Sunday of this week, the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Av, marked the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi, the holy Arizal, who is universally considered the father of modern Kabbalah. The preceding Shabbat marked the yahrtzeit of the Kabbalist HaRav Eliahu Leon Levi, of blessed memory, whose weekly shiur I had the privilege of attending for ten years before his death several years ago. HaRav Leon knew the writings of the “Ari” like most Torah scholars know Mishnas by heart. Every year, he would lead his students to Tzfat on the yahrtzeit of the Arizal for special prayers called, “Tikunim,” and for a picnic in the Ari’s honor. On one occasion, he mentioned that the Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that at the time just before the Mashiach arrives, the spiritual darkness will be so great in the world that only stories about the Tzaddikim (holy Jewish saints) will have the power to awaken people from their spiritual slumber. Accordingly, here are few stories about HaRav Leon to inspire people to recognize that a vast spiritual world exists beyond the everyday material world which surrounds our lives like a dark curtain, blocking out the light of God.
AN UNEXPECTED GUEST
Some fifteen years ago, during the Sukkot [Feast of Tabernacles] holiday, I was in my house getting things ready to set off on a family outing, when my son telephoned from our sukkah downstairs in the parking lot.
“There is a white-bearded Rabbi here with 30 students,” he said. “They want to know if they can use our sukkah.”
“That’s interesting,” I thought. Out of the tens of thousands of sukkot in Jerusalem, a white-bearded Rabbi and 30 students suddenly appear out of the sky like a spaceship and land in our parking lot. Ever since becoming a baal tshuva (returnee to Judaism) in Hollywood in a rather miraculous way before I moved to Israel, I always kept an eye out for heavenly signs and wonders.
“Invite them,” I told my son, wondering what the Almighty had in mind for me now.
“The Rabbi wants to talk with you,” my son informed me.
After a moment, a rich sefardic accent sounded over the cell phone, followed by a river of blessings. The truth is, the Hebrew came out so fast, I had trouble understanding every word. The startling thing was that each blessing was like a ballistic missile targeted for precisely my life, my problems, and my ups and downs in serving Hashem [G-d], as if the Rabbi was looking through a window into our house.
After packing a few final things for our holiday trip, I hurried downstairs to our sukkah. The seventy-year old Rabbi was standing in the parking lot of the building, slicing up tomatoes on a fold-up table that his students had brought. The first thing I noticed was the big white kippah [skullcap] which completely covered his head. The next thing was the glow of holiness which radiated from his face and white beard. Draped over his white shirt was a large tallit katan [fringed garment]. While he sliced the tomatoes, he gave orders to his obviously well-trained team of students, like an army officer commanding his troops. They had removed my table and chairs from the sukkah and had set up tables and benches of their own. Already laid out on the table were a wide assortment of salads, juices, pita bread, nuts, hummus, tahini spread, and fruits.
My thirteen-year old son came over to me with an amazed expression on his face. As the son of a baal tshuva from Hollywood, he was used to all kinds of people showing up at our house for a visit, but this surrealistic scene was a first.
“Maybe it’s the prophet, Elijah HaNavi,” he whipered.
Seeing me, the Rabbi repeated his blessings and continued on with his work, adding a variety of spices to the large bowl of salad before him like a practiced chef. Many of the students, Jews aged thirties through ixty, wore large white kippahs like their Rabbi. Here and there, an Ashkenazi face stood out in the crowd of dark Sefardi faces. One of them, the driver of their mini-bus, dressed in the holiday garb of a Hasid, came over to me and told me the Rabbi’s name, HaRav Eliahu Leon Levi from Bnei Brak. I remembered having seen him a few times at the Kotel, always surrounded by followers and fervently engaged in prayer.
Earlier that morning, they had been at the Kotel for the priestly blessing of the kohanim. Their plan had been to eat a festive breakfast in our Kiryat Moshe neighborhood before returning to Bnei Brak. But when they arrived, the synagogue sukkah they had intended to use proved to be much too small for the group. Scouting the area, they came upon our parking lot and our ample size sukkah.
A verse of the Hallel prayer rang in my ears, “This is the L-rd’s doing; it is wondrous in our eyes.”
