Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler

A Rosh Yeshiva in America recounted that he once addressed one of the great men of Mussar, the famous Mashgiach of the yeshiva world of Poland and Lithuania, to ask him to come to America and encourage his yeshiva students. He replied, “I have the ability to influence young Americans when they come to my yeshiva, but in America itself I do not have this ability.”

The first and only man who traveled far, very far from the Torah centers of Europe, and who succeeded in implanting in the hearts of youngsters a love for Torah and Mussar, was Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the Gaon of Mussar in our generation. Just as Rabbi Israel Salanter (the father of the Mussar movement) had left Russia and settled in Germany and France, the student of his student, Rabbi Dessler, went to England and devoted all his energies to the youth of London, Manchester, and Gateshead.

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler was born in 5652 (1892) to Rabbi Reuven Dov, the great Tzaddik and main disciple of Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm. Rabbi Reuven Dov was a wealthy man who gave great amounts of money for Tzeddakah and Torah. He was, for a long period of time, the main financial support of the famous Kelm Talmud Torah.

In view of his exceptional talents, his father sent him from his earliest years to study in the Kelm Talmud Torah, which at that time was renowned for Torah and Mussar. The young Eliyahu Eliezer was the youngest in his class. He remained there for 18 years and earned a reputation for excellence among its thousands of students. He was extremely diligent in study, sitting in a corner where he studied Torah with extraordinary concentration. It was completely impossible to distract him, and among the small children there was a game that consisted of disturbing “Elinke the matmid” from his studies!

From his early years, it was obvious that Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer was born for greatness, so obvious in fact that he was educated from childhood for the important role that he would one day be called upon to play. Each day the woman who prepared his meals would serve him a dish of oatmeal that was utterly tasteless, the idea being that he should learn to be content with little. Several years later the Rav recounted, a smile floating to his lips, that she had been completely successful. He said, “There is no meal in the world that I don’t find good.”

In 5679 (1919), Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer married Bluma, the daughter of Rabbi Nachum Zev (the son of Rabbi Simcha Zissel). His uncle, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Ozer of Vilna, wanted him to come and become a Dayan and Posek in Vilna, but he declined for various reasons. He tried to go into business, but without success. In 5687 (1927), he left for England and accepted a position as the Rav of a synagogue in East London. He also directed a Talmud Torah in which 400 students studied.

Rav Dessler devoted all his energies to the students he received, but he quickly saw that this was not the best way to proceed. He confided to his close friends, “From among all the 400 children that come to the Talmud Torah, there are perhaps a few who will remember the words of Kaddish, but not more.” He arrived at the conclusion that he should devote himself to only the most talented students in order to have an influence on them. He chose several intelligent students and began to bring them closer to Torah and Mussar. The Rav himself, through his own behavior and sterling character traits, served as an example to them on how a Jew should live.

Rav Dessler had great success in the labor of love that he invested into these students. Several choice figures emerged from this undertaking, among them being men who became great in Torah and the fear of Heaven, and who remained connected to their Rav by bonds of love until his final day.

A new period began in Rav Dessler’s life with the establishment of the avrechim kollel for the Bnei Torah of Gateshead in the north of England. With all his enthusiasm, he devoted himself to training the avrechim in the true spirit of Mussar, the one he had received from his great teachers. He spent most of his time with them and communicated lofty concepts of Mussar and Torah to them. He also collected money for the kollel, yet he himself took no salary. He lived off the earnings he made giving special lessons to students from well-to-do families. During that time he worked without stop, beyond the bounds of human strength, to provide the kollel with a solid foundation, to administer it, and to see to its material needs. He became a living source from which Torah and Mussar poured out at each instant.

At the same time, Rav Dessler helped establish other institutions, such as Beit Midrash LaMorot (for young girls) and a Mechina (preparatory program) for yeshiva.

Rav Dessler’s life took a new turn in 5708 (1948). The Gaon Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the Rav of the renowned Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, invited him to come and be its Mashgiach. Rav Dessler accepted his offer, but only on condition that he could continue his work in England. He therefore divided his time between the two countries.

Rav Dessler quickly became known in Eretz Israel, and a tremendous number of visitors came to the yeshiva to hear him speak. During that time, Rav Dessler elevated himself to an extraordinary spiritual level. His lectures were filled with profound concepts that marveled all his listeners, and everyone considered him to be one of the spiritual leaders of the generation.

Rav Dessler taught Torah in Eretz Israel for six years, working with superhuman force, until he fell ill. He was struck by a heart attack, and on Tevet 25, 5714 (late 1953) he rendered his soul to his Creator.

Thus ended the life of one of the great men of Mussar of the previous generation, may his soul be bound in the light of life.

After Rav Dessler’s death, his students gathered his writings and teachings in a work called Michtav Me-Eliyahu (In English: “Strive for Truth!”) in five volumes.




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