CHAPTER 6: MIRACLES IN MOROCCO
Continuing our serialization of One in a Generation, Volume II
A poor ditch digger found a large diamond and traveled to London by boat with the aim of selling it.
The ditch digger didn’t have the money to pay for his passage, but he promised the captain that he’d pay his fare from the proceeds of selling the diamond. During the journey, the diamond was accidentally thrown out of the window of his cabin, and the ditch digger knew that if the captain of the ship found out, he’d execute him. So he maintained his happiness despite his great loss.
Shortly before arriving in London, the captain asked the ditch digger if he could put the whole boat and its cargo in his name, to avoid awkward questions on arrival. This was done — and the captain then promptly died on arrival, making the poor ditch digger extremely wealthy.
Rav Berland explained how the pirate’s boat, and all the riches it contained, eventually came to the poor ditch digger in the merit of his maintaining his happiness, even when he discovered that his priceless diamond had been thrown overboard. Ultimately, the boat’s contents ended up being much more valuable than the diamond he’d lost. Rav Berland explained that the same lesson still applied today, even when Am Yisrael and the yeshiva had gone through such difficult times.
He said: “If we continue to accept everything that’s happening to us with simchah, then b’ezras Hashem, ultimately God will give us our boat filled with riches. He will give us the treasure that’s truly meant for us — but only on condition that we maintain our happiness!”
During September 2012, Rav Berland had been in Uman for Rosh Hashanah, where he’d met one of his followers, Rabbi Nachman Biton, who’d moved out to Morocco some five years earlier.
Reb Biton came over to the Rav to ask for a blessing, but before he left, the Rav called out to him that when he got back to Morocco, he should start to make arrangements to hire a couple of vans — one to transport all of the Rav’s books from the airport, and the second to transport all of the Rav’s students.
At the time, Reb Biton thought the Rav was joking, as the persecution of the Rav hadn’t even begun. Reb Biton couldn’t imagine that just a little while later, Rav Berland — together with his books and some of his students — would be with him in Morocco, just as the Rav predicted on Rosh Hashanah.
Throughout the long years of exile, the Rav’s attendants confirmed that the decision of ‘where to go next’ nearly always occurred spontaneously.
There was no fixed plan, there was no special strategy. Just as the nation of Israel followed the Divine presence across the desert, resting when it rested, and travelling onwards when it started moving again, Rav Berland’s moves were also decided by the word of Hashem.
So despite his comments to Nachman Biton, the decision to travel to Morocco occurred to the Rav spontaneously, while he was staying in Switzerland. From the time he first set foot in Morocco, the Rav himself made it clear to the people who were closest to him that he’d be in exile for three years, and so it came to be. But what was unclear was whether the Rav would stay in just one place.
When he first came to Morocco, the Rav spent some time with his follower Nachman Biton in Casablanca, before moving to the small Jewish community in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh.
The Rav explained that Morocco contained some of the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, because around 3,000 holy Tzaddikim were buried there, and as Rebbe Nachman taught, wherever a Tzaddik is buried, he creates a spiritual atmosphere around his tomb that’s permeated with the holiness of Eretz Yisrael.
Throughout the seven months that he spent in Marrakesh, the Rav frequently visited many of the holy gravesites of Tzaddikim buried in Morocco, including the grave of Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan.
In a class he gave over the phone from Morocco before Lag BaOmer, Rav Berland made a point of encouraging all his students to make the trip to the kever of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron. He explained that all the difficulties involved in making the trip up to Meron would atone for their sins and reassured them that the community was passing through the final test now. “Don’t worry!” he said. “I’m with every single one of you, and everyone needs to believe that I could be there with you again in a split second. Don’t worry! Everything will work out for the best!”
But it was hard for everyone. When one of his students saw how deeply Rav Berland was suffering, he asked the Rav about it. The Rav told him:
“What can I do? No one else could have taken on so much suffering in order to atone for the sins of the generation.”
