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Thursday
Sep192019

The First Mashpia “Made In Tomchei T’mimim”

The life story of the famed Reb Shilem Kuratin, the Mashpia, Mashigach and Chozer, who came to Lubavitch with a Russian gymnasium uniform and cried to be accepted.

Of all the characters who epitomized the glory and splendor of the Chassidic world of Lubavitch through the generations, few were able to leave such a profound impression in such a short time as the legendary “R’ Shilem,” or with his full name, Rabbi Meshulam Yedidya Kuratin. Lubavitch of his day was a factory for students of Torah and avodas Hashem, and among all them stood out R’ Meshulam Kuratin, who was counted among the elite students of Tomchei Tmimim. 

Out of his thirty-five brief years, he spent nineteen in the atmosphere of Lubavitch, at first as a talmid and then as a mashgiach and mashpia. Despite his brief years, the impression he made stands out in the annals of history of the yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim.  Many hundreds of talmidim who received their educations under his influence, would mention his name with reverence and admiration even decades after he passed away.

In commemoration of his one hundredth yartzeit, we will attempt to offer at least a partial description and account of the life of this wondrous Chassid, who represented, more so than any other, the ultimate model of a product of Tomchei Tmimim.

FROM THE GYMNASIUM TO LUBAVITCH

R’ Shilem was born around the year 5645/1885 in Disna, White Russia. At his bris, he was named Meshulam Yedidya Gottlieb. He was a ben zekunim to his parents and his father, Yehoshua, passed away before Shilem was bar mitzva. He and his mother moved to live with one of his brothers who was well to do. Tragedy struck again and Shilem’s mother passed away not long afterward.

His brother and sister-in-law, seeing how bright he was, enrolled him in the city gymnasium (a strongly academic public school) where his abilities soon stood out and he outshone his nephews in whose house he lived. His sister-in-law did not like this and she began to make life difficult for him.  Among other things, she withheld the uniform that the other children wore and Shilem had no choice but to give private lessons to pay for his clothes.

Then, heaven had mercy on such a precious soul and arranged things so that he moved to live with his older sister. Together with her husband, R’ Yisrael Topaz, they showered the orphan with love.

Since they were Lubavitcher Chassidim, they convinced him to go and learn in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim. You can imagine how he was received when he showed up wearing gymnasium clothes with the school’s logo even on his cap.

Not surprisingly, he was rejected by the mashpia, Rabbi Shmuel Gronem Esterman, who thought the boy had no connection to Lubavitch, certainly not to yeshiva.

Sixteen-year-old Shilem burst into tears. “I want to grow in Torah and avoda,” he promised.

His tears, which welled from the depths of his heart, proved his sincerity and he was accepted, if not into Lubavitch proper, but a branch of the yeshiva that was in Horodishetz and run by R’ Shlomo Zalman Havlin. After some time, he transferred to the main branch of the yeshiva.

In Lubavitch, his pure soul found what it was looking for. R’ Shilem was drawn to the life-giving waters of Nigleh and Chassidus. He devoted himself to learning and avodas Hashem according to the approach of Chassidus which he was taught. More than his outstanding abilities was his absolute dedication with which he devoted himself to receiving as much guidance as was offered.

Within a relatively short time, he stood out among the lions of Tomchei Tmimim with his vast knowledge and above all else: his avodas Hashem with love and fear to the point of exhaustion of the soul.  Whatever he did, he did with a deep inner commitment with which he gave his all, whether it was tefilla when he would pour out his heart before his Maker or clarifying a Talmudic topic or halachic idea whose depth he plumbed.

A talmid of his from that time, the Chassid Rabbi Shmaryahu Sossonkin, described his inner strengths:

“When he discussed some topic, whether in Nigleh or Chassidus, what he said was very well explained and sweet to the listener. He had a clear understanding and he had a powerful intellect for clarifying every complex issue.”

DISENGAGED FROM THE WORLD WHEN HE DAVENED

The above description of the power of his intellectual faculties does not do justice to the inner powers that he displayed when it came to the avoda of tefilla, in which he invested tremendous emotional energy and power. Even after the talmidim finished davening and breakfast and sat down to learn, there were always a few bachurim who davened at length with passion and deep emotional connection, among them, Shilem Kuratin, who was a Chassidic “image” and role model to his fellow tmimim.

