By Rabbi Noach Shapiro
“In the zechus of your emunas tzaddikim, you will have a yeshuah.” This was the promise that the Skolya Rebbe gave to his nephew, Rav Shmelke Leifer, the Chuster Rebbe, after years of not being able to have children. But the Chuster Rebbe was a man of unshakable, wholesome faith. Faith in Hakadosh Boruch Hu that He would provide a yeshuah. Faith in tzaddikim as conduits of that yeshuah. And faith in every individual he encountered, no matter how simple they appeared. He carried this faith in his heart and wore it on his sleeve for others to be impacted by. The Chuster Rebbe’s life was a testament to the impact that wholesome faith can have on the world.
Faith in tzaddikim was instilled in him from the womb, as his birth was the product of such faith. In 1944, the Belzer Rebbe was in Budapest. The Chuster Rebbe’s father, Rav Ahron Moshe Leifer, went to the rebbe with a kvittel. The rebbe, realizing that Rav Ahron Moshe had no sons at the time, just three daughters, gave him a brocha that he would have as many sons. From this brocha, the Chuster Rebbe was born.
From the youngest age, his home was beaming with the bright light of tzaddikim. His father was the bearer of the Chuster dynasty, a Chassidus that traced itself back to Rav Mordchele Nadvorna and Rav Meir Premishlan. It was a dynasty steeped in reverence for its forebears. Every momentous event and time of year was wrapped up in a multifaceted tapestry of heritage. Everything had a unique Nadvorna minhag or nusach, animated through stories and songs. The traditions had been passed on to Rav Ahron Moshe through his father, Rav Shmuel Shmelke, who received them from his father, Rav Yisroel Yaakov, and ultimately from Rav Mordchele Nadvorna. These giants animated every facet of the Chuster Rebbe’s life from the youngest age.
His mother, Perel Rabinowitz, was also the bearer of a long legacy. Her father was Rav Boruch Pinchos of Skolya, a giant of a miracle worker who was niftar while she was still a child. The Skolya dynasty traced its roots back to the Zlotchover Maggid, the Baal Shem Tov, the Ropshitzer Rov, and many more generational luminaries. When the time came for Perel to get married, her brother, Rav Dovid Yitzchok Eizik, took charge of her shidduchim. When he received information about Rav Ahron Moshe, he quickly disregarded the suggestion. She was a Viennese girl, so a boy from a small town didn’t seem like a fitting shidduch. That night, Perel had a dream in which her father appeared to her holding a picture in his hand and told her that this was her basherte. When she awoke, she went to her brother and asked if they had received any suggestions recently. He showed her a picture of Rav Ahron Moshe and she exclaimed, “That’s the person I saw in my dream.” It was through the koach of tzaddikim that the Chuster Rebbe’s parents were wed.
The Chuster Rebbe would spend the rest of his life basking in the presence of these ancestors. They weren’t simply figures of the past. They were the pillars on which he built his persona and his life. They were alive in his home. The stories and traditions weren’t a fragment of history, trapped in the cobwebs of time. Rather, he breathed life into them through his passionate avodah. Stories were transformed through his lively recounting, traditions were uplifted through his devoted performance, and songs were metamorphosed through his heartfelt singing. Tradition was anything but static in the home of Chuster Rebbe. It was real, passionate, and alive.
The Chuster Rebbe’s reverence for his father, and uncle, the Skolya Rebbe, was that of a chossid to a rebbe. Daily, he would reference things he heard or learned from these giants. He sought every opportunity to be in their presence, escorting the Skolya Rebbe to the country during the summers and spending time with his father daily. He understood the stature of these men, and his exposure to them shaped his life.
The Chuster Rebbe also desired the influence of other rebbes. His rabbeim from yeshiva, Rav Paler, and the Mattersdorfer Rov, were household names. Their impact on his persona and his learning was tangible. But the Chuster Rebbe’s lifelong rebbe came only after he got married. His father-in-law, Rav Shlomo Boruch Riegler, was the right hand man of the Bobover Rebbe. At the tenaim, the Bobover Rebbe came up to the young Shmelke Leifer and said, “We are cousins!” After racking his brain, the Chuster Rebbe realized that the Bobover Rebbe was referring to their distant mutual ancestor, the Ropshitzer Rebbe. The Bobover Rebbe was trying to make the young man feel at home, and at home he felt for the rest of his life.
Bobover niggunim, stories, and memories were front and center at the Chuster Rebbe’s Shabbos table. In times of need, crisis, pain and happiness, the Chuster Rebbe’s first stop was the Bobover Rebbe. It was with the encouragement of the Bobover Rebbe that he opened a yeshiva, and it was with the assurance of the Bobover Rebbe that he felt confident that he would one day have children. When he was without children, the Bobover Rebbe went to the Chuster Rebbe’s home on Shushan Purim for Rimplin, a minhag that carries with it promises of yeshuos. He made a point of speaking about the rebbe and bringing his own talmidim to his rebbe so that they could experience the transcendent relationship firsthand.
