For the Toldos Aharon Rebbe, faith begins where intellect ends
Photos: Shuki Lehrer, Mishpacha archives
Sometimes the loss is so devastating that it defies comprehension. And yet within the excruciating pain, understanding dawns from the depths of the neshamah — that in truth, we really don’t understand anything. That’s the gift of emunah, the knowledge that Hashem is in charge and in control. The Toldos Aharon Rebbe, who has returned to the days of hiding out undisturbed, is busy pulling down that light
There was nothing to say. Nothing that could be said. Because sometimes words aren’t necessary, or even needed.
The two men stood there, Rabbi Avigdor Chayut bending toward the Toldos Aharon Rebbe, who stood in place, swaying slightly.
Reb Avigdor lost his son Yedidya and his talmid Moshe Levy in Meron this Lag B’omer, and in the time since, his public appearances have made him a symbol of unwavering emunah in the face of unfathomable pain.
“I want to thank the Rebbe,” he said, as the Rebbe looked at him quizzically.
“Rebbe, every day we hear about people who lose their lives in all kinds of incidents and tragic situations, and it often feels so stam, so random,” he explained. “People are taken suddenly, in the middle of a trip or doing something mundane. Yet Yedidya and my beloved talmid Moshe left This World when they were at the pinnacle of dveikus to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, as they said pesukim of emunah and Yichud Hashem, as they were mekabel ol malchus Shamayim,” Rabbi Chayut says.
He was referring to the end of the Toldos Aharon Rebbe’s hadlakah, minutes before the tragedy occurred. (The Toldos Aharon hadlakah is usually held at shkiyah as the day of Lag B’omer wanes, the final dramatic minutes of the holy day when tears are shed and final prayers offered. This last year, because Lag B’omer fell out on Friday, the famed hadlakah was advanced to Thursday night and that meant the crowd swelled.)
The Rebbe, pain lining his face, knowing that the fatal crush happened minutes after thousands of men and boys left the site of the hadlakah, nodded. “Your words give chizuk,” he said.
The two of them were standing in the woods near the kever of Rabi Shimon, not far from the site of the tragedy, silence draped over them like a blanket — the first visit since Lag B’omer for both of them.
“It was important for me to connect to the Rebbe personally on this,” Rabbi Chayut later tells Mishpacha. “As believing Jews, none of us has a doubt that this was what was decreed from Above, and this is what was supposed to happen. But within this gezeirah we merited a wonderful gift — that the yetzias haneshamah of these 45 holy souls occurred amidst dveikus to Hashem, just like Rabi Akiva, the rebbi of Rashbi, whose holy soul departed with the word ‘echad.’ After singing Ani Ma’amin and reciting ‘Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim’ seven times, these Jews, my son Yedidya and my student Moshe among them, merited to pass away in a way that was experienced by special and holy individuals through the generations. You know, that night, there was a similar crush an hour and a half earlier and no one was hurt. It’s clear to me that these neshamos were selected to rise to the Heichal Rashbi a few moments after kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim. I have no doubt of it.”
As they parted from each other, the Rebbe thanked Rabbi Chayut again and offered more words of comfort, then they made a l’chayim in honor of the 45 kedoshim. The brachah of Shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro that echoed through the forest was eerily significant.
“L’chayim. Tovim. U’leshalom,” the Rebbe said, no longer holding his tears in check.
The current Toldos Aharon Rebbe, Rav Dovid Kohn, has always been a man of privacy, hiding out whenever possible, slipping away from the noise to focus on learning. But over the last few months, it’s become a way of life.
These days he is often closeted in his room, grief evident on his face, enveloped by an acute heaviness. He has participated in family simchahs and traveled, but his shoulders seem to bear a crushing weight.
“We can’t understand Hashem’s decrees, but our job isn’t to figure it out. Our job is to awaken and strengthen ourselves,” the Rebbe told one of his close people a few days after the tragedy. This chassid described the Rebbe’s nonstop weeping, how he was trying to be strong for his chassidim but hadn’t really gotten back to himself.
“He was enveloped in terrible distress, as if he were somehow responsible — and if not for the 18 hours a day he spends davening and learning, who knows how he’d cope with the anguish? The past few months, he’s been sobbing loudly during Tikkun Chatzos — as if he’s in personal mourning for all 45 victims.”