STARTING A COMMUNITY IN MARRAKESH
As more of his followers started to make the trip out to Morocco to be with him, the Rav tried to put more of a communal infrastructure in place, to ensure that not a second should be lost from their Torah learning, mitzvos and avodas Hashem.
The community in Marrakesh welcomed the newcomers warmly. The old synagogue had been struggling to find a minyan during the week, but with a regular influx of guests from Shuvu Banim, it was enjoying a new lease of life. Very early on, Rav Berland asked the President of the Morroccan Jewish community, Jacky Kadosh, to help him establish a kollel in the city, which was even able to provide its students with a modest stipend. Next, the small Jewish community of Marrakesh agreed to help the Rav establish his own Shuvu Banim community there, and to contribute toward its upkeep.
In a phone call to Rav Moshe Beninstock (a leading figure in Breslov chassidus and the chazzan in the central minyan on Rosh Hashanah in Uman), Rav Berland explained, “When I started on my journey, I thought I’d have a maximum of five students with me here in Morocco. But with Hashem’s help, I see that my students are following me even to here.”
On another occasion, one of the Rav’s senior students remarked that,
“The Evil One (the Satan) thought that once the RavI was exiled to Beitar Illit, his studentsI would stop praying the Shabbos prayers together with him, with the Rav’s special niggunim… But then, many students started coming to Beitar, on foot, making the four hour walk. The Rav told us that the dust from our footsteps had even reached up to Hashem’s Heavenly Throne. The Evil One continued to scheme against the Rav – but now, his students are even coming to Morocco! We truly hope that Morocco will be the last stop, and that from here, we will go straight to the rebuilt Beis Hamikdash, where we will greet the Moshiach.”
But together with the tremendous suffering, there was tremendous joy, too. When another of the Rav’s grandchildren traveled to Morocco to celebrate their marriage with him, the Rav said that he hadn’t felt so free in 40 years. In his latter years in Jerusalem, the Rav had been accompanied by guards everywhere he went, who prevented his community from interacting with him, and vice versa. “But now,” continued the Rav, “I finally feel free and able to connect to you again [i.e., his community], as though you were my own family.”
Around this time, word first reached the Rav’s attendants that the Israeli police were seeking to question the Rav as a result of all the media instigation that had occurred back in Israel.
The police in Israel cannot make an extradition request simply in order to question someone, so the Rav’s attendants contacted the Lahav 433 police unit that was responsible for dealing with Rav Berland’s case and offered that Rav Berland would return to Israel to clear his name, on condition that he would be dealt with respectfully.
A key requirement of the Rav’s attendants was that the Rav should only be questioned in his own home and that he shouldn’t be imprisoned without a trial, as had happened to other individuals in the past. They were concerned about the lack of transparency, honesty and goodwill being shown by the Israeli police.
Later events would prove their concerns to be well-founded.
The two sides (Rav Berland’s attendants and the Israeli police) were about to come to an agreement that would see Rav Berland voluntarily returning to Israel to clear his name when one of the Lahav 433 police chiefs stepped in and nixed the deal. “I don’t care if he’s a Rabbi or not a Rabbi,” he told the attendants. “I will bring him here with handcuffs!”
A year to the day after Rav Berland left Israel, on Taanit Esther, 11 Adar 5773 (March 14, 2014), this man resigned from his position. The following year, on 18 Tammuz 5775 (July 5, 2015) — the same time that Rav Berland disappeared from Holland — this police chief sadly committed suicide.
While all of these negotiations were continuing behind the scenes, the Rav just continued learning, and praying, and immersing in himself in his avodas Hashem, the way he always had.
But as time went on, more miracle stories involving the Rav started trickling out of Morocco, so more people from the local Jewish community, and also from Israel and further afield, and even some of the local Arabs, started to flock to the Rav to receive a blessing. One of the people who visited the Rav in Morocco at this time told the following story:
“On one of the occasions that the Rav left his house, there was a group of his supporters waiting outside to speak to him. As soon as the Rav came out, one woman came over to him from the group and asked the Rav if he remembered her. He said, ‘Yes, I do. You came to me in Israel and asked me for a blessing that you would be able to find your husband [the woman was an agunah]. I told you which country he was in, which city, which street, and the number of the house where he was staying.’