That year, I had brought my parents on Aliyah to Israel from Florida after my mother was stricken with the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. My father, who had several serious medical problems of his own, could not cope with her alone in America, so, with my wife’s permission, they moved in with us in Shilo, the small settlement where we lived in Judea and Samaria. Because of their frequent medical needs, and the Melabev, English-speaking Alzheimer’s group which met 3 times a week in Jerusalem, we decided to move to Kiriat Moshe, where we were fortunate to find a building with two vacant apartments.
Without a second thought, I hurried upstairs to bring my parents down for a blessing from the holy-looking Rabbi.
By the time I could get them organized, the Rabbi was sitting in the our large sukkah with his students. Slowly, I led my parents over toward the entrance. We stood outside the sukkah about ten meters away from where the Torah Sage was seated. The Rabbi looked up and immediately, without even studying them, stated their medical problems, as if reading straight from a detailed medical report.
“Your mother’s head is not working as it should,” he said. “She is very confused, forgets things, becomes suddenly irritated and has frequent bursts of uncontrollable anger. Her overall blood circulation is poor and she suffers from pains in her upper back.”
My son stared at me in amazement. I too was dumbfounded. The Rabbi had described her situation exactly.
“Your father is depressed and extremely nervous,” he continued. “He worries over every small thing. The arteries in his neck are clogging, but he needn’t worry about that. He needs to get more fresh air, that’s all, and take him to the shopping mall where he can see lots of people in order to cheer him up.”
According to his latest ultrasound, one artery in Dad’s neck was already blocked, and the other closure was 75%. I asked if there was something more I could do to help them.
“Bring your mother to me in Bnei Brak,” he said. “Once the problem has reached the head, it is hard to influence the Heavenly Court, but perhaps it is possible with G-d’s help to ease the pains in her back.”
My mother had been born with scoliosis. Years before, major surgery had left her with constant pain in her back. Plus, she had terrible arthritis. I had taken her to a gamut of doctors, chiropractors, reflexologists, and the like, but nothing had eased her suffering.
A VISIT TO BNEI BRAK
One of the students gave me a phone number to call to reserve a slot for Mom on the Rabbi’s day of visiting hours in Bnei Brak. Like a dutiful son, I made the appointment. But because of my father’s nervousness, he rejected the idea out of hand. So as not to waste the opportunity, I suggested to my wife that we go instead with one of our children who made hyperactive children look like they were standing still. If G-d hadn’t sent the Rabbi to us to help with my parents, then surely it was to help with our son.
Rabbi Leon saw people on Thurdays at his synagogue in Bnei Brak. By the time we arrived, the waiting room was already full. Each week, scores of people called for appointments, but only 12 are accepted, so that the Rabbi could spend the time needed with each person in order to help raise the person out of his or her dilemma, spiritual darkness, or pain. Sometimes a one-on-one meeting with the Rabbi lasted a half hour, sometimes an hour, often even two.
When our turn came, we sat down facing the Rabbi who was absorbed in a book of Psalms. Beyond his study, the synagogue was stunningly lit with brilliant chandeliers. After several minutes, the Rabbi looked up and nodded with a very serious expression, not with the radiant smile that had warmed my heart on the Sukkot holiday. I explained that since my father was apprehensive about coming, we had come with our son. Being the father of 14 children, including five Torah scholars, the Rabbi certainly had experience with children.
Rabbi Leon told the boy to take a book and go study in the synagogue. When he was out of hearing range, he said, “The problem isn’t with the boy – it is with the parents. A child is merely the extension of the parents. When the parents fix themselves, the problem of the child will vanish.”
“Uh oh,” I thought, certain that the Rabbi was going to turn his x-ray vision on me. But instead, he started speaking about problems of the circulation system. Gently, without mentioning any wrongdoing, he led us to understand that transgressions, and improper character traits like anger and depression, affect the nefesh (soul), and the nefesh effects the blood, and the blood circulates to all of the organs of the body, eventually causing a disorder in the region that corresponds to the transgression or faulty attribute. I remembered studying about this relationship in the book Shaare Kedusha, but I never had the knowledge to apply it in a practical way. In a similar fashion, the Rabbi said, emotions like anger and nervousness in the home can have a devastating effect on the children.
“There have been mistakes,” he inferred in a general way.
