Rachmastrivka Rebbe ZT”L

August 24, 2023

Greatness in Humility

A tribute to the Rachmastrivka Rebbe zt”l

R’ Yecheskel Ostreicher

It was Elul 1944, and as Europe smoldered, a small but joyous bar mitzvah celebration was taking place in the Geula neighborhood of Yerushalayim.

Itzik’l Twerski, the boy at the center of attention, had an extra reason to rejoice. He had been stricken with a grave illness and the doctors had practically given up hope. A name had been added, and the boy, now called Chai Yitzchok, had experienced a miraculous recovery. The bar mitzvah celebration therefore doubled as a seudas hoda’ah.

The event was a burst of light during a dark, dark period.

The dais was graced by many of the great men of that time, who came both to join in the Rachmastrivka Rebbe’s simchah and to wish well to his budding grandson. Among them was the Boyan-Leipzig Rebbe, a scion of Ruzhin whose holy eyes saw far more than others’ did. He brought a present for the bar mitzvah bachur—a Kli Yakar al HaTorah—and as he presented it to him, he explained that “the bar mitzvah bachur is a kli yakar, a precious vessel.”

The Rachmastrivka Rebbe would later dismiss the comment, saying that the Rebbe merely said it to give him chizuk because of what he had been through.

But the description could not have been more precise. Young Chai Yitzchok was indeed a precious vessel, destined to be a vessel of chizuk for an entire generation, a fount of advice, guidance, and inspiration. And like a vessel whose worth is not determined by itself, but by what it contains and gives forth to others, the Rebbe completely negated himself in his lifelong avodas Hashem, ahavas haTorah, and chizuk for all who passed through his door.

Lessons for a lifetime

Born in Yerushalayim to Rav Yochanan and Rebbetzin Esther Rivka Twerski, the Rebbe sought to develop a close kesher with the many tzaddikim of that era. Seeing his sincerity and sensing the tenderness of his soul, they, in turn, opened up to him, impacting him for decades after they had already left this world.

Among them was Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, rosh yeshivas Eitz Chaim, where the Rebbe learned as a bachur, who instilled in him an unquenchable thirst for Torah.

Unlike other children, the heilige Belzer Rebbe Rav Aharon would shake young Itzik’l’s hand without reserve. He also helped solidify the shidduch between his young protégé and the daughter of the previous Skverer Rebbe, saying that the bachur was a mushlam and a yerei Shamayim.

When R’ Chai Yitzchok prepared to travel to America for his chasunah, he took leave of the Belzer Rebbe, who uncharacteristically spoke to him for a long time, giving him directives for life. One thing the Rebbe, whose meals subsisted of a few dried crumbs, advised him was to make sure that there were sweet and creamy cakes at the simchah for the hungry people, so they could enjoy.

It was a profound lesson: no matter how great one is and no matter how far removed one might be from this world, he must always make sure that the people around him are happy and satisfied.

It would become one of the guiding principles of the Rachmastrivka Rebbe. As the years went by and the Rebbe’s acclaim spread, people began coming to him for guidance and support, and he made himself available to others without limit.

Nothing at all

But it was more than just being there for others. The idea of self-negation runs deep in the Rebbe’s ancestry. When the Chernobler Maggid, Rav Mottele, was niftar, his eight illustrious sons split up their father’s “yerushah,” each taking one middah their father excelled in. When the chassidim asked his son Rav Yochanan, the first Rachmastrivka Rebbe, which middah he’d take, he answered that he’d take the gornisht, nothingness—the humility and self-negation.

“But your brother Rav Moshe took that already,” the chassidim replied.

“So I’ll take the gornisht fun di gornisht, the nothing and nothing at all.”

And so it was. The Rebbes of Rachmastrivka abhorred publicity and fanfare.

R’ Chai Yitzchok carried on the legacy of being a nothing. In his eyes, however, it didn’t require work.

“The nisayon of ga’avah was for the giants of previous generations,” he once told his children. “But today? With what can we feel haughty?”

It became the trademark of the chassidus he formed in America, a link in a chain going back to Europe, with traces of Yerushalmi chein mixed in. The Rebbe was the one who brought milk to the coffee room of the beis midrash, and took the garbage out to the street. He kept on paying for the mikveh in his own beis medrash, because he saw himself as just another mispallel.

And always, he would refer to the Torah and the greatness of those from whom he learned. After his marriage, he moved to America to be near his father-in-law, eventually settling in the newly founded New Square and leading the yeshivah there. The Skverer Rebbe trusted him to deal with all chinuch questions, telling him to make the decisions himself. Yet, he made sure to glean much from his exalted father-in-law.