The woman replied excitedly that she’d found her husband exactly where the Rav had told her that she would, and that he’d been so shocked that she’d been able to find him, that she’d been able to encourage him to return to the family home. Now they were living together in peace once more as husband and wife.
Upon hearing this, the Rav turned to his followers who were standing there and told them, ‘You see, I know where everyone is! And I also know who’s upsetting their wife by coming to see me without asking her permission first!’”
As the summer stretched on into Elul, the Rav’s thoughts turned to Rosh Hashanah.
The Rav hadn’t missed being in Uman for Rosh Hashanah since the fall of Communism in 1989, but there were many obstacles in the way of the Rav traveling to Uman this year.
The Rav decided to visit the grave of Rav Daniel Hashomer at midnight and spent many hours there dancing and singing. The Rav was overheard praying: “Ribbono shel Olam, You brought us all the way to here, please take us to Uman, too!” This was the same song of longing for Uman that the Rav had composed many years earlier, when the path had been blocked by the Iron Curtain.
Afterwards, the Rav remarked that he’d fervently prayed that he would be able to spend Rosh Hashanah 5774 by Rebbe Nachman. ”Who knows what could happen in the world this coming year if I don’t get to Uman,” he said. “The judgments on the world are continuing to pile up and they need a lot of sweetening.”
At this time, in August 2013, the Arab world was in an uproar, as part of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
Egypt was in the middle of a revolution; the conflict against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had officially spiraled-down into a civil war; in March of that year, former Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said that “Zionism is a crime against humanity” during a speech at the UN; and Iran had just announced that it now had the sixth biggest stockpile of rockets in the world, and that its plans to develop atomic weapon were coming along nicely.
Meanwhile, the Torah world was also coming under unprecedented attack as the Israeli government instituted swinging budget cuts, seen by many as a punishment for failing to comply with the new law to draft yeshiva students into the IDF.
The Rav told his students that the tremendous financial difficulty that they and many others had experienced that past year was part of the birth pangs of Moshiach. He said,
“I really hope that next year, 5774, we’ll see the coming of Moshiach, as it says in Rashi’s commentary on Sanhedrin 98: ‘Everyone will say, just let the son of Dovid come already!’ because we’ll already be so tired, and we’ll realize that there’s nothing more we can do to change or improve the situation. No one will have the strength to do anything anymore, not the secular people and not the religious people, and that’s why everyone will want Moshiach to come right now.”
With Rosh Hashana fast approaching, a small group of around 30 of Rav Berland’s followers tried to organize a flight to Uman.
There were no direct flights from Morocco to Kiev, but the Rav’s attendants had managed to find a Ukrainian tour group who had chartered a private plane with spare seat, and who were flying back to the Ukraine a day before Rosh Hashana.
When they got to the airport, they discovered that the airport’s flight booking system wasn’t recognizing the tickets that had been purchased for Shuvu Banim, and the airport staff also couldn’t register any new ticket purchases.
The offices of the tour group who’d chartered the plane were now closed for the day, and the Rav’s attendants had no other way of getting in touch with the organizers of the flight. When all this became clear, Rav Berland told everyone to return to Marrakesh, and to start saying the selichot prayers for erev Rosh Hashana.
Despite their best efforts, Rav Berland was not going to be in Uman, that year.
The next morning, a number of trucks started arriving outside the Rav’s lodgings, bringing all types of different kosher food that had been donated by some of the wealthier members of the Jewish Moroccan community. Then, word arrived that someone had paid for the Rav and his followers to spend Rosh Hashana in a vacation resort.
