My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, zt”l, was not the kind of Torah leader who remained secluded in his home, his Torah knowledge hidden away. From his early days at Chevron yeshiva to his final year, R’ Baruch Mordechai (as he was fondly known) shared his Torah wisdom in countless classes. His students, numbering many thousands, whether in Ateres, Chevron, Kfar Chassidim, or Camp Bnei Torah, are a testament to his impact. Nevertheless, it seems that his unique personality and innovative approach were somewhat understated in the public eye.
In the following lines, I would like to convey something of the uniqueness of R’ Baruch Mordechai’s way, as I saw it through my limited perception. I am certain that the great figure of R’ Baruch Mordechai, his shining example, can illuminate our path in these darkened times and guide us toward a better future.
R’ Baruch belonged to a school of Mussar thought that placed humanity on a pedestal. However, he was also a unique interpreter of this school’s teachings
R’ Baruch Mordechai was a disciple of the Mussar movement in Slabodka Yeshiva, known for its teachings on the greatness of humanity. He would often note a saying from our Sages that resonated with those who were engaged in the work of self-improvement:
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: […] It is written, “And you will only be above [the nations of the world],” perhaps you will be as great as Me [Hashem]? It says “only” to indicate a limitation. My greatness is greater than your greatness.
I’ve heard R’ Baruch Mordechai cite countless times how Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz would marvel and question the very notion. Is it even possible to entertain the question, “Could there be anyone as great as Me?” Do we need to resort to a scriptural inference or a special statement of the Sages to exclude the possibility of a human being being as great as Hashem? “We learn from this Midrash,” R’ Baruch Mordechai used to say repeatedly, “the extent of human capacity and the reach of human greatness.”
R’ Baruch belonged to a school of Mussar thought that placed humanity on a pedestal. However, he was also a unique interpreter of this school’s teachings, especially regarding the concept of greatness within each individual. He didn’t see this greatness as transcendent from the human aspect of a person. On the contrary, it was a harnessing of human nature to greatness.
The Ennoblement of Humanity
The concept of gadlus ha’adam, “human greatness,” in the Slabodka tradition, can be interpreted in several ways. A common and prevalent interpretation sees human greatness as the elevation of an individual, distancing him from the mundane aspects of life. As human beings, we are similar to Hashem in that we are far from the base lowliness of the earthly. In this view, human greatness is manifested in one’s intellectual abilities, ideals, lofty aspirations, and the creative power that allows us to approach the Divine.
In this interpretation, human greatness implies overcoming one’s inherent human nature. This approach doesn’t sit well with the fact that humans are passionate, emotional beings with flesh, bones, and desires, capable of joy, sorrow, laughter, and anger. Our human experience is filled with both elevated moments and periods of weakness and crisis. “Human greatness” is a call to rise above our weaknesses, acting with equanimity as rational and elevated beings capable of transcending and surpassing existence within an earthly residence.
For example, this is how the author of “Seridei Esh,” Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, describes his Slabodka education. Once, the Alter of Slabodka, Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, told his students about a boy who had left the path of righteousness and was moved by thoughts of repentance. He came to take counsel from his rabbi:
The Rabbi spoke about the spiritual pleasure of enjoying the radiance of the Divine Presence, which surpasses all physical pleasures. The teaching was based on the verse about the Revelation at Sinai, “And they saw… and they ate” (Shemos 24:11). Upon hearing this, the student was deeply moved, and his inner self was stirred. He almost made up his mind to repent and return to the right path, but then the story took an unexpected turn:
In the meantime, they brought a bowl of soup to the Rabbi. The Rabbi, who had been fasting for several consecutive days, paused his sermon, lifted the bowl to his lips, and inhaled the aroma – “an aroma has significant” (referencing a Talmudic concept), joked the rabbi with a light-hearted chuckle. But this light-hearted chuckle that parted the pure lips and the radiant smile that graced the Rabbi’s aging face tore at the student’s soul, who was sorely disappointed. He saw that his rabbi was just a man, like all men, a simple mortal, though he spoke in a language that even angels yearn for. The student left and never returned.
The Alter of Slabodka did not seek to point out the mistake of the naive student, but rather, he wanted to address the educational failure of his teacher. In the eyes of the Alter, the rabbi was expected to maintain an angelic state that transcends all human concerns, untouched by trivial matters like food even after fasting for several days.
We expect revered individuals, the model leaders of the generation, to be ascetic and elevated, “beyond human.”
Many followers of the Mussar movement have reinforced these views of human greatness. We expect revered individuals, the model leaders of the generation, to be ascetic and elevated, “beyond human.” We recount stories of how, even from a young age, these leaders displayed a loftiness that set them apart from ordinary people. This perspective can be encapsulated in a comment I heard from a respected Torah scholar in the name of one of the Gedolim: “How can a person who uses deodorant be on the Council of Torah sages?”