He never viewed the chassidus that formed around him as something related to him.

On a trip abroad with dozens of chassidim, the Rebbe was given a ticket in business class together with the Rebbetzin. During the flight, the Rebbe headed to the back, inquiring if anyone had reading material for the Rebbetzin. When his daughter asked him for an explanation, he replied, “I was afraid they would forget to call me when they start Minchah, so I wanted to show my face.”

Some 10 years ago, the Rebbe suffered a stroke. On the first Shabbos morning after he was released from the hospital, the Rebbe, whose mobility had slowed, asked the gabba’im if they could arrange for a minyan to come to his room to say Kaddish, as he didn’t want to miss out on answering amen. It didn’t occur to him that the whole shul was eagerly waiting for him to start davening.

In accordance with Rachmastrivka simplicity, the Rebbe’s simchos were celebrated without any of the elaborate signs and decorations often present at Rebbishe chasunahs. Yet when a talented bachur once approached the Rebbe and said that he was going through a difficult time, and if the Rebbe would let him decorate the beis midrash for the next simchah, it would shine some light into his life, the Rebbe agreed.

One of the gabba’im noticed the bachur preparing the posters and felt that it interfered with the gornisht the chassidus was famous for. He voiced his concern to the Rebbe.

We don’t need signs. But that bachur does; why should we stop him?” was the reply.

The Rebbe wasn’t interested in being anything at all, not even in being a nothing.

Nothing without Torah

The Rebbe’s hasmadah was outstanding. Often when people would come speak to him, he had a Gemara or Shulchan Aruch on the table to peer into between petitioners. A tale is told that a visitor to New Square many years ago entered the beis midrash late Friday night, long after tisch had concluded. The lights were out, but for the ner tamid near the aron kodesh. Coming closer, the visitor saw the Rebbe standing on a stool with a Gemara in his hand, struggling to read in the flickering light.

One of his nephews was evidently proud of his Rebbishe yichus, and the Rebbe noticed.

“If you don’t learn, your yichus will get you nowhere!” he scolded him.

He enjoyed talking in learning, and whenever a bachur would come in, he would engage him in conversation regarding the sugya he was learning in yeshivah.

Beginnings of a chassidus

When his father, R’ Yochanan, was niftar in 1981, R’ Chai Yitzchok returned to Yerushalayim, where the previous Machnovka Rebbe, the elder of the Chernobyler Rebbes at the time, informed him in no uncertain terms that he was to become Rebbe in America.

“Me, a Rebbe?” he replied. “I don’t even know how to read a kvittel!”

The Machnovka Rebbe was adamant. “You didn’t grow up in the forest. You saw your great-grand father. You saw your grandfather and your father, and you saw your father-in-law. You can read a kvittel!”

And so it was. He went back to America, took leave of his brother-in-law the Skverer Rebbe shlit”a, and moved to Boro Park, where he proceeded to open a small shteibel, assuming the title of Rachmastrivka Rebbe.

For many years, the Rebbe didn’t have many formal chassidim. But it didn’t matter—not for the Rebbe and not for anyone else. You didn’t have to be a Rachmastrivka chassid to enter that cozy room up the steep steps of the old beis medrash. You came, knowing that you were entering a time warp, stepping into a world that no longer exists.

Warmth and wisdom

They came from far and near. The Yid with a short jacket and a bend-down hat, to have an ehriliche Yid perform the upsherin for his son. The young bachur who needed a dose of chizuk. And the thousands upon thousands of people who came to speak to him, seeking not only his advice and brachos, but also the empathetic ear they knew would hear them out.

He read their kvittelech and he read their hearts.

A couple whose only child was turning three years old was informed by doctors that their chance of having another child was very slight. They decided to go the Rebbe and pour out their hearts until he promised them more children.

They came with their little son, and the Rebbe immediately began chatting with the boy. “How old are you? When will you get peyos?” He offered the boy a treat, and the boy’s face lit up. The Rebbe engaged him further, complimenting his parents on how cute and lechtig he was. Within minutes, the mood in the room had changed from despondence to cheer.

The Rebbe didn’t have to say anything. The couple left not with the Rebbe’s guarantee, but with something equally important: an acute awareness of just how grateful they should be for the child they did have.

Each time someone would come to tell him about a simchah, his face would light up, as if the new baby was his own grandchild or the chosson was a member of his family. The brachos were warm and genuine, flowing forth from a heart full of love.

He felt their pain as well. A yungerman with a sick child went to the Rebbe for a brachah. The Rebbe sat peering at the kvittel and began sighing deeply. The yungerman, fearing that the Rebbe sensed something ominous, burst into tears.

“What does the Rebbe see?”