A number of taxis showed up, to take the students and Rav Berland to their temporary lodgings, and the small entourage of Breslovers had a ‘three day’ Rosh Hashana at the resort that was described as ‘unforgettable’.
But when the news hit Uman that the Rav wouldn’t be joining them for Rosh Hashanah, many of his followers were devastated.
A short while before Rosh Hashanah began, Rav Berland contacted Rav Shmuel Stern, the Rosh Yeshiva of Nachalei Netzach, and asked him to pass on the message that no one should be sad that he hadn’t made it to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, because in his heart, he would still be with them.
“The main thing is to be ‘baked’ into the heart of Rabbeinu, as Rabbeinu himself said,” exclaimed the Rav. “I know how big Rebbe Nachman really is, so please be happy that you are there by him for Rosh Hashanah. The distance between us is only physical,” he continued. “Hashem could still bring me to Uman in the blink of an eye.”
After Rosh Hashanah 5774, the number of people who decided to fly out to see the Rav in Morocco began to rise exponentially.
The Rav called one of his students, Rabbi Naftali Biton, to tell him that as many as 1,000 of his followers had been given permission to fly out to Morocco to spend the remaining festivals with him. He asked Rav Nachman Biton for his help in arranging accommodations for them all.
In the end, around 300 people spent Yom Kippur with Rav Berland in Marrakesh, while another 400 flew out to celebrate Simchas Torah and Succos with him, totaling 700 people altogether. This was still more than enough to start garnering a lot of attention from the local Muslim population, who began to wonder why so many hundreds of Jews in traditional Chassidic garb were openly walking around the streets of Marrakesh while the “Arab Spring” was in full swing everywhere else in the world…
After the High Holidays were over, the Rav decided to take a break from his teaching schedule and routine in Marrakesh and have a few days “vacation” in Morocco’s capital city, Casablanca.
While in Casablanca, Rav Berland stayed at the home of one of the influential members of the Jewish community. Over the course of Shabbos, tens of citizens and businessmen flocked to this man’s home, to visit the Rav – including a number of local Arabs. They were joined by a few of the Rav’s own students, who’d flown out from Israel after the High Holidays to be with him, and who spent the nights learning Torah with him.
So it continued the whole week that the Rav spent in Casablanca, where he prayed in the Chabad synagogue of Rav Shalom Eidelman. At one point during his visit there, a newly-engaged couple together with their parents flew out to Casablanca to hold the vort and break the plate in the Rav’s presence. The Rav told the couple that he would organize their marriage ceremony in Morocco at the hall that was adjacent to the grave of Rabbi Yechia Ben Baruch in the city of Ouarzazate. When one of the Rav’s wealthy hosts overhead the conversation, he came over to tell the couple that he would pay all their wedding costs.
Among the many different people who came to visit Rav Berland in Morocco, one in particular stood out.
This man had recently been told by the doctors that he had a cancerous growth in his throat. After he received this shocking diagnosis, he went to get a brachah from Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Rav Chaim asked him who he had been speaking badly about, and after a long pause for thought, the man responded that he’d spoken negatively about Rav Berland – but that he’d only been repeating the things he’d heard on the news! .
Rav Chaim Kanievsky then told that he should go immediately to ask forgiveness, and that if he did that, he’d be healed. The man took Rav Kanievsky’s words to heart, made teshuvah, and called the Rav to ask for his forgiveness, which was very freely given. The growth subsequently disappeared all by itself.
For a couple of months, it felt like the good times had returned.
Anyone who wanted could come and see the Rav in Morocco, and the Rav and his followers had developed a framework and routine for life in Morocco. But this state of affairs wasn’t to last. At the time the Rav was sojourning there, the so-called “Arab Spring” was in full steam, toppling secular Muslim governments and leaders all around the world. If that wasn’t enough, a number of terrorist organizations including Al-Qaida were known to be operating in Morocco, and the government was wary of adding any more fuel to what was already a potentially explosive domestic situation.
