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Rav Avigdor's Unlikely Chassidim

Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz

English speakers throughout the world still benefit from the wisdom and eloquence of Rav Avigdor Miller, ztz”l. But there’s an unlikely group of Yiddish speakers in a little pocket in Williamsburg who see Rav Miller as their rebbe, too. Led by Rav Avraham Shlomo Yavo, the chassidim of Nitei Avigdor retain their chassidish identities even as they imbibe the approach and ideals of an avowed Litvack. In honor of his rebbe’s tenth yahrtzeit, Rav Yavo shares his own memories of a precious relationship.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Williamsburg, Friday afternoon, near sundown. A blur of shtreimlach and beketshes fills the street, as chassidim young and old rush off to shul. Each one heads to his rebbe, to the Chassidus toward which he feels a particular pull, to greet Shabbos on a spiritual uplift.

On Rutledge Street, seventy families form a parade of their own, heading to a modest basement shul. They too hope to be inspired by the words of their rebbe, to be enthralled with the spirit of Shabbos. There are two differences, however. One, their rebbe is not alive anymore — and few of the chassidim have ever met him, though they have heard plenty of his drashos. More surprisingly, their rebbe doesn’t wear chassidish levush. In fact, he was an avowed Litvack throughout his life.

The shul they are headed to is Nitei Avigdor, named for their rebbe, Rav Avigdor Miller, ztz”l. And his impact on these chassidim, while unexpected, is firm and enduring.

 

The Litvishe Rebbe

Rabbi Avrohom Shlomo Yavo, the Lemberger Rav, is the founder and leader of the Nitei Avigdor community. Known throughout the chassidishe world for his absolute mastery of Shas — he can quote lengthy passages from anywhere in Shas, and can source any statement of Chazal off the top of his head — Rav Yavo became a devout chassid of Rav Avigdor Miller seventeen years ago. His time is precious, with many sheilos pouring in even as we speak, but he sets aside an hour to discuss his rebbe, and how it came to pass that so many chassidim became drawn to the teachings of a litvishe mashgiach.

“I was always a mevakesh,” he begins, “and one time, a close friend told me that there was this amazing shiur in Nach every Motzaei Shabbos delivered by a rav named Rav Avigdor Miller that I just had to attend. I went to try it, and really enjoyed it. But after about two months Rav Avigdor got up after the shiur and apologetically announced that he would have to discontinue the series, because it was too difficult to maintain along with his otherwise packed schedule of weekly and daily shiurim. I was very disappointed, and when I expressed it to someone standing next to me, he informed me that the Rav also gave a shiur every Thursday night. ‘That shiur is even better than this one,’ he promised.”

There was a barrier, however — the language. As a Williamsburg native, Rav Yavo spoke almost no English, and barely even understood it. “Come anyway,” the fellow nudged when Rav Yavo tried to beg off. “You’ll see, you’ll understand.”

“That first shiur was life-altering,” recalls Rav Yavo. “He was speaking about thanking Hashem. The title of that tape is ‘We Live to Praise.’ I’ll never forget his memorable sing-song, ‘aleinu l’shabei’ach. What’s our purpose in this world? To praise Hashem.’

“Despite my misgivings, I understood about 90 percent of what he said, which was surprising, considering his rich vocabulary.

“I walked out of there thinking, this is my rebbi. From then on, for the last nearly seven years of his life, I didn’t miss a single shiur. It didn’t make a difference whether it was raining or snowing. I felt that I couldn’t miss a shiur. Even when I spent the day sick in bed, I found the strength to drag myself into Flatbush for the shiur.”

Rav Yavo is still nostalgic about those Thursday night drashos, and specifically, by the way Rav Avigdor Miller could find inspiration in what we often take for granted. A common theme was Gadlo VeTuvo malei olam, which he would define as Hashem’s plan and purpose for the world. Rav Avigdor would often bring “props” to illustrate what he was describing.

“Once, he brought along apple seeds to show the wisdom of Hashem inherent in each apple tree,” relates Rav Yavo. “As he spoke about it, he got so excited that he started to throw the seeds out to the crowd, encouraging people to take one home and use it to study the greatness of Hashem.”

Next to Reb Avigdor’s seat in shul sat a bottle of water that he never drank from. What was it doing there? “He would often talk about the amazing miracle of water; what it was composed of and what it did for a person. He had purchased that bottle some fifty or sixty years earlier, and he kept it at his side as a ‘Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid.’ Seeing that bottle there made him remember Hashem constantly.”

Anyone who has listened to one of the thousands of recordings Rav Avigdor Miller left behind knows about the famous question-and-answer sessions. For the last twenty minutes of the shiur, the audience could ask any question that came to mind. For Rav Yavo, this presented a long-awaited opportunity to receive answers to all his questions in hashkafah. “He was like an Urim V’Tumim. No matter what you asked him, he was ready with an answer — and each one was full of wisdom.”

As time went on, a close relationship developed between the two. Around twelve years ago, when the story of an alleged dibbuk circulated first through Eretz Yisrael and then throughout the world, Rav Yavo asked during the shiur whether the Rav felt that there was any truth to the claims. “Come after the shiur and we’ll discuss it,” was all Rav Avigdor would say.

After the shiur, Rav Avigdor led him into a hallway where they could discuss it privately. Many people tried to follow them, but Rav Avigdor told them to remain in the shul. “We began to discuss the issue at length. I tried to cite proofs for the concept of a dibbuk from different statements of Chazal, but he refuted every one. In many instances he told me that this conversation was not to be repeated, so as we were wrapping up, I asked him what I should tell the curious audience awaiting my return to the shul.”

“ ‘Tell them that we don’t find any source for it in Shas or Chazal,’ he replied, ‘and we shouldn’t make an issue out of it.’ ”

 

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