Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter – The Sfat Emet
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter was the son of R' Avrohom Mordechai zt"l, the eldest son of the Chidushei Harim of Gur...
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter was the son of R’ Avraham Mordechai zt”l, the eldest son of the Chidushei Harim of Gur.
He was born on erev rosh chodesh Iyar 5607 (1847) in Warsaw, Poland. As a boy of only two, he was orphaned of his mother. When he was about nine years old, his father too was niftar and he was brought up by his holy grandfather, the Chidushei Harim of Gur, Poland. The Chidushei Harim treated him as a son, even rebuking him when necessary.
Once when the young boy came late to shiur, the Chidushei Harim rebuked him publicly, which he accepted in silence. His friends, who knew that he had been up all night learning asked him why he did not tell his grandfather so. “It wouldn’t have been worth forfeiting my grandfather’s rebuke,” replied the boy.
The Sfat Emet slept the bare minimum and ate very little throughout his youth, but when he became weak in his later years he admitted, “I feel that my body is weak probably due to my minimal sleep and food when I was young. I don’t regret the missing sleep because mi’ut sheinoh is one of the ways with which Torah is . But I do regret not having eaten properly for now I am suffering the consequences.”
After his bar mitzva he married the granddaughter of R’ Baruch Taam, and continued living in Gur with the Chidushei Harim.
Now as a Rebbe
The latter was niftar (passed away) on 23rd Adar 5626 (1866) and the young Yehuda Leib was appointed av beit din. He refused to act as rebbe and traveled together with the chassidim to R’ Chanoch Henoch of Alexander zy”o until the latter’s passing in 5630. He turned to the Admor of Kotsk in keeping with the advice of the Chidushei Harim who had told him before his death: “Buy truth and do not sell — as long as you can acquire truth, do not sell.”
On Shavuot, when he saw the massive crowd which had gathered around him, he agreed to join the chassidim in “giving ourselves chizuk (encouragement, strength)” but still did not say divrei Torah (discourse in Torah) in public until Succot the following year. Finally, when he started giving forth his pearls of Torah wisdom, the world was astounded. These divrei Torah were printed in his famous sefer Sfat Emet al Hatorah. His seforim (books) on Shas were also printed many times.
On Sunday 24th Tevet 5665 (1905) a rare illness poisoned his body and at dawn of the 5th of Shevat he returned his pure soul to its Maker.
Throughout our long and bitter exile, the times when young Jewish men and boys were conscripted into the army of their host country was always an eit tzara (time of sorrow). It denoted fear of the unknown, dread of what the future would bring and desperate efforts to bribe anyone who had a say in the government.
The days of the Sfat Emet zt”l were no different. As soon as the conscription time began, a long queue would form outside his home in Gur and, like a caring shepherd, he would give each person in turn a bracha (blessing), comfort and chizuk. To the bnei Torah he would cite the mishna in Pirkei Ovot: He who takes upon himself the yoke of Torah will be freed from the yoke of the government!
The chassidim used to say that one could tell from the Rebbi’s advice and blessing whether the person standing before him would be sent to the army or not.
Once, two young men, one who barely made a living and the other a man of considerable means, came to ask the Sfat Emet if and how much they should bribe the officials in order to avoid conscription. The rich man he advised, “It’s a shame to waste your money on bribes as even a hundred rubles will be of no avail. Rather invest it so that your wife will have a good business to live on (indicating that she would have to manage on her own, as indeed it turned out).” Whereas the poor man he advised to scrape together twenty-five rubles and that will suffice to save him (as it did).
At one point the Russian government began to suspect that the Sfat Emet was preventing people from joining the army, and sent a spy to confirm their suspicions. A Jewish meshumad of draft age was chosen for the job. He entered the room of the holy Sfat Emet disguised as a chassid, to request a bracha from the Rebbi and guidance in his inevitable enlistment. To the wonder of all those present, the Rebbi shrugged, “Nu, the Russian army needs soldiers; without fighters we cannot win wars.”
