A Needle in a Haystack: My Story

By Aryeh Gotfryd for Anash.org

We all have our problems – money, health… My burning issue, back in the day that I first walked into the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office, was nothing of the sort. True, that visit made a tremendous impact – I walked in a skeptic and left, minutes later, an ardent follower. But it was actually the strange chain of events that followed that transformed my burning issue into a gratifying, lifetime hobby – discovering G-d through science. 

The Setup 

Ever since childhood, I dreamed of being a scientist. Microscopes, telescopes, lab coats, watching the stars, the bugs, the wonders of nature, all that stuff fascinated me. Besides, as a public school kid without any Torah knowledge, I understood that scientists were the people that knew everything – when the sun would burn up, how we got here, how to cure diseases – everything. 

Eventually, it looked like that dream was coming true. I was well on the way to a Ph.D. in Applied Ecology at the University of Toronto and enjoying a very secular lifestyle when I first encountered Chabad (I guess it happens to everybody sooner or later) in the form of Rabbi Manis Friedman. 

After capturing my attention with every student’s favorite topic – dating and relationships – we got into a six-hour argument, mainly over how science is right and religion is wrong about everything. For the first time I met someone who had answers for all my questions and questions for all my answers. By the time dawn came, I was in a state of what you might call suspended disbelief, no longer so sure of my secularism nor won over by the rabbi’s religious outlook. 

Little by little, I started to explore the prayerbook, the Torah, the Jewish community and traditional observance. The more I took on, the more I enjoyed it. I realized that those rabbis haven’t been twiddling their thumbs for 3,000 years trying to memorize the ten commandments – there was a whole lot more to Judaism than I previously thought. 

After relocating to the heart of the Jewish community, I started to keep kosher and Shabbos and got engaged to a wonderful Jewish girl. Life was great, but something was gnawing away at me. Despite success in my studies, in life, and a steady stream of environmental consulting contracts, I still wasn’t fully happy. 

The truth was – it was the truth itself that was bothering me. Meaning: I had gone into science originally because I believed that was the best way to truly understand the world we live in. But in the end science is just a human endeavor, and as clever as we are, the ‘truths’ we discover in science are tentative and probabilistic. The truth of Torah, on the other hand, is certain and absolute since it is the wisdom of the Creator. 

Wading through ecological journals for insight into the wonderful world of nature is like something between panning for gold on a good day and looking for a needle in a haystack on a bad one. Not so with Torah. You just open the book anywhere, read any word and voila! There it is, staring you in the face – infinite, eternal, clear, certain, unequivocal, absolute Truth – 100% of the time. 

Given my quest for truth, obviously, yeshiva was where I wanted to be. But given my loyalty to those Chabad rabbis who were guiding me on my Jewish journey, graduate school is where I had to stay – I needed to finish my degree. In any case, I had no funds for a yeshiva getaway and was soon to be married. Instead of feasting on the Tree of Life, I was consigned to chewing on the tough shells of secular science. 

Deep Calling To Deep 

In May of 5742/1982, I traveled to Brooklyn to see the Rebbe for the first time and get his blessing for my upcoming wedding. Frankly, I expected something larger than life but in fact, the Rebbe looked to be nothing so unusual.

I set my doubts aside to compose a kvittel, the customary note one presents on such occasions. In addition to requests for a happy, healthy and prosperous married life, I added a personal plea: Since I had no choice but to pursue secular studies rather than Torah for the greater part of the day, could the Rebbe at least help me that I should be able to find G-d within science. 

With kvittel in hand, I stood in line with two hundred other international grooms and brides-to-be, who were organized by language for group audiences in the Rebbe’s office. Eventually, it was our turn to enter, then my turn to step forward and place my note on the Rebbe’s desk. 

That’s when it happened. The Rebbe scanned the kvittel, then looked up at me with a fixed, penetrating gaze that left no doubt that I was being “known.” In what couldn’t have been more than three seconds, it felt like my entire past, present and future were laid out before this man. I felt, in the intensity of the moment, that the Rebbe came to know more about me than I would ever know about himself. So disorienting was this wordless soul to soul contact, that I literally did not hear so much as a single word of the Rebbe’s ten-minute shower of blessings and sage advice. 

