Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Nissan 5764 - March 25, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Reb Michel Goodfarb -- The Rav Chanina ben Teradyon of Our Generation

by M. Samsonowitz

Part III

The first part discussed R' Michel's distinguished Yerushalmi family and his younger years in the Mirrer yeshiva. It also described how he got his start in a lifelong career of chessed at the tender age of 17. He was stricken with disease a few years later, but he seemed to be cured and got married. His chessed activities became bigger and broader.

The second part described his mesiras nefesh and expertise in charity administration. But the dreaded disease returned.

Coping With Terminal Illness

Worry of his possible early demise had prompted Reb Michel to teach his son Kaddish at the age of 5, when his Hodgkin's had first returned. But that was very premature, as things turned out. The family saw, year after year, how Reb Michel survived in a way that could only be described as supernatural. The children became used to seeing a father who was deathly ill . . . and then he rose to lead a Pesach seder, or suddenly got up to go to shul and study Torah.

A miraculous aura enwrapped the house in which everyone felt that no matter how bad things got, Reb Michel would pull through again, for the umpteenth time. The environment at home was not depressing, due to his constant rallying and the feeling of emunah which underlay this and vitalized the family.

In the last years of his life, Reb Michel was sick to a degree that most people would consider completely nonfunctioning.

He almost didn't sleep at night. There were months where he could barely eat a teaspoon of food. His mobility was extremely limited. He was suffering constant, shooting pain. He had a Hickman line connected to the vein of his heart through which regular medications were administered. All his other veins could not be used because of damage from the chemotherapy. He needed help physically with everything, including answering the door and the phone.

And yet his Torah studies and chessed activities carried on.

One erev Succos,` he was so weak that he could hardly move. He was lying down, too sick to do anything. Suddenly, a phone call came from chutz la'aretz asking him to give out money to poor families. How could he miss out on this? He called his sons over, and they sprang into action. While Reb Michel drove the car with strength he didn't possess, his sons distributed the funds to poor families.

On the way, he saw a Torah scholar he knew, with ten children, to whom a daughter was born that day. Reb Michel asked him, "Do you need money?"

The man looked at him in astonishment. He told him that he was just worrying how he was going to manage with all the yom tov expenses, and how it was unbelievable that he had met him just then. A large amount of money changed hands.

In 1995, Reb Michel was forced to use a cane. Then he gradually needed crutches, a walker, and finally a wheelchair.

Torah Study With Mesirus Nefesh

At this time it was difficult for him to join his chavrusas in their home, so he began to attend shiurim in the nearby Zichron Moshe shul. This unique shul in Geula, famous throughout Yerushalayim, offered numerous shiurim on daf yomi and all kinds of topics for Torah scholars.

Since the shiurim were held in the main study hall, they frequently bothered the Torah students learning by themselves there. Reb Michel suggested converting a basement room into a classroom. He spearheaded a campaign collecting tens of thousands of dollars to refurbish and rebuild the basement so it could be used for shiurim throughout the day. Reb Michel made sure coffee and tea were available for the students, and the air conditioning was always in order. It has since become a major center of Torah study focused on the Daf Yomi but doing much more. Reb Michel was well acquainted with the shul and its Torah students, since a number were recipients of his charity fund.

Reb Michel was very close to HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher zt"l, the rov of the Zichron Moshe shul. He frequently consulted with HaRav Fisher about his treatments and operations, and unquestioningly fulfilled the segulos that HaRav Fisher gave him. He constantly sought advice from HaRav Fisher and accepted it without question.

Whenever Reb Michel didn't show up in shul on Shabbos, HaRav Fisher would come to visit him. Reb Michel was so dismayed that HaRav Fisher exerted himself for him, that he would overcome his pain and force himself to go to shul just so HaRav Fisher wouldn't come to him.

Reb Michel faithfully joined a Daf Yomi shiur given by HaRav Yeshaya Wunder, and attended it irrespective of the state of his health. No matter who came to see him, they knew they had to wait until the end of the shiur to speak with him.

Reb Wunder says, "The entire chabura was amazed by his mesirus nefesh to study despite his terrible suffering. On rainy days, his wife would bring him wrapped up in nylon in his wheelchair. One day he confided to me, `My body feels like a fiery oven.' "

Just going to the shiur required immense mesirus nefesh. Reb Michel's wife would wheel him to the shiur and on the way, he was sometimes sick as a result of the heavy medications he was taking. His wife would ask if perhaps he wanted to stay home that day. But Reb Michel insisted on going.

