Reb Zalman’s “Hilulah”

Tonight will be Reb Zalman’s 4th Yahrzeit, “ברביעי֙ בחמשה לחדש” / Fifth of Tammuz.

It was two years ago, July 13, 2016, a few days after his 2nd Yahrzeit that year, and we gathered at the Aleph Kallah in Fort Collins and heard these amazing sharings. Deep thanks to Rabbi Tirzah and Rabbi Marc for their holy work.

Feel free to add your comments below. Gabbai Seth Fishman

~~~

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone:

Everybody! As we start, I invite you to take a big breath! Let’s take a moment to come back home into ourselves and wind down from the day. Take a deep breath. Ahhh!

Bruchim habaim.

I want to mention the extraordinary good news that our beloved friend, brother, colleague and teacher, Rabbi Marc Soloway is with us despite his recent loss. Reb Marc just got up from shiva for his father and he returned from London yesterday afternoon.

Marc is in a tender place; and all of us are tender too, as we recall and share the events around the miraculous occurrences and last days related to Reb Zalman’s departure from this world into the next, his hilulah.

Rabbi Marc and I had the unimaginable honor of laying our Rebbe to rest!

In the midst of leading the levaya, a chant came to me and it was pushing, really dofek, it was pushing, “Sing me! Sing me!” We’ll start with that now. I felt it came from Reb Zalman, that he wanted this passuk from the sixteenth perek of Tehillim sung.

I’d like to begin with a brief teaching on the term “Hilulah” which is, after all, the theme of this Kallah. As has been explained at all the orientations, it means, “celebration” in Hebrew, “festivities” normally surrounding a wedding.

I haven’t heard anyone speak about the Kabbalistic import of this word here at the Kallah, though it’s really very, very much in keeping with what we’re doing tonight: In the Zohar, Hilulah refers to the ecstatic moment of death.

It is when a great soul releases his or her earthly garment and rises to the state of highest self to unite, as in marriage, with the Sh’khinah herself.

For the Hasid or Kabbalist, the term “Hilulah” means it’s not ONLY a wedding; it’s a wedding of a great soul, like a flame merging with the Great Flame; a great soul merging with the Sh’khinah herself.

It goes for a man or woman. There’s a Hieros gamos / a high celestial marriage that happens at the moment of death.

The term was first used regarding Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose deathbed scene is found in the Idra Zuta in the Zohar, and it’s one of the most powerful teachings of the entire Zohar (You can find it in Pritzker Edition volume 9.)

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, surrounded by all his students says:

For I see all of my holy students rejoicing in this, my wedding celebration!

And it’s when he’s about to die.

Wedding celebration!?! Oh! All of them!?!

My students! All of you are invited to that world! To my wedding celebration! Happy is my share!

Rabbi Shimon’s death is a celebration of his union with the Sh’khinnah.

And just so, even as in our deep mourning when Reb Zalman departed, there was a really, really strong sense of celebration as well. Let’s keep this in mind when we talk about the word Hilulah at this Kallah.

In the Zohar, there’s a very beautiful passage when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai passes over into the other world and his students carry him out in a bier. He literally lifts up off the bier and starts to float in the heavens. A bat kol, a divine voice, comes out and says,

Everybody is invited! All come to the wedding celebration! Come to the hilulah!

There’s a great wisdom and insight which Shoshanna Schechter, which Nadya and Victor and Judith Dack, which all the leaders of this Kallah intuitively had, perhaps without having known the Zohar reference, that Reb Zalman’s passing was a Hilulah. And it was something that was started on the day of Reb Zalman’s Yorzeit: His death was, in fact, both an event of deep grieving for many of us around the world, an enormous loss; and, at same time, it had a sense of being a Hilulah / celebration.

I can remember right after the leviya being at Reb Zalman’s house with Rabbi Marc, and right before Davening and we decided we would take a moment to sit and meditate, to tune in to what was going on.

As I reflected, an image came up for me, it was something like the glee of a ten year-old, like there was a little boy riding on a skateboard going really fast and saying, “Yay! Look at me! I’m having such a great time!” It was a sense of ecstasy.

Many of us felt that after he died there was a huge release and a huge ecstatic feeling, like the Zohar celebration reference, a hilulah.

Rabbi Marc Soloway:

I want to take a moment to share a memory:

A great gift of being a Rabbi in Boulder was that Reb Zalman was a frequent visitor to my shul – also to pretty much every shul in Boulder – and when he was in town, he and Eve would come, in particular, to our Thursday morning minyan.

He loved coming; it was an incredible honor having them there.

And this theme of Hilulah is like something we find in the Hasidic world: That every time there’s a yahrzeit of a great Rebbe, it’s a cause for celebration.

After the Amidah, there’s a series of prayers called Tahanun, nefilat apayim where you happen to fall onto your face. They’re quite deep, introspective prayers.

And one of the things in our liturgy is we mark certain celebrations by omitting Tahanun. In the Hasidic tradition, on certain yahrzeits, there’s no Tahanun.

Reb Zalman and I had a deliciously playful relationship around this where, as soon as we came to the end of the Amidah, I would just look over to him and he’d either say, “Today there’s no excuse,” and we’d do Tahanun or else he’d say, “Today, there’s an excuse!”

