So many of them were born intellectually gifted & raised in very special families by spiritually elevated parents who knew the best way to raise Jewish children.
With such great personalities & such great upbringings, what did they need to work on exactly?
And because no one wants to reveal the ugliest parts of oneself (actually, it's not tsniyus to do so) & because truly humble people feel so uncomfortable speaking about themselves, we don't hear much about what they worked on & how they did it.
Sure, a few anecdotes exist about one Gadol or another who mentioned their inborn inclinations toward anger or impatience, and how they continued to strive against that inclination even in old age & even when their patient persona gave the impression of having conquered their hot temper.
Also, after another respected talmid chacham passed away a couple of years ago, the rabbanim who knew him tactfully mentioned his lack of innate talent & scholastic skill.
Meaning, he needed to push himself much harder than everyone else to achieve what he did.
It took strenuous effort for him to achieve what he did. His success in Torah learning did not come easy at all.
We also know that Rebbi Akiva initially suffered from a violent hatred of Torah Sages, a hatred emanating from his subconscious envy of them—until he started learning Torah himself & overcame this.
But other than that, we don't hear so much.
The Story of a Particularly Sensitive & Perceptive Young Man
He doesn't say much & admittedly dislikes talking about himself (preferring to speak about Hashem & Torah instead).
Case in point—here is an excerpt from a Q&A in the PDF for Parshat Toldot, pages 11-12. (The question seems sincere & very complimentary.):
How did the Rav reach such clarity in avodas Hashem and to put together all the different views in avodas Hashem and synthesize them all together?
How can a person be zocheh to this? Is there a particular topic I can learn about which will bring me to the same level that the Rav was zocheh to?
[No answer. The Rav declined to answer.]
(Maybe there are more, but just didn't find them.)
Furthermore, the stories of people who struggled with what Rav Schwartz struggled often end up with them going off the derech, either becoming atheist professors or Buddhists or drug-addled Goths. Or something.
So it's refreshing (and educational) to read about someone with the integrity to face his struggles correctly.
So here are some snippets of Rav Itamar Schwartz describing his personal inner journey:
I remember about 17 or 18 years ago I looked on the calendar and saw that it would be Rosh HaShanah soon.
Since the Yomim Noraim were approaching, I knew that I must feel something, but I didn’t know what to feel.
I didn’t see anything in my life that is missing. I knew that I felt empty, but I didn’t know what it was that I was missing.
Why did I feel so empty?
I learned all day; I had three full sedarim in the day where I learned. I davened and did all the mitzvos. So why did I feel empty inside?
I sat and thought: Am I missing something? Why do I feel empty if I am doing everything I am supposed to?
It bothered me very, very much.
I started to look at others to see if I could know how others are happy, and I saw that everyone else was happy except myself.
Then I became very lonely, because I felt that everyone else was happy and enjoying their learning – everyone except me.
After many years, I met many people who felt what I felt then – people who feel like they’re empty inside and haven’t found themselves in life.
There is no one here in Eretz Yisrael who hasn’t found themselves when it comes to mitzvos and Halacha. So what was missing in my life that I have to change myself?
I began to ask people if they felt like me. No one understood me – they were like Pharoah’s servants who couldn’t interpret his dream.
No one gave me answers I was satisfied with.
This was one of the hardest times in my life – I can’t forget it.
I had no idea what to do and where to go in my life. But I knew that I shouldn’t give up; I knew I’m not an old person at the end of his life, that I’m young and that I have hope.
I davened to Hashem to help me.
After some time, I went to a private room and cried to Hashem. I asked Hashem, “Hashem, I know there is no more prophecy anymore, but what do You want from me? Tell me what You want from me!”
I cried terribly to Hashem.
But I had faith that Hashem would send me my answers and show me what He wants from me in my life.
I hope no one goes through what I went through then.
But if you ever went through this too, I want you to know that I was there too and went through it – and I came out of it.
After this, I remember that I made a list of all the things I was unhappy with my life, and I wrote how I feel like an old person who has no satisfaction in life.
But I told myself not to give up, and I knew that Hashem will help me and show me what He wants from me. I didn’t know where my answer would come from, but I trusted in Hashem that He would send me the answer. How?