He gave us a diet that would revitalize our blood and suggested some other very down-to-earth advice. Then for the next fifteen minutes he spoke about pride, about how poisonous it was in serving G-d, causing the Divine Presence to flee from a person and leave him in spiritual darkness.
“Wow, did you get it on the head,” I said to my wife when we left.
“Me?” she responded. “Everything he said about pride and anger, he was talking about you!”
“Me?” I responded in amazement.
How ridiculous could you get? Everyone knew that I was the famous baal tshuva from Hollywood who had rejected fame and riches for G-d. Who was more humble than me?
True, I had learned a lot of things in yeshiva, but very little about making a married life work and bringing up children. And like every new immigrant, I had my share of frustrations in beginning a new life in Israel. Plus as a baal t’shuva I was often over-meticulous in making sure that I, and my wife, performed the commandments with upmost perfection, a marital mistake that can turn Heaven into Hell. The arrival of my parents had exacerbated things a hundred times over. Often I felt like an actor in a movie about a man who had two wives, running back and forth between my sick mother and wife, trying to keep everyone happy. Add my father’s nervousness, and a super hyper son. Under the emotional burden, one of my vertebrae moved out of place, and I was paralyzed with pain. It wasn’t long before I had sunk into a period of depression and despair.
But it wasn’t until reading the booklet that Rabbi Leon gave me, that it hit me. There was an essay on anger, an essay on the sanctity of marriage relations, an essay on repentance. The main part of the booklet was the “Tikun HaYesod Yeshuat Eliahu,” an arrangement of 13 Psalms chosen by the Rabbi, followed by a long confession designed to inspire a person to a new level of sexual purity, known as shmirat habrit. Along with many insights based on the secrets of Torah, and the teachings of the Arizal, the essence of the tikun [rectification] was “Sanctify yourself in what is permitted to you.”
“AND HE REPENTED AND WAS HEALED”
The following Thursday morning, I returned to Bnei Brak with a list of questions for the Rabbi. Once again the waiting room was filled with people. The Rabbi nodded when I entered the synagogue, and continued on with his prayers. I sat down near his desk, waiting for an opportunity to ask my questions. After a while I realized that without an official place on the list, I wouldn’t be permitted to talk with him, because of the packed schedule. But no one asked to me leave, so I sat there as inconspicuously as possible, happy to be in his presence and the special atmosphere of holiness that surrounded him.
Suddenly, a man burst into the study area followed by a woman in what I guessed was her ninth month of pregnancy. The hysterical husband held up an x-ray and shouted, “They want to operate! They want to operate!”
“Of course they want to operate,” the Rabbi said calmly. “Your wife has a massive growth in her stomach.”
She wasn’t pregnant, I realized. Her over-swollen belly was the result of a malignancy.
“They want to operate on Tuesday,” the husband shouted. “Here’s the x-ray. Here’s the x-ray!”
“What do you expect?” the Rabbi told him. “You don’t keep the laws of family purity.”
Suddenly, the husband was silent.
“And you are violent with your wife, demanding your way, forcing yourself upon her whenever you feel the need, without thinking about what she wants, or maybe I am wrong?”
The man looked as if he wanted to disappear under the table.
“Those are very big sins,” the Rabbi said. “Do you regret them?”
“Yes,” the man said meekly.
“Do you promise that from now on you will keep the laws of family purity and be considerate of your wife?”
“Yes,” the man repeated.
Rabbi Leon turned to the woman. “The growth in your belly is your anger at your husband. But you have to realize that he never learned otherwise. He doesn’t mean wrong. He’s a high-tempered person. He doesn’t know any better. But now he will change. Can you forgive him?”
The woman nodded, yes.
“Give your belly a hit,” the Rabbi told her.
Gently, she tapped on her stomach.
“Harder!” the Rabbi said.
Again, she tapped on her belly.
“Harder!” the Rabbi commanded.
This time she gave her belly a punch. Like a punctured beach ball that loses its air, the big round swelling in her stomach simply disappeared. I was sitting no more than a few feet away. Right before my eyes, the swelling shrunk and vanished. The woman burst into tears. Once again, the husband started shouting in utter disbelief, “But I have the x-ray! I have the x-ray!”
