Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
About twenty years ago, there was a cold New York winter when I was experiencing low energy. I felt the need for a physical, emotional and spiritual uplift, and I thought that perhaps I should at least start taking some vitamins. One night, I went to the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan to attend a lecture. As I entered the synagogue, I encountered someone who was selling a new book from Feldheim Publishers titled: "A tzaddik in our time - the life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin," by Simcha Raz. According to the description on the inside cover, the book was about a man who was known as "the tzaddik of Jerusalem" - a rabbi who was loved and revered by religious and non-religious Jews alike. It mentioned that his compassion and empathy for people was extraordinary, and that he devoted his life to loving and helping those who are often forgotten by society such as prisoners and the seriously ill.
I bought the book, and after reading the first few chapters, I began to feel better. When I finished the book, I felt uplifted and renewed; in fact, I no longer felt a need for vitamin pills. In a sense, the heart-warming stories and teachings in this book served as my "vitamins." I bought copies of the book for friends, and almost all of them had the same uplifting experience that I had.
During this difficult period, many of us could use a "lift," and I will therefore share with you a few excerpts from this amazing work. I will begin by citing the following excerpt from the memoirs of this beloved sage, who was affectionately known as "Reb Aryeh":
"I recall the early days from 1905 onward, when it was granted me by the grace of the blessed Lord to go up to the holy land, and I came to Jaffa. There I first went to visit our great master Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who received me with good cheer, as it was his hallowed custom to receive everyone. We chatted together on themes of Torah study. After an early minhah (afternoon prayer service) he went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and he told me gently, 'Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teachings of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its songs.' Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for everything."
Reb Aryeh's love and compassion for human beings began with his own people, and he firmly believed in their unique spiritual destiny. Yet this love and compassion extended to all peoples, and he would remind his followers and admirers that all human beings are created in the Divine image. For example, Reb Aryeh was the unofficial chaplain of the Jewish prisoners, and his intense love and devotion to these prisoners was noticed by the Arab prisoners. Although they had their own Muslim chaplain, they wanted to experience the special empathy and kindness of Reb Aryeh. When he was asked if he would also visit the Arab prisoners, he readily agreed, and he reminded the British prison officials: "They too are created in the Divine image."
During the early 1930's, a new, evil regime arose in Germany, and in the years that followed, many Jews tried to escape from Europe. This was not an easy task, since most countries refused to admit Jewish refugees. A good number wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel; however, the British, due to the pressure of some Arab leaders, only allowed a handful of immigrants to enter. As a result, a growing number of Jews in Eretz Yisrael joined underground groups that sought to bring in illegal immigrants, and the prisons and detention camps were soon full of these Jewish activists. Some of these political prisoners recorded their memories of Reb Aryeh's visits. One former prisoner wrote:
"The detention camp knew no happier days than those when Reb Aryeh came on a visit. Even the blind could perceive the Shechinah, the Divine presence entering with him. No bodyguard or secretary came with him. He came only with his heart, ready to move others and be moved. How happy he was to see us - like a child that finds its mother. He came laden with love, and left laden with love sevenfold, as everyone reciprocated and returned the affection that he gave. He came laden with greetings, messages, and news (from the inmates' families and friends), and left laden sevenfold with greetings, messages, and news. There was information that we would not have revealed to our nearest relatives, yet we entrusted Reb Aryeh with it. Addresses, names, dates - he has his own mnemonic devices and ways to remember. All of a sudden he might begin calling out names of inmates (as though reading from a mental list), 'Where is so-and-so'? And what has become of so-and-so? Why is he not here?' Then away went some of us to find them. For at times he came unexpectedly, and the inmates were scattered about in the camp. But Reb Aryeh had to see everyone...On a cold stormy day, when he himself came in a very thin frock-coat, he once rubbed my hands and asked anxiously, 'Why have you come out like this without a proper overcoat? You are likely to catch cold!' For a brief moment, I had the sensation that my mother and father were standing at my cradle, covering me warmly and fondling me with affection."
Another former prisoner wrote:
"When the Sabbath came, the joy of this holy day of rest was embodied for us in the prison, strange as it may seem, by a human being of flesh and blood. He was an ordinary, everyday Jew that we would call ultra-Orthodox - definitely old-fashioned. Like all very devout Jews he wore a long black coat, and on his head a black broad-brimmed hat, which he replaced on the Sabbath and festival days with the traditional shtreim'l (round fur hat). About this Jew there was always a wondrous aura. It was as if the rays of some splendid holy light had been captured or absorbed somewhere in the far past, and now they were shining and streaming forth, returning, from the depths of the spirit that was embodied in this simple 'old-fashioned' Jew. An intense luminosity flowed from that inner spirit to the man's countenance, and from his face on outward to the world about him, to serve the needs of human beings. Like the fire of the sun this luminosity would burst into our room within the prison walls, to assure those who lived in its darkness that there are lights and radiances in the world which will never be extinguished."
