By Rabbi Moshe Kesselman – Rov of Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, California
Exactly 30 days ago, on Sunday morning 3 Adar II, I awoke to the news that my dear Zeide R’ Zev Volf (Velvel) Kesselman had finally returned his soul to heaven at the age 91. He had been ill and suffered for a while, so his death did not come as a surprise. But to me, the passing of such an iconic chossid represents the end of an era, the likes of which we may never see again.
I am my Zeide’s oldest grandchild, and I was always so proud that he was my Zeide. As far as Yichus goes, I was born with a ‘silver spoon’ in my mouth, and I’ve always been mesmerized by the legends from whence I come. I carry my Yichus with pride and humility, keenly aware that I did nothing to earn the merit of descending from such holy ancestors.
When I was 16 and a half years old, my parents sent me to study in the famous Chabad yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, located less than 300 feet from my grandparents home. For 3 years I ate with them every Friday night. And slowly and delicately, a deep relationship developed between us. My Zeide made me feel comfortable to speak openly and freely with him, and he seemed to open up to me. Sometimes we would talk for hours. With time, I began to feel less like a grandchild and more like a son.
I got to know my Zeide and ‘watch him in action.’ I noticed themes in his outlook and patterns in his behavior. What I learned left me dumbfounded.
Here are 7 things I learned from my Zeide. I like to think of them as: ‘7 traits of a legendary chassid.’ We can all learn from them, and we can teach them to our children. Let us hope one day our grandchildren say a fraction of this about us:
1. My Zeide Listened.
My Zeide listened patiently when I spoke. He never interrupted me, never tried to talk over me and never raised his voice. He never argued with me or admonished me about anything.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate how much patience this required. He was a veteran chassid and Mashpia (mentor) to many, his family survived the horrors of the Stalinist regime and lived with tremendous Mesiras Nefesh. Yet he sat there and listened to me, till the end, then only then, he would respond.
His responses were filled with wisdom, depth, experience and clarity. He spoke from from his heart and he was never condescending. He tried only to deepen my perspective and broaden my horizons; and with time, he succeeded.
He respected me in ways I did not understand and I did not deserve. And he did it as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
2. My Zeide was Non-Materialistic.
My Zeide was the most non-materialistic human being I ever met. He genuinely and wholeheartedly did not care for any of it. He took care to keep himself healthy, but without fanfare or indulgence.
In classic chassidic style, this was a policy he adopted for himself only. He never judged others for their pursuit of materialism. I can still hear his voice in my head chiding me to eat from the different foods on the Shabbos table, and not to omit a single thing.
I recall one Friday night that my grandmother was away for Shabbos. It was just the two of us. Much to my discomfort, Zeide refused to allow me to help him serve the meal. We ate the fish course and started ‘Farbrenging’. About an hour later he stood up to Bentch. I simply assumed that with my grandmother out of town there would be no chicken soup and no main course. That was fine, I would not go to sleep hungry.
As he went to wash Mayim Acharonim, my Zeide suddenly startled me with an uncharacteristically loud “Oy Gevald.” He looked at me in horror, “I forgot the soup and the fleish…” So off he ran to the kitchen in his hat and kapota, to bring piping hot chicken soup and the meat course. As he sat there making sure that I ate everything, he seemed floored by the fact that he had almost entirely forgotten three quarters of the meal.
I wasn’t surprised at all. In fact, I was surprised that he remembered. Had I not been there, for him the fish course was plenty.
I shall never forget that Friday night meal.
3. My Zeide Never Wasted Time.
My Zeide’s daily schedule began with the Mikvah at 4:30am. He would study Chassidus for hours, Daven and then leave Kfar Chabad to go on Mivtzoim (outreach). My Zeide went to put on Tefillin with Jews almost every day even in his late 80’s. He went to hospitals, army bases, the airport and GD knows where else! Over the course of his life, he must have put on Tefillin with tens of thousands of Jews, maybe more.
In the late afternoon, he would head back to Kfar Chabad and begin his Rambam rounds. My Zeide learned 3 chapters of Rambam every day with at least 3 people, one after the other.
Many Kfar Chabad residents remember seeing him in the local bakery ‘Gittele’s,’ learning Rambam every day with the owner R’ Meir Friedman a”h. Between customers, they would study the chapters together daily. My Zeide also studied 3 chapters daily with his dearest friend R’ Mendel Futerfas and Kfar Chabad Mayor R’ Shlomo Madanchik.
As the day drew to a close he headed back to the local Shul ‘Bais Menachem’ for more learning, and Mincha Maariv. At night, he would say Kerias Shema before going to bed for around half an hour. He would retire early, and 4:30 the next morning he was up again.
He lived purposefully every minute of every day.
4. My Zeide was Humble.
My Zeide never spoke about himself. He didn’t tell stories intended to show his accomplishments, and if the topic of conversation became about him, he was genuinely uncomfortable.
At my Bar Mitzvah, one of the speakers was the principal and dean of my school Rabbi Dovid Hazdan. He shared a personal story and his words remain with me till this day.
