Shneur Zalman Levin, Beis Moshiach
Anyone who has been in a hospital at the side of a loved one or has encountered difficult situations in life, endured times of hardship and penury, can tell of relationships that formed between families and people when the difficulty, the pain and stress brought people together and made the bond strong and deep.
This is the background to the special soul connection that formed between the family of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Raskin and the Schneerson family, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok and his wife Rebbetzin Chana, the parents of the Rebbe. This bond began to be woven in the final weeks of R’ Levi Yitzchok’s life and deepened as his condition worsened.
In the final four months of his life, starting right after Pesach 1944, the Raskins had the rare privilege of being able to accomplish much in the work to save R’ Levi Yitzchok and his wife and to move them from their city of exile Chili to Alma Ata and after that, to serve and aid them in Alma Ata.
In R’ Levi Yitzchok’s final days, he was supported by the Raskins. They did all they could to help alleviate his pain. They accompanied him on his final journey, to the cemetery in Alma Ata where they found a free space. There, they buried him and built an enclosed clearance around his grave, so non-Jews would not be buried near him. That day was 20 Av 5704.
The description of that time is worthy of proper treatment but is not the subject of this article. The relationship did not end there; it continued with Rebbetzin Chana, a refugee who ran for her life in fear of the Soviet regime, and the Raskin family. It became stronger two years later when Rebbetzin Chana managed to escape the Soviet Union under a forged Polish identity. The Raskins escaped in the same way. Rebbetzin Chana later settled in the United States, living not far from 770, where she was visited every day by her son who later became the seventh leader of Chabad. The Raskins eventually arrived in Eretz Yisrael and settled in the new village that was founded for Lubavitcher immigrants, Kfar Chabad.
Despite the physical distance, the connection between the Rebbetzin and the family continued, mainly through letters that were sent from New York to Kfar Chabad and back. All the more, when the Raskins visited Crown Heights, they would utilize these visits to reminisce together with her about those difficult days in exile in Kazakhstan.
A pivotal part of the bond between the families was channeled via Dovid Raskin, the son of R’ Yaakov Yosef, who arrived in 5710 and then spent decades in the Rebbe’s presence first as a tamim in yeshiva and then as a general in the Rebbe’s army.
The Rebbetzin was especially fond of R’ Dovid not only because he was the “son of,” but also in his own right, for the help that he personally provided to her husband.
One can say that the person who encouraged this unusual relationship between the Rebbetzin and the young man was the Rebbe. It was shortly after R’ Dovid arrived in New York when the Rebbe told his mother that if she needed something, she could ask R’ Dovid for his help (or R’ Berek Junik who also arrived in New York at that time).
Indeed, for many years, R’ Dovid Raskin was a faithful “bridge” between the families. One example is where R’ Dovid wrote to his father in Kfar Chabad a few months after arriving in New York:
“Today Rebbetzin Chana from Europe, mother of Ramash, met me and inquired about you, how you are doing and how Tzivya is [the daughter, Tzivya Bravman]. She asked that when I write to you, that I send her regards.”
This is what R’ Dovid wrote his father in the middle of the winter 5711:
“I gave regards to Rebbetzin Chana and she said that she would probably write a response because she wants to know how you are, especially my mother. In general, she is very friendly. I go to her quite often.”
R’ Dovid went on to write:
“She told me that a few weeks ago, she spoke with the Rebbe about you and my brother Menachem Mendel… In general, when she gets a letter, she surely talks about it with him [the Rebbe] because he visits her every day, sometimes twice a day. She told me so.”
The Rebbetzin kept up a correspondence with the Raskins of Kfar Chabad and complimented them on their son who learned in yeshiva not far from her: “…I often see your son Dovid. From what I can see, and from what I was told [and perhaps her son the Rebbe was the source of the information] his understanding in Nigleh and Chassidus and his conduct in general are good.”
R’ Yaakov Yosef often wrote to the Rebbetzin. As though they were one family, he informed the Rebbetzin about details of important family events. The Rebbetzin responded.
Typical is what he wrote to her many years later, in 5722, “My heart rejoices greatly when I receive a letter from her honor, which is as dear to me as a sealed treasure. All her letters are preserved by me in a special case in my library of sefarim.”
STEADY GUESTS OF THE REBBETZIN
R’ Dovid Raskin often visited the Rebbetzin on President Street. He would talk to her about various subjects. These visits were greatly appreciated by her since she was alone nearly all day. One would think that they would reminisce about that momentous period in distant Alma Ata when they were brought together in hardship, but this was not the case.
One time, the Rebbe asked R’ Dovid that when he visited his mother not to talk to her about Alma Ata so as not to bring up painful memories.
