The Hammock: Part 2

From the Inbox: Rabbi Shmully Hecht reconstructs a Chof Daled Teves farbrengen, and on the way, recalls some memories of great chassidim he got to know. Part 2.

By Rabbi Shmully Hecht

We davened mincha and chit chatted at the fireplace about the week’s events, the shiduch scene or lack thereof, snippets of hyper-local Crown Heights sociopolitical affairs, and the line up of lchaim beverages awaiting us.

I thanked everyone for visiting for the auspicious Shabos as Toby and I familiarized ourselves with the group. Mendel Goldman, Mendel Spalter, Mendel Plotkin, Levi Shemtov, Levi Shmotkin, Levi Feldman, and Levik Gourary. Oklahoma City, Weston, Barkham, Detroit, Stamford, Halifax, again Detroit. The contours of a Lubavitch Atlas. A handsome lot. Median IQ bordering 150. Highly gifted Chosids. A curious and witty assemblage of Chabad’s finest, a few caricatures of their respective dads, some of whom I know. My wife Toby says they were a lively and humorous group. “Wicked smart.” A reality show producer of the lives of bochurim would have found them as an ideal cast. Diverse in talent and interests, an eclectic assemblage to be envied by any host. In trying to remember their names it became apparent that we would be communicating on a last name basis for the weekend. I don’t envy cheder melamdim required to deal with the dilemma. Bli Ayin hara.

There’s actually a rumor that in Williamsburg they’ve totally eliminated first names on their drivers licenses and legal docs. Epshtein, Goldshtein, Rosenshtein, Blumenstein, Bronshtein. Rosenberg, Goldberg, Shteinberg, Feldberg, Goldenberg. All initial Y. Don’t shout Yoili in a pizza shop on Lee Avenue.

I digress and depart from the farbrengen for a few words.

Shazar had spent his final Shabos with his grandfather in the city of Mir. He then left to Eretz Yisroel where he was informed through the post six months later, that his grandfather had died. It was 1911. Grandpa was dismayed that the elders of  Mir hired a musarnik of the Slabodka persuasion to head the local world-renowned yeshiva. The Chabad contingency of the town was shrinking. The young people were leaving, never to return. A Russian, old-world case study of suburban flight. The young leave, the old die, the town of Mir was withering away. He describes his grandfather in detail, down to the minutia of his dress, posture and beard; at one point distinguishing between the silk and wool Kapota. The memoir reads like a spiritual romance, rivaling any of the fictional stories and literature of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Graade and Mendele Mocher Seforim. He should have won a Pulitzer for it. I once sent the book to Chabad Philanthropist George Rohr, personally and single handedly nominating Shazar posthumously for the Sammy Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. I’m not on the committee, and the jury is out. 

I summarize. ‘Grandpa was a fervent chosid who was forgiving of his granddaughters yet more antagonistic towards me for my Zionist aspirations and odd companions. Recollections of grandpa’s learning and singing sustained me all my life. He would visit us before Shavuos and Rosh Hashana on his way to the Rebbe, and we visited him for Pesach, Sukkot, the bubby’s yahrzeit and Yud Tes Kislev.’ He recalls the depression that beset his grandfather after the Rebbe Maharash passed to a higher world and how he yearned to go to Chevron. Grandpa, was in his words the “last of a generation.” He describes a deep nostalgia of his ‘grandfather’s nephew who sang bnei heichalah with infinite enthusiasm, Reb Baruch the baal tefilah, the blind shtat dayan, Yoshe the winemaker and Velvel the shamash who broke my heart during his Monday and Thursday davenings. Yoshe once climbed into grandpa’s sukkah through the window and, to my query as to why he didn’t use the door, he replied, “What am I, a misnagid?”

Shazar and his grandfather spent their final Shabos together, delving deeply into halachic logomachy as dictated in Jewish Law when Jews part from each other. It was an intergenerational Chabad conversation at the crossroads. Shazar was in essence about to embark on the road less traveled. It was more so, a life journey shunned by his elders. Yet they davened together intensely on that final Shabos in the single remaining make-shift Chabad Shtiebel that survived the frequent fires of Mir. Shazar laments that ‘the Shabos davening stayed with me all the days of my life.’

And their dialogue climaxed about the nigun. Nit stam a nigun. No ordinary nigun. The nigun of the Daled bavos, is chanted exclusively on auspicious days and under the chupa. Grandpa walked him to the end of the town escorting him to another world, the new world, a world every Jew yearns for and davened for throughout our two-thousand-year exile. As he boards the wagon, Grandpa tells him that the nigun of the Alter Rebbe is in the minds and heart of every Chabad Chosid, his children and grandchildren until the end of time. “Don’t lose the nigun”

A rather melodious exhortation, as their worlds diverged. No stories, no pshetlach, no musar. ‘You’re heading to the Promised Land my dear grandson Schneur Zalman, “Remember the nigun.”

