|After the petirah (death) of the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Yisroel zt'l, his chassidim took it for granted that the Rebbe's two sons, Reb Nuchem Mordechai and Reb Dov Ber, would assume their father's position. Great was their shock when they heard that the two brothers would not hear of the idea, and were both steadfast in their refusal to become Rebbes.|
When the chassidim approached them, they each answered with the same excuse, "I am not worthy of sitting in my holy father's place." In a letter sent to Eretz Yisroel by Reb Shmuel Halpern (who was the Rov of Amsterdam and a close chossid of the Chortkover Rebbe) he wrote, "After the terrible calamity which has befallen us and the whole of Klall Yisroel, it has become known to the chassidim in Vienna that the sons of the Rebbe zt'l have made known that they do not intend to accept the yoke of the rabbonus, (rabbanite) and therefore I was asked to come to Vienna.
"I told the chassidim that the terrible calamity has left me in a very weak state and I am confined to my bed. But when they told me that until now none of the chassidim who had arrived from Galicia had managed to convince them to change their minds, and perhaps I would succeed, I was forced to leave my bed and journey to Vienna.
"I arrived there on Thursday, and on Motzoai Shabbos I spoke to them for about four hours, and after all my pleading and begging, I wasn't able to achieve anything. Only on Monday, after much additional pleading and with the help of the holy Reb Ber shlita, did we finally succeed that at least his older brother will start to accept kvittlech. Reb Ber, however, refuses to be Rebbe under any circumstances, but he did agree to help his brother read the post and to answer and advise the chassidim with their problems. He also said that he would like to lead the chassidim as a friend, not as a Rebbe.
"On Shabbos Chanukah, the two brothers sat together at the head of the table. The older brother said that he had no intention of saying Torah, and Reb Ber said that if he would receive from the Heavens what to say, he would not hold himself back. Reb Ber is very strong in his opinion, and he told us that he doesn't agree to this minhag (custom) that when a tzaddik dies all his sons automatically become rebbes, for it causes machlokes (argument) amongst the chassidim and splits the family in two. And indeed, the love between the holy brothers is so great that nothing in the world would entice them to move apart.
|| "Believe me, that during the two weeks that I was there,
I spoke and dealt with them a lot, and I was amazed by their kedusha
and their humility. I haven't seen their equal anywhere else,
especially when it comes to matters concerning emes. Every
move of theirs is emes. I can almost testify about them
that even when they blink their eyelids, it is only le-shem
When I argued with them concerning their parnossoh, (livelihood) they answered that they had learnt from their father zt'l the mido (character trait) of bitachon, (trust) and they were not worried for their future, and they looked at me in amazement, wondering at my anxiety. I can't write any further, and I hope I have written enough to explain the situation. Hashem should help us through the hands of the holy tzaddikim, in honor of His Name."
The matter ended when their mother decreed betoras kibbud aim (honor of mother) that they must accept the position. Against their will the two brothers became Rebbes, leading their chassidim together. The chassidim were awestruck by the love and achdus (unity) between the two brothers. It was a living mussar sefer (ethics text) to watch how each one honored the other, neither of them doing anything without the prior consent of the other one. Even when a chossid went in with a kvittel, (petition) both brothers sat together and each one would read the kvittel and then give his own beracha.
Many years before the petirah of the Chortkover Rebbe, Reb Ber had already been his right-hand man, busy representing his father at various communal affairs. He was especially active in Agudas Yisroel as one of the main decision makers on its Vaad Ha-poel (action committee). His father held very highly of him and on one occasion exclaimed, "My son is fitting to be a Rebbe of Rebbes!"
In his great ahavas Yisroel, Reb Ber sacrificed most of his time and energy for others. When a large orphanage opened in Vienna, Reb Ber accepted to be its menahel (director). Not only did he see to its financial situation, he also took time to speak to the children, lifting up their spirits.
Reb Ber's real mesiras nefesh (self sacrifice) came to light through the mitzva of bikur cholim (visiting the sick). He took upon himself to visit those lying in hospital, and to see to their needs. Vienna had some of the best doctors and hospitals in Europe, and as a result Yidden came from all over Europe to receive treatment. Many of them didn't have any family in Vienna to look after them and Reb Ber was their only lifeline. He made a special point of visiting people ill with contagious diseases, completely ignoring the risk to himself.