I made a deal with him: I said,

If we’re not doing Tahanun, Reb Zalman, we have to have the gift of a teaching of the Rebbe whose yahrzeit it is.

And so Reb Zalman would share with us whenever it was the Yahrzeit of any of the great Rebbes of the Hasidic tradition.

And we had this fantastic tradition every Thursday morning: When it coincided with the Yahrzeit we would get the gift of Reb Zalman teaching about that Rebbe and, we would not say the prayers of Tahanun.

Rabbi Tirzah:

Thank you. That’s beautiful.

Reb Zalman took ill right after Shavuos two years ago. And his health had already been fairly compromised even before Shavuos.

That year, before Shavuos, he had been kind of bored. He would sit around and read Thrillers and Sci-Fi novels. Whenever I saw him, he showed up with his book. (He never wasted a moment of course!)

Rebbetzin Eve knew that it would be risky for him to travel. But even though he was not in great health, Reb Zalman was still bursting; he had more to give and Shavuos was very enticing. It was at Elat Chayyim, Isabella Freedman, and he just didn’t [want to miss it], he wanted to be there.

So Eve asked him: “If you could know that this trip might shorten your life, would you still go?” and he nodded.

We might say that perhaps he knew it would.

In fact, the trip landed him in the hospital right after Shavuos, (during the chag, he didn’t miss a beat) and it, perhaps, shortened his life.

At first, he was taken to the Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford where he stayed for over a week. Then, with the help of a few of his Hasidim, he was air-lifted back to Boulder.

When he came home from the Boulder Hospital, he was SO happy and in such good spirits (I’ll never forget it!) He rested, he received Accupuncture and BodyTalk, and all of the fantastic healing modalities that he was really into.

At the time, his daughter Shalvi was there along with her new husband.

And it was really a celebrative time because he made it. We did not know he would make it.

David and I and Tom Hast had just returned from the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, in Fez Morocco, where we had visited many Jewish sites including the Jewish cemetery. Reb Zalman had asked us to make special prayers at the kevarim at the graves of Rabbi Yehuda Ben Atar and Suleika (Solica Hatchuel), a beautiful Tzadeket who is buried there. I brought back rose petals from the bush right over the kever for him.

It was beautiful to see him very, very happy to be alive. He promised to be at our Rosh Hashannah service he said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do.” Everything looked good: The doctors were very positive and he was very positive too.

Around that time, Rebbetzin Eve and Reb Zalman’s very trusty assistant, Mary Fulton, had done something very wise and prescient: They planned for the funeral homes to come and visit him. They scheduled two or three of the Funeral homes over consecutive days. They knew that this wasn’t going to happen unless they scheduled it, and so they did, with the provision that Reb Zalman would feel up to it.

We don’t have a “Jewish” Funeral home in Boulder, per se, but each one has a Shemira room and a Tahara room and they work with the Hevra Kadisha. They are very good to us.

On July 2, the first funeral home came. It was a mom-and-pop operation called Greenwood & Myers.

Reb Zalman was in such a good rallying mood, that he came to the table and creatively started jotting down a list of the things for which he needed something for his passage.

Later that day, it was late afternoon, I received a call from Mary who told me that during the meeting, Reb Zalman had generated a list of around twenty requests for his passing. (That was the way his mind always went, like, “chug, chug, chug, chug, chug”, generating ideas, he was so very prolific.) The ideas were amazing!

Among them was the request that his students around the world NOT fly into Boulder because, he felt that there were more important places for them to go and mark his passing: To Kallah, to Ruach HaAretz, to Elat Chayyim.

He said:

No out-of-town Rabbis except for one: Rabbi Moish Waldoks.

Why Reb Moish? He needed some good jokes and Reb Moish was the one to do it. (Because of him, at the leviya we were “peeing our pants” with laughter at a time of the greatest loss of our lives; we lost control and roared; everyone roared!)

Another request was:

no Aron / casket

To my knowledge, this had never been asked before. I gasped at that one because I didn’t know if it would fly.

Additionally:

He asked that his tahara be handled by the Hevra Kadisha of Boulder

and:

That it be led by a Lubavitcher Rabbi.

His friend, the local Chabad Rabbi, was out of town, and he asked that a Denver Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski would come and oversee it.

“Who is that?” I thought. I had no idea.

And how would a frum Chabad Rabbi work with my Hevra Kadisha?

I was like, “Gevalt, gevalt!” I didn’t know how that was going to go.

And, the coup de gras:

He asked that Rabbi Marc and I lead his leviya!!!

As soon as I heard that, my stomach cratered, my mouth went dry, and I quipped to Mary:

Gewalt! It’s a good thing that the doctors are giving him a thumbs up because, I am NOWHERE NEAR ready for that!

It was, however, the very next morning around 10 AM when I received the call from Rebbetzin Eve. Eve said very calmly and simply:

He’s gone; he’s slipped away!

With peace and with grace, he had departed with the kind of ease expressed in the Talmud where it says that it can be as beautiful as taking a hair out of a bucket milk.