“Of all the young ovdim who spent a long time on their davening, who stood near the wall and would be lost deep in their thoughts, Shilem Dissner (called that for the town he came from) stood out,” added R’ Sossonkin in his memoirs. “Shilem was a mara levana (upbeat social person) by nature, and cogitating deeply was something he had to work hard on. It was hard for him to ponder deeply and focus his thoughts. As he stood and davened, it was apparent that he was toiling and exercising his mind greatly, but with much toil and effort he trained himself in this.”

The following incident occurred early in the evening in the winter of 5668/1908. Cinders and sparks of fire began to fly out from the oven that heated the small study hall of the yeshiva and within half an hour, the fire spread and took hold of the wooden walls of the yeshiva building.

The frightened talmidim ran to bring pails of water which they drew with large barrels from two wells in the yard. They emptied the contents on the flames.

The commotion was so great that it was heard in the house of the Rebbe (Rashab), who rushed to come together with his son, the Rebbe Rayatz, moments after the flames died down. Both stood and watched the talmidim bringing pails of water and breaking the ceiling and wall of the women’s section until the fire was completely extinguished.

The Rebbe suddenly noticed Shilem sitting closed off within himself in his corner. He was up to the Shema of maariv. Apparently, Shilem had started davening before the fire broke out and while immersed in prayer he did not realize what was going on about him.

In rare fashion, the Rebbe Rashab commented to his son, praising this talmid, “It was for such as these that Tomchei Tmimim was founded.”

There was another incident when one morning, the Rebbe Rashab entered the small hall of the yeshiva in the middle of shacharis. When the talmidim noticed him, they rushed to hide in the spirit of the verse, “The youngsters saw me and they hid.” Just one talmid did not move for he did not realize the Rebbe had entered. That was Shilem.

The Rebbe sat not far from where Shilem was davening and looked at him intently. Even when the Rebbe got up and left, Shilem did not notice. This time too, the Rebbe was unstinting in his praise saying, “It is apparent that he davens for real, which is why he does not notice anything going on around him.”

Even a few years later, when he was appointed as mashgiach and mashpia in the yeshiva, he continued to daven at length. His regular place of tefilla was near the entrance to the large hall of the yeshiva, near the area where the bachurim hung their coats. “He had a special niggun for tefilla and whoever listened to him daven could not tear himself away,” said his talmid, R’ Folya Kahan.

His davening was an amazing exemplar of exertion. His students saw this when he restlessly shuckled under his tallis as he ground his teeth from the tremendous exertion to maintain his deep focus on his davening.

Yisrael Isser Guten, who was thirteen when he came to learn in yeshiva, lived his whole life with the special davening of R’ Shilem:

“On Shabbos, I loved to listen to R’ Shilem’s Chabad tune ‘variations’ while davening, especially during the reciting of Shema. In these snatches of tunes, I could feel how he was savoring it and pleading before Hashem. Sometimes, he cried and I was moved by the sincerity of his prayer.

“When he delved into something, certainly in tefilla, his depth of concentration was so powerful that he did not see nor know about what was going on even in his immediate area.”

FAITHFUL MASHGIACH

The summer of 1908, when he was twenty-three, R’ Shilem married Gutta Baila, the oldest daughter of the Chassid, R’ Menachem Mendel Hilvitz who was the rav of Zembin. The kalla was five years younger than he and was known as an extraordinarily intelligent and learned woman.

They lived in Zembin, near her parents, but R’ Shilem’s longing for Lubavitch and its Chassidic atmosphere, led the young couple to move to Lubavitch, near the yeshiva building.

R’ Shilem may have “gone out into the world,” but his soul and essence remained an inseparable part of the yeshiva. They say that when he came to Lubavitch the first time, after he married, the Rebbe Rashab saw him and was very pleased, since when he was a bachur, he was so engrossed in spiritual matters and wasn’t that particular about his appearance. This time, he came with nice and clean clothes and the Rebbe took pleasure in this.

His greatness in Chassidus led to the Rebbe Rashab and his son, the menahal of the yeshiva, appointing R’ Shilem as mashgiach for the study of Chassidus. This was about five years after he married, despite being a young man, just twenty-seven years old! He took this job very seriously.

