By Rav Zvi Leshem

This week, on the 25th of Sivan, was the fourth yartzeit of my teacher, Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) zt”l, who died of cancer at the age of 57. This is always an intense emotional day for me, and yet this year it seemed especially so. Perhaps this was due to the nature of the talks that I heard at the two memorial gatherings, in the evening in Jerusalem (where I was accompanied by my daughter Kinneret) and during the day at Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak in Efrat. I want to share a few of the thoughts with you. This is certainly not a full rendition of what I heard (not to mention the other lectures and shiurim that I didn’t hear), rather just some ideas and feelings.

In the evening the Rav’s widow Rabbanit Miriam Rosenberg[1] spoke. She reminded us of the Rav’s severe wounding as a young tank soldier on the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War (a theme that was repeatedly evoked as a canonical event in the Rav’s life), and made the shocking observation that she could have easily become a widow at the age of 19 (the other two soldiers in his tank, both close friends, were killed), and that HaShem had mercifully given her another 34 years with her husband, during which time he revealed a “new Tora” to the world.  She spoke about his Tora being developed in the shadow of death, and his belief [like the existentialist philosophers] that it is exactly this awareness of the real possibility of death that gives life its intensity and potential for real meaning. She also spoke of the Chassidic ideal of continuing one’s hitkashrut with the Zaddik even after he has died, and that in a sense the Zaddik, though his Tora and his students, is even more present in death than in life.

Afterwards, Rav Menachem Fruman, shlit”a, the Rav of Tekoa, and one of Rav Shagar’s closest friends and chevrutot, arrived in a wheel chair and pajamas, having “escaped” from the hospital. He too has been battling severe cancer for most of this year, with ups and downs. I will admit that he appeared to be physically very weak, and yet his ever-present smile was still there [writing this essay is bringing me back to the tears of yesterday]. It was very hard for many people present, students or friends of Rav Fruman, to see him in such a weak state. He spoke of his friendship with Rav Shagar and how the Rav is still alive like Yaacov Avinu about whom the Gemara states that he didn’t die, for his children are still alive and he lives on through them. He proclaimed dramatically that Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai, and Od Rabbenu Chai (our Rebbe – Rav Shagar) still lives. He also stood up and blessed HaGomel, having just been through a difficult operation.

The Rav’s student, Baruch Brenner, a musician and actor, led beautiful niggunim and spoke of Rav Shagar’s last few weeks and days and of their final conversations. It was all in all a time of nostalgic remembering, which was intensified as it took place at the Himelfarb school where Rav Shagar and Rav Yair Dreifuss shlit”a  had founded Yeshivat Siach some 15 years ago.

The next day at the Yeshiva Rav Dreifuss (Rav Shagar’s chevruta for 40 years and co-Rosh Yeshiva)[2] openly challenged the nostalgia of the previous evening. This didn’t surprise me, as this has been a theme of his since the second yartzeit. Speaking about Rav Shagar’s concept of Kedusha, he referred to the Rav’s first book, Shuvi Nafshi, Chesed oh Cherut, which dealt with teshuva, comparing R. Bechayeh, who saw teshuva as a chesed from HaShem, and the Rambam, who viewed it as the ultimate proof and demand of human autonomy, as the human being is called upon, in the words of Rav Soloveitchik, to become his own Messiah and to redeem himself. Rav Dreifuss pointed out that this was Rav Shagar’s favorite of his own books and then went on to recount that as Rav Shagar was mortally ill he kept a diary which he entitled Ripui oh Preda (“getting better or saying goodbye”), which, in Rav Dreifuss’s understanding, roughly parallel the categories of Chesed and Cherut. In other words, there are two main choices in life (and in death); to choose and fight for your choice, or to surrender yourself passively to the Divine will and accept your fate. In terms of teshuva, the difference is between making autonomous decisions to change your life and taking full responsibility for them (Cherut – Rambam), or accepting the fact of your own helplessness and throwing your lot upon HaShem and asking His help and forgiveness (Chesed – R. Bechayeh). In terms of terminal illness, to what extent does one fight for ripui, healing – dramatic change based upon personal choice, or accept the Divine decree of death, preda, saying goodbye, making peace with the reality instead of fighting it. This is a topic that Rav Shagar had already discussed in writings about the death of his own Holocaust survivor parents. In Rav Dreifuss’s estimation, not only was Rav Shagar unable to decide this point, and he died conflicted about it, but this was also the story of his life, his inner conflict between his “charedi” side[3] and his radical spiritual leanings. This lack of decisiveness was responsible for the fact that some of Rav Shagar’s students were attracted only to his radical side, ignoring the deep religiosity that dialectically struggled with it.