I knew it wouldn’t come from my mind. I knew that when Hashem opens up my heart, it will be then that I understand – to understand what the reality of this world is.
I remember this clearly. I was sitting and learning with a sefer, and suddenly it hit me: I felt the reality that Hashem exists. Then, everything became clear to me.
I grew up in a frum home and learned in a good yeshivah, and I knew all about Emunah that a person is supposed to have.
I was taught the 13 principles of faith of the Rambam about belief in G-d. But I realized that although I knew a lot, I didn’t feel what I knew.
Then I knew what I was missing.
This is what I realized: There is a place in one’s heart where he can feel the Endlessness of Hashem’s existence, and when a person doesn’t feel this, he feels empty.
He will search and search and he will not find the answers to his emptiness.
Some people were not blessed by Hashem with much feeling, and this emptiness doesn’t bother them, the same way a table doesn’t feel anything.
They get up and go to work or even if they go learn, they simply don’t feel this emptiness. They feel fine.
But any person with a little feeling can see how this world is full of so much emptiness – tohu and vohu, and utter darkness.
They want light – the light of Hashem – to illuminate their darkness.
There are a few people who are very deeply feeling people and they are in a lot of pain. They see others who are fine and look happy, and they don’t know why they themselves aren’t happy.
These people suffer greatly inside.
In addition to this, they are searching to fill their emptiness, and they don’t know how.
The more feeling a person is, the more unhappy he is with what the reality is.
The Root Of All Problems
At one point in my life, I realized what the root of all problems in the world is.
Baruch Hashem, people know most of the statements of Chazal, but they only know it intellectually - and that’s it. People know that Chazal say that the world stands on Torah, and that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world, etc.
But what is missing from us?
We only know it – but we feel differently in our own life.
What we need to do is truly feel the truths about Torah and how it is everything, and then everything will change.
Falafel and Vacations
For many years, I thought about this until I finally came to this conclusion.
One time I passed by a falafel store and I saw a long line waiting out the store; a new kind of falafel came out, and everyone was waiting in line to try it. I thought to myself, “Maybe they’re right – maybe there really is something to this falafel? Maybe this falafel will make me happy?”
I waited on line, I bought it, I ate it – and I was very disappointed.
I saw people who were always going on vacations who seemed to really be enjoying it, though. I thought maybe there really is something special to all these vacations.
I went on one of these vacations, but I was terribly disappointed. I rented a car, checked out into the hotel room, and as soon as I got into the room, I threw the keys onto the bed in frustration.
I realized that while going to a hotel may have given me some more relaxation, it didn’t make me feel happier with my life.
It took many years for me to go deep into my soul and realize that I couldn’t be happy with my life based on anything external, but that it has to come from within myself.
The more connected I felt to Torah and to Hashem, the more alive I felt.
The more I would run after pleasure from the outside of myself, the more I realized I was chasing wind.
It took me a lot of time to come to this conclusion.
One of the hardest times in my life I remember was when I learned in Yeshivah.
I learned in Yeshivas Ponovezh, and I learned a lot.
But I didn’t feel that my learning was giving me more life.
I knew that the Torah is supposed to give me life, but I didn’t feel it.
I thought that maybe I am the kind of student that the Sages say doesn’t see success in his learning.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to learn; I knew how to learn very well. I was regarded as an excellent student.
But I didn’t feel like the Torah is what is giving me life, which is what I am supposed to feel.
I thought maybe I should leave yeshiva – I didn’t feel like I came onto the world to learn Torah.
I knew that there are people who feel that they came onto this world to learn Torah, but I just didn’t feel that way.
I went to Jerusalem and decided that I will speak to one of the Gedolim who was there and ask him for his advice.
I went to his house, but he wasn’t available. I was very frustrated that I didn’t get into him, and I didn’t know what to do. I was very, very frustrated!
At some point later, I realized what the answer was.
I thought to myself and realized clearly that if Hashem was the one who said that the Torah is our life – “Ki heim chayeinu” – then it must be so, and that I should never give up.
My Message To You
Don’t ever give up, even for one moment.
