Sunday, May 26, 2024

Etched Into Our Hearts

I look into the large eyes of my four-year-old son and all I see is Leiby. I watch my carefree toddler running down the hall and all I see is Leiby walking down a Boro Park street. I watch my daughter head off to camp and all I can see is an eight-year-old boy named Leiby heading to his day camp.

I lie down for some much-needed rest and all I can think of is Leiby, the tayere neshamah taken from us so brutally.


The mind has ceased functioning properly. Eating and sleeping have become difficult endeavors since last Tuesday, when Leiby was missing for a significant length of time.


All of us look at our little innocent children, siblings and students and can think of nothing but Leiby.


I find myself hugging my children randomly countless times each day. With my stomach in knots and tears ready to pour from my eyes, I hold them close and I whisper. All I can muster is, “Leiby. Leiby. Oy, Leiby…” And I squeeze them a bit tighter.


Perhaps it is a bit cathartic. But at this point, nothing really is. When Leiby was snatched from our midst, our collective hearts were stolen from us as well. We were shattered in ways we never experienced before.


We are at a complete loss. We can’t find words to convey the deep, searing pain we are experiencing. As we contemplate the feelings of Leiby’s special parents, who were handed a nisayon that is beyond our comprehension, the thoughts are so painful that we just shake our heads and shudder. We turn away, hoping it is all just a bad dream that will go away. But then it returns. Reality hits again with unrelenting force, rendering the strongest among us listless and speechless. The tears flow. And we cry and cry again.


Klal Yisroel is sitting a collective shivah. As we begin the period established to mourn over the loss of the Shechinah here in golus, we ask why, oh why, are we still forced to bring korbanos while bereft of a Bais Hamikdosh? Last week, we offered a korban tzibbur named Leiby. A sweet, pure, unblemished korban.


And we cry once more.


Last Tuesday, we went about our routines with palpable tension. We watched the surveillance footage that was released, asking ourselves, “Leiby, Leiby, where are you going?” We figuratively grabbed at our computer screens, hoping that we could just grab little Leiby back from oblivion.


We davened, worried and frightened. Where is he? Where could he have gone?


Thousands from all over searched and searched. We demonstrated unparalleled unity amidst fear and uncertainty.


And then we awoke Wednesday morning to news we could have never anticipated. As the details emerged, we were thrown into a state of intense grief.


Yehudah ben Itta Esther had so quickly become Yehudah ben Reb Nachman.


Before last Monday, we had never heard of Leiby Kletzky. By Wednesday morning, we would never forget him.


We each struggled to come to terms with the nature of the tragedy. There was no consolation to be had. We were jolted from a state of reverie back to the harsh reality of this world.


The greatest among us found themselves in an emotional quagmire. Who could find the right words? Who could identify the message to be taken from such a horrific, devastating event?


Amidst the confusion and turmoil, however, one lesson was clear: Leiby had instilled in us a true appreciation for life. Our lives. The lives of our children and loved ones.


Leiby reminded us of the Alter of Kelm’s message to his talmid, the Alter of Novardok: “It is enough for a Yid that he is living.” During a trying period of the Alter of Novardok’s life, following numerous failures and disappointments, that was the singular message that his holy rebbi imparted: As long as we are alive, we have nothing to complain about.


That is Leiby’s enduring message to us.


Leiby reminded us of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz’s explanation as to why Bilam, as described in this week’s parsha of Mattos, received an apparently lighter punishment than Iyov. Bilam, who had offered his evil advice to Paroh regarding the enslavement of the Yidden in Mitzrayim, was swiftly smitten by the sword, whereas Iyov, who was silent and did not protest, was punished with a life of unspeakable suffering and torment. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz famously explains that Bilam was punished more severely than Iyov, because life, no matter the circumstances, is the ultimate gift. Iyov, with all he endured, remained alive.


That is what Leiby reminded us this past week.


