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Rabbi Mattis Goldberg

Remembering the Bostoner Rebbe of Beit Shemesh

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

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Photo: Mattis Goldberg

It was Simchas Torah and we, chassidei Boston, were dancing joyfully with the Torah. Suddenly the Bostoner Rebbe of Beit Shemesh, Rav Chaim Avraham HaLevi Horowitz ztz”l, called us over. We all gathered around the Rebbe and, to our astonishment, we saw him weeping. 

In a choked voice, he said, “We just experienced the ‘heilige teg’ — we had Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos, and now we are dancing with the Torah.” The Rebbe then burst out in uncontrollable sobbing and continued, “We are dancing joyfully with the heilige Torah, but there are thousands of Yiddishe neshamos who don’t even know the meaning of Shema Yisrael.” 

The Rebbe, who passed away last Thursday, was a link to the previous generations. He was the last Jew alive who was born in the town of Zidichov. He was one of the first chassidishe bochurim to learn with Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l in Lakewood. He was close with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum ztz”l; and a talmid muvhak of his father, Rav Moshe Horowitz ztz”l, the Bostoner Rebbe of New York and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America. 

He had tremendous hakaras hatov and a true sense of what davening b’tzibbur meant, and his koach haneginah linked him to the Leviim in the Beis Hamikdash. He had prodigious ahavas haTorah and he felt the deep pain of Shechinta b’galusa in a real way. 

Yet above all, his heart had room for every single Yid in Klal Yisrael. He was an av harachaman to thousands worldwide. As a small example: In 2014, the Rebbe returned to Beit Shemesh after a nine-month medical stay in America. The shul was very crowded that first Shabbos the Rebbe was back. After he received the aliyah of Levi, he instructed the gabbai to go around and one by one add everyone’s name, including those of all the children, to his Mi Shebeirach. 

His tremendous ahavah perhaps endowed the Rebbe with siyata d’Shmaya to help people with the right word at the right time. A few years ago, Dov, a litvish avreich, had to travel to America during Elul for some medical tests. He came back to Eretz Yisrael a week before Rosh Hashanah very depressed. Instead of being in the beis medrash preparing for the Yom Hadin, he felt he had been everywhere else but. 

A day before Selichos, Dov came to the Rebbe to receive a brachah. The Rebbe was unaware of Dov’s sojourn in America, and Dov was embarrassed to share his depressed thoughts with the Rebbe, so he just asked for a brachah. The Rebbe, seemingly out of the blue, started speaking to Dov about the importance of family. The conversation went on for more than 20 minutes. The next night, Motzaei Shabbos, Dov came up to me with tears in his eyes and said: “The Rebbe gave me tremendous chizuk. He made me feel that I have a merit for the Yom Hadin, because the one thing I did during my stay in America was spend time with my parents and siblings. I came to understand that this was my avodah for Elul.” 

Although the Rebbe spoke eloquent English, he was makpid always to conduct the tish in Yiddish, as this was the mesorah he had received from his father and zeides. One recent Erev Shabbos, to the surprise of many, the Rebbe announced he would be conducting his tish in English. He explained that a few people told him that they did not understand Yiddish, and the Rebbe wanted them to be able share fully in the experience. 

This last Rosh Hashanah, the Rebbe asked my son and me to daven with him. Although the minyan in Boston is always full, there are only two Kohanim who attend regularly, myself and Reb Eitan. On Rosh Hashanah, Birkas Kohanim was always an issue, because Reb Eitan always traveled to Uman and I davened in a litvish minyan. To the Rebbe, the thought of davening without Birkas Kohanim was not an option. When the Rebbe asked me to daven with him, I could see how important it was to him. I agreed, and his eyes radiated joy. 

After Mussaf ended, a few mispallelim approached me and said the Rebbe had waited 15 minutes after he finished his Amidah before starting chazaras hashatz. The Rebbe, they told me, was waiting to fulfill his duty as a Levi and wash my hands. I had been in the middle of davening and was totally unaware of what had transpired. 

I was quite embarrassed and the next day I asked the Rebbe for forgiveness. He told me I was mistaken — he hadn’t been waiting to wash my hands. In fact, the Rebbe had washed my son’s hands. The Rebbe explained the real reason for his delay: “I was debating the following. On the one hand, I asked you to daven here Rosh Hashanah, and therefore I felt that I owed it to you to have Kesser [to be able to say the Kedushah of Mussaf]. I was therefore waiting for you to finish. On the other hand, I was concerned about tircha d’tzibbura.” 

The Rebbe taught us to recognize the good Hashem does for us. I once gave the Rebbe a kvittel. He looked through all the names and said, “Mattis, before you got married, did you ever imagine that one day you would have such a family?” The Rebbe put tremendous physical and emotional kochos into his tefillah. He paid attention to the words he was saying. Often during a tish, the Rebbe would explain certain words of the davening, words we all say thousands of times without grasping the full meaning. For example, we say in Shacharis, “v’nizkeh kulanu bimheirah l’oro.” The Rebbe said, “For me the main emphasis in this phrase is the word kulanu, we daven that every Jew should merit to see the spiritual light.” 