“You can throw the x-ray in the garbage,” the Rabbi told him. “It’s over. It’s gone. Your wife is healthy again.”
“But the operation. The appointment is next week!” the dazed husband muttered. “What will I tell the doctor?”
“You won’t have to tell him. He will see for himself.”
Then Rabbi Leon turned to the woman, who was still weeping in shock. Why are you crying?” he asked. “You should be happy. The Holy One Blessed Be He has done a miracle for you.”
When I started on the road of repentance in Hollywood, G-d had done a similar miracle for me. Through lots of penitence and prayer, without any medicine, an illness that had plagued me for years disappeared. So I wasn’t surprised by what I had witnessed. As Rabbi Leon taught, the verse says, “Return in penitence and be healed.” The Almighty can do everything. The secret is t’shuva – repentance and changing one’s ways.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
I left that day without being able to ask the Rabbi my questions. On the way out, I overheard his secretary telling someone on the telephone that the Rabbi had decided to travel up north with his students in order to pray for rain. Seizing the opportunity, I asked the ecretary if I could come along. He told me that he would ask the Rabbi and call me with his answer.
At that time, there was a very serious drought in Israel. The water level of the Sea of Galillee was dangerously low. There was serious talk of purchasing water from Turkey. So I was very excited when later that evening I received a call saying that the Rabbi agreed that I come along.
The following week a long caravan of cars set out from the yeshiva. The Rabbi had requested that everyone recite the entire Book of Psalms on the drive up north, so there was no time for small talk. Our destination was a secluded wooded glade called “Maayan Baruch,” in a forest just outside the city of Kiryat Shemona.
At the end of the long drive, a bumpy dirt road led us to a picnic area in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees. The Rabbi had arrived ahead of the group to organize the makeshift camp. It was a beautiful sunny day at the beginning of November. Like my first view of the Rabbi outside of my sukkah, he had taken off his hat and black overcoat, and with his big white kippah and flowing tallit katan, he looked like the Baal Shem Tov himself. Just as before, he was preparing a gigantic salad. When the minibus arrived with crates of food and tables, the Rabbi took charge of the operation, where to put the tables, where to wash the fruit, who would study the Zohar [the basic work of the Kabbalah] and who would recite psalms.
One of the things which characterized Rabbi Leon was his energy. For his age, he moved about with extraordinary quickness, far surpassing his students. I learned that the group would leave the yeshiva in Bnei Brak at least once a week to travel to a different location throughout the country to do a tikun (rectification) in a large tent that the Rabbi had specially designed for their outings. In addition, Rabbi Leon drove to the Kotel at least three times a week. His students said that he slept no more than two hours a night, if at all. His nights were filled with study and prayer, like in the days of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his disciples, according to the instructions that the Arizal set down in his writings.
In a short time, tables were laden with a kingly feast for the seventy people present. The Rabbi told us to make our blessings over the food out loud so that everyone could answer Amen. After completing the Tehillim (Psalms) and the readings from the Zohar, the Rabbi told everyone to wash hands for the meal from the nearby water pipe, whose source, he said, was from the rivers of the Garden of Eden. During the meal, the Rabbi gave a dvar Torah, a Torah lesson, saying that rains were held back because of transgressions to the Covenant –Brit – as explained in the Zohar. Like in the days of Noah, when the immorality of mankind knew no boundaries, and even animals mated with other species, sexual deviations draws harsh judgment upon the world. (Perhaps this is the reason for the plague of Coronavirus today?)
Immediately after the meal, the Rabbi had everyone stand in four lines, facing all four directions while he stood in the middle. In unison, in loud, fervent voices, everyone recited a Kabbalistic prayer based on the incense service in the Holy Jerusalem Temple of old. Even before we had finished, there was the sound of distant thunder over the peaks of the Hermon. At first, we thought it might be tank fire on the Lebanon border. The sun was still bright in the afternoon sky. The thundering grew louder as we continued to pray. The first drops of rain fell while we were packing the tables back into the minibus at the end of the tikun. On the drive back to Bnei Brak, the sky darkened, and rain poured down in gushes. Hailstones bigger than marbles rumbled atop car roofs, shattering windshields. Four students collected the cost of the damage from their insurance companies. To be sure, we were not the only people in Israel praying for rain at that time. But it is hard to say that the sudden rainstorm was a mere coincidence after our prayers. Plus, it wasn’t the first time that rain fell after a tikun by Rabbi Leon and his students.