Rav Dreifuss spoke openly about the dangers of nostalgia, however lulling it may be, stating forcefully “The Rav couldn’t stand romanticism of this kind”. Now is the time, he claimed, for letting go of the Zaddik, not clinging to him. Everyone needs be become his own Zaddik, only thus will meaningful Avodat HaShem emerge. We need to “liberate” Rav Shagar from our hold upon him. Even though this letting go of the past feels like a kind of spiritual “suicide”, there is no choice. Rav Shagar, like Rav Kook, was entirely original, even though he also “never said anything he didn’t hear from his teachers”. Our job is to continue Rav Shagar’s project in the “Post-Rav Shagar” era, and not to remain frozen in his exact way.

Rav Benny Kalmanzon, Rosh Yeshivat Otniel, spoke of the early days when Rav Shagar was a young kollel student in Yeshivat HaKotel, and his first students (later to become Roshei Yeshiva in their own right) gathered around him. He pointed out that while Rav Shagar even then dealt seriously with Western culture in connection with Tora; it was more like showing how the jagged edges of the two worlds stabbed each other than a neat synthesis. In that sense, he said, his own path at Otniel has been more of finding a synthesis, which is more comfortable and yet involves a loss of the original intensity and absolute truth. He compared to the Chidushai HaRim’s creation of Chassidut Gur after the death of the Kotzker.

The last shiur I heard was of Rav Elchanan Nir, who teaches at Siach and represents the last era of talmidei HaRav Shagar. His shiur was about Tora in response to trauma and he returned to the issues of death and suffering which were ever present in Rav Shagar’s teaching. He recounted that Rav Shagar told him that when he was recovering in Rambam hospital from his severe wounds after being burned in his tank, he was completely wrapped in bandages. Asking himself why HaShem chose to let him live when his two friends were killed, he understood that he was given a special mission [I am crying again]. He decided that the Tora was also covered in bandages, the bandages of 2000 years of exile, and that when he emerged from his bandages to the light, his task would be to strip of the bandages from the Tora and reveal it to the world. He also stressed the Rav’s deep connection to the world of Mussar, and that towards the end of his life he had encouraged him to introduce a shiur Mussar at the Yeshiva.

Enough rambling. May HaShem help us to find the right balance between Cherut and Chesed, between Ripui and Preda, between looking ahead and nostalgia. May our Rebbe’s merit be a great blessing and may we not only absorb, but also expand his light.

[1] Rabbanit Rosenberg, may she merit years of health and happiness, heads up the massive project of publishing Rav Shagar’s literary estate, which covers virtually every area of Tora. This work is proceeding slowly due to a lack of funds. If you can participate in the mitzva of getting this very special Tora published, please contact her:   sgr@zahav.net.il

[2] It seems to me that Rav Dreifuss’s relationship to Rav Shagar was roughly parallel to that of Reb Natan to Reb Nachman or of the Rav HaNazir to Rav Kook. Note that in the Nazir’s diaries he describes his total bitul to Rav Kook as a form of death of his own personage.  I have not discussed this with Rav Dreifuss.

[3] I use the word not in its current sociological/political usage, but in its original sense of old-fashioned G-d-fearing religiosity.

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