~~~

I will never forget entering the bedroom where he was lying on his right side, the same position as had been described of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Zohar. It was as though an immense peace surrounded him. Rebbetzin Eve was extraordinarily calm and full of grace.

I approached my spiritual father, kissed him, stroked his head. He was like a pure and innocent child; with a hint of mischief. He had slipped out!

In truth, I don’t think his ego knew this was coming; but his Neshamah did.

~~~

Eve and I prepared his things: His Kittel, his Tallit. As Eve reminded, he had chosen a Tallit that his father used to wear. She carefully cut the buttons of the kittel off and cut his tzitzitiyot so his tallit would be patur / exempt from use.

It was a very, very sad moment.

Rabbi Marc:

I am in a tender place as Reb Tirzah has said. One of the reasons I really wanted to make the effort to come here is that I feel an incredible connection in that my father was actually buried on July 4th, two years to the day, on the Gregorian calendar, after Reb Zalman’s burial. I feel a very strong connection here.

~~~

On July 3rd that year, I was at the Ramah camp for this region, “Camp Ramah in the Rockies”. (I work there, spending two weeks there every summer.)

Around the time I was to leave for camp, Reb Zalman was in hospital. I spoke to Eve about whether I could visit. Generally, visitors weren’t invited; they were trying to shield him from visitors. But since I was soon leaving, I asked if I could come for a quick visit, and he agreed!

I went to the hospital and had a wonderful, wonderful visit.

One of the last things he ever said to me was:

You know, when you get to my age, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for a good crap!

These were some of the last loving words I heard from my Rebbe’s mouth!

Before leaving, I asked:

Reb Zalman, can I give you a brachah?

He beamed and said:

I’d love your brachah

I put my hands on his head and said a mishebarach for cholim, a prayer of healing for him. I’ve never had such an experience as I did at that time of giving someone a brachah and feeling so strongly that I was the one receiving the brachah. And the brachah that was happening was very cool!

Then he gave me his incredible smile which so many of you knew: A smile from him.

And he just looked at me.

His actual last words to me were,

Im yirtz haShem, I’ll davven Geshem on Sukkot

because we had this wonderful tradition at Bonai Shalom that every year, he would do the prayers for Tal / dew and Geshem / rain, on Pesach and Sukkot. And on Sukkot, he’d sing, “Oh lord for Abraham and Sarah’s sake please send water.”

And it was an incredible thing to hear him say he’d be there. Either he actually believed he was going to be there or, he wanted me to believe it.

I left the hospital room that day feeling sure that I was going to see Reb Zalman again in a physical form. I did not.

(In 2013 we had a catastrophic flood in Boulder. Much of the Jewish community was affected; and my own shul was practically destroyed right around Yom Kippur. That year on Sukkot Reb Zalman was the only person who had the chutzpah to davven for rain.)

So I left for camp.

~~~

On the day he died, July 3rd, I had been on a very intense, back-country, mountain bike ride and was out of the range of any cell phone connection.

I rolled back into the camp at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and found myself greeted by every single person who worked in the office of Ramah of the Rockies, saying that the phone was ringing non-stop.

Rabbi Tirzah: “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!?”

Rabbi Marc: A wonderful young woman who worked in the office and didn’t know who Reb Zalman was came out of the office crying. She said,

SOMETHING’S HAPPENED! YOUR RABBI! HE DIED! AND YOU’RE DOING THE FUNERAL AND IT’S TOMORROW!

Mary had not spoken to me. I didn’t know anything about this.

Rabbi Tirzah: We tried to reach him but he was on his ride.

Rabbi Marc: By the time I actually called into my cell phone, there were thirty-seven messages starting with one from Rebbetzin Eve at 8 AM.

Going through it was crazy. They were from everyone.

It still hadn’t quite sunk in as being real.

I went back to my room, packed all my stuff, got into my car, and I was sitting there and just broke down! I burst into tears.

There was a dog at camp who would wander, who had never paid any attention to me – just a very little, cute dog. As I was literally sobbing, sitting in my car with the driver’s door open, this dog just came and lay his head on my arm saying, “I really want to be with you in your pain for him.”

