The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach [whose yahrtzeit is today 21 Av], arrived in the Holy Land in 1944, after indescribable suffering under Nazi rule and pursuit. His escape from war-torn Europe was miraculous, a story in itself. But here at last he could be free, and able to worship in his sacred manner.
A home was purchased for him in Tel Aviv, where he wanted to live, but until it was ready he had to stay in Jerusalem, where a typical dwelling for a large family consisted of two rooms, with bathrooms shared by other tenants. The Rebbe's attendants conducted a two-week, fruitless search for more suitable accommodations.
Then they heard about a Chabad couple that in lived in a four-room apartment, a rarity in those days. Who owned it? A Lubavitcher couple, Schneur-Zalman and Kaila Ashkenazi. When Schneur Zalman decided to move to the Holy Land before WWII, his wealthy son Yehoshua went to Jerusalem to find an apartment. Wanting to create something a bit more respectable for his father, he purchased two apartments with a shared bathroom, and connected the two.
Belzer Chassidim approached Ashkenazi, asking if their Rebbe could stay there.
"How many rooms does the Rebbe need?" Ashkenazi asked.
"Three," he was told. One for prayers, one for sleeping, and one to receive visitors.
Schneur Zalman and his wife agreed, and during those seven weeks while they hosted the Belzer, made do with one room for themselves. they even provided the Rebbe with meals, subsidizing everything, including food for the Rebbe's attendants.
Throughout this time, Schneur Zalman continued his own daily Chabad schedule. He interacted little with his illustrious guest and paid little attention to the comings and goings in the other three rooms. This suited the Belzer Rebbe just fine, an intensely private person.
On 11 Nissan, the Belzer Rebbe's home in Tel Aviv was ready. Before departing he thanked his host, and also commented, "Leaving is very difficult, since I can smell the fear of G-d in your home."
Schneur Zalman mentioned his son, Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, the Chief Rabbi of Shanghai, which had become a wartime refuge for so many desperate Jews. Because of the war father and son had been out of contact for several years.
"Will I ever see him again?" he wondered aloud. He knew that Meir was not in good health.
Tearfully he asked the Belzer Rebbe for a blessing for his son.
The Belzer Rebbe gazed at him. "When your son arrives in Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), I want him to come visit me."
Schneur Zalman Ashkenazi understood that this response included the answer to his question.
In 5710/1950, Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi finally arrived from Shanghai - partially debilitated by a stroke, along with years of travel and hardship. After a joyful reunion with his father, he was told about the blessing of the Belzer Rebbe, and that he wished to see him. Rabbi Meir promptly left for Tel Aviv.
His son, Rabbi Moshe Ashkenazi, who lived in Tel Aviv (and would become the rabbi of the Chabad community there), accompanied him to the Rebbe's home. While others waited outside with a kvittel (a personal note that a chasid brings to his Rebbe), Rabbi Meir was shown VIP treatment, and invited to immediately enter into the Rebbe's room.
The Rebbe warmly greeted him. Then he asked, "Perhaps you need a blessing for something."
Rabbi Meir nodded. He pointed to one of his eyes and explained his medical problem, a result of the stroke, and a problem that was worsening. The Belzer Rebbe strode forward, glanced at his eye, and declared, "You will be healed, but under three conditions:
One, you must not eat any dairy foods.
Two, you must not listen to music."
He paused before the final condition. "Three, you must not visit the graves of tzaddikim."
Shortly later, on 10 Shevat, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef-Yitzchak Schneersohn - the Rebbe Rayatz - passed away. Over the years Rabbi Meir had developed a devoted, personal relationship with the Rebbe. The latter had even arranged a marriage for one of Rabbi Meir's children. The loss was enormously felt.
Nevertheless, hearing about the Rebbe's son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Meir announced to the elder Chassidim, "There is a Rebbe!" Towards the end of the thirty-day mourning period for the Rayatz, he decided to go to 770.
Rabbi Meir approached the "RaMaSH" (as he was known then) in his office, with a pidyon nefesh -- a "soul-redemption" hand-written note with the customary request for blessings. It also included a request for advice on a particular matter, which he felt only a Rebbe could give.
The Rebbe-to-be glanced at the paper and modestly declined conduct that he felt befitted an actual Rebbe. "You must go to the Ohel, my father-in-law's gravesite in Queens, with your pidyon."
"Oh no, I can't!" Rabbi Meir gasped. "I can't go to there."
The Rebbe gazed at him with astonishment.
Rabbi Meir explained what had happened during his visit to the Belzer Rebbe and the three prohibitions. "Not going to graves of tzaddikim is an indispensable part of my cure," he concluded.
The Rebbe nodded. "If the Belzer Rebbe told you not to go, then you really cannot."
Then he sternly added, "But given that he is not your Rebbe, why didn't you ask him for the source of this instruction?"
Sighing, he put on his jacket, took his gartel out of one of the pockets and tied it around his waist. Then he extended his hand and took the pidyon nefesh from Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, the first one he ever accepted. Afterwards, he greeted a few more visitors, who had seen or heard what had just transpired, and accepted each one's personal note, without directing them to the gravesite of his holy father-in-law.
Thus, it may be said that the process leading to the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe's acceptance of his majestic role on Yud Shvat 5711 (Jan. 1951), started all the way back on 11 Nissan 5704 (1944) with the request of the Belzer Rebbe to Shneur Zalman Askenazi.
Source: Adapted from an e-mailing of Machon Avner and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles on the basis of testimony from two sons-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Ashkenazi of blessed memory.