Ever since our beloved Rav, Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l returned his pure and holy soul to His Maker (on the 25th of Sivan 5770) Jonathan and I have been inundated with requests to share precious memories of the time we spent in the company of this great man.
We are humbled by the awareness that for the last 20 years we have had the blessing and the extraordinary zechut to be among the precious few individuals in this world – other than his immediate family- who have had a complex, long-term, deeply personal relationship with the Rav.
Jonathan and I are similarly overwhelmed by the realization that we have had the enormous good fortune to witness first-hand, the greatness of Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu, and to experience in the most personal way, his kindness, his wisdom, his generosity, his marvelous sense of humor, his brilliance and his Torah genius, his sterling character, his steadfast emunah and bitachon, his boundless love for Am Yisrael and his passionate guardianship of Eretz Yisrael.
The Nation is feeling the loss of this great man, but very few have any idea of just how great a loss. There is no one of his stature to comfort us. No one of his caliber exists who might begin to fill the gaping hole his departure leaves in the hearts of all Israel. That is why Jonathan and I feel obliged to share our precious memories of this remarkable rabbi, teacher, spiritual guide, and all-around wonderful person. He was, without a doubt, the treasure of our generation and truly one of a kind.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
How did the remarkable relationship between Jonathan Pollard and Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu begin?
To understand, let’s go back and have a look at their very first meeting. When Jonathan was arrested in 1985, HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu was the newly-elected Chief Rabbi of Israel.
When news of the Pollard spy case broke with all of its attendant hysteria and hyperbole, Kavod HaRav Eliyahu ignored the slander and smear and took a more insightful look at the events. The Rav felt certain that there had to be enormous messirut nefesh (selfless devotion to the Jewish people) that lay behind what Jonathan had done for Am Yisrael. He determined that he must meet Jonathan face to face to investigate further.
It took a few years before this meeting was to come about. Jonathan would first go through the subverted judicial process that slapped him with a life sentence instead of the 2 to 4 years he was actually facing. The Rav would go through his own experiences, settling in as the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Finally, the Rav decided that it was time to go and see Pollard. Little did he dream that Government of Israel would put up such strong opposition to his making such a visit!
Every obstacle was put in his path. He was lied to. He was threatened. He was ordered to stand down; to stay away from Pollard.
But the Rav was determined, and the Government’s disturbing opposition only increased his determination. His office set about arranging a prison visit and was successful in obtaining clearance without the support of the Foreign Ministry. This worried the government sufficiently, that it dropped its opposition to the visit, and instead provided HaRav Eliyahu’s party with an “escort” – a Mossad agent, whose job it was to “supervise” the visit.
The Rav travelled to Marion Illinois where Jonathan was held at the time. USP Marion was the harshest prison in the American Federal system. At Marion, Jonathan was held in solitary confinement, in a dungeon cell, 3 stories underground, behind 13 locks and keys. For the nearly 7 years that he was in Marion, Jonathan never saw the sun or a blade of grass or a flower or a tree.
The Rav and his party (under the watchful eye of the Mossad agent) descended into the bowels of Hell to meet with Jonathan in a tiny airless room, 3 stories underground. It was there in the small, stuffy visit-room that the foundations of a deep and indelible father-son relationship were laid.
The very first conversation between HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l and Jonathan was extremely unusual. What do you think they talked about? Prison conditions? Jonathan’s grossly disproportionate life sentence? The food? Life in solitary confinement? If Jonathan had been any ordinary prisoner and if the Rav had been any ordinary rabbi then these are the kinds of things that they would likely have spoken about. But the Rav was no ordinary rabbi and Jonathan was no ordinary prisoner!
Indeed, the Rav came to Marion with a lot of questions that he wanted to ask Jonathan. All of his questions were specific and topical, and he was delighted with Jonathan’s responses!
Among the questions the Rav asked Jonathan were:
What can be done to prevent the desecration of the Sabbath in the Land?
What can be done to lessen social tensions in the Land between religious and non-religious?
What kind of outreach is appropriate to integrate the fragmented segments of Israeli society and to heal the wounds?
How can the economy be modernized and improved in an equitable way?
How can we ensure that Jewish children in the Land do not go to bed hungry at night, while 18 hyper-rich families virtually control all commerce and industry in the Land.
How can the current agricultural structure be improved to ensure maximum production without stripping the land and violating Shmittah?
What can be done to lessen Israel’s dependence on foreign sources of energy?
