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New Beginnings in Vizhnitz

Aryeh Ehrlich

When the Vizhnitzer Rebbe shlita, Rav Yisrael Hager, agreed to take on the mantle of leadership in Vizhnitz, it was with one stipulation: the honorific “kvod kedushas” — the way a rebbe is usually addressed — would not be added to his title. Yet his extreme humility has not inhibited his massive following.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

rav of vizhnitz4:55 a.m., Rechov Toras Chaim 4, Bnei Brak

It’s time for the changing of the guard in Bnei Brak’s Shikun Vizhnitz. The last of the nocturnal Torah scholars have gone to bed, and the first of the early risers have yet to leave their homes. At this predawn hour, not quite night but not yet day, the sound of an alarm clock echoes from the window at Toras Chaim 4. It isn’t just the night guard that’s changing; the regime has changed as well. Even before the sun set on the previous Rebbe, Rav Moshe Yehoshua Hager ztz”l, it began to dawn on his eldest son, Rav Yisrael, who lived with joy despite years of humiliation, and accepted Hashem’s decrees with love. Sure enough, the time came for Rav Yisrael Hager to receive the honor due him, just as Reb Yankele of Pshevorsk ztz”l predicted when Vizhnitz’s eventual successor was a shunned, exiled avreich: “Thousands of chassidim will yet flock to him.”

Rav Yisrael ben Rav Moshe Yehoshua has indeed become great — a modern-day David HaMelech, distanced from his own family, yet ultimately emerging as a king. Together with his brother, the Rebbe Rav Menachem Mendel, he is reigniting the glory of Vizhnitz after the chassidus endured nine years of darkness due to the previous Rebbe’s illness.

Rumor has it that in the new Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s home, there are six alarm clocks, each one set at half-hour intervals. The Rebbe makes sure never to sleep more than a half hour straight, so every half hour, the Rebbe gets up, walks around the house murmuring some holy words, and goes back to sleep until the next alarm rings. This has been his habit since he was a boy.

One street over, on Rechov Ahavas Shalom, an assortment of mourning notices, all of them black, half of them torn, remain as a mute reminder of the day in Adar when the previous Rebbe, Rav Moshe Yehoshua Hager — the Yeshuos Moshe — left his chassidim for the Next World. He lived at Number 15. The house on the left, Number 13, was the house of his father, the Imrei Chaim, who passed away 40 years ago.

The Rebbe shlita enters the building at Ahavas Shalom 15, to use the same mikveh his father used to purify himself. Before he succeeded his father, the Rebbe used to immerse himself at the private mikveh in the home of Rav Aharon Eliyahu Feldman, the son of Rav Chaim Moshe Feldman. Now, having moved into his father’s position, the Rebbe has permitted himself for the first time to make use of his father’s mikveh.

Immersion in a mikveh is an essential part of the Vizhnitzer avodah. The previous Rebbe would sometimes perform three immersions a day. During the shivah for his father, the current Rebbe observed the halachah prohibiting a mourner from immersion, but on Friday night, after the packed Maariv, he slipped quietly into his father’s mikveh before reciting the first Kiddush since the petirah.

 

5:20 a.m.

The early risers are already in the streets. Some even have the privilege of being blessed by their Rebbe to have a “good morning.”

 

5:25 a.m.

The Rebbe disappears into his home, where he will spend the coming hours ensconced in his private room with the thousands of seforim he has amassed over the past years with great effort and financial outlay, sometimes even skimping on his own food. The contents of these seforim, he has told his confidants, have always been a consolation to him at times of suffering.

At the first Seudah Shlishis after the Rebbe shlita’s coronation — with the lights off according to Vizhnitz tradition — the crowd held their breath as the Rebbe began to speak. “What is there for me to say?” he began tearfully. “How can I speak? My great, holy father has left us for his eternal rest, and we are left behind in sorrow.” The Rebbe began to sob unchecked tears, and then continued, “My holy ancestors, beginning with the Ahavas Shalom, led this congregation and they were worthy of it. The years of their youth were years of greatness. For me, unfortunately, it is not the same.

“It is very hard for me to be called the Rebbe. That is the way things are done; it is the way of the world, and I have no choice. But I ask that the accompanying title of kvod kedushas not be added at all, neither in private nor in public, for there is no truth to it.”

The Rebbe went on to declare that his task would be only to succeed his father and to bring the kvittlach that would be presented to him at the resting place of his forebears. Then Shabbos was over and the fluorescents went on, leaving over 5,000 men squinting in the light, watching as their new Rebbe hid his own face in his hands.

An elderly chassid, Reb Avraham Mordechai Malik, passed by and whispered to him, “You are my fourth Rebbe. I had a relationship with the Ahavas Yisrael, with the Imrei Chaim, with your father, the Yeshuos Moshe, and now with you. I do not accept your statement that you are not worthy.”

Over nine years have passed since the Yeshuos Moshe became ill. During that time Rav Yisrael Hager took it upon himself to serve as the leader of the flock until his father would recover, always believing and teaching others to hope that his father would lead the Chassidus until the coming of Mashiach. On that night when the lights went out at Ahavas Shalom 15 and all of Vizhnitz—and the Jewish world in general — was cast into mourning, the bereaved sons Rav Yisrael and Rav Menachem Mendel looked like men whose entire world had been destroyed — despite the Rebbe’s frailty, despite the ambulance that had been parked outside his home for years already, despite the knowledge that his end was near.

Yet the chassidim have embraced the new Rebbe. His leadership is founded on his exhaustive Torah study, his incredible humility, his tremendous value for the tiniest fragment of time, his joyous prayers, his broken heart, his striving for truth and perfection, his good middos, his love for his fellow Jews, and his incredible simplicity. These were his traits when he was simply an anonymous tzaddik serving Hashem in his own corner, and they remain his attributes now. For Rav Yisrael, there is no difference between the avodah of an outcast in the corner of an empty beis medrash and the holy avodah observed by tens of thousands of pairs of eyes.

 

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