~~~

I drove out of camp. By the time I got home and Reb Tirzah and I actually met, it was 9 o’clock at night, the night before the 9 AM funeral. We’d spoken on the phone a couple of times, but we didn’t have a chance to really sit down. That’s when it all really began!

Rabbi Tirzah:

So wow!

And while Marc was returning from his bike ride, I didn’t know how to handle what felt to me like a huge dilemma:

What was Rabbi Serebryanski, this Chabad Rabbi of whom I had no knowledge, going to do overseeing the Tahara?

As some here already know, the chevra kadisha in Boulder is one of the most beautiful group of neshamas anywhere! Completely tender-hearted and innocent, they would do anything for anyone. They have gone so out of their way with sleepless nights for someone they don’t know, sitting shemira around the clock and doing everything, putting everything out for them.

Rabbi Marc: And completely volunteer.

Rabbi Tirzah: It’s completely anonymous and volunteer. They’re tzaddikim!!

But, it’s not a very high “JQ”, as Reb Zalman would say; the “Jewish Quotient” is not huge; in terms of literacy, reading all the prayers in Hebrew and perfect accent and all, it’s not that.

So I was thinking that here is a Chabad Rabbi; we’re going to do a tahara and how is this going to go? God forbid, I didn’t want any hurt feelings or shame or indignity or conflict in the tahara room with Reb Zalman being there. I wanted harmony; I wanted it to be beautiful.

But here, Reb Zalman had asked for a Chabad Rabbi to be there!

I called him up and said gingerly: “Rabbi Serebryanski, you don’t know me.”

I introduced myself, and I said:

About our Hevra Kadisha in Boulder with whom you’ll be working: The men are lovely, beautiful Neshamas, but they may not be up to the Hebrew that…

But he interrupted me:

No, no, no, no, no! Don’t even go there!

There will absolutely be nothing of discord! I will not be a bull in a China shop!

Please understand that I will be completely accepting.

Let me tell how I came to be doing this.”

And over the phone, he told me this incredible story that two years before, he had had a dream. And in that dream… (Here is how he told it:

“It all started with a dream. I had a dream that my Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson came to me.”

Gewalt! Gewalt! The Chabad Rebbe!

“People would give their eye teeth to have a dream of the Rebbe; they would fall on their faces to dream of their Rebbe; but here, I was not very nice because…

“He asked me:

‘Where is this Zalman!?!?’

“I was annoyed!

“I can’t believe I talked to my Rebbe like this, but I was kind of pesky with him, and answered,

‘How should I know??? WHY ARE YOU EVEN ASKING ME???’

“And my Rebbe continued. He said,

‘He has not arrived here yet; but he is not there either! Go find him!'”

So greatly perplexed, he woke up having had this dream.

The next morning, Reb Yossi called Reb Zalman and said, “Reb Zalman, I’ve had this crazy dream!” And with a laugh, Reb Zalman said, “Come for a kumsitz! Come!”

So Rabbi Yossi drove up to Boulder and they met. They had a great talk. Rabbi Yossi said it was, “About many things.”

So Reb Zalman asked him:

When the time comes, if I need you, would you be willing to do my tahara?”

And Reb Yossi said, “Yes!”

So I’ll leave that to you to think about what it means that the Rebbe said in the dream: “He’s not arrived here yet,” i.e., in the world that is coming, “nor is he in that world; he’s somewhere between; where is he; go find him.”

As it turned out, Rabbi Yossi found him and they connected.

~~~

And on the list, Reb Zalman had had another request:

After his body had been washed, and his tachrichim had been put on, and after the sand from Yerushalayim was sprinkled on his body, he wanted the afar v’efer / dust and ashes, the cremains that had been brought to him from Auschwitz to Boulder to be sprinkled on him as well.

(So at the Tahara, after he’s in the tachrichim, the cremains, the ashes and the bone chunks – not only ashes; it’s chunks of bone – were to be sprinkled on his body. He had had them brought from Auschwitz.)

Then he was to be wrapped in the sovev, in the sheath.

Wow! His shemira instantly filled, three, four, five people came every hour, around the clock, saying goodbye until his leviya which was on the Fourth of July.

~~~

We drove up at around 9 in the morning. It was already around 90 degrees. There was not a stitch of shade anywhere. There were three hundred people when we drove up and we were early, before it started.