When R’ Yaakov Yosef Raskin visited the Rebbe for Tishrei 5716 and had yechidus, the Rebbe asked him what time his father passed away, before or after sunset. From this he concluded that the Rebbe had refrained from asking his mother all those years so as not to cause her pain; such amazing sensitivity…
One year, erev Pesach, the brothers Dovid and Yehuda Leib Raskin went to Rebbetzin Chana’s house to search for chometz. As they were busy doing this, the door suddenly opened and in walked the Rebbe. The two were quite discombobulated and they hurried to hide themselves in another room.
The Rebbe realized that they had quickly hidden and he said to his mother, “It is erev Pesach and I see that they are checking for chometz. May it be a kosher and happy Pesach and may you merit to celebrate again next year.” From their hiding place, they heard the Rebbetzin ask the Rebbe to repeat the bracha which he did, “derleben iber a yor.”
THE REBBE ASKED FOR MEMORIES OF HIS FATHER
Six years passed since R’ Levi Yitzchok passed away and for Chof Av 5710 the Rebbe held a farbrengen for his yartzeit.
A few days earlier, the Rebbe asked Dovid Raskin to write what he remembered of his father, in the last period of his life. The Rebbe said he especially wanted any divrei Torah of his father, if he remembered any, and to submit his memories of him for the yartzeit.
R’ Dovid, who was only seventeen when he had been with R’ Levi Yitzchok, apologetically said that he did not remember much of those days. The Rebbe reacted with surprise, “But you were one of those who were involved with him and surely you know …” The Rebbe asked him to ask his father to write any practices, stories, Chassidus or anything he heard from R’ Levi Yitzchok.
R’ Dovid asked the Rebbe, “Perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to speak with ‘der mama’ [Rebbetzin Chana] to refresh my memory of those days?” The Rebbe said no, he did not want to cause her pain.
R’ Dovid did as the Rebbe asked and wrote what he remembered, “This is what remains in my memory about the gaon, Rebbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson.”
After detailing the Rebbe’s father’s travails, he described Reb Levi Yitzchok, “In general, when he came, with Hashem’s help, to Alma Ata, he was a man of stature: his beard was white, his face shone and simcha and bitachon were apparent on his face that now he would get back to himself. And the joy that he was now in the company of Anash and there was whom to speak to, and it was not at all apparent that he was sick.”
Then Dovid described the final days, “In the last week he was unable to walk and it was necessary for him to lie in bed. He wasn’t told about his sickness; they would just give him medication to calm him. The medication was merely sweetened water because the doctors said they had no cure for him.
“In the final week, he was not even able to put on tefillin himself and I put tefillin on with him a few days. After putting on the tefillin, he would touch the knot of the head-tefillin to check that they were in the right place … This is the way it was until 20 Av and on 20 Av he went up to heaven…”
R’ Dovid signed this with his name and his mother’s name, Dovid ben Dreizel.
HIDE THE INFORMATION
The story is already known about the passing of Rebbetzin Chana’s son, R’ Yisrael Aryeh Leib who passed away in Liverpool. The Rebbe did not want to cause his mother pain over the passing of her son and he did all he could to hide the information from her.
The Rebbe warned R’ Dovid to make sure that she heard nothing about it, and R’ Dovid quickly wrote to his parents so they would not inadvertently write to her about this:
“I ask that what I write to you, you do not publicize to anyone, even in confidence. Actually, there should be no need to write about this at all, as you see that I did not write about it until now.” This is what he wrote to his father, revealing a secret (that today, is known to all): “Of course, they came up with ways to ensure that letters did not go directly to her so that she would not know about the letters [about the passing of her son].”
R’ Dovid wrote to his parents about the Rebbe’s warning:
“When I gave her the letter, apparently she told the Rebbe and yesterday, when my friend Dovber Junik was by the Rebbe … the Rebbe told him to tell me, ‘Tell Dovid to write to Eretz Yisrael not to write to my mother anything about this.’”
R’ Raskin added his own observation that since the Rebbe said “write to Eretz Yisrael,” and had not said, “write to his father,” that the Rebbe wanted Anash in Eretz Yisrael to know about this.
A LITTLE LEVI YITZCHOK WAS BORN
Rebbetzin Chana had tremendous nachas when she heard that Lubavitcher families named a son after her husband. Today, “Levi Yitzchok” is a common Lubavitcher name but back then, in the early years of the nesius, people mainly used the names of the Rebbeim.
The Rebbetzin sometimes asked or hinted that she would be very glad if certain families named their children for her husband who was moser nefesh for Torah and mitzvos.
R’ Yaakov Yosef Raskin told about one of these instances in a letter that he sent to the Rebbetzin after a baby was born to the family of Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, in 5712.
“When I received from my son, the tamim Dovid, about the fact that her honor had requested regarding the name of her late husband zt’l zy’a, I told my friend R’ Chaim Shaul Brook in confidence and now, when this baby boy [a grandson] was born, they decided to name him Levi Yitzchok for length of days, in the name of his honor, her husband, zt’l, and I was the mohel.”
