Illuminating and Uplifting the Generation

July 4, 2024

The Kossover Rebbe, Rav Shraga Hager Zt”l

  1. Strauss

We are an eternal people. Included in that guarantee is that every generation will have great people to lead, inspire, elevate, and teach. “Amad v’shaslan b’chol dor”—Hakadosh Baruch Hu planted these tzaddikim in each generation according to the generation’s specific needs.

Greatness has many forms. Gedolim baTorah are renowned for their indefatigable hasmadah and yegiah, the breadth of their knowledge, and the clarity of their understanding. They are poskim, rabbanim, and mosrei haTorah.

Gadlus in avodah is another dimension of greatness. Towering personalities in avodah supplicate before their Creator with complete kavanah and dveikus, passionate hislahavus, and stirring hishtapchus hanefesh. They daven for Klal Yisrael; they teach us how to daven.

And then there are giants in chessed and bein adam l’chaveiro. They are able to be nosei b’ol, to lighten the burden of others, or at least be a listening ear for a Yid to unload themselves to. The needs of others take precedence to their own needs. They can relate to all and selflessly extend themselves to ease the plight of their fellow.

And while all gedolim are a blend of these three pillars upon which the world stands, someone whose Torah, avodah, and chessed all stand out as exceptional elements of his persona is a true rarity.

Klal Yisrael lost one such rare gem this week with the untimely petirah of the Kossover Rebbe, Rav Shraga Hager zt”l, at the age of 66.

The fire of Torah

The Belzer Rav foresaw it all. He had promised the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Malka Hager, that if she married Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Hager, the last remaining direct descendant of the Kossover dynasty, her children would light up the world. And as his name, Shraga, or “candle,” indicates, the Kossover Rebbe was destined to become a torch that illuminated the lives of thousands of Yidden.

As a young bachur, he was known for his exceptional hasmadah and ameilus. His brother Rav Chaim, rosh yeshivas Vizhnitz Boro Park, recalls him learning for eight or more hours without a break. He would sit the entire Friday afternoon with his Gemara and not get up until Shabbos. At times, he learned for 18 hours a day! Later, he learned in Bais Medrash Govoha, where Rav Shneur Kotler took a special liking to the brilliant bachur with a flaming neshamah.

Upon marrying the daughter of Rav Chaim Meir Wosner, the couple moved to Bnei Brak. There he learned Halachah under his grandfather Rav Shmuel Wosner before settling back in Boro Park, where he was appointed dayan of the Vizhnitzer kehillah. It wasn’t long before his name became synonymous with expertise in all areas of Halachah. He was proficient in all fields related to practical Halachah as well, including medical, technological, and scientific. He was the go-to address for the most difficult and complex questions and was known to have a ready answer for every question posed. The producers of the Beis Hamikdash Virtual Reality Glasses consulted with him regularly regarding the intricacies and measurements of the Beis Hamikdash.

He was equally comfortable speaking about a yeshivish sugya, an esoteric concept in Kabbalah, and the harvesting process of quinoa and its proper brachah rishonah.

And he never stopped learning. He hardly went to bed, instead spending the entire night in his study with piles of sefarim open before him and his trusty pen and notebook at his side. It was normal to see him pacing back and forth throughout the night, enchanted by his love for Torah. During kabbalas kahal, he would have a sefer at the side, which he would open and delve into between petitioners.

The last few months revealed just how deep the Rebbe’s attachment to Torah was. Stricken by terminal illness, his body fading and in indescribable pain, he maintained chavrusas the entire time. At times he was too weak to lift a sefer, and he would have someone read to him through the night.

He refused to take pain killers, to avoid the reduced concentration they tend to cause. The only way to alleviate his agony was by learning with tremendous iyun; as such, he requested that his chavrusa learn Sha’arei Yosher with him, allowing the lengthy and complex ma’arachos of Rav Shimon Shkop to soothe him.

Attached on high

Men with tendencies toward intellect are usually not emotionally inclined. But the Rebbe’s passion for Torah wasn’t an intellectual pursuit; it stemmed from a deep desire to connect to Hashem’s word and through that to Him. The purpose of a Yid, the Rebbe would say, is to reach dveikus baHashem. This can be done through Torah, through mitzvos, and of course through tefillah. The word “tefillah” connotes connection, as Rashi explains in describing Naftali’s name.

He wasn’t fond of the idea of running around to kevarim when someone needed a yeshuah. “Just open your siddur, and you will find Hashem there,” he would urge his followers.

When the Rebbe’s father was niftar, in 1999, his son Rav Shraga, known for his flaming avodas Hashem, was appointed Rebbe. Older mispallelim weren’t surprised by the way the new Rebbe davened; they had witnessed it when he was still a bachur in his father’s shul.