ZOHAR BY HEART
In his book, “Orot,” (Ch. 57) Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook writes that the study of the Zohar is destined to open the road to Israel’s Redemption. By the time he reached twenty, the young Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi knew large portions of the Zohar by heart, as well as the teachings of the Arizal, including the practical Kabbalah with its deep and intricate intentions, meditations, and “Yichudim.” Later I learned that much of his learning came from his father who would rise from sleep at two o’clock every evening, immerse in an outdoor mikvah pool 151 times, even during the winter, then go to the synagogue to recite the Midnight Prayer (Tikun Hatzot) and learn the secrets of Torah until dawn. Very often, Rabbi Yeshua Levi would drag young Eliahu Leon along, even when the boy begged to stay in bed, in order to accustom him to the attribute of saintliness in the service of G-d. As a teenager, for a period of six years, Eliahu Leon secluded himself in the house, studying Kabbalah, fasting, and reciting yichudim day and night. Finally, his father told him, “Enough. You may make an angel out of yourself, but what about Am Yisrael – the Nation of Israel? Go out and teach. Teach people Torah and teach them how to pray from the depths of their hearts.”
MIRACLES BY THE KILO
I personally witnessed many miracles with Rabbi Leon. He reiterated that miracles came from the Almighty, and that he was merely a conduit for prayers. One time, at the end of a nightlong prayer session, a young soldier pushed his way forward through the crowd gathered around the Rabbi. One arm dangled loosely at his side. He said it had been paralyzed for half a year, and that no doctor had been able to help.
“Why did you pick up that statue of idol worship?” Rabbi Leon asked him.
The soldier seemed stunned. As if he were dreaming, he shook his head to wake himself up.
“That was seven years ago,” he admitted. “I was on a group tour to Spain. The guide took us into a church, and I picked up one of the statues.”
The Merciful One gave you seven years to do repentance,” the Rabbi informed him. “Now you received the punishment in your arm. Are you sorry?”
“Of course,” the young man soldier answered. “I had no idea.”
“Good,” Rabbi Leon told him. “With your bad arm, pick up a pretzel, say a blessing, and eat it.”
The soldier looked down at the pretzels on the table. Sadly, he shook his head. “I can’t move it,” he said.
“Yes you can,” the white-bearded Rabbi said with a glowing smile. “You’ve got a new arm now. You can pick up the front end of a car!”
As if concentrating his strength, the soldier looked down at his arm. When it made a move forward, he let out a sound of surprise. He reached out toward the table. A smile broke over his face. Then he grabbed a pretzel, made a loud happy blessing and ate it. Everyone applauded.
People sometimes think that Divine Inspiration (Ruach HaKodesh) doesn’t exist anymore. That it was something only in the past. But that isn’t the case, Rabbi Leon explained. Ruach HaKodesh is always here waiting. “Has the Almighty changed? Heaven forbid? He is always ready to give. The problem is that people don’t prepare the proper vessel in order to receive the beneficence and light of His blessing.”
One time, an Ashkenazic Rabbi showed up among the people during visiting hours. He sat quietly in the synagogue, watching everything that went on in the Rabbi’s study. When a woman stood up from a wheelchair and started to walk, he burst forward and raced over to Rabbi Leon, peering under his desk and behind his chair as if to discover some secret hidden button or magic box. “Where is it?” he demanded to know. “Where is it? How do you do it? What trick do you use?”
Students tell hundreds of Rabbi Leon stories of sterile women having babies, lame people walking, and mute people speaking. When the wife of the Baba Sali needed someone to talk to, she would come to Rabbi Leon. Every Thursday, the yeshiva in Bnei Brak was crowded with hopeful seekers, but because of his great humility, many people have never heard of Rabbi Leon. Another reason is that he never aligned himself with any political party. While Knesset members and leading public figures often came to confer with him privately, he always shied away from the public eye. One time, when I suggested making a video of visiting hours, so that people could see all the miracles, he said, “If word got out what happens here, gangsters would show up with machine guns threatening to kill me if I don’t heal their mothers and brothers-in-laws.”