Reb Michel tried to schedule his medical exams around his Torah classes. There were days he received test results that broke him, such as when he received news that the disease was spreading. But when he came to the shiur, his face shone and he was full of optimism.

"He tried to live every day to the best, and keep up fully with his studies. We were frankly amazed at how he did it," says HaRav Wunder.

Reb Michel was so absorbed during the shiur, that he often didn't even feel his pains and aches. But after the shiur was over, he did. When he had to take pills, he usually waited until after the shiur, so they wouldn't interfere with his concentration.

HaRav Yechiel Benedict recalls, "When Reb Michel could hardly speak, when he was at the point of fainting, he still went to his shiur. He went even when he knew he would retain very little, because he couldn't live without learning Torah. His Torah learning kept him alive not less than his charity activities. I'd see him start learning and it would have the effect of waking him up and filling him with vitality."

Reb Michel was meticulous about zman Krias Shema too. When he couldn't sleep at night, he would only agree to take a sleeping pill but not morphine, because he didn't want to become too drugged. Often, after a sleepless night, he'd finally fall asleep at 5 in the morning. But he would wake his wife up at 7, asking her to help him get up so he could say Krias Shema. Even when undergoing difficult treatments where he was heavily drugged, he always woke up to say Krias Shema on time.

Accepting Suffering With Love

Despite his immense suffering, Reb Michel was equipped with a strong will to live. All the patients who had entered Hadassah's oncological department at the same time as he, had passed away long before and Reb Michel attended one funeral after another. Reb Michel, against all predictions, survived them all.

Prof. Poliack of Hadassah's oncological department -- a secular Jew -- once told him, "A case like yours doesn't appear in our textbooks! There is Someone Up There who loves you very much but is giving you heavy blows."

HaRav Fisher explained about Reb Michel that there are still a few people in our generation whom Hashem judges according to strict Midas Hadin. Reb Michel was among the very few who merited that status.

During one hospital stay, Reb Michel's doctor said he was so hot that they could cook food on him.

A visiting relative asked him, "Reb Michel, how can you carry on?"

Reb Michel answered calmly, "It's hard to believe that people can receive suffering with love, but know that one can overcome suffering!" He then asked the relative to give him the sefer Menoras Hamo'or which lay nearby. (He had once organized shiurim on this book for the merit to help him recover.)

He then told the relative, "This book always strengthens me. If you read to me from the chapter about suffering, maybe it will help me overcome my present pain and I'll be able to accept my sufferings with love."

The relative began to read Chapter Four of Menoras Hamo'or "The early generations loved sufferings and gladly accepted them . . . " The man's eyes began to water as he read the book, just thinking of Reb Michel's present terrible state. But Reb Michel managed a small smile, looked at his wife nearby, and said, "Look how good sufferings are."

Reb Michel always kept books about emunoh and bitochon on his table. It just took a few minutes in his presence for one to feel infused with emunoh. Not only did he speak constantly of emunoh, but his serene acceptance of his difficult lot was the best example of it.

He told a close friend many times, "If it weren't for emunoh -- I wouldn't be able to hold up for five minutes." Even when his health had plummeted to such a point that he was a hairsbreadth away from death, he continued to say, "I want to live."

Despite his constant pain and discomfort he received every person warmly, both at home and in the hospital. People who knew how sick he was couldn't connect the report they had heard of his condition with the warm, serene person they met.

Reb Michel never complained about his suffering. He would fortify himself with sayings of Chazal about how suffering is good for a person. He made it his personal avodoh to work on himself the whole time to accept suffering with love. He even asked his son to remind him of this when his spirits were low.

He once told a friend, "I can't say I accepted all my suffering with love, but I can say that I didn't rail against them."

Encouraging Others

Reb Michel had asked HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to compose a prayer for a sick person that would infuse a sick person with hope. Reb Michel distributed this prayer in all the hospitals.

Reb Michel's own experience with fighting disease brought him to feel that it was his responsibility to encourage other people undergoing the same difficult experiences.

Reb Michel was told about a family in Tel Aviv whose only son came down with cancer. The parents were devastated and overwhelmed with despair. Reb Michel insisted on meeting with them, and told them about his many years of struggling with the treatment and the pain. He infused them with hope that the disease could be overcome. His encouraging words calmed them down and helped them to remain hopeful. Their son underwent the treatment in an encouraged frame of mind. In the end, the young man recovered, eventually married and the parents were zoche to see grandchildren from him.