Reb Ber also opened a free loan fund to help the many who were not able to make ends meet. A lot of them were not able to repay their loans but Reb Ber didn't have the heart to demand that they repay the money. Instead he accepted the loss on himself. As one can imagine, it wasn't too long before the gemach (free loan fund) closed down.
Reb Ber was once traveling on a bus when he noticed an old Yid on the street shlepping a heavy load. In order that the man shouldn't realize that Reb Ber had got off especially to help him, Reb Ber stayed on the bus until it turned the corner, and then he hurried back to help the man by taking his heavy load for him.
Besides being famed for his great ahavas Yisroel, Reb Ber was also known as a great talmid chochom (scholar). Renowned as a genius of the first order, he was thoroughly familiar with every section of the Torah. One of the great talmidei chachomim of the previous generation, HaGaon Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Pirkarski zt'l of New York, was privileged to spend a whole night together with Reb Ber when he was a young man. For hours they spoke together in learning, unravelling the secrets of the Torah. Until the end of his days Rav Pikarski would reminisce about those hours they had spent together, and the geonus (genius) that Reb Ber had demonstrated during the course of the night. He would say that although he had been a talmid of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and had been zoche to learn from many of the great geonim in Poland, such geonus as he saw in Reb Ber he had never seen anywhere else!
Concerning the same visit Rav Pikarski also told of the ruach ha-kodesh (holy spirit) that he witnessed. Before he left Vienna, he went to bid farewell to Reb Ber. When he entered into Reb Ber's room he saw that Reb Nuchem Mordechai was also sitting there, next to his brother. In his humility, Reb Ber moved down a place, seating Rav Pikarski between them. Rav Pikarski told them that he had come to say goodbye and was leaving soon on a certain flight. Hearing that he was going to travel by plane, Reb Ber told him that he must postpone his trip until the following day. Rav Pikarski explained to Reb Ber that he couldn't delay his journey and he had to catch that particular flight. Hearing his reply Reb Ber turned to his brother and asked him to forbid Rav Pikarski from taking that plane. After Reb Nuchem Mordechai had echoed his brother's words Rav Pikarski reluctantly agreed to wait until the following day.
That particular flight ended in tragedy. The plane crashed and all those on board were killed. When Rav Pikarski heard of the plane crash, he rushed to Reb Ber to thank him for saving his life. When he saw him coming Reb Ber told him, "I don't know why you have come to me, it was my brother who forbade you to fly...."
Although the chassidim were very impressed by the achdus (unity) between the two brothers, they felt that in the long run it would be detrimental for the chassidus. Both of them shied away from making any of the decisions which were necessary for the running of a large chassidus. Each one relied on the other to make the decisions, thinking in their humility that really only the other one was suited to be Rebbe.
The chassidim tried to convince Reb Ber to move to Sthefanesht in Romania to be Rebbe to the thousands of Sthefaneshter chassidim who were left without a Rebbe after the petirah of the Sthefaneshter Rebbe. In the end, the sudden petirah of Reb Ber brought the idea to a sad close.
Reb Ber fell ill with a fatal disease. When the illness was first diagnosed, the doctor didn't want to tell him that he had only a short time to live. When Reb Ber left the room for a moment, the doctor took the opportunity to tell Reb Ber's son, Reb Dovid Moshe, that his father was gravely ill and his days were numbered. Reb Dovid Moshe didn't tell his father what the doctor had said, but his face must have betrayed him, for as they went home, Reb Ber told his son, "If a person can't be told something without being able to conceal what he has heard from others, it is better that he shouldn't have heard it in the first place."
When the doctor told Reb Ber that he wouldn't be able to fast on Yom Kippur, he became very upset and told his son, "If I can't fast on Yom Kippur, I don't want to have any association with this year's yomim no-raim." And so it was, on the twenty fourth day of Ellul 5696 (1936), the first day of slichos, he was niftar. He was only fifty four years old.
In his last few hours he spoke to his only son, giving him hadracha (guidance) for the way ahead. Amongst the many things he told him, he said, "If there ever comes a time that you feel that Agudas Yisroel is not living up to their standards, you mustn't oppose them or fight against them. Instead just withdraw your membership and sit quietly on the side, but you must not harm them in any way, under any circumstances!" After Reb Ber finished speaking, his holy neshomo went to join the neshamos of his zeides in the Next World.