The First Dream 

A few weeks later, I had a dream, the most vivid of my life. My wife Leah and I were sitting together with the Rebbe in our living room. The Rebbe produced a publication entitled “SCIENCE Volume 64, No. 4 (No. 1)”. The font and layout of the title were identical to the prestigious academic journal by the same name, the weekly magazine of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. “Here is something to help you think,” said the Rebbe to Leah. And then he opened it up. 

On the first page was a background of blue sky with white, fluffy clouds. The text on the page was beautifully typeset in English with a crisp, black font and wide margins on the page. I started to read what seemed a little like Psalm 104, all about the wonders of nature, the hydrological cycle, wildlife and vegetation, humanity and the meaning of life in the presence of G-d. 

As I read on, the clouds on the page started to move through the sky and a fresh breeze brought the most subtle and delicious fragrance. Orchestral music welled up featuring inspired melodies, elegantly harmonized, and the pleasure of the experience was overwhelming. To this day, I am convinced that it was a foretaste of ‘Gan Aden’ – the Garden of Eden. The Rebbe turned the page and the next page was even better, and the next better yet. Then the Rebbe said, “Let me know when you get to page seven” and I woke up. 

Amazed by this dreamworld visitation, I felt compelled to share it with Leah, especially since the Rebbe had addressed her directly. With great excitement, I related the experience in detail to which she responded, “That’s interesting.” 

I was a little crestfallen, but on second thought it was perfectly understandable because after all, it was only a dream. Or was it? I’ve never been much of a dreamer. In general, I either remember nothing, or sometimes some gray and jumbled images that vaporize as soon as I awaken. This was entirely different: Crisp, clear, colorful, lucid, lengthy, multisensory, meaningful and memorable. Absolutely not my style. I felt there had to be more to it. 

The Buried Treasure 

The next reasonable step was to seek out SCIENCE Vol.64, No. 4 (No. 1) and especially page 7. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Department of Zoology, it seemed likely to find such a popular journal in the Zoology library and find it I did, but only with volume numbers dating back to the 200’s, some half a century after the envisioned Volume 64. Over time, I tried the Physics library and the Chemistry Library and the General Science Library but none of them had back issues that old. Well, forget it, I told himself, it’s only a dream, so I put it out of my mind. Almost. 

After nearly two years of subliminal nagging, I finally decided to put the matter to rest definitively, one way or the other. Off I went to where scientists rarely go – Fort Book, or so we called it, the gigantic concrete structure housing the University of Toronto’s central reference library for humanities as well as a complete card catalog data of all the holdings belonging to the university’s dozens of libraries. (Remember this was 1984, long before Google searches.) 

Sure enough, ancient issues of “Science” were listed and were archived in one place only on the university campus: In the storage stacks of the Science and Medicine Library. 

Well, what a room that was. Special access was arranged to the cellar where outdated books were shelved on long parallel bookcases, mounted on tracks and rollers. There were no spaces at all between the 20-odd bookcases, so at first glance, there seemed to be no way to access any of the books. The trick was that each bookcase had a kind of steering wheel mounted on the end. When it was spun, numerous times around like a ship captain’s wheel, space would slowly emerge between two bookcases so you could walk in to retrieve a reference, provided of course that no one spins the wheel the other way to squash you while you’re in there. 

In moments, it was in hand: SCIENCE Volume 64, dated the summer of 1926, with its various issues. Now I would finally see if there was anything to this odd dream. The article in issue No. 4, page 7, was entitled “Science for Humanity’s Sake” by William Blum. In his address upon receiving the American Chemists’ Medal, Blum mentions that science has never disproved the existence of the soul. He goes on to explain that because the study and application of science are spiritually uplifting, science and religion interface in man. Nonetheless, each discipline has its own domain, with science describing how the world works while only religion can address why the world works that way. 