He devoted himself to the talmidim with deep love. Although he made demands of them, he never held himself above them, but conducted himself with pleasant humility and was well-liked. When students were sick, he would feed them and take care of them. Even when he had to be tough, he was kind as well. There is a story told that he once punished a student, the punishment being that he was denied one of the meals, as per the yeshiva rules. When he went home, he asked his wife to do a favor and make sure the bachur got his meal “unofficially,” without the mashgiach’s knowledge, as it were. He told her that this talmid, unlike others, was unable to get himself something to eat and was likely to just starve.

“R’ Shilem was utterly devoted to his work and with his great love for his fellow tmimim, he spoke to their hearts and influenced them to put into practice the Chassidus that they learned,” said his student, R’ Shmaryahu Sossonkin. “The words that came from his pure heart entered the hearts of the students. All the talmidim loved him fiercely and in his day, the students of the large zal were on a very high level.”

R’ Shilem carefully watched the talmidim and when he noticed something not up to par with any of them, he immediately dealt with it. He once noticed a group of talmidim going secretly to learn Nigleh at the expense of Chassidus. When he confirmed his suspicion, he made sure that a group of older bachurim would learn with these younger bachurim and expose them to the sweetness that they had absorbed over the years in yeshiva.

His student, R’ Yisrael Jacobson related that “The impact of R’ Shilem’s activities quickly became apparent in the running of the yeshiva: keeping to the learning schedule was strengthened, including the learning of Nigleh. The bachurim were immersed in their learning, Nigleh or Chassidus, and the number of students grew commensurately.”

The increase in enrollment naturally led to a weakening of the discipline in yeshiva. One year, there was a group of young talmidim who were lax in adhering to the schedule of the sedarim and were not as obedient as they were expected to be. They davened quickly (“thirty-five or forty minutes”) and their behavior was not in accordance with the yeshiva schedule.

R’ Shilem did not hesitate to speak about this with the founder, the Rebbe Rashab, and expressed his opinion that not so many talmidim were needed in the yeshiva and that it would be better to have several dozen who were as tmimim ought to be.

The transformation that R’ Shilem wrought in the yeshiva, in which older talmidim took responsibility for younger talmidim, produced nice results and the changes in the students were quick to be seen.  So even when a group of talmidim came to the yeshiva who had learned in [a preparatory program in] Szedrin, R’ Shilem arranged that the weaker students would learn with older students.

Often, he would farbreng with talmidim and at these times he would also devote himself to raising their level ever higher. He would speak in general terms but would occasionally turn to a specific student and demand that he improve in certain areas. He would speak of the details which the talmid needed to improve, whether on yeshiva time or when he went home. Thus, he set his disciples on the path of light and truth. He did not hesitate to demand changes even from veteran students, from whom he mainly demanded that they improve in the realm of action, the bottom line. His heartfelt words sometimes brought talmidim to shed tears.

It is told that at one farbrengen, R’ Shilem reproved some talmidim. When the Rebbe Rashab heard about it, the Rebbe called him over and said to him, “A talmid over whom you do not cry while saying the bedtime Shema, should not be rebuked at a farbrengen.” R’ Shilem considered this an educational instruction of the first magnitude and conducted himself in this way.

For Tishrei 5678/1917, upon instructions from the Rebbe Rashab, he distributed money to the bachurim so they could go from Lubavitch to Rostov where the Rebbe was living. At the end of the month, when they returned, R’ Shilem held a farbrengen. Among those present was a talmid who had not gone to Rostov. With the twenty rubles that he received for the trip, he bought new shoes and boots. He went home for the month and then returned to yeshiva to resume learning.

In the middle of the farbrengen, R’ Shilem said to him, “That you didn’t go to the Rebbe and that you bought shoes and boots, I have nothing against you; I’m sure it was necessary. My main annoyance is that surely you thought and weighed, for some time, what is preferable, whether to go home or to the Rebbe, and how to travel, with old shoes or new ones. Your thoughts were preoccupied with this, and that is what breaks my heart: that the thoughts of a tamim like you are preoccupied with things like this!”

During farbrengens, he would say that each of them ought to consider himself fortunate for being a Jew and whoever did not have this feeling, was not worthy of the earth bearing him on its back. He would get up from the table with his face expressing joy and good fortune, and dance and sing with the bachurim.

