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The Baba’s Promise

Meir Wolfson

It’s not every day that a dentist from Boro Park becomes a close follower and confidant of a member of the distinguished Abuchatzeira dynasty, but that is what happened to Dr. Gedaliah Mordechai Stern. Not only did Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira ztz”l guide him in his career, the tzaddik, who was recently niftar, gave Dr. Stern invaluable insights into the true meaning of building a life upon the foundation of emunas chachamim.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Middle age has nothing on Dr. Stern, who agreed to share the story of his life and his relationship with Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira after receiving a special dispensation from gedolim. Graced with a warm disposition and easy manner, he relates that he enjoys what he does so much that he jumps out of bed at around four each morning, thinking, “I get to spend another day helping people after being kovei’a itim laTorah!”

And that’s not because he gets to put his feet up. Weekdays are spent running from room to room to treat his many grateful patients. Dr. Stern could easily have breezed through life as a successful dentist in the States, but already from his formative years he felt a strong urge to be in Eretz Yisrael. He therefore got a part-time job delivering groceries and saved his money.

“When I had $200 I bought a charter ticket. As I walked the streets, it hit me that my grandfather had gone up in smoke in Auschwitz and here I was in Yerushalayim, something that my grandparents only dreamed of. I knew that one day I would move to Eretz Yisrael.”

Before that happened, Dr. Stern was earning an extremely respectable income as a New York dental surgeon. One day Rabbi Avrohom Wolf, his elementary school principal at Toras Emes Kaminetz, came into the emergency room. He told Dr. Stern that he had a nephew, Dr. Dahvid Wolf, who had a practice in Beer Sheva and needed another dentist.

Logically, it was a ludicrous move. The offer in Beer Sheva was for approximately one-tenth of what Dr. Stern was earning. His father tried to persuade him not to go, but Dr. Stern knew that if he didn’t move to Eretz Yisrael then he might never do so.

The Stern Family made aliyah in 1982, right before Chanukah. During their first two years in Eretz Yisrael, Dr. Stern earned an extremely modest income. Then one day a man walked into his office and said that Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira had sent him. Dr. Stern had never heard of Rav Elazar before, but he welcomed the man into his office. This man had gone to the hospital the day before because his throat had swollen to a concerning size, but they sent him home because they couldn’t find a significant problem. Dr. Stern took one look at him and realized that he had a condition that turned out to be Ludwig’s angina, a disease that is so rare that Dr. Stern has seen only one case in over 30 years of practice. He sent the man back to the hospital, which literally saved his life.

“How did the rabbi know to send him to me?” I wondered.

After that first introduction to Rav Elazar, Dr. Stern continued to receive patients every so often who said they were sent by the Rav. After noticing that each case Rav Elazar sent him left him with a specific insight, Dr. Stern decided it was time to go meet this unusual rav.

“Here was a man completely cut off from the world around him,” Dr. Stern explains, “yet he knew more about medicine, business, and every other topic we discussed than anyone else I knew.”

That meeting was the first of what would eventually become a regular session. Being a temimusdig American with a scientific mind, Dr. Stern would at first ask questions that no one else would dare ask, and Rav Elazar humored him. One day, for instance, Rav Elazar mentioned that Rav Moshe Feinstein’s family had called to say that, “Boruch Hashem, today Rav Moshe has pneumonia.”

“Boruch Hashem?” Dr. Stern asked in surprise.

Rav Elazar explained that the family would call each day, and compared to what Rav Moshe was suffering from in his final weeks, “only” pneumonia was good news. “Only the Kol Yachol, yachol (only the Omnipotent can [help]),” said Rav Elazar sadly.

“So why don’t you make a miracle?” asked Dr. Stern — a question he now considers both naive and somewhat presumptuous, but one that was indicative of their relationship at that point.

“Miracles are not our way,” replied Rav Elazar. “It wasn’t the way of my father and grandfather [Rav Meir Abuchatzeira and the Baba Sali]. The Gemara says that if a miracle is performed for someone, he loses some merits in Heaven. It’s not always in a person’s greatest interest to perform a miracle for him.”

When Dr. Stern pressed him further on the subject of miracles, Rav Elazar told him a story of when it might be justified. Rav Elazar would spend time in Switzerland in the home of Nissim Gaon each year. He couldn’t vacation in Eretz Yisrael, because people would follow him wherever he went. In Switzerland he was able to rest, relax, and, most importantly, to learn.

But getting to Switzerland was no simple feat, since Rav Elazar was extremely conscientious about shmiras einayim. El Al respected his sensitivity and allowed him to be driven directly to the airplane after everyone else had boarded, as well as be seated in the first seat behind the cockpit. On one flight, a woman approached Rav Elazar’s gabbai, Avraham, and asked to speak to the rabbi. The gabbai politely explained that the Rav doesn’t meet with women. He asked how she knew Rav Elazar was on the flight, and she explained that she was an off-duty stewardess and she had seen his name on the passenger list. While they were talking, the Rav, who wore a hood over his head to shield his eyes, realized what was going on, and said that she could speak to him through Avraham.

The woman explained that she had been diagnosed with a growth, and she was on her way to Switzerland to remove it even though the doctors held little hope for her. Rav Elazar instructed Avraham to ask whether she believes in G-d.

“Not really,” she replied.

“Then why are you coming to me?” asked Rav Elazar.

She explained that her illness had led to introspection, and she was rethinking her beliefs. Rav Elazar asked whether she was willing to accept the basic mitzvos — Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah — if she would recover. When she said that she would, he instructed her to go ahead with her plans in Switzerland.

Rav Elazar ended the story there, but Dr. Stern pressed him for the details of the outcome. “She actually called the Rabbanit last night,” said Rav Elazar. “She wanted to know how to keep those mitzvos.”

In the words of the Rav, when this woman reached Switzerland, she checked into the hospital for surgery. After rolling her into the operating room, they decided to do one more scan. To everyone’s shock, the scan was absolutely clean. There was no sign of a growth whatsoever. The doctors sent her home.

“To be mekarev levavos,” Rav Elazar explained with a sigh, “we sometimes need to see nissim. But in general, it’s not our approach.”

 

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