The remaining Jews in Morocco had learned to keep a low profile. By contrast, the Breslover newcomers were drawing an awful lot of attention to themselves, and the greatest attraction of all was Rav Berland.
As rumors of his holiness and abilities as a miracle-worker spread, even the non-Jewish Moroccans started lining up in the street outside his house to ask for blessings, and would mob him every time he came out of his home. Even some of the King’s own advisors came to pay a courtesy call to the Rav. As the Rav’s fame spread locally, and as the number of his followers who were coming to Morocco continued to grow, the King of Morocco was told by his advisors that something had to be done to nip this potential problem in the bud.
Back in Israel, the Rav’s persecutors started to realize that instead of clipping the Rav’s wings, silencing him and destroying his community, his exile to Morocco had actually had the opposite effect. The Rav had been rejuvenated, his followers had been flocking to see him by the hundreds, and new life had been breathed back into Shuvu Banim.
This was not at all the state of affairs they’d been hoping for, and so began the pattern of “persecution by media” that continued throughout the Rav’s exile.
The Rav’s persecutors back in Israel decided to send the Moroccan press a translated copy of some very negative news stories that had appeared about Rav Berland back in Israel. They again posed as innocent bystanders with no hidden agenda, and no connection to the Rav and his followers, who just wanted the good people of Morocco to know ‘the truth’ about who the Rav really was.
Their ruse was discovered when members of the Shuvu Banim community contacted the Arabic-speaking Moroccan journalists who were running negative stories about the Rav to ask them how they’d come by their information. One reporter told them about the translated articles he’d received, and gave over the name of the person who’d sent it him. It was one of the Rav’s main persecutors.
Then, the local Moroccan press started publishing stories quoting complaints about the Rav’s followers from the head of the Marrakesh Jewish community, Jackie Kadosh. Jackie Kadosh was quick to respond that no one should believe the story, and that hosting Rav Berland was a tremendous privilege.
But that story was only the opening shot in the “media war” that the Rav’s persecutors waged in every country the Rav fled to during his exile.
As the false stories about the Rav started to appear in the Moroccan papers, the King of Morocco found himself caught in a furious dilemma about what action, if any, he should take.
After a long, painful deliberation, the King of Morocco came to a decision. His aides contacted Rav Berland’s host and passed on the following ultimatum: “The King of Morocco can no longer guarantee the safety of Rav Berland’s followers. Around a thousand Jews are now in the country visiting the Rav, and it is beyond the King’s ability to guarantee their welfare. All of Rav Berland’s followers must leave Morocco immediately.”
When he heard the King’s ultimatum, Rav Berland made it clear that he couldn’t stay in Morocco if his followers would no longer be able to visit him and learn with him.
After the Rav decided he had to leave Morocco, one of his students came over to him and asked him, “What do we do now? What should we tell everyone to do?” The Rav replied, “We have to believe that Hashem is running the world. Whatever will be — will be! But our job is to carry on busying ourselves with our prayers and with our avodas Hashem, in whatever place we find ourselves next. Tell everyone to study the parashah of the week, parashas Vayeitzei, twice in the original and once in the Targum, together with Rashi’s commentary.”
And that was that. The Rav was very relaxed, and he sent a very clear message to his students that no matter where the next part of the journey was going to take them all, the main concern should be just to simply carry on studying the Torah, learning its laws and living according to Halachah, and not to let themselves get confused by anything that was going on around them.
While his followers scrambled to pack their belongings, the Rav stayed calm and focused on spiritual matters at all times, even though it appeared that no one had any idea where the Rav would go next.
After the Rav left the country, the King of Morocco had a change of heart and contacted the Rav to request that he should return. The King promised him full honor and protection, on the condition that the Rav would return alone, and keep a low profile. Again, the Rav refused. If he couldn’t be with his beloved students, he wasn’t interested in going back to Morocco, even if he could live there in luxury and peace.
Rav Berland left Morocco on 5 Kislev 5774 (November 7, 2013). It was time for the next leg of his exile.
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