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Friday, February 08, 2008

 

A Rebbe of Sensibility and Nobility


Today is the 2nd of Adar, and the 31st yahrzeit of Rebbe Yisrael Alter Ztvk"l (1894-1977) of Ger, who was also known by the title of his Torah works, the Beis Yisrael. He was the fourth Gerer Rebbe, and the son of Rebbe Avraham Mordechai, the Imrei Emes. Following the death of his father in 1948, he became a forceful leader of his growing followers in the Ger Chassidic movement as well as becoming very active in the political life of the State of Israel.
You can find out more about him in last year’s post, A Tug on the Beard.

***

The following stories from a publication called, "Shalheves Beis Yisrael," were told by R. Yehoshua Kleinlehrer, a shaliach [emissary] of the Beis Yisrael.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there lived an observant boy who was not from our crowd. His father was a simple Jew. Eventually, the family left Eretz Yisrael, but one day I met the boy here. I asked him what brought him here and he said, "I came to the Rebbe."
''Which Rebbe?'' I asked in surprise. I didn't know of any connection between him and the Beis Yisrael.
This is the story he told me: As a youth, he used to play for one of Israel's soccer teams - it was top-secret. No one, not even his parents, knew about it. Once, when the Rebbe was in Zichron Yaakov, the boy and his father were there, too. The Polish-born father said to his son, "The Gerer Rebbe is here, let us go to him to receive shalom [greet him]." When they entered, the Rebbe inquired where they were staying, and the father mentioned the name of the hotel where they were guests.
Ten minutes later there was a knock on their door. The Rebbe wanted to speak to the boy, a messenger reported. They assumed it was a mistake, but if the Gerer Rebbe summons you, you go.
In the course of the conversation the Rebbe said, "You're already a mature 15- or l6-year-old boy, you have to do something for the sake of your Yiddishkeit [Judaism]! Learn, pray, behave like a Jew!" And then the Rebbe dropped another bombshell. "And of course, you shouldn't be playing soccer for your team." Here the Rebbe mentioned the team's full name, as fluently as if he were an avid fan.
The boy was shocked. He had never shared this secret with anyone, and just like that, his secret was out in the open. He nodded his head, unable to utter a word.
"It's not enough to nod your head," the Rebbe told him. "Think carefully about what I told you, and accept upon yourself to improve your ways."
The bachur accepted upon himself to change his ways. As he left, the Rebbe presented him with a plate of fruit as a sign of encouragement. As soon as the door closed behind him, the Chassidim fulfilled the custom of taking shirayim, ''leftovers,'' from the tzaddik, leaving the boy with nothing. His cries of protest could be heard inside the room, and the Rebbe stepped out and consoled him by preparing another package of fruit, and closing it well. "The most important thing is that you become a good fruit," he told him.
From that day on, his life changed completely, and he became fully observant in every aspect. Today, he is a Chassid of a different Rebbe, but every time he comes to Eretz Yisrael, he visits the Rebbe's tziyun [gravesite] on Har HaZeisim [Mount of Olives].

***

Countless times Reb Yehoshua saw the Rebbe's sensitivity and nobility revealed in their full glory. His soft heart and desire to do good for others caused him to notice the tiniest details. He went out of his way to make sure he never caused anyone a hint of annoyance or distress.
There were two brothers who studied in the yeshiva together. The younger brother was a brilliant ilui [genius]; the older one was a very ordinary bachur who did not excel in any area.
Once, the pair arrived at the Tish just as the Rebbe was distributing wine. Amid the noise that naturally accompanied the distribution and the shouts of L’Chaim from all directions, the Rebbe instructed me to remember to give the older brother wine before the younger one, and to give him a larger amount, so that his respect for the older one would be unmistakable.
"The younger brother is a better learner, and his brother probably feels bad about that," the Rebbe explained. ''The older brother needs to be encouraged so that he doesn't feel uncomfortable."
Do you know what a Tish is like? Reb Yehoshua asks. Hundreds of people standing, each one with his own personal thoughts - and the Rebbe thinks about a Chevron bachur who might feel uneasy during the distribution of wine.

***

One wintry Friday night after the Tish, it was pouring rain. The Rebbe was pacing the beis medrash, as was his wont. As he passed me, he whispered, "Find out if there's anyone here who will be going to the Rechavia area. There's a 14-year-old bachur here. I asked him where he's from. Such a bachur should walk in the dark, in the cold and rain, at such an hour - alone? Find someone to accompany him."
I began looking around, and finally found someone who was going to Sha’arei Chessed. It wasn't far from there to Rechavia, so I thought it was good enough. When I told the Rebbe, he asked me to continue looking for someone who lived even closer to the bachur's house. After a few moments, during which we both walked the length and breadth of the beis medrash, the Rebbe said jokingly, "I'm more talented than you, I've found someone who can take him all the way home."
Friday night after a Tish, with all the effort that involved, the chaotic atmosphere in the beis medrash notwithstanding, the Rebbe was concerned with seeing to it that a young bachur had a pleasant walk home!

***

The Rebbe was extremely considerate of others and went to great lengths to ensure that people’s feelings were not hurt. A certain Rosh Yeshiva who had only recently been appointed to the position once came to the Tish. After the Tish, I accompanied the Rebbe. Also with us was HaRav Yehoshua Noach Binke, z''l, the Rebbe's renowned gabbai.
The Rebbe began complaining to Reb Yehoshua Noach. "So-and-so was recently appointed Rosh Yeshiva, and he should have received the respect due him at the Tish, but when you announced his name, you said, 'Leizer Moishe' [name has been changed], as if he were just anyone! True, that's the custom among Chassidim, but he might think I don't want to acknowledge the fact that he's a Rosh Yeshiva. Don't we have to be considerate of his feelings?"
The Rebbe then turned to me and said, "Go to his house and tell him that you heard me express my distress to the gabbai over the fact that he hadn't announced his name with proper respect. Why should a Yid feel resentful?" he asked.
It was late at night, and I suggested to the Rebbe that the Rosh Yeshiva might already have retired for the night.
''No,” the Rebbe insisted. "He hasn't gone to sleep yet. Go tell him what I told you to say, and report back to me."
I followed the Rebbe's instructions, and indeed the Rosh Yeshiva was still up. I told him what the Rebbe had said, and he seemed enormously pleased. I returned to the Rebbe and told him so.
The Rebbe glowed. He smiled that special, broad smile of his and said, "Nu, was he sleeping already?'' I confirmed that he had still been awake.
''Nu," the Rebbe said with satisfaction, "who has ruach hakodesh [a holy spirit, close to prophecy] - you or me? Now he's sleeping well." He paused for a moment and added, "It is forbidden to hurt people's feelings.''

***

One Yom Kippur night, the Rebbe asked me to visit a certain Rav and wish him a gemar chasima tova ['a good seal', greeting for Yom Kippur]. "Tell him that I didn't leave my house before Yom Kippur, because I caught cold, so I'm sending him my wishes now.
I was a bit surprised by the errand. It wasn't a renowned Rav or great oved Hashem the Rebbe wanted me to visit, and as far as I knew, the Rebbe had no special relationship with him or any reason to go out o f his way to offer him his wishes.
Apparently, the Rebbe noticed my surprise, because he explained. "The Rav is originally from abroad. Here in Eretz Yisrael he hasn't achieved the same status he enjoyed in chutz la'aretz. That's why I want you to go visit him and wish him a gemar chasima tova in my name. Why is he to blame that he has lost his status here in Eretz Yisrael?"

Zechuso Yagein Aleinu – May the Beis Yisrael’s merits protect us!

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