The Last Hospitalization

In the winter of 2001, Reb Michel grew so sick that he had to be hospitalized for an undetermined length of time. And yet, his chessed activities continued.

He asked a yeshiva student to whom he had given a generous dowry and with whom he kept in regular contact, to tell him what he was learning and doing. The student sent him a letter telling of his latest Torah accomplishments, and thanking him for helping him reach them without financial worries. Reb Michel told the young man how much he enjoyed the letter and that it had virtually given him life and happiness.

Reb Michel's oldest son had reached the age to get married, and shidduchim were being offered for him. Although Reb Michel was continually getting weaker, there was no reason not to attend to this important need. It was a milestone of Reb Michel's life when his son became engaged to the daughter of a noted talmid chochom, highlighting Hashem's chessed to him personally. He had not forgotten the doctors' predictions that he would never have children himself, and here he was, 25 years later, planning his son's wedding!

This exciting family celebration intensified his will to live. He kept telling his family, "Ich vill zeyer leben." (I want to live so much.) He even ordered a new suit and shtreimel for the wedding, which was set for the beginning of Nisan.

At the end of Shevat, Reb Michel asked to be taken to visit his mother, whom he hadn't seen in a long time because of his hospitalization. Reb Michel was shuddering from fever, but he strengthened himself to smile to her and appear as normal as possible.

But by the time Purim arrived, Reb Michel was extremely weak. He managed to call a friend and ask him to visit a certain widow to give her a check so she could make her child's wedding. The man asked Reb Michel's wife, "He told me to give a very large sum -- could Reb Michel have made a mistake?"

But Reb Michel's wife assured him that despite his great weakness, his mind was functioning perfectly and the amount was correct.

Last Days

A week after Purim, Reb Michel told his wife that he had prepared himself for death. It was the first time he had ever mentioned death, although for years he was aware that it could happen any time.

He had said in the past that he was not afraid to die, although he very much wanted to live. He had said that his main fear was what would befall him when he stood before the Beis Din shel Maaloh. But now he said for the first time, "I can't take the suffering anymore."

The hospital staff were all friends of Reb Michel from the many years that he had taken treatments there. Reb Michel's health was steadily declining but the nurses and doctors, like everyone else who knew Reb Michel, couldn't believe that the man with a world record for survival might not pull through again. They knew that Reb Michel's son was marrying in less than two weeks and they had decided they would do whatever it took so he would make that happy occasion.

Reb Michel's wife spent Sunday by his bedside, with heavy foreboding in her heart. As she left for a short break, the doctor told her, "We're preparing him for the aufruf this Shabbos!"

Is he realistic? she thought heavy-heartedly. What is this doctor seeing that I'm not seeing?

Reb Michel had terrible bedsores, was paralyzed from the chest down, had lost his mobility, and was being kept alive on oxygen. He was surviving from a mix of minerals fed into a line, and could only eat a spoon of cheese a day. His wife, who had accompanied him through the worst of all his sufferings, couldn't hold herself back from crying when she changed his bandages. He had never been this bad before. Would he be able to miraculously emerge from his illness as he had done so many times before?

Reb Michel refused to take pain-killers, because he didn't want his mind to be hazy. He doggedly continued to learn Chumash and Targum on the parsha. He took the Chumash to finish learning Vayakhel- Pekudei, and asked to begin Vayikra. He began studying Vayikra, but had to stop because his eyes were swimming. Finally he said he was tired and asked to have the Chumash taken away.

On Sunday night, his wife tried to prepare the children in case Reb Michel wouldn't pull through. "Hashem can change anything," she said with conviction, "but it looks bad."

But years of miracles had made death sound unreal. Reb Michel's son looked at his mother and asked, "Why are you so pessimistic? How can anything happen to Tatty?"

Reb Michel's state had worsened by Monday. The doctors wanted him so much to live to make his son's wedding. They were all in denial that he wouldn't make it. They were doing all they could to keep him going.

Reb Michel's wife traveled to the hospital, saying Tehillim while churning inside. She felt a heavy foreboding that left her feeling jittery. That night, she knew, was the 28th of Adar, Reb Michel's birthday.

Their son phoned up to say he was coming in from his yeshiva to visit his father. His mother insisted that he speak a few words to his father. Reb Michel told him quietly, "The wedding will be besho'oh tovoh umutzlachas." The family realized with heartache that Reb Michel was hinting that he wasn't going to make it. He told the family later, "My heart is tzubrochen."

