“Dear Rabbi Wagner: What Can I Do For You?”

When Rabbi Gershon Avtzon heard that his rosh yeshiva and personal mashpia Rabbi Akiva Wagner was diagnosed with the dreaded illness, he sent him a question. His answer continues to inspire.

By Rabbi Gershon Avtzon

“Dear Rabbi: I am not allowing myself to get depressed, as you would not be happy. What can I do for you?”

These are the exact words that I wrote in an email to my beloved Rosh Yeshiva and personal mashpia, Rabbi Akiva Wagner a”h, on 16 Teves 5780 – soon after I heard about his being diagnosed with the dreaded illness.

Before I share his answer, which is something that we all – and especially his talmidim – need to take to heart, I would like to share some personal thoughts and reflections on Rabbi Akiva Wagner that I merited to learn from and be connected to. 

I am sharing these stories and reflections, as per the email that I received from him during the Shiva of Rabbi Zalman Baras a”h: “In keeping with the directive והחי יתן אל לבו, I am using this opportunity to share the following recollection about the late chosid and mashpia Rabbi Zalman Baras a”h.”

The public image of Rabbi Wagner is that he was an extravert that was blessed with a “geonishe kup“. The Rabbi Wagner that I came to know was a natural introvert that pushed himself – beyond himself – because he was a gaon in Ahavas Yisroel. Yes, all those hours of Farbrengen, and time reaching out to individual Bochurim, was an avodah for him that he pushed himself to do out of true caring and Ahavas Yisroel.

I vividly remember that excitement that he had when he called me over one day to share a new derher that had in the Maamer Basi Legani 5711. In that ma’amer the Rebbe brings examples of our holy Rebbeim doing things that are seemingly not rational or logical – “shtus dikdusha”. He looked at me and said: “Gershon: Did you ever realize that all the stories are stories of shtus dikdusha in Ahavas Yisroel”?

While Rabbi Wagner was known for his chessed and warmth, he was uncompromising and stubborn in his chinuch decisions. He was the pioneer for mandatory learning throughout the summer for all bochurim (Mesivta and Zal), and he sacrificed much (he shlepped his family to Postville, CGI Montreal, Budapest Hungary – amongst other places –  and then spent thousands to buy grounds in Starlake NY) to make sure the talmidim learned in the summer.

In addition, he stubbornly started each shnas halimudim on Rosh Chodesh Elul – even if talmidim had to leave overnight camp early – so that they have a real “Elul Zman” in Yeshiva. Many of these radical chinuch decisions have become mainstream today and it is all his zechus.

Above all, he innately understood something about the responsibility of mechanchim today – especially after Gimmel Tammuz. While in years back, we naturally felt capable and conceited (and the yetzer hara pushed the feeling of yeshus) the tafkid of the mashpia was to ingrain bittul into his Talmidim. Today things have changed: The yetzer hara of today tries very hard – and is very successful – at convincing us that we are worthless and we will never account for anything in life. The mashpia today needs to empower the self-esteem and aspirations of his talmidim. The talmid must see in his mashpia that complete faith and belief that he has the ability to grow and be successful (in a bittul way).

In this regard, Rabbi Akiva Wagner – and his farbrengens – were unmatched. His emuna in the Rebbe, and in the Rebbe’s children, was always felt and permeated everything he said. He exemplified the saying of the Baal Shem Tov – the Hayom Yom of the day of his untimely petirah (17 Iyar) – “The Baal Shem Tov concluded: “I want to bring Jews to the point that they will yield the kind of harvest that G‑d’s ‘cherished land’ can yield.” 

There is so much to reflect, to internalize and to share. The time will come for that, but now let’s focus on Rabbi Wagner’s response to my original question:  “Simcha, and Torah umitzvos. Someone sent me a picture of Tehillim in Cincinnati, thank you so much! We should only share with one another besuros tovos umesamchos, mitoch simcha vetov levov!”

This response encapsulates his entire essence: He lived to inspire his talmidim to serve Hashem – and the shlichus of the Rebbe – with joy in all of life’s circumstances. It is easy to be joyful when things are good in an apparent way, but it takes true avodah to be joyful through the pain. We, the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva, must realize that we need to continue doing our Shlichus with joy. That will bring him joy.

But there is one more very important thing: While at this point, we will continue to show our love and appreciation to Rabbi Wagner through “Simcha and Torah umitzvos” – his immediate family needs our financial support and help.

Our hakaras hatov needs to be expressed in this physical way by clicking: https://raisethon.com/rabbiakiva

May we all be Zoiche to be reunited with Rabbi Akiva Wagner a”h with the hisgalus of the Rebbe, now!

An eternal Talmid – who is in mourning

Rabbi Gershon Avtzon

Cincinnati Ohio

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