The reply that evoked such astonishment among the chassidim was only later understood, when they heard that this “chassid” was just a spy planted by the Russian authorities.
In his later years war, broke out between Russia and Japan. This time, all bribery and ransom was to no avail. Whoever was of age received a draft order to appear in the town square on a certain date and from there they were dispatched directly to the battlefront. Thousands of young men and boys were torn away from the beit midrash and uprooted from their homes, leaving behind terror-stricken parents, wives, and children.
All through the war the Sfat Emet zt”l never slept on his bed at all. Instead when the hour turned late he lay on the floor with only a thin garment spread underneath him. After he got up in the morning, his assistants would find the garment soaked with the tears that he had cried all night for the young Jewish soldiers on the front lines.
In addition to the pain of being far from home, the chassidim were broken at being cut off from their spiritual world, the hallowed walls of the beit midrash and the court of their holy Rebbe. Letters full of longing arrived to him, from one chassid describing how, having no shofar on Rosh Hashanah they just sat together discussing the shofar and its awakening power!
Another chassid wrote that during Succot while digging trenches, they somehow found the strength and will to set up three boards within the trench, forming a succah (temporary hut) so that they could each eat a kezayis (the amount of an olive) inside! One talmid who excelled in Torah learning sent a lengthy explanation with his own chiddushim on the Rabbenu Yonah!
The Rebbe was so moved that he sent a letter back which later became world-famous. Quoting the posuk from Ha’azinu: Ha’idosi bochem eis hashomayim ve’eis ho’oretz — using ha’idosi to mean decorate as in “adi adoyim” — the Rebbe wrote: “With heroic people like you my dear chassidim, Hashem adorns the heaven and earth.”
When the war intensified, a general order was given again for those who had remained behind, to fight for the mother country. Men and their wives, mothers and their sons gathered at the entrance to the Rebbe’s house, pleading with him to save them. Immediately, he instructed them to go to shul, light candles, and start saying Tehillim (Psalms). The Rebbe himself joined them and their tearful prayers rising in loud cries that must surely have pierced the heavens.
Following this, the Rebbe turned to all those assembled and in a now calm tone assured them that be’ezrat Hashem all would be well. A short while later news that the war had ended spread through the country, bringing home the soldiers and saving the rest from having to leave.
However the returning hordes of barbaric Russian soldiers from the front plundered and robbed their way back home leaving a trail of havoc and sorrow in their wake. The sight of the returning Jewish soldiers, crushed in body and spirit, many of them wounded or with missing limbs, and the troubles that had been Klal Yisrael‘s lot in his times, broke the Sfat Emet. His pure body, unable to bear the heavy burden it was carrying, fell ill with a strange malady that no one could cure, slowly paralyzing his vital organs.
In a desperate attempt to heal him, Polish Jewry stormed the heavens, gathering all over to say Tehillim and fast. In Gur itself, prayers were said on his behalf around the clock without a break. But as dawn broke on the 5th of Shevat the angels won the battle over this pure soldier, taking the aron hakodesh to the heavenly spheres.
The Avnei Nezer, who arrived the day before in Gur to visit the Rebbe, did not sleep all night, keeping a constant vigil and tefillot at his bedside. At the levaya (funeral) he revealed why the Sfat Emet zt”l had to be stricken with such a rare illness. “Chazal tell us one who prays for his friend while he himself is in need of that yeshua is answered first. All his life our Rebbe, the Sfat Emet, bore the burden of all our illnesses, our pains and sorrows, pouring out his heart in prayer for Klal Yisrael– that sick people be healed and the healthy not fall ill. Had he become ill with a common illness, he would immediately have been answered. So, when the Creator wanted to take him away from this world, He struck him with an unknown illness for which the Rebbe had never davened for a fellow Jew and thus took him to Gan Eden.
Source: Leaders in the Diaspora