By Rabbi Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
The incomprehensible series of events of the last few days has caused me to reflect on something very unsettling that I heard from a prominent Chassidic speaker many years ago. He shared the following Chassidic tale that he himself heard from an elderly Chassidic Yid upon his arrival in this country after the war.
The Ruzhiner Rebbe was once sitting with some of his Chassidim and he went into a trance. It was clear that he was visualizing something beyond the confines of his room. Later he related to them that there will be a time just before Mashiach arrives when the bilbul, the confusion and turmoil, will be so strong that it will take extraordinary strength to remain an ehrliche Yid. People will have to climb the bare walls and hold on with their fingernails just to remain true to the Torah and steadfast in their emunah.
For the first time in many years, I feel that the Rebbe’s unsettling predictions could be referring to our time in general and to these last few days in particular.
First, after decades of promises and assurances from every U.S. president—only to be disappointed again and again—all of a sudden, one of the most unpredictable presidents to ever assume that position quickly, and without focusing on the ramifications, proclaims to the entire hostile world that Yerushalayim belongs to us.
The euphoria did not last very long in our machaneh when the numbing news spread that the gadol ha’dor and z’kan rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, zt’l, was no longer here to lead us through these troubling times.
One of the leading gedolei roshei yeshiva of our day confided to me in the days after the petirah that he hasn’t felt so personally devastated since the loss of his own rebbe, Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, decades ago. He explained why he felt so lost. Over the last decades, when each gadol ha’dor passed away, the Hashgachah Elyonah orchestrated it so that for a period before they died, due to their age or infirmity, they slowly phased out of their position as navi of the dor for Klal Yisrael. This allowed for the person that Hakadosh Baruch Hu chose to lead Klal Yisrael next to be firmly in place before the previous gadol ha’dor was finally taken from us.
And as painful as the loss was for Klal Yisrael years ago with the passing of the Ponovezher Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shach, zt’l, due to his infirmity in his last few years, when he was taken from us, Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, was firmly in place and Klal Yisrael had a direction where to turn. The same was after the passing of Rav Elyashiv, zt’l. Rav Aharon Leib, zt’l, was firmly in place.
However, despite Rav Shteinman’s frailty the last few months, and his public access greatly limited, the rosh yeshiva continued to lead and guide the dor from his humble abode. Then, all of a sudden, he was taken from us, without clarity as to whom the Hashgachah Elyonah will direct us. Thus, this rosh yeshiva explained, it makes the colossal loss that much more painful for us.
Even before we were able to start getting used to a new world without the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, Klal Yisrael faced another devastatingly painful loss, one too painful to even comprehend, with the deaths of several members of the Azan family in a horrific fire.
I happened to find myself the next morning in Sloan Kettering hospital visiting a dear friend who is in desperate need of a refuah. As I walked past the waiting room for visitors I saw a frum woman sitting by herself and crying uncontrollably. I felt I had to do something so I approached her softly and asked if there was anything that I could do for her. She responded that she had just heard about the fire in Midwood and the tragic loss of life of “this beautiful family.” She was totally broken at what happened. I asked her if she knew them personally and she responded, “No, I do not know them, but even so I just can’t stop crying for them.”
Then, even before our collective tears could be dried, came the incredible news of the release of Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin after so many years of suffering for him and his family.
Spontaneous celebration broke out all over the Yiddishe world. People were dancing in the streets and sharing the wonderful news with everyone they knew. This, despite the embers at the Azan house still smoldering.
From aveilus to euphoric celebration and then back again—what is going on? What message is Hakadosh Baruch Hu sending us? Who will be here to guide us through all of this with the rosh yeshiva, zt’l, no longer here to explain with clarity the ratzon Hashem and what the message is for us?
Is this what the Ruzhiner Rebbe meant when he foretold that just before Mashiach comes, the bilbul will be so great that we will have to hold on strong and tight to get through it? Are these the days that he saw in his vision years ago?
Each one of us on our own level is dealing with dual emotions—deep, heartfelt pain mixed with euphoria and extreme joy—with events that have so deeply affected different families in the community of Klal Yisrael.
This past Friday night, right before making Kiddush, I shared a profound thought with my wife that I had just heard in shul. Between Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv in my shul, my son-in-law, Rabbi Yudi Jeger, shared a few-minute dvar Torah on hilchos Shabbos. This time he concluded his dvar Torah by suggesting that before we make Kiddush, we should take a brief moment to think of Reb Sholom Mordechai, who for the first time in eight years will be saying Kiddush with his wife and children by his side, and we can only imagine the incredible simcha that he is experiencing tonight. We should think for a moment that we do so every Friday night in the presence of our families, and maybe we take for granted what a chesed it is for us to be able to do so. We should tap into his simcha tonight and feel some of that simcha ourselves.
My wife, whose sensitive soul is light years ahead of mine, responded in kind. She said, “Actually, I am thinking right now about a different family. I am thinking about the Azan family. How last Friday night the husband/father made Kiddush for his beautiful family sitting around the Shabbos table, and that would be the last time that this family would ever do so again. That’s what I am thinking about now.”
We were both quiet for a few moments. I proceeded to make Kiddush with the images of both the Rubashkin and Azan families in my mind at the very same time, hoping that the tranquility and atmosphere of kedushas Shabbos would provide some clarity to these opposing emotions and thoughts.
The only thing, however, that is abundantly clear is that Hakadosh Baruch Hu controls everything in this world and we control absolutely nothing, though on some deep level we think that we do.
I once read an insightful comment from the Pittsburgher Rebbe, zt’l. The Rebbe often came to the States to raise money for his yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael. He would often hire a taxi to drive him to his appointments while in town. Once the regular driver was not available and sent a replacement. When the Rebbe entered the taxi he was surprised to see that there were two steering wheels in the front of the car on each side. The Rebbe asked the driver to explain this very strange anomaly.
The driver explained to the Rebbe that he has a young son who is very boisterous and every time he comes into the car, he doesn’t sit still and wants to drive. So the driver installed a steering wheel on the passenger side—which of course is not connected to anything—so when his son sits in the car, he plays with the wheel and thinks he is really driving.
The Rebbe later commented that this was an important mussar haskel for us. How many of us think we have our hands on the steering wheel and we control in which direction we are going? But in actuality, the wheel is not even connected; it’s totally meaningless and we are not really “driving” at all. This is a metaphor for life. Only Hakadosh Baruch Hu is at the steering wheel despite the fact that we may think we are.
We are living in very trying times, and we need to just hang on.
Chazal describe the confusing way that Hakadosh Baruch Hu runs the world. The direction is clear, but the roadblocks are confusing. When it comes to story of Yosef and his brothers, we find the brothers busy selling Yosef, Yosef busy mourning his fate, and Reuven busy mourning his inability to save Yosef; Yaakov was busy mourning for Yosef, Yehuda was busy with Tamar, and Hakadosh Baruch Hu was busy creating the light of Mashiach.
And so despite our confusion and mixed emotions from one extreme to the other these last few days, we can know full well that the goal and ultimate direction is vividly clear—we are getting ready for the great light of Mashiach in the coming days.
We just need to hold on for a little bit longer.
This article is written l’zecher nishmas Sara Chaya bas R’ Aryeh Zev HaLevi.