The Life of Rav Asher Fruend zt”l
As told by his grandson, Rav Yair Weinstock
“One must rely on the Creator…devote oneself to Him…speak to Him…Let your ego, which brings hatred for others, fade away.” These were the teachings of the tzaddik, Rav Asher Fruend zt”l. Rav Fruend never believed in titles or acronyms. He demanded truth in character and yet held infinite patience toward those who lacked it.
“If I had ten people who were willing to venture out to a desolate field with me anywhere in the world and who were willing to negate all worldly materialism and give their entire being to the Holy One, Blessed Be He…we could bring Moshiach right away.
This is how Rav Asher, as he was best known, expressed his desire and ambition to serve G-D and strive towards truth, without compromise, and without ego.
Rav Asher was a wondrous man who is dearly missed by so many. On the night after Yom Kippur, on the 11th of Tishrei, we remember and mark the anniversary of his passing. He was a unique servant of Hashem, a rabbi and father to hundreds of people without preconditions and attitudes.
He certainly had ruach hakodesh and had the ability to do miraculous things, and yet, he walking around like the simplest person. A rare benefactor of kindness and a man of sincere truth, he had the ability in one sentence to be short and sharp and yet bring about a mental transformation in a person’s heart, from one end of the spiritual scope to the other.
Rav Asher was born on the 25th of Elul 5670 within the walls of Jerusalem. His parents came from a Chasiddic family, the decedents of the “holy Jew” of Peshischa, who were Karlin Chasiddim. As a youngster growing up among the tzaddikim of Yerushalayim, he was instilled with great character and shown pathways to serve Hashem. . His grandfather, the saintly Rav Aharon Kalmanov, learned the attribute of performing Chesed in its most lofty form – by giving anonymously. His acts of kindness were part of his passionate desire for complete devotion to Hashem.
In this world of Torah and Chasidism, Rav Asher grew up with a thirst to be close to his Creator – a thirst that was never quenched. There were three righteous men who were a source of spiritual nourishment for him: Rabbi Shlomka of Zveiel, the Rav and Mekubal, Rav Meir Schwartz from Pudheitz, from the Chassidic sect of Karlin, and the Rebbe of Grudziask, Rav Elimelech. In his youth as a student, he remained a soldier in his Torah studies and showed exceptional abilities to comprehend Talmudic concepts and teachings way above his age level.
Already at a young age he began to become famous in Jerusalem as a prodigy in the service of Hashem and slowly, people began to gather around him, whom he guided in his unique service of G-d. He used to go out with his students to a field for meditation. There, he would speak words that would ignite sparks of fire regarding the magnificent work of the Creator. The message was always the same: “We are nothing!” The verse “אנכי תולעת ולא איש, חרפת אדם ובזוי עם”
“…and I am a worm, not a man – a disgrace and a despicable person,” was always on his lips and he instructed his students with the understanding that everything a person obtains and owns is from Hashem. If he stands alone, he has nothing and without the help of Hashem to grow (spiritually), he will certainly fall to the lowest depths.
To establish this group of devoted servants to the Creator, R. Asher sought only such people who would agree to follow his lead and commit to give all of himself to the Creator, with total unity and unconditional love. The students would also go out among themselves to all kinds of
groves and forests. In pairs they came out, but only after first establishing the steadfastness of his partner’s service to Hashem and together look for ways to strengthen each other. Only after that, was each one close enough with his Creator to be able to speak with Him as a son speaks to his father.
In those excursions to the field, R. Asher guided his students to speak at all times with the Almighty and depend on Him completely. Understandably, R. Asher was the living example for the Torah way of life that he taught to those he guided.
His students relate that once they went out to a remote location and waited for the driver that drove R. Asher around. As the car approached them, they noticed that Rav Asher, who usually had a radiant smile, did not show any facial expression at all but seemed to be in a dire situation. When they got closer they saw that he was writhing in agony and clutching his chest. His face grew darker. He was having the symptoms of a severe heart attack.
“There was no source of communication in the area, and no access to a preliminary first-aid kit. We just stared and then, an unbelievable thing happened,” explained one of the students who witnessed it. “Instead of asking us to call an ambulance, he put his head on his hand, which in itself seemed like an effort to do.”