“What I see? You want to know what I see? I see nothing but the ceiling. I can’t see anything happening in shamayim. But I feel the pain you are going through, and I can’t help but sigh.”

With the Rebbe’s warmth came a dose of sage wisdom. Someone had done a tremendous chessed for another Yid, only to have the recipient pour his wrath on him. He was heartbroken and figured the Rachmastrivka Rebbe would be the right address for him to share his pain.

The Rebbe listened closely as this Yid told the story, his eyes widening as he took in the sacrifice and the ingratitude. When the Yid finished his part, the Rebbe froze for a few minutes before exclaiming, “Hamtakas hadinim b’shorsham”—this sweetens the greatest middas hadin at its source. The Rebbe was pained for him, but at the same time overjoyed by the zechus of such self-negation.

But then he added something else: “I see you are doing chessed for others. Don’t get discouraged by such behavior. It’s just a nisayon.”

He understood even the youngest of children. Someone came with a boy who had just had his upsherin. The eager father tried to coax his son into engaging with the Rebbe, but the boy was too overwhelmed and instead jumped and ran around the room.

Seeing the father’s disappointment, the Rebbe turned to him and said, “Let him be. He had a very traumatic experience today!”

Serenity in the face of tragedy

Someone whose essence is negated to a Higher Power does not struggle when that Higher Power tests him with tragedy.

The Rebbe’s oldest son, R’ Mordche’le, was his pride and joy. He was a brilliant and talented yungerman, saturated with yiras Shamayim and middos tovos. And the Rebbe’s reaction to his sudden death on Shabbos Parshas Shlach of 1994 astounded all who witnessed it.

The Rebbe’s son was in Eretz Yisrael when he passed away, and the message came to America on Shabbos. The gabba’im urged the Rebbe to finish shalosh seudos quickly. Not wanting to break the news suddenly, they told him that his son was not well.

As soon as Shabbos was over, the Rebbe asked, “Er iz nach mit unz—Is he still with us?”

The gabba’im, accompanied by members of Hatzalah in case the trauma affected him, did not reply.

The Rebbe understood.

“We say in davening every single day, ‘Al chayeinu hamesurim b’Yadecha…’ Every day is a gift. We had him for 36 years.”

Having missed the levayah,the Rebbe sat shivah in America before traveling to Eretz Yisrael for the hakamas matzeivah. During the shivah, the rabbanim who came to be menachem avel were astounded by the serenity he displayed as he dispensed chizuk to all who came. One individual mentioned that his son needed stitches and asked for a brachah. The Rebbe closed his eyes and sighed, wishing him a refuah shleimah. His own son’s petirah did not shake him, but another person’s pain hurt him acutely.

At the hakamas matzeivah on Har Hazeisim, the Rebbe stood and said Tehillim without any visible emotion. His elderly mother asked him how he could be so cold in the face of the loss of his beloved son.

He explained, “The whole week, people were being menachem me together with aveilei Tziyon. I stand here facing Har HaBayis; how can I cry for my own loss with the Churban before my eyes?”

Staying connected

Over time, the unique avodah of the Rebbe attracted hundreds of families who became part of the growing kehillah. The secret was not in lofty performances, exciting tischin, or distinct minhagim. Nor was it mofsim, stories of how the Rebbe’s connection to the upper spheres brought about salvation. There was none of that with this Rebbe.

What attracted them was the sincerity, the purity, the sweetness of doing the right thing without question.

The Rebbe did not speak often, and when he did, his message was usually short and succinct. Over the years, however, his talks added up and were printed in Amaros Tehoros, which has become a staple in many homes and shuls. In it, one sees a window into the layers of depth that his seemingly simple avodah contained—the love for Torah, the way one has to be careful not to hurt others’ feelings, the importance of true yiras Shamayim. Beyond that, it is a treasure trove of practical pieces of advice on chinuch and avodas Hashem.

A chassid went to the Rebbe before traveling to Eretz Yisrael, stating that he was nervous that he would lose the kesher he had with the Rebbe.

“Chassidim would say that one could remain connected with ga’aguim, yearning,” the Rebbe said.

Last week, Klal Yisrael lost one of its most precious manhigim. Our town is now graced by two of his sons who took on the title Rachmastrivka Rebbe, Rav Berel in the shul on County Line, and Rav Nochum of Oak and Vine.

And yet, the yearning remains. To see that smile, that undiluted avodas Hashem; to drink from the precious vessel of chizuk. But with ga’aguim, one can remain connected.Thank you to the Mihalovitzer Rav of Lakewood, Rav Levi Yitzchok Greenberg, a close talmid and chassid of the Rebbe, for the many memories he shared