Rav Boruch Ber.
The very mention of his name evokes a reverence reserved for the Z’kan Rosh haYeshivos of pre-War Europe. As Rav Chaim Brisker’s primary disciple, Rav Boruch Ber amplified his great Rebbe’s derech halimud and transmitted it to the next generation of Roshei Yeshivos, such as Rav Reuven Grozovsky, Rav Shlomo Heiman, Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Elya Chazan, Rav Avrohom Kalmanowitz, Rav Yonah Minsker, Rav Shaul Brus, and so many others. There is arguably no one who has had a greater direct impact on today’s yeshiva world than Rav Boruch Ber.
His hasmadah and complete immersion in Torah was the greatest lesson for talmidim. As the Chazon Ish once remarked: “Whoever did not witness Rav Boruch Ber never saw true ameilus baTorah.”
As an individual, Rav Boruch Ber’s yiras shomayim, dikduk b’mitzvos, emunah and bitachon, ahavas Yisroel, midos tovos, kin’as ha’emes, and boundless love for his talmidim were legendary. The great Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchok Zev Soleveitchik, whose every word was precisely measured, remarked: “He was a gaon and tzaddik of several generations ago. He was a kadosh v’tahor.”
Today, the worlds of Kremenchug, Vilna, Slabodka, and Kamenetz are gone. As we express in the piyut of Yom Kippur, “Fortunate is the eye that witnessed this; how we yearn just to hear of it!” Yet, due to an incredible turn of hashgacha protis, our own generation will now have the privilege of connecting with Rav Boruch Ber. Seventy five years after the gadol hador’s passing, the matzeiva that Rav Boruch Ber was never privileged to have at his gravesite will finally be erected in a supreme ma’amad of k’vod haTorah.
Here is how it came to be.
The light that was…
Although the ominous clouds of war loomed on the horizon, Yeshivas Knesses Bais Yitzchok was an oasis of pure joy borne of simchas haTorah. The revered Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz, and the cadres of “m’vakshei Hashem”, as Rav Boruch Ber would fondly refer to his talmidim, were completely immersed in a world of spirituality.
Alas, the idyllic state of existence was not destined to endure. In September 1939, pursuant to the Nazi invasion of Poland, streams of refugees passing through Kamenetz on their way to Brisk related terrifying stories of German atrocities. Rav Boruch Ber remained calm, a bulwark of faith for his flock. He ruled that shev v’al ta’aseh odif – when in doubt, it is preferable to remain in one’s position and take no action. Indeed, the German troops who initially entered Kamenetz behaved with perfect civility and even respect; not one Jew was harmed. Later, when it became apparent that Kamenetz was to fall under the jurisdiction of the Communist Russians, Rav Boruch Ber recognized the greater spiritual threat that this posed. At the urgent direction of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, Rav Boruch Ber instructed his entire yeshiva – which had already been disbanded by the Communists – to relocate to Vilna, which still enjoyed a temporary hiatus of autonomy.
His final journey
In Vilna, the yeshiva returned to its previous location of fourteen years earlier in the suburb of Lukishok, and Rav Boruch Ber immediately began delivering shiurim. However, the Heavenly decree had already been sealed.
The Chazon Ish famously observed that as long as Rav Boruch Ber and Rav Shimon Shkop were saying shiurim, the Nazis could not completely overrun Poland; the merit of their Torah was a protection. Only after their passing would the horrors of World War II come to pass.
Shortly thereafter, Rav Boruch Ber’s health took a turn for the worse. Prayer vigils were organized by the many yeshivos that had taken residence in Vilna, but Rav Boruch Ber’s condition deteriorated. On 5 Kislev after davening shacharis, Rav Boruch Ber’s face lit up: “Der Rebbe is gekummen – The Rebbe (Rav Chaim Brisker) has come to greet me!” A little later, while lying in his bed, Rav Boruch Ber uttered his final words before returning his holy neshama: “V’shavti b’sholom el bais avi – And I will return in peace to my father’s home,” a paraphrase of Bereishis 28:21.