As most people would interpret the laying of his head on his hand as a sign of despair and a worsening of the situation, but not the disciples of Rav Asher. They were used to seeing explainable daily occurrences turned into unexplainable outcomes. They guessed correctly that what the Rav said at that moment in his heart and with his lips as he turned to G-d were as follows: “Father in heaven, You are the source behind my heart attack. You sent it to me, as You cause all things to happen for reasons only You know. I have no ability to stop this attack, and I therefore will turn to you for help. You are the doctor and the healer. So, You alone will be my doctor, and You alone will cure me without material means.”
Then, the most amazing thing happened. “His face, which was really gray, suddenly began to turn red like a furnace,
and after a few minutes of concentration, he picked himself up, opened the door and got out of the car with a light jump on his legs. It was as if nothing had happened. The heart attack was already behind him and it was time to move on.
Three minutes and a whole life…
Apart from his absolute dependence on Hashem, R. Asher also constantly guided his life with pure truth and belief as a way to dismiss life’s hardships.
Asher would say: “A person should, all his life, get used to seeing the Holy One, Blessed is He, behind every reason of conflict and despair. Did someone irritate you? It is because Hashem sent him for a beneficial purpose. Your wife yelled at you? The Holy One, Blessed is He, put into her heart the need to steer you in a certain direction. Your neighbor is fighting with you? The Creator put the idea into his head to send you a message!”
He also used to say that repentance means relinquishing our knowledge of life – relinquishing all knowledge to the Creator. This means understanding that relying on our own reasoning to accomplish the goals we were sent to do will end in complete failure, and we on our own would not be able to bring goodness into the world. “How can a person be proud of his good deeds? They were caused as a result of a heavenly sent guidance and direction. The good deed you did was not your own.
The righteous Rabbi Gedaliah Keonig, one of the greatest Breslav Chasidim of the previous generation, said that he was once present in a situation in which Rabbi Asher was brutally degraded. R. Gedaliah was agitated, and asked Rav Asher why he did not protest the disgrace. Rav Asher said: “What is there to say. Every word that he said about me is true.”
Just as he saw things about himself, so too did he instruct his students. To explain that, a story was told a few years ago by someone who was very close to Rav Asher:
“I studied at the Kollel in Bnei Brak, and I had a friend who told me that there was a man in Jerusalem by the name of R. Asher Freund, who is an “interesting Jew”, as he put it. My friend explained that in his youth he would occasionally come, like many others, to drink with thirst the lessons of faith of R. Asher. I wanted to hear more about Reb Asher and finally got his address. I came to see Rav Asher on a winter Shabbos in 1967. I knocked on the door and R. Asher himself opened it. Rabbi Asher then sat at the head of a table surrounded by family and guests.
Rav Asher then asked, ‘What do you want?’
“I heard much about you and I want to know more,” I answered him directly.
Rav Asher, who looked at me with a sharp glance, did not prepare me for what I was about to hear. He said the following words that changed my life: ‘You and everything you have done so far in regard to avodas Hashem is just your ego providing self-satisfaction. Everything you’ve done your whole life is just to fulfill that self-satisfaction”.
I was then a young married man with a glaring reputation as an outstanding yeshiva student. I was from those who persisted in Torah learning in the kollel with complete dedication, studying Gemara, Halacha and Chasidic Studies.
It was our first meeting and it was not two minutes since I entered the Rav’s house when he said those words. No one had ever talked to me that way before, and I had never heard such sharp….and true words. In just a few minutes, Rav Asher tore up all the beautiful veils and clothing that covered my inner faults and charachteristic flaws. He had found my animalistic nature and revealed the truth to me. That was forty-six years ago and I remember those words of Reb Asher as if I just heard them. These first three minutes of the encounter with R. Asher gave me my foundation for life. Rav Asher was my true Rebbe.”
Don’t you know how to speak?
His disciples relate that once a very wealthy man from America came to him, looking for a shidduch for his son. He sat and waited in the courtyard for five hours, from eight in the morning until one o’clock in the afternoon, and saw how everyone was allowed to enter R. Asher’s study except him. The man was very upset and told the Gabai that he would soon leave. The Gabbai entered R. Asher’s room and asked what to do with the man.