I don’t profess to say that a miracle occurred with every blessing. Sometimes, nothing seemed to happen at all. When I asked Rabbi Leon about this, he explained, “God decides not me. Everything comes from the Master of Heaven and Earth. If a person has merit, feels sincere repentance, and G-d decides to intervene, then a miracle occurs. If a person is arrogant, bloated with ego and closed down to religious belief, then he first has to work on himself to reopen the channels of blessing that he has damaged and sealed. Everything depends on penitence, hard work, and merit. My blessings are nothing. The King of the Universe does it all.”
THE DREAM OF AN APPROACHING ENEMY SHIP
The Rabbi’s unending efforts to help the Jewish People were not limited to medical or marital problems alone. A few years ago, the Rabbi dreamt that a dangerous ship was heading toward Israel in the Mediterranean Sea. When he awoke from the dream, he immediately alerted a high-ranking army officer whom he knew, and asked that the information be passed to the proper security channels. The Air Force sent out a reconnaissance plane. It reported back that the only naval activity in the area was a joint Egyptian-American war exercise that Israel already knew about. The Rabbi responded that they were mistaken – there was a boat dangerous to Israel approaching from off the coast. Once again, a plane made a reconnaissance sweep, and sure enough, there was an unidentified ship heading for Israel. The Israel Navy commandeered the vessel and brought it into port, Hundreds of automatic weapons, ammunition, and explosives were discovered on board.
Students and people who were fortunate to enter Rabbi Levi’s inner circle also benefited from his unique talents in the most incredible ways. One of the Rabbi’s students, Yigal Vanazi, works in Tel Aviv for a computer software firm. One time, the company was attacked by a virus, and 180 computers shut down. For two days, they struggled in vain on their own to find a solution. When a company specializing in computer viruses asked for $400,000 to fix the problem, Yigal thought of the Rabbi.
“I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me immediately,” he relates. “I called up the Rabbi and told him the problem. He instructed me to put my hand on one of the computers. After a minute, he said he saw the virus, and described it to me. Later he showed me the sketch he made in the yeshiva. It looked just like diagrams of computer viruses that I had seen with a long curving tail. Then, over the phone, he told me that he had caught the virus and locked it up in a spiritual safe. He told me to hit the “enter” key on the keyboard. Immediately, the computer lit up, along with all of the 180 computers in the building. It was amazing!?
Enemy ships, computers, cars, you name it. Once, a a goof friend of mine, Yankela Levine, stopped by the Yeshiva to say hello to the Rabbi. He had just bought a used car from the sexton of a synagogue in Bnei Brak.
“Did he tell you that the car was in an accident and that the axle connecting the two front wheels is bent out of shape?” the Rabbi asked him.
Yankela couldn’t believe it. The sexton was as honest as could be, he said.
“Maybe so,” the Rabbi answered, “But he should reduce the sales price by three thousand shekels.”
Having known the Rabbi for many years, Yankela brought the car to a garage and put it up on a lift. Sure enough, the axle connected the tires was bent. In great embarrassment, the sexton gave him back the money he had overpaid.
GUARDING THE COVENANT
Every Saturday night, Rabbi Leon would travel to the Kotel to recite Psalms with his students. Before his death, the Rabbi said that there was a decree in Heaven that would be every hard to cancel. “The Holy One Blessed Be He is very displeased with the widespread immorality in the world. Just as the Internet reaches every corner, with its polluted content, a Divine punishment, like the waters of the Flood, will be capable of spreading over all of the world. Remember what I am saying.”
A student asked what we could do. The Rabbi was solemn and pensive. “If Rabbis begin to speak more about guarding the Holy Covenant, if they teach people the importance of guarding one’s eyes from gazing at forbidden things, and about the laws concerning sexual modesty as set down in the Torah, then maybe the Master of the World will have mercy. God is patient, but even His patience can wear thin. He wants mankind to live in a holier fashion. He wants humanity to recognize that He is the Creator and King. That message has to get out. Our prayers at the Kotel should be broadcast to all of the world. To all people, and to all Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Kings. It isn’t enough for religious people to know that the Almighty exists. Everyone has to know. Everyone. All people throughout all of the world.”