Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Reb Zalman’s Eternal Message



In general, I don’t like to write about personal things in this column unless there is a broader message for our readers. This week is no exception. I am writing about a personal loss because the lessons are so very relevant.

On Friday, I suffered the personal loss of someone I looked up to as a mentor and even a friend, although he was nearly fifty years older than me. Many of the more mature readers may remember Rav Shneur Zalman Yudkin zt”l, fondly known as Reb Zalman. Until ten or perhaps nearly fifteen years ago, he would travel around America and the world raising money for a mosad in Eretz Yisroel that sought to educate Russian Jews. People gave him money simply because they felt compelled to give to a Yid who suffered so much for Yiddishkeit.

His passing this past Friday marked the end of an era. Truly the end of an era. With Reb Zalman Yudkin’s petirah, we have lost perhaps the last “mesirus nefesh Yid.” He was a Yid who was moser nefesh day in and day out for more than forty years under the impossibly cruel and brutal Stalin regime and later Kruschev and Brezhnev in Russia. He was a Yid who emerged from the Stalinist gehennom with his emunah intact, a full shomer Torah umitzvos, a chossid, all despite unspeakable suffering whose impact remained etched on his countenance until his last day.

I met him for the first time over thirty years ago. It was after Mincha in the shul where I was davening in Lakewood and he began to speak. I was riveted by his passion. He had fire in his eyes, the fire of mesirus nefesh. He shared several stories about the mesirus nefesh of his parents and begged us to help those Yidden who were deprived of their Yiddishkeit.

At that moment, I realized that I wanted to get to know this Yid. First, I followed him around a bit, spoke to him, asked questions, and recognized that this Yid — already back then — was a discontinued model.

He was a mesirus nefesh Yid on a mission, but he was also a Yid full of humility, hachna’ah, and bittul. He was self-deprecating, deeming himself an “am ha’aretz” because the Russians didn’t allow him to learn properly. (I can testify that he was not an am ha’aretz at all. Yet, despite his wide-ranging knowledge, he exhibited the simplicity and temimus of the unlearned Jews from a bygone era.)

Slowly, I got to know him. Then, one day, I invited him for supper. He told me that he was so busy collecting that he only had time to eat at the end of a long day, and it was probably long after I ate supper. Undeterred, I insisted, and he agreed, but he told me that back in Russia, when it was so difficult to keep kashrus, he had accepted upon himself to never eat chicken or meat (even on Shabbos), and therefore he only agreed to come if I would serve him simple milchigs or fish.

That supper was the first of many. Eventually, I was zocheh to host him for Shabbosos that he spent in our area. Our entire family learned so much from him. He was a tzaddik, but he was simultaneously very normal.

Later in his life, he and his wife moved to Brooklyn, where some of his children and many grandchildren lived.

Over the last decade plus, he was too elderly to continue raising money, so he spent most of his day learning with chavrusos on the phone, davening, and learning. I would periodically visit him at his tiny apartment in Crown Heights.

Several years ago, my family visited him, and recently the topic came up again. This time, when my son heard that I would be in Brooklyn, he kept on urging, “Let’s visit Reb Zalman! Really, we must visit him. He is not getting younger.”

Boruch Hashem, he was persistent, and last Sunday, I, together with four of my children, went to visit. It was a wonderful visit. Although he was frail and in a wheelchair, his mind was as sharp as ever.

When I asked how he was doing, he answered, “Boruch Hashem. For being 99 years old, I am doing well, although I am really much younger, because the years when I lived under Stalin hoben nisht geven gelebt — were not called life!”

Throughout the visit, we exchanged divrei Torah and stories. Before we left, he bentched each of us with a birkas kohein, placing his hands on or above each of our heads.

And then, a few days later, I was shocked to hear that he was gone.

I would like to share with you some stories and anecdotes that I heard from this mesirus nefesh Yid over the years. I will begin with a story that he told me last Sunday, just five days before his passing. It’s a story that shows the chinuch he absorbed as a child for mesirus nefesh:

I remember celebrating Chamisha Asar B’Shevat as a boy. Somehow, my father managed to obtain some fruit and we sat together at our little Chamisha Asar B’Shevat gathering in our tiny one-room apartment, whose kitchen and bathroom facilities we were forced to share with several gentile families, including an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agent.

