Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam – The Sanzer Rebbe

Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam – The Sanzer Rebbe

by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita

Renowned as much for his scholarship as for his holiness, the leader and spiritual head of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the United States, Israel, and around the world, the Sanzer Rebbe was a unique figure in his generation. People from around the world came to him for advice and blessings, which always proved effective.

It was by a miracle that G-d, concerned over the Torah’s continuity in his world, enabled the Sanzer Rebbe to survive the Holocaust. The Nazis almost exterminated his entire family, with his wife and 11 children being the first to perish. Having been able, by G-d’s grace, to escape from Poland, he devoted his entire life to helping Americans Jews and to bringing hundreds of thousands of them to Teshuvah.

About 35 years ago in Netanya, this Tzaddik created the settlement of Kiryat Sanz for his thousands of followers and their families, as well as a magnificent hospital. His chassidim recount that when he was in Auschwitz, he suffered so much at the sight of the sick being thrown by the side of the road, or condemned to die for lack of care, that he undertook a personal vow: If he were to survive that hell, he would build a hospital.

People also recount the discussion he had with a German officer while he was in Auschwitz. The German told him, “Every morning you Jews bless G-d for not making you gentiles. Now look who’s more important – you or me?”

The Sanzer Rebbe explained to him that we Jews recite this blessing every morning because Hashem gave us more commandments to perform than non-Jews. In addition, the Jewish religion is harder than all others. We do not have the right, for example, to eat meat with milk products. We have to guard the sanctity of the Sabbath and refrain from working. Even thinking about our work is forbidden on Shabbat. Apart from that, we must distance ourselves from all forbidden relations, and we are not to excessively talk with women. If a woman is Niddah, her husband does not even have the right to touch her. In addition, we are obligated to study the Torah day and night, to love others as ourselves, and so on. We are bound by hundreds of commandments that regulate our behavior with respect to Hashem and others.

“This is why,” the Sanzer Rebbe told the German officer, “we thank G-d for not having made us non-Jews, for as opposed to us, they do not have many commandments to follow. We Jews, however, are happy to unselfishly assume this responsibility, even to die for it.”

Without the least bit of fear, the Sanzer Rebbe then told the German, “Blessed be G-d, Who did not make me a gentile. Otherwise, what interest would I have in being a Nazi gentile such as yourself, whose hands are full of Jewish and non-Jewish blood, and whose heart is devoid of any feeling, of any pity for the thousands of Jews that you murder day after day!”

Completely stunned by the words of the Rebbe, the officer told him, “Since you’ve convinced me, I will save your life and take you out of this camp. You can then live and bless G-d for not having left me as a Nazi. From now on, I will strive never to kill again.”

We see something quite remarkable in this. If the Sanzer Rebbe could bring a Nazi, an inhumane monster, to his senses, how much more could he convince Jews, who are believers at heart, to assume their rightful place in Judaism.

I am not a Sanzer chassid. I simply believe in each Tzaddik who has worked for Judaism. Even if a regular individual helps people to do Teshuvah by showing them the true and right path to follow, he has my respect and admiration.

Yet if truth be known, I am attached to the Sanzer Tzaddik, and this has to do with what happened to me about two decades ago in New York City.

It was a Tuesday during the winter of 1984. On that day I was supposed to meet the Sanzer Rebbe at his office at 9 pm, after the evening prayer. However during the afternoon, I was told that a famous Jewish singer, Bob Dylan, wanted to see me at around 8 pm, just before his scheduled departure for Germany, where thousands of fans awaited him at a concert. He had heard of me from an important figure who often came to see me. I had been planning on leaving to see the Sanzer Rebbe at around 7:30 pm (taking into account the distance from where I was staying and also the traffic), hence my dilemma and uncertainty over this turn of events. If I missed my meeting with the Sanzer Rebbe, who knew when another such occasion would arise? On the other hand, if I refused to meet Bob Dylan, a Jewish singer capable of attracting hundreds of thousands of people by his music, he would feel offended. Instead of doing Teshuvah, he would be angry with a rabbi who had brushed him aside. After thinking it over carefully, I decided to cancel my meeting with the Sanzer Rebbe.

