The Avner Institute presents two remarkable encounters with two Chassidic dynasties, as told by Mashpia Rabbi Nachman Yosef Twersky and recorded by Rabbi Avrohom Reinitz, showing how our Rebbe reluctantly took on a Chassidic custom and his father-in-law’s role, which never ended even beyond the grave:
It was 5704/1944. The Belzer Rebbe R’ Aharon Rokeach finally arrived at the Holy Land after indescribable suffering under Nazi rule and pursuit. His escape from war-torn Europe was miraculous, a story in itself. But here, at last, he could be free, and able to worship in his sacred manner.
A home was purchased for him in Tel Aviv, where he wanted to live, but until it was ready he had to stay in Jerusalem, where a typical dwelling for a large family consisted of two rooms, with bathrooms shared by other tenants. The Belzer Rebbe conducted a two-week, fruitless search for more suitable accommodations.
Then he heard – there was a Chabad couple named R’ Shneur Zalman and Kaila Ashkenazi who lived in a four-room apartment, a rarity in those days. When they decided to move to the Holy Land, their wealthy son Yehoshua went to Jerusalem to find an apartment. Wanting to create something a bit more respectable for his father, he purchased two apartments with a shared bathroom, and connected the two.
Belzer Chassidim approached Schneur Zalman, asking if their Rebbe could stay there.
“How many rooms does the Rebbe need?” Schneur Zalman asked.
“Three,” he was told. One for prayers, one for sleeping, and one to receive visitors.
Schneur Zalman and his wife agreed and, during those seven weeks, while they hosted the Rebbe, made do with one room for themselves. Schneur Zalman even provided the Rebbe with meals, subsidizing everything, including food for the Rebbe’s attendants.
Throughout this time, Schneur Zalman continued his own daily Chabad schedule. He interacted little with his illustrious guest and paid little attention to the comings and goings in the other three rooms. This suited just fine the Belzer Rebbe, an intensely private person.
On 11 Nissan, the Belzer Rebbe’s home in Tel Aviv was ready. Preparing his departure, he thanked his host with the comment, “Leaving is very difficult since I can smell the fear of G-d in your home.”
Schneur Zalman mentioned his son Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, the Rav of Shanghai, which had become a wartime refuge for so many desperate Jews. Because of the war father and son had been out of contact for several years.
“Will I ever see him again?” Schneur Zalman wondered aloud. Tearfully he asked the Belzer Rebbe for a blessing for his son.
The Belzer Rebbe gazed at him. “When your son arrives in Eretz Yisroel, I want him to come to me.”
This response answered Shneur Zalman’s question.
In 5710/1950, Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi finally arrived from Shanghai – partially debilitated by a stroke, along with years of travel and hardship. After a joyful reunion with his father, he was told about the blessing of the Belzer Rebbe, who wished to see him. Rabbi Meir promptly left for Tel Aviv.
His son Rabbi Moshe Ashkenazi (my father-in-law), who lived in Tel Aviv, accompanied him to the Rebbe’s home. While others waited outside with a kvittel, a customary note a Chassid brings to his Rebbe, Rabbi Meir entered, like a VIP, into the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe warmly greeted him. Then he asked, “Perhaps you need a blessing for something.”
Rabbi Meir nodded. He pointed to one of his eyes and explained his medical problem, a result of the stroke, and a problem that was worsening. The Belzer Rebbe strode forward and explained carefully, “You will be healed, but under three conditions. One, you must not eat any dairy foods. Two, you must not listen to music.”
He paused for the final condition. “You must not go to the graves of tzaddikim.”
From Rebbe to Rebbe
Shortly later, on 10 Shevat, the sixth (previous) Lubavitcher Rebbe – the Rebbe Rayatz – passed away. Over the years Rabbi Meir had developed a devoted, personal relationship with the Rebbe Rayatz. The latter had even arranged a marriage for one of Rabbi Meir’s children. The loss, then, was enormously felt.
Nevertheless, hearing about the Rebbe Rayatz’s son-in-law, Rabbi Meir announced to the elder Chassidim, “There is a Rebbe!” At roughly the end of the Shloshim (thirty-day mourning period) for the Rayatz, he decided to go to 770.
Rabbi Meir approached the new Rebbe’s office, with a pidyon nefesh, the customary request for blessings. The new Rebbe glanced at the paper and modestly declined conduct that he felt befitted a real Rebbe. “You must go to the Ohel, my father-in-law’s gravesite, with your pidyon.”
“Oh no, I can’t!” Rabbi Meir gasped. “I can’t go to the Ohel.”
He explained what had happened during his visit to the Belzer Rebbe and the three prohibitions. “He told me not to visit the graves of tzaddikim,” Rabbi Meir concluded.
The Rebbe nodded. “If the Belzer Rebbe told you not to go, then you really cannot.”
Then he sternly added, “But he is not your Rebbe. And why didn’t you ask him for the source of this instruction?”
Sighing, he put on his jacket. Then he extended his hand and took the pidyon nefesh from Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi. Afterwards, he greeted a few more visitors, each with a pidyon nefesh. Each one was taken by the new Rebbe, instead of being directed to the gravesite of a tzaddik.
And this is how events unfolded, leading to our Rebbe’s acceptance of the first pidyon nefesh. This majestic role all started on 11 Nissan 5704, with the request of the Belzer Rebbe.
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