Suddenly, my father stood up and took me to the window. Pointing to a tall tree with strong, majestic branches growing in front of our building, he said, “You see that tree, Zalman? Do you see how tall that tree is, how straight it stands, how it never bends? That tree always stands tall. It will even die standing tall. Ki ha’adam eitz hasodeh. The Torah compares a Jew to a tree. A Jew must emulate that tree. He must never bend or give in. Even if he must die, he must die standing straight, head held high, without compromising on his Yiddishkeit.” 

That lesson made a profound impression on me and remained with me for my entire life.

The Koach of a Yiddishe Mamme

It was 11:30 at night. Reb Zalman, who was staying in our home, had just returned from a long day trekking through Lakewood on one of the hottest days of the summer. My wife offered Reb Zalman the supper she had prepared, but Reb Zalman, who had not partaken of a meal since breakfast, smiled and insisted on telling her a vort before accepting supper. That vort gives a tiny inkling of his opinion of a Yiddishe mamme’s “job,” a job that his mother performed under the most difficult of circumstances.

It says in Parshas Beshalach that the Jews sang shirah to Hashem. The men sang the entire Az Yoshir and the women sang one posuk. Which one posuk did they choose to sing and why? They chose the posuk of “Sus verochvo ramah vayom — The horses and chariots were thrown in the yam.” What did the horses and chariots do wrong that the women chose them as the main point of praise?! Simple! They willingly led the way. They were the means of enabling the Mitzriyim to chase after the Yidden! They took their goal in life and used it for evil. What is a woman’s tafkid in life? A woman’s tafkid is to “lead the way,” to lead her children, to lead her family to serve Hashem.

His mother personified a Yiddishe mamme who “led her children along the way of Torah” despite all the odds.

My mother was a woman who possessed a fiery ahavas Hashem. Every single Friday, when she bentched licht, she cried. She didn’t just cry. She poured out her heart in the most heartrending pleas to Hashem. When she finished bentching licht, there was a puddle of water in front of her on the floor, a puddle that accumulated from the hot tears of supplication and sadness that she shed before Hashem. And what do you think she davened for each week? That her children should be roshei yeshiva? That they should be healthy? No! She had no such dream. She davened for one thing and one thing only — that her children should believe in Hashem.

Another example of his mother’s impact:

We were forced to attend public school. My mother was completely terrified — terrified that the teachers, who were apikorsim mumchim, who were experts in inculcating apikorsus into the young minds of children, would have a hashpa’ah on us. Therefore, every morning, before we left for school, she would stuff our ears with cotton so that we would not hear the heretical teachings. My mother was a young woman — she died at the young age of 44. She died of worry and a broken heart, a heart that simply couldn’t take the stress.

Chinuch and Yiddishkeit in a Terror-Filled World

It was not only his mother who stood strongly against the Communist regime. She was a partner to his father’s unbending will to instill Torah and ahavas Hashem into his family. When reminiscing about attending public school, he explained:

My father, who was generally a very happy person, sat with my mother and they spent the entire night crying their eyes out (the day before I was forced to go to public school). The tears ran down their cheeks, their shoulders racked with sobs as they beseeched Hashem to somehow enable me, their son, to remain a Jew.

I remember one year sitting at the Pesach Seder as a child. Despite my father’s valiant efforts, we were not able to get our hands on even a single matzah. We sat around the bare table, wondering how our father would conduct a Seder without matzah. Our father came to the table, placed three sugar cubes one on top of the other, and pointed to each one individually, saying, “This is the Kohein, this is the Levi and this is the Yisroel.” My father then burst into tears. The bitter tears streamed down his face and onto the sugar cubes, all but melting them. Finally composing himself, he looked at the tears and said, “Now we have maror too…” He then began the Seder.

The Difficulty in Retaining Yiddishkeit Under Stalin

His parents, unfortunately, were not the norm in Stalinist Russia. Reb Zalman would explain how it came to pass that such a large portion of Russian Jewry slowly fell away from Yiddishkeit.

Pointing to a bottle of seltzer on the table, Reb Zalman exclaimed, “Look at this bottle of seltzer. It has three hechsheirim on it! Do you know what a nisayon kashrus was for us? Some people look at Russian Jews who know nothing and only keep minimal mitzvos with disdain. They don’t understand!

