The Admor Rabbenu Yoel of Satmar-His Forty-Fourth Yahrtzeit
By Rabbi Yaakov Friedman
This appreciation was originally published in 1994, that is, 29 years ago.
The former Satmar Rebbe, Rabbenu Yoel, was a great gaon and tzaddik. On his fifteenth yahrtzeit we recall him and his great deeds, and we present below a few more illustrative stories of his life, as well as the hesped delivered at the time by Maran HaRav Shach, shlita. That hesped is important for what it said about the Admor and for what it says to us all today.
For Part 1 click here.
Mortgaging One's Coat
The Rebbe yearned to help people even when he was a child. Elderly chassidim relate:
When Yoelish was only nine, his mother bought him a costly fur coat and warned him not to lose or damage it.
One day, the members of Yoelish's family noticed that he no longer used the coat. When they asked what had happened to it, he brushed them aside with many excuses.
Because the matter continued for a long time, his family pressed him to admit the truth. At last he broke down and confessed that he had mortgaged it to the wealthy R' Zusha Elefant, for a large sum of money.
After investigating the matter, his family learned that this wasn't the first winter during which Yoelish had mortgaged personal items. It soon became clear that when people approached the Kedushas Yom Tov with their woes, Yoelish would eavesdrop on the conversations. In order to help them in their distress, he would pawn his precious possessions, and loan the distressed callers large sums of money.
When his father learned about his son's behavior, his face lit up, and he asked to share in the mitzvah.
A view of Kiryas Joel, named after the Rov
The Sanctity of Eating
Many remarkable stories are told about the Rebbe's ascetic eating habits. It is related that when he was an eight year old cheder student, his teacher said that the entire class would go for a swim in the river after lunch. Yoelish took the piece of bread his mother had given him, and held it tightly. Then he fell into deep thought. His friends reminded him to eat, but he did not listen to them. After the other children returned from the river, they noticed that Yoelish was still holding his sandwich, and was still immersed in thought.
It is said that he never bent his head in order to eat. When he was old, this transformed eating into an act which demanded much thought and planning.
He never asked that food be brought to him. If his family forgot to bring him his meal, he would go hungry. One time his attendant sent a youth to bring the Rebbe some tea. The youth approached the rebbetzin and said that the Rebbe had said that he wanted to drink. But she replied: "That is impossible, because the Rebbe never asks for food."
His attendants once tried to count the spoonfuls of food he ate during an entire Shabbos. After observing him for two months, they discovered that he would eat the same amount every Shabbos.
One nittel nacht, a group of youths gathered in the courtyard of the Kedushas Yom Tov to play cards. When they saw Yoel approaching, they pleaded with him to join them. At first he refused. However he later on agreed, saying: "I will transform this into a Torah game!"
He donned his coat, fastened his belt, and told the youths to surrender their playing monies, in order to avoid the chashash gezel card games involve. Afterwards, he stipulated that all of the money which would be won, would go to charity, in order to insure that each and every one of the youths would surrender his money willingly. The profit would go to the poor, and the youths would earn a mitzvah! Yoel continued to make many more Torah-dig conditions. When the youths saw that no end was in sight, they grew angry at him, and sent him away.
A sign at Kiryas Joel
Maran, the Gaon R' Eliezer Man Shach zt"l Eulogized the Admor of Satmar, zt'l
(Delivered in Kollel Chazon Ish after the Admor's death)
Chazal say that the deceased is present at his own funeral and hears the eulogies recited in his memory. When one attempts to eulogize a giant among giants, he should not be stinting in his praises of him. Therefore I ask forgiveness in advance, lest I not honor the deceased sufficiently.
We are eulogizing a great man who cannot be described—a venerable giant, who died full of days which were replete with Torah, replete with yiras Shomayim and replete with good deeds. It is rare to find a person who combined so many qualities.
In truth, we should not bemoan the deceased, as is written, "Cry not for the deceased," for how can we weep over a person with a record of ninety-three years of Torah, mitzvos and yiras Shomayim, one who surely personified the verse, "and she laughs at the day to come."
Our sacred books say that when a person dies, he is shown all the deeds he committed on earth. During the moments the Admor ascended to Heaven, ninety-three years of Torah and mitzvos passed before his eyes. How happy he must have been as he parted from the world. Surely the words, "do not weep for the deceased," apply to him.