How can alternate sources of energy be sought or produced?
What can be done about water pollution and land erosion etc
Jonathan was delighted to be asked these questions! He is always thinking about ways to help Israel so he had a lot of ideas, suggestions and even in-depth plans to offer in response. The Rav was deeply impressed with the depth and breadth of Jonathan’s responses and his total familiarity with all the subjects they talked about.
He told me later that Jonathan’s deep love for the land and the people of Israel was evident in all of his responses.
From that time on, the Rav became very attached to Jonathan, and Jonathan returned the Rav’s devotion with love and admiration.
A MARRIAGE MADE IN HEAVEN
Another amazing thing happened at this very first meeting. The Rav told Jonathan that he wanted to ask him a question of a personal nature and Jonathan agreed.
I should point out that Jonathan and I were not yet married, though we had plans to wed. In fact, at that time, other than Jonathan, hardly anyone knew that I existed!
The Rav told Jonathan that he had had a vision — a dream about the woman that Jonathan was destined to marry. The Rav then described me to Jonathan, including specific details such as where I was born and where I lived and so on. He then asked Jonathan, “Has anything happened in reality yet that would confirm my dream?” Jonathan excitedly replied, “Yes, it has!”
Jonathan was glad to have the opportunity to talk about our relationship and he happily told the Rav all about us! The Rav was very pleased to learn that “a marriage made in Heaven” was confirmed and he gave us his blessings to marry and to live a long, healthy, successful, productive and fruitful life together in the Land to 120! (Amain!)
The Mossad agent (irreligious and irreverent) was amused by all this talk of visionary dreams and of Pollard finding a bride while in solitary confinement. After the visit, he leaked this “scoop” to the Israeli media, essentially intending to mock Jonathan. It did not take the Israeli press long to track me down and reveal my identity. And that is how the world first learned of my existence and of our plans to marry.
“YOSEF HATZADIK SHEL DOREINU”
In the ensuing years, as the relationship between the Rav and Jonathan grew deeper and more complex, the Rav would visit Jonathan every time he came to America. Unlike other Israeli officials who would always try to arrange a visit with Jonathan at the last second as an afterthought, visiting Jonathan was always the Rav’s first priority. The Rav did not relish leaving Eretz Yisrael and was always reluctant to be away from Yerushalyim. But for Jonathan, he was willing. He told us that he gladly accepted invitations to appear at various functions and events in the US only so that he could visit Jonathan! I had the great privilege of attending most of these visits.
Over time, the Rav shared with us and with a few others who were very close to him that Jonathan’s release is the key to the redemption of all of Am Yisrael.
He taught us how Jonathan’s release is also the key to the release of all of Israel’s captives and MIAs. Once Jonathan is out, all the captives are all out! Once they are all out, we are all in Geula!
Perhaps most significant of all, the Rav always referred to Jonathan as the “Yosef HaTzadik shel doreinu” (The Yosef Hatzadik of our generation.)
While the Rav never forbid me from speaking of these things publicly, he himself was reluctant to do so. I remember asking him, many years ago: “Kavod HaRav, if you know all these things about Jonathan, why don’t you say so openly? Why don’t you speak about this in public?”
The Rav responded with a sigh, “Esther,” he said, “it would not help anyone if I were to do so. Every Jew has to wake up; to open his/her own eyes; to realize for themselves that we have the Yosef HaTzadik of our generation languishing in a pit in America. Every Jew has to feel the pain of his suffering and to decide on his/her own to participate in this mitzvah — to do whatever he or she can to redeem Jonathan, and in so doing, effectively redeem themselves. We have to wake up Am Yisrael to this mitzvah!”
The Rav spent the rest of his life doing just that, trying to wake up Am Yisrael! He spoke about Jonathan everywhere he went. He wrote prayers for Jonathan, and headed prayer rallies on his behalf. He lectured and taught and wrote and constantly reminded the Nation that we have a captive in America and that the mitzvah of pidyan shvuyim devolves upon each and every one of us. He also taught that in Jonathan’s case, this was the highest form of the mitzvah – that it is the mitzvah of pidyan shvuyim for one who was “moser nefesh for Am Yisrael” ( That is, for one who sacrificed himself for the sake of the Nation of Israel).
The wisdom of his words, now strikes home more clearly than ever.
