From Rabbi Gedaliah Aharon Kenig’s Shaarey Tzaddik, Vol. I, Letter 8 (sec. 2)
Translated by Dovid Sears (unedited)
Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig, zatzal, was asked in a letter from one of his talmidim about the histalkus (ascent to the world above) of Reb Gedaliah’s revered teacher, Moreinu ha-Rav Avraham Sternhartz, zatzal – who was widely considered the preeminent Breslov teacher of his generation. (For a brief biography of Reb Avraham, see here.) After confessing his pain in contemplating his profound loss as well as his feelings of inadequacy in describing these events, Reb Gedaliah wrote:
Many weeks before his histalkus [Reb Avraham] was extremely weak. He bemoaned his plight and repeatedly said, “Vi azoy brengt men aza guf tzu Reb Shimon al Rosh Hashanah! How can I bring such a [broken] body to Reb Shimon [Bar Yochai in Meron] on Rosh Hashanah!”—for it was close to Rosh Hashanah. We tried to console him that Hashem would yet help him to be with the tzaddik emes (“true tzaddik”), the G-dly Tanna [sage of the Mishnah] RaSHBI [an acronym for Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai], may his merits shield us, together with us.
[All this occurred during the years when it was impossible to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashanah Therefore, at Reb Avraham’s behest, many Breslover chassidim in Eretz Yisrael went to the pray near the grave site of RaSHBI in Meron. Reb Avraham’s views on this issue are presented in “Amaros Tehoros” (published together with some of his Breslov oral histories, “Tovos Zikhronos”) and in Rabbi Shmuel Moshe Kramer’s polemical essay, “Chadi Rabbi Shimon.” A large Breslov Rosh Hashanah gathering still takes place in Meron for those who cannot travel to Uman every year. DS]
We told him that it was possible to make the journey a little at a time. We could hire a private taxi and accompany him and attend to his needs; and it seemed to us that he was amenable to this suggestion. But from various hints that he gave, it was possible to understand that he felt that his end was near. The main intent of his words to us was that we must fortify ourselves with all our souls to travel to RaSHBI for the holy days of Rosh Hashanah—until one day we would merit to be at the tziyyun of our holy Rebbe, the “flowing brook, source of wisdom” (Proverbs 18:4, the Hebrew initials of which spell “Nachman”), in Uman. He explicitly assured us, declaring, “Our Rosh Hashanah beside the G-dly Tanna RaSHBI in Meron will endure…” And he added, “Know and believe with perfect faith that traveling to RaSHBI is [the same as] traveling to the Rebbe!” He repeated this countless times, with the intent of imbuing this faith deeply in our hearts forever, for our eternal benefit. Fortunate is whoever heeds him!
All that last year, and particularly during those final weeks, he reviewed from memory Likutey Moharan and Likutey Halakhos, as well as the works of his grandfather, the Rav of Tcherin, zatzal. That is, after the effort of sitting at the table for his fixed daily study of the Gemara, Poskim, and the holy Zohar, etc., he was sometimes compelled to lie down for several hours; due to his great weakness, it was impossible for him to hold any book in his holy hands. Then he would review from memory the lessons [from Rebbe Nachman] that he used to teach publicly when he lived in the Diaspora, in the same style that he had delivered them, with even greater vigor and strength, whether silently in thought or aloud, to the greatest extent possible. Many times when I visited him, he told me, “Tonight I reviewed the lesson ‘Tiku-Emunah’… Tonight I reviewed the lesson ‘Viyehi Na Pi Sh’nayim Bi-ruchakha Eilai’…’ and other such lengthy teachings from Likutey Moharan, together with their related sections of Likutey Halakhos. Similarly, he greatly increased his recitation of Psalms, especially during his last days.
The day before his passing I was with him alone for many hours and was privileged to attend him. I wanted to remain there beside him at night, as well, in order to serve him; for I saw that the G-dly light was about to be extinguished, and who knew what the night would bring? It seems that he read my thoughts, for he turned to me, saying, “You can go home.” I didn’t wish to burden him with further discussion, given his infirmity. So I placed my trust in Hashem, may His Name be blessed, that tomorrow I would yet find [my teacher] alive.
