Tears in Heaven
My personal reflections following the tragic death of our dear son-in-law, Rabbi Eliezer Geldzahler.
Ten months after the tragic bus accident in Israel that left our dear son-in-law in a coma, on the ninth day of Kislev, Rabbi Eliezer Geldzahler passed away. Notwithstanding the unprecedented volume of vigils, prayers, supplications, importuning and acts of charity, kindness and piety worldwide dedicated to his recovery, the response of the Master of the Universe, our Heavenly Parent, was “no.”
From the depth of our collective pain, comes the inevitable question, “Are we to understand that our prayers were in vain? That the never ceasing recitals of Psalms of our devoted friends everywhere were for naught?”
One of Reb Eliezer's students related a parable of two fathers who enter a clothing store to purchase garments for their family. One is very specific about the requirements, i.e. style, size etc. The other moves through the store quickly, choosing one suit after another. When asked for an explanation about their different approaches, it came to light that the former had only one child to clothe and had to make sure that the suit was perfect for him. But the latter had a house full of children and figured that if a garment wasn't quite right for one, it would undoubtedly fit another one of his children.
Similarly, the Almighty has many beloved children. For some unfathomable reason that only He knows, our prayers could not fit or work for Reb Eliezer in the way that we had hoped. But without a doubt, the massive, positive, spiritual energy released by our supplications will work for the many others who need them. And hopefully, they will also provide strength for his wife, our daughter Baila, and their 13 beautiful children.
Most certainly these prayers will accompany Reb Eliezer to his eternal abode and be a merit for his soul. Our friends everywhere, who invested heart and soul in their prayers on our behalf, please be assured that we will always be grateful, and that your efforts were not wasted. They are a good fit for someone, somewhere and certainly we and our world are better because of them.
The mind-boggling impact of the mere 46 years of Reb Eliezer's life on so many is impossible to distill in words. Thousands came to the four different funeral sites, hearts heavy with personal grief, to pay tribute to a great man. The mother of one of his students spoke of her son's love for him, remarking that her son had convinced her that he had been Reb Eliezer's favorite student, until she later met scores of other mothers who had the same experience. They added that for these young men, the loss of a biological father could not have evoked a greater sense of loss. Reb Eliezer had molded and shaped them into “menschen,” with a positive self-esteem and self-worth.
The capacity to bring out the best in others and make them feel special was not limited to his hundreds of students; it extended to every person who crossed his path. The wailing and sobbing and oceans of tears shed on the day of the funeral by young and old, men, women and children alike, testified to the dark, empty void left in the heart of so many to whom he is irreplaceable.
The earth literally danced beneath Reb Eliezer's feet. He was thrilled to be alive.
Reb Eliezer was an imposing figure in his broad 6'2” frame. He had the physical stature of a leader. Impressive as that was, most notable however was the light that accompanied his presence. A “bren,” a fire, a light of joy and aliveness. The earth literally danced beneath his feet. He was thrilled to be alive.
Life to him was always beautiful, exciting and full of opportunities. Nothing ever dampened his spirit. “Gevaldig -- awesome!” was his every ready response when asked how he was and how things were going. When his 16-year-old son, Mordechai Dov, who is very much his father's son, was in the hospital undergoing his many surgeries to restore his legs injured in the bus accident, the nurses used to greet him with, “Come on Mordekai, let's hear the G word.” “Gevaldig” became part of the vocabulary of the hospital staff.
His passion for life extended first and foremost to the study of Torah and to the recitation of prayers. He was a first rate, major league Torah scholar. Anyone who knew him can easily conjure up the image of Reb Eliezer babysitting, a child in his lap, one on each shoulder, and another climbing over his head -- and all the while he is unfazed, fully concentrating on the tome of the Talmud open before him.
His sense of privilege and fiery excitement for learning created an effervescence, a breath of fresh air in a school system that generally promoted learning as a heavy-duty responsibility that smacked of burden and pressure. His magical spirit created an environment where his boys engaged in all of their daily activities with fervor. They played, they ate, they sang and they danced with passion and zeal. Paradoxically this continual enthusiasm, which one might have thought that would detract from their learning and praying, liberated an energy that produced greater volume and depth of study than in any other parallel institution.
His keen understanding of youth, (perhaps because he never ceased to be young at heart) literally revolutionized the yeshiva system. One summer we visited with him in his Yeshiva in the mountain site. He set a goal of 500 blatt (folios) of Talmud for his students' summer study - an enormous amount. Though it was a formidable undertaking, they forged ahead in their inimitable style, working tirelessly to achieve their objective. At the successful conclusion of the summer session, they celebrated with a “siyum,” a celebration upon reaching their goals in learning where the boys each presented gleanings from their impressive achievement. It was followed by singing and dancing. And at 2 A.M., Reb Eliezer announced that since the boys had done so well, the evening (or morning) will conclude with a jaunt at swimming. It was pitch dark outside, but that did not deter him. The Rosh Yeshiva, or “Rosh” as he was lovingly referred to, drove his car down the steep hill to the pool and provided illumination for the boys with his headlights. Initially I shuddered with my conservative sensibilities on edge, but I had to admit that it sure worked wonders for the boys.