What we should mourn, though, is the aspect of "weep for he that is going," for we must ask "onto whom have You abandoned us." He was the only person who guided tens of thousands of Jews—a person who shed his influence on all Israel. Therefore we say, "Weep for he that is going, because we are left like sheep without a shepherd."
Pischei Teshuva (Yoreh De'ah) relates that the gaon, the Pnei Yehoshua ordered his family not to eulogize him. Nevertheless, the gaon, the Noda beYehudah still eulogized him, even though the halacha states that we respect the wishes of one who asks not to be eulogized. The Noda beYehudah behaved as he did, because when a person as great as the Pnei Yehoshua dies, his wish not to be eulogized is not heeded.
One of the reasons why a person's desire not to be eulogized is honored, is derived from the law stating that a rav may forego the respect due him. This is so, because once a person toils in Torah day and night, the Torah which had formerly belonged to Hashem (as is written: "beToras Hashem cheftzo") now belongs to him (as is written: "beToraso yehegeh yomam valaila") and he now has the right to forego the honor due his own Torah learning. However, this applies only when we eulogize the past: the Torah which he learned in the past, the students he raised in the past, for they are his.
However, he cannot forego the honor due the future Torah which will issue from him, or the Torah which should have emanated from him had he lived, or the honor of the students he would have raised had he lived. This Torah is not his, but Hashem's. Therefore, one who spreads Torah and raises students is not obeyed when he asks not to be eulogized, and one is obligated to weep over the Torah which he would have spread had he remained alive.
One of the seforim of the Satmar Rov
This idea suits our motif. The Admor of Satmar was very active and raised generations for ninety-three years, leading them firmly in one specific direction. Tens of thousands of Jews were drawn after him. Those which he raised are here.
However, the concept beToras Hashem cheftzo has a future aspect and our future lacks such a man. It lacks one as firm and resolute as he. There is no one who will apprise us of Hashem's word, so uncompromisingly. Thus we are eulogizing the Torah which he could have spread, and are weeping for he who is going out.
Assembled here are bnei Torah who are the most sensitive people of all, and who deeply feel his absence. When the godol is no longer with us, the world is desolate, for there is no one to utter a decisive and firm ruling.
Chazal have enumerated those over whom we must mourn and rend our clothing with an irreparable tear. A number of types of people are mentioned, and he whom we mourn today encompasses them all in the form of rabbo shelimdo Torah.
On the surface, great distances separated us from him, however, his influence touched us all, either directly or indirectly. Even those who did not fully understand him—and it was not easy to understand him—were influenced by him, for when a great person resides in the world, even lesser people do not fall too low. When there is so great a person amidst us, even the weak do not totally regress. However, if the leader is weak-principled and compromising, then the lower strata of humanity descend to the depths of depravity, each according to his level.
When we examine Jewish history, we see that where there were gedolei Torah, even the masses did not fall too low; even they remained Torah observant. But where there were no gedolim, and the esteem of Torah scholars decreased, the masses regressed to the point of assimilation.
When there were gedolim in Spain, klal Yisroel was in Spain. When there were gedolim in France, klal Yisroel was in France. When there were gedolim in Germany, klal Yisroel was in Germany. When the Nation grew weaker, there, and yeshivos grew rare, what remained in Germany? The People of Israel began to assimilate and only a few Jews, such as the members of the minyan in Frankfurt, remained loyal to the Torah.
In recent generations, too, each country had its own gedolim, Russia and Lithuania had R' Chaim of Volozhin and many others. Poland had its gedolim, Galacia hers. Hungary had the Chasam Sofer—and there was a klal Yisroel there. However, if a generation does not have one unique and firm godol, no one will stem the tide.
It is written: "And I shall separate you from the Nations to be unto Me." The Bais Halevi comments on this verse, saying that Hashem created boundaries in order to separate between Israel and the nations. If Israel does not preserve her limits and willingly seeks to mingle with the nations, they will repel her, as they did during the time of the Nazis who traced the lineage of apostates four generations back, and sent them to their deaths. They ascertained the origins of the grandparents and great-great-grandparents of those who did not even know that they were Jews, and treated them "accordingly."