It was his job to test the talmidim before they entered yeshiva and also as they learned in yeshiva. He once tested one of the good talmidim, Yehuda Eber (later one of the roshei yeshiva) and asked him to repeat chapters of Tanya by heart. Since he was gifted, he was able to do it. R’ Shilem did not allow him to bask in his success and demanded that he know the chapters of Tanya letter perfect (as is customary now in yeshivos).

Another time, three talmidim who learned in the division in Szedrin wanted to transfer and learn in the central yeshiva in Lubavitch. R’ Shilem was sent to test them. R’ Moshe Kanopov one of the three, describes the test:

“The learning of Chassidus wasn’t my strong point and so I arranged that I would sit further away so I would be tested last, and would deal with the problem when it arrived…  In the meantime, it would be possible to think and maybe a miracle would occur and I would know the answers…

“R’ Shilem began with an odd question: A Jew is traveling with horse and wagon and a machshava zara (foreign thought) falls into his head that he must immediately discard, but facing him is a wagon with gentiles screaming at him, ‘Jewboy, get out of the way!’ The Jew needs to get rid of the machshava zara at top speed because the gentiles are pressuring him. What should he do? This question left the three of us dumbfounded.

“First, it was the turn of the bachur from Borisov. He gave a lengthy explanation about the need to arouse the ‘natural fear’ which would arouse the ‘natural love’ which would arouse the ‘exalted fear’ and so on …

“R’ Shilem stopped him by saying: Bachur’l, you can say that megilla here but what about the Jew on the road with the gentiles yelling at him? He must get rid of the machshava zara quickly and he does not have time for all that!

“Then it was the turn of the second boy, Leibke. He also gave lengthy explanations and R’ Shilem was not satisfied. Then he turned to me: Nu, what do you say, Moshe? And I thought to myself; ah broch (a disaster).

“Suddenly, I had an idea. I was reminded that Chassidus explains that there is something called ‘the impression that is left in the mind,’ meaning that a Jew can, throughout the day, reawaken the contemplation that he had when he davened and, with its help, he can push away machshavos zaros. I said this to R’ Shilem who was very pleased with my answer. In the end, our transferring to learn in Lubavitch was approved.

“When we began to learn in Lubavitch, R’ Shilem said to me, ‘Do you think that you fooled me, that I didn’t know that you don’t learn Chassidus? In Szedrin, you were lucky and managed to answer my question, but here, you need to learn.’

“From that day on, R’ Shilem kept an eye on me. I merited to get tzaros tzeruros (alliterative play on words, lit.  packages of tribulations) from him just to get me to learn Chassidus and not ‘steal’ from Chassidus time to learn Nigleh.”

R’ Shilem exerted himself in his avodas Hashem and demanded this of others, not to remain complacent with achievements, not to rest on one’s laurels, but to increase toil and effort in avodas Hashem.

He was a model of a Chassid, a baal middos, yirei shomayim, lamdan and amkan, as his brother-in-law, R’ Alter Hilvitz recounted in a childhood memory:

“For Shavuos 5674/1914, my father took me with him to Lubavitch. I was about eight, but the image of my brother-in-law, R’ Shilem, did not budge from my sight. He sat near the table in the center of the yeshiva hall, deep in thought. Sometimes, one could discern that he was not in this world; in his thoughts, he was in upper worlds.

“He supervised the learning of Chassidus while not disengaging from his thoughts. When I grew older, I noticed that this was part of his supervision. He wanted the talmidim to see him like this and understand what ‘hashgacha’ is and what it means to remain connected to the world of thought, and that there is no disconnect between them.

“The moment he needed to be present in yeshiva, the house, and not just the house but the entire world, did not exist.”

THE CHOZER

One of the main jobs that R’ Shilem held in the royal court in Lubavitch was that of chozer, the one who reviewed the mamaarim of the Rebbe on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

This job is unique and whoever has it must be very knowledgeable in the teachings of Chassidus and have a superlative memory, as well as a special Chassidic character.

“There were thirteen chozrim,” wrote the Rebbe Rayatz, describing the period in his father’s lifetime, “who established the system of reviewing of maamarim on a firm foundation and are deserving of blessing and eternal remembrance in the annals of the history of Chassidim.” One of those thirteen who reached this lofty status was Shilem Kuratin, who was all of twenty-one.