People poured in from every part of the community, kept pouring in. They stood out there, weeping together, laughing together, holding one another. They were from many communities: They stood.

We still hadn’t figured out how his request of no aron would be accomplished! That had not been done before, to my knowledge, so in front of the Greenwood & Myers staff I said,

I think there may be ordinances against that and perhaps we can’t do it?

But they said:

Yes we can do it! We do it for the Muslim community. We do it all the time. We’re going to do this!

And sure enough, these two hefty “beef-eater” guys, these wonderful, tzaddikim, fantastic, righteous souls jumped into the hole. And we lifted him holding from the sovev, from the sheet, and we handed him over.

It was truly like a swaddled baby, like handing him to his mother.

It was like nothing that had ever occurred before in my life!

The Chabad Rabbi, Rabbi Yossi, stood with us under the tent.

There was I, Rabbi Marc, and Rabbi Yossi. And Rabbi Yossi gave a beautiful hesped. He also read a letter of eulogy from another Chabad Rabbi.

I felt a lot of incredible healing with the Chabad movement that day.

It felt very unusual that a Chabad Rabbi was standing next to a woman Rabbi under a tent in close quarters, schwitzing together. And we sang together, (kol ishah!); as though we were in another dimension altogether!

~~~

Several days later, I received an email note from Rabbi Yossi, and this is what it said:

“I’m still processing the tahara and the joining of the afar v’efer (as Reb Zalman had written on the bag), the dust and ashes of the Holocaust martyrs together with R Zalman.

“Who knows who the holy people from Auschwitz, now interred on a hill in Boulder, were. How many were young or old, how many women or men now having merited kevuras yisrael / holy burial according to the laws of Israel.

“Holding that tupperware container with homeless ashes, the destruction of European Jews in my hands, then pouring them gently over the sand from har hazeitim, the Mount of Olives in Yerushalayim, the churban, covering his eyes, his body with the golus haShechinah the churban of Yerushalayim and Europe all finding a home in Boulder? What does this all mean? I DO NOT KNOW.”

Simcha Rafael: “I sat with Zalman in March. He told me that he had gotten some ashes and I said to him, “So are you going to put any in your own kever?” And he said, “Hm, that’s a very good idea” and he made a note to do that.

Rabbi Tirzah: Well, thank you. Your timing is impeccable. It turned out that, as some of the chevra who are here tonight can attest, the entire contents of the tupperware went up with Reb Zalman. So now we need to go and find more.

Rabbi Marc:

There’s an amazing story about how that tupperware came, (some of you know Rabbi Kevin Hale and others of those who brought it), but I think what some people might not know and some people don’t know is that for a time Reb Zalman was very public about the fact of how he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in Auschwitz rather than having ashes from Auschwitz buried with him.

And he told a story which is recorded in the wonderful book “The December Project” which I’m quite sure some of you have read, that one time he was visiting 770, the Chabad headquarters and he overheard some Yeshivah bochers in Yiddish saying something like, “Why wait? Let’s burn him now!”

It was painful because he was being public about this wish but, it really was about his feeling so deeply, his wanting to be connected with his family and the people who died in the Shoah.

But then he changed.

And many of you know, he wanted to be buried at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord. But when Elat Chayyim merged with Isabella Friedman, he didn’t have the same relationship. So he changed again.

Then, a few years ago, he approached me and others in the Jewish community, saying, “Reb Mark, I want you to help me find karka in Boulder.” (Karka, the Aramaic term for ‘land’ to be used for burial).

The cemetery where he’s buried, (I’m sure some of you have visited his grave), is called “Green Mountain Cemetery” and it’s a very, very beautiful cemetery. The only other place where we have a Jewish section to a cemetery is right by a highway and it’s not as pleasing. But the Jewish section of Green Mountain Cemetery has been sold out for many years. I’m very proud that some of my balabatim, my board members of Bonai Shalom managed to put something together and gave plots to Reb Zalman.

~~~

But about the Tahara: A couple of months after this incredible dream of Reb Yossi Serebryanski, and just around two years before Reb Zalman died, something else happened. (It was kind of a typical kind of request for Reb Zalman, though remarkable for the rest of us. And he spoke about it in “the December project”):

Since he was a kohen, he had never experienced the ritual of Tahara, ritual cleaning of the body, because traditionally, kohanim don’t participate in that mitzvah. And he had this idea that he wanted to experience tahara while he was still living.

So he put that out a little bit: He spoke to some of the people in the chevra kadisha in Boulder.

And it happened, two years before Reb Zalman left the world, in my backyard. And I had the incredible privilege to participate in it. I’m also a Kohen so I also don’t participate in Tahara and so this experience was just incredible. I’ll never ever forget the experience, because Reb Zalman wanted to go through all the details of it. And I think what Reb Zalman really was teaching to those of us who were there was the power of letting go.

