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Rav Boruch Ber Rediscovered

Menachem Pines

Soon after Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was buried in 1939, the Jewish community of Vilna was destroyed and his unmarked grave forgotten. But 70 years later, a little girl’s sudden deformity led to a series of seemingly unrelated events that resulted in the discovery of his resting place. This week, on Rav Boruch Ber’s 75th yahrtzeit, the Torah world will finally gather to honor his memory.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

His talmidim gathered around his deathbed, waiting for a bit of instruction, a last sign, but the Rosh Yeshivah’s thoughts were elsewhere. “The Rebbi is coming!” whispered Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Knesses Beis Yitzchak in Kamenitz. “I must wash my hands in honor of the Rebbi!” “The Rebbi” could refer to only one person. Throughout his life, it seemed as if Rav Boruch Ber had never left the benches of the beis medrash of Volozhin, and had never stopped quoting the words of his rebbi, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. “The Rebbi” was at the center of Rav Boruch Ber’s life. Now, on the 5th of Kislev, 5700 (1939), Rav Boruch Ber faced his final hours. The Nazis had already invaded Poland and Jews everywhere had fled in panic and confusion to one of the safe spots, Vilna. Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and other Torah scholars had also fled to the Lithuanian capital, where Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the leader of Diaspora Jewry, had greeted Rav Boruch Ber and asked him to open a yeshivah for the masses of refugees. But Rav Boruch Ber’s stay in Vilna did not last long. Already in his 70s, the Torah giant was ebbing away. He asked his students to accompany him in those last moments — and there they stood. “The Rebbi is coming,” he whispered, frightening his talmidim. It seemed as though he could sense his rebbi, who had died in 1918, waiting for him in the Heavenly realm. “I should put on a new shirt, something clean, in honor of the Rebbi,” he said. He further requested that an empty chair for his rebbi be placed at his bedside. Rav Boruch Ber prepared himself for his petirah like a person preparing for a lavish repast. “Review the shiur,” he begged his talmidim. They looked at each other in astonishment. Review the shiur? Now? Who could do such a thing? One of his students, Rav Meir Pantel, mustered up the courage to begin reviewing the shiur aloud. As he listened, Rav Boruch Ber’s face lit up, angelic, as he heard for the last time the teachings of his master, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. When the shiur reached its conclusion, Rav Boruch Ber recited the brachah of Ahavah Rabbah and the pesukim of the “Hallelukahs.” Then he fell silent. After a moment, he cried, “V’shavti b’shalom el beis avi!” And his holy soul departed. 

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