All this gave the Rebbetzin much nachas and she was quick to share the news with her son, the Rebbe. In the case of the Brook family, she did not suffice with a thank you letter but went out to buy an outfit for the baby that had been named for her husband.
“Mazal tov in my name to Mr. M. Mendel Brook and his wife on the birth of their son Levi Yitzchok, for long good days and may you receive much nachas, materially and spiritually. I am sending a gift for the baby. May he use it in good health and enjoyment. Chana Schneerson.”
The Rebbe too, sent blessings to the father, R’ Mendel Brook, “I just received your letter in which you inform me that a baby boy was born to you, l’mazel tov, and he was named for my father z’l [here the Rebbe added in his handwriting] for length of days and good years. I hereby express my blessing that you and your wife raise him to Torah, chuppa and good deeds in expansiveness and peace of soul and body.
“May it be Hashem’s will that just as you caused me pleasure by naming your son for my father, Hashem should grant you pleasure and nachas from your entire family and may you always report just goodness and kindness.”
THE PRECIOUS SHOFAR RETURNS
The gaon and mekubal, Reb Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, had two shofars. They were precious because of their special quality. He had gotten them as an inheritance from his holy ancestors.
Every Rosh Hashana he would stand on the platform in the center of the large shul in Yekaterinaslav. He would take a black shofar out of his bag and would blow it with trepidation. This shofar was known as the “black shofar” and he inherited it from the Rebbe Maharash.
After R’ Levi Yitzchok was arrested and exiled to a distant city in Kazakhstan, the shofar remained with his wife, Rebbetzin Chana a”h. It was incredible that the evil ones who conducted a thorough search of the rav’s house did not touch the shofar. The Rebbetzin gave the precious shofar to the chassid, R’ Yehuda Gurary, who also lived in Yekaterinaslav, in the hopes of retrieving it in better times.
At some point, the Rebbetzin traveled to where her husband was in exile in order to be with him. She knew that her husband would be spending a number of years there as the cursed ones had decreed, and that he would need a shofar for Rosh Hashana. So she took back the shofar from R’ Gurary and made the long trip to the exile in Chili.
R’ Yaakov Yosef Raskin, who as mentioned merited to help the Rebbetzin and her husband towards the end of the life of R’ Levi Yitzchok, was finally able to leave Russia. Before he left, he asked the Rebbetzin to give him the shofar so he could bring it to a safe location so that it would not fall into the wrong hands.
The Rebbetzin, appreciating the importance of the black shofar, gave him the shofar that remained in her possession. For six years, R’ Raskin had the shofar and he blew it every year until Elul 5710.
At that time, the Rebbe sent a message to R’ Raskin requesting that he send the shofar that belonged to his father, since according to the laws of the Torah he inherits all the property of his father.
R’ Yaakov Yosef, despite the difficulty for him to part with such a precious item, did not hesitate and sent the shofar with one of the Chassidim who was traveling to the Rebbe at that time. Still, he asked for something in return, something that had belonged to the Rebbe Rayatz.
As he requested, the Rebbe agreed to the exchange and sent him a handkerchief that had been used by the Rebbe Rayatz, adding that he since he was a baal tokei’a he could use it to cover the shofar.
When the Rebbe received the shofar, he thanked R’ Raskin:
“… I received the shofar of Adoni, Avi, Mori v’Rabi nishamso eden, many thanks, many thanks. … And (as per the statement of Chazal) thanks are due the one who pours the drink – so as per your request, I am giving to you, through your son, the masmid R’ Dovid, part of a handkerchief of kevod kedushas Mori v’Chami Admor, hareini kaporas mishkavo. Please be so good as to write to your son how to get it to you.”
It wasn’t easy for R’ Yaakov Yosef Raskin to part with the precious shofar as he wrote later on to Rebbetzin Chana:
“When I received a letter from your son, the Admor shlita, who asked it of me, the truth is, I will confess and not deny, it was very hard to part with it and I wasn’t able to part from the shofar that was precious as pearls to me, but I could not, G-d forbid, not accede to the request and demand of the Rebbe shlita.”
The Rebbe sensed this difficulty as he expressed it with great gentleness and sensitivity to his son, Dovid, who reported this to his father in a letter, “And the Rebbe said to me that he has his father’s shofar – which was said smilingly – and apparently it was hard for you to give the shofar.”
Despite the difficulty, R’ Raskin expressed his feelings towards the shofar in a letter that he sent to Rebbetzin Chana, a year later, “I was so happy and delighted about what my son Dovid wrote me that on Rosh Hashana this year, they blew the black shofar of the Rebbe Maharash which I took from her exalted honor in Alma Ata eight years ago and I blew it for six years every Rosh Hashana and enabled many to fulfill their mitzva obligation.
“ … Now, when I heard that this Rosh Hashana they blew it by the Rebbe shlita, I was very happy that I merited that it was through me, that I brought it from Russia and preserved it as the pupil of my eye and it finally reached the possession of their son, the Rebbe …”
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