Such a perspective is not without merit. It encourages individuals to strive for moral and spiritual elevation and inspires them to transcend the lower aspects of human existence, forever striving for a more refined and pure state of being. However, it also poses significant educational and societal challenges. From an educational standpoint, the image of the idealized man can seem distant and unattainable to the average person. Furthermore, it may lead to perceiving basic love of life and humankind as hindrances to achieving the virtue of greatness.
The truth is that we continue, all of us, to enjoy the sweet fragrance of a bowl of soup. If this is a failing, we are all failures, including our greatest role models. After all, how can someone who enjoys a tasty soup and wears fine clothing truly appreciate the Rambam’s wisdom? Does that person not understand what is truly sweet in life?
The Human Greatness of R’ Baruch Mordechai
R’ Baruch Mordechai had an original approach. While he was undoubtedly a student of the Slabodka Yeshiva, he offered a fresh interpretation of human greatness. For him, greatness was not about elevating man above his human nature but rather about drawing greatness from within one’s humanity. It was about taking the inherent human qualities and elevating them to new heights.
R’ Baruch mordechai was a mensch, or in other words, a true gentleman. He had refined taste and style. He was not an angelic figure elevated above the earthly pleasures described above. He knew how to enjoy a juicy steak and a good glass of wine. He appreciated fine clothing and was a warm, emotional, and very human individual.
Some may have found it challenging to reconcile this image. How could a scholarly figure of such stature, a person whose entire life was dedicated to the Torah, education and teaching, a man who truly and wholeheartedly loved the Torah and inspired others to love it as well – how could he not act like an angel? How could he enjoy a bowl of soup and still draw people closer to the Torah, especially people who might be somewhat put off by the persona described in the story above?
The jokes that are commonly told about R’ Baruch Mordechai, perhaps even his own self-awareness and sharp sense of humor, were ways to balance his unwavering commitment to Torah study and practice with his humanity
At times, it seemed that even R’ Baruch Mordechai himself struggled to reconcile this paradox. In a certain sense, the jokes that are commonly told about R’ Baruch Mordechai, perhaps even his own self-awareness and sharp sense of humor, were ways to balance his unwavering commitment to Torah study and practice with his humanity.
In one of his discourses on Parshat Korach, R’ Baruch Mordechai addressed the significance of Aharon’s staff blossoming in contrast to the other tribes’ staffs. He asked, “Why did the Creator design nature in such a way that the flower precedes the fruit? Isn’t the fruit the ultimate purpose of the flower? Why not proceed directly to the goal?”
He answered, “The Creator wanted that, apart from the results of growth and development, growth itself should also be visible. This is expressed through blossoming.” In other words, flowering calls attention to the means as well as the ends. He explained that the process of blossoming exists not only in the realm of vegetation but “in all forms of life, in vegetation, animals, and humans, in their physical development and their spiritual development. […] The more vigorous and dynamic life is, the more vibrant it is, the more blossoming flourishes, becoming stronger and more vibrant, with increasing energy.”
From there, R’ Baruch Mordechai proceeded to discuss one of his favorite teachings concerning Ravina’s eulogy (Moed Katan 25b). He pondered why the righteous were likened to a palm tree because of the nature of the blossoming of the Tzaddik – “a righteous person as a palm tree will blossom”: “The boldest expression of blossoming is found among those whose lives and vitality are more robust, among those who are the source and cause of the entire creation, of all life. Among the righteous of the generation.” In other words, the righteous, whose actions are the purpose of creation and whose fruits extend to the World to Come, are distinguished not only by their final outcomes but also by their blossoming.
On another occasion, R’ Baruch Mordechai explained a statement from the Talmud in Sukkah (49b), where Rava interpreted the verse, “How beautiful are your footsteps in sandals, noble daughter” (Shir Hashirim 7:2). Rava asked, “What is the meaning of ‘How beautiful are your footsteps’? It refers to the footsteps of the Jewish people when they go up for the pilgrimage.” The unique beauty of the Jewish people is recognized when they are still in the middle of their journey, wearing dusty sandals before taking them off upon reaching their destination, the holy Mikdash.
Indeed, at that moment, when they are already in the Mikdash, nothing stands in the way of their sights and feelings, surrounding them with a spirit of holiness as they absorb the sacred atmosphere. While still on their journey, wearing sandals, they already visualize the performance of the heavenly ceremonies, the sights, the sensations, and the Divine Presence they will feel when they get there. This is indeed magnificent and exceptional. Accordingly, it is written, “How beautiful are your footsteps in sandals, noble daughter.”