We set up a massage table in a very shaded area right by the creek. (We kept having this notion that it wasn’t really a Tahara, that he was alive.)

Reb Zalman said to the four of us who participated, “From now on, whenever you see me I want you to call me Reb Hiyya.” It was a kind of acknowledgment that he wasn’t Reb Zalman any more.

There was something about Reb Hiyya connecting him still to his life.

And he did live for two more years after that.

There was something about Reb Zalman’s body just lying on this massage table.

In a very blissful way, he just let go to the experience as we bathed him in warm water and chanted the traditional verses of Tahara.

He really loved the experience. It was better than a massage. He was very “blissed” out afterwards.

It was a very surreal experience for those of us who were there.

This was July of 2012 that we did the tahara.

Rabbi Tirzah:

Reb Zalman was so aware, he knew that he was starting to travel, and he was on a journey and he told us so many tens and scores of time, “Hey! This is all confirmed. I’m going and don’t hold me back.”

And I remember one time on Zayin Adar at the Hevra Kadisha celebration when he was giving a public talk about dying in our tradition  and he said, “My time is coming,” referring to his own death and someone yelled out from the audience:

“Reb Zalman! We’ll never let you go! We love you so much.”

And he became furious! (It was one of the few times I saw him get SO angry), and he yelled out,

“Don’t hold me back! When my time comes you let me go!”

He was so adamant. And there was such fire in his eyes that he wanted to make this great leap. He wanted a true hilulah. And no one was going to stop him because he understood that the psychic energies of people clinging and clutching pulls people back to the earth plane and then it’s hard to leave that over the “river of light” as we might say.

Judith Dack: That’s what you did so beautifully that day. Because you helped us with that. You said, “Are you ready to let him go?” Everyone breathe! You helped us all to let go.

Rabbi Tirzah: At the leviya

Judith: You said that over and over again. You made us all let go of him.

Rabbi Tirzah: That was Reb Zalman coming through me. I don’t even remember that.

Judith: Because you really transformed our natural reaction. Because there is that feeling of you don’t want to let him go. That’s your natural instinct to clutch. And you were so helpful.

Rabbi Marc: You said, “Are you willing to let Reb Zalman go? Will you let him go.” And we said, “Yes!”

Rabbi Tirzah: That shows you that that was not me. That was the bat kol!

Rebbetzin Eve Ilsen:

The day of our wedding, before we went to the chuppah, I asked him, “Is there anything you want to be sure of that you want me to promise before we marry?”

And he said, “Yes! Only one thing. When it’s my time, don’t hold me back.”

So that vow was an early one. But of course it went together with, “And while I’m alive, please keep me alive.”

Woman’s voice: “Which you did!” (applause)

Rebbetzin Eve:
It also went together with “I have to eat this?” with certain things.

And before that Shavuos, about three days before we were to leave, for the first time ever he said, “You know? Maybe I shouldn’t go this time.”

And I said, “Okay.” And then he said, “Maybe I should go this time.” And I said, “Okay.”

Well we went back and forth like this a few times and I finally said, “If you knew that by going you would shorten your life, would you want to go?” And without any hesitation he said, “Yes, I want to go.” As if to say, “What am going to do? Sit here and read silly novels?”

So he was the most conscious person I knew about approaching death, making plans and he had no fear.

I want to say something about the business of ashes and Auschwitz, and so on, because, he also told me, “When I die, I want to be cremated and to have my ashes taken to Auschwitz because, regarding those who say that because the body isn’t there those will not be resurrected, I say that if those really can’t then I, too, don’t want to be either.”

And I said,

Geh gezunterheit you can send your ashes to Auschwitz! I’m not taking them!

Some years later, he asked me what I wanted to have done with my remains and I said, “If ‘Green burial’ were possible, it could be a wonderful thing. If not, plain burial will do. Without a casket would be wonderful.”

And he asked me, “Why?”

And I said,

Because all of the years of my life I have eaten or used the products of this earth to live, I’ve eaten fish and animals and grains and fruits and vegetables and now when it’s my turn to feed the worms, I’m going to cheat them and eat up more wood and put more carbon into the atmosphere being cremated? I won’t do it!

And it’s after that that he changed his mind. It took him a while. I didn’t tell him to change his mind, but he did when he asked if there would be a way for us to be buried.

So he really had given an awful lot of thought to this whole business and in very many things that he would do, especially the eldering work, he would lead this song that I did on Sunday night.

Death come riding to my father’s door
Come on old man, are you ready to go?
Well my father went down to buckle up the shoes.
He went down to the Jordan river, said,
“Lord, I paid my dues, I done my duty, I got my travelling shoes.”

