Like Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, in the midst of the destruction of Yerushalayim, the spiritual center of Am Yisrael, asked to preserve Yavneh and its scholars — while the Holocaust raged in Europe and chassidic centers were annihilated, the holy Rebbe, Harav Avraham Mordechai Alter, zy”a, the Imrei Emes, established the chassidic movement in Eretz Yisrael.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai fled from the besieged Holy City, where people were starving and desperate, and without delay, established Yavneh and its scholars — thus saving, and guaranteeing, the existence of Am Yisrael and the Torah.
The Imrei Emes, zt”l, whose 67th yahrtzeit is on Shavuos, was miraculously extracted from the valley of death and escaped war-torn Warsaw and, with the last vestiges of his strength, transplanted the seeds and roots of the chassidic movement from a destroyed world into Eretz Yisrael.
Gedolei Torah and giants of previous generations used the same words about the Imrei Emes as the Gemara uses regarding Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: “He didn’t leave out mikra and Mishnah, Talmud, halachos, aggados, dikdukei Torah and dikdukei sofrim [i.e. he knew everything].” (Sukkah 28a) As of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, similarly, it can be said that “they did not find a person sitting quietly, but rather sitting and learning.”
Divine Hashgachah placed these two giants, each in his time — a period of hester panim and darkness, and at a critical junction in the history of the Jewish nation — and provided them with tremendous spiritual strength to infuse new life into the dry bones and to rehabilitate the mosdos Torah and spiritual bastions in Eretz Yisrael, to restore them to their former glory.
In earlier generations, “fartzeitige Chassidim” and bnei aliyah knew that they had no way to fathom the depths of the holiness and breadth of the greatness of the Imrei Emes. I knew elder Chassidim in Tel Aviv who had merited to see the Sfas Emes, and when they spoke of the Imrei Emes, they didn’t dare utter the word “Rebbe.” Sometimes, they mustered up the courage to say “ehr — he,” and in most cases sufficed with referring to the Imrei Emes with allusions and hints.
Today’s generations have no way to comprehend even a drop of the Imrei Emes’ tzidkus. They do not understand how much they cannot fathom his holiness and purity, his piety and his shleimus. We don’t know how much we can’t conceive of his spiritual greatness. With the endless power of his mind and his purity and holiness, the Imrei Emes was a one-time human phenomenon. The Pnei Menachem once told me that his father was on the level of a Navi. We all recite the tefillah of “Ashrei yoshvei veisecha,” but it is hard for us to recite it without being distracted by unrelated thoughts. At every hour of the day, the Imrei Emes lived and cleaved to one thought at all times: “lenegdi samid.” An elderly Chassid who had merited to go in to see the Sfas Emes to speak in learning once told me, “There are Rebbes who are Rebbes for 10 hours a day or six hours a day. The Imrei Emes was a Rebbe 24 four hours a day.”
Authors and historians in the chassidic camp have not expended adequate effort to research and document the stature and activities of the Imrei Emes as having rehabilitated and established the chassidic movement in Eretz Yisrael after the Holocaust and after the decimation of East European Jewry. The Imrei Emes, who came to Yerushalayim in 5700/1940 broken and shattered in a physical sense, didn’t gather communities in the scope and fashion as he had done in Poland before the Holocaust, when he was the known leader of Torah-true Yiddishkeit and had organized Agudas Yisrael. Yet, the very presence in Yerushalayim of such a spiritual giant as the Imrei Emes in those years of despair and uncertainty were like a beacon of light in the center of a stormy sea; he was perceived as a haven of healing for the brokenhearted. Hidden in his room, ensconced in his holy thoughts, the Imrei Emes, with his ruach hakodesh, influenced his surroundings and created a new reality. He prepared the atmosphere and the conditions to enable the battered chassidic movement to reveal its spiritual strength once again, and to be rebuilt in Eretz Yisrael.
The centrality of the Imrei Emes and his influence on the process of establishing the foundation for a renewed thriving of Chassidus in Eretz Yisrael is a riveting chapter of history that bears witness more than anything to his greatness, holiness and purity.
Already in the 1920s and 1930s, chassidic Rebbes and leaders came to Eretz Yisrael, and most of them settled in Tel Aviv. Notable among them were the Rebbes of the Ruzhin dynasty, who lived in Tel Aviv and established shuls and batei medrash. In Tel Aviv, chassidic shuls functioned, some of them belonging to Gerrer Chassidim who had come to Eretz Yisrael in the years before World War II at the encouragement of the Imrei Emes.
But it was only when the Imrei Emes arrived in Eretz Yisrael that the real process of the resurrection of Chassidus and the establishment of the infrastructure to turn it into a mass movement began. A person who is the recipient of a miracle does not usually recognize his miracle. We cannot fathom the tremendous significance of the miraculous rescue of the Imrei Emes from Poland, because only a tzaddik from a prior generation such as the Imrei Emes had the power to transplant the foundations of the Chassidic movement in Eretz Yisrael and to rehabilitate it after the destruction. Only one with the purity of the soul, with a “tzanif tahor al rosho” (Zechariah 3, 5) as the Imrei Emes was meritorious and worthy to stand beside the cradle of the birth of the chassidic movement in Eretz Yisrael. The Imrei Emes, who was completely disconnected from the world of materialism, free of any personal subjectivity, and whose entire life was one of an “ish emes” in the path of Kotzk, could have led the spiritual world in an era of suffering and loss, and plow the ground to enable the potential of the chassidic movement to thrive in Eretz Yisrael.
Historically, the Imrei Emes was the most fitting spiritual figure to lay the foundationstone for the movement in Eretz Yisrael. His love of the land was well-known, and he took a tremendous interest in the settlement of the land, not only in a spiritual and ideological sense; he took practical action toward this end. From 5681/1921, when he traveled to Eretz Yisrael for the first time, and after, he visited the Holy Land seven times. In 5684/1924, he founded Yeshivas Sfas Emes in Yerushalayim, and several years later, established the first chassidic yeshivah in Tel Aviv. The Imrei Emes wrote a letter as he traveled back to Poland from his first visit; it is a historical document relating to Eretz Yisrael, and its remarkable content should be studied extensively.
Not one of the Jewish leaders of that era and in the years after that described Eretz Yisrael and listed its attributes or glorified its advantages with the love, enthusiasm and deep longing the way the Imrei Emes did in that letter he wrote on the ship. He even mentions the presence of the “Arab residents” and notes, “…my outlook is that we should be able to establish relations with them and to dwell there in quiet and security.”
The letter was actually a declaration to the chassidic community in Poland to go to Eretz Yisrael. Throughout his letter, the Imrei Emes offered a detailed practical plan, according to which “he who Hashem granted the fortune” to manage and acclimate to Eretz Yisrael could do so.
After the passing of the Chiddushei Harim’s only son, Harav Avraham Mordechai, zy”a, on 27 Av 5615/1855, the Chiddushei Harim traveled to Kotzk. When he entered the Rebbe’s chamber, he said to the Rebbe, “It says in Tehillim, ‘Vechessed Hashem me’olam v’ad olam al yereiav.’ After the tragedy that has struck me, does that mean I am not one of those who fear Hashem?” The Kotzker Rebbe replied that the passuk concludes, “Vetzidkaso livnei banim…”
The extent of the fulfillment of the “vetzidkaso livnei banim” was realized clearly in the history of the Gerrer dynasty during the last 70 years in Eretz Yisrael.