When he was a young student, he traveled from South Africa to study in the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. Being far from home, he relied heavily on the Israeli postal system to stay in touch with his family and parents. As letters went back and forth between him and his parents, the young Dovid Chazdan developed a cordial relationship with the local mailman.
After a few weeks, the yeshiva gave the students a Shabbos off. So, Shabbos afternoon Dovid Hazdan made his way to ‘Beis Menachem.’ To his surprise, the entire adult population of Kfar Chabad was sitting around a table and listening to a lengthy presentation from the mailman.
After a while, curiosity got the better of him. “Who put the mailman at the head of the table? Why is everyone so interested in what he has to say? Is there a postage system crisis, perhaps?” he asked.
It was then that he discovered that the ‘mailman’ was also one of the leading Mashpiim of Kfar Chabad. On Shabbos he inspired, elevated and Spiritually uplifted the crowd, and during the week he carried a satchel of mail on his shoulder. It’s true. For many years, my Zeide was Kfar Chabad’s mailman. He needed the Parnassah, and did not feel that it was beneath his dignity. He was a humble man.
I hope he will forgive me for writing this article about him because he absolutely hated attention. He was allergic to anything that had the tiniest whiff of arrogance. (I wrote my first draft of this article on my phone on an airplane during Shiva, and when I landed the article was gone. I couldn’t help wondering if my Zeide was reminding me from heaven – in his typical style – not to get carried away writing flattery about him.)
When the Rebbe launched the ‘Aseh Lecha Rav’ campaign, calling upon everyone to appoint for themselves a Mashpia (spiritual mentor), many chose my Zeide, including the famous R’ Mendel Futerfas, who was himself a Mashpia to thousands. R’ Mendel chose him as his personal mentor and confidant. My Zeide never told this to anyone. Had R’ Mendel himself not revealed this, we would never have known.
5. My Zeide was a ‘Kabbalas Olnik.’
My Zeide did what he needed to do, without question, without excuses, without procrastination and without inner conflict.
I remember coming to my grandparents home one weekday, looking for him. He wasn’t home, so I asked my grandmother, ” vu is der zeide? un ven vet er zain tzurik?’ (where is Zeide? when will he return?)
My grandmother laughed. She said it best. “Er iz vu er darf zain un er vet zain tzurik ven er vet darfen tzurik kumen,” (he is wherever he is supposed to be, and he’ll be back when he’s supposed to be back.)
My Zeide never seemed to complain, or wish he could be doing something else. When he had to go somewhere he went without looking back over his shoulder. As he aged, one of his favorite expressions was: “nu, vos darf men yezt ton?” (‘What is the call of the hour now?)
6. My Zeide Was a Believer.
My Zeide’s Emunah in Hashem, and the Rebbe, was unequivocal. He never lost focus and he never got confused.
When I was 16 and studying in yeshivah it was a few short months after Gimmel Tammuz and the Rebbe was no longer physically visible. The Chabad community was conflicted and in turmoil, it was a painfully confusing time.
I would quote to him what the leading thinkers and activists in Lubavitch said at the time, desperate for clarity. I was frustrated at times with my zeide’s obvious lack of doubt or struggle.
His response was always the same. He would ask me only one question, “what did the Rebbe say?” He taught me patiently to drown out all the noise and go back to the source and the truth. Over and over again almost pleadingly, he would say, “learn the Rebbe’s Sichos and all your questions will be answered. The Rebbe spelled everything out clearly.” Sometimes he would even do the work for me; he’d pull out the Sicha and show it to me inside. We would read it together and sometimes, if but for a few moments, I was elevated to his world where there was no confusion.
There is a saying:, “for those who don’t believe, there are no answers, and for those who believe, there are no questions.” My Zeide believed.
7. My Zeide was a Chassid.
My Zeide’s true passion in life was his connection to the Rebbe. All he ever really wanted in life was to learn the Rebbe’s Torah, fulfill his directives, and spend every second in his physical presence. He traveled to the Rebbe as often as he possibly could at least once a year sometimes twice. He never missed a Tishrei with the Rebbe in over 25 years.
Now, my Zeide is in Gan Eden. I have no doubt he is sitting at a Chassidishe Farbrengen of legendary proportions. He is reunited with his father, with his twin brother, and with all his dear friends who have been waiting for him for many years. R’ Mendel Futerfas, R’ Avrohom Pariz, R’ Zushe Vilemofsky, R’ Moshe Slonim, etc…
I’m sure they will give him the warmest Chasidishe Sholom Aleichem, pour him a l’chaim and pull up a chair for him (or is it a wooden bench?) and, chidingly, they will honor the quiet Mashpia with a few words.
I can picture the look on his face and I know with every fiber of my being exactly what he will say. He will look around at everyone and ask: “Nu, what does the Rebbe want us to do now? What do we do to finally bring Moshiach?” If I close my eyes I can practically hear him saying it.
I love you Zeide and I miss you.
Your oldest grandchild,