A few months ago, we talked about the power of observation, and how the discerning individual can see a story where others do not. From there, we have traversed the face and discussed how to listen. There too, it takes a discerning individual to hear what others fail to capture. We are still not done with the physiognomy, but for now let’s double back to the realm of vision and focus on a man who had unsurpassed foresight. I refer to none other than Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, zt”l, better known, and revered by all, as the Ponevezher Rav.
A portent of the Rav’s future was drawn from an eye examination he underwent as a young man. The assessment of the ophthalmologist was that he would never need glasses, for while one of his eyes was far-sighted, the other was near-sighted. This meant that one of his eyes was always resting while the other was doing what it could do best.
This was preferable, the doctor assured him, to wearing glasses and having both eyes exert themselves. Those without a medical background considered this condition to be an apt description of the Rav’s visionary acumen. One eye was keenly focused on the present and the other, like the chacham, was ro’eh es ha-nolad – set toward the future. This enabled the great Rosh Yeshivah to see the future in the present.
In 1941, The Ponevezher Rav made his famous declaration, “Write tefillin and mezuzos for the children of Ein Charod and Hahalal!” (These two kibbutzim were leading centers of secularism at the time.) There was no one who was thinking in those terms at the time. The Ponevezher Rav, however, was fully convinced that the length and breadth of Israel would in time be filled with chozrim b’teshuva who would be sitting and learning Torah.
Just a year earlier, in 1940, the near-sexagenarian Ponevezher Rav had arrived in Israel, commencing what would be the most remarkable chapter of his life. The Rav looked out at the few scattered homes nestled in the Zichron Meir neighborhood of Bnei Brak, and at the hill overlooking it all, and thought to himself that this would be a perfect location for a yeshivah.
The Ponevezher Rav investigated the real estate and discovered that the owner was offering the plot for the relatively low price of 500 lira sterling, on condition that the purchaser break ground within 12 months. Such a condition was in no way a deterrent to the Rav, and without any further deliberation, he bought the land.
People were reluctant, however, to wish him mazal tov on the purchase. It was the middle of World War II, Nazi forces were raging across Europe, and appalling reports had begun filtering in about atrocities and the mass murder of Jews. It did not seem to be the right time to think about, let alone build, new yeshivos. Furthermore, although no one wished to actually articulate the thought, the Nazi juggernaut seemed to be invincible, and Palestine was clearly in Hitler’s crosshairs.
The feeling that prevailed in Eretz Yisrael at the time was that of sinking despair. All were absorbed with the catastrophic losses in Europe, and the Ponevezher Rav was no less consumed than anyone else – but he was even more consumed with the necessity to rebuild. His plan was to erect a building that could accommodate at least 500 students. Indeed, as he would ascend the hill of the not-yet-built yeshivah, he would declare, “I can already hear the sound of Torah that will emanate from this place!”
Nothing could have sounded more preposterous, for the youth in the country at the time were singularly focused upon finding employment. And while there may have been a few exceptions, those probably didn’t number more than a dozen. Five hundred students sounded no less absurd than 50,000. But the Ponevezher Rav was characteristically unfazed by the critique. “Days will soon come,” he predicted, “when there will be millions and millions of Jews who will live in Israel. Then there will not be enough room for the students in Yeshivos Chevron and Ponevezh!”
The Ponevezher Rav’s outrageously unrealistic pronouncements raised some eyebrows, but this did not daunt him. In a sea of skepticism and despair, the Ponevezher Rav proceeded undeterred with his plans. No one could place a damper on his enthusiasm.
When the Rav detailed his ideas to the Chief Rabbi, HaRav Isaac Herzog, the scholar listened patiently, thinking, perhaps – like so many others – that after all this man had lost (wife, children, yeshivah, novellas on the entire Talmud), nebach the misfortune had affected his ability to reason. Yet the Ponevezher Rav contended with perfect clarity that with the Almighty’s help he would indeed build an enormous yeshivah, and an educational infrastructure that surpassed the network that he had established in Lithuania.
“You’re dreaming,” the Chief Rabbi said at last.
The Ponevezher Rav replied, “Yes, I am dreaming, but my eyes are open. This dream shall be fulfilled through days and nights of not sleeping!”
Not long after this encounter, Reb Shneur Kotler, son of the Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Aharon Kotler, visited Bnei Brak. The Ponevezher Rav took him to the desolate hill upon which the yeshivah would be erected to give him, well, a “scenic” tour. At the very top of the barren knoll, Rav Yosef Shlomo cupped his hand in a gesture fraught with significance, and then whispered as if he was revealing the secret of the century, “Here, from right here, the Torah will emanate.”
The Rav’s vision of the yeshivah-to-be was so vivid that it was rare for him to speak of it in the future tense. When the architect brought him a sketch rendering an overview of the entire campus, he was awestruck by the beauty and grandeur. The drawing was immediately hung in the yeshivah’s office, and the Rav summoned his closest students. “This,” the Rav proudly announced, “this is how the yeshivah looks!”
The Ponevezher Rav desired to recruit Rav Eliyahu Dessler, who was in charge of the Gateshead Kollel and other significant projects in England, to serve as mashgiach ruchani in the Ponevezh Yeshivah in Israel. When members of the Gateshead Kollel protested Rav Kahaneman’s attempts to lure Rav Dessler, he replied, “There are 400 students in Ponevezh waiting to hear him.” The Ponevezher Rav actually saw the beis midrash as if it were already filled with the 400 bachurim he knew that one day would arrive. At the time there were probably less than half that number.
This vision found expression all the time. One day, as he was walking down a main street in Bnei Brak, Rav Yosef Shlomo observed workers at the building site for the radically secular/socialistic Histadrut HaOvdim. The Rav, who had acquired significant knowledge of architectural and engineering matters while overseeing the construction of the Ponevezh campuses in both Israel and Lithuania, was not happy with what he saw. He rushed over to the workers to ensure that they were using reinforced steel and concrete in their construction. The jaws of the Histadrut HaOvdim employees gaped in amazement over the Ponevezher Rav’s interest in their building.
“I have no doubt that this building will become a yeshivah,” the Rav explained serenely, “I am therefore concerned that it be properly built.”