In the morning, Reb Michel again asked for his Chumash. At mincha, they washed his hands, and he davened mincha. About an hour later, at 5:15 p.m., he went into a coma. The head doctor approached Reb Michel's wife and quietly told her, "This is a misas neshikoh. Now he's not in pain anymore."

The children were called from school. When Reb Michel's youngest son came and spoke to Reb Michel, Reb Michel lifted his head momentarily.

The hospital room was full of family and close friends. Reb Michel's wife, children, and all his brothers and sisters were there. Dozens of distinguished friends, chavrusas and askonim who had been close to him were also present.

They had been reciting Tehillim non-stop. Now they joined together in reciting the last prayers for Reb Michel. They called out three times Nishmas, Krias Shema and Adon Olom. Prayers and Tehillim continued to be recited until 12:50 a.m. when Reb Michel whose head had been facing the wall, suddenly turned towards the people in the room and opened his eyes wide. And then he was gone. (The gemora in Kesuvos (103b) says, "If he is facing the people, it is a good sign for him; if he is facing the wall, it is a bad sign for him.")

Those assembled broke out in bitter weeping. The askonim soon left to prepare the levaya. Before dispersing, people exclaimed how they felt they had been privy to an extraordinarily elevating spiritual experience.

Mourning notices were pasted around the city, early in the morning, announcing Reb Michel's levaya. One notice, written on behalf of the Zichron Moshe shul, compared Reb Michel to Reb Chanina ben Teradyon, the Tano and gabbai tzedokoh par excellence who gave out charity without anyone knowing from where it came and to whom it went.

The Levaya

Reb Michel had requested in his will that no hespedim be said, but because of the tremendous benefit that the niftar receives, he asked that divrei his'orerus be said and Kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim be recited by all the participants in his levaya.

The levaya left the Mirrer yeshiva during the lunch break, to avoid causing bitul Torah. Tens of thousands came to give the last honors to Reb Michel. Shmuel Hanovi Street, Beis Yisroel and Meah Shearim were black with the large number of mourners. Police troops supervising the levaya estimated that about 50,000 had come.

Those who had come to pay their last respects included the many recipients of Reb Michel's chessed, his friends, charity co-workers, his large extended family, and gedolei umanhigei Yisroel. Present were HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Karliner, Lelover, Rachmastrivka, Boyaner and Toldos Aharon rebbes, HaRav Dushinsky and others.

The Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, began the levaya with Kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim. Hespedim were said by HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, HaRav Aryeh Finkel, HaRav Yitzchok Ezrachi, his uncle HaRav Yisroel Grossman, and Reb Michel's oldest son R' Yisroel Meir. It was difficult to hear the hespedim because of the weeping of the maspidim.

HaRav Shmuel Auerbach said, "HaRav Michel's life was miraculous and supernatural. We felt all the time that he was a special gift from Heaven and now, we were found unworthy and the gift was taken away. The man of chessed has left us."

HaRav Yitzchok Ezrachi, rosh yeshivas Mirrer, eulogized him, "HaRav Yechiel Michel tried with all his strength to fulfill the words of Rabbi Yonoson, `A person should not hold himself back from learning Torah even at the moment of death.' While suffering terrible, indescribable suffering, he enabled many others to live. This is the only way to understand the amazing wonder that after his soul almost left him five times -- as the doctors testified -- Hakodosh Boruch Hu returned his soul to him.

"We don't know the hidden things. But it might be that this lofty soul came down to the world to serve as an example to the rest of us of what a person in our generation is capable of becoming while experiencing such terrible suffering."

HaRav Aryeh Finkel said that Reb Michel's suffering was the embodiment of sefer Iyov. "The greater one's suffering is, the easier it is to fall. A person in this position can fall, or keep strengthening himself to strive onward. Even though he was flesh and blood, Reb Michel kept growing and he reached immense spiritual levels."

The levaya proceeded to Zichron Moshe, where HaRav Yisroel Yaakov Fisher was maspid Reb Michel. HaRav Fisher said, " `Odom ki yakriv mikem korbon, tomim' (from parshas Vayikra). When you offer a korbon, it should be tomim. What is tomim? That the ruchniyus should be perfect. We are now offering a korbon tomim. It says that Hakodosh Boruch Hu fills out the days and years of the tzaddikim, and R' Michel died on the same date he was born. Also, for a person to be tomim, he must do teshuvah. The niftar remembered yom hamisoh every day of his life. R' Michel took upon himself the Midas Hadin and suffered for others. Mi yitein lonu chalifoso? Mi yitein lonu temuroso?

