Reb Aaron Rokach of Belz, of blessed memory, died on 21 Av 5717 in Tel Aviv. He left a void that cannot be filled, to the detriment of contemporary Israel — indeed, to the disadvantage of 21st Century Jews worldwide. Sixty-two years later, we do well to reflect on his legacy and emulate his teachings.
His contemporaries aptly stress his personal modesty. I recall from childhood, stories about his accessibility to all who wished to see him. On one occasion, he interrupted his prayers when he overhead his own aide sending supplicants away. On my first visit to Tel Aviv, I went to the simple apartment building where he had lived on Achad Ha’am Street. Not for him a mansion. I heard from those who met him — whether in Israel, Belz or the ghetto during World War II — that they felt as if they stood in the presence of an angel of G-d.
Moreover, Reb Aaron left a legacy which is vital for us Jews today to absorb. Love for all his fellow Jews animated his life. His greatness lay in his superior comprehension, including understanding his own mistakes, and doing all in his power to set the world right. After he settled in Israel during the British Mandate, the Jews of Haifa invited him to visit and gave a banquet in his honor. They served meat. Quite a number of religious Jews warned him against eating it, as they did not trust the official slaughterhouse of “the Red Haifa.” In response, Reb Aaron asked whether ten observant Jews resided in the city and consumed the meat of the official slaughterhouse. When told in the affirmative, he ate it too and made sure everyone knew it. The newspapers reported the story. His wise decision served to build a bridge to fellow Jews of all levels of observance.
Reb Aaron was a lover of Israel. Rather than flee the Holocaust to New York, which some sources report was under consideration by those instrumental in his rescue, he chose to find refuge in the Holy Land. However, like most Hasidic Rebbes in pre-war Europe, he opposed emigration to Israel because of the anti-religious, socialist worldview of the leading Zionists of the time. He did not foresee the Holocaust and felt painful and extreme remorse at having foreclosed that escape route. Because of his mistaken judgment, he considered himself unworthy of living in Jerusalem. To escape the summer heat of Tel Aviv, he stayed in Bayit VeGan which, in those days, was located outside Jerusalem proper.
On a grander scale, Reb Aaron sought to rebuild world Jewry. He encouraged his followers who had lost their families to start anew and not bemoan the tragic past. “What the earth covers one must forget,” he wrote. He was personally involved in finding spouses for survivors. Unlike others who stressed genealogy as a basis for marriage, he emphasized personal virtue (“zechus azmo/ zechus azmah”) and compatibility in selecting a mate.
In Israel, Belz made it a priority to establish a flourishing younger generation. An older rabbi of a Jerusalem congregation welcomed me to morning prayers. When I told him my name, he asked if I belonged to the family of the Belzer Rebbes. When I replied in the affirmative, he said that he received his education from Belz yeshivot, though he came from a poor family. The Belzer treated him with respect always. Belz is beloved throughout the land.
In the aftermath of the destruction of European Jewry, Reb Aaron overcame his misgivings about political Zionism. Publicly, he urged the religious community to organize a political party and vote in the first Israeli elections. Though today, observant Israelis vote in droves, Reb Aaron took a courageous stand in 1949. This ignited the notorious 50-year feud started by the Satmar Rebbe. Reb Aaron stood his ground. He saw, correctly, that the future of the Jewish religion required participation in the Jewish State. Nevertheless, he understood that observant Jew might also live in North America where they would thrive.
In this era of polarization among Jews and high-living, small-minded “leaders,” we each need to follow the example of Reb Aaron of Belz. Zechuso yagen aleiynu.