Well, Death come riding to my mother’s door
Come on old woman, are you ready to go?
Well my mother went down to buckle up the shoes
She went down to the Jordan river, she said,
“Lord, I paid my dues, I done my duty, I got my travelling shoes.”

Well, Death come riding to my brother’s door
Come on old man, are you ready to go?
Well my brother went down to buckle up the shoes
He went down to the Jordan river, said,
“Lord, I paid my dues, I done my duty, I got my travelling shoes.”

Well, Death come riding to the sinner’s door
Come on you sinner, are you ready to go?
Well the sinner went down to buckle up his shoes
He went down to buckle up his shoes,
He said, “Lord, I ain’t paid my dues, ain’t done my duty, ain’t got no travelling shoes.”

What he was talking about was creating the container that can allow us to travel between worlds, to travel from this world to another world. To visit a little and come back. He was surely visiting back and forth for a while.

One of the best ways to start doing this if you haven’t done it already of course is to Davven. Another good way to start is to meditate. Another good way to start is to WRITE YOUR DREAMS if you haven’t already been doing this. What you do is to get a very nice notebook, expensive one, you put it by your bed with a good pen, you write the date of the next day. If you don’t remember anything, too bad, you turn the page. You go to the next blank page of that good book and write the date. I promise you that within two weeks you will remember your dreams because you’re going to be really sick of those blank pages with nothing but a date on the top.

It begins to give you a bridge to go between worlds which he did so skillfully all the time.

I miss him terribly and our whole house is full of him and I look at everything that’s come from the work he’s done, and all of you here and I’m tremendously moved and very grateful that you’re here, and very grateful for those of you who have held all of both his being here and his leaving and I’m extremely grateful to Yesod and all the people who made it possible for us to be here, to stay here in Boulder. It’s Rabbi David Cooper who made the first connection that got us here and then the people of Yesod who allowed us stay in Boulder which was a great gift to Reb Zalman because he tremendously enjoyed the last years of his life.

Rabbi Marc:

I want to say a little bit more just about the grave, because that closing comment by Rebbetzin Eve reminds me that, I mean, obviously, for those of us who live in Boulder, it was an unbelievable gift to have Reb Zalman all those years, and now, the fact that his grave, his kever, is with us in Boulder, that’s also our gift. I mean, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.

A little bit of a plug, but at 10:15, there’s a screening of a film that I made which was really inspired by Reb Zalman’s visit to the Ukraine, in which he visited all of the kevrei Tzaddikim, all of the graves of the Baal Shem Tov and the other Hasidim. The film, “Treasure Under the Bridge,” documents a trip that I did with a film crew in 2015.

I mention it because I think there’s something that Reb Zalman intrinsically felt about going to those graves, and similarly, now I and many other people here in Boulder can have the experience of going to Reb Zalman’s grave too. Reb Zalman really saw himself in the lineage of the Baal Shem Tov, as we all know, and I think now his Kever has become a place that’s very important to visit. There’s a notion in Hasidus that with a neshama with the proportions of Reb Zalman, there’s a piece of him that has gone straight to the highest shamayim. And truly, now, many of us have had the experience of being connected to him even more. There can be a great availability of a great neshamah after they’ve left the world. And in the Hasidic tradition, there’s a sense of a way to connect through that Neshamah, through visiting the place where they are buried. It’s a gift that we will have that here.

I had the extraordinary privilege of taking Art Green when he was in Boulder for what was to have been the 90th birthday celebration but ended up being a memorial. And Art Green gave this wonderful keynote. And he called me and it was Friday morning and he asked me if I would take him to Reb Zalman’s grave and they had known each other for more than fifty years and so I of course wanted to do that and as we were getting close to his grave, Art said to me, “is there any way we could go to a toy store?” And I thought, Shabbat’s coming, there’s only one toy store I know of and it’s at the other end of town. So I explained. He said, “It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to get a yo-yo and put it on Reb Zalman’s grave.” I didn’t understand. (He’s given me permission to share this story.)

We got to the grave and he was extremely moved when we got to the kever. It was the first time he’d seen it and he called his wife Kathy, put her on the phone and they had a cry together and then he said, and now I’ll tell you about the yo-yo.

And he said that the first time he met Reb Zalman in his whole life Art Green was a very serious, frum student and when he met Reb Zalman, it really affected him in extraordinary ways. And then, before the next meeting and in the interim, Art Green went through all kinds of stuff. He had a difficult time. Reb Zalman said to him,

Hashem is playing with your neshama like a yo-yo.

And Art was actually very hurt by the comment. He said he didn’t speak to Reb Zalman for two years.