His job as chozer was to stand at farbrengens and listen in deep concentration to what the Rebbe said and commit it to memory so he could review it again and again for the Chassidim, and after Shabbos or Yom Tov, to write it down. Many of the Rebbe Rashab’s deep maamarei Chassidus were preserved thanks to the chozrim, led by R’ Shilem.

“Everyone heard the maamar while standing, crowded together,” recalls R’ Shmaryahu Sossonkin. “There was only one who always stood outside the crowd of listeners, at a short distance, his eyes closed tightly, his hand on his forehead, listening closely to every word that the Rebbe uttered; this one and only was Shilem.”

Afterward, the talmidim would start reviewing the maamar among themselves as R’ Shilem oversaw this unique proceeding. “Despite the fact that he wasn’t gifted with the talent of grasping things quickly as some of the others were, his tremendous and extraordinary effort to hear, listen and pay heed, paid off in a big way as he knew the maamar better than all of them. From this we saw how great effort is, as Chazal say, ‘yogaata u’matzasa, taamin,’ because Shilem, with his prodigious toil rose above all of his fellows.”

To illustrate the special standing of R’ Shilem in this regard, they say that his father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Hilvitz, once visited Lubavitch and heard that the Rebbe might say a maamar Chassidus, but nobody knew for sure. The father-in-law reacted with a touch of familial pride and satisfaction, “As long as Shilem is at home, I am relaxed, for without me the Rebbe will definitely say a maamar. As for Shilem, the moment it becomes known that the Rebbe will say Chassidus, the tmimim will run to call for him.”

One year, Rosh Hashana fell out on Thursday and Friday as did the other Yomim Tovim that Tishrei. That month, the Rebbe Rashab said an unusual number of maamarim. Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah were on Thursday and Friday too, so the Rebbe said maamarim on Shemini Atzeres, Simchas Torah, and the next day, Shabbos Bereishis.

R’ Shilem couldn’t rest: listening to the maamar, reviewing the maamar, the hakafos and tefillos. He barely got to make kiddush and it is doubtful whether he ate on these three days. He was working constantly: chazara with the chozrim, chazara in the Rebbe’s room to make sure they had properly understood the maamar, another chazara and then another chazara for the Chassidim – times three.

During the short breaks between reviews, he somehow managed to daven and make kiddush.

On motzoei Shabbos Bereishis, after havdala, R’ Shilem fell and lost consciousness. All attempts to rouse him failed. The doctors who were quickly called tried to treat him but when nothing helped, they feared for his life. The Chassidim ran to the Rebbe in a fright and told him what happened.

The Rebbe listened but showed no sign of emotion. He told them to lay R’ Shilem down in bed and to let him rest. R’ Shilem slept for nearly a day. When he woke up, he was a new man and perfectly healthy.

One year, on Rosh Hashana, he went to rest before the maamar so he could better understand it. His wife wondered and said, “It says that one who sleeps on Rosh Hashana, his mazal sleeps that year,” R’ Shilem said, “So what will be – I will have a sleepy year? Better a sleepy year than a sleepy maamar.”

IN THE LINE OF FIRE

World War I began in the summer of 5674/1914, and left its mark all across the entire Russia as well as Lubavitch. The situation was serious and the Rebbe Rashab sent a minyan of bachurim every day to the Ohels of the Rebbeim with a pidyon nefesh for the Jewish people. R’ Shilem was among those who were sent.

Following victories by the German army over the Russians, the Rebbe Rashab was forced to leave Lubavitch. He moved to Rostov in fear lest he be taken hostage. R’ Shilem remained in Lubavitch with the talmidim of the yeshiva.

Later on, the talmidim also had to leave Lubavitch and they dispersed to different towns. R’ Shilem, his family and a group of talmidim arrived in Kremenchug where the talmidim found refuge in the large home of the wealthy R’ Hirsh Gurary. It was a three-story building with dozens of rooms and the yeshiva was located on the first floor. R’ Shilem and his family found lodgings elsewhere.

R’ Shilem did not get to enjoy an extended period of peace in his new home. The riots and battles between the supporters of the Czar and the revolutionaries spread to many cities. Often, cities and districts transferred from one to the other, from government to government with each occupying side persecuting the Jews. It became dangerous to walk the streets lest the militia fighters catch a Jew and kill him.