“When does he have to travel abroad?”, R. Asher asked.
“Tomorrow,” answered the Gabai,
“Then he will come tomorrow,” Rabbi Asher replied sharply.
The gabbai went out to the man with the answer and he replied angrily: “I cannot wait until tomorrow because I will be pressed to catch my flight.
However, R. Asher did not change his answer. “Let him come tomorrow.”
As the man prepared to leave, Reb Asher sent the Gabbai to him again with the message not to go in anger, and to return tomorrow.”
The Gabai ran and told the man the message.
“I cannot return tomorrow,” replied the man, walking away angrily.
“Run to the man,” Rabbi Asher told the Gabai, “and tell him that I will see him now.”
When the man heard this, he was happy and thought that his rage had paid off. What happened when he finally stood before Rav Asher was unexpected.
“Tell me,” Reb Asher shouted at him, “Why do you come to me? Do you not have a mouth? Do you not know how to speak? Why do you need to come to me to pray for you? Can’t you yourself pray to G-d? What happened? Go and pray for yourself! “
The man walked away stunned and hurt. His pride and spirits were shattered. He arrived at his hotel room and burst into tears. He suddenly found himself standing and praying to his Creator from the depths of his soul. “Hashem, my Father in heaven, please send salvation to my adult unmarried son.”
Sure enough, within ten days, the man’s son had found his soulmate! Frightened and yet excited, the man returned to Israel immediately and came running to Reb Asher to thank Him for his help.
“I did nothing. It was you who prayed to G-D and was answered!” This was Rav Asher’s typical answer.
Do not forget your short pants
Sometimes R. Asher would educate his students from a heavenly view that he alone had. Miracles and unexplained occurrences seemed to engulf him and effect those nearby. One of his students recalls the following:
“One year, I came from abroad to Jerusalem, to celebrate Sukkot. In the shade and holy glow of my teacher Rav Asher. On the eve of the holiday, I went to the Ben Yehuda market to buy myself a set of “four species”. I soon found an etrog, a lulav and the most beautiful kosher set of haddasim, as well as kosher arovot.
So I walked back satisfied with my purchases in hand toward the Geula neighborhood along Jaffa Road. When I reached the Davidka Square, I saw a young man standing and selling haddasim under a doorpost. He had long wavy hair and a small skullcap, and he wore a pair of short pants.
He turned to me and asked, ‘Sir, would you like to by haddasim from me?’
I showed him the haddasim in my hands. “I’ve already bought what I need…I do not need to buy more”.
He looked embarrassed and confused as he asked me, “So maybe you can help me. I have a bucket here full of Hadassim and I do not know how to determine their kashrut level, which ones are more elegant and which are less elegant. I see that you do know, so maybe you can help me. Can I sort out the hadassim I have in the bucket for you to inspect?”
“I looked at him with disdain, and thought to myself, ‘Me, a chassidic young Talmudic student, should stay here in Davidka Square in the most stressful time before the holiday of Succot to help some guy who’s barely religious with his business? After all, I have to prepare for the holiday, both spiritually and materially. I do not have the time for him or his business.
I replied with a dismissive gesture, “I do not have time,” and I walked away quickly.
As I walked away with my belongings. I did not even turn my head to see the look of disappointment and frustration on the face of the boy.
On the eve of the holiday, we prayed in Rav Asher’s sukkah and after the prayer I joined everyone to say ‘Good Yom Tov’ to Rav Asher. I approached him and wished him a good Yom Tov but he seemed to not notice me. I was a little nervous as I left to go home. When I went home, I kept thinking about what happened and I came to the conclusion that Rav Asher did not answer me, “Good Yom Tov!”
Well, it could happen, I thought to myself. There were a lot of people and R. Asher just did not see me. Tomorrow he will answer me properly.
But the next day after prayer, the same scene was repeated. Rav Asher looked at each person in the line that approached him and wished each of them a good Yom Tov with a radiance and warmth that he was known for. Everyone, that is, except me. He simply ignored me and my well wishes. It was as if I did not exist. Still, I convinced myself that it was just a combination of coincidences which would correct itself in due time over Yom Tov.
When also on Chol HaMoed and on Shabbat Chol HaMoed, Rav Asher continued to ignore me, I understood clearly that there was a message being sent here and I was determined to find out that it was.