This former prisoner further described the Sabbath visits of Reb Aryeh to the prison:
"In the doorway he would stand a few seconds, scanning the faces in the room - looking for 'new guests.' When there were any he went to them first. He took a new inmate's hand between both of his and caressed it on the back, as though seeking to caress, calm, and reassure the spirit of the man. Difficult as it may be to believe or explain, his face, lined with wrinkles and adorned with a silvery beard and curling sidelocks, radiated a boundless benevolence, a feeling of goodness. Never before did I see the face of so good-hearted a man. His eyebrows were sprinkled with a multitude of dots that formed all kinds of lines and tiny, microscopic geometric patterns. And in the eyes beneath the complex brows, joy and sorrow formed a harmonious mixture. Out of those eyes, in addition to the blend of joy with sorrow, shone a certain wonder, a kind of almost childlike amazement at the world about him. Standing or sitting, he would sway his head and shoulders; and it seemed as though he was constantly amazed at the wonders of the Almighty, the Creator of light and darkness, who adds shadow to every brightness... In his vision of light and dark, you could find his whole wisdom of life, his entire philosophy: Life is neither gladness nor grief. It is a blend of the two. On the strength of this life-wisdom he came to the prison, to recall to the inmates by his very presence that besides the darkness there is also light in this world of the blessed Lord; and the light can be formed in the very intensity of deathly darkness."
And he concludes this memoir with the following comments:
"A week of prison life would end with a Sabbath filled with light. The week was a unit of shadow-time, behind walls, in a world shut off from the world. The rabbi brought the inmates a perception of hope: that just as the week of shadow-time ended in the Sabbath, so they would yet reach a Sabbath in their lifetime, a period of light when the shadow-time would finally end. For life is neither gladness nor gloom, neither light nor darkness, but a long chain of days and a long chain of weeks. At the end of every day comes night; yet with the dawning of a new day, the last traces of night disappear. And at the end of every week comes the Sabbath: a day of rest, a time of holiness... Through him I understood the reason for our ordeal, for the plight we had to bear in the fearful weekday-despair. It was all the burden of preparation for our Sabbath."
Given his own loving and giving nature, Reb Aryeh greatly appreciated and respected those great souls who devoted their lives to helping others. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l, one of the leading sages in Israel, recalled the following incident:
"I once met Reb Aryeh trudging at his usual pace through the streets of my neighborhood, the Shaarey Hessed section of Jerusalem, during the ten days of penitence (between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). 'Where are you going?' I asked him. 'Oh,' he replied, 'I am heading for the home of Dr. Miriam Munin.' Anxiously I asked him, 'Who is sick in the family?' His answer was: 'Thank G-d, we are all well. But the holy day of Yom Kippur is approaching, and since Dr. Munin is an outstanding physician who has treated people with kindness all her life, I am going to her to receive a blessing for the new year that has started for us.' "
This biography of Reb Aryeh also contains a moving chapter about his wife, Hannah. She had great spiritual gifts and insights, and Reb Aryeh was in the habit of saying that all his good qualities came to him from her strength. She had a power of faith that knew no bounds. Reb Aryeh once said, "If not for her, I could not possibly have withstood the days of hunger during the First World War," and he added: "When it came to trusting the Holy One, blessed is He, she was greater than I was; she surpassed me."
The book has other chapters which discuss his role as an educator, his visits to the sick, and his devotion to the needy. There is also a section which contains many of his teachings and maxims. In addition, there are quotes from his last will and testament such as the following comment:
"I have tried with all my power to implant in the hearts of the members of my family a love of human beings. Instead of sowing a dislike for the irreligious, I have striven to implant love, respect and esteem for the devout."
I will conclude with a teaching of Reb Aryeh that is especially needed by our generation - one which suffers from much internal strife and disunity:
Reb Aryeh was once walking with his grandson, and he asked the boy the following question: "Is it better to be a 'hater of falsehood' or a 'lover of truth'? His grandson did not know how to respond, so Reb Aryeh answered: "To be a lover of truth is a higher level. Someone who hates falsehood will see the falsehood that exists in every person, and he will come to despise them or even hate them, G-d forbid. A lover of truth, however, will see the truth in every person, and he will come to honor them and even love them."
The book "A tzaddik in our time" by Simcha Raz became a bestseller in Israel, and it was translated into English by Charles Wengrov. Both the Hebrew and English editions are published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen is the author of "The Universal Jew - Letters to My Progressive Father" (Feldheim). He is also the director of "Hazon - Our Universal Vision" - a study-program based in Jerusalem which explores the universal vision of the Torah: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/