The Skulener Rebbe, Harav Yeshayah Yaakov Portugal, shlita
The home of the Skulener Rebbe, Harav Yeshayah Yaakov Portugal, shlita, is in the heart of Boro Park, on 54th Street near 13th Avenue. Every night, a long line of petitioners waits outside his door for hours, just as it was during his father’s lifetime. The visitors range across the entire spectrum of Jews, but they all have a common goal — to receive the Rebbe’s brachah and/or sage advice.
The Rebbe, shlita, served as a Rav and Posek for many years. Now, despite the late hour, he sits in his receiving room, an aura of spirituality emanating from him reflecting many decades of pure avodas Hashem. The Rebbe greets each of his visitors with an enthusiastic smile as if he is just beginning his day. He listens to each person’s story with fatherly compassion as if he is his only son.
The Chassidim see a reflection of the Rebbe’s father, Rav Yisrael Avraham, zy”a, in the current Rebbe’s countenance. The Rebbe’s four younger brothers, the Skulener Rav of Williamsburg, the Skulener Rebbe of Monsey, the Skulener Rebbe of Lakewood, and the Skulener Rebbe of Yerushalayim have great admiration for their eldest brother, the Rebbe, shlita.
Several minutes before midnight, the Rebbe proceeds to daven Maariv. Because the Rebbe agreed to speak with us immediately after Maariv, I had already davened much earlier. This gave me and my escort, Harav Menachem Mendel Schur, an opportunity to observe the Rebbe in prayer.
Chazal teach (Brachos 15b): “For whoever recites the Shema and pronounces the words carefully, the fires of Gehinnom are cooled down.” But to listen to the Rebbe’s Shema is to experience Gan Eden itself. And his davening? Words defy description of his deveikus.
Some background on Skulen
The Chassidic court of Skulen was founded by Harav Yisrael Avraham Portugal, the current Rebbe’s great-grandfather, author of Shem V’she’eiris Yisrael. He was a close talmid of Harav Yeshayah Shur, author of Kelil Tiferes, and he also learned under the Alter Rebbes of Sadigura and Chortkov. After his passing in 5675/1915, he was succeeded by his son, Harav Eliezer Zusia, zy”a, author of Noam Eliezer. Rav Eliezer Zusia was only 18 years old when he assumed his father’s roles as Rav and Av Beis Din of Skulen, and he likewise was very close with the Rebbes of the Ruzhiner dynasty.
Rav Eliezer Zusia was revered for his deep deveikus, and he attracted followers from far and near. His impressive drashos were enthusiastically received by people of all ages, and he succeeded in bringing many estranged Jews back to a life of Torah and mitzvos through his intense love for every Jew and his incredible power for neginah.
During the years that he was in Communist Romania, he risked his life to keep Yiddishkeit alive among his flock. Although the people were forced to work on Shabbos, he gathered them together on Friday nights and celebrated the holy Shabbos with song and dance until dawn. This infused the people with Jewish pride that lasted through the week, and many of them changed their lives and became observant as a result. His inspirational tisch provided the spiritual nourishment needed when faced with the harsh tests of the Communist authorities.
In 5707/1947, Rav Eliezer Zusia moved to Bucharest and continued his sacred work. Several times, he and his son were imprisoned for their “counterrevolutionary” activities, and finally in 5720/1960 they were allowed to leave Romania. The Rebbe arrived in the United States and immediately began rebuilding his court. His home once again became a magnet for Jews of all types. They came because of his spiritual heroism under the Communist rule, and they came to hear him sing his many incredibly soul-stirring compositions. He revived many broken Holocaust survivors and encouraged them to rebuild lives of Torah and mitzvos.
Rav Eliezer Zusia was niftar on Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul 5742/1982. He was succeeded by his son, Harav Yisrael Avraham, zy”a, who continued his father’s holy work in Boro Park. He expanded his court, building new institutions in the United States and for his Chessed L’Avraham network of schools in Eretz Yisrael. Despite his many responsibilities, he maintained a heavy Torah-learning schedule and continued to daven slowly, with intense feeling, with enthusiastic singing and with all his heart. The Rebbe was niftar on 25 Adar II, 5779/2019.
Rav Yisrael Avraham’s oldest son, Rav Yeshaya Yaakov, shlita, was born in Bucharest while his grandfather was still there, busy helping others escape Romania. When he was 3 years old, his father took the family to London, and shortly afterward they continued on to Canada. Some years later, they came to the United States where Rav Eliezer Zusia had already established himself. After Rav Yeshaya Yaakov became a bar mitzvah, he learned in the local Satmar yeshivah, and when he was 16, he was sent to learn in the Ruzhiner yeshivah in Yerushalayim.
In 5735/1975, Rav Yeshaya Yaakov married the daughter of Harav Meir Greenwald of Tetch, zy”a, and thus became a brother-in-law of the Pupa Rebbe, shlita. After his marriage, Rav Yeshaya Yaakov moved to Montreal and when his father-in-law passed away at a young age, he was chosen to succeed him as Av Beis Din of Me’or Hagolah Congregation. This community was originally a yeshivah formed in Italy after the Holocaust, as refugees of all types gathered together, a motley group of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Polish Jews, and Libyan Jews. After the yeshivah in Italy closed its doors, the students dispersed to many different countries and Rav Meir immigrated to Montreal where he formed a congregation named for the Italian yeshivah.
Rav Yeshaya Yaakov soon gained fame as a tremendous talmid chacham and a devout oveid Hashem. Despite the distance separating them, Rav Yeshaya Yaakov joined his father’s efforts to build and support the Chessed L’Avraham institutions, dedicated to kiruv rechokim.
