Rabbi Akiva Wagner, 55, Ob"m

This week was rough. Lag B’ Omer at the park was fun, but it was overshadowed with the untimely passing of my dear Rosh Yeshiva from Toronto, Rabbi Akiva Wagner, 55.

It’s hard to explain who this giant was.

I’ve had quite a few amazing teachers and mentors, and learned lots from all of them. But he was unique.

When I shared the news with my father, his immediate reaction was, “I’m sorry. Rabbi Wagner really had a big part in shaping who you are today.” He was right.

I called a Rov (higher pay grade rabbi than me) to ask if I should tear kriah (the rending of garments) which is normally done when one loses a parent or a “Rabbi who taught you the majority of your wisdom.”

That’s who he was to me. Without him, I don’t know who I would be today. Definitely not the person you know.  It's unusual for me to go a couple weeks without quoting him.

He was an extremely gifted person. Most people are gifted in one or two ways. He was gifted in many, many ways (I recently found out that he was even gifted in predicting the stock market).

He was a genius in Talmud, halacha and Chassidus. He was charismatic and inspiring. He was fun, and often spoke of his time as a camp counselor in Simcha Monica. Apparently, he was very popular with nonreligious public school kids too. He had superhuman energy to somehow wake up at six in the morning and toggle back and forth between study, prayers, taking carpool, fundraising, giving deep, hours long head-dizzying Talmud lectures during the day, and then making himself available to any student who wanted his advice in the evening (indeed those years of 16-19 are extremely formative years and lots of guys have questions). He would spend hours typing his lectures (I have binders of his typed lectures on my bookshelves) and then around 12 AM, he would come out to “farbreng”.

As gifted as he was as a Talmud scholar and teacher (definitely world class), his gift as a chossid to farbreng (literally, get together) was parallel to none.

He was a showman of the highest caliber (or in Jewish terms, a maggid). He knew how to hold a crowd, be entertaining enough for everyone to stay, and keep the farbrengen full of substance for hours and hours.

We would sing, listen to him teach Torah in a more “casual” setting, usually starting off with something from the Torah portion or holiday, and then digress into stories of Chassidim (his mind was a steel trap for details and he was a master storyteller- not bubbe maasos, factual and accurate stories of what happened in previous generations), conversations about the purpose of life, and he would always make his farbrengens relevent to the struggles of Chabad teenagers, pushing our inner boundaries to make ourselves better people. Sometimes they would turn into a public conversation between him and one yeshiva boy about his personal struggles. I deeply wish this gift on the teenagers of today.

He had this unique ability to put things in perspective and drill them into us, again and and again, and again until they become one with us. Most of what I learned from him was at his farbrengens.

Here are some themes that stick out to me:

  • G-dliness should be normal, and materialism should be novel- To the extent that we internalize the message of Torah, our priorities will change. The significance we attribute to the “world” wanes, and the fact that we can’t see G-d starts to bother us. The next step is that we can actually appreciate G-d more, and care less about “what the world says”.

  • Extreme obedience and extreme intellectual challenging- Most people are inclined to either live a life of submission (kabolas ol) or internalizing the message of Torah, which happens through critical thinking and challenging what you’re taught. He drilled in us that it’s possible to excel in both extremes, and it’s possible to master the art of this contradiction.

  • Seder starts at 7:30, not 7:31- The yeshiva day (seder) starts at 7:30 AM and finishes at 9:30 PM. It’s not all “classtime”. At least half of the yeshiva day is studying with study partners (chavrusa), so what’s the big deal if you come one minute late. He drilled into us that we are soldiers, and that you can learn lots of Torah at all hours of the day, but if you want to be a soldier of the Rebbe, that train leaves at 7:30.

  • It’s okay to learn a maamor chassidus over and over again- Every year on various special days, you knew what he was going to talk about. He lived with certain maamorim and went back to them, year after year, never getting bored. The obsessive review is what brands the teachings into your soul and body.

If I’m communicating effectively, you’re wanting to join a farbrengen of his. Talmud classes are enough to make someone knowledgeable and even refined. But without farbrengens, a scholar could just be a lifeless bookshelf.

Which was another one of his unique qualities. I’ve studied under many scholars. Deeply devoted, brilliant, and caring people. People who really are special. However, I’ve never met such a “regular” special person. Rabbi Wagner didn’t carry the persona of the giant he was. He was approachable, relatable and fun. I wouldn’t even call him humble because he didn’t “lower himself” to humility. He just carried himself like a regular guy, who happened to be a super genius, have a super heart, and super energy. He didn’t command the reverence that was probably due to him. I’ve never seen any yeshiva personnel as beloved and close to their students as Rabbi Wagner was to ALL of his students.

He was my mentor (mashpia), as well as the mentor of many of the bochurim in yeshiva. I told him my heart. Everything I was struggling with. I wouldn’t make a big decision without consulting him. Looking back, many of those “big decisions” were trivial and I don’t know why he didn’t throw me out of his office for wasting his time, but that’s how much he cared. When it was cold outside (and Toronto gets cold) he would shuttle us back and forth to the dorm in his little Plymouth minivan.

I had always wanted to become a Shliach in the Toronto metro area so I could continue growing and learning from him.

However, sometime after graduating from Toronto and moving on to the next stages of life, I found myself losing touch with him. He started writing “email farbrengens” to keep in touch with us, and I skimmed through most of them, but I was losing the fiery inspiration I used to get.  He was a very extreme person on many levels, all in holiness.  It was perfect for 18 year olds, but I felt like I "grew out of his style".

I had a guilty conscience about it. I knew that he shaped me as a person. I loved him like a father, but somehow found different mentors for the next stages of my life.

I would always say hello when I saw him in New York but didn’t have much to talk about. I rarely responded to emails and never called him. Maybe I was embarrassed by the trivial things I wasted his time with in my youth.

Around a year ago, as his disease was progressing, I made a point to go visit him.  It had been a long time since I sat with him one on one.  He immediately picked up from our last conversation which was about 16 years prior.

The one thing I regret not telling him in that sitting, is how much he meant to me.  I hope that my distance from him didn’t cause him pain, because he did mean the world to me and I owe everything good about me today, to him. I’ve broken down crying mutliple times writing this email, something I don’t know if I’ve ever done before.

Even in the past few years, I daydreamed of sending my boys to Yeshiva in Toronto. I wanted to give him the chance to do for them what he did for me (hopefully better than me). I wanted him to teach them and mold them into chassidim of the Rebbe.

This is the saddest thing for me. That my children’s Rosh Yeshiva will not be Rabbi Akiva Wagner. The best I can do for them is to revisit, reflect and renew the lessons he taught me.

And then my children will have him through me.


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