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By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

The mashpia Reb Mendel Futerfas once related:

There were 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.

In those 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.

Reb Chatche suffered terribly from consumption (tuberculosis). But he was the kind of person who was always joyous.

Reb Chatche 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.

The 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.

Zalman, by 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 concentration.

And his 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.)

Berel, in the meantime, had also been learning with hasmada (diligence), and, given his wonderful intellectual gifts, had far surpassed Zalman.

For many 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.

Reb Berel 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 then available.

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 the mefarshim.

Reb Berel 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.

Reb Zalman 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 him.

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. 

* * *

Always 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 ability.

The Rebbe 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.

There are 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.

The reason, 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.

* * *

Reb Mendel 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.

How much 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.

In our 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.

Moshe 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.

With the 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.


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?





By contrast, people who are less gifted intellectually but work hard at learning, find much more than they could ever imagine.





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