Placed to rest…in Vilna
When Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the gadol hador and Rov of Vilna heard Rav Boruch Ber’s cryptic last words, he knew what the tzadik’s intent was. He summoned the leaders of the chevra kadisha and informed them: “Rav Boruch Ber must be buried in the Zaretcha bais olam in Vilna, near where his father is interred.” The chevra kadisha members were astounded. “But Rabbeinu,” they argued, “there is not a centimeter of room left in the bais olam – it has been closed to new burials for years already!” Rav Chaim Ozer remained insistent: the words of the tzadik Rav Boruch Ber must be fulfilled. Seeing that they would have to devise a creative solution to obey Rav Chaim Ozer’s command, the chevra decided to depart from protocol: instead of burying Rav Boruch Ber parallel to the adjacent graves, they would bury him perpendicular to the row, at the head of his saintly father.
The feeling of grief and gloom that pervaded at the levaya were portentous of the ominous situation the Jews faced. The caretakers decided, as is common, to erect a fitting matzeiva for the illustrious Rosh Hayeshiva at a later date, perhaps on his yahrtzeit a year later.
The matzeiva that never was
It was not to be.
The next year found the Jews of Vilna already under the cruel jackboots of the Nazi beasts or in the clutches of the Communists, depending on where they had fled. Erecting a marker on their great Rebbe’s grave was not high priority at the time.
After the war, Vilna was firmly subjugated under the iron fist of the Communist regime. During the war, the cemetery had been desecrated, with many stones smashed and overrun. As the years went by, construction took place on top of parts of the Zaretcha cemetery, and its entire landscape was distorted. Not only was a matzeiva never erected, but the site of Rav Boruch Ber ‘s kever was eventually completely lost. For those who knew, who yearned to see Rav Boruch Ber receive this most basic component of kavod acharon, it was another painful footnote of the enormously greater tragedy of European Jewry’s destruction.
In 1989, with the gradual erosion of Communist control, a group of Rav Boruch Ber’s grandchildren undertook the mission of somehow locating the tzadik’s grave. Unfortunately, their efforts were met with failure. It seemed as if Heaven had decided that our generation did not merit to have this holy site. However, a strange turn of events was to take place one that would help bring the seemingly impossible about.
The face that shone
The great Rav Aharon of Belz once related his own assessment of the kedusha that was manifest on Rav Boruch Ber’s countenance: “A pachad tzu kuken oif di tzurah – It was frightening to look at the holiness of his appearance!”
Indeed, even non-Jews would sense the sanctity of Rav Boruch Ber’s visage.
Reb Koppel Wolpert, a talmid of Rav Boruch Ber’s remembered when he accompanied Rav Boruch Ber to the pharmacy during his visit to America. Rabbi Wolpert approached the gentile druggist to pay him. “Take money from him?” the druggist exclaimed. “He looks like an angel, not a man – I wouldn’t take a penny from him!”
New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker presented Rav Boruch Ber with a symbolic key to the city. “Rabbi Leibowitz disproves Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” said the Mayor. “Only a God could have created such a person!”
However, Rav Shimshon Pincus once noted that “a camera is the greatest liar.” The powerful spirituality that is projected on a great person’s face can be completely lost in a lifeless two-dimensional photograph.
“Their bite is like a scorpion’s bite”
About three years ago, two American seminary students studying in Israel were casually perusing some old photographs of gedolim. In a moment of carelessness or perhaps thoughtless immaturity, one of the students made a flippant and disparaging remark about Rav Boruch Ber’s appearance. Within an hour, the girl was suddenly stricken with Bell’s Palsy, a condition that involves paralysis of half of one’s facial muscles. Her face was now partially frozen into distortion, giving her a frightening appearance. The midas hadin of this swift repercussion was apparent, and the young lady was panic-stricken.
Rav Sholom Schwadron once related this episode, heard from Rav Boruch Ber’s chavrusa: A Zionist activist was intent on opening a ‘Tarbus’ – a secular school – in Kamenetz. When Rav Boruch Ber pleaded with him to desist, he replied: “There’s nothing you can do Rabbi – I’m opening up the school!” Rav Boruch Ber sat on the floor and began to cry, but the man, unmoved, went home.
The next morning, the man did not wake up. He had died in his sleep. As our Sages have taught, beware of slighting the honor of Torah scholars, for “Their bite is like a scorpion’s bite.”