How great, then, was the extent to which the Admor of Satmar went in order to preserve the borders and separate his brethren from the gentiles. How strong was the fence and fortified the wall which he erected to prevent assimilation. The magnitude of his deeds was so immense, that he influenced tens of thousands, in a manner which will abide for many generations. Such were the deeds of the deceased. He cannot be replaced.
Chazal say: "Fortunate is one who approaches [the World to Come] with his Talmud in his hand." Rabbenu Chananel explains that the phrase, "his Talmud in his hand" refers to one's good deeds. The Admor of Satmar was an oheiv Yisroel.
I was told that a Jew once approached him and began to complain about his bitter lot. His wife and son, he said, were ill and he could not cover their medical expenses. The Rebbe gave him all the money in his possession at the time. When the man left, someone told the Rebbe: "That man lied to you. His wife and children are healthy."
"Boruch Hashem," exclaimed the Rebbe happily. "How glad I am that they are well."
A sign in Hebrew and Yiddish
He loved every single Jew and was a tremendous baal chesed and baal rachamim. In general his firmness stemmed from his love of Israel. We had all this, and now we lack it. If only he were still amidst us.
Chazal describe the concept of "geza yeshishim," of someone of advanced age. One cannot compare the achievements of someone who was 93 years old, with the concepts and the achievements of three generations ago, with the greatness and the power of those times, to our generation. We are like children compared to him.
We must rend our clothing when a sefer Torah goes up in flames. Although we are speaking to bnei Torah,, we must still clarify the concept of a sefer Torah which has gone up in flame.
From what does the sanctity of a sefer Torah stem? Its kedusha stems from the fact that a man sanctified it. If so, then a person himself is certainly sanctified if he has sanctified himself. The greatness of the Torah that a person has studied, sanctifies himself, along the lines of "betzalmeinu, kidemuseinu."
It is also along the lines of what is written: "Make Me a sanctuary and I shall reside amidst them." The Torah does not say, "amidst it," but "amidst them" (besocham), intimating that Torah dwells amidst each and every individual. The fire of yiras Shomaim and the fire of Torah burned within the Rebbe for ninety-three years, day after day.
It is written that Sarah lived "one hundred and twenty and seven years." Regarding this, Rashi says that each digit was listed separately to indicate that all her years had been equally good.
Ramban questions Rashi and notes that the same type of wording is used concerning Yishmoel. He explains the meaning for these distinctions differently, saying that when Sarah was one hundred, she was as free of sin as a twenty year old. Even though she had undergone many trials and tribulations, she was like the twenty year old who is not held culpable for her misdeeds. She was also like a twenty year old, for that age is the most flourishing period in one's life.
How was she like a seven year old? She was like a seven year old in her beauty (i.e. in her beautiful deeds). Our Sages have said that Sarah is Yiskah, whose name implies that she bathed in ruach hakodesh. According to this view, if she had ruach hakodesh when she was only seven, she later reached much higher spiritual planes, because the older Torah scholars grow, the wiser they become. Thus when she reached the age of twenty, her spiritual level was indeed high.
Consequently, the reason the Torah distinguishes between each age category is to indicate the differences in the levels she achieved. However, they were all equal in their goodness, and all propelled her in the same upward direction.
Chazal interpret the verse, "and Sarah saw that he was playing," as meaning that even as a youth, Yishmoel worshiped idols. If he was so wicked in childhood, he surely regressed at a steady rate, in line with the dictum that "the older the wicked grow, the more demented they become." Thus, by the time Yishmoel was twenty, he was very depraved, and when he was one hundred, his spiritual state was even lower.
I do not know whether this Midrash argues with the one which says that Yishmoel repented in his old age. However, in any case until repenting, he regressed from year to year.
Now we understand why, when describing the life spans of both Sarah and Yishmoel, the same terminology is used. The years of both of them were equal, however Sarah chose a good path, and Yishmoel an iniquitous one.
I do not want to draw a comparison. However, we know that the deceased was saintly even in his mother's womb. For years on end, he waged Hashem's battle fearlessly and courageously. And it is such a man we eulogize today. Can we point to any other figure who achieved what he did? Can we point to anyone else with such great qualities? We cannot.
