebbe who is close
to each of us.
The Rebbe is
always at our side, guiding us every step of the way, giving us
answers and leading us along. But we all have free will; it’s up
to us to give ourselves over to him completely. When a person
turns to the Rebbe with his whole heart and soul, the Rebbe
responds in a like manner.
Rabbeinu instructed Yehoshua to choose an army of men to fight
Amalek, but it was understood that the soldiers would not be
fighting under their own power. In the battle against Amalek, and
in every battle throughout the generations, we are only victorious
in the merit of the nasi’s strength.
power of Mordechai we will conquer all the Hamans who rise up
against us. With the clear conviction that the Rebbe is chai
v’kayam, in a physical body in the literal sense, we will
not only win the battle against Amalek, but we will immediately go
on to build the third Beis HaMikdash with the full and
complete Redemption, with the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach at our head.