Hashem is Avinu Av Harachaman – He is a merciful Father, and He wants you to have life. If you really want to find life in the Torah, you will find it.
If someone feels empty inside – or even if he doesn’t – he must know that he will not find anything pleasurable on this world; it’s all in his imagination that maybe there is something good out there other than the Torah.
Any pleasure on this world is fleeting and will not give a person enjoyment out of his life.
If you really want to have a true life, cry to Hashem from the depths of your heart, “Open my heart to Your Torah” – not just that Hashem should open your mind, but to open your heart that you should have the true life – and then you will become a truly happy person, plain and simple.
I hope with all my heart that all of you should merit this and that Hashem should open up your hearts to realize that besides for a deep connection to Hashem and learning the Torah, there is nothing else we have that will give us enjoyment out of life.
...or to mock them for not have realized something the mocker considers sooooo obvious.
But if you're into the Enneagram, the rav just described in a nutshell the journey of the inner plight of the average Four.
(To use other terms, INFJs or Highly Sensitive People struggle with this too.)
Another Glimpse into the Rav's Inner Struggles
I want to understand a little more about who the Rav is.
Which “crowd” does the Rav belong to?
Who is the Rav [or guiding figure] of the Rav?
What “type” is the Rav?
I am asking this because when I learn the Rav’s sefarim with others many times they will ask these kinds of questions.
Unfortunately I cannot really answer your question.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner said (in the biography called Sefer HaZikaron L’Pachad Yitzchok) that it is difficult for him to talk about himself.
I suffer from the same thing.
It is very difficult for me to write about myself, and in fact, even just writing that alone is difficult and uncomfortable for me.
And the very question of “what kind of crowd do I belong to” is something that I am totally uncomfortable with.
If you want to understand what “type” I am, you can discern this from my sefarim and especially from the q&a (printed in sefer Sha’al Libi) regarding the material written in my sefarim.
How did the Rav reach so much clarity in avodas Hashem, the complexity of the soul, and the understanding of pnimiyus haTorah?
How was the Rav so successful in avodas Hashem, which for most people is so difficult and filled with failure and lack of clarity (even to those who seek truth)?
How did the Rav go through so many sefarim without becoming confused?
How did the Rav grow so much and become so pure, whereas the rest of us are still groping in the dark and constantly falling into aveiros, bad middos, and major mistakes in how we think and act?
Did the Rav ever go through a lot of darkness and confusion in life in order to get there….?
You have asked a very difficult question!
If only I would be zocheh to all that you have described.
Out of hakaras hatov to you I will answer you a little, although it is against my nature [to talk about myself].
You ask if I have went through difficult experiences in my life, and the answer is:
You asked if I can go more into detail about it, and the answer is as follows.
My main difficulty started from childhood, when I couldn’t stand sheker (falsity).
Because of this, I suffered a lot in my soul [emotionally], and I also suffered from just being on this world, which is called the “world of falsity”, by having to be involved with people where I was exposed to so much falsity from others.
And this was tremendous suffering for me!
In addition, in my teenage years when I became more mature, I suffered when I began to recognize and feel that there is an iron wall that separated between me and the internal light, the light of the neshamah, and the Infinite Light of Hashem.
Besides this, I suffered greatly from the “empty space” in the soul which makes a person feel hollow inside, as it says in the verse “And also the soul is not filled”.
This is the greatest suffering that I recognize.
In addition to this, my heightened sensitivity also caused me to suffer a lot, because “Increase of knowledge is an increase of pain.”
After I got married, now more than 20 years ago, I suffered from a lot of humiliation [from others] as a result of giving shiurim and producing sefarim and trying to benefit the public [which caused others to react strongly to me and be opposed to me], and all that this entailed, which was a lot.
Besides for this, though, my main suffering is due to the contradicting aspects in my soul, which need to be balanced.
And as a result of these imbalances, I also suffer from physical aches.
(A lot of people also cannot.)
Rav Schwartz is a talmid chacham with tremendously refined character (though he does not think of himself in those terms).
Yet he gives us a window into his struggles are.
It's a rare & precious glimpse.
The benefit of all this lies in its ability to help by example & provide validation to the people who struggle the way he did & does.