By Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin
We met him after he had spent two full weeks in a single room. To be precise, two full weeks in a single room that was divided into two to accommodate two patients at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
For this relentless man, who spent a few months a year traveling the world inspiring young and old with spirituality and purpose, to spend two weeks in a single city –not to mention, a single room– was unimaginable.
During his travels, he would make stops in cities around the United States, Canada and Australia. As a child, I remember him filling the space of our doorway with his towering figure. And then it was his warm and roaring voice that would fill our home in Montreal. Both a great conversationalist and listener, he always had something interesting to share and never departed without making you feel bigger than before he came.
In later years, I heard from him that he dreaded traveling. He loved speaking, he said, but hated fundraising. Nevertheless, he would do it anyway. Over 1,500 children from broken and financially-strapped homes were depending on him to receive early childhood education in his network of 34 kindergartens in Israel’s holy yet poor city of Safed.
Then, just before the holiday of Purim last year, he struck gold: He found a way to raise funds while doing something that he loved.
Our family originates from the former Soviet Union and he always enjoyed visiting and conversing with Russian Jews, despite the harsh fate our family had suffered under the Communist regime for keeping the Jewish faith and even helping others do the same.
He would lead groups from Israel on these soul-searching heritage trips to Russia. Wearing a black kasket cap and thick wool coat, the snow would stick to his large beard as he would passionately speak to the visitors and locals about embracing their traditions. And it always ended up that both the speaker and the listeners would leave inspired.
Knowing this, a deal was proposed: He should visit Russia a few times a year and present lectures and classes at the Jewish communities of Moscow, S. Petersburg, and other cities. In exchange, wealthy Russian Jews would send generous financial support to the Chabad kindergarten network in Safed.
A dream come true, he rejoiced. He can inspire fellow Jews while the children of Safed are being provided for. At last, an answer to his prayers.
The holiday of Purim concluded and he was about to embark on what would be the first leg of his lecture tour in Russia. Ticket in hand, he kept feeling an overall uncommon exhaustion and pain he had been complaining to his doctor about. He went for an additional checkup, this one more detailed, and was soon notified that he has a malignant tumor growing within…
We sat on the terrace of the 15th floor of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center one day this past summer. With the iconic Chrysler Building in clear sight, my parents and siblings sat around our legendary globe-trotting relative who was now confined to a wheelchair and chained down by IV tubes pumping medications to his still large, yet by now frail body.
Come evening time, he is out of commission, he mentioned. His mood in the mornings depend on the radiation he is undergoing or the level of constant physical pain he is experiencing.
He tells us that on Friday night he felt excruciating pain in his lower back and hip. It was late at night and his roommate was transferred elsewhere. The family member staying with him for Shabbat stepped out for a moment. He repeatedly called for help but his voice was weak.
It was then that he taught a beautiful and powerful message, he tells me, as one of my brothers brings him an apple and pear. He chooses the pear but isn’t in a hurry to bite in.
“Despite the pain,” he says, “I was actually thankful to the medical staff for not responding promptly. I said to myself, if the nurse isn’t rushing over, it must be a sign that my pain isn’t life-threatening, otherwise lights would be flashing, alarms would be going off and an entire crew would be rushing over. I said to myself, the pain is excruciating but not deathly, so I will be fine.”
And at once, some of the pain had eased.
Sitting there outside, he breathed in the New York City air as if it were the exotic green air of Iceland. It has been two weeks since he’s been outside, his wife tells us, grateful for this opportunity. I share an anecdote I recently heard about a known rabbi from our hometown. He waits for me to conclude to add an important twist to the story.
It was not clear how it started, but we soon found ourselves singing a Chassidic melody. As the soulful tune intensified, I found myself holding back a burst of tears from gushing out. Why does a giant of a man deserve such a harrowing experience? Why isn’t he now in Moscow or Melbourne captivating a crowd with his pearls of wisdom and outpouring love for a fellow Jew?
I glanced at him. His eyes were closed. His chin was leaning on the palm of his hand. The sweet and familiar melody put him at ease and for a moment, allowed him to defy time and space and travel to a peaceful dimension. Only several strands were left from his bushy and flowing beard. His body wrapped in a robe and swelling feet resting in thick Yellow socks.
A few short moments pass by and then his eyes suddenly open in a hurry. He straightens his head and a thin smile crosses his lips. This lion was not ready to rest just yet.
Rabbi Aaron Eliezer Ceitlin returned his soul to his Creator on Thursday, the 2nd of Cheshvan 5776 at the age of 62 and was laid to rest in New York. His students and teachings, and his shining example of a pious and loving chassid live on.