It was at least a decade or more ago. We were sitting together in a prison visit and speaking with the Rav about the glorious day that Jonathan would be released and we would finally come home to The Land. Both Jonathan and I wanted to show the Rav how much we love him and how deeply we revere him. We declared almost in unison, “The minute we get to Israel, the very first thing we will do, the very first place we will go, right from the airplane, we will come straight to you, Kavod HaRav!”
The Rav smiled faintly and shook his head. “No, he said, “Do not come to me first. First, you must go to the Kotel. Only after the Kotel, then you will come to me.”
Jonathan and I never thought to question his words. We never really thought about why the Rav didn’t say, “My children, I will be waiting there for you, along with all of Am Yisrael, when you get off the plane! Together we will go to the Kotel!” We just accepted his word and always remembered that our instructions are: first the Kotel, then the Rav.
This week, after our beloved Rav left this world, we finally understood why he is not coming with us to the Kotel. Now we know why he gave us our instructions so many years ago.
B”H, very soon. First we must greet the Shechina at the Kotel; and only then we may go to greet the Tzadik HaDor , our beloved Rav, Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l. He is waiting for us now at Har Hamenuchot inYerushalyim, no less than he waited for us at the shul in Kyriat Moshe all these years.
A BEN-BAYIT IN HEAVEN
This final anecdote is one that is painful to tell. But we think it is one that Am Yisrael needs to hear, in order to fully appreciate the degree of devotion and self-sacrifice that the Rav demonstrated towards Jonathan and towards the Nation of Israel at large.
Throughout the years, whenever the Rav was not able to visit Jonathan personally, I was their go-between. I met with the Rav very frequently to update him on Jonathan’s condition, to seek his blessing on our initiatives, to receive his approval and advice on various matters, and to generally enjoy the light of just being in his presence.
Although most people seeking a meeting with the Rav would be forced to wait weeks and sometimes even months for a spot in his very busy schedule, the Rav had an open door policy towards us. He always made time for Jonathan. He always welcomed me, no matter how busy he was. He was always patient and kind and deeply attentive. He never rushed me. More amazingly, he ever ended a meeting until I asked the same question I always asked at the end of every meeting: “Kavod HaRav, what should I tell Jonathan?” He would respond, sometimes with words of wisdom, sometimes with words of encouragement and always with blessings. Only then would the meeting end.
I remember a fateful meeting I had with the Rav. Most people think that the Rav’s declining health started a year or two ago, from the time that he was first hospitalized at Shaare Tzedek. But that’s not so. It started years earlier. That is why this fateful meeting is a painful memory for us.
It was around Purim and the year was 2006. I met with the Rav to update him on Jonathan’s condition, which was extremely worrisome at that time. After I provided a full update for the Rav and his Gabbai’im (assistants) who were present at the meeting, I ventured, “Kavod HaRav, may I ask His Honor a question?” The Rav signaled me to go ahead.
“Kavod HaRav,” I asked, “is it true that Jonathan is a ben-bayit (just like a son) in your house?”
The Rav smiled broadly, and replied “Of course!” The Gabai’im were beaming too and nodding, “Of course, Jonathan is a ben-bayit by the Rav!” they all agreed.
I continued, “Kavod HaRav, just as Jonathan is a ben –bayit by you, isn’t it true that you are a ben-bayit by HaKadosh Baruchu (just like a son to the Holy One Blessed Be He)?”
The Rav smiled. The Gabbai’im vigorously upheld the accuracy of my assessment and all agreed that indeed Kavod HaRav is a ben-bayit by HaKadosh Baruchu.
“Kavod HaRav”, I began again, “As a ben-bayit to Avinu sheh BaShomayim (to our Father in Heaven), you have privileges and influence that no one else has. I implore you, Kavod HaRav, you have to do something in Shomayim (Heaven) to speed up the redemption. Unless you do something in Shomayim, I am afraid for Jonathan’s life.”
The Rav listened attentively. He let me know that he heard me, that he understood, and that he accepted our request.
Now what was it that we wanted him to do in Shomayim?
You see, the Rav was always very humble. He never spoke of being a Mekubal (a Master of Kabbalah) and yet he was the greatest living Mekubal of our generation! So when Jonathan and I asked the Rav to do something in Heaven to move the redemption forward, what we expected was that he would do something Kabbalistic.
What exactly? We really didn’t know. Special Kabbalistic prayers, perhaps. Special exercises that we had heard about. We did not know. All we knew was that he could do something Kabbalistic.
