Friday, April 07, 2006
originally appeared in The Jewish Observer, is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It conveys the majesty of the Negina at his Tish, and speaks for itself.
Rabbi Chaim Meir Hager, who had been revered as Vizhnitzer Rebbe for 35 years, passed away in Eretz Yisrael on the Thursday night before Pesach, 5732. On the following day, an estimated 50,000 mourners accompanied his aron to its final resting place.
He had a huge following, including the thousands of settlers of Shikun Vizhnitz, and the hundreds of students of the Vizhnitzer Yeshiva, both in Bnei Brak; he was a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) of the Agudath Israel of Eretz Yisrael; he was the scion of a noble Chassidic dynasty; but, perhaps equal to all of these elements, his personal warmth, the majesty of his Tish, and the triumph of joy over adversity that he personified, won him vast admiration beyond the confines of any one group.
The shtibel on Ross Street in Williamsburg was packed. People were literally hanging on to the walls. I was perched on the oversized cast-iron radiator in the corner, one hand mopping my brow with my handkerchief, the other hand holding on for dear life to the gartel of my partner on the radiator. We didn't know if the radiator was warming us or if the heat was generated from the assembled multitude. This was a multifaceted group of Chassidim from Galicia, Bukovina, Rumania, Hungary, Marmorosh, Transylvania - indeed from all over the globe, bent on one purpose: spending the Shabbos with the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, who had just arrived from Eretz Yisrael to seek support for his beloved project, the building of Shikun Vizhnitz in Bnei Brak. His avowed purpose was the rejuvenation of Chassidus after the Holocaust, which left many in despair; reciting Kaddish over Yiddishkeit, frumkeit and especially Chassidus. In our minds, we were mulling over the Rebbe's words regarding the Baal Shem Tov's promise to his great disciple and shliach tzibbur, Reb Yaakov Koppel Chassid, from whom the Rebbe was a seventh generation descendant – "Your issue will lead Klal Yisrael to welcome Moshiach."
Suddenly all was quiet. The Rebbe silently made his way through a hastily formed lane, the throng held back by broad shouldered Chassidim. He took his place at the head of the table and, with outstretched arms welcoming the Shabbos, he began, "Gut Shabbos, Gut Shabbos, Gut Shabbos, heiliger Shabbos, taiyere Shabbos, shreit shet, Yiddalech, Gut Shabbos."
Thus, at about eight o'clock, began the Tish which was to last into the early hours of the morning. Shabbos knows no night, the Rebbe would say, quoting Rashi in Masechta Shabbos - Friday is considered the night of Shabbos. Shabbos is completely day, made up entirely of light, life and purity. He recited the Shalom Aleichem in the nusach made famous by three great Vizhnitzer Rebbes before him, intoning each phrase distinctly and in his own unique manner. Shabbos shulem u'mevoroch - Shulem aleichem, malachei hashareis, malachei hashulem, malachei elyon!
He sang with a clear and resonant voice, broken from time to time by a sob - a tear shed out of the joy with which he greeted the Shabbos - and by a deep krechtz [sigh, groan] emanating from the soul which longed with such great anticipation for Shabbos HaMalka, the Sabbath Queen.
He went through the recitation of "Shalom Aleichem" and the entire "Ribon HaOlamim" without singing, merely chanting the words. Upon its completion he picked up the hadassim [myrtle leaves] filled with spices and recited the "Borei minei b’samim" [blessing over spices]. Thus, with an addition to his great soul and the scent of m'danei asa [myrtle], he began to say "Eishes Chayil" in a half-singing, half-chanting tone - a tradition brought down from the holy Zeides of Kossov, who labored and toiled in the cradle of Chassidus, in the mountain valleys where Russia, Poland, Rumania, and Hungary touched each other. The u-bu-bu-boy and the lingering sounds of the Vizhnitzer nusach, elongating many words and dragging the syllables of others, were the trademark of the dynasty founded by Reb Yaakov Koppel Chassid, established in the Galician village by his son Reb Mendel and fortified by his grandson Reb Chaim. The next generation had its own Reb Mendel, known as the Tzemach, from whom sprouted the present dynasty. As the son-in-law of the great Rizhiner, he set up his court in Vizhnitz, a hamlet in Bukovina, not far from the palace of the Rizhiner in Sadigura.
The Rebbe continued to recite the "Askinu Seudasa," with the unmistakable nusach, revealing in each phrase his thoughts and emotions. One could feel the expression of "simcha b'lev nishbar" - rejoicing with a broken heart - a melody peering out of the cracks of a heart, overflowing with the joy of the advent of Shabbos. His progenitors dwelled upon the mysteries of the Shabbos, the holiness of the Shabbos in all of their writings. He, the Rebbe, was attempting to convey the joy of the Shabbos. To all who entered his sphere of influence he opened a door to the enjoyment of the Shabbos; to sense its happiness and to open one's heart and soul to its flood of purity and sanctity, contentment and ecstasy.