R’ Shilem was living in the north of Kremenchug while the yeshiva was in the south. Despite the danger in walking outside, even in daylight, R’ Shilem went to yeshiva every day and returned home at night.

What the talmidim feared came to pass. One day, as he left his house for yeshiva, two ruffians from the insurrectionist  army of Grigoriev grabbed him and brought him to the Dnieper River. They removed his clothes and ordered him to stand ready. They took revolvers to kill him when a soldier arrived, huffing and puffing, and announced to the gang that they had to present themselves immediately to their commander. They rushed to leave, leaving R’ Shilem standing there.

He got dressed and continued to yeshiva where he related what happened to him. When he had calmed down somewhat, his talmidim asked him what he thought as he stood before the soldiers with their revolvers facing him; what level of teshuva did he attain?

He said: when you stand facing down the barrels of guns it is hard to do teshuva. Teshuva is good to do when you are wrapped in a tallis.

Because of this incident, the family moved to two rooms set aside for them on the second floor of the yeshiva building.

In those days, there were no faucets in the building and water was brought in pails from a pit in the cellar. For R’ Shilem who, in his humility, did not want anyone to serve him, this was a problem. In the middle of the day he couldn’t bring water up for the family since if any talmidim saw him shlepping pails of water, they would surely run to help him.

His solution was, every morning, at four o’clock, he would bring the pails up to his apartment, for he knew that at that time all the talmidim were still sleeping.

HIS PASSING

Despite the difficulties and battles that took place on the streets of the city, R’ Shilem continued serving at his post like a loyal soldier, being a mashpia and supervising the talmidim as though these were ordinary times. He would demand of the talmidim that they not waste any time. On Shabbos, he would finish davening at three and immediately go to join the seder Chassidus. He would eat the Shabbos meal after mincha.

It was on Shabbos, parashas Shoftim 5679, 100 years ago, that he davened at length even though he did not feel well, nor had he shared that information with anyone else. He had the aliya for maftir and read the haftora expressively and tunefully as was his manner. Nobody noticed that the esteemed mashpia did not feel well. He was tall and broad and looked completely healthy.

During the time of the “third meal,” he reviewed Chassidus, as usual, although he was already in critical condition, and still, nothing was apparent. On motzoei Shabbos, he began hemorrhaging terribly.  Doctors were rushed to him and tried to stop the bleeding but their attempts failed and he passed away before dawn at the young age of 34 or 35. Not only his wife and children, but the entire yeshiva was in shock by the sudden loss and felt like orphans.

They learned that it was a few days already that he was sick with typhus but he powered through so that none of his talmidim would sense anything amiss.

At his funeral the next day, many residents of Kremenchug were in attendance as well as, of course, his beloved talmidim. It poured that day and it seemed to all that the heavens were crying over the passing of this great Chassid.

Among those who attended the funeral was the old mashpia, R’ Shmuel Gronem Esterman. The yeshiva bachurim saw him murmuring something and were curious. When they walked near him they heard him quietly say to himself, “For sixteen years he served the Eibershter.” The bachurim were amazed by this high praise, for R’ Shmuel Gronem was known as someone who didn’t throw around compliments and thought several times before he said anything.

Some tried to hide the news from the Rebbe Rashab who was in Rostov, fearing for his pain. In the end, the news reached him and he reacted with anguish, “There was no one like Shilem …” According to another version he said, in tears, “Shilem was an adam kasher.”

Later, when they spoke with the Rebbe about appointing a replacement for R’ Shilem, they suggested a number of names of the top graduates of the yeshiva. The Rebbe responded in a pained tone, “They are not pnimiyim like Shilem!” Another version of the story has the Rebbe saying, “From where do we take a pnimi like Shilem?”

A while later, R’ Menachem Mendel Chein was murdered in the city of Niezhin at the hands of one of the bands of marauders during those times of internal upheaval in Russia. When the news of this reached the Rebbe Rashab he responded, “Shilem and Mendel are a blow for the world.”

In the first year after the passing of the Rebbe Rashab, the Rebbe Rayatz once expressed himself thus, “I am jealous of Shilem’n, he is sitting by my father in Gan Eden and is hearing Chassidus.”

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