“Do they really think that all Russian Jews just stopped eating kosher at once? I was there. I remember how it started. In the early years of Communist oppression, the Yidden were full of mesirus nefesh for kashrus. They would rather starve than sully themselves with non-kosher meat. What happened? A person had young children. The children would go to the doctor, who would comment that the kids were so thin and malnourished. The doctor would threaten that if the children did not get proper nutrition, he would report the parent for child abuse and the government would take the children away. The children needed meat, but there was no kosher meat. The combination of the cold Russian climate and the lack of proper nutrition led to the children getting sick. The poor mother watched them suffer and was terrified of the doctor. Which mother doesn’t have rachmonus on her children? So, she decided to give the child meat. She couldn’t let him die — or be taken away by the authorities. She would use one pot to cook meat for her children and another pot for kosher food for her and her husband. A few years later, the pressure from the communists and the hopeless situation caused the mother to join her child. It was only a matter of time until the father also gave up. The situation was so hopeless that we have no way of understanding or judging those Jews.

“But today, it is so easy to keep kashrus. Boruch Hashem, this is such a land of plenty. People should stop for a second and realize how very lucky they are. Even if times are tough, even if one must make lifestyle changes due to economic times, even if one has some difficulty with child rearing, still, there is so much for which to be thankful!”

Focusing on Our Blessings

Reb Zalman did not live with his head in the sand. He noticed and he commented, especially during periods of economic downturns, when people are forced to cut down their expenses, and during times when people have difficulty with chinuch, such as in today’s world.

Lately, I have noticed that so many people here in America are tzubrochen, down and depressed. Parnossah is difficult. Paying the bills and the mortgage is difficult. It really is hard and I feel for them. Similarly, many people are having difficulty with their children. It is hard to raise children with the many nisyonos that people have.

In his inimitable, unassuming way, he commented, “I am an old Jew. Ich hob shoin elter beiner — I have old bones and therefore people come to me for brachos. They ask for parnossah, they ask that their son should be a talmid chochom, a rosh yeshiva…and I bentch them with all my heart.

At the same time, I think about what I asked from Hashem for my own children when I lived behind the Iron Curtain. I would never have been so audacious to ask that my sons become talmidei chachomim, and certainly not for material wealth! The only thing I asked from Hashem is that they should believe in Him. If they would emerge from the Communist crucible as maaminim, I would be the happiest person in the world!

With great passion and animation, Reb Zalman continued: “Every day, even now, the first thing I do every morning when I wake up, even before I say Modeh Ani, is thank Hashem that He made me believe in Him — that I am a maamin.

I know that times in America today are more difficult than they once were and people are hurting. Nevertheless, a bit of perspective is in order. People in America don’t appreciate what they have, including the large, beautiful shuls.

Walking over to a microwave cart, he shows how he would lock himself in a closet the size of the cart (barely the size of a person), and he would put on tallis and tefillin there.

Oh, how many years went by without hearing a Kaddish, a Kedusha, a Borchu!

People simply do not appreciate what it means to live in a malchus shel chesed such as this one. Do you know what a zechus it is to be able to send a boy to cheder or a girl to Bais Yaakov? I would have done anything to be able to send my children to Torah schools!

Can anyone living in America even understand what we davened for when we were expecting our first child? We davened that it should be a girl so that we would not have to make a bris! It was a boy. The doctor warned my wife, “Don’t you dare even try to make a bris. It is cruelty. The authorities will find out about it and take away your baby because of your ‘negligence’ and ‘abuse’ of your child.”

I did not tell my wife when the bris would be or who the mohel was. I was afraid that if the Communists found out, they would torture her, and she would not be able to withstand the test…

So, yes, despite the difficult times, we must appreciate all the good that we have living here in a malchus shel chesed!

Ah Yid Fun Amol, A Role Model to All

I remember when Reb Zalman was well into his eighties. He would run around Lakewood all day collecting. (He almost always went on foot, even though he invariably visited Lakewood during the hottest days of the summer.) When he would finally return to our home at night, he was exhausted and hungry. After eating supper, his eyes would begin to close.