His care and concern for each student was legendary. Long after they left his Yeshiva, they drew on his counsel and guidance. He would come to our community in Milwaukee with his family for the holidays and was constantly on the phone, sought out by his students, his alumni and people in general from every corner of the globe. He lovingly gave of his wisdom and direction.
A Rosh Yeshiva is generally assumed to be an aloof, removed, distant figure to be revered from afar. Reb Eliezer defied that definition. One mother at the shiva tearfully shared that contrary to the truism that “familiarity breeds contempt,” the closer the boys came to him and the better they got to know him, the greater was not only their love for him, but also their respect and awe. Perhaps most remarkable of all, she added, was that his accessibility and love for his students bonded all of them together, creating an atmosphere where each student took delight in the other's accomplishments and achievements, unlike the conventional competitive environment that can permeate institutions of learning.
The weeks leading to Reb Eliezer's passing could easily be categorized as a “season in hell.” We were suspended somewhere between heaven and earth. There were momentary flashes of hope, quickly dashed by reality. It is important to note, that while only God Himself determines the outcomes of painful situations such as ours, people and their behavior do create the context. It makes a world of difference to a suffering family that a nurse is caring and sensitive or that a doctor carefully chooses his words in pronouncing inalterable facts. It makes a world of difference to be surrounded by a community of people, organized or individual, who dedicate their lives to alleviate the enormous burden of suffering families, by attending to the many details -- the meals, the rides to and from the hospital, night shifts, day shifts etc. What a blessing these people are! How often I was struck by the fact that these were virtual bright stars on a very dark horizon. The Almighty has ample reason to be proud of His people.
Our daughter, Baila, Reb Eliezer's wife, is a truly amazing person. These last ten months she assumed responsibility for his care. She left no stone unturned in considering every possibility regardless of personal cost to her well-being. Against the advice of most of us, she took advantage of her training as a registered nurse to transfer him to her own care at the summer location of his yeshiva, where he could be surrounded by the life he loved and cherished -- his family -- his students and the sound of Torah learning, fervent praying, Sabbath celebrations and spirited singing. She was always dreaming and eagerly awaiting the moment when he would regain consciousness and he would tell her what parts of it had reached him.
She did all of this in the late months of pregnancy. Two and a half months ago, Refael Aryeh Leibish was born. The bris was preformed on his unconscious father's lap. Suffice it to say that it was a bittersweet time.
Then the massive recurring infection set in and Reb Eliezer was readmitted to the hospital. After a number of weeks, he underwent surgery to place a shunt to drain the fluid in his brain. Three days later, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Baila sat at his bedside, day and night, for the next 12 days, up to his passing -- talking to him, stroking him and crying oceans of tears.
Maggie, Reb Eliezer's nurse, teary eyed, commented that in all of her experience, she had never seen such devotion, so much praying and so many people who cared about each other.
"When my Totty was born, the heavens must have cried because they had to part with him."
After the funeral in Boro Park, it began to drizzle. Someone remarked to seven-year-old Naftoli Tzvi, Reb Eliezer's son, that even the heavens were crying. He vehemently protested and said, “No. When my Totty was born, the heavens must have cried because they had to part with him. But now, these must be tears of joy because they have him back with them.”
To hear the voices of the little children as they belt out the “Kaddish” (Memorial prayer) is nothing short of heart wrenching. The little ones do it with real gusto -- especially since one of their teachers told them that when their father who is in Heaven hears their voices, he joins hands with the angels and dances. The image of their father dancing is a very real one to them. The only question they had was whether the angels know how to dance.
In his eulogy, Rabbi Eliyahu Yehoshua Geldzahler, Reb Eliezer's father, commented on the verse recited at the time of loss, “God has given and God has taken.” He confessed that at this moment his tears were spent, so he preferred to concentrate on the great gift of the 46 years of Reb Eliezer's life -- the pure nachas, the daily highs he received from his every phone conversation, his humor, his infectious joy, and his great accomplishments.
As for myself, Baila's mother, presumptuous as it might be, I ask the Almighty to remember His promise to be the “Advocate of widows and the Father of orphans.” Only He can step in and give Baila the requisite strength to raise her children, to nurture the great potential within each one of them and bring to fruition Reb Eliezer's legacy encased in their very genes.
And for all of us collectively, may God finally usher in the long awaited millennium, when there will be an end to all suffering and wherein “He will wipe the tears from every face.”
Rabbi Geldzahler, of blessed memory, leaves behind a wife and 13 children. A fund has been established to assist the family. Tax deductible checks can be made out to "Keren Ner Eliezer" and sent to:
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Twerski
c/o Congregation Beth Jehuda
3100 N. 52nd Street,