The Rebbe never ceases to thank and praise Hashem for the wonders He performed several years ago, when the Rebbe became critically ill but then miraculously recovered. In a sichah the Rebbe delivered on 13 Adar I, 5774/2014, the Rebbe said, “I have a debt of gratitude to Hashem, for on Hoshana Rabbah I was in such bad shape that I felt I urgently needed to prepare my will. Hashem helped me out from the brink of death; He created me anew, and I thank Him for all His kindness and wonders.
“As we say in Maariv — and we usually say it too fast — ‘Blessed is Hashem when we lay down; blessed is Hashem when we rise.’ This is what I actually experienced. I remember lying awake through that holy night and wishing that the night would come to an end. I was in such terrible pain. But now, baruch Hashem, I can lay down and I can get up, and I know how wonderful this is. People who never experienced what I went through ought to spend more time reciting this brachah so that they will be inspired to thank Hashem in their hearts.”
Love of Eretz Yisrael
When the Rebbe heard that we had arrived from Eretz Yisrael, he told us the following story: “The Chernobyl Rebbe, Rav Aharon, had a great love for Eretz Yisrael and had a special place in his heart for the Jews who reside there. Once a Jew arrived from Eretz Yisrael, and the Rebbe asked him if he had brought anything from the Land. He replied that he had brought nothing, but before he boarded his ship, his clothes were muddied with soil of Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe’s face lit up and he took a knife and scraped the mud off the visitor’s clothes.”
The Rebbe added that the Chernobyl Rebbe would sometimes place garments brought from Eretz Yisrael under his pillow at night.
Shemittah — Training in emunah and time for Torah
The Rebbe told us: “In just a few days, the year of Shemittah will begin. This is a special time to help us build our emunah. The Torah tells us that if we ask how we will eat during the seventh year, Hashem will bless the sixth year so that we will have enough to eat in the seventh year as well. In Noam Elimelech, the author cites his brother Rav Zusha, who teaches that if we will observe Shemittah without asking any questions and simply trust Hashem to take care of our needs, we will be blessed without limit. If we ask questions, we will receive only the limited blessing described in the Torah.
“The Midrash describes those who keep the halachos of Shemittah correctly as ‘powerful and mighty, those who fulfill His word.’ This calls for explanation, for if the produce of the sixth year is tripled and there is plenty to make up for Shemittah, no one needs to be powerful and mighty to keep the mitzvah.”
The Rebbe continued: “The Gemara teaches (Taanis 9a) that one should give maaser in order to become wealthy. This means to give money to tzedakah before the wealth materializes, trusting in Hashem to bring it afterward. Now, there are people who have become wealthy without giving tzedakah, and even after they have wealth they still refuse to give. This is like a person who was given ten gold coins on condition that he forward one coin to a poor person. If he fails to give a coin, he is not only lacking in emunah, he is a total ingrate — after being given so much, he refuses to give any to tzedakah.
“This person is so lacking in emunah that he doesn’t believe that Hashem gave him his wealth; he thinks he did it himself through natural means. This is why people who observe the mitzvah of Shemittah are considered powerful and mighty. They receive Hashem’s blessing during the sixth year, and they understand that it all comes from Hashem.”
What is the real meaning of the brachah Hashem gives us in the sixth year? The Rebbe cited the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov, zy”a, who teaches that the essence of this brachah is that no one will need to work for their parnassah during the year of Shemittah and they will be free to dedicate themselves to Torah study. All of Klal Yisrael will become kollel fellows for a year. This is why the passuk says “es birchasi” — the word es includes a second brachah, the brachah of alef-sav, implying the 22 letters with which the Torah is written.
Toiling in Torah
Of course, the Rebbe added, it is not easy for people who spent most of their day for six years working in the fields to suddenly begin spending all their time bent over sefarim in the beis medrash. For this brachah to work, we have to concentrate on the brachah of V’haarev Na each morning. We must daven that Hashem make Torah learning a pleasant experience for us and enable us to delve into the essence of Torah study, which is to know Hashem’s Name.
We also have to concentrate on the brachah of Ahavah Rabbah each morning. A famous tzaddik once declared that if he fails to concentrate properly on this brachah on any particular morning, he is unable to discover any chiddushei Torah that day. And when we say the words “v’ha’eir eineinu b’sorasecha — enlighten our eyes with Your Torah,” we should have in mind to ask for assistance in guarding our eyes from seeing things that we shouldn’t. If we succeed in that, our eyes will automatically be enlightened with Torah wisdom. Davening is the key to everything good.
The Rebbe cited the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, zy”a, explaining that when you learn and understand what you are learning, you cannot be described as “toiling in Torah.” On the contrary, you are enjoying what you are doing. Toiling in Torah means pushing to understand it when it seems difficult to do so or when there are obstacles preventing you from researching the subject properly. It is when you are having problems concentrating or experiencing financial problems and you push yourself to learn Torah despite those distractions. That is the fulfillment of Im b’chukosai teileichu. A chok is something without a taam, and this means studying Torah even when you feel no taam in it.
When you toil in Torah without any taam, your reward will be to eventually feel a real taam in your learning. “Taamu u’re’u ki tov Hashem — Taste it, and you will see that Hashem is good” (Tehillim 34:9). When we push ourselves for the sake of Hashem’s will, we will eventually sense the taam. We have to remember that we earn our main reward for toiling in Torah and mitzvos when we don’t feel the taam in it.
Once a person feels the taam, there is nothing like it. The Rebbe said, “I remember times when my grandfather was busy all day long dealing with crises like pidyon shevuyim. If he missed the opportunity to learn Torah, he would say that he had not yet had a chance to live that day.”
The Rebbe concluded that by saying brachos often and with kavanah, we can fulfill the mitzvah of shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid, being constantly aware of Hashem’s Presence. We will then remember to thank Him when things go well, and when things don’t go so well, we will know to Whom to turn.