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Souls Aflame

Aryeh Ehrlich

From the very first tish, the chassidim realized this would be something different. Toldos Avraham Yitzchak ignites neshamos, not only at the dramatic grand finale in Meron on Lag B’omer, but all year round

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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RENEWED AUTHENTICITY The rigorous avodah of Toldos Aharon blended with the warmth and joy of Vizhnitz, laced with the Rebbe’s own intense strivings, to create something timelessly new (Photos: Mattis Goldberg)

L ate in the day of Lag B’omer, as the sky over the mountaintops of Meron begins to darken and the energy and commotion of the previous 24 hours start to wane, they arrive.

A flood of chassidim. Rays of setting sun and the reflection of the fire bathe them — in their golden beketshes — in a sea of light.

It’s almost shkiah, as the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe, having arrived from Jerusalem by helicopter, ascends the platform in the clearing far to the west of the packed tziyun, to ignite the holy hadlakah in honor of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai. The Rebbe looks out at his chassidim, seated among the thousands who’ve already claimed their space on the bleachers for what’s become the highlight of the day’s festivities. He rests his eyes on each of them, a community of melamdim and sofrim, shopkeepers and butchers and bookbinders, interspersed with other chassidim, litvishe bochurim, visitors from abroad, and Israelis who — at least outwardly — appear far from any chassidus.

The Rebbe’s gaze reflects an all-encompassing love as he looks out over the massive crowd. But then, just before he extends the torch, he will look to another group, men whose faces are painted with intensity. Before the Rebbe connects with the Tanna Rabi Shimon, who opened the wellsprings of the hidden Torah so many centuries ago, he will concentrate on this group, a chaburah of lions who’ve pierced the veil and begun their ascent up the rungs of the ladder of pnimiyus haTorah.

They are the Rebbe’s chosen yungeleit, a select brigade within the army he created alone, fusing the inspiration of his forbears with his own intense spiritual path.

Questions and Answers

It was just over 20 years ago, on Chanukah of 1996. Following months of illness, the Toldos Aharon Rebbe, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kahan ztz”l, passed away — and his chassidim, so reliant on the Rebbe’s leadership and support, felt like a flock of searching sheep with no shepherd to guide them.

The Rebbe’s light, which had illuminated the path of a strict, demanding chassidus, was extinguished, and when the last hesped was concluded (as is proper for a talmid chacham, even on Chanukah), there was silence: The Toldos Aharon community was confronted by the harsh reality that they needed to find a new leader. When the Rebbe had been ill there was no clear consensus on the matter, so they pushed it out of their minds and davened for their rebbe’s health.

Did the Zeide somehow know that this special grandson would one day be a guiding light for hundreds of staunch chassidim, transcending the entrapping limitations of the physical world?

Eventually, the chassidus of Toldos Aharon split into two, each chassid following the call of his soul. The official mantle of leadership (the name and the mosdos) was passed to the Rebbe’s second son, Rav Dovid, who had been residing in Monsey and was summoned back to Meah Shearim — today’s Toldos Aharon Rebbe. But a distinguished group of chassidim, among them the gaon Rav Meir Bransdorfer and the mekubal Rav Daniel Frisch, asked the eldest son of the late Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Kahan, to be their new leader. Although he had carved out quite a different path, they wished to follow his guidance and emulate his unique conduct, which combined the traditions of Toldos Aharon with the customs and influences of other holy rebbes — especially the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, whose derech he reflected.

The older chassidim of the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe will always remember that first Shabbos of connection, of pride, and of confidence in a glorious future. There were many questions back then with this new rebbe and kehillah — temporarily housed in the Ksav Sofer (“Perushim”) shul. Years later, Rav Meir Bransdorfer — who would become rav of the new kehillah until his passing in 2009 — once quipped that during those first days, he was afraid to look out from under his tallis and turn around, lest he’d see only 20 chassidim behind him.

Back then, very little was clear: Which family belonged to which half? How many chassidim in each group? But as the dust settled, it became apparent that Toldos Avraham Yitzchak was for real — elderly chassidim and vibrant young avreichim found their way to the shul, taking their place around the Rebbe.

During those bewildering days, the shul just kept filling up, hundreds of chassidim swaying and singing, an army trained by the founding Shomer Emunim Rebbe, Reb Arele Roth (who passed away in 1946), and his son-in-law, the departed Divrei Emunah of Toldos Aharon. Now, they were ready to be led once again by a third rebbe in the chain.

On that first Erev Shabbos, the chassidim waited for the Rebbe to arrive at the old, rundown Perushim shul, with its cracked floor tiles and peeling ceiling. The davening, which started with feelings of uncertainty and doubt, ended on a triumphant note. The Rebbe began Hodu l’Hashem ki tov in the Vizhnitzer nusach he so loved — and by the end of davening, the faces of the crowd that lined up to say gut Shabbos and then filed out into the Meah Shearim night were glowing, as if they all realized they’d just made chassidic history.

Later that night, they returned for the first tish. Hundreds of chassidim, locals and curious onlookers, filled the hall to see a Rebbe known for being immersed in the holiness of Shabbos.

Oneg Shabbos

The chassidim were drawn into this new world — Vizhnitz melodies woven together with the tunes of Shomrei Emunim — appreciating that a new chassidus was taking shape. The rigorous avodah of Toldos Aharon would blend with the warmth and joy of Vizhnitz, and was carved from the hanhagos of the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz (the new Rebbe’s mentor from the time he was a bochur) and the Imrei Chaim’s son-in-law, the tzaddik Rav Yehuda Horowitz of Djikov.

At the end of the tish, the Rebbe and the chassidim danced together while singing Nishmas Kol Chai, as was the custom of the Shomer Emunim — the holy Reb Arele. The chassidim assumed that the Rebbe would then turn to the crowd, wish them all a gut Shabbos, and go home. But that’s not what happened.

The Rebbe stood still, eyes closed, his face aglow, a blanket of silence and anticipation hanging over the crowd, when suddenly…

“Az bayom hashvi’i nachta” — the sound burst forth, a Vizhnitz niggun. The Rebbe seemed to be shivering with emotion, perhaps exhaustion. In the coming months, it would be his hallmark — the intense concentration and passion, and a constant defiance of his physical limitations.

He started a botte, a more informal tish of song and niggun, continuing until the wee hours of the night — and then the dancing began. The Rebbe led the dancing, stopping only to sip water; the fire of Shabbos was tangible on that Shabbos in the old Perushim shul.

The Rebbe often quotes his father, the previous Toldos Aharon Rebbe, who used to say that the custom of a get-together on Friday night to sing the praises of Hashem is a tradition bequeathed by the Baal Shem Tov. And how can a person call himself a chassid if he doesn’t leave his home on Friday night and devote his whole being to clinging to Hashem through the holy Shabbos melodies?

Later, at the first Shalosh Seudos after the Rebbe said Torah, Rav Meir Bransdorfer stood up in the dim room and began to speak. He discussed the deeper significance of leadership being transmitted from one generation to another, and then announced, “Together with the Divine Providence, we, the disciples of our Rebbe, hereby appoint his eldest son, Rav Shmuel Yaakov, son of Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen, to be his successor and lead us in his footsteps. Mazel tov! Mazel tov!” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 659)

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