Turning to the other reference in the dream, Issue No. 1 of Vol. 64 of SCIENCE, on page 7, one finds of all things a poem by Louis Agassiz about the joy of discovery, quoted by B. T. Baldwin, president of the prestigious Sigma Xi research society. The poem reads: 

Come wander with me, 

In regions yet untrod, 

And read what is still unread 

In the manuscript of G-d. 

How inspiring! Right then I recalled my request of the Rebbe, asking to partake of G-dliness within science. Well, here it was! I remembered the beautiful dream, with its bibliographic references. And now I had in hand two buried treasures precisely related to the dream and to my encounter with the Rebbe. My first thought: This must be the finger of G-d. How else could someone walk over to a gigantic haystack looking for miniscule needles, pick at two random locations and find two needles? 

My second thought was, “Nah, dumb luck.” Or maybe in the 1920’s it was still fashionable for scientists to refer to G-d in their scholarly speaking and writing. So page by page, I checked all of Volume 64 and many other volumes from the 1920’s and 30’s. No spiritual references whatsoever. I tried the ‘40’s and ‘50’s and ‘60’s to be safe. Perhaps other scientific weeklies, like “Nature,” had the odd celebration of spirit. On the contrary, they were all spiritually mute in the extreme. After literally a full day of scouring journals, I felt justified to conclude that the alternative hypothesis of dumb luck was disproven. 

The probability of a chance correlation between the dream and the reality was virtually nil. Reluctantly, I decided to act on the Rebbe’s “instruction”, in his saying “Let me know when you get to page 7”.

I waited for a good reason to write the Rebbe on another matter – my wife was expecting and I wanted his blessing – and then tacked on a paragraph essentially saying: Sorry to bother you, but I had this dream, and it took me a while, but I found these facts, so I’m letting you know. Was this a communication from you? Shall I act on it or forget about it? If you did send it, enclosed are copies of the articles referred to in the dream. Now what? 

Try to wrap your mind around how it would feel to correspond with the likes of the Lubavitcher Rebbe about something as seemingly trivial as a dream. Here was a man who, at the time was receiving one to two full US Mail bags each day and he would open each one. Letters from community and business leaders, sages and scholars, even heads of state, were daily fare. Urgent matters of health, livelihood, and relationships, even matters of life and death were among those letters. And here I was ready to take up the Rebbe’s precious time with what – I had a dream? And I’m not even Martin Luther King. 

Nonetheless, write I did and a short time later I received a reply – a blessing for the child to be born – but not so much as a word about the dream. 

After Sara was born, I wrote again and once again mentioned the dream and its fulfillment, and once again received a letter in reply – a blessing for the child named and no answer about the dream. Over the next several years the scene replayed itself another six times. Every issue in every letter was answered but one – the dream. In fact, on one occasion, the Rebbe deemed my letter urgent enough to direct his secretary, Rabbi Leibel Groner to phone me to convey his guidance. I seized the opportunity to probe the aide for any hint of acknowledgment from the Rebbe about this issue but there was nothing. Until the second dream. 

The Second Dream and Its Interpretation 

In the fall of 1987, on the 8th of Tishrei 5748, I had my second dream encounter with the Rebbe. The Rebbe was in bed, horribly ill and emaciated. He called out to me for a glass of water. “Hot or cold?” I asked. “Cold,” the Rebbe answered in a quiet, definite voice that could split mountains. I ran to get some cold water, brought it to the Rebbe and just as I was handing it to him, woke up in a trembling sweat at 4:59 am, just a minute before the alarm was due to ring. 

Could the Rebbe really be so unwell? I was terrified. Deeply disturbed, I made my way to synagogue with a sinking feeling in my gut that my world was coming to an end. My friend and mentor Rabbi Yosi Yarmush took one look at my distraught face and said, “What’s the matter with you?” 

“Nothing, Yosi. Do you know how to do the HaTavas Chalom ceremony? I need a bad dream reversed.” 

“You should tell your dream to the Rav. He’s a dream interpreter.” 

“I don’t want the dream interpreted. I want it to go away.” 

“You need to tell the Rav.” 

“Look, are you telling me that Jews believe in dream interpretation?” 

“Have you ever heard of a book called the Torah?” 