Shoes distinguish a person from both animals and angels. Animals do not wear shoes because they are part of nature. Angels do not wear shoes because they do not stand on the ground
The Talmud in Shabbos (152a) states, “One who wears shoes is a human being.” This means that shoes distinguish a person from both animals and angels. Animals do not wear shoes because they are part of nature. Angels do not wear shoes because they do not stand on the ground. However, humankind stands on the ground, on the one hand, but is separated from it on the other. The shoes are the ladder placed on the earth that connects human beings with the heavens. They express the importance of the journey, the flowers, and the vessel that leads to the goal.
R’ Baruch Mordechai was no angel. He was a man. He wore shoes. His human greatness was the ability to see humanity as a means toward attaining Divine greatness. He knew how to appreciate the flower and not just the fruit.
R’ Baruch Mordechai was not only a brilliant Torah scholar and outstanding educator but also a master of speech. His refined and eloquent rhetorical abilities were extraordinary. Anyone who witnessed him speak at the Bnei Torah camp, year after year, recounting the story of “Yitzchak Elchanan to the left,” could see an artist in front of them. No matter how many times you heard the story, R’ Baruch had the talent to captivate you with renewed drama and vitality in the narrative. These abilities were part of the same concept of human greatness – greatness in which all a person’s faculties are harnessed to create a complete, superior individual, a person of virtue. They were not a secondary or superficial matter but the flowers of a “righteous person flourishing like a date palm.” It was a full expression of bursting vitality, in which the means leading to the goal gained intrinsic value.
Education to Greatness
R’ Baruch Mordechai was well aware of the spirit of the times and its challenges. He knew that gadlus ha’adam in our generation needed to take into account the weaknesses common to people today. Every Parshas Toldos, he would deliver a lengthy sermon about selling the birthright for a pot of lentil stew, addressing the materialism and materialistic tendencies that hinder a person’s dedication to Hashem. In previous generations, R’ Baruch Mordechai explained, people wouldn’t compromise their stature and spiritual greatness for material possessions, even for the treasures of Korach. However, in today’s world, even Torah scholars are distracted by material concerns and consumerism.
He didn’t seek a head-on fight against the inclination for this world, but sought to create a higher alternative
R’ Baruch Mordechai’s response to this issue was to educate people to love Torah and revere Hashem, not through a complete renunciation of life but by viewing a Torah life as the ultimate pleasure. He suspected insincerity in absolute self-nullification and self-sacrifice. He often quoted the Ramchal in Mesilat Yesharim, emphasizing the superiority of the holy over the pure, where physical actions are sanctified. He didn’t seek a head-on fight against the inclination for this world, but sought to create a higher alternative. In one of his teachings, he returned to the well-known parable of the Dubno Maggid about the burden that someone carried and discovered it wasn’t the load he was supposed to bear:
Every yeshiva student knows that any work, no matter how hard, is far less challenging than explaining a difficult Rambam or comprehending a Tosafos. Nonetheless, the effort of explaining Rambam or understanding the language of Tosafos doesn’t tire you. If you ever see a Torah scholar tired and fatigued, it’s not due to his studies. His studies, as precious as they may be, are like a package filled with pearls and diamonds. No one gets tired from that. Something else causes the fatigue, something that is not part of his package; that’s where the tiredness comes from.
“There’s a noble way to overcome the low-mindedness and desires of the heart,” R’ Baruch Mordechai would say. “You don’t need to diminish the human aspect within you; you need to elevate it.” Many times, he reiterated his opposition to the interpretation that the Torah permits immoral behavior with the beautiful captive woman as a concession because a person can’t overcome his desires. Instead, he sought to show the opposite – that the Torah teaches us the moral possibility to master our passions and to remove their sting.
Many students were blessed to be taught by R’ Baruch Mordechai. Yet, the feeling is that we received a drop in a vast ocean. His great, radiant figure, which succeeded in endearing the Torah, its study, and its teachings to so many young people, now shines like the brightness of the sky and the stars. And the feeling remains that despite his enormous work during his lifetime, he left us at the height of his prime and left us orphans. I wish we could learn from his ways, be human, and be great.
It is a time of trouble for Yaakov. May the merit of our teacher protect us, and may we soon merit Hashem’s salvation.
 Vayikra Rabbah (Vilna) Parshat Kedoshim, Parsha 24.
 Lifrakim, (by Rabbi YY Weinberg), page 75.
 Birchas Mordechai on the Torah, Bamidbar, pages 212-214.
 Ibid, Devarim, page 194.
 Birchas Mordechai, Vayikra, page 402.
 See, for example, Birchas Mordechai, Ki Tetze, pages 250-252.