When Benny Gantz gave up on his efforts to form a new government and returned his mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, the Hebrew calendar in the United States read 22 Marcheshvan ( כבי מרחשון ). The day marked the 93rd yahrzeit of the Third Rebbe of Belz, ר ישכר דב רוקח זי’א. The current political turmoil and the likelihood of yet a third election in Israel within a year makes spin the heads of Jews everywhere. The Rebbe’s life offers an opportunity for each of us an opportunity to find our way out of the contemporary morass.
ר ישכר דב רוקח זי’א took strong and controversial positions in politics and social issues. According to Rabbi I.J. Klapholz’s compilation, the Rebbe opposed strongly the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s proposed requirement that yeshivos teach certain secular subjects. He went so far as to travel from Belz all the way to Vienna to convince the Education Minister to drop his plan. The Rebbe succeeded. With no knowledge of the details, we cannot jump to any conclusions about what he would say in contemporary Israel or New York. However, he stood strongly for his principles.
Rabbi Kapholz records as well that the Rebbe fought against modern dress. Rabbi Kapholz mentions that the Rebbe privately reproved one father for cutting his son’s peyot. Here, the Rebbe acted to prevent assimilation and to keep Judaism intact. One can only speculate that now-a-days, one can shave, trim peyot and wear fashionable clothing and remain religious. In Poland, especially right after World War I, that did not necessarily obtain.
With all his strongly held views, he showed countless times that he could cut through pretense, stand back to see what really mattered and showed great compassion for his fellow Jews. I heard a story that when the Austrian government required everyone to have an identification photo, chassidim sought to protest against the Rebbe having to take one. As many believed at the time, taking a picture violated the commandment against graven images. The Rebbe demurred, on the grounds that he could not abide his chassidim going to Gehennom (for their submitting to the photographer) while he went to Gan Eden. He had his picture taken.
My father,ob’m, grew up near Belz and spent the holidays there with his family. He told me that, rather than go to the Rebbe’s seder, each of the children would rotate at one seder in his aunt and uncle’s house. They had no children of their own and needed the youngsters to fill out the table. When my father’s turn came, he refused to go, preferring the presence of the holy Rebbe. When he found out about this, the Rebbe summoned my father and told him simply, “Your aunt’s kashrut is just as reliable as that of my cook.” Needless to say, my father spent the seder with his aunt and uncle.
My father told another notable story. The Rebbe used to lead Musaf services on the High Holidays in Belz. Naturally, the little children hovered around the Bimah. This disturbed the Rebbe’s concentration, so he asked his gabbai to disperse the group — with one exception. The Rebbe allowed my father to remain. My father said that he learned how to leaf Musaf services, which he did for decades in Canada and the US, from standing in front of the Rebbe. It was as if the Rebbe knew that my father would carry forth the Belzer heritage in the New World and needed to know it.
The Rebbe’s compassion reverberates even today. As a senior in high school, my principal called me to his office one day. He let me know that he delayed his retirement to the middle of the year, so he could send my transcript to the college I applied to. He said that he figured (correctly) that his successor would keep me from my higher education by withholding the document. Mr. Winter explained to me his self-sacrifice. His uncle, a merchant in Hungary, was a Belzer chassid, particularly of רי ישכר דב. Needless to say, Mr. Winter enabled my career, all because of the piety of the Third Rebbe of Belz.
In conclusion, when I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem years ago, I stopped in the chapel and happened to see a book on a table. I opened it and happened to read the following story. During World War I, the Rebbe had to flee to Rajferd, Hungary. One day, he heard the community lament that, because of the suffering around them, they prayed for the coming of the Messiah. The Rebbe answered that while we cannot control when Messiah will come, we can control getting along with each other.
Would the politicians and electorate fight for principles, but get along with each other.