Rav Yisroel Elya Weintraub once explained that, contrary to common perception, the Ribono Shel Olam is closest to us in times of disaster. In Tehillim (23:4), when describing times of blessing and prosperity, we say,“Al mei menuchos yenahaleini,speaking of Hashem in the third person, whereas when describing times of sorrow, the posuk says, “Gam ki eileich begei tzalmovess lo irah rah ki Atahimodi,” addressing Hashem directly as You. This, said Rav Weintraub, teaches us that during challenging times, Hashem is closer to us than ever.


It was clear, listening to the hesped of Reb Nachman Keltzky, that he and his choshuveh wife sensed that closeness to the Ribono Shel Olam. They were chosen to be blessed with this special pikadon for almost nine years. They, indeed, have a special relationship with the Bashefer, and that kesher with the Divine has never been more intimate than it is now.


With amazing gevurah and bitachon, Reb Nachman quoted the well-known phrase from Iyov: Hashem nosan, Hashem lokach, yehi sheim Hashem mevorach.” Rav Yeruchom Levovitz taught a powerful lesson. Upon hearing of the death of a loved one, the first reaction is often: Why did Hashem take the person away? Rav Yeruchom informs us that we are asking the wrong question. The questions we should be asking are: Why was he created in the first place? Why did Hashem place this person in our world? What did this person accomplish in his lifetime?


Leiby’s father answered these questions for us. He said that he was proud to have been Leiby’s father for nearly nine years, and that if somehow his death is bringing so many people together, then that is the greatest tribute to his dear son.


Words of strength. Words of faith. Words of chizuk at a time of despair.


Leiby’s passing has forced us to face up to our own mortality. There are no guarantees for tomorrow. Time is fleeting. We must use our time wisely. We must not just count the moments, but make each and every moment count. Life is calling to us. We must embrace life with our every fiber. There is much for us to do, so much for us yet to accomplish.


That will be Leiby’s enduring legacy.


The Telsher rosh yeshiva, Rav Mottel Katz ztl, lived a life of daunting nisyonos and difficulties. He experienced the loss of his wife and his ten children in the catastrophe of Churban Europe. Despite it all, Rav Mottel persevered. He gathered the strength to rebuild his family from the ashes and to reestablish the Telshe Yeshiva on these shores.


But Rav Mottel lived with the pain of the war years, as witnessed by Reb Aharon Paperman, a member of the yeshiva hanhalah, who was once walking down the hall of the office building of the Telshe Yeshiva, when he passed the office of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Mottel. He was shocked to hear uncontrollable sobbing coming from the office. Unable to restrain himself, he entered Rav Mottel’s office and asked what was wrong. Rav Mottel’s response would touch him to his core.


“From time to time, I think about my family back in Telshe,” said Rav Mottel. “I try to remember each and every one of my children who are now in the Olam Ha’emes. Today, as I was sitting here and reminiscing about them, I realized that I have totally forgotten how one of my children appeared. Until now, I at least had some attachment to him. Now, I can’t remember how he looked. Now, he is totally gone.”


Leiby, we were not zoche to know you, but yours is a face we will never forget. Your sweet, innocent countenance is before our eyes. It is etched into our hearts, forever.


There is a special Kaddish that is said at a gravesite and is also said – the only other time – at a siyum. When we complete a masechta, we say, “Hadran alach – We are returning to you.” It is not that we are finished. We come back. That, too, is perhaps what we imply at the gravesite Kaddish as well. We say, “Niftar, your personal mission is finished today. But hadran alach – we come back to you. You influenced us and you will continue to influence people for the future.”


Leiby, the Ribono Shel Olam felt that He needed your pure neshamah back in His embrace. Your time had come. But your influence is still here and will remain with us for all time. We will always remember you and will return to your memory and your shortened life for inspiration and a reminder to appreciate our every breath.


Leiby, we will miss you, but we will never forget you.



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