The year Prior to Gimel Tamuz I studied in Montreal under the direction of Reb Leibel Kaplan, and Mashpiim Reb Itcha Meir Gourary and Reb Asher Farkash. We received a weekly Gemarah Shiur from the Chief Rabbi and Av beis din of Montreal, Rav Pinchas Hirschsprung alov hasholom. A Holocaust survivor who miraculously escaped a concentration camp and world renowned gadol hatorah, he was chosen at a young age to be the bochein, the tester, and admissions officer of the renowned Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of blessed memory. The prerequisite to joining the Yeshiva was fluency in four hundred Blat Gemara; by heart. It was public knowledge that Rabbi Hirschsprung knew all of Shas, not to mention endless commentary. He had published a sefer for his own bar mitzvah.  He was a breathing relic of the pre–Holocaust Yeshiva world, a rare survivor of another universe. Legendary for being able to insert a pin through any tractate of Talmud knowing every word it had penetrated, he was a chad bedara, one of a generation. Perhaps one in many generations.  His memory of Shas and poskim was absolutely comprehensive as he was gifted with a photographic memory. It was not a rumor. I distinctly remember asking him about the prohibition of sleeping while wearing tefillin and the multiple conflicting explanations elucidated in various tractates of Talmud. Rabbi Hirschsprung inhaled and panted heavily, trying desperately to catch his breath while keeping up with his racing mind, as he often did before answering a question.

I imagined the words of the Talmud displayed in his mind like the blinking lights of malfunctioning Apollo 13 did when oxygen tank 2 ruptured in the service module, putting the fate of the crew in peril. It was 21:08 hours. The alarms buzzed, the dashboard flashed, the cabin shook. “Ok Houston we’ve had a problem,” said astronaut Jack Swigert. A problem indeed. An explosion occurred and they were running out of oxygen.  The command team in Mission Control summoned in the MIT group of engineers that designed the system to rapidly develop solutions as they scrambled through hundreds of thousands of pages of small print that rendered the vehicle fit for space travel and a lunar landing. Apollo 13 was 200,000 miles from earth. The architects of the most complex flying machine ever created ingeniously salvaged the remaining oxygen in the cabin by meticulously using every last item at the astronaut’s limited disposal, in a cabin no larger than a small truck . Strips of duct tape, cardboard and hoses were quickly assembled to prevent the rapidly rising CO2 levels that would otherwise have asphyxiated the cabin crew. NASA then used the pintle injector of the lander engine to slingshot the vehicle  around the moon on its new trajectory back to earth. Days later Apollo 13 miraculously landed safely near Samoa, a Polynesian island on the Pacific Ocean.

Why are we forbidden to sleep in tefillin… Rav Hirschsprung began citing the Gemoroh in Brachos, Sukah, Shabos, the Rashi, Tosfos, Gilyon Hashas and Hagaos Hagra. He had the whole sugya right there in front of his eyes. The Rav was the Talmudic living equivalent of IBM’s Deep Blue. The titan of the Exoteric Torah.

And to speak of the Titan of the Esoteric; we were all in the shadows of the Rebbe’s mikubal, the Mashpia, Rabbi Menachem Zeev Greenglass Halevi alov hasholom. Reb Volf was known to have telepathic powers and allegedly had a meta physical sixth sense of our shenanigans .  A rather mysterious sage and occult figure, he would meander around the Beis Midrash deep in thought with his hands softly folded behind his back. In a muted whisper he would randomly ask bochurim entering the Zal rather laconic questions, such as “hast du gevasht negel vasser?  hust du gezagt brochos?” Chances were, if you ended up in his line of fire, something was awry. I’ve been told that he once asked a bochur if he had said kriyas shema. He replied with a resounding yes. “With a hat and jacket?” “Yes.”. Knowing how meticulous Rabbi Greenglass was, he thought for a moment, only to recall that whilst he did say krias shema with a hat, he wasn’t wearing a jacket, rather a sweater. It was frightening.

Among the many subjects the Rebbe discussed publicly at farbrengens after the death of my late grandfather Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda Hecht, The Rebbe elaborated on the significance and spiritual lessons of the “Hecht,” a Germanic word for a Pike Fish.

In that light:

The Wolf, or Volf, is carnivorous, maintains an expressive behavior and is known to attack small and large vulnerable prey. From the beginning of time, it has been admired, feared and even despised by humans. It is a domineering animal. Initially slow and deliberate, then mighty fast. Elusive. Humans cannot outrun a wolf. Lab tests show wolves to possess insight, foresight and extraordinary planning. Like dogs, their sense of smell is up to ten thousand times that of humans. Unlike dogs, wolfs don’t bark. They howl. Not at the moon but at each other. They also use their senses to communicate among the pack. A wolf will isolate its prey in groups and thrives in cold climates. Montreal often falls to sub 0 temperatures, which in addition to all the wonderful mechanchim now and then, has been one of its attractions for studious bochurim. The Greeks associated the wolf with Apollo, their god of light and order. In Little Red Riding Hood the big bad wolf disguises itself in human clothes. It is a villain.