In an article published about Reb Ber after his petirah, Reb Binyomin Zev Jacobson writes, "We cried for him in the same way that Klall Yisroel cried for Moshe Rabbenu. When he saw in our midst even the slightest blemish, he straight away stood out in battle, giving rebuke with his words of gold, words which came from the depth of his pure and holy heart and entered deep into all our hearts.
We cried for him in the same way that Klall Yisroel cried for Aharon HaCohen, for he was full of love for everybody, young and old alike. Even when he was ill, stricken with painful wounds, he still worried for taharas ha-mishpacha (family purity) and the sanctity of the Jewish home.
We cried for him in the same way as Klall Yisroel cried for Reb Yehuda Ha-Nasi. For just like Reb Yehuda Ha-Nasi cared for limud HaTorah (Torah learning), so he also cared for limud HaTorah. Constantly he urged us to do more, to improve the chadorim, to build more Talmud Torahs and yeshivos.
Now that he has gone from us, we must remember his last words to us all. We hear him say, 'All my days I occupied myself with increasing light in the world. I constantly stressed that the youth are our future and the yeshivos are our life-line.' We hear him say, 'Don't forget what I always said, if there is no flour, there is no Torah. We must ensure that after the bochurim (youths) leave yeshiva they will have a job with which to support themselves.' We hear him say, 'Your camp shall be holy, to sanctify the Jewish home. Only through tahara (purity) can the Shechina dwell amongst us.'
Le-shem Shamayim! That was his life. From it stemmed his dikduk (punctility) in his ways, his love for others and his stringency on himself. We all loved this pure person, we loved him with deep, deep respect."
As long as Reb Ber was alive, his brother didn't fully reveal himself. He had hoped that Reb Ber would see to the running of the chassidus, thus leaving him free to serve Hashem in total privacy. Although Reb Nuchem Mordechai was almost sixty years old when he became rebbe, almost nothing was known about him. From his younger years he had succeeded in totally concealing his actions from the public eye. His zeide (grandfather), Reb Dovid Moshe zt'l, would refer to him as 'My holy einikel'. (grandson)
The last time the Lubliner Rov, Reb Meir Shapiro zt'l, was in Vienna before his petirah, the Chortkover Rebbe told him that before he returned to Lublin he shouldn't forget to take leave of his sons. Reb Meir Shapiro wondered greatly at the Rebbe's words, for he visited the Rebbe's sons every time he was in Vienna.
|When he came to Reb Nuchem Mordechai's house, Reb Nuchem Mordechai engaged him in a deep talmudical discussion. For hours, the two of them unravelled the depths of Torah from one end of the gemora to the other. When Reb Meir Shapiro arrived back in Lublin, he called together his talmidim and told them, "Reb Nuchem Mordechai is famous as a holy person, a tzaddik who has perfected himself. I have known him for many years and yet it never occurred to me that he was so great in Torah.|
In keeping with his unassuming derech (path), Reb Nuchem Mordechai never regarded himself as being able to tell others what to do. When one of his chassidim requested that he should write a letter commanding somebody to carry out a certain job, the Rebbe answered him, "I can't command, I can only ask."
The Rebbe's son-in-law, Reb Yaakov Heschel, once asked his mother-in-law why the Rebbe occasionally took a key out of his pocket and placed it on the table in the middle of a meal. She explained to him that in his humility the Rebbe never interrupted a conversation even if he didn't like the topic being spoken about. Instead he placed the key on the table as a sign to change the subject.
The Rebbe was elected to sit on the Moetzes Gedolai HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel. In his address to the third Knessia Gedola in Marienbad in 1937, the Rebbe told the assembled, "It wasn't easy for me to agree to join the Moetzes Gedolai HaTorah. 'Be-mokom gedolim al ta-mod', (in the place of great men we don't dare to stand) and especially in the place of my holy father zt'l who was known for his total dedication and loyalty to the Agudah." He stressed that their main job was to see to the education of the youth, and to create workshops for those who were not suited to pursue further studies in yeshiva. People were embarrassed to admit that they were working, and not learning. Such an approach was not correct and if workshops were set up under frum (strictly religious) supervision, they would greatly improve the lot of the Yidden.