The Shabbos following the tragedy — less than 24 hours later — was probably the most difficult of the Rebbe’s life. He spent Shabbos in Tzfas, which was to be an elevated weekend for the chassidim, filled with joy and the confidence that Hashem’s rachamim will annul all harsh decrees.
“From the time of lighting candles, the Rebbe made huge efforts to suppress his pain,” his chassid relates, remembering the Rebbe’s challenging Shabbos, when everyone around him was looking for comfort.
“The Rebbe quoted the words of Chazal, that anyone who delights in Shabbos is given a share without boundaries, as it says ‘Az tis’aneg al Hashem v’hirkavticha al bamasei aretz v’haachalticha nachalas Yaakov avicha — then, you shall delight with Hashem, and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land, and I will give you to eat the heritage of Yaakov your father.’ What is the meaning of ‘and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land’? The power of the mitzvah of delighting in Shabbos can elevate a person above the boundaries of nature, and he merits to rise to the bamasei aretz, to soar to great heights and to be able to observe things from a higher vantage point, from a place where the question and doubts disappear. That is the power of Shabbos.”
Throughout Shabbos, the Rebbe suppressed his tears and tried to find strength in his own words. He asked those with him to dedicate their brachos to the souls of the 45 victims.
Right after Havdalah, as he seemed to be falling again into a state of gloom, but quickly strengthened himself and urged all those who had gathered around him to pull themselves up from despondency as well: “This is what Hashem wants from us now, true, v’hachai yiten es libo, but we must not fall into sadness and depression. Hashem sees that although we are shattered and dejected, we are still strengthening ourselves, and in that merit, He will fulfill with us the words of the pasuk said by Dovid Hamelech, ‘V’amartem ko lechai, v’atah shalom ubeischa shalom v’chol asher lecha shalom.”
The Rebbe’s call to fight off the gloom seemed to have come from a very personal place, but still, he kept himself in the shadows, sufficing his personal nichum aveilim with phone conversations to each family instead of personal visits. He said there are other gedolei Yisrael who were more worthy of giving chizuk to the tzibbur.
It seems as though Lag B’omer tragedies are part of the Rebbe’s personal history. In Meron 110 years ago, during the dancing on the roof of the tziyun, a stone barrier collapsed and took the lives of 13 people. One of the people on the roof was his own grandmother, his father’s mother. She would recount that her grandfather Rav Avraham Yitzchak Heller, who was no longer alive at the time, appeared and plucked her out of the rubble.
Despite the holy traditions, the Toldos Aharon Rebbe never used to go to Meron on Lag B’omer, and instead had the central hadlakah in Jerusalem. It began one year when Lag B’omer fell on Thursday night, like this past year. And because of the custom not to take a haircut after midday Erev Shabbos according to the Arizal, in order for the three-year-old chalakah boys to have their hair cut by the Rebbe, he declared that he’d come to Meron early and do it for them. After that, the Rebbe’s hadkalah moved to Meron, becoming the highlight of the end of the holy day.
Throughout the summer, the Rebbe’s been hiding out learning, focusing on emunah, contemplating that there is only He, Who decrees and fulfills, that His Hashgachah is far beyond human comprehension.
A few days after the tragedy, it was important for the Rebbe to publicly express this. He put pen to paper, and poured out his pain in writing: “Zalafah achazasni, I was gripped by fear, and my heart is bowed in sorrow… my heart sobs bitterly… and the entire nation weeps over the tremendous fire that Hashem sent down. Whose heart does not melt…?”
In a long, 2,500-word letter to his chassidim and others, the Rebbe provides words of comfort, accepts the din, and although it’s evident that the words are written with a broken heart, each phrase is a lesson in emunah and bitachon. The Rebbe addresses the unfathomable timing of the calamity smack in the middle of the hours of joy and rachamim: “In the time of the awakening of compassion and chesed, on this lofty night, when there is such an eis ratzon… after tens of thousands of people traveled to the hilulah of Rabi Shimon and came to be at his tziyun in the holy place where he is buried…”
Then he explains. For him, everything is manifested in one word: emunah. That’s it. There is no other solution. “Without clear and complete emunah, it is impossible to overcome the tremendous and terrible anguish… Each day, we say 13 Ani Maamins, 13 times we repeat the words ‘I believe.’ But we never say ‘ani meivin, I understand.’ Because there is no place here for understanding. Emunah and the very limitedness of human understanding are not compatible.”