Thus on that night I met Bob Dylan, followed by a crowd of curious onlookers. They were in disbelief at the thought that a rabbi and a singer such as Bob Dylan could have a private talk. We spoke about Judaism for about two hours, and since that time, thank G-d, we have remained good friends and in close contact. In fact during his last trip to Paris, he paid a visit to our yeshiva.

Bob Dylan left at around 10 pm. At that point I wondered if I was going to completely forgo my meeting with the Sanzer Rebbe or if, seeing that I had not yet arrived, the Tzaddik was still waiting for me. I said to my four friends who were with me at the time, “Let’s go to Union City where the Sanzer Rebbe lives. If we manage to see him, so much the better. If not, Hashem will remember the journey we undertook in honor of the Tzaddik. As for the Tzaddik himself, he won’t be upset at us or offended when his secretary tells him that we were late because of special circumstances.”

We got into a car and left. The shortest way to Union City was to get off the highway at Exit 5. We saw Exit 1, then Exit 2, Exit 3, and finally Exit 4. But then we saw Exit 6! At first we thought that this was just a simple mistake, so we hastily turned back. I told the driver to drive slowly this time and to pay special attention to the exits. Yet as if Hashem had decided to try us by enclosing us on this highway, the same thing happened once again: We could not find Exit 5. We asked for directions from someone working in a tollbooth, and he said, “Are you blind or what? Exit 5 is written in huge letters!”

After the third unsuccessful try, I said to the driver: “We’ll try a last attempt to make it to Union City. If, out of respect for the Sanzer Rebbe, Hashem opens our eyes and we manage to find Exit 5, good. If not, this will mean that the Tzaddik is upset at us and Hashem does not want such a meeting to take place. In that case, we won’t have the merit of seeing the face of the Tzaddik or taking hold of his saintly hands and kissing them,” as we Sephardim do when in the presence of a Rebbe or Tzaddik.

Once again we turned back and began counting each exit, with the hope of spotting Exit 5. After having passed Exit 4, I said to my friends: “Now let’s all say aloud: ‘May Rabbi Chaim of Sanz and his grandson, the present Sanzer Rebbe, forgive us and open our eyes – all five of us – so we can see Exit 5!’ ”

There and then, at that exact moment, a miracle happened and from afar we saw the sign indicating Exit 5! As soon as we saw it, we gave free reign to our joy – as if blind men had regained their sight – and we began to sing with all our hearts.

From then on, it did not take long to reach the great Sanz Synagogue in Union City. We were welcomed at the entrance by the Rebbe’s special secretary, who informed us that the Rebbe was waiting for us in his office, at which point our joy multiplied immensely! Thank G-d, the Rebbe was not upset with us in the least for being three and a half hours late. We quickly ascended to the second floor, where hundreds of chassidim were awaiting our arrival, intrigued and curious to know why their Rebbe was waiting in his office for so long.

It is not difficult to imagine the emotion that I felt when I finally found myself before the Tzaddik. With his face like that of an angel, illuminated as it was by the Shechinah, and the majesty that emanated from his persona, he completely radiated a sacred splendor.

When I kissed his sacred hands, the memory of my holy ancestors – with Rabbi Haim Pinto at their head – came to mind, and I had the feeling that I was with my illustrious grandfather.

Since the Sanzer Rebbe was asking me many questions about Rabbi Haim Pinto (which I answered by relating various stories concerning my holy ancestors), I quickly realized that the Sanzer Rebbe was perfectly familiar with the life and great deeds of the illustrious Rabbi Haim Pinto. In fact one of the Sanzer Rebbe’s disciples was originally from Morocco, specifically Mogador, and each Shabbat he told his Rebbe of the miracles that Rabbi Haim Pinto had performed.

When it came time to leave, I once again kissed the sacred hands of the Rebbe, and then we left, as happy as if we had been at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and gaze at the face of the Shechinah.

Today I still don’t know why Hashem blocked our way on that night, yet there is one thing I do know: Hashem has the power to close anyone’s eyes, even if he has perfect sight.

To conclude, I can only highly recommend that all those traveling to Netanya should go and pray – dressed very modestly, not wearing any mini-skirts, nor pants (for women), nor shorts – by the grave of the Tzaddik of Sanz, may his merit protect us all. Amen.




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