The shemen ha’mishchah, oil of anointment, was used exclusively for sacred purposes, such as anointing the Ohel Moed, the Kohen Gadol and the keilim, vessels in the Mishkan/Bais Hamikdash. In examining the shoresh, root, of the mitzvah, the Sefer HaChinuch writes that Hashem wanted us to perform an act ourselves, on the day that we go up to be inaugurated to the honor of performing His holy service l’haros banu gedulah u’shevach, to indicate greatness and praise in us. This is the anointing of the oil. Horav Yitzchok Zilberstein, Shlita, comments that the words, “to indicate greatness and praise in us,” are counter to everything the ben Torah/ben aliyah stands for. Personal eminence is the antithesis of what the Torah wants for us. The last thing one who is dedicated to Torah study should consider is personal praise and aggrandizement of any sort. He should not think about his achievements and personal attributes; rather, he should focus on learning and continued learning. It is not about “me”; it is about the Torah. Yet, the Sefer HaChinuch writes that “on the day that we go up to be inaugurated…we should focus on personal greatness and praise.”
The term ben aliyah refers to a young man who is in the process of being oleh, going up, ascending the ladder of spirituality and Torah scholarship. Rav Zilberstein explains that the concept of ben aliyah is based upon a halachic decision rendered by the poskim, halachic decisors. They posit that just as Moshe Rabbeinu refused (as an infant) to nurse from a gentile woman, because the mouth that would speak with the Shechinah, Divine Presence, cannot be so defiled, likewise, no Jewish child should nurse from a gentile. The question is obvious: Moshe was clearly destined to speak with the Shechinah. How does this apply to the typical Jewish boy? What are the chances that a typical Jewish boy will speak with Hashem?
Horav Eliyahu Baruch Kamai, zl, explained that, in reality, every Jewish boy eventually speaks with the Shechinah when he studies Gemorah. When he learns a blatt Gemorah, passage of the Talmud, or any Torah segment, he is speaking to Hashem. This should be his attitude when he learns Torah. This is the definition of a ben aliyah; one who studies Torah should have his eyes on High, focused on what his learning Torah means. It is his conversation with Hashem! If this is how he learns, if this is his attitude, he is a ben aliyah.
Rav Zilberstein relates a well-known vignette concerning Horav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, zl. The addendum to the often repeated story is not well-known. As a young teenager, Rav Wosner traveled to Lublin in order to gain entrance to the famous Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. It was, at the time, the preeminent yeshivah of its day. Acceptance to the yeshivah was an indication of a student’s high level of erudition. Entrance to the yeshivah was reserved for high caliber students who, due to their brilliance or extreme diligence in Torah study, would be enabled to reach a pinnacle of Torah knowledge accessible only to a select few.
When Rav Wosner initially took his entrance bechinah, test, he failed. This in no way meant that he was a weak student. Indeed, he was an excellent student. It was just that, due to his young age, he lacked the achievement required for a Chachmei Lublin student. “Next time” was their response. A few hours later, the Rosh Yeshivah and founder of Chachmei Lublin, Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, visited the bais hamedrash (which he did many times daily) and noticed a young boy diligently studying in the corner of the room. It was young Shmuel Wosner. “What are you still doing here?” the Rosh Yeshivah asked. “I thought that we did not accept you?” he added. “Yes, I was not accepted. However, I have a few hours left before my return train to Vienna (his home town). What better way to spend them than learning?” the teenager responded. “If this is your attitude, I want you as my student!” was Rav Meir Shapiro’s reply. The rest is history.
This is the well-known part of the story. Now, for the addendum. A man who was in charge of seeing to it that the bais hamedrash of Rav Shmuel Wosner (in the Zichron Meir section of Bnei Brak) stayed clean and orderly found a batch of kesavim, letters and writings dating back to 1928, to which Rav Wosner affixed his name, Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, Av Bais Din Lodz.” Chief Rabbi of Lodz (Poland)! First of all, Rav Wosner was never this distinguished (Jewish) city’s Rav. Furthermore, when he wrote this, he was but a young boy. What was he thinking at the time?
The distinguished Rav and posek explained why he had signed his name in such a manner: “When I was accepted in the yeshivah, I was much younger than the other bachurim, students. The bachurim that were engaged in Torah study in Chachmei Lublin were exceptional scholars. The rebbeim were Torah giants. How was I to ever reach their level? I had to do something that would motivate, as well as encourage, my rise to the pinnacle of Torah erudition. I decided to do something tangible by giving myself a title that was at that time, for me, unheard of and undreamed of. I was quite far from becoming Av Bais Din of Lodz, but that was exactly how I wanted to challenge myself. I felt that by striving for this tangible, but far – off position, I would be able to motivate myself daily to learn more and more until, perhaps one day, I would become worthy of this title.” Rav Wosner accomplished beyond his wildest dreams. To be Rav of Zichron Meir for over seventy years, a community that was home to gedolei ha’dor of every generation, was no simple feat.
Bnei Brak is home to a number of chadorim whose rebbeim are quite creative in motivating their young charges to shteig in learning and to grow and excel in Torah study. One first – grade rebbe applied Rav Wosner’s self-motivation to his students. The month of Nissan is reserved for lectures, with every Rav delivering both halachic and aggadic lectures pertaining to the upcoming festival of Pesach. The rebbe gave each student an individual placard that detailed a list of the varied rabbanim of Bnei Brak who would hold forth, their topic, and when and where the event would take place. Included among the names of the rabbanim was the name of the young first grader (each student had an individual placard) with full title, announcing his upcoming lecture. Instead of the date of the lecture taking place that year, however, the rebbe had added twenty years (making the boy all of 26 years old). This was the rebbe’s manner of intimating to his students, “You, too, can one day lecture in a large shul in Bnei Brak. It is all up to you.”
Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, Rosh Yeshivas Telshe, entered the yeshivah world with a burning desire to study Torah and make it his life’s vocation. As a young boy growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia, and later on in Baltimore, Maryland, his background in Torah was far from impressive. His brilliant mind and unprecedented diligence and thirst for Torah helped him to catch up and soon overtake those who were older than he. When he was a teenager, his wall was adorned with pictures of gedolim, Torah giants. In the middle of them all was an empty frame with the words, “What about you?” His life was devoted to answering that question.