With the entry of the Nazis to Vienna, the Rebbe suffered the pains and agonies of his fellow Jews. After tremendous efforts a visa was finally procured for him in the summer of 1939. Before he left Europe for Eretz Yisroel, he journeyed one last time to Chortkov to take leave of his chassidim. Thousands converged on Chortkov to bid farewell to their beloved Rebbe. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he stood in front of the aron ha-kodesh (Torah ark) as he said goodbye to his chassidim for the last time.
The Rebbe arrived in Tel Aviv a broken and sick man. The suffering of his fellow Jews lay heavily on his heart. In 1941 the situation in Eretz Yisroel was critical. The Germans had already conquered most of Europe, Egypt was under German control and they were threatening to invade Eretz Yisroel any day. When the situation deteriorated even further the Chortkover chassidim in Eretz Yisroel came to plead with the Rebbe to daven for them. They explained the situation, adding that short of a miracle nothing could save them.
In his memoirs, Reb Dovid Moshe Spiegel describesthe event, "I remember that serious and emotional meeting. The Rebbe sat, his holy heart overflowing with mercy, his eyes aglow, listening to the words of his chassidim as they entreated him to save them. He sat deep in thought and then he said, 'It is well known that in order to perform a miracle which does not infringe on the boundaries of nature, it is enough if one has just a few zechusim. It seems, however, that the strength of the enemy is very great. He has destroyed many strong and powerful nations with the greatest of ease. Normal warfare against him is useless. Therefore we need a supernatural miracle to annul the evil decrees against us, to silence the enemy. To perform such a miracle is however very difficult, and so we have to find a method of defeating the enemy through natural means. We must daven that they should make a mistake, for anybody is capable of miscalculating and making a mistake. Let us daven that the enemy make a fatal mistake which will cost them the war and bring about their defeat'.
"And so it was, the Germans made a fatal mistake by attacking Russia. Winston Churchill wrote in his book 'The Second World War': 'The German invasion of Russia changed the course of the war and its outcome. The Russians were far stronger than the Germans had thought and this caused their downfall'."
In his last years, the Rebbe became weaker and weaker. On his seventieth birthday on the seventeenth of Shevat 1944 he told those around him in tear choked voice: "Ha-rei ani ke-ben shivim shonoh velo zochisi. I am already seventy years old and I haven't yet been zocheh to do teshuva. Please daven for me that I should mend my ways and serve Hashem from now on with a whole heart...."
When the terrible news arrived in Eretz Yisroel of the true extent of the Holocaust, the Rebbe's soft heart broke totally. He took to his bed and his tears did not cease for a minute. Even though the Rebbe suffered from a variety of painful ailments, he never complained about them. When one of his chassidim saw the Rebbe's calm face and remarked, "It seems that the Rebbe is boruch Hashem feeling better," the Rebbe answered him, "Boruch Hashem I am feeling a little bit worse."
On the eighteenth of Adar 1946, the Rebbe's holy neshamo ascended upwards. He was only seventy two years old. Before his petirah he gave voice to his great pain over the Holocaust, crying bitter tears over the loss of his fellow Yidden. The Gemora in Kesubos relates that before Reb Yehuda Hanasi was niftar he also cried bitter tears. His talmid, Reb Chiya, asked his rebbe in surprise, "Rebbe, why are you crying, have we not learnt that if someone dies with a smile, it is a good sign for him?" Reb Yehuda Hanasi answered him, "I am not crying for myself, but for the Torah and mitzvos."
|Similarly, the Rebbe also shed tears before his petirah not about himself, but about his fellow Yidden and the kovod (honor) of the Shechina (divine presence). He died from a broken heart, unable to withstand the terrible decrees that had afflicted his people. The Rebbe's holy body was laid to rest on Har Hazeisim (Mt. of Olives), in an honorable place overlooking the Har Habayis (the Temple Mount). After the levayo (funeral), the chassidim crowned the Rebbe's only son Reb Shlomo as the Chortkover Rebbe. He led his chassidim with grace until his petirah on the fifteenth of Cheshvan 5719 (1959).||
Zechusom yogeinu oleinu.