He would then tell me, “I am too tired to say Krias Shema Al Hamittah properly. Please wake me up in a half hour. Then I will have the koach to say Shema like a mentch. Then I will say Shema and go to bed.”

Do you hear that? There was a Yid who lived amongst us who was so exhausted that he couldn’t keep his eyes open, so he insisted on sleeping a few minutes in order to have koach to say Krias Shema Al Hamittah with kavanah.

This same Yid, after spending one exhausting day after another, going from shul to shul collecting, barely eating, did not hesitate to gather with Russian expatriates to learn and sing until late into the night, and still rose early to begin another exhausting day.

And then Erev Shabbos would arrive. On Erev Shabbos, this indefatigable Yid would prepare for Shabbos early and spend many hours sitting and learning. I can never forget the sight of Reb Zalman, in his hat and jacket, sitting either outside on my back porch against the backdrop of the green lawn despite the heat of the day or in the dining room, regardless of the Shabbos preparations swirling around him, completely lost in the world of Torah.

In general, he made a cheshbon hanefesh at least once a day and often twice a day. I would watch him sitting and thinking with a pained look on his face. He was clearly looking into himself, trying to see what he could improve.

He once told me in passing that he makes sure to devote a few minutes every night to do teshuvah and try to improve…

The Importance of Yidden Learning Together

Another short anecdote with a pivotal lesson: Reb Zalman told us that the main tool that the Stalinists used to get ehrliche Yidden to stop doing mitzvos was to isolate them.

They injected so much fear that we were terrified to get together. I remember that we had a weekly clandestine gathering where we would learn together. The men would learn Tanya at one end of the table, and on the other side of the room the wives would shmooze. This was the only way to keep the flame of Yiddishkeit burning. Both husbands and wives had to be on board. We would drink copious cups of boiling hot water to keep us warm. We couldn’t afford anything else

During one terribly difficult period, when numerous Yidden had been caught and sent to Siberia, we decided that it was too dangerous to gather together. Each of us decided to learn a chapter of Tanya on our own and keep up with each other. When one of the elder Yidden heard about this, he adamantly protested. He said, “I don’t care what you do. You must come together every week… The main thing is to come together. Otherwise you will be lost!”

The message was that to preserve Yiddishkeit, there must be dibbuk chaveirim. We must stick together.

This lesson is so relevant today. Even though we live with kol tuv, so many of us feel all alone. We don’t have like-minded friends with whom we gather and get together. Yet, it is so important. There is no substitute. Nothing. Not a podcast, a Zoom shiur, or even a regular shiur can replace gathering together and speaking about avodas Hashem. It is critical.

The Fire Has Been Extinguished

Shabbos with Reb Zalman was me’ein Olam Haba.

The seudos were always beautiful. He said divrei Torah and long maamarei Chassidus from the Baal HaTanya and other admorim of Lubavitch throughout the meal. When we sang zemiros, there was one particular zemer during which he became very animated. It was the zemer of Asader L’seudasa, one of the Arizal’s zemiros that is usually said at the beginning of the Shabbos day seudah.

He would begin banging on the table, singing with such indescribable simcha and fire. I once asked him why he seemed to love this niggun. He told me that it was an old niggun sung in Russia for generations that his father had taught him. Eventually, this niggun became my own family niggun, and even my married children sing it at their Shabbos tables.

Last Sunday, when I was visiting, I suggested, “Reb Zalman, let’s sing.”

I began to sing Asader L’seudasa and Reb Zalman joined in. The fire lit up his eyes once more. He was old and frail, but the fire had not been extinguished. The fire was still there burning brightly in the eyes of Hashem’s seasoned warrior.

And then, this past Friday, the fire was extinguished. We will never hear Reb Zalman enthusiastically singing Asader L’seudasa again.

Yet, I can hear and see him in my mind’s eye. Even more than that, I can just imagine the scene of him arriving in Shomayim. I can picture countless malochim welcoming him, this Yid who gave up so much for Hashem, and I can see him wondering, “Why are they here? I am just a simple Yid. I was never even zocheh to learn in a yeshiva!” In his simplicity and humility, he still won’t understand…

If we can take any of the above that he taught us to heart, that would be the greatest gift and indication that Reb Zalman is still talking to us.

Yehi zichro boruch.




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