So it was that I went home with a broken heart. And the next afternoon I came to him and found him sitting on his bed beside the table. He washed his hands with a copious amount of water and then lay down on the bed. He told me that many of our fellow Breslover Chassidim had come to visit him. They had learned with him a bit, and after about an hour went their way. He mentioned their names to me, and began to recall his conversation with them. However, I was unable to hear all of his words; even when I leaned closer to his holy mouth, I could only make out a few words here and there.
While he was lying thus, I busied myself with bringing water to cleanse the room. While doing so, I glanced at him and saw that he was close to death, and my heart was rent within me. Yet Hashem gave me the strength not to break down and cry out loud. But secretly my soul wept over the bitter day that drew near—and I began to pray to Hashem to have pity on us and grant him a speedy and complete healing.
In the midst of this, [Reb Avraham] sat up again and said to me, with a cheerful face, “I’d like to eat part of a roll.” I was overjoyed that he had such a desire. While I prepared it for him, though, he changed his mind and said, “Let me have some cake instead.” So I broke up the cake into small pieces and placed them in his holy mouth. I also fed him a few spoonfuls of chicken soup that I had made for him, so that it would be easier for him to chew and swallow the cake. While doing so, he again lay down on the bed, and I finished feeding him the cake and the rest of the soup while he reclined. He was able to swallow well, in the normal way—blessed be Hashem and blessed be His Name forever, in that He granted me the eternal merit of feeding such a holy body to satisfaction, so close to death. And I saw that [Reb Avraham] ate with a wondrous ratzon [i.e., the innermost will and desire of the soul for unification with Hashem, as discussed in Likutey Moharan I, 7; DS].
Afterward, I wanted him to eat an egg, as well, but he said to leave this for “afterwards…” because he wished to rest a bit. I heard him recite the berakhah achronah (blessing after eating), and when he finished his blessing, his lips began to move, and I didn’t know what he was saying. He placed his left hand under his head and slept thus for a quarter of an hour, dozing lightly. And I stood over him and intently watched every movement he made. Suddenly I saw that the gesisah (signs of imminent death) had begun; I was extremely frightened and began to weep in a whisper. (I didn’t want to raise my voice, since in the next room sat the daughter of our friend, Rav Moshe Burstein and his Rebbetzin—and his daughter was pregnant at that time, and I was concerned that she not be upset by my cries. Therefore, I forced myself with all my strength to contain my emotions.) [Reb Avraham lived with the Burstein family in the Katamon section of Yerushalayim during his last years, after his wife passed away. DS]
I saw that he closed his holy eyes and began to breathe abnormally long breaths. I was alone in the room with him and repeated many times the verse “Shema Yisrael…” in a loud voice. And I understood that he recited the verse after me, word by word.
Suddenly he opened his holy eyes wide and looked around the room at all sides, and he fixed his gaze upon me, for I stood facing him. Intentionally I peered into his holy eyes so that he would see me clearly this last time, and thus remember me always and intercede above for me.
Then he began to shut his eyelids slowly, until he closed his holy and pure eyes which had shone with heavenly radiance and which were brighter than jewels—which he had merited to attain through his profuse prayers and holy tears beyond measure, and by driving sleep from his eyes to labor in Torah study and prayer. Day and night, he didn’t rest or desist throughout his holy and untainted life; fortunate is he!
And so his soul departed in sanctity and purity, and his inner being (tzurah) cleaved to her Maker with the “Divine Kiss” [neshikin, as described in Berakhos 8a], without any contortions or convulsions. Rather, everything took place in great tranquility and wondrous presence of mind (yishuv ha-daas), the like of which we never saw. I continued to repeat aloud the verse “Shema Yisrael” until the family members in the adjoining room heard, and they went to summon others to enter [Reb Avraham’s bedroom]. When they came in, they observed him and said that he had already passed on to the next world, to reside in eternal life, leaving all Israel bereft [of his holy presence in our midst].
Then I rent my garment, according to the law [see Yoreh Deah 340:5, 8; DS], and the tears flowed from my eyes. I lingered beside him until a number of other Breslover chassidim arrived. I then traveled [into the Old City] to inform the chevra kaddisha (burial society) and the Breslover chassidim of the Old City to come and attend to the deceased and to pay their respects. May his merits shield us, and may we follow in his footsteps constantly, from this world to the next world, amen netzach sela va’ed.