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Silences speak loudly, words echo softly

So I have been told:

Rabbi Gershon Liebman (1905-1997) went through Nazi slave labor camps and the concentration camps not only with his body intact, but with his tefilin intact. How was that possible? The Nazis were notorious for forcing Jews to strip naked for inspections. The Nazis allowed no religious objects. Rabbi Liebman had a will of steel coupled with cleverness. As he marched by the Nazis inspecting him, he held his arms straight up. In one fist he shielded one of his tefilin and in the other fist he shielded the other.

So I have read:

“He would share his tiny food rations with others, and even from the tiny bit that remained he left over some, saying, ‘One needs to preserve the tzelem Elokim (the “Image of G-d’) and not eat like an animal.”

So I have seen:

When Rabbi Liebman visited Jerusalem in the 1970s he stopped by the yeshiva in which I was studying. He had known the head of the yeshiva from the 1930s, back in Poland. I happened to be in the room when he entered.

The accouterments of Rabbi Liebman’s appearance — his clothes — were old, battered; shiny pants, a frayed collar, complete obliviousness to style.

The atmospherics of his appearance shielded this reality: He controlled millions of dollars and cared for none of it personally. It was only good for supporting the some 40 yeshivas he founded in France after the Holocaust. How was that possible? No need to ask. This is the man who founded a yeshiva in Bergen Belsen right after liberation, in July, 1945.

If I had been there, so would I have heard:

“Who will head the yeshiva?”


“How will the yeshiva be funded?”

“I will find the funds.”

“Who will be the students?”

“I will also be the student.”

Yeshiva She’eris Yisrael was the first post-liberation yeshiva, in which Rabbi Liebman was active until he left Bergen Belsen for France in 1948.

So I have written in The Fire Within (when Rabbi Liebman was still living):

Creating his own soul, becoming both seedbed and realization of his own Musar: no one fits the description better than Rabbi Gershon Liebman. I have heard tales of his sheer force of will; I have seen him only twice. My notes read:

“On the short side; round head; bald; not fully sprouted beard.

“Reminds me of Rabbi Orlansky — that simchah, that twinkle — knowing twinkle — in the eyes.

“Energy: looks down at the ground when he speaks, whole body bending back and forth. No need to be demonstrative; the raw power is there, all about him. No wonder he could defy Nazis.

“No raised voice, no yelling and screaming, but a great hisorerus, arousal. His whole being: passion. Interrupts himself often. The silences speak as loudly as the words echo softly.

“Speaks only five to seven minutes. Needn’t say much; he acts on what he says; everyone knows this. Few words, few points; his finishing is his silence — his time for action.”

Rabbi Gershon Liebman: a man who disdains possessions, flees from kavod or honor, sizes up situations very quickly; will they hurt, or help, the service of G-d? If they will help, act.

Rabbi Liebman travels everywhere: morning in Paris, afternoon in Jerusalem, back again. Then New York. Everything for a sacred purpose; everything utterly without self-aggrandizement. In France, he rebuilt the Musar aspiration.

He survived the war, like everyone else, with only his life. No matter. A Master of Trust in G-d needs no resources; G-d gives them — if only one trusts utterly.

Rabbi Liebman trusts utterly.

Through him, one imagines his mentor, the Rabbi Joseph Jozel of Novorodock (1849-1919): a cultivation of sacred consciousness so total that nothing penetrates unless it nurtures holiness. Rabbi Liebman: a radical purification of vision.

My notes:

“Broken up — crying — not afraid to show emotion [this was the memorial gathering for one of his colleagues]. It’s tough to keep himself under control. Swaying — weeping slightly — striking the lectern. No grand gestures, no logical ending. Just walks away. Said what he had to say. Said it, and left.”

To do. To make a point, then to do. No extraneous activity, no superfluous gesture — even a single one would amount to nullification of consciousness from Torah. A Master of Musar wastes not even a single moment, loses not a single opportunity, however small, to serve     G-d: to think in Torah, or to act      . . . a few hours, and Rabbi Liebman is back to Paris.

Creating his own soul.

In 1997, he was buried on “The Mountain of Tranquilities,” Jerusalem.

Sources: Food rations, Shmuel Albert, Hamodia (May 8, 2019). Dialogue, Elie Feuerwerker, Hamodia (May 29, 2019). The Fire Within (Artscroll, 1987), pp. 191-192.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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