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Tuesday
Oct152019

Smartphones in Gan Eden

Interview by Avrohom Reinitz  •

From the position advanced age, R’ Pinye Korf has a unique perspective on today’s bachurim. On the one hand, he has been serving as mashpia in American yeshivas for nearly fifty years. On the other hand, he is one of the few left from the previous generation who learned in Tomchei Tmimim in Samarkand. He was one of the founding students of the yeshiva in Brunoy under the influence of the legendary mashpia, R’ Nissan Nemenov.

When I tried to confront him with the generation gap, I asked him:

If the mashpia, R’ Nissan Nemenov, was with us today, do you think he would be able to relate to today’s bachurim?

R’ Korf (smiling): One of two things would happen, either he would acknowledge the different reality and change his approach or, more likely, he would change the reality …

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. They said that when R’ Nissan had yechidus with the Rebbe and spoke about his demanding of the bachurim the avoda of iskafia, the Rebbe told him that nowadays, one shouldn’t demand iskafia precisely as they did in previous generations. Because what were considered luxuries in previous times are necessary today.

But note the example the Rebbe gave R’ Nissan of what is no longer a luxury. The Rebbe said, “Like eggs and butter.” The Rebbe did not say chocolate or ice cream. That means, we do need to reckon with the generation gap but we still need to demand that the bachurim serve Hashem with iskafia.

UNDERGROUND IN SAMARKAND

R’ Pinye was born in Charkov in Russia. His father was the mashpia, Rav Yehoshua Korf. During the war, they fled to Central Asia and like many of Anash, they settled in Samarkand where he learned from the elder Chassidim of the previous generation.

“In yeshiva, there were several divisions from the Talmud Torah where they learned alef-beis up to zal which was divided into the ‘little zal’ and the ‘big zal.’ Among the melamdim that I remember were R’ Zushe the shamash, who taught alef-beis in the lowest class; R’ Berel Gurevitch (the father of R’ Abba Dovid) in the second class; R’ Berke Chein in the third class where they learned Chumash; R’ Eliyahu Chaim Roitblatt who taught Gemara; my uncle R’ Moshe Robinson taught Gemara to a higher class and after he went to Tashkent, I took over.

“It wasn’t a yeshiva in the usual sense, since we weren’t in one building but were scattered over several places. At the same time though, during the war years we didn’t have to hide and the learning took place almost openly. The Soviets were busy with the war and did not have time to persecute the Chassidim.

“The truth is, even during the war we had to watch out for the truant officers from the Education Ministry who went around looking for children who did not go to school. I don’t know why but R’ Michoel was very careful about these things. We would go to learn in his house and he was always apprehensive.

“I remember that one time we sat down to learn by R’ Michoel and suddenly, the children from the lowest class came. Those truant officers had approached the place where they were learning and they fled and went to R’ Michoel.

“It was only after the war, during the year that we remained in Russia until the great escape, that the persecution and arrests began again and we had to keep a low profile and, to some extent, go back underground.

“The first sign for us personally was when government officials began coming to the neighborhood and asking where my father lived. That was enough for my father to understand that he had to immediately lower his profile. At first, he stopped going to teach in yeshiva and then he left Tashkent and went to Lemberg to get ready to leave the country.

“The alarm bells began to ring loudly after R’ Yitzchok Koppelman z’l (a Litvishe rosh yeshiva, later of world renown in Switzerland) was brutally arrested in midday. In his interrogation he noticed a list of people wanted by the KGB and on the top of the list was R’ Nissan. After he was released, he immediately informed Anash about the danger.”

FARBRENGENS INTO THE NIGHT

Although he was a young boy, R’ Pinye participated in a number of farbrengens with the elder Chassidim in Samarkand.

“After we arrived in Samarkand, I wanted to attend a farbrengen and when I saw R’ Mendel Futerfas sitting and farbrenging, I listened in … It wasn’t an official farbrengen but a heart-to-heart talk that he was having with one of the young married men of Anash. It bothered R’ Mendel that this man’s hair was long in the front and he ‘sat on him’ until with his clever talk and sharp sayings managed to influence him to get rid of his ‘chup.’  

