The Passing of a Prophet
I first met the Admor, as his Chasidim of the Shomrei Emunim call him, fifteen years ago. I was a cynical rationalist that had little time for excessive saintliness. However, meeting the happy man of the shiny countenance had an immediate impact on me and whether conscious or not the outward effect was that I started growing a beard from that day forward.
Over the years, I’ve spent many hours together with him, usually accompanying my father, but in latter years by myself and on one occasion by his express invitation.
The Admor is perhaps the most knowledgeable man I’ve ever met, at least in areas of Jewish tradition, though he is incredibly worldly for someone who hasn’t left Israel in decades. He knew the Talmud and a significant portion of its commentaries by heart. The same for the Tanach (Bible) and the Zohar (Kaballah). His favorite Bible commentary was the Abarbanel who he quoted at almost every meeting of ours and drew the most fascinating prophetic insights from.
But the Admor’s brilliance was not limited to Torah knowledge. He knew of political and business developments all over the world and had his own unique opinion on matters. He was consulted by a spectrum of personalities from religious to secular, commoners to ministers of state.
He lived by the dictum of Maimonides, expecting the Messiah every day. I have never seen a person so devoted, so excited about the belief and the possibility that the Messiah can arrive tomorrow, but was rarely dejected over decades of that final salvation not yet arriving. He saw every day as a realization of millennia-old prophecies and saw in the words of our sages’ hints as to their fulfillment.
He had an unusual and keen insight into matters of the world and matters of the heart and for that reason his advice was so often sought. There were at least two meetings where I heard firsthand his description of future events that proved wildly prescient. At least one of these stories has circulated broadly amongst the Shomrei Emunim Chasidim and I myself have told it over frequently.
In October 2000 my wife was expecting our fourth child while the intifada was raging and terrorists where shooting Israelis traveling on the road from Gush Etzion, where we live, to Jerusalem. My father was concerned for our wellbeing and pressed us to move out of Gush Etzion. He suggested consulting with the Admor. I refused. I didn’t want to ask the Admor as I didn’t want to feel obligated to follow his directives. My father agreed not to ask the Admor, but did manage to raise the issue and get the Admor to discuss the danger.
The Admor spoke about danger to all of world Jewry. He said Jews would die in Israel as well as out of Israel. He warned, in October 2000, that one could be in the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers, when it explodes.
At this point, we thought he was referring to the first bombing in February 1993, where I was actually present at the time, working for an engineering firm in the building, though his phrasing it in the future tense seemed odd. Nonetheless, we were impressed by his insight, thinking he was referring to my personal connection to that past event, though we had never mentioned it to him or any of his Chasidim.
The Admor continued to say that in these times of danger, Jews in Israel have a special merit and a special protection, and that Jews in Gush Etzion have an even greater measure of merit and protection and that I should not leave Gush Etzion. I was, of course, pleased with the verdict, my father less so, but at least it ended that concern-filled discussion between us.
On September 11, 2001, my father and I finally understood why the Admor had referred to the destruction of the Twin Towers in the future tense. At a subsequent meeting I asked him point-blank how he knew, was he prophetic? He denied any prophetic powers, but rather picked up an old leather-bound book, I think it was likely a Zohar, and read from it passages that had indicated to him that such an event would occur specifically to massive matching towers. Though the text has been in front of Rabbis and scholars for centuries, he was the only one that made the connection to some specific nearby future event.
The second prophetic event was much more direct. I was visiting by myself with the Admor during the last week of January 2003. Ilan Ramon was in space and it was all everyone in Israel could talk about. I was proud of the first Israeli in space and shared with the Admor what a tremendous accomplishment it was. The Admor shook his head sadly and said that the space shuttle would come down, fatally. Shocked by his response, I asked him, how did he know? He opened up the commentary of the Abarbanel and explained that the Americans, the spiritual heirs to Esau, were going up to space for the wrong reasons. It was hubris; it was akin to the building of the Tower of Babel. The Americans wanted to show their superiority, their technical domination, their independence from God and a spiritual life. Specifically because Ramon was with them, because a representative of the Jewish people was now so visibly associated with this enterprise, for that reason they would come crashing down.
I was shaken and troubled, not wanting to believe this prophetic reading. I prayed he was wrong, that his special insight was somehow off. However, just a few days later when we received news of the tragic demise of the Shuttle Columbia upon re-entry, I was heartbroken, though not surprised.
But the Admor was much more than a crystal ball to me. He represented a lifestyle that though I couldn’t mimic, was grounded in his own venerable traditions. He represented a dedication to Torah and divine service that was hard to comprehend. His entire day was filled with prayer, study, charitable works and guidance-giving. He reportedly only slept two hours a night. His strength and physical endurance were, as my father coined, “above nature.” At an advanced age, he could carry a Torah scroll or his Etrog and Lulav (the Four Species used on Sukkot) for hours on end, when most mortals tire after just a few minutes. His view of the world absorbed, noted and understood all of the complexity of reality yet retained a simple faith and belief in God’s plan and promises unfolding as foretold by God’s prophets and interpreted by Rabbinic sages.
His love for all Jews and for Israel was deep and ongoing. It is a mistake, in my opinion, to label him and his followers as anti-Zionist. He had serious concerns and objections to government malfeasance and crimes and would berate some of the ministers and government personalities directly when given the chance. Though his followers do not participate in the army as part of the general Charedi exclusion, he always showed the highest respect and admiration to those who did, especially to those in the joint Yeshiva-Army program (Hesder), calling them ‘the best of the best’. He pushed every Diaspora Jew he met to immigrate to Israel.
In the weeks before the expulsion from Gaza, I received a call from his secretary that the Admor wished to meet with me. This was unprecedented, as it was always me or my father initiating the request to meet for direction and guidance. I sat in the Admor’s study and saw him in anguish over the upcoming expulsion. He said it was a disaster and asked me to arrange a meeting between him and settlement leaders. I contacted people amongst the leadership, but there was no interest on their part to meet. The Admor still mourned and bewailed the fate of those expelled from Gaza since then.
Books can be written about this incredible personality that we were so privileged to have known. At his funeral today, it was the first time I’ve seen non-family members tear Kria (cutting of their garments) for a deceased. That is not the custom in our circles, but I can understand their sense of loss for this man. He never claimed prophetic powers. He always considered himself a simple Jew. But he was obviously much more. He was a father figure. He was a saint. He was a guide. He was a leader. He was a visionary with a unique clairvoyance. But perhaps most importantly, he was a friend.
May his memory be a blessing.