By Yochanan Gordon
I had written a completely different article for this week and had already submitted it to the editors to prepare for print. In fact, as I feverishly type these words, they are not aware that they are about to receive a completely different article. However, in light of yesterday’s tragic events and the attitude that has been promulgated in yeshiva halls, at some of the levayas, and in online discussions, I felt a responsibility to address a topic that seems to be weighing heavily upon many people’s consciousness.
The news of yesterday’s terror attack in the Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan neighborhood that claimed the lives of 5 innocent victims has broken our collective heart into a million pieces. The sadness, grief, and mourning is just compounded by the successive incidence of terror in the streets of Hadera and Ramat Gan at a pace that the people of Israel haven’t witnessed in quite some time.
There is a sad, but historical element to yesterday’s attack that seems to be on a lot of people’s minds. During his lifetime, the Chazon Ish promised that the merit of Torah would protect the city of Bnei Brak from incidence of terror. Since his passing in 1953, there have been a number of occasions, most notably during the Persian Gulf War, where Reb Chaim Kanievsky invoked the Chazon Ish’s promise to extend the protection that had blanketed the Torah city for decades. The juxtaposition of yesterday’s terror attack with the histalkus of Reb Chaim Kanievsky has intensified the grief and it seems has given way to an overall attitude of fear throughout the olam haTorah and it is that which needs to be addressed.
Parashas Vayetzei begins, “And Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and he went to Charan.” Rashi famously asks, Why couldn’t the verse simply state that Yaakov went to Charan after it is known that he was situated up until now in Be’er Sheva? Rashi explains the departure of a tzaddik from a city leaves an impact. While a tzaddik is in a town he is its splendor, its light and its beauty, and when he vacates, the light, splendor, and beauty leave with him. A number of years ago in the vicinity of Parashas Vayetzei the word “roshem” as in, “yetzias tzaddik min ha’ir oseh roshem” planted itself in my mind for a few minutes. It occurred to me then that the word “roshem,” meaning impact, is an anagram of the word “shomer,” which means to guard or protect. And so, it is almost natural when two events of such great magnitude are juxtaposed with each other that we draw a correlation between the two.
In fact, in a video that was circulating yesterday there was a Jew close with the great tzaddik and mekubal Harav Dov Kook, shlita, son-in-law of Reb Yitzchak Zilberstein, shlita, who was with Rav Dov when he found out about the petira of Rav Chaim Kanievsky nearly two weeks ago. He said that Rav Dov went into a room where he sobbed for 5 or 6 minutes, tore keriah, and then began to explain that Rav Chaim Kanievsky lived an Olam Haba existence within this world and that the transition for him from this world to the next was as simple and seamless as traversing the threshold to a doorway. He continued, We aren’t sobbing and mourning for any pain or discomfort that his soul felt in being whisked off to the next world; we are crying over our plight having to continue our sojourn in this world without his protection.
In talking to my father about this video and the reflections shared by the great tzaddik and mystic, my father wondered why it was that Reb Chaim’s departure from this world would weaken whatever protection his presence among us had afforded us while he was among us in this world. The truth is, these are precisely the sentiments recorded in the Zohar, which states, “That a tzaddik following his petira is more present within this world than he was during his lifetime.” The rationale of course is that the soul of a tzaddik, after his histalkus, is unencumbered by the limitations of the body and unhindered by the confines of time and space and therefore his positive impact should technically increase, rather than decrease.
This seeming contradiction between the notion that Rashi puts forth at the outset of Parashas Vayetzei, accentuated by the reflections of the great mystic and tzaddik Harav Dov Kook and those recorded in the Zohar were so bothersome to me and it needed a resolution that would ease the quandary that had been weighing down upon my soul. So I approached my rav this morning, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky of Kahal Mevakshei Hashem in Lawrence with precisely this question, the way it was articulated above. He explained as follows:
Tzaddikim in this world and especially in the next world live highly spiritual existences. In fact, in my article last week, “The Mystery of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt’l” I cited the Alter Rebbe in Iggeres Hateshuva, which was recorded following the petira of his rebbi and colleague Reb Mendele Vitebsker who defined the life of a tzaddik using the terms faith, awe, and love. As such there is very often a disconnect between us and the tzaddik given the great distance that separates the body from the spirit; or internal people from those who are externally centered. Therefore, when we talk about the protection of a tzaddik, certainly the tzaddik remains in force and his departure to the next world doesn’t inevitably mean that he has vacated, and we have to move on and find another leader who can fill the gaping hole that his absence has left in its wake. However, what it does mean is that we need to pivot in our own lives and become more internal in order to experience the added level of protection that his absence gives way to.
He said something else, citing Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin, which is extremely pertinent having read the defeatist and cup half-empty reflections reported this morning on the blogosphere. He said, “We decide our own fate vis-a-vis the departed tzaddik. We are the heavenly tribunal in that respect. If we resign and give in to what seems to be the natural digression in the departure of a tzaddik, then we in fact create distance between ourselves and the tzaddik that does not necessarily have to be. It was this idea, coupled with the dispiriting words reported in the name of some of today’s great roshei yeshiva, which compelled me to record these reflections, in an attempt to save anyone from relinquishing our connection to the great tzaddik in the aftermath of his departure.
There is an observation, perhaps, in the manner in which Reb Chaim extended the protection of the Chazon Ish upon the residents of Bnei Brak in the ensuing 70 years since the former tzaddik’s histalkus and that is by deeply believing in the tzaddik’s promise and the notion that no evil will befall us by the hands of the great tzaddik. The protection that the city of Bnei Brak has had in the seventy plus years since the Chazon Ish passed away, was the Chazon Ish’s promise and not Rav Chaim’s. We too can elevate our perspective of life, become more soulful and internal beings, and invoke the increased connection with the Chazon Ish or Reb Chaim who will connect us to the Chazon Ish.
The sentiments of anguish, anxiety, and desperation that suffuse the words that have been reported are reminiscent of the desperation in the cries of the Yidden who constructed the golden calf when they feared that Moshe left and wouldn’t return or those of the meraglim who went to spy out the land of Israel and returned with a report that reduced the expectant nation to tears of dismay; and we all know how that ended. We need to ride upon the confidence of Yehoshua and Calev who trumpeted we will surely go up and inherit it. We need to build upon the ruins of the great destruction rather than collapse in a heap adding ruin upon ruin. We will continue to add merit of prayer and Torah study on behalf of the departed as they remain fixed strongly within our minds and upon our hearts but we will stand up, be strong, and continue to build and reenforce our connection to Rav Chaim, the Chazon Ish, and all of the tzaddikim of the past in whose merit G-d will countenance us with love, mercy, and compassion and gather all of the exiles in returning us, one by one, by hand to the land of our forefathers.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.