“Death is the supreme festival on the road to freedom”
Rarely do I write about my personal feelings. However, singular circumstances brought about by Divine intervention cause us to realize that our customary ways are but the dream state in which we believe we live, until a perpetual murmur from an eternal world wakes us up.
It is with great pain that I write about the demise of one of the great Rabbinical figures of our generation, Rabbi Bezalel Rakov z.l. who headed a small settlement of deeply religious Jews in the city of Gateshead in the north of England.
It was in this town that my wife and I lived for many years before returning to Holland and later settling in Jerusalem and it was this venerable Rabbi who was instrumental in helping me give birth to my Jewish aspirations.
Till this day the Gateshead Jewish Community is the most famous bastion of Jewish learning in Europe. Some of the greatest Jewish leaders and Rabbis were educated in this poor little town with its famous yeshiva and numerous institutions of Jewish learning. Only to those who really searched did it reveal its spiritual richness and piety.
As one of the few “baalei teshuva” (1), (I believe there were another two) among the hundreds and hundreds of ultra orthodox young Jews learning in Gateshead Yeshiva, I had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with Rabbi Rakov on numerous occasions in his home. Coming from a secular background, I had philosophical questions and halachic issues which nobody else had ever asked him before and it was with remarkable ease that he related to my very special situation as if he had mastered it in a second. I still remember his distinguished smile and sparkling eyes when he saw me walking into his front room, knowing quite well that I would once more challenge him with “impossible” halachic circumstances and philosophical inquiries. Not once did he fail me. Not halachically, not philosophically.
Who was Rabbi Rakov?
Maimonides, in the introduction to his Yad Hachazaka, states that Ahiya Hashiloni (2), who lived in the days of the breakdown of the House of David, had studied under Moshe and, consequently, must have been hundreds of years old. He spanned many generations. God, we are told, kept him alive for so many centuries so that the younger generations would still get a glimpse of somebody who lived in an era of spiritual geniuses who had long vanished. As such Ahiya Hashiloni represented men who lived in a different realm of being, like a nitid star twinkling from a sky of midnight blue.
So was Rabbi Rakov. He was the soul of an ancient generation of rabbinical figures planted in the present. He was the Ahiya Hashiloni who connected different worlds in order to show us what a real Jew was once all about and what real rabbinical dignity represented. As a prophet of God, a vestige of an ancient era, a remnant of the scribes of the past, he was able to inspire us with his meticulous conduct, his shyness, his wisdom and his constant desire to stay in the background while gently revealing his authority to this small but very strong Jewish community which housed world renowned Rabbinical figures of the old East European Jewish community.
He represented in every way the holy dimension of all existence. He lived in the spiritual constitution of the universe and saw the divine values invested in every being, exposing the ontological relationship between God and Man.
Not only did he rely on God but it was as clear as the sun that God relied on him. Not only did he represent the man of faith but he also justified God’s faith in man. It was his rabbinical royalty and unprecedented integrity, which made us to stand in awe. Indeed he was the ideal chareidi, ultra orthodox, Rabbi who was able to inspire people such as the unknown secular young man with a ponytail who was traveling the country. One day he appeared at Rabbi Rakov’s front door. The Rabbi invited him over for Shabbath and he gave him his father’s Tefillin under the condition that he would wear them throughout his life.
His loyalty to all of us sustained our faith. In fact he taught us to have faith in faithfulness. He taught us that faith in the living God was not easily attained and that one needed to be a little embarrassed by living in His presence. While men can try to sever themselves from God, Rabbi Rakov proved that there was no escape from loving His Law.
With his demise the world has lost a great human being, but Heaven has gained more beauty. There they will celebrate his coming and grant him the genuine freedom from earthly limitations. On earth we should use his example to try to become real authentic Jews like he was: Men of moderation, deeply religious, with an ongoing love for every Jew whatever his background, simultaneously being wholly committed to the word of God. This indeed is the chareidi Jew par excellence!
I thank the Holy One blessed be He that I had the merit to know him.
May his memory be blessed.
(1) Returnees to the Judaism
(2) See also Baba Batra 121b and Sota 13a