The shtibel [Chassidic house-shul] was filled with all kinds of Jews, all types of Chassidim, attracted to the Rebbe's voice and look, as to a magnet. He led, he directed, he guided with a wink, a gesture, a movement. The entire group swayed as he swayed; sang, as he sang; cried, as he cried; smiled, as he smiled; everyone, as if transposed from this world to another, elated, uplifted, and overjoyed. This was his magical power of "taking the olam," the entire group, molding them into one unit, ready to do the Will of the One Above.
He proceeded to make Kiddush. As he uttered the words "Yom HaShishi," we all strained to get a glimpse of his face. With the entrance of the Shabbos his entire appearance changed. It was as if he had grown a foot taller. His bearing, so regal all week long, was even more pronounced on Shabbos. He was immaculate in dress. Every hair of his beard was in a pre-ordained place. His peyos were neatly curled and smoothly blended into his beard. His face was radiant with joy. Yet he was "poshet tzura v'lovesh tzura" - his facial expressions changed with the mood of the words he chanted. He intoned the words of the Kiddush, some hurriedly and others he lingered upon; stressing, explaining, emoting - all part of the same process of involving all around him in the happiness he felt in the Shabbos. Here before our eyes was the Rebbe who personified the humility of Kossov, the majesty of Rizhin, the wisdom of Ropshitz, the piety of Chernobyl and the kindness of Apt. In his veins flowed their blood and in his conduct he eternalized their message. His path was a synthesis of all of these great dynasties and he sought to recreate their former greatness in his renaissance of Chassidus after the great Holocaust.
No sooner had he finished the Kiddush, partaken of the wine, when he immediately lifted his hands to conduct the entire olam in a new song - a melody he had composed on his way to America. He enjoyed a new niggun and lent his ear to every type of song. He once told us that his entire body is one niggun; from the tips of his toes to the top of his head he echoed with song.
The entire shtibel trembled as the sound reverberated, as all were pervaded with his joyful presence. He was in full command at all times. He glanced around the room and scrutinized us all - nothing escaped him. He recognized faces he hadn't seen in forty years and he embraced relatives he hadn't seen since before the war. He drew everyone close with his sharp and friendly look.
Thus, the Tish continued and the first course was served. He nibbled at the fish and distributed the shirayim [the “leftovers” from the Rebbe’s portion] - being meticulously careful to hand out the fish on a special fork to those he knew as uninitiated in the habits of the Chassidim. He would avoid violating anyone's feelings and strove to make everyone feel at home.
After the distribution of shirayim to the dignitaries, the platter was pounced upon by the Chassidim who were even satisfied to have only touched the platter. Others, who were luckier, diligently divided up their spoils with their neighbors and to all newcomers - especially to those who were not Chassidim. Remember, this was Vizhnitz where all were drawn close to the Rebbe by the Chassidim who were taught to attract all - even the most distant. Their motto was summed up in the words of the Rosh Hashana prayer of V'yishme'u rechokim v'yavo'u, "Those distant will hear of you and come close to you."
All is silent. The Rebbe begins to chant the "Kol Mekadesh" with the tune of his forefathers, repeating some words and stretching out others. He repeats the word "meichalelo" three times. The last time he pronounces it as "mochal-lo," hinting at a Chazal [saying of the Talmudic Sages] that states - "If a man keeps the Shabbos, even if he was guilty of idolatry, his sins are forgiven."
The Chassidim press forward, eager to see the Rebbe, and to swallow each word he recites. At times, the Rebbe pauses to wipe a tear from his eyes, but he is not crying. He is enjoying the Shabbos and expressing his happiness. His voice rings loud and clear, and it tears into every heart. It is difficult to forget his imposing presence, his resonant voice and his loving smile.
The "Kol Mekadesh" is followed by a lively niggun, a dance melody, and the Rebbe is careful to make sure that all are responsive to his urging to participate. Soon the entire room is reverberating - everyone is awake, swaying back and forth to the rhythm.
Following the soup the Rebbe pauses and then begins the "Menucha V’Simcha." This is no ordinary tune. It is a symphony. Its composer was the great Reb Nissan who had sung in the court of the Rebbe's father (known as the "Ahavas Yisrael" after his sefer), Rebbe Yisrael, of blessed memory. The Rebbe sang the first movement. It was repeated by the entire group. He then carefully taught the group the refrain and was gratified by the quick response and some able voices. His pleasure was obvious, for his face shone. But pity the one who went off key! No matter how many people were assembled, his sensitive ear would rebel at a false note and he would pound on the table with his fingers, interrupt the singing, and have the olam repeat the melody perfectly.
"Menucha V’Simcha" sometimes took close to twenty minutes by the clock! But who was looking at the clock? We had lost all sense of time, as if transposed into a Gan Eden - some Olam Haba beyond space and beyond time. Our joy knew no bounds as we sang and opened our ears to the voice of his singing, for he pierced many ears that were tone-deaf and many hearts that were laden with grief and adversity. He taught us how to daven, how to chant, how to sing, and we felt closer to him with every note. He blended everyone into one symphony of prayer and song. From hundreds of individuals, drawn from dissimilar backgrounds and temperaments, he welded together one solid group of Chassidim bent on one purpose - tasting the joys of the Shabbos.