Seeing an ordinary tefillah of the Kossover Rebbe, which incidentally often took place in the homey confines of the famous Shomer Shabbos shul, was an unforgettable experience. It was obvious that he had transcended the world around him and was reveling in his dveikus with Hashem. His body would shake and his arms would be extended upward as his pure neshamah soared ever closer to its Source.

Incredibly, last Pesach, the Rebbe was wheeled into shul, too weak to walk on his own, but as soon as davening commenced, he jumped out of his seat and began davening with the same intensity as he had in the last five decades.

The tischen in Kossov attracted large numbers of bachurim and yungerleit seeking to feel a ta’am in Shabbos Kodesh. The tunes were mostly Vizhnitzer niggunim, and watching the Rebbe, his face aflame and his mind in other spheres, was enough to ignite a fire in anyone’s heart. He sang “Tzamah Nafshi” with such yearning, it was impossible not to get pulled along.

After the multi-hour tisch, the Rebbe, on a spiritual high, would sit down to once again plumb the depths of Torah.

Shavuos, according to sifrei chassidus and Kabbalah, is when the dveikus between Klal Yisrael and Hashem is at its peak, a reality that was evident in the Rebbe’s hanhagah on this chag. He would recite Akdamos, a song of love to Hashem, with such intense and raw emotion that it was difficult to make out the words through his tears. This would go on for an hour as the chassidim took in the sight of a man whose love for Hashem defied description.

Leading and loving

It was a paradox. One moment the Rebbe was in the “himmlen,” oblivious to his surroundings and completely engrossed in dveikus baHashem, and the next moment the Rebbe was back there, in his shteibel in Boro Park, palling around with the men who considered him their luminary. He would wave to the little boys who came to say “gut Shabbos” with a smile that lit up his face and their lives.

It was incredible how grounded someone so spiritually inclined could be. He understood human nature acutely and knew what others needed to hear.

He was able to engage those who needed chizuk the most. People whose life circumstances or life choices made them uncomfortable seeking counsel with any other Torah authority found themselves at ease with the Kossover Rebbe. “My customers,” he would lovingly refer to them. He would remove any vestige of Rebbishkeit and talk to them in perfect English, conversing on their turf just like an old friend.

A celebrity wanted to wear a kolpik during a performance and had no problem asking the Rebbe to borrow his. And the Rebbe? He had no problem lending it to him.

The Rebbe had an open door for anyone who needed to unburden themselves, and he would be there with advice, guidance, inspiration, and most of all, a listening ear. Everyone who entered his room had the Rebbe’s undivided attention and felt that the Rebbe had all the time in the world to deal with his hardships.

Countless mosdos and organizations in Brooklyn and beyond relied on his guidance. He was from the leading forces in getting the chassidim to join in the Citi Field Kinnus Klal Yisrael in 2012.

He would deal with the most difficult chinuch and shalom bayis cases, holding the hands of those in distress until the issue was solved.

A yungerman who tragically lost his son knew to expect a phone call from the Rebbe every single Friday, in which the Rebbe would share a good vort or just schmuess and give chizuk. This continued for two years after the tragedy.

He would do anything for another Yid and wouldn’t take anything for himself. Once, he was trying to raise funds for someone very close to him. Someone suggested that the Rebbe turn to all the people he had helped over the years and ask them to return the favor in his time of need.

The Rebbe didn’t just refuse; he didn’t understand the logic. “Because I helped him, I should go ask him for help?” It just didn’t add up.

Once, on a visit to Lakewood, the Rebbe decided to visit someone whose family member was undergoing a health crisis. On the way, the driver mentioned that this individual had connections with very wealthy people and the Rebbe should ask him for help with funds.

The Rebbe was adamantly against the notion; chessed means doing for someone else, not trying to advance one’s own needs.

The fire burns on

Last Friday night, at the time when he normally would have entered the beis midrash for tisch, the neshamah that had lit the way for so many was taken back to its Creator.

He was a leader, an amud eish before Klal Yisrael, guiding, illuminating, and warming thousands. He guided the rabbanim in psak, he illuminated the lives of those within his orbit, serving as a model of complete devotion to avodas Hashem, and warmed the hearts of countless who needed a friend and fatherly figure.

Bereft, a kehillah and community grapple with the loss of someone whose life’s trajectory was heading in the direction of being a leader for all of Klal Yisrael. Memories, divrei Torah, and life lessons are but thin threads to grasp onto their beloved father and leader. The world has gone dark.

But it was never about the Rebbe. He never wanted to be Rebbe, never wanted the attention.

All he wanted was to cultivate a pulsing connection between Klal Yisrael and their Father in heaven.

And while he is no longer here to illuminate the way, that connection will never be severed. The candle, his candle, will still burn brightly.


With thanks to R’ Leiby Schwartz, R’ Y.M. Brecher, R’ Menashe Silber, and R’ Duvy Rubinstein for their time and help with this article