In Chagigah, our Sages say that Yeshaya heaped eighteen curses on Israel, and he knew no peace of mind until he said that children "shall behave insolently towards the aged." The curses that he said were : "For behold the Lord, the Lord of hosts, does take away from Jerusalem and from Judah stay and staff, every stay of bread, and every stay of water. The mighty man, and the man of war; the judge and the prophet and the diviner and the elder; the captain of fifty and the man of rank and the counselor and the cunning charmer and the skillful enchanter. And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them. And the people shall oppress one another. Every man, his fellow and every man his neighbor. The child will behave insolently against the aged, and the base against the honorable" (Yeshaya 3: 1-5).
Chazal interpret the phrase, "a man of war" as referring to one who knows how to deliberate in the war of Torah. The prophet cursed all that they should be taken away, but his mind was not set at ease until he said, "The child shall behave insolently against the aged..."
Why did the prophet curse Israel? What did he mean by the curse, "the child will behave insolently against the aged"? On the surface, the first curses seem more severe than the final one?
Our Sages have said that the phrase "stay" (mish'an) refers to those who study Chumash. Whom did the prophet regard as Israel's "stays" (i.e. support)? Not her territories, not her army, not the nations of the world. Her "stays" are her Chumash students. The term mish'ana (staffs) refers to those who study Mishna. When groups of Jews study Mishna together, they support her.
"Every stay of bread" refers to those who study Talmud. If we have yeshivos, Talmudei Torah, yeshivos for youths, places where Torah is pursued, these are our supports.
"Stays of water" refers to those who study aggada—to those who study mussar and words of rebuke. All these are Israel's supports, as well as the rest which he enumerates, and he says that we will lose them. He does not say that we will lose Eretz Yisroel!
But all these curses did not satisfy him, until he said, "The child shall behave insolently towards the aged." Why is this curse so grave?
All the other curses involved a negation and loss of the good. None of these benefits will be yours, he cries out. Chumash scholars will be lacking. Mishna scholars will be lacking, Talmudic scholars will be lacking. However Israel will recall and long for the good of the past. The worst curse will transpire when youths are insolent towards the elderly, when they cast aside the old and traditional path, and present new ideas, new approaches and new ways. This is the worst kind of situation.
Israel has experienced many changes. There have been times of rise and times of regression. However, the leader of the Nation was always the elder, and not a woman or a youth, or a Shabbos desecrater or one who defiles himself with treif food. All this has been taken away from us, and the image of the Jewish Nation has been battered and betrayed.
I recall that a newspaper called Hayom appeared in Poland. It once published an article written by a secular Jew named Dr. Tohan who wrote: "We don't need Berditchev in Eretz Yisroel (Berditchev symbolizing Torah observant Jews). We must alter the image of Berditchev, and only then will we make aliya to Eretz Yisroel." And thus, they exchanged Am Yisroel for new concepts, beliefs, ideas and principles.
Examine the Thirteen Principles of the Rambam to see whether they contain even one of the principles of Zionism. It is to such a state that the prophet alludes when he says that "The child shall behave insolently towards the aged." The great Admor of Satmar perceived this obstacle, but we did not fully understand him. We were not raised in such a manner. However he understood it, and all were indirectly influenced by him. Were it not from him, who knows where we would be now.
The mind of the prophet was not set at ease until he uttered the curse that children would be insolent towards the aged, the curse that new ideas, principles and ways would plague us. One stresses territories, another the army, and there is no curse worse than this.
But it is still possible that the Nation will once more see the truth and discover the vanity of her ideas. They once thought that the Jewish State would solve the problem of antisemitism. Yet today all realize that even with a State, we are like sheep among seventy wolves. Perhaps they will one day return to Torah!
I recall that during one of the wars, the queen of Russia said, "People can be replaced, because new ones are born in their stead. Land cannot be replaced." She was willing to sacrifice human beings for the sake of a piece of land. Her outlook was a gentile one.
Our leaders seek to inculcate us with strange and alien ideas. But we are not like the other nations. We are Jews. We have existed without the army and will continue to do so.
I have only now begun to understand the immensity of the curse. But the Admor of Satmar, the "venerable trunk" who personified derech Yisroel saba understood. "Ask your father and he shall tell you, your elders and they shall say to you."
