Does fire build or destroy? The answer is that fire can do both; it is an agent of destruction but also of construction. “For You, Hashem, with fire You consumed her and with fire You will rebuild her.”
The fires of the Second World War nearly consumed the heart of the Jewish People; the great centers of Yiddishkeit, country after country filled to the brim with holy kehillos and hundreds of thousands of chadorim, shuls, yeshivos, and more left desolate, the sounds of Torah and tefillah stilled. To America came a ragged few remnants, coals blackened by oppression and hardship, but still glowing—fires of rebuilding.
One in Lakewood, the other in Williamsburg, each with a similar vision: what was lost there, they would rebuild here. America would be no different than the “heim.” Yiddishkeit had sustained devastating losses, fathers and mothers, cheder children and their melamdim, yeshiva students and their roshei yeshiva—there was much work to do.
Rav Aharon Kotler saw Volozhin, and Rav Yoel Teitelbaum saw Mezhibuzh. Side by side, they worked to make those visions a reality once again. Fire met fire. How they loved each other! Each loved the Torah in the other, the pure yiras Shamayim in the other, and, of course, the authenticity of the other.
Together, these two lions echoed the message of Hillel and Shammai, teaching a generation that even in disagreement there is harmony.
In 1958, when Rav Aharon was ill and bedridden after sustaining injuries in an accident, his family and talmidim fiercely guarded his privacy, ensuring that he got maximum rest. The Satmar Rebbe sent word he wished to come visit. Rav Aharon heard the request and he sat up straight, speaking three words that left no doubt as to his attitude towards the Rebbe.
“Der Rebbe kumt—the Rebbe is coming,” he whispered.
When the Rebbe arrived, he shared a besurah tovah about the impending release of the Skulener Rebbe from Communist Romania, saying that he knew how involved Rav Aharon had been in the efforts to free the Rebbe.
Rav Aharon described the details of his accident and asked the Rebbe’s opinion on reciting the berachah of Hagomel, and a Talmudic discussion ensued. Finally, the Rebbe rose to go, wishing Rav Aharon a heartfelt refuah sheleimah and leaving.
On the steps down to the street, the Rebbe turned to the Kiviashder Rav, who’d accompanied him, and expressed disappointment that, due to Rav Aharon’s weakness, the Rebbe hadn’t merited having Rav Aharon walk him out of the apartment, as is customary. When the Rebbe returned to Williamsburg, there was a message for him; Rav Aharon Kotler had called and explained why he hadn’t been ‘‘melaveh,’’ accompanied the Rebbe, out of the apartment.
When the Rebbe had risen to leave, Rav Aharon had with great difficulty gone to the neighboring apartment to gather his grandchildren together so that they might receive a berachah from the tzaddik. The Rebbe hadn’t realized that Rav Aharon planned to return, and so he left. Rav Aharon was deeply distressed by the fact that he hadn’t bid the Rebbe a proper farewell and that his family hadn’t merited the Rebbe’s blessing.
The years passed. Rav Aharon was hospitalized with the illness that would claim his life, and the Rebbe expressed the wish to visit Rav Aharon once again. Before the Rebbe came to the hospital, Rav Aharon asked his family members to bring a new tallis kattan which he’d purchased, since he wished to make the berachah of Shehecheyanu in the Rebbe’s presence. Rav Aharon also asked that a chair be brought to his hospital room from home, since he correctly anticipated that the Rebbe wouldn’t sit on a hospital chair. Finally, the rosh yeshiva requested that all his children and grandchildren be there, so as to receive the Rebbe’s berachah.
Rav Aharon’s soul ascended to the Heavenly yeshiva. The Satmar Rebbe grew older and weaker, eventually moving to Kiryat Joel, where it was quieter and more peaceful. One week, not long before the Rebbe himself passed away, a fairly young boy appeared at the tish, clearly not a Satmar chassid. He approached the Rebbe and whispered his name; Aharon Kotler, grandson of the rosh yeshiva, the Rebbe’s dear friend.
Reb Shlomo Yaakov Gelbman, a prominent Satmar chassid and historian, heard the name and leaned close to the Rebbe, repeating it for the Rebbe’s benefit. The elderly Rebbe was visibly emotional, looking at the child with love and showering him with berachos—remembering, perhaps, Rav Aharon’s disappointment in not securing berachos for his grandchildren after that visit decades earlier.
And this boy who bore the name of his zaide hadn’t been included among the grandchildren in the hospital that day; standing at the Rebbe’s tish, he was fulfilling the will of his own revered grandfather.
One wonders about that final meeting between these two giants, each, in his own way, captaining the ship that would become Yahadus America. Rav Aharon wanted the new tallis kattan so that he might recite the berachah of Shehecheyanu in the Rebbe’s presence. What was it about this particular berachah that made him eager for the Rebbe’s “amen”? Might it be that it was a joint song of thanksgiving, a moment of shared satisfaction at what had been accomplished? Might the Shehecheyanu have been a berachah on the new world that had risen, built on the sacrifices of the Kedoshim, a world that the Kedoshim could look on from heaven with satisfaction as the ultimate victory over Amalek, where Torah and chassidus and authentic Yiddishkeit flourished in a climate many thought too inhospitable for success?
And might these two men, who’d believed when others had doubted, who’d worked when others felt weary, who’d persevered when others despaired, have shared a smile at Hashem’s kindness in allowing them to witness the rebirth? v