Many years ago, during one of his first weeks in Beit Shemesh, the Rebbe requested that no parshah bulletins be brought to shul on Shabbos. The Rebbe explained that often during davening, one picks up one of these bulletins in order to read a devar Torah on the parshah. By the time he finishes reading, he might miss half of davening. The time we set aside for davening is not the time to learn. 

The Rebbe was a very happy person and anyone in his presence felt that joy. He was especially close with the members of his shul. 

The only time I ever saw the Rebbe get upset, during the 16 years I davened in his shul, was this past year. One Shabbos morning, the Rebbe sat in the back row of the shul instead of in his usual seat in the mizrach, watching as people arrived late. It was obvious that the Rebbe was not happy. When the time for Birkas Kohanim drew near, I came to the Rebbe to wash my hands. For the first time, the Rebbe refused to wash my hands. He was clearly upset. 

Before Krias HaTorah, the Rebbe gave the tzibbur a real mussar shmuess. He explained that what was transpiring in the shul was not tefillah b’tzibbur; rather, there were many individuals davening under one roof. For this, one could stay at home and daven in his living room. In order to be fulfill tefillah b’tzibbur, everyone has to come to shul on time, sit in a makom kavua, and start davening together. Everyone felt the Rebbe was admonishing us out of love, and he wanted us to treasure the great gift of tefillah. This was the most powerful shmuess I ever heard about tefillah. 

The Rebbe would often start crying in the middle of davening, especially at the mentions of Tzion and the Beis Hamikdash. In fact, during the last Rosh Chodesh bentshing of his life, the Rebbe broke down upon reaching the words ahavas Torah, refuah sheleimah, and geulah kerovah. The Rebbe learned by Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l in Lakewood for nearly five years. This year Rav Aharon’s yahrtzeit came out on Shabbos. The Rebbe spoke for well over an hour about his memories from those early days. The Rebbe said that when he came to the shiur, he didn’t understand a word, due to Rav Aharon’s quick “gunfire” delivery. He sat in the shiur for eight months until he was finally able to grasp it. 

When my son was leaving Eretz Yisrael to go learn in Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Denver, I took him in to the Rebbe for a brachah. The Rebbe wanted to give my son a taste of what Lakewood was like in the early ’50s. He told him they would learn two sedorim of four and a half hours each. For dinner, each bochur would receive two pieces of bread, two pieces of lettuce, another vegetable, and ketchup (which was donated to the yeshivah by the Heinz Company in Pittsburgh). That was the entire meal. 

A few weeks ago, the Rebbe traveled to America for his granddaughter’s wedding. Although the aufruf was in Skver, the Rebbe adamantly insisted that he wanted to go back to his roots and spend Shabbos in Lakewood. This ended up being his last Shabbos in this world. 

The Rebbe composed hundreds of niggunim and possessed a wealth of knowledge about the chassidic courts and their niggunim. Once in a while, the Rebbe would explain the history of a certain niggun and he would then sing the melody for us. Many of them were joyful, others were heartfelt and stirring, and some were even haunting, especially the ones that spoke about the coming of Mashiach. 

Every year on Simchas Torah, the Rebbe would call us all to the bimah and tell us about the arrival of his grandfather, the first Bostoner Rebbe, Rav Pinchos Dovid Horowitz ztz”l, in America in 1915. Almost immediately after coming to Boston, he became the address for Jews from Eretz Yisrael who needed a place where they could rely on the kashrus. On Simchas Torah, the Sephardic Jews visiting from Eretz Yisrael would sing an old melody to the words “Hallelu avdei Hashem.” This tune became incorporated into the Bostoner nusach. When the Rebbe finished telling us this story, he would joyfully start singing this melody.

Photo: Mattis Goldberg

The Rebbe was extremely close to his father, the Bostoner Rebbe of New York, Rav Moshe Horowitz ztz”l. The Rebbe constantly spoke about his father and worked tirelessly to uphold the mesorah he received from him. The Rebbe once emotionally recounted for us his first bittersweet Pesach the year after his father passed away. Throughout the Seder the Rebbe was haunted by memories of his father. Toward the end of the night, when the Rebbe was reciting Shir Hashirim, he felt that he could no longer hold his emotions in check. He went outside with tears streaming down his face. Suddenly a niggun came to his mind to the words “El ginas egoz yaradeti” (Shir Hashirim 6:11), and he then felt tranquility settle over him. 

When the Rebbe’s 11-year-old grandson heard that his grandfather had passed away, he started to cry. He told his parents that he was worried about his zeide’s judgment in Shamayim. The parents were wondering how such a young boy understood about the judgment process, and they asked him to explain himself. The boy explained that recently when he had gone with his father to visit the Rebbe, they found him in a state of excitement. His seforim had just arrived from America and the Rebbe called his son-in-law over and started to open various seforim and show him different chiddushim. Suddenly the Rebbe became serious, turned to his grandson, and said: “You think it is fun to have a lot of seforim. In truth it is a great responsibility. When a person comes to the Day of Judgment, they will ask him why he didn’t learn from all of the seforim he owned.” 

The Rebbe, while here in this world, constantly cried for the thousands upon thousands of Yiddishe neshamos who don’t even know the meaning of Shema Yisrael. This is something we can all try to emulate, to show a deep love and genuine concern for each and every Jew.

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