It’s no chiddush for his chassidim, because in a sense, emunah has always been the core of this chassidus, a court that is less a formal dynasty and more a chaburah of those searching for more.
A New Approach
Its founder, Rav Ahrele Roth, came from Hungary to Jerusalem before World War II, and a small group of serious ovdei Hashem were drawn to him, eager to learn from him. He made it clear that his approach was not for the masses, and he only welcomed bochurim and young avreichim to his chaburah, feeling that older people would not be able to reinvent themselves spiritually and adapt to his approach. Despite his resistance, the chaburah grew quickly, and by the time he was niftar, it was a full kehillah, hundreds of people focused on the three pillars of avodah he espoused in his three seminal seforim: Shomrei Emunim, on the idea of working on deeper levels of emunah, and the raw power of the recital of “Amen, yehei Shemei Rabba mevorach”; Taharas Hakodesh, on the value of living an elevated life; and Shulchan Hatahor, on the right approach to food, and using mealtimes correctly.
When he was niftar in 1946, the chaburah split into two: His son, Rav Avraham Chaim Roth, became the Shomrei Emunim Rebbe (before his passing in 2012, he was known as a tzaddik and miracle worker, and many people from all walks of life, from Modern Orthodox businessmen to IDF officers and Knesset members, would come and seek his advice and blessings), and his son-in-law Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kohn, author of Divrei Emunah, became known as the Toldos Aharon Rebbe (and his chassidim were known as “Reb Arelach”).
Before the previous Toldos Aharon Rebbe’s petirah in 1996, his second son, Rav Dovid, lived in Monsey, where he learned in a quiet corner of Rav Tzvi Elimelech Wachsman’s kollel and led the Toldos Aharon kehillah there. He would slip away to the woods for hours, learning and davening, enjoying a life of avodah and seclusion.
But with the passing of his father and the call to leadership came exposure, the new Rebbe drawing not just many of his father’s chassidim, but even some of his grandfather’s followers. (The eldest son, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, a disciple of the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, became the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe. The batei medrash of the two brothers are a block away from each other in Meah Shearim. A younger brother, Rav Yoel, is the Mevakshei Emunah Rebbe, known for his constant kiruv travels to secular bastions around the country. In 2011, after 33 years of marriage and infertility, his wife gave birth to twin girls.)
Daven for Me
The Rebbe has maintained the private learning schedule through the nights of the last 25 years, learning in his room from 3 a.m. until Shacharis — a throwback to quieter times. He often tells the bochurim that Gemara with Tosafos is the perfect hachanah, preparation, for tefillah, and he often reminds the chassidim that all the takanos instituted by his grandfather are meant to be kept along with fixed times for Torah learning, without which they are worthless.
He once called together the gabbaim and administrators within the chassidus and informed them that he would begin to deliver a shiur for them in Maseches Berachos since he was sure they didn’t have time to learn enough, and he felt responsible to make sure they were being spiritually nourished as well.
Following a lengthy, intense Shacharis, the Rebbe belongs to the people, receiving chassidim, speaking, teaching and listening.
Now, however, since Meron, that has stopped. The Rebbe has taken a step back to his earlier ways.
Moments before the fateful hadlakah, the Rebbe noticed the Nadvorna-Tzfas Rebbe at the site and approached him for a brachah.
“Please daven for me,” the Toldos Aharon Rebbe asked.
His voice trembled.
After the tragic events, the Rebbe returned to Tzfas, speaking very little, and since then, he has been in this tunnel of emunah, focused on deep, otherworldy levels and realms of the Oneness of Hashem and perfection of His every action.
And if there’s a message coming into the new year, the Rebbe says, it is this:
“Those pure souls immediately entered the heichal of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. But we who’ve remained here have another message to imbue: to improve our lives, and to awaken and be stronger,” the Rebbe says. “There is no consolation in the world for these pure korbanos tzibbur, except the knowledge that this is how Hashem decreed it to be, and His decree is the best thing for us. Only HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Source of all consolation, can console us.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 876)
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