“It was a complicated situation in which mesirus nefesh was needed for basic things like Shabbos observance and yet, the mashpiim did not let the young men slide on even the smallest details.

“So too, on the first Succos there, I went to R’ Avrohom Maiyor’s farbrengen. He spoke about the holiday from a Chassidic perspective, but when a young man walked in who found it hard to withstand the test and grow a beard, R’ Avrohom focused on him and tried in every way possible, including many blessings that he showered on him if he promised to grow a beard. Late at night, he succeeded in his mission and then he went back to talking about the Chassidic significance of the holiday.

“Aside from the farbrengens, certain sights are etched in my memory like R’ Berke Chein’s dancing on Simchas Torah. He danced with all his might until he would fall down in complete exhaustion. A few minutes later, he would get up and dance again until his strength ran out.”

REB NISSAN TOLD US:
WALK IN THE STREET LIKE PRISONERS

The Korf family left Russia in 1947 in the famous escape from the border city of Lemberg. The refugees arrived in Poking, Germany where Anash opened a yeshiva for the tmimim.

“At first there was one class for older bachurim and we learned Gemara with R’ Eliyahu Chaim Roitblatt. Then they asked my father to head the yeshiva and they split the class. Those with less knowledge learned with R’ Eliyahu Chaim and those who knew more learned with my father. I learned with my father until the winter of 5709 when I went to the yeshiva in Brunoy.

“Parenthetically, in general, in those years, classes were divided not so much by age as by knowledge. Another thing that was different back then was that moving from class to class wasn’t at the end of the year but at the end of the zman (seasonal semester). So there were years that I learned in two classes in one year.

“I arrived in Brunoy half a year after my bar mitzva. The first year, we did not learn Chassidus; we just had shiurim in Tanya with R’ Shlomo Chaim Kesselman. In the summer of 5709, R’ Shlomo Chaim went to Eretz Yisrael and we moved on to the higher classes, which were then called ‘farzich’ (lit. for-self, i.e. for students with the ability to prepare the Gemara on their own).  The next stage was zal. At that point, R’ Nissan was our main mashpia.

“In farzich we learned Chassidus for an hour in the evening. But only when we came to zal did we start learning Chassidus in a more serious way, two hours in the morning and an hour a half in the evening.

“R’ Nissan began farbrenging with us and demanding inner avodas Hashem. There were levels in this too, of course. For example, he spoke to me about the avodas ha’tefilla only before my trip to the Rebbe.”

What were the main topics at R’ Nissan’s farbrengens?

“The two main topics that I remember from his farbrengens were that we need to do mitzvos with kabbolas ol and with pnimiyus.

“Occasionally, he also spoke about shemiras einayim (protecting oneself from seeing forbidden sights) and shemiras ha’dibbur (protecting oneself from forbidden speech). He would tell us, when you walk in the street, you need to walk like prisoners in the prison yard. He said that when he was jail in Russia, they would take them out occasionally to the  prison yard to get some fresh air. The jailers warned us constantly not to look around us; not only not to move our head but not even to move our eyes! The jailers watched us to see where we looked and if they caught someone looking around, they would beat the prisoner who dared to break the rules.

“R’ Nissan described the high prison walls so that even if you looked around, you wouldn’t have seen much other than a few bricks in the wall. But that was the rule: you looked only where you walked and nowhere else!

“This, R’ Nissan would tell us, is how you have to walk in the street. You look only where you are going. Everything around us needs to be ‘out of bounds’ for us.

“When he spoke about avodas Hashem, he would focus his talk on the avoda of iskafia, not to eat taavos (cravings). The truth is that in the yeshiva in Brunoy in those years, the food they served was so basic that there was no way to obtain taavos. They once asked him: They just bring us bread and butter. What should we be doing iskafia on? He explained that when a bachur spreads butter on bread and is particular that the butter cover all the corners, that’s already a taava.