Reb Michel was buried in the Chelkas Horabbonim on Har Hamenuchos, next to his father, a short distance from HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

On the day of his death, thousands of checks were sent out to the poor for Pesach holiday expenses, as Reb Michel had organized every year. But this time, the assistance to the poor fulfilled the words of the Novi Yeshayohu, "Your righteousness shall go before you" (58:8).

Accepting Hashem's Decree and Blessing

Thousands of individuals visited the Goodfarb family during the shiva. The family heard hundreds of stories of chessed which Reb Michel had performed which they had never known of. The stories included widows who were supported for years, help given to buy a house for the homeless, and financial assistance which put an end to marriage problems.

People repeated again and again, "Reb Michel made me feel I was doing more for him than he was for me," and "I feel like I lost the person closest to me."

The day after the family finished sitting shiva, they celebrated the wedding of their son. The wedding was packed with friends and admirers from the full spectrum of religious Jewry, who wished to join the family in their moment of joy as they had at the time of their mourning.

The family also felt they received a Heavenly sign of favor when Reb Michel's first grandson was born a year later, and had his bris milah on Reb Michel's birthday/yahrtzeit of 28 Adar. He was given the same name as his illustrious grandfather.

The Chessed Goes On

At the time of Reb Michel's death, his annual charity allocations had reached millions. Reb Michel had built up his charity organization from assisting tens of families annually to helping thousands.

In the last decade, he had computerized his charity work. His latest annual report showed that he was giving financial aid to more than 4,500 needy families a few times a year.

Although Reb Michel is no longer here to continue the work of his chessed fund, his family is continuing the tzedokoh le'ilui nishmoso on a smaller scale.

Chessed with an Agunah

A woman who had been an agunah came to visit the Goodfarb family during the shiva.

She told the family that when she came the first time to ask Reb Michel for help, she felt so ashamed that she didn't even know what to ask for. He gently began to speak with her and asked her a number of questions.

Then he called his wife over and asked her, "How much do undershirts, shirts, sweaters, pajamas, cost for a child?" After calculating the full clothing needs for one child, he multiplied it by 6 kids and then gave her a check.

"Go buy the nicest and prettiest clothes for your children," he told her.

The woman was stunned.

She told Reb Michel's family during the shiva, "How did he know that I didn't have money to buy clothes for kids? How did he know that I hadn't bought them anything in six years, and that that was the most important thing I needed? Because I could now buy clothes for them, I didn't need to get them a psychologist. They were able to go to school and felt good about themselves because they looked like everyone else."

This woman also mentioned that because of Reb Michel's encouragement, she decided to push for her get. "I got it all because of him. And every time I saw Reb Michel, he always inquired how each of my children were doing."

Reb Michel saw that the woman was crushed after years of abuse by her husband. He wanted her to get her self-esteem back, and have a chance at making a new life.

A Donor Speaks

We knew Reb Michel for close to 20 years. We were looking for someone trustworthy who could give out our tzedokoh money to deserving families, and a close friend gave us his name.

My wife and I went to meet him. He made an amazing impression. He always made you feel you were the most important person in the world, as if the few hundred shekels you were giving him monthly was saving his tzedokoh organization. What I gave him was just a drop in the bucket but he would be so thankful.

He would phone from time to time, usually because he needed more funds. It was a pleasure to talk with him. He'd show great interest in how we ourselves were doing, as well as our children and grandchildren. I knew how sick he was, and when I asked how he was doing, he'd just say, "Yeracheim Hashem." He always showed more interest in the next person than in himself.

Sometimes I would call him to ask if he had information about people who I had been requested to help out, like certain widows and orphans. Fifteen years ago, he was also helping sick people go to chutz la'aretz for rare treatments. I would call up to check if the cases being collected for were reliable. Inevitably, he not only knew about the case, but was involved in it. He would tell me, "We just sent the person out."

He was very meticulous when checking out people. We knew that he was a careful researcher and very thorough. I would go to visit him on occasion. I would hear him on the phone talking to a rosh kollel who was asking for tzedokoh for his avreichim. Reb Michel was careful that the money would go to those who needed it and not get used in the regular kollel budget.

We felt we could rely on him totally. You couldn't fool him and you felt assured that the money would go to deserving recipients.


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