Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Reb Shlomo and Me

A Tribute to Reb Shlomo 
The 16th of Cheshvan is anniversary of the passing of Reb Shlomo Carlebach – the greatest musician and storyteller of the last century, beloved and missed by his students and all who came to know him. He is called “the sweetest of the sweet, some called him the ‘Hippie Rabbi.’” The spark of Reb Shlomo’s teaching that “Rachel represents the holiness of the end,” applies perfectly to himself, who passed away exactly five days after her yahrtzeit. I’ve never told the story of my special connection with Reb Shlomo and how Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin owes her existence to him. So I decided to take this opportunity to share it with you. I personally experienced how the following Talmudic dictum: “Tzadikim (the righteous) are even greater in their death than during their lifetime” (Chulin 7b) applies to Reb Shlomo. I express this personal experience in the poem I wrote soon after his passing. Read on to find my poem below: “Mourning the Loss of the Rabbi I Never Had,” and learn about how Reb Shlomo’s passing touched my soul. I have also included my take on the controversy over touching women.

Was he a Rabbi or not a Rabbi?
The other day as part of my teaching at Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin, I was sharing a Shlomo story. When I began the story by saying, “Rav Shlomo Carlebach tells…one of my students asked, “Rav Shlomo Carlebach? Was he a Rabbi? I thought he was just a singer.” I remember myself thinking the same thing many years ago before he left this world. In a way, Rav Shlomo was so hidden even when he was so famous. Everybody knew his music and melodies. That is, we didn’t always know that so many of the well-known melodies we would sing so often were actually Shlomo songs. This was about thirty something years ago when I was newly religious, I was taught in the Yeshiva that Shlomo Carlebach was a great singer, but certainly no Rabbi.

Hidden Torah Scholar
It was only after his petira (passing) that I learned how great a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) Rav Shlomo was, as a top student of the famous Lakewood Yeshiva, and as a teacher of the very deepest Chassidic Torah. Many Rabbis were against him because he touched women. Everyone warned us that there was something not so kosher about Shlomo Carlebach, so that’s what I thought too, until the day he left this world and touched my soul. It was only after his passing that I received a flash of his amazing greatness.

His Passing Touched My Soul
I remember it clearly. It was a Friday afternoon exactly 19 years ago when I was cleaning my caravan for Shabbat here in Bat Ayin, that I received a phone call about Rav Shlomo’s passing. At that moment the very strangest thing happened to me. I began crying and crying and crying, tears didn’t stop flowing while I couldn’t stop singing Reb Shlomo’s nigun: “Yitgadal v'yitkadash….” over and over again. In the Bat Ayin Beit Knesset (synagogue) that Friday night everyone were crying to Rav Shlomo’s most heartfelt prayer tunes. It was an unforgettable Friday night tefilah. The next day I took my guitar and began to play and sing Shlomo tunes while I my tears continued to flow as if from an inexhaustible wellspring. I don’t know what was happening to me, as I never felt especially close to Reb Shlomo during his lifetime. I was never one of his students. I didn’t even recognize him as a spiritual giant at all. It was like a magnet pulling me towards his spirit, as if a spark of his neshamah had entered my heart, and stirring it up. I would go to his kever (grave) regularly, recite Song of Songs and cry more. Then I started to learn Reb Shlomo’s Torah and discovered its depth.

The Controversy over Touching Women
My personal experience made me revaluate what I had been taught about Reb Shlomo in Yeshiva about touching women. I read so many amazing stories about him, for example how he would call a certain woman in the middle of the night asking how she was doing, when at that very moment the woman was about to commit suicide, and she was saved by this phone-call. There were many many other stories about how Reb Shlomo saved people from both physical and spiritual death. His love and care for everyone was so strong, and he, therefore, had the ability to bring so many souls close to Hashem, like Avraham our father. So what do I think about his touching of women? I think that we cannot judge him on that. What do we know? What do we know? I actually had the opportunity to meet Rav Shlomo myself, and he never tried to touch me. I believe he clearly respected the women who kept the halachot of shomer negiah. I believe he touched people (not just women) as a way to connect with them, comfort them, give them the love they never received as children. I believe he brought so many Jewish souls back to their source through his touch. So how can we judge him? Although it’s important to emphasize that we can’t emulate Reb Shlomo in this area, whatever he did was just for him, we, regular people, must be meticulous in keeping the halachic gender distance. But Reb Shlomo was on a different level, perhaps his touching can be compared to the touch of a doctor. Perhaps we can say, “A doctor needs to touch even women in order to heal their bodies. Reb Shlomo needed to touch even women in order to heal their souls.”

Inspired by Shlomo’s Soul to Conceive the Midrasha
The new closeness I felt with Reb Shlomo after his passing stayed within me, it sparked my learning and my singing. It guided my steps and infused my guitar with Shlomo tunes. I’m convinced that it was Reb Shlomo’s spirit that inspired me to conceive the vision of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin and carry it into reality about a year after his passing. That first year at our dear Midrasha, the students of that year were all Reb Shlomo fans. One was even Sarah Witt, from a family which was part of the inner circle around Reb Shlomo. We didn’t stop singing Shlomo nigunim that year and we are still singing them today.

Rachel and Reb Shlomo Represent the Holiness of the End
During every holiday season I’m glued to my dear “Lev HaShamayim” Shlomo Carlebach book with teachings about each of the holidays in Hebrew, transcribed and annotated by Reb Shmuel Sivan. Just as I couldn’t stop crying the year of his passing, I still can’t stop reading his teachings over and over again. I like to end with a short teaching of Reb Shlomo about Rachel, which I believe also applies to himself, who was so connected to the Land of Israel.

“Rachel is weeping for her children” (Yirmeyahu 31:14). Because Rachel was the first Jew who met a Jew who had lost Eretz Yisrael. After Ya’acov left Eretz Yisrael, the first Jew he met was Rachel. And the Torah says that when he met Rachel. “He lifted up his voice and cried” (Bereishit 29:11). You know what he told her? He taught her how a Jew feels when he misses Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, Rachel is the master of how a Jew feels when he has lost Eretz Yisrael.

Rachel represents the holiness of the end. Rachel teaches us what to do when we lose Eretz Yisrael. Rachel herself goes through the whole thing – she is losing Ya’acov. When she gave over the signs, gevalt was she crying. Rachel teaches us how to respond when we miss something. So here is my poem of response to how I miss Reb Shlomo – the Rabbi I never had.

Mourning the Loss of the Rabbi I Never Had
Your love for all
was darkened to me
by the ardent expression
of your love for all

My shell of fear
made me fail to feel
What you meant to Israel
and to me

I had learned to divide
Between Good and Evil
Right and Wrong

I failed to know
You could join
and reach beyond
to the Tree of Life

The angels taught you
The tunes which penetrated
Our reality becoming part
Of the air we breathe

You taught us the soul
Of the words of G-d
Through your melodies you reached
Where mere words could not

Now that your spirit
Is stripped from its remains
Your presence fills
My world with love

A love and compassion
Which I failed to reach
Of a father I always needed
The Rabbi I didn’t sanction

May all the tears
I have shed for you
Capture some of your love
And imbue it to others

May your spirit let me hear
What I failed to behold
When you were near

Let one of your sparks reach
My heart and teach
Me a touch of the love
You had for all


  1. beautiful, just beautiful. thank you, chami

  2. Reb Shlomo ztz"l was niftar 21 years ago in Cheshvan 5755 (1994)!
    Many great Shlomos were taken from us that year including HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz"l & HaRav Shlomo Goren ztz"l !!!