“I get it. You’re talking about Yosef. That’s something else.” 

“Oh, so the Torah is just a history book.” 

“No, no, I don’t mean that.” 

“Aryeh, if there’s anyone who knows how to interpret dreams it’s the Rav.” 

After morning prayers, I approached the Rav, Rabbi Dovid Schochet, Chief Rabbi of the Lubavitch community in Toronto and long-time head of the orthodox rabbinate in the City. He kindly convened a quorum of ten men for the Hatavas Chalom Service, following which I related to him this disturbing dream. The Rav replied: 

“The Rebbe was unwell but now he is fine, thank G-d, so you don’t have to worry about that. But the dream does have a message. We are accustomed to reflecting on how we need the Rebbe, so we are not so attuned to how the Rebbe needs us. You have merited to see not only that you are needed but also how you are needed. Water symbolizes Torah; it flows from a high place to a low place. Water, however, may be hot or cold. Hot signifies emotions while cold signifies intellect. The Rebbe is telling you that he needs your intellectual service in Torah and Mitzvos.” 

As the Rav spoke, I was overcome with emotion as never before. Tears flowed freely and sweat seeped from every pore. I felt strangely light as if a 200-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders. In a word – catharsis. I recall wondering at this completely unprecedented rush of feelings. Immensely relieved and with a new-found spring in my step, I thanked the Rav, regained my composure and headed out the door of the weekday sanctuary into the hall. 


Mere seconds after taking leave of the Rav, I bumped into Rabbi Moshe Spalter, the administrator of the Chabad House, in the hall. “Aryeh (that’s my Hebrew name), I’ve been meaning to show you this book for over a year but I couldn’t find it till now. It just turned up this morning. Here.” I did a double-take as he casually handed me the Hebrew paperback. 

The cover was blue, a blue sky with white, fluffy clouds. The first dream. The title, Emuna U’Mada – Faith and Science. 

Gingerly, I leafed through the first few pages. It was a collection of letters from the Lubavitcher Rebbe on a wide range of topics. The very first chapter was entitled, “Proof for the Existence of the Creator.” It was a rational, step-by-step essay demonstrating the necessity of G-d’s existence according to the criteria of science and common sense. The Rav’s words rang fresh in my ears, “he needs your intellectual service in Torah and mitzvos.” I slowly rushed my way to page 7. 

Among the hundreds of words on page 7 of Emuna U’Mada, there are precisely two in bold type – teyur and biyur – description and explanation. There the Rebbe writes that laws of nature can only describe how the world works but in no way can they explain why the world works that way. 

The point the Rebbe was making was exactly the point raised by Blum on page 7 of Science, Vol. 64, No. 4! I was dumbfounded. Out of the blue, so to speak, I was suddenly holding the blue sky, white clouds and content of the first dream delivered at the very moment of the second dream’s interpretation as a directive for intellectual service in Torah. Moreover, all of this was obviously the fulfillment of my request at yechidus for help finding G-d through science. 

No doubt about it. These events had been stamped with the Divine fingerprint, i.e., the synchronicity of many low-probability events in a unified and meaningful way. My first thought was, I must write the Rebbe. My second thought – Silly! He won’t answer you! Still, I knew that now I had to fulfill the Rebbe’s request, “Let me know when you get to page 7.” So I made my way to Crown Heights to let the Rebbe know. But how? 

I was still pondering this question on Sunday, October 25, 1987, as I waited in line with thousands of others to receive a personal blessing from the Rebbe and a dollar for tzedaka from his hand. I knew they would be pushing from the back and pulling from the front so there would not be more than 2 seconds to tell my story. Prudently, I distilled the whole matter down to two words, meaningless to anyone else, which I blurted out as once again, the Rebbe and I made eye contact. My proclamation of “Biyur V’Teyur!” must have sounded pretty strange to the chassidim standing around. But it didn’t sound strange to the Rebbe, because immediately the Rebbe responded with such a loud, emphatic and resounding “Amayn!” that heads were turning to see why the Rebbe was shouting. 

That was the end of the dream and the beginning of the work. