In 1924 the Yaboliner Rebbe, Rav Yechezkel Taub led his followers to Palestine where they established Kfar Hasidim. Unfortunately things soon began to go bad: disputes with the local Arabs, an outbreak of malaria and the farm failed. In desperation the rebbe made a deal to transfer the land to the Jewish Agency. With the situation in Poland rapidly deteriorating, more hasidim from Yabłona began turning up in Palestine expecting to take possession of the plots they had purchased. But the rebbe had no land or money to give them. The hasidim leveled accusations against him, and so in 1938 the rebbe traveled to the United States to raise funds, but the war broke out. The rebbe was now trapped in America. News reached him that the Nazis had murdered the entire Yabłona community, and the rebbe had a crisis of faith. He removed his Hasidic dress, shaved off his beard and payos, and abandoned Yiddishkeit, changing his name to George Nagel.
When the first Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were exiled into Babylonia, our ancestors felt God had permanently divorced them—that this was the end of Jewish history. But it wasn’t. The Zohar says God called to the angels and said: “My beloved children are being exiled into Babylonia and you remain here in the heavens? Descend to Babylonia and I will go into exile with you.” The prophet Yechezkel received a vision from God: “Harei Adonchem kan, Behold, your Master is here”; God is here with us in Bavel.
The Zohar says Yechezkel received this prophecy in a place called Nehar Kvar. The word nehar, of course, means a river and kvar means already. Nehar Kvar is the river of already was. The beginning of exile, explained Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, is when we feel that whatever was in our life defines who we are now. Nehar Kvar is the feeling that I can’t change anything from my past—that’s what Yechezkel meant when he said: “V’ani betoch hagolah, I am in the midst of exile al nehar kvar – in the river of what was. That is the epitome of galus, exile—living in the past.
Geula or redemption is just the opposite. The name God revealed to Moshe when He told him to redeem the people from Egypt was “Ekyeh Asher Ekyeh” which means “I will be as I will be.” The Zohar interprets this phrase to mean: “Amizamin l’mibehevei, I am prepared to become.” I am prepared to change. I am ready for something new. Galus is kvar, was. Redemption is the feeling that I’m free to change. It’s all about the future.
George Nagel avoided contact with the Jewish community in Los Angeles where he lived. After the war, George went into real estate and in the 1970s he lost everything. He collapsed and ended up in the hospital. A young man from Kfar Hasidim named Ehud visited George and suggested he move back to Israel. When he was released from the hospital, George felt confident enough to pay a visit to Kfar Hasidim. He was met by Ehud at the airport in Israel who drove him to a hall packed with people who had gathered to meet the man who had put Kfar Hasidim on the map. Old and young, religious and secular—everyone connected to the village was there. A seat at the front was left empty for George, and he slowly made his way toward his seat. An elderly man stood up and turned to speak. “Rebbe, do you remember me?” he asked. George looked at him, trying to figure out who he was. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Wait, are you Chaimke? Chaimke Geldfarb?” Chaimke smiled. “Yes, Rebbe, it’s me.” His voice was hoarse with emotion. “On behalf of all the residents of our community, I want to welcome you back home. You were probably nervous to come here. You probably think we are angry with you. But Rebbe, you’re mistaken. Because Rebbe—you saved our lives—if it were not for you, we would have stayed in Poland and been killed by the Nazis.” “Look over there …” Chaimke pointed toward a group of people in the middle of the hall. “That’s my son with his wife and children, and next to him my two daughters with their husbands and children.” “My parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and their children were all murdered by the Nazis. But we came with you, Rebbe. We built this place. We founded this village. We survived. And you were the one who saved our lives. And for that we thank you. Thank you for our lives, and for the lives of our children and grandchildren.”
In 1981, George returned to settle in Kfar Hasidim and at the age of 86, he returned not only to Israel, but to Yiddishkeite, growing back his beard and payot. George Nagel once again became the Yabłoner Rebbe. He thought God was finished with him. He lived for so many years in Nehar Kevar, in the river of was, never forgiving himself, never able to shake his past, but he ultimately died a tzadik, leading his flock of Chasidim until he passed from this world.
We all have something from our past which haunts us. We all spend time wallowing in what was, but that’s an exile mentality. The Yomim Noraim call to us to live a life of redemption, of looking towards the future. Yes, we must look at what we did wrong this past year—but there’s no moving forward if we allow those past misdeeds or misfortunes keep us from being the people we were meant to be.
What is holding you back that you can learn to let go of this Yom Kippur? What failure did you suffer that made you feel like Hashem no longer cares? In those moments it may feel like Hashem has abandoned us or but remember what the Navi Yechezkel said: “Harei Adonchem kan, Behold, your Master is here.” God descended into the exile with our ancestors, and He remains with us today.
Like any parent, Hashem wants to see us grow and develop. This is the deeper meaning of wishing each other Shana Tova, a good year, because the word shana is from shinui which means different. How will we be different this year? When we say Shana Tova we are wishing each other the strength to change—not to languish in Nehar Kvar but to muster the strength to put the past behind and believe we can do better tomorrow—that we can be more devoted to our Torah and its mitzvot. It doesn’t matter what we did yesterday because we are free agents to become who we want to be tomorrow. Internalizing this message can help us have not just a good year, but a different year.
Gmar Chatima Tova
Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.