This was the Chuster Rebbe’s emunas tzaddikim. It was a faith in his own heritage. It was a recognition of the greatness of the people he was closest to. It was the determination to seek out guidance from great people. When he would tell stories of tzaddikim, the hearts of those listening would be filled with that same pure faith. He was able to convey to his listeners the distinct feeling that on the very earth that they walk, there resided individuals who were able to transcend their physical confines. He demonstrated through his words how these giants perceived the world around them. How they were able tlo look beyond the externalities of a superficial world and peer into the soul of all existence. His faith in tzaddikim was so tangible that with one story, he could impart that faith to all those around him.
The Chuster Rebbe’s emunah in the Aibishter was the pillar of his life. His face during davening was aglow with a divine light, the product of an intimate relationship with the Aibishter. It was through his davening that you could perceive a tiny sliver of his passionate relationship with the Divine. His davening was saturated with heart-wrenching cries. Every word was an expression of his pure faith. He lived his life through the lens of this relationship. On numerous occasions, he would sit down on Thursday night with his rebbetzin to plan out the Shabbos shopping and realize he was short on assets. “Let us wait until tomorrow before we plan it out,” he would remark. The next day, after shul, he would come home with a check. “This person just came in and handed me a check,” he would explain with his trademark smile.
His emunah radiated through his happiness. The middah that he would speak about the most was simcha, happiness. It was evident on his face. He would walk around with a radiant smile shining on his pure face. It was genuine happiness. He experienced immense hardships in his life. He had struggles, heartaches, disappointments, and tragedies, yet his happiness was a mainstay, always tangible. It wasn’t a naïve jubilation, but rather a bliss rooted in his deep connection with Hakadosh Boruch Hu. He was a tree whose roots were so well anchored in divinity that the tumultuous winds of uncertainty couldn’t shake his core.
He was world-renowned for his drashos. A sought-after speaker around the world, it wasn’t the complexity or depth of his speeches that captured the hearts of his listeners. One would walk away from his drashos genuinely inspired, with the clear understanding of what one’s purpose in this world is. All the seeming complexity and distractions of this infinitely large and multifaceted world would vanish, and all that would be left was a yearning heart. His words had the ability to instill in Yiddishe hearts the recognition that within them was latent divinity, waiting to be set aflame. This ability was an outgrowth of the emunah in the Aibishter that he had cultivated over a lifetime and was able to convey through his drashos.
He also personified what faith in a fellow Jew meant. He constantly spoke about the definition of ahavas Yisroel: finding the divinity in others and cultivating it, no matter how remote it seems. And so he did with his yeshiva, Toras Chesed. The yeshiva was filled with boys in whom the Chuster Rebbe saw infinite potential. Even if everyone around them had given up, the Chuster Rebbe wouldn’t give up on mining them for their divine spark. He believed in them and in the vastness of their soul, until they themselves became convinced of their potential. He sought to cultivate their potential through any means. Speaking, singing, music, learning, davening – wherever there was a glimmer of talent, the Chuster Rebbe was ready to polish it into a glistening self-confident young man.
His ahavas Yisroel overflowed from his heart. As he walked down the street to shul, his face would light up when he passed another Jew, as if he was living in some remote town where fellow Yidden were a rarity. But he didn’t take them for granted. Every individual got a unique greeting from the Chuster Rebbe. His heart seemed to have no limit or boundary. It was connected to the divine and therefore shared in divine infiniteness. With that heart, he carried the burden of the hundreds of Jews who sought his solace. It wasn’t just compassion. His wallet was open to all in need, regardless of how worthy they appeared to others. When a mentally disturbed individual would frequent the Chuster Bais Medresh and wreak havoc, the Chuster Rebbe wouldn’t banish him, but rather gave him money anytime he saw him. Where others saw chaos, he saw a broken soul in need.
While we colloquially use the term “simple faith,” his faith was anything but simple. His faith triumphed over the challenges of life and overcame hardships and heartache, tragedy and frustration. And on the other side of these challenges, he emerged a leader more gentle and with a bigger heart. Life didn’t make him jaded, cynical, or skeptical. Just the opposite. His wholesome faith allowed him to cultivate tender-heartedness, caring for others, and unrelenting optimism despite what he endured. Instead of huddling up into himself to tend to his own hardships, he constantly shared his time, money, and heart with others. His faith carried him through life and allowed him to carry others on his broad shoulders. He laughed with faith, he cried with faith, and he lived with faith. Tzaddik be’emunaso yichyeh.