I left the meeting hopeful and I reported back to Jonathan that the Rav had accepted our request and that he promised to do something to move things forward in Shomayim. We were, for the moment, quite satisfied.
The next time I tried to see the Rav, I could not get in. More accurately, he did not come into the office. He was not well. The following week, the same thing occurred; and the week after, and the week after that. The Rav was experiencing excruciating back pain and was unable to come to the office. I knew that if it were urgent, I could go to his home and he would welcome me, but barring a life or death emergency there was no way we would impose on him uninvited.
No one outside of the Rav’s immediate circle knew that the Rav was not well. He was still attending functions and making (painful) public appearances. The Rabbanit was desperately trying to help the Rav, and she sought pain management experts and therapists from all over the country to give him every treatment under the sun – but nothing helped. It got so bad that the Rav even had to change his low-slung car because he could no longer bend to get into the car. He was in terrible pain all of the time.
Finally, after a gap of about two months, I got a sudden phone call from the Rav’s Lishkah (bureau). “Esther, can you get here at once? The Rav is waiting for you!”
I dropped everything and immediately got into a cab to get to the Rav as quickly as possible. By this time, Jonathan and I had already started to understand what was going on.
I walked into the Rav’s office and he was sitting on his chair, and his Gabai’im were seated around the table. Although he smiled and greeted me warmly, I could see the pain in his face. It was blatantly obvious that he was having difficulty sitting and that he was in excruciating pain.
I got right to the point: “Kavod HaRav, I have come to you today with an urgent message from Jonathan!” The Rav nodded to indicate that he was listening and to go ahead.
“Kavod HaRav, do you remember that Jonathan and I asked you to do something in Shomayim to move the Geula forward, and you promised you would?”
“Yes. I remember,” he affirmed.
I was getting close to losing it, “Kavod HaRav! Jonathan and I did not mean yissurim (afflictions)! We never meant for you to do this with yissurim! You were not supposed to take yissurim upon yourself!”
The Rav smiled warmly and nodded.
I did not quit, “Kavod HaRav! Jonathan won’t allow it! You must not do this! You must not do this at the expense of your own health! Jonathan simply won’t hear of it! You must stop at once!”
The Rav’s reaction removed all doubt. He did not reject or contradict a word I said. He simply waved his right hand gently, enough for me to know that this matter was not up for further discussion, and then he smiled gently and said, “Esther, tell your husband he is brilliant!” As if to emphasize, he repeated, “Tell your husband he is brilliant!”
From that day on, the Rav never had a healthy day in his life. His condition over time deteriorated to the point where he was finally hospitalized at Shaare-Tzedek and fighting for his life daily.
Although secular society has no concept of the notion of a Tzadik taking yissurim upon himself to atone for the People, neither does secular society understand anything at all about the capability of a Mekubal of the stature of Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu, to act upon the natural world, and how much more so to intervene in the spiritual world.
Jonathan and I decided to share this story so that our People may have just a tiny glimpse of the greatness of this amazing man, of his willingness to sacrifice his own life, his own health, everything he had in this world, for the good of his People, to help them, to spare them and to speed the redemption so that none would be lost. Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu lived his life and gave up his life on such an exalted level of holiness and self-sacrifice that it is beyond most ordinary human beings to comprehend.
We know, without even being told, that the Rav, a ben-bayit to the Almighty, is already standing before the Kisei HaKavod (the Throne of Glory) pleading the cause of his beloved Nation. We have in the Rav, a powerful voice in Heaven, and a sublime melitz yosher (an honest advocate).
May all of Am Yisrael be blessed in the merit of our beloved, cherished, saintly, exalted, and holy Rav, Kavod HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu zt”l. In the merit of HaRav Mordechai Eliyahu may we see the speedy release of Yehonatan HaLevy ben Malka and all of Israel’s captives and MIAs. May the Land and People of Israel be worthy of a speedy redemption and may we merit to receive Moshiach Tzidkeinu speedily in our day! May Kavod HaRav be blessed with an illui l’nishmato (an elevation of his soul). May he continue to be a Heavenly champion for all of Am Yisrael, as he was all of his life. Amain!
A parting personal note to our cherished Rav:
Kvodo, we love you! Only days since you left us, we feel the void deeply. We miss you on the earthly plane more than words can ever say. Be assured, Kvodo, we will go first to the Kotel, and then to you (B”H). Every day, we will look forward to meeting you again, G-d willing very soon, at Techiyat HaMeitim. Amain!