While eating the main course the Rebbe was humming to himself and mulling over in his own mind the thoughts he was going to say in his dvar Torah. Even though he was so engrossed in his own thoughts, he was alert to the entrance of any visiting dignitary - Rebbe or Rav or Rosh Yeshiva. He had each seated according to his station and was reverent and respectful to all, sidestepping his own dignity to honor all. His frequent question asked of his guests was, "Where does one find simcha? Can joy be purchased in a special store?" I once gathered enough courage to answer him that happiness was to be found by the Rebbe. His face lit up, and smiling from ear to ear, he bestowed his usual blessing: "A zis leben oif dir, mein kind [a sweet life to you, my child]."
His dvar Torah was always preceded by a serious niggun sung in undertones, and erratically interrupted by the Torah itself. His Torah words were filled with mystical combinations and numerical equivalents [gematrias], laboriously put together. He always stressed the theme of Shabbos: enjoying the Shabbos, hallowing the Shabbos. He would always inject some mussar, criticizing those who slept away most of the Shabbos. He implored all to taste the Shabbos and to sense its beauty, holiness, and joy. No heart was left untouched and no mind was left unchallenged. He had something to say to everybody - to the great scholar and the simple Chassid alike. He appealed to all, embraced all, and inspired all.
The bentchen [grace after meals] was followed by a joyous dance, with the Rebbe stationed in the center, observing all who danced. Here he recognized a face he hadn't seen in ages and there he patted a Chassid on the back, thanking him for some long-forgotten favor. People who had in some way been of service were astounded to hear him offer his thanks and blessings to them after decades of separation. He never forgot a face, a name, a good deed. As the dancing proceeded, he immersed himself into it, constantly urging the olam from his station to increase the intensity of the singing and dancing. The olam responded with more ecstasy and greater enthusiasm.
After a while the table was reset with fruit and kugel, and the Rebbe sat down for what was known as the Second Tish. The older Chassidim went home, and the younger people, with greater resources of energy, remained. It was well past midnight. After distributing the fruit and kugel, the Rebbe would retell oft-told stories of his great ancestors and of other great Chassidic leaders. Special songs were sung upon various occasions. Most often he had one of the Hungarian Chassidim sing the song of the Kaliver [Rebbe] that dealt with the coming of Moshiach ("Shirnok Rinok"). After each stanza he would sing the Hebrew words as tears rolled down his cheeks. He always followed this niggun with a very joyful dance-song, which sounded like a triumphant welcome to the expected Moshiach.
At this second Tish the Rebbe began to call over the bachurim, requesting that each say a dvar Torah. After each bachur divested himself of his dvar Torah, the Rebbe would add to it, correct it, and make sure that the source be given due credit. He would literally trade dvar Torah for dvar Torah, and embellished each one with stories from the lives of the authors. At this Tish he would usually sing "Kah Ribbon Olam." The niggun, the gestures, and the trembling voice alerted all to the holiness of Ma'amad Har Sinai [the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai] and all rose to their feet to honor this momentous occasion.
Following the Second Tish, the Chassidim danced to either a wordless niggun, or to the famous "HaShir V'HaShevach," or to the Vizhnitzer "Shevach Ykar Ugdula." Once experienced, it was difficult to forget the sight of the Rebbe in the early hours of the morning as alert and enthusiastic as a youngster, urging all of us on to greater heights of joy and ecstasy.
The Rebbe sat down to a third Tish where the bachurim were the center of attraction. There each had to say his dvar Torah and listen to the Rebbe's comments. At this Tish he distributed korsh (a cake made of yellow corn meal), served with herring and schnapps [whiskey]. By this time all sleep had been forgotten and the remaining olam was as alert and as eager to enjoy the Shabbos as the Rebbe. But it was getting late and at about 2 a.m. the Rebbe would begin to ascend the steps to his apartment above. He turned around to us, and seeing that we longed for more he began to sing the "Odeh LaKeil." The building echoed with our singing of the refrain, and as he mounted the steps, the Rebbe turned around and sang another stanza. The song spoke of rejuvenation and of constant devotion - themes the Rebbe had made popular. He stressed them and literally seared these thoughts into our minds. The song completed, we took our leave of him with the same Gut Shabbos with which he had begun the Tish.
He was now alone, in his own room, and most everyone had left. Only a few of us lingered, and we listened. Alone, the Rebbe was dancing a Shabbos song by himself; he was dancing around his own Tish laden with sefarim, singing aloud to himself. No weariness and no exhaustion marred his Shabbos. He sang and danced until the rays of the sun entered his room.
All is quiet but all is not over. His spirit continues to sing and dance in our lives and homes.