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He Soaked Up Our Pain

“To me, every Jew is a sugya”

 

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In Tribute to Reb Shlomo Cheshin ztz”l

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arly last Tuesday, the Jewish nation lost a giant, Reb Shlomo Cheshin ztz”l, a tzaddik I was privileged to know since my youth. It is with a broken heart and tear-filled eyes that I write these words of tribute and reflection about this singular figure.

It is unknown exactly how many men and women Reb Shlomo Cheshin comforted and encouraged, talked out of marrying non-Jews, convinced to start keeping Shabbos, helped extricate from the depths of addiction, and coaxed back from the brink of suicide. But the impact of this special Jew from Jerusalem, whose influence was felt in communities throughout the world, is greater than any of us can begin to imagine.

Reb Shlomo was the son of Rav Binyamin Zev (Velvel) Cheshin, one of the leading lights in the Breslover chassidus of the previous generation, and a close student of Rav Nochum Partzovitz, rosh yeshivah of the Mir. These cherished  relationships enabled him to bridge the elite societies of two very different worlds. Although his heart was firmly planted in the warmth and avodah of Breslover chassidus, Yeshivas Mir was his second home. Along with his brothers (one of whom, Reb Tzvi is still a legendary fixture in the yeshivah), Reb Shlomo nullified himself to Reb Nochum and flourished in the yeshivah. It was only natural that he would fulfill his destined role there.

Although he was a tremendous talmid chacham in both nigleh and nistar as well as a consummate maggid shiur who taught in Yeshivas Torda many decades, Reb Shlomo’s primary talent was in the realm of relating to others. His shining countenance made an immediate impression on everyone around him. A natural conversationalist, the confidence, lucidity, and trustworthiness he exuded immediately put others at ease. People saw that he shared their pain, so they opened up to him.

Over the decades, Reb Shlomo spent countless hours shouldering the emotional burden of others. He became the address for the lonely and heartbroken, the sick and the poor, the despairing and depressed, couples whose marriages were collapsing, and business partners embroiled in bitter dispute. He would sit with them for as long as it took, often into the wee hours of the morning, as they poured out their tales of woe.

When the tears stole their voices away, he would begin to speak, and the room would fill with light. Words of clarity and confidence would flow easily from his mouth; life-giving words of strength and beauty.

He referred to his small office near Rechov Meah Shearim as his churban (ruin). I remember once when we sat there together, and, taking a puff of his ever-present electric cigarette and flashing his brilliant smile, he said, “Ah, Yaakov! How many binyanim gedolim [large buildings] came out from this churban!”

I n his quiet manner,  Reb Shlomo would painstakingly help piece relationships, marriages, lives, and hearts back together again. Those who entered his office with tear-streaked faces would leave with shining eyes and renewed clarity. His joy was contagious and his advice, founded in the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, deceptively simple in the brilliant sort of way that made you wonder why you didn’t think of it before. Reb Shlomo never took a penny for his counseling services. He always said, “I take care of the Eibeshter’s children, He’ll take care of mine.”

As an American bochur discovering the world of Breslover chassidus in the 1970s, my father built a close and abiding relationship with Reb Shlomo. When he began to travel to America for the dual purposes of chizuk and fundraising, he would often visit Far Rockaway, and our house became his home away from home.

My childhood memories are punctuated with scenes from those visits: Reb Shlomo pacing back and forth on the porch, holding a phone to his ear, helping someone in need. Crowds filling our basement Motzaei Shabbos, Jews vying for a chance to warm themselves by Reb Shlomo’s fire. He would sit for hours upon hours with struggling couples, rebellious youth, broken parents, and parties to raging machlokes. He once sat for 16 consecutive hours with two brothers who had not spoken in 20 years. They left the room with linked arms and tears of joy flowing down their cheeks.

Reb Shlomo assumed a grandfatherly role for us children when he came on these visits. Shabbos with his presence gracing our table was sublime. His rendition of Eishes Chayil, sung to the traditional Breslover melody, resounded with the echo of the generations who carried the torch before us. He was a fixture in our lives and always made himself available to talk about any issue we might be struggling with. He went on to be involved in my shidduch, flew to Chicago for my wedding, and just a few months ago attended the bris of our son. No matter what was going on in our lives, we knew that Reb Shlomo Cheshin would always be there for us.

A memory: I am in ninth grade, and I have a question on the Gemara we are learning in yeshivah. My father insists I relate it to Reb Shlomo, who is then visiting. Bashfully, I repeat the question, and when I look up, I find that Reb Shlomo’s eyes are dancing, his heart bursting with joy. He declares the question “brilliant” and waxes at length about its greatness.

I still remember that question, and, in truth, it wasn’t all that great. But Reb Shlomo praised it to the high heavens, making me feel like a million dollars. The sense of confidence he instilled in me with his exuberant reaction accompanies me until today.

At the levayah, Reb Shlomo’s son said that his father once told him, “I received my gift of dealing with people from my rebbi, Reb Nochum ztz”l.”

The son couldn’t understand. “Tatte,” he protested, “a Breslover chassid who drinks from the words of Rebbe Nachman, the source of chizuk, learned how to lift people up from Reb Nochum? From Reb Nochum you learned Gemara!”

“That’s exactly right,” Reb Shlomo answered. “Reb Nochum taught me how to learn a sugya, and that is how I approach every Jew. To me, every Jew is a sugya.”