And then the next time he saw him he said,

You know, I’ve been so angry at you for two years. The last time I saw you you told me that Hashem was playing with my neshama like a yo-yo….

And then, as Art Green told me this story, he said, “And then, our relationship really began.”

Fifty years of being really close kind of Talmidim / Chaverim, both teachers and students for one another.

“And so,” he said, “I had this idea of wanting to have a yo-yo.”

So then, on Sunday, Art had to leave early and didn’t have a chance to go back. And I called him and said, “Would you like me to finish the mission and put the yo-yo on Reb Zalman’s grave,” and I received this e-mail from him written in Rabbinic Hebrew giving me halakhic authority to put a yo-yo.

I went to Grandrabbit’s which is the toy store in Boulder and I asked, “Can I see your yo-yos?”

The first yo-yo I see is a classic wooden yo-yo painted purple with the words,

Begin Again

So I bought this yo-yo and I placed it on Reb Zalman’s grave. I took a picture of it, and emailed the picture to Art Green and I said, “Mission Complete.”

And I tell that story because regarding Reb Zalman’s grave, if you haven’t had a chance, make sure to go to it. There are extraordinary objects, all kinds of objects, including a little jar of nice, fragrant now-legal stuff that one grows, kazoos, and fifes, little pewter unicorns, and a purple yo-yo.

Rabbi Tirzah:

Just a few days ago, the evening of Reb Zalman’s Yorzeit, Eve and I were there with another friend, a Sufi student of Reb Zalman’s, and the Grateful Dead were in town and playing in open fields at the University miles away. We could hear it from there and it was just beautiful.

(Transcribed / edited by Gabbai Seth Fishman)

4 Responses to “Reb Zalman’s “Hilulah””

  1. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    Here’s some more about Reb Zalman and Auschwitz / cremation:

    In the late 1960’s, during a speech Zalman gave in Detroit, he said that the Jewish people had to find a way to respond to the tragedy of Auschwitz by “turning what is difficult and shameful to a certain glory.” He suggested that instead of burial, Jews who died should mingle their ashes with the ashes of the martyrs there. In that way they would “transvalue” what happened at Auschwitz.

    His statement was quoted by a Detroit Jewish paper. The local Chabad person called him and said, “you need to make a retraction.” Zalman said, “I won’t do that.”

    This was not an abstract issue. Reb Zalman had a deep and painful connection from childhood. The concentration camp was built by the Nazis on the site of the Jewish shtetl of Ozwieczim, the home of Zalman’s grandfather, the shochet, and where Zalman’s father was raised. “As a small child,” Reb Zalman recalls, ” I was brought by my grandfather to Ozweicizm. If my father would have remained there, as his brother did, we would have been burned too. My Uncle Akiva and his family were among the first who had to help build the ghetto in Ozwieczim, then the camp in Auschwitz, Then he was one of the first victims along with my cousins, Pauli, Yossi and Mella.”

    The Chabad representative was upholding halakhah: Zalman the “need of the present hour.” According to Jewish law, it is not permitted to cremate bodies because otherwise, in the messianic time, God will not be able to resurrect a body that is burned. But Zalman’s heart told him, that “if one says resurrection is not given to people who are burned whose ashes are in Auschwitz, then I defy that attitude. What do you mean God can’t put together a body that’s been burned? Are you going to shorten the hands of the Lord?”

    Reb Zalman knew his proposal was audacious. “Every rabbi has had to wrestle with his congregants who want to do cremation.” Yet he found a certain support for his view in the Talmud. “We have a story that Emperor Titus –who destroyed the temple wanted to have his remains cremated so God shouldn’t get him. So what does God do? He reassembles him each time, he burns him each time, reassembles him again.”

    The story in the Detroit paper was picked up by the Yiddish press in New York, where a journalist fulminated against Zalman and attacked his proposal. The reaction in much of the hasidic community was searing and personal. At Lubavitch, a hasid grabbed him. “So you’re the one who believes in cremation– let’s burn you…”

  2. Barbara Drosnin Says:

    Many thanks, many blessings for sharing this remarkable piece with us.

  3. Jude Blitz Says:

    Thank you for connecting us to writing.
    What a heart filling memory of these events to carry with me on the yahrzeit of Reb Zalman.
    May his memory always be so deeply blessed.

  4. Aleza Grazi Tuohy Says:

    It has taken me a couple of days to read this as my emotions flowed and the clarity of the love and devotion Eve, you, Mark and the community had for Reb Zalman. I am saddened that I did not know him personally, but feel that I see him better than I did before. He was a strong Pioneer for those of us who couldn’t feel that Judaism was our home. He opened his heart to it, saw the truth and led us down that enlightened path.

    Thank you for continuing to shine that light.

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