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Back from the Brink

Aryeh Erlich

The Kaliver Rebbe knows what it means to be saved by a miracle. After a recent debilitating illness, the 94-year-old knew G-d’s continued grace meant he had to keep pushing forward

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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AWAKENING THE SPARK Already in his 90s, the Kaliver Rebbe has never tired of his projects to bring a spark of Yiddishkeit to estranged Jews. With his trusted right-hand, Rav Chaim Binyamin Kirschenbaum (seated left), will the Rebbe have strength for his newest project? (Photos: David Mor and Mishpacha Archives)

T he Kaliver Rebbe has lived through nearly a century of miracles, but when he took a fall last February, he felt like he’d reached the end of his zechuyos. The venerated 94-year-old sage lay semiconscious and heavily sedated in the ICU, while his few chassidim and many more admirers stormed the heavens, hoping for a miracle. But according to his doctors, it seemed as if the holy man — whose life has been a triumph over Hitler — was about to succumb to the grim medical prognosis.

But as he has done so many times in the past, Rav Menachem Mendel Taub (not to be confused with his second cousin Rav Moshe Taub, the Kalover Rebbe from Williamsburg) somehow pulled through. “I was just getting weaker and weaker, beginning to fade away,” the Rebbe related in a moving conversation in his Jerusalem home last week as he was preparing for the Festival of Miracles. “My body was full of tubes, and the doctors forbade me from eating or drinking, which made me even weaker.” The Rebbe was eventually discharged and sent home, where the chassidim made him a mini hospital. “I lay in bed for weeks, totally helpless and not knowing if I’d make it to the next day,” the Rebbe says of that harrowing period just months ago.

It started with a fall as the Rebbe was preparing to head out to the Katamon neighborhood to be menachem avel the children of his close friend, the Erloyer Rebbe ztz”l. As he got up from his chair, he fell to the ground — which sparked a months-long, painful ordeal of tubes and treatments, during which he was bedridden and declining.

On Pesach, though, the Rebbe got a “wink” from the Ribbono shel Olam indicating that he might pull through after all. “I was devastated that for the first time in my life, I’d have to forgo the mitzvah of eating matzah on Seder night,” the Rebbe confides. “I tried to strengthen myself with the story of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz zy”a, who was very sick on Pesach and couldn’t eat the k’zayis of matzah. So when he reached Motzi Matzah, the Divrei Chaim made a brachah, ‘Asher kideshanu… v’chai bahem v’lo sheyamus bahem, you should live by them and not die by them.’ But in the end, Hashem granted me a great chesed. I was able to eat the k’zayis, one little bite after another.” Still, the Rebbe struggled — bedridden and waning — through the summer, and says he didn’t believe he’d make it to the Yamim Noraim. But on Rosh Hashanah, for the first time since his fall, he was taken down to the shul and even managed — sitting — to daven Mussaf from the amud.

“It was as if Hashem suddenly recharged my batteries,” the Rebbe says. “And by Simchas Torah, I knew Hashem was infusing me with a new energy. I danced in place with a sefer Torah and felt like the happiest man in the world.”

But, as with all the miracles the Rebbe has experienced throughout his life, this too came with a spiritual price tag that would catapult him, at age 94, into the next phase of his life — even in this current weakened state where he can’t function without assistance.

“It was clear to me that Hashem has given me more years to be mechazek Klal Yisrael,” says the Rebbe, who has spent the last seven decades paying Hashem back for those early salvations by tirelessly creating initiatives to strengthen the lost souls of the Jewish People. “Just like He saved me from the crematoria of Auschwitz, so too, He saved me now. So I knew I had to plan my next move.”

The Promise

Now, after his life was saved yet again, the Rebbe wants to express gratitude to the One Who granted him even more years by launching a new venture: an international Tehillim project that will involve the recitation of Tehillim by as many people as possible, together each day. “It’s an idea I thought about this Erev Yom Kippur, after I merited to survive Rosh Hashanah. During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, an American Jew named Reb Meir Chaim Greenbaum came to me. He suggested the idea that every Jew should say one pasuk every day from Sefer Tehillim, and this way, Am Yisrael will complete Tehillim in its entirety dozens, even hundreds of times a day.

The Kaliver headquarters and beis medrash in Jerusalem. In the end, it’s all about learning Torah

“You might think there’s no point, or that it’s a project that can’t be managed, but you have no idea how many rivers of tears I shed over my Tehillim. We Yidden have gone through centuries of tragedies together, and now we need to be strengthened together. That’s the whole purpose of my life, all the years. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for the sake of achdus, of unity.” How does the Rebbe envision this happening, in our divided, divisive, and factionalized generation? Can Sefer Tehillim really be a balm for all that and bring unity?

“I think so,” the Rebbe says. “The Gemara in Berachos says that when Dovid Hamelech slept, a violin hung over him and when a northern wind blew, the violin would play and Dovid Hamelech would wake up and sing to Hashem. I think that inside each Yid there is a northern wind that needs to be discovered, and when it starts to blow, problems will be resolved and unity will come. If each person says one pasuk in Tehillim every day as part of a universal project of Klal Yisrael, that will bring achdus. Klal Yisrael will become one big circle, and everyone will take his place in that circle.” It sounds like a huge undertaking, especially with the Rebbe’s limited strength, but nothing has ever stopped the Rebbe when it comes to initiatives to strengthen the Jewish People. The Rebbe has spent his life bringing distant Jews back to their heritage, traveling to army bases, hospitals, stadiums, and other places where Jews gather, to recite Shema Yisrael with them and strengthen their G-d-consciousness.

It’s the result of a promise he made in 1944, when he was put on a transport from Hungary to Auschwitz, where he wound up being experimented upon by Dr. Joseph Mengele yemach shemo, before being sent to the crematorium, “from where I was plucked by Hashem’s own Hand.”

It was in this Gehinnom on earth that the Rebbe put into practice what he’d always learned about knowing that Hashem is with every Yid at all times, “even in the cursed Auschwitz. Especially there. We fulfilled the words ‘and nevertheless we did not forget Your Name’ every minute.

“I reached Auschwitz three days before Shavuos,” the Rebbe continues. “I’ll admit that for two days, I had no idea what was happening to me. When Shavuos arrived, I saw a big cluster of Jews standing near the fence, pushing toward something, and when I asked someone, I was told that between the barbed wire, someone had tossed a page from Akdamus and everyone wanted to get it to be able to recite it. I couldn’t believe it — here were Jews in the worst Gehinnom in the world, where touching that fence meant instant death, and they were pushing to grab a page of Akdamus!”

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