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R' Gershon Leibman personified bitachon in Hashem.
Meaning, he knew that Hashem not only orchestrated every event in the world, but also did so for one's benefit.
This meant that R' Leibman lived in a different dimension than most other people.
His only thought was what Hashem wanted, what was the correct thing to do spiritually.
Living Life Novardak-Style
This is an incomprehensible way of living that even other tzaddikim rarely chose.
How did R' Leibman arrive at such a decision?
Having chosen one of the more intriguing paths of Torah Judaism—the Novardok mussar movement—R' Leibman was already well-entrenched within the lifestyle of "breaking" one's middot.
In other words, the Novardok style sought to build a person's positive traits by "breaking" one's negative traits.
To do this, one must go against one's innate nature.
While universal lower aspects of human nature exist (i.e., fear of anything but Hashem or a desire for honor & admiration or physical desires, etc.), individual inclinations also play a role.
So Novardokers worked on both the universal aspects of human nature, plus their own individual aspects.
This meant, for example, that if a Novardoker wished to work on his tendency toward anger, he either sought out or created situations that generally incited anger in order to remain calm.
Breaking the middah of kavod (desiring honor & admiration) proved one of the most beloved goals of the Novardokers.
If a Novardoker strove to work on his tendency to fear of anything but Hashem, he purposefully placed himself in frightening situations.
In its heyday, the Novardoker method led to all sorts of behaviors considered bizarre by others (and created amusing anecdotes), but produced a group of Jews who were truly humble, happy, helpful, and courageous.
So R' Leibman took this method, which was already well-ingrained within him, and pushed it to its limits with astonishing results.
A Partial List of R' Leibman's Astonishing Achievements
(He could not actively help anyone at that moment, so he turned to learning Torah instead.)
When a fellow frum Jew spoke to R' Leibman about R' Leibman's apparent recklessness & the obligation to save oneself in a time of danger, R' Leibman explained that he invested in the minimum effort required:
When the Nazis passed by his beis midrash, R' Leibman rose and hid himself behind the door.
Upon later finding himself in the local ghetto, R' Leibman created a yeshivah.
He regularly davened Shacharit with loud musical passion.
He always managed to acquire a book of Torah learning. When the evil-doers would confiscate one book, he managed to get another.
He endangered his life to smuggle in a pair of tefillin.
He refused to work on Shabbat.
And yes, his uncompromising commitment to enthusiastic Yiddishkeit led to horrific beatings.
Yet nothing ever broke his spirit or even caused him to waver.
Despite the suffering in both the ghetto and concentration camps, R' Leibman never lost his sense of joy.
Astoundingly, he thrived on the challenge of serving Hashem b'simcha in the most dehumanizing conditions.
The Power of Holy Joy
Throughout his ordeals in both the ghetto and concentration camps, R' Leibman constantly gave away his own food by allowing other Jews to stand in line to receive his portion.
He saved lives at every opportunity.
Other remember him as selfless, a person who only cared for others.
While still in the miserable prison clothes of Bergen-Belson after liberation, R' Leibman immediately sought to build yeshivot.
He wanted to re-build Torah for the Jewish people—to rebuild the Jewish Nation at its soul-root.
Despite being surrounded by the suffering of his fellow Jews & giving his all to help them while enduring terrible conditions himself, R' Leibman always maintained a state of joy due to his solid connection to Hashem.
R' Leibman enjoyed sacrificing his own needs to help others in the same boat.
And he continued to serve Hashem by working on behalf of the Jewish people for the rest of his life.
The Most Successful Shadchan (Matchmaker)
All his marriage matches succeeded with great blessing.
In fact, one son of one of these matches remarked that he still does not understand his parents' shidduch...
His mother & father are vastly different from one another, yet they get along beautifully.
The Truth about Bitachon & Emunah
Yes, it often happens that thanking Hashem & accepting yissurim (suffering) with joy cause our problems to disappear...but not always!
As we see from above, R' Leibman's extraordinary bitachon and level of simcha did NOT prevent him from experiencing Nazi captivity, physical deprivations & assaults, or torturous slave labor.
Physically, R' Leibman suffered for the rest of his life (until miraculous old age) from issues with his shoulders, heel, nose, and other areas—all resulting from merciless beatings & other torment during the Holocaust.
Yet he remained one of the only Holocaust survivors to not experience nightmares or any other signs of emotional trauma.
Those who knew him remember him as "unusually warm & loving," and youthful, energetic, good-humored, and full of laughter.
Despite his self-effacing humility, he carried himself with dignity, "like the general of an army."
Though we admire R' Leibman and wish to emulate him, his level of bitachon appears unattainable.
So what can we learn from such a person?
4 Ways to Emulate R' Leibman on Our Own Level
- He reviewed Shaar HaBitachon in Chovot HaLevavot (Gate of Trust in Duties of the Heart) over a thousand times. (Too much to even think about? No problem; even a one-time reading still packs a powerful impact on one's personality.)
- He gleaned deeply from Madreigos Ha'adam (The Levels of a Person by Rav Yosef Yoizel Hurwitz the Alter of Novardok). I personally have not yet read it, but it's certainly possible to do so.
- His favorite verse of Tehillim was 73:28: "My best thing is closeness to Hashem"—something he sang all the time. (You can also sing this verse, or chose another that speaks to your heart.)
- He viewed challenges as opportunities to beneficially break his middot.
Where is Your Personal Comfort Zone Located?
For example, Rav Steinman enjoyed a naturally serene personality that didn't look too deeply into stressful situations. Such people prefer living life in a pleasant blur.
But he didn't settle for indulging his nature—i.e., remaining in his comfort zone.
Rav Shteinman sought to probe from where his serenity emanated: from his inborn nature or the REAL development of emunah & bitachon?
(You can read more about that here: http://www.myrtlerising.com/blog/february-13th-2018)
Likewise, R' Leibman did not maintain his level of joy by skipping through life with only peripheral involvement in the suffering of others.
(Naturally cheerful people can & do a lot of valuable practical chessed for others, but often need to be told about it or what to do—i.e., they won't necessarily notice or know what to do themselves—yet resist getting involved emotionally or with others' emotional needs because that brings them down & causes serious emotional discomfort).
In contrast, Rav Leibman remained very aware of & involved in the suffering & misery surrounding him.
He maintained his level of joy while being emotionally involved in caring for others—including their terrible suffering.
And all the while, he sought ways to help them.
This is something a person can do on his or her own level, one baby-step at a time.
For example, I knew a married man with a naturally controlled personality.
Though he displayed unwavering composure & sterling middot in every situation, it came with a certain stiff & formal demeanor.
Yet when professionals told him that for the good of his autistic son, he needed to engage in a lot of warmth, physical affection, and playfulness with this son...he did so!
Passing through his dining room one day while visiting his wife, I was surprised to see him with his arms wrapped around his young son, holding him on his lap, rocking him and speaking to him whimsically.
(FYI: I didn't know they were there or I wouldn't have just burst through like that because the father was obviously a little embarrassed.)
But this made me realize what a truly good person he was, that he was able to access that part of him for the well-being of his son, even though it lay out of the normal parameters of his personal comfort zone (though he clearly also enjoyed the interaction along with his son).