3 Iyar marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, the Rebbe’s legendary “chief of staff.” When did Rabbi Hodakov first meet the Rebbe, and what was the one word Rabbi Binyomin Klein used to describe him?
By A Chassidisher Derher
Rabbi Binyomin Klein was once asked to describe Rabbi Hodakov in one word.
He responded: “Soldier.”
Rabbi Klein explained: “Rabbi Hodakov ran important institutions and did many important things, but he always behaved like a simple soldier. His only goal was to carry out the Rebbe’s will perfectly. He had no other desire, and he had no personal motives at all. Only someone who watched how he entered the Rebbe’s room each day, even after 50 years of being acquainted with the Rebbe, could possibly appreciate what a true Chossid and soldier looks like.”
“In his official role, he was the director of Merkos, Machne, and Kehos, and later, Agudas Chassidei Chabad. He was also officially the rosh hamazkirus, the Rebbe’s chief secretary.
“But in more concrete terms, Rabbi Hodakov was the Rebbe’s contact with the entire world. For example, he was in charge of running yechidus; he decided who would be allowed into the Rebbe’s room and when—a very delicate and diplomatic job. He was also the conduit to reaching the Rebbe by phone. The Rebbe never spoke on the phone, but it happened quite often that the Rebbe would listen as Rabbi Hodakov held a conversation on his behalf. In simple terms, he was the one individual who spoke in the Rebbe’s name.
“Everything that left mazkirus passed through Rabbi Hodakov. Even simple things like the Rebbe’s letters for simchos which were arranged by Rabbi Simpson, were never sent out without Rabbi Hodakov’s approval.
“In everything Rabbi Hodakov did, two main characteristics were expressed: First of all, his bitul to the Rebbe, and second of all, his pikchus, his wisdom and logic. One more characteristic—he never wasted a moment.”
The Man and the Legend
Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov was the Rebbe’s legendary “chief of staff,” serving in that capacity throughout all the years of the Rebbe’s nesius. Rabbi Hodakov’s presence was ubiquitous; every interaction, every hora’ah, every message from the Rebbe—when not delivered publicly at farbrengens—was delivered through the expert hands of Rabbi Hodakov.
Rabbi Hodakov is part and parcel of every story of the Rebbe; his identity is intertwined with dor hashvi’i. A simple search of the Derher archives brought up Rabbi Hodakov’s name hundreds of times—but almost never was it a story that involved him at all. Every interaction, every mention, was bringing a message of the Rebbe to a Chossid and the Chossid’s response back to the Rebbe.
So integral was he that a statement from Rabbi Hodakov could never be taken lightly. Everyone knew that a word from his mouth could have come directly from the Rebbe; he didn’t have to clarify it.
Rabbi Leibel Alevsky relates that he once questioned this assumption during his years as director of Tzach. “Rabbi Hodakov once made a suggestion for Tzach which didn’t sit right with me. I told him, respectfully, ‘If this suggestion comes from the Rebbe, I will obviously accept it without question, but—’ Rabbi Hodakov cut me off and said, ‘In your opinion, if the Rebbe wants to make a suggestion but doesn’t want it to be given over in his name, what exactly should he do?’ Needless to say, I quickly accepted the proposal.
“Often, Rabbi Hodakov would make various suggestions regarding our activities. Some of them seemed to be very impractical. Sometimes I would carry them out, and sometimes I would not. During one yechidus, the Rebbe suddenly began speaking about those same suggestions I had received from Rabbi Hodakov—which I had ignored. I was obviously very shocked and surprised… Needless to say, I began to treat Rabbi Hodakov’s ‘suggestions’ with a new respect.”
First Encounter with the Rebbe
Rabbi Hodakov’s connection to the Rebbe began in early 5688, when the Frierdiker Rebbe left Russia and settled in Latvia. Rabbi Hodakov was a young man and already a noted educator and activist in the community. He also came from a Chabad-Lubavitch background— he was born in the Chabad town of Beshenkovitz in Russia before moving to Latvia as a child. When the Frierdiker Rebbe needed a visa to enter Latvia, Rabbi Hodakov assisted Reb Mordechai Dubin in his efforts, and he immediately connected himself with the Frierdiker Rebbe upon his arrival. He quickly became a dedicated Chossid, and the Frierdiker Rebbe devoted much attention to his new protege.
It was in this context that Rabbi Hodakov came into contact with the Rebbe. In his own words:
“I entered the home of the Frierdiker Rebbe on Motzei Shabbos after havdalah [the first Shabbos after the Rebbe arrived from Russia] and a sight struck me: The new guest from Yekatrinoslav was reciting Veyiten Lecha; he was holding a siddur with both hands, looking inside, and reciting the words quietly and simply. It is hard to describe but the image really took me. At that moment, I recognized emes b’taharasa, pure unadulterated truth. It seems like something minor, but this ‘minor’ thing and similar minor things demonstrated greatness, which I noticed at the time.”
The Rebbe was living in Berlin at the time, but Rabbi Hodakov had many opportunities to be in the Rebbe’s presence. One notable period was during Tishrei 5690, documented at length in the beautiful writings of Reb Elya Chaim Althaus. In the absence of the Frierdiker Rebbe, who was visiting America, the Rebbe led the Chassidim throughout Tishrei and held a memorable farbrengen that Motzei Rosh Hashanah where he instructed all the Chassidim to turn their kapotas inside out to reject “the way of the street.” It made a deep impression on Rabbi Hodakov.
One more memorable occasion was Rabbi Hodakov’s visit to the Frierdiker Rebbe in Warsaw when he was already the Agudas Yisrael representative in the Latvian Department of Education. “In order to be granted permission to go,” Rabbi Hodakov related, “I told the government that my travel to Poland had to do with my work; I was going to get special books and speak to certain people about education.” On the Shabbos of his visit, four individuals were invited to the Frierdiker Rebbe’s Shabbos table—the Rebbe and Rabbi Hodakov among them. At the table, the Frierdiker Rebbe delivered a maamar on the topic of hashgacha pratis. Later, while in yechidus, the Frierdiker Rebbe told him, “The maamar will come to good use.” Rabbi Hodakov never clarified what it meant, but from his way of repeating the story it was clear that he had already discovered its use in his many years working alongside the Rebbe.
The above is a short excerpt of a feature in this month’s Derher magazine on Rabbi Hodakov. To read the full article, order your copy at Derher.org/subscribe.
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