My Last Conversation with Rabbi Akiva Wagner

This Shabbos marks the first Yahrtzeit of my beloved Rosh Yeshiva and Mashpia, Rabbi Akiva Wagner, Rosh Yeshiva in Toronto. I would like to share with you the last personal conversation that I had with him.

By Rabbi Gershon Avtzon

This shabbas, 17 Iyar 5784, marks the (first) Yahrtzeit of my beloved Rosh Yeshiva and Mashpia: Rabbi Michoel Akiva Gershon A”H Wagner – Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Lubavitch Toronto. On that day, a text went out that encapsulated the feelings of all his students and admirers: “During Sefiras Ha’Omer, Rabbi Akiva mourned the passing of 24,000 of his students. Today, 17 Iyar 5783, 24,000 students mourn the passing of Rabbi Akiva (Wagner).” 

Much has been written about his legendary learning, Avodas Hashem and care for each individual student. Indeed “You are Akiva.. whose name has spread from one end of the world to the other.. May the likes of you multiply in Israel.” (Yevamos 16,A).

I would like to share with all of you the last personal conversation that I had with Rabbi Akiva.

It was on the first days of Sukkos and I felt that I had to see him – even for just a few moments. I went to the house where he was staying and he was sitting in the Sukkah – obviously very weak – and eating something. I came into the Sukkah and just then he felt sick and said that he would have to go lay down on his bed. I assumed that he wanted me to leave, so I started going to the front-door , but he motioned that I should come into his bedroom. 

After resting a few moments, he regained some of his strength and told me that he wanted to share a story with me. The following is what he told me, and this was my final conversation: 

“As you know, I was rushed to the hospital on Erev Yom Kippur for certain medical procedures. When I came home, my family was worried that I would be “extra frum” and insist of fasting Yom Kippur, so they warned me about the importance of my health and show me the amounts of the permissible “shiurim” (measurable amounts) to eat/drink on Yom Kippur.

As I was laying in bed the night of Yom Kippur, I suddenly remembered a story that I personally heard from Rabbi Sholom Ber Vishedsky A”H – who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights. Rabbi Vishedsky was the son-in-law of Rabbi Abba Pliskin, a devoted Chassid who was the best friend of the legendary Chassid, Reb Mendel Futerfas. 

In his later years, Reb Abba developed Altzheimers and was living in a special medical center. Even in his current state, Reb Mendel would always visit his friend and spend hours talking to him. One year, continued Rabbi Vishedsky, I had just finished davening Maariv on Motzei Yom Kippur and I received a tap on my shoulder. It was Reb Mendel and he told me that we should go right away to visit my father-in-law Rabbi Pliskin. I tried explaining to him that I was very hungry, and my father-in-law would not recognize us regardless, so we should first eat and then go to visit. Reb Mendel was stubborn and insisted that we go right away, so we went.

When we came to the medical facility, we noticed right away that his bedroom was empty. We became very scared, as that is usually a sign that the patient has passed away. We ran to the nurses station and there we saw Rabbi Pliskin sitting on a chair. The nurse told us what had happened. As she was changing the intravenous that morning, she mentioned to Rabbi PLiskin that it is Yom Kippur today. When Rabbi Pliskin heard that, he shouted – despite his medical condition – that on Yom Kippur I do not eat and pulled out all the medical feeding tubes! Yom Kippur, and Yiras Shamayim, was so ingrained in subconscious that he instinctively would not allow himself to eat on Yom Kippur.

When I remembered this story, continued Rabbi Wagner, I felt that I need to reach this place of purity and truth. I decided that come what may, I will not allow myself to eat on Yom Kippur.” He then looked at me, smiled and said: You see that Baruch Hashem, my desire was accepted by Hashem and – despite all the warnings and concerns – I was able to fast on Yom Kippur!”

This story exemplifies his true inner fire and feeling of connection to Hashem. It is truly appropriate that his passing was so close to that of Rashbi – Lab B’Omer – who Just before his passing Rashbi was heard to say, “in one knot I am tied to Him, I am united with Him, I am aflame with Him, I cleave to Him”!

Please feel free to share your thoughts on the above with me by sending me a personal email: [email protected]

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  1. I am requesting a makor in the poskim for these stories with Reb Aba Pliskin and Reb Akiva Wagner – where despite the doctors orders they fasted on Yom Kippur “expressing their deep connection to Hashem”.

    I don’t want to this to be taken the wrong way, and I have a very deep respect for my dear Rosh Yeshiva, but this story can have very dangerous ramifications with people not taking pikuach nefesh seriously!

    1. This is one great example of where the ‘students of Rabbi Akiva’ of all times can have a disagreement. One says, ‘This is so inspiring – the mesiras nefesh to not be mchalel fasting on Yom kippur’. Another says ‘Being makpid on my health is my way of achieving ultimate connection with Hashem, because my mesiras nefesh is that I WON’T fast, even though I really wish to’.
      And another says ‘like this or like that, my inspiration is to seek a way to be more connected to Hashem’…
      There’s no right and wrongs, only when we fight and insist our way is it and the only way…
      Rabbi Akiva of then and today has diverse students and that is the beauty of it.

    2. See gmara eruvin 21 b story of rebbi akiva and tosafos there.
      Here is a quote from the sefer לחם שמים
      ובזה יישבתי מה ששמעתי מתמיהים על שנמצא בתשו’ רקנטי משם ריב”א ז”ל שהחמיר על עצמו בבעיא דספק נפשות לענין איסור אכילה ביוה”כ דבכרת. דאע”ג דקיי”ל ספק נפשות להקל. היינו מדינא. מכל מקום אינה משנת חסידים וק”ו מנט”י שהיא של סופרים. אף כי יום הכפורים איסור כרת. ואבאר דבר זה אי”ה עוד במקומו:

  2. I heard from Rabbi Nissim Mangel the following story many times.
    After not receiving food for 2 days, the Germans yimach shemum, gave everyone a piece of Salami.
    He did not want to eat something not kosher , but his father told is Pikachu nefesh and he must eat it.
    He ate it, but immediately threw up.
    However, while the Rov told everyone to eat it, he himself stated I can’t, I won’t be able to chew it.
    Yes he sadly was niftar a few days later.

    The Frierdiker Rebbe says in Sefer Hasichos that the final fast of behab was on erev lag bomer. The Rabbonim paskened they should end the fast somewhat early.
    While Reb Hillel Paritcher also paskened that, he himself didn’t eat.
    They asked him why, and he replied, I am afraid I won’t be able to chew it and it will be stuck in my throat

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