“Sometimes, he would talk about the bachurim not being ‘into’ their outward appearance, but that wasn’t his main topic. As I said, he mainly spoke about serving Hashem with kabbolas ol and with a pnimiyus; without chitzoniyus.

“In negating chitzoniyus, he was very extreme. Since he was very much a pnimi, he was extra sensitive to this and when he saw bachurim adopting some Chassidic practice not on the high pnimiyusdike level he demanded, he would rebuke them for being chitzonim. I remember that once, on Simchas Torah, when older bachurim danced, he felt that the dancing did not come from a true pnimiyus point and he farbrenged about this.

“In 5713, when I went to the Rebbe and began learning in 770, we lacked a mashpia figure like R’ Nissan. The mashpiim here were Chassidish, of course, people of stature, but the approach was different.

“I received a similar pnimi approach from Rabbi Menachem Zev Gringlas when I went to learn in Montreal. So for example, when I spoke to him about avodas ha’tefilla, and said that I tried to exert myself in avodas ha’tefilla because the Rebbe spoke to me about this in yechidus, he considered it a sort of chitzoniyus, that I wasn’t really holding by avodas ha’tefilla and did it just because the Rebbe ‘pushed’ me into it. He said, you need to daven because you need to daven!”

Can you tell us what the Rebbe said to you in yechidus?

(Smiling): “There were bachurim who asked about everything and they got many instructions. I came with the chinuch of R’ Nissan, that everything needs to be done with kabbolas ol and therefore, there weren’t many questions in yechidus and consequently, not many instructions. What I did have was the Rebbe responding to things I wrote parenthetically.

“For example, when I wrote to the Rebbe about learning Chassidus before davening, it sounded from what I wrote that I didn’t have time for it. The Rebbe addressed this and said: Go to sleep earlier, get up earlier, and you will have fifteen minutes.

“In the next yechidus, the Rebbe spoke again about fifteen minutes of Chassidus before davening and clarified: This does not mean to look at your watch, because the main thing is for it to affect the feelings of the heart, but generally speaking, there should be fifteen minutes of Chassidus before davening. The Rebbe also said that during davening, I should think about the topic that I learned in Chassidus before davening.”

A BEN YACHID IN YESHIVA

Keeping to the scheduled learning sessions is one of the foundations of chinuch in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim, which derives from the general demand of our Rebbeim on the topic of properly valuing and utilizing time.

The Rebbe once explained (Acharon shel Pesach 5736) that the insistence on adherence to the schedule… is not only for when the talmid is occupied with his personal needs but even when he wants to be occupied with spiritual matters, he must abide by the yeshiva schedule as established by our Rebbeim, the founders of the yeshiva.

At a farbrengen of Shabbos Haazinu, the Rebbe said: When the clock shows that it’s time for the yeshiva learning schedule one must immediately go and learn! The first question asked up Above is, “nasasa v’nosata b’emuna” (did you conduct your dealings with integrity?). They do not ask whether you attended a Chassidishe farbrengen but whether you kept the sedarim of the yeshiva.

To R’ Pinye, observing the scheduled learning times was an ironclad principle in his life thanks to the chinuch pnimi of kabbolas ol that he got from R’ Nissan. Even if he farbrenged all night and went to sleep late, he never considered forgoing Chassidus in the morning. He went, as always, to the small zal, and sat and learned Chassidus.

Rumor has it that one morning, upon walking into 770, the Rebbe glanced at the small zal, as he sometimes did, and saw R’ Pinye sitting alone in the empty zal.

I asked R’ Pinye about this rumor and he affirmed it and said:

“I was sitting in the zal and suddenly saw the Rebbe looking at me. The Rebbe smiled and said: What’s this, are you a ben yachid (only child) in yeshiva?”

R’ Pinye explained the unique situation. To the best of his memory, that Thursday night there was the wedding of one of the top bachurim and bachurim farbrenged all night and that is why they did not wake up on time.

ADAM HA’RISHON HAD HIS CHALLENGE EVEN WITHOUT AN I-PHONE

After he married, R’ Pinye learned in Achei Tmimim in Newark, New Jersey and then moved to Montreal where he became mashgiach in the yeshiva, eventually moving back to New York to be a mashpia in Oholei Torah.