“Only one solution”
The girl’s father hastened to Eretz Yisroel and took his distraught daughter to the home of HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman, where he tearfully related what had transpired. Rav Shteinman was thoughtful, and softly told the remorseful girl: “There is only one eitzah – you must go with a minyan to ask mechilah – forgiveness – at Rav Boruch Ber’s kever.”
The father’s relief at this apparent resolution was short-lived, for he soon learned that no one in the world knew the whereabouts of Rav Boruch Ber’s grave. Rav Shteinman remained unequivocal and insisted that there was no other way to exact the mechilah that was needed for the girl’s cure.
Summoning the expert
At this point, the determined father engaged the services of Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabbai. The legendary Breslover Chassid and his organization Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim have been directly involved in the identification and restoration of lost kivrei tzadikim throughout the world.
Rabbi Gabbai immediately threw himself into the project with his trademark energy and skill. Incredibly, he was able to procure a copy of the original map of the Zaretcha Bais Olam in Vilna where Rav Boruch Ber was buried near his father. The map was only a starting point but not nearly enough to work with; the entire topography of the area had been changed, and it’s structures and landmarks destroyed.
The next step was to identify witnesses, survivors who may have been present at Rav Boruch Ber’s levaya. Remarkably, three individuals who had participated in the funeral, all well in their 80’s, were found.
In order to avoid evoking false or imagined reminisces, Rabbi Gabbai interviewed each of the three separately. Surprisingly, their recollections of the levaya and the specific area of Rav Boruch Ber’s kever coincided exactly. They all recalled a bais hataharah, used for the final immersion of the deceased, that was in close proximity to the kever. All remembered steps leading down to an adjacent section of the cemetery. “I am a kohein,” said one “and I remember standing not far from the gravesite in an area where kohanim are permitted.”
Excited by the information he had procured, Rabbi Gabbai now shifted gears to go to the next level. He commissioned a precision aerial photograph of the entire bais olam area, based on the parameters that it had previously occupied. Then using computer imaging, he superimposed the cemetery map over the current photograph. Rabbi Gabbai was now able to identify where the bais hataharah had stood, where the steps were – and he was rapidly zeroing in on his goal: identifying the exact location of Rav Boruch Ber’s kever.
Using hi-tech infrared imaging equipment, Rabbi Gabbai made the shocking discovery that was to clinch the corroborating evidence: he discovered that there was one kever – the only one – that was perpendicular to the rest of the graves. And Rabbi Gabbai, who had done his research well, knew exactly what that meant.
Rav Boruch Ber’s kever had been identified – beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Of all the kevorim I have been involved with,” says Rabbi Gabbai, “we have never had such complete and compelling evidence to the exact location as we did by Rav Boruch Ber.”
A happy ending
Needless to say, the stricken girl’s father organized a minyan, including Rav Boruch Ber’s own grandson Rav Refoel Leibowitz, to visit the site and ask for mechilah. For the unfortunate student it was a powerful moment, the culmination of months of pent-up emotion; for Rav Boruch Ber’s family it was absolutely surreal.
Within hours, the girl’s condition began to improve, and shortly thereafter was completely cured.
At long last
Now began the Herculean task of obtaining governmental permission to properly clear the area and erect a matzeiva. As those with experience know, European governments, including local officials, are notorious for creating obstacles to prevent the restoration and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.
It took nearly two and a half years with much concerted effort by leading askonim to finally secure permission.
A ma’amad of true K’vod HaTorah
The long-awaited hakomas matzeivah of Rav Boruch Ber is scheduled to take place on his 75th yahrtzeit – 4 Kislev, 5775. This event will take place with the participation of many gedolim, including Rav Yitzchok Scheiner and Rav Chaim Shlomo Leibowitz (grandchildren of Rav Boruch Ber), Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, Rav Don Segal, and Rav Moshe Shapiro, among others.
When Rav Boruch Ber was told about a colleague from his younger days in Volozhin who abandoned Yiddishkeit and became a famous literary figure, Reb Baruch Ber said: “He knows where and when der heiliker Abaye died, but I know where der heiliker Abaye lives!”
Now, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of askonim, we have the great legacy of Rav Boruch Ber’s Torah as well as the holy site of his kever.
יהי זכרו ברוך
For more information or to participate in the Hakomas Matzeivah event, call 732-642-0843.