How can the agents of the Redemption be those sinners who plunged Jewish morality into the abyss? Midrash Eichah says: "R' Yochonon would explain the verse which describes the extent of the destruction in sixty ways. We are so far removed from that period that we cannot offer even one description. However, the former generations—the Tanoim and the amoraim—knew what had transpired then. Rabbi would explain the verse "and Hashem destroyed and did not pity" in twenty-four ways.
R' Yochonon explained it in many more ways. R' Yochonon wasn't greater then Rabbi. However he lived not long after the destruction and was thus better able to recall what had occurred, and to expound, weep and be comforted. What do we mean when we say that he was comforted?. How does this phrase answer the question: why was Rabbi only able to explain the verse in twenty-four ways?
He lived not long after the destruction, and the recollection of the terrible calamity was still clear in his mind. However, when one recalls the calamity, he also remembers the glories and benefits of the Bais Hamikdash, and what we lost with its destruction, and this is somewhat comforting. By grasping the old, one does not seek new concepts. One does not seek to build new sanctuaries nor does he search for new principles, new Torahs and mitzvos. Thus recalling the old Bais Hamikdash is a partial comfort.
R' Yochonon who lived long after the destruction, interpreted the passage in sixty ways, because there was nothing which could comfort him, since the Bais Hamikdash had already been forgotten. It is difficult to attribute such a reason to an amora.
Our Torah, which is from Heaven, teaches that the earlier a generation, the greater and wiser it is. This is unlike the secular view which regards successive generations as wiser than previous ones. They assume this because they see that later generations discovered supposedly new scientific principles.
However, we who possess the words of the Bavli, Yerushalmi, rishonim and many many other sacred writings, know that the wisdom of our Sages decreases with every passing generation. This phenomenon, though, must be explained.
Hashem decreed that humanity would progress from a technological standpoint. However, where the word of Hashem is concerned, the opposite occurs, for the stature of one who heard G-d's word (on Sinai) cannot be compared to that of one who did not hear it, and the closer in time one is to the giving of the Torah, the greater his level. So it is regarding faith and the foundations of the Torah. We are forbidden to formulate new ideas, new principles. No matter who makes such innovations, they are false!
There are no guarantees for our existence. We have always been one lamb amidst seventy wolves, and have sanctified our souls for Heaven's sake for over two thousand years. But we have not suffered so that people will come and reject our entire Torah and choose to follow the laws of the gentiles.
We have suffered in order to preserve Torah's way. Only on its merit and only by following its unique way, will we continue to exist. Torah is our only future. "Do not place your trust in princes."
I once more stress that I don't know whether we have properly eulogized the deceased, but my strength is waning.
Everyone is required to be cautious and not to depend on the nations of the world. One should not rejoice when a particular non-Jew visits our Land, for we cannot depend on such weak supports whose sole intention is to harm us. The leaders of our Nation do not understand why we are unlike the other nations and what differentiates us from the gentiles whose friendship they seek. They gamble together, eat their foods and defile themselves with their meat. There is no barrier between them. Why then should they despise them?
However, one who meditates in Torah and is familiar with the deep spiritual powers of man, will eventually discover the meaning of the verse, "And I shall separate you from the Nations to be unto Me." When one tries to resemble the gentiles, they in turn repel and reject him. Even assimilated Jews, whose "forefathers" abandoned his faith, and whose grandchildren completely forgot their source, were tracked down by gentiles who searched their lineage and discovered that were not Aryans, but Jews, for G-d had willed that so be it.
We are believers, sons of believers. Famous are the words of the Meshech Chochma that Hashem's ways are concealed, and that all the nations of the world are governed by Him. All history is in His hands, and he decrees who will live and who will die, which Nations shall rise and which shall fall.
This should teach us that the fear of G-d is wisdom, as the Chofetz Chaim said: "The world says that every fool is clever where his personal matters are concerned, and I say that every wise man is a fool in his personal affairs. All those who are considered clever and learned are fools. Man's perception does not derive from his excessive wisdom, but from the fact that "G-d's Torah is perfect and restores the soul. His testimonies are loyal and make the foolish wise."
This should teach us to be firmer in our outlook and to strengthen ourselves in Torah and yiras Shomayim. It is nearly Rosh Hashana, and our only "stay" is our Torah. If we wish to be lovers of Israel, we must our exert ourselves in Torah and devote ourselves to mitzvah observance. Through Torah study, there will be peace in our camp.