His job as mashpia began in 5739, fifty years ago! Five years ago, following the passing of Rabbi Yitzchak Springer, the mashpia in 770, R’ Pinye was asked to take over for him and since then, he is mashpia in two yeshivos.

As someone who comes from the atmosphere of R’ Nissan Nemenov’s Brunoy and yet, is the mashpia of American bachurim of our time, I asked him:

Are there bachurim today who are engaged in avodas Hashem like the tmimim in R’ Nissan’s time?

R’ Pinye surprised me with his answer:

“Definitely! Not only that, but nowadays there are bachurim who are ovdei Hashem beyond compare to what there once were!

“Of course, there are average bachurim and there are below-average bachurim, just like there always were, but generally speaking, it’s a mistake to think that ‘ovdim’ only existed in the past. Today too, there are bachurim like that, no less than before, and sometimes even greater!”

Some maintain that bachurim of today have to deal with much harder nisyonos (tests, challenges) than what tmimim in Samarkand had to deal with. After all, back then, if a bachur wanted to sin, he would have to leave yeshiva and go somewhere else. Today, if a bachur has a smartphone in his pocket, the whole world is at his fingertips …

“It’s quite foolish to think that way,” R’ Pinye declared.

Why?

“For Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, by way of limud zechus, it might be a good idea but it’s really incorrect. The strength of a test is commensurate with the efforts that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) invests to make a person sin. The yetzer hara of our days is the same yetzer hara. Today, he uses a smartphone to ensnare someone and in the past he used other things.

“Tell me, Adam Ha’Rishon, when he sinned with the Eitz Ha’Daas, did he have a smartphone? Was there any movie that triggered his curiosity? It was just a fruit tree, after all … But when it’s the current test, the yetzer hara invests all its strength to entrap a person in that specific area and much effort is needed to overcome it.

“The same is true for bachurim in the past. Although they did not have a smartphone in their pocket, the yetzer hara dressed himself up in those things with which it was possible to make them sin, with the identical intensity that he employs against the bachurim of our days and convinces them to surf the internet.”

How is it possible to contend with it?

“First, you need knowledge of the disease. In farbrengens with talmidim, I bring this up and talk about ways of dealing with it. I remember that once, one of the talmidim said to me it was very hard to withstand the test because it was right there in his pocket. I said that the first thing to do is be aware that the phone did not end up in his pocket on its own. Someone put it there. So, dealing with it needs to start with this first step, before putting the phone in your pocket.

“The best thing is if you are able not to put yourself into danger at all. Last year, they made a rule in Oholei Torah that bachurim cannot have a smartphone.

“But in places where there is no blanket prohibition, the internet must be filtered so that it guarantees absolute blockage to anything that does not pertain to sites of Chassidus and kedusha. Obviously, this is not a heter to have a phone with a filter; but for someone who already has a phone and won’t give it up, he should know that he must have a filter. Otherwise, he is really putting the yetzer hara himself into his pocket.”

LIVNG MOSHIACH IN YESHIVA

At the Kinus Ha’Shluchim 5752, the Rebbe said that from now on, all aspects of shlichus need to be permeated with the main point: how this will lead to kabbolas pnei Moshiach. How does that translate in practical terms in the work of being mashpia on the talmidim of the yeshiva?

“Baruch Hashem, the talmidim, on their own, live inyanei Geula and Moshiach on a very high level. Aside from a short daily shiur, there is an in-depth shiur every week and we fulfill the Rebbe’s hora’a that this is the direct way to hasten the hisgalus of Moshiach.

“In farbrengens with talmidim, I usually start off with a sicha of the Rebbe with an emphasis on the sichos of the latter years in which the Rebbe engages in the Besuras Ha’Geula with a unique fervor so that nearly every farbrengen starts and is permeated with preparing for the Geula.

“The main thing is that we need to toil in avodas Hashem to be ready for the true and complete Geula, whose primary function is the revelation of G-dliness, teikef u’miyad mamosh!”

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