In 1854, Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe, suffered from a succession of mysterious ailments. Although he was in much pain, he maintained a cheerful countenance. His chassidim, however, were greatly worried–not just because of the illnesses themselves, for they were all curable, but because of certain disturbing hints from the Rebbe that he sensed that his end was near.
The next time the Rabbe’s condition worsened, they decided to spare no expense and bring him to Vienna. There, in the finest medical facility in Europe, they took him to be examined by top specialists. The doctors announced their diagnosis: an immediate and risky operation was urgently necessary.
The Belzer Rebbe made his preparations. He immersed in the mikveh; he wrote his will; he recited with great emotion the words of the viduy (final confession). Only then did he allow himself to be placed on the operating table.
The surgical team assembled around the Rebbe. All awaited the chief surgeon’s signal to the anesthetist to begin his procedure.
Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, the Rebbe called out to one of the surgeons. After confirming his first name, he said: “Moses? You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” The doctor quietly nodded his head.
Moses, whose given name was actually Moshe Yitzchak, was from a small town called Linden. There he had grown up in a traditional Jewish home. His father had tried his best to provide him a strong Jewish education, but alas, the boy’s heart was drawn in a completely different direction. As his head filled with visions of more cosmopolitan, attracting vistas, he grew further and further from the values of his nurturing home. As soon as he was of age, he left Linden and his distraught parents, and headed for the great metropolis of Vienna.
The first step he took in his new life was to change his name to Moses. Next, he enrolled in a secular school, where thanks to his brilliant mind and determined diligence, he caught up to and surpassed his age-mates by absorbing an extraordinary large amount of material in a relatively short period of time.
Armed with his decree, he was accepted to the medical school of the university, and there too he was highly successful. Soon after he became established as a first-class physician and surgeon.
The more he succeeded, the further he drifted from his Jewish roots. No longer could anyone recognize the sophisticated Dr. Moses as the small-town Moshe Yitzchak of Linden.
Although Moses’ nod of affirmation of his Jewish identity was small and unobtrusive, it was noticed by everyone in the room. There was absolute silence when the Rebbe continued: “Moses, do you believe that G-d Al-mighty created the world and conducts it?” After a short hesitation the perplexed Moses answered, “Yes, Rabbi, I do.”
The medical staff looked on in astonishment, but the Rebbe seemed oblivious to their stares as all his attention was focused on the doctor. “And Moshiach, the righteous redeemer, who any moment will come and redeem our people from the exile? Do you believe that, Moses?”
This time Moses was acquiescent longer. He selected his words carefully. “Uh, I believe that there will come a certain time when there will be a redemption, but I don’t believe that it will come about through a Messiah, a single person, who will rule over the whole world and everyone will be in awe and fear of him. Such a thing is not within the realm of rational possibility; so I can’t accept it.”
The Belzer lifted his head and turned to face Moses directly. He opened wide his eyes, two shining orbs radiating kindness and goodness, but also power and authority.
The Rebbe’s penetrating gaze fastened on Moses. He felt it burning into him. He tried to avert his own eyes but was unable. It was as if they were magnetically attached to those of the Rebbe.
The stunned members of the medical team saw their comrade’s face turn deathly pale, then blush bright as a beet. Then again white, again red. His whole body was trembling and his hands had begun to shake. They had no idea what to think of this unexpected bizarre interaction, but they realized Moses must be undergoing some sort of spiritual or emotional trauma.
The tension was palpable. Moses was panting and breathing with difficulty as if he had just completed a long-distance run. He tried his best to calm himself and relax, but found himself unable to. The simple fact that someone had asserted control over him with just a glance kept him in internal turmoil.
Finally, the Rebbe averted his eyes from Moses. The surgeon felt his composure return. Then the Rebbe looked at him again, and studied his face, but this time his gaze was caressing. “Nu, Moses, now do you believe that an individual is capable of arousing awe in all those around him with just a glance of the eyes?”
Moses nodded in silent admission.
“Well, Moses, that is exactly how it will be when Moshiach arrives. G-d’s chosen one will rule over the entire world, and everyone will abandon their evil ways and turn towards G-d.”
“The Rebbe is right; I was mistaken,” muttered the abashed physician.
The drama over, the operation was able to take place. Afterwards, it was pronounced a great success, and thousands of chassidim breathed sighs of relief.
Fifteen days later the Belzer Rebbe was discharged. He boarded the train to return to Belz from Vienna. To the deep sorrow of his followers, however, he never arrived, but went to his eternal reward on 23 Sehvat, at age 59, during the course of the journey. Among those that merited to be in the small group of disciples present at the moment that the Rebbe passed on was his devoted chassid, Moshe Yitzchak of Linden.
Biographical note: Rabbi Yehoshua Rokeach (1825-1894) was the fifth son and the successor to his father, Rabbi Sholom, the first Rebbe of Belz. A major leader of Galician Jewry, he was also the founder of Machzikei HaDas, perhaps the first Orthodox Jewish organization to be involved in government politics, and still a force in Israel today.