The Gemara Taanis, 19A records the Sages once instituting a communal fast day because “wolves devoured children on the overside of the Jordan River. Reb Yossi says, the wolves didn’t actually eat the children, they merely appeared to them.”  I reminisce of friends on any particular morning asking if Reb Volf was in the Beis Medrash, lest they arrive unprepared. Bochurim woke up in cold sweat fearing they would fall prey to Reb Volf’s morning probe. I kid you not. To this day I’m sure he gave me a pass.

But, Menachem was the mashpia’s first name. The comforter. Behind the proverbial wolf there was the chosid, mashpia, saint, baal menagin, mikubal, oveid, and maskil. The most perceptive, sensitive, humble and loving man in the Yeshiva, and perhaps Montreal. The Rebbe’s mikubal. Holy of holies.

There are endless personal stories recounted by hundreds of Talmidim that were zoche to learn and farbreng with Reb Volf. Many have been published in his lengthy biography. My brother Moshe Hecht, cofounder of (a web platform that has raised close to one billion dollars for tzedakah…) recalls that Reb Volf would generally address the bochurim by their last names yet referred to him simply as Moshe. He once clarified to Moshe that the Hechts were a large family with similar personalities and character traits, and he therefore broadcast his first name Moshe to evoke his individuality. This was Reb Volf’s magic. No pun intended. 

My brother Noson had the zchus to study frequently with Reb Volf in his home. “He would come to the door in his Talis Katon over his shirt extending down to his knees.” Noson texted me.  Reb Volf assured him that every time they finished a maamor he would show him another article of Chasidic iconography in his possession. First, he revealed the retzua of the Baal Shem Tov’s tefillin, then a maamor in the ksav yad of one of the Rebbeim. An ordinary chosid should have a hard time falling asleep with the Baal Shemtov’s rezuah in his home. Reb Volf was the one suitable custodian. Noson was told by Reb Volf’s son in law, Reb Dovid Cohen, that he had instructed the Chevra Kadisha in his tzavah to un-customarily leave all the four strands of Tzisis intact on the Talis corners when placing him in the aron. We generally remove one.

Well, Tzadikim bimissoson kruyim chaim. The righteous after death are described as the living. The greats never die. Upon Noson’s return years later to Montreal for a business trip, he met Reb Volf in the airport and after the Mashpia warmly inquired about his affairs, Noson asked him for a bracha. Reb Volf quoted the verse “hevi gvir liachecha.” “Though shall amass wealth on your brethren.”

Noson will be a huge gvir and I’m glad to be one of his seven brothers.

Reb Volf would solicit money from alumni of the Yeshiva for unspecified causes. It was the most ideal way to give charity anonymously, for who was more fitted than Reb Volf to determine where your dollars belonged. Every time Noson sent the Reb Volf a check he received a handwritten thank you note. Yes, handwritten.

In retrospect we were midgets, fortunate to be disciples of these two giants. We were dwelling in the presence of the Shnei Luchos Habris. Not simply the tablets, but the living ones. The master of Niglah and the Master of Nistar. The Shaman and the Judge. I must confess and assume all my classmates agree that we were simply too young and ignorant to recognize what we had. Alas, so goes history.

My dear friend Shaya Rochester graduated Yale the year I arrived on campus. He is now a bankruptcy lawyer living in Crown Heights with his most beautiful Chasidishe family. He once conveyed  that what attracted him to Lubavitch was the fact that endless extraordinary personalities were simple Chasidim of the Rebbe. In the world beyond Adas Chasidim, many would have been Rebbes themselves. Undeniably, it was Moshe Rabeinu that carried the Luchos and delivered them to the People. We in Montreal basked in the glory of these two living animated tablets, both humble Chasidism of the Moshe of our generation, the Rebbe.

On one cold Montreal morning I finally built up the courage to engage with the Mystic on the most pressing question of the time. The Rebbe had taken ill and we were living in an unprecedented precarious juncture in history. A moment in time that seemed to have paused. There were more questions than answers. After the early morning shiur of Chasidus on that cloudy and rather ominous day,  I approached Reb Volf’s desk at the end of the Zal, sat down next to him and with trepidation asked him point blank, “ How will Lubavitch survive these times?”.

Reb Volf Had special eyes. He would squint at us and then look up at the heavens when he spoke. I remember his head often being at a slant, tilted upward, meditating deeply as he conversed. It seemed as if he was noticing something amiss in the astronomical alignment that day. And it was worrying him. He was perhaps perturbed by the celestial order and the devolution of the cosmos. He paused for a moment as if incessantly penetrating the end of time and replied unexpectedly to my question of Chabad’s perpetual endurance through the ages.  “Shmully, the nigunim, the nigunim.”

To be continued

Click here for part 1.

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