At Shemini Atzeret, the most joyous day to celebrate with the Torah in the Land of Israel, I was already on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I felt that if Reb Asher will continue to ignore me, I will not survive the day. I tried to make myself stand out, jumping and dancing before him erratically to get his attention, but nothing helped.
On the second day of Yom Tov, which was Simchat Torah for those who live outside of Israel, I could barely stand. I decided to go to Rav Asher’s house and see what would develop. I arrived at his home wearing holiday clothing while the people who live in Eretz Israel were already wearing their weekday clothing. For them, it was Issur Chag. I entered the room of Rav Asher and saw that he was sitting and speaking with one of his students.
I stood in the room until his eyes rested on me. He said in a stern voice, “You look like a young man with a small skullcap and short trousers standing in the Davidka Square. Good afternoon!”
At that moment I felt like a 10 pound hammer had hit my head. Suddenly, I remembered everything that transpired on erev Yom Tov with that young man with a small skullcap and short pants, begging me to buy his haddasim or at least help him sort them out. I remembered how rude I was and how arrogantly I answered the young man. Who did I think I was?
Now I understood why Rav Asher treated me with such disregard and so harshly, as if I do not exist. He saw my great pride and wanted to teach me in a way that I would understand. It was a sharp lesson I would never forget
The next day I had to go back to my home abroad, and I came to say goodbye to Rav Asher. I said goodbye and as I stood to leave, Rav Asher said, “Do not forget the shorts.” I understood the Rav’s sharp message: You can look exactly the same or nothing like the guy with shorts. Either way, you are no better than the other, so treat him with respect.
One of R. Asher’s main attributes was his kindness. His younger brother, Reb David, testified that as a seven-year-old boy Asher had seen the hunger of his classmates, whose parents were so poor that they on some days could not even managed to give them a slice of bread for the school day. He managed to influence his mother to give him a large quantity of bagels. He would stick his thin arm through the holes of the hot bagel and wear them to school so he could give them to his hungry classmates.
He once was given a new thick coat and new shoes. On a cold winter day, he gave them to a poor man and returned to his parents’ home barefoot and without his thick coat. As R. Asher grew older, the scope of his acts of kindness increased and became more sophisticated.
Rav Asher saw before him the Jerusalem of that time – a city stricken with poverty and hunger. With the practical sense of a shrewd businessman, he invested all his genius into helping the poor. It began with carrying sacks of potatoes on his back from the Machane Yehuda market and distributing them to needy people in various neighborhoods in Jerusalem, a ritual which later became institutionalized. At one time, R. Asher ran a jewelry store in Jerusalem and distributed the profits he acquired to the needy. In the 1960s he founded the “Yad Ezra” organization and his many students took part in a wide range of chesed activities. These activities included setting up a printing press and a soup kitchen that employed the mentally disabled with the goal of preparing them for inclusion in community life.
In time, the organization grew to include dental clinics, kindergartens, a vehicle transport company, a food distribution plant for the needy, housing projects in Jerusalem and Ashdod, a hostel in Meron and a yeshiva in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem, with more projects on the horizon.
One of Jerusalem’s Chassidic residents recalled that his parents’ home was very poor. One day, Rabbi Asher appeared in their home to inspect what necessities were missing. He discovered that the large family with many children were living without a refrigerator. The next day, Rav Asher arrived, accompanied by a patient of one of the clinics who was carrying on his sturdy shoulders a refrigerator in excellent condition. “Put it here,” Rav Asher told him, and before the family members knew what had happened, he was already gone.
One of the relatives of Rav Asher remembered him as a young yeshiva student, loading a heavy sack with groceries on his shoulder and walking toward the Old City. Once his wife, Rebbetzin Zivia, told this relative how Rabbi Asher told her at the end of World War II, when a stream of refugees began to arrive from the camps, “We have to open the doors of our house. These people have long since forgotten the taste of a plate of hot soup.” Even before that, his house was open and there were always guests with not enough place to sit, but since the end of the war, his table and his home had become public property.
He often vacated his own bed for someone who needed a place to sleep. His house was always stacked with egg cartons and other groceries, which he always carried to distribute to the needy.