It wasn’t until my late teens, when I went to Eretz Yisrael to study in yeshivah, that I forged my own relationship with this giant of spirit. Over the course of six years, I was with Reb Shlomo in various settings, most notably when I had the privilege of accompanying him and his sons on two trips to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. There are no words to describe the closeness, love, and care he showed me on those two trips. He treated me like one of his own children — right down to cutting his rebbetzin’s banana cake into six pieces instead of five so there would be one for me as well.

Watching Reb Shlomo on those trips was a life-changing experience. As he walked into the airport surrounded by his sons, it was impossible not to take notice of him. And he made use of this natural charisma for the honor of Hashem. As we passed through the various checkpoints, Reb Shlomo treated the airport staff as if he had known them for decades, bantering for a moment with the irreligious Jews manning security before seamlessly segueing into the topic of emunah. These conversations may have lasted only a minute or two, but somehow, in that short window of time, Reb Shlomo succeeded in delivering life-saving words to parched hearts needing a boost. It was remarkable to watch.

On one trip, the airline was understaffed, and check-in was proceeding extremely slowly. Eventually the rising tension led to pushing and shoving, as hundreds of anxious travelers tried to reach the counter. It was an incredibly frustrating situation, to say the least. Finally, after a few hours of waiting, we made it to the check-in counter for the flight to Uman. In a famous teaching relating to the month of Elul, Rebbe Nachman reveals that one of the foundations of teshuvah is “hamtein,” the ability to wait and be patient during the process. As we walked toward security, tickets in hand, Reb Shlomo turned to me and flashed his ever-present smile.

“Nu, Yaakov,” he said. “Today we learned a lesson in hamtein.”

A lesser person might have been frustrated, upset, and even angry at the injustice of having been made to stand in line for so many hours — I know I was! — but not Reb Shlomo Cheshin. This tzaddik chose to see this experience as an impromptu lesson in patience, and perfectly timed for Chodesh Elul, to boot!

As an expression of their bond with my father, Reb Shlomo and his brother Reb Tzvi would go to Har Hamenuchos with a minyan (usually filled out by their children) to my grandfather’s kever on his yahrtzeit — every year since his passing, for the past 23 years. When I was studying in Eretz Yisrael, I had the privilege of arranging this trip and accompanying these two tzaddikim on this noble mission. These trips gave me a unique glimpse into these two holy brothers’ interactions, and the sweetness and deep love that flowed between them, a bond forged in kedushah, Torah, and avodah.

On one of these trips, I seized the opportunity to ask Reb Shlomo a question that, as a writer, had been on my mind for some time. Summoning up the courage, I asked the tzaddik why he didn’t record the thousands of awesome stories he saw unfold over the decades and publish them in a book.

“Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could catch a glimpse of what you do?” I asked. “Perhaps it could give them chizuk! And besides, wouldn’t it be a shame if you forgot all of the success stories that came out of your little churban?”

Reb Shlomo turned his head to me, sitting in the back seat of the van. “A shame?” he asked. “Why, I specifically try to forget the success stories! When I finish with one sugya, it’s on to the next — Hashem remembers the stories, and that is good enough for me. They are my stories only because I forget them. If I printed the stories, they would no longer be mine.”

We will never know what this person accomplished in his lifetime. And that is the exactly the way he wanted it.

One random Tuesday night, around six months ago, my wife and I decided to visit the Kosel. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, at a pretty late hour, and we figured the Kosel would be quiet. When we arrived, I began looking for a minyan for Maariv. Although the Kosel was practically deserted, I noticed a group out of the corner of my eye and decided to see if they were davening.

To my great surprise, as I drew closer, I began to recognize faces. First I saw one son of Reb Shlomo Cheshin. Then another son. And then another. What is going on here? I wondered. As I approached, I saw they were saying Tehillim. A moment later, one of them noticed me and mouthed the words, “L’Abba shelanu — For our father.” This is how I found out about the illness.

Seeing that Reb Shlomo’s children had gathered to pray for him, Hashem knew that I belonged there as well and had drawn me to that very place, at that very time.

The last time I saw Reb Shlomo was less than a week before his passing. He was extremely weak. I presented him with a picture of himself at the bris of my son Shmuel Shmelke. He took it with both hands and kissed it twice. Tears began to stream down his cheeks.

Not knowing what to say, I offered, “I have not forgotten the years that have passed,” hoping to strengthen him with the knowledge that those memories yet live on in my heart even as he lay in this miserable state.

“It is impossible to forget,” he whispered.

“We must not forget,” I responded.

“We are obligated to remember.”

Those were the last words I heard him speak. “We are obligated to remember.”

We are obligated to remember a man who consciously worked to shift the spotlight off his work and back on to the Master of the world, the singular focus of his life. To remember a gentle warrior who sought to make peace between husbands and wives, fellow Jews, and each member of our nation with our Father in Heaven. To remember a smile that lit up the world and, above all, a simple joy that had the power to mend the most broken of hearts.

Reb Shlomo, our hearts are shattered. Having had the opportunity to know you will forever be counted among the greatest privileges in our lives.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 765. Rabbi Yaakov Klein is collecting stories about Reb Shlomo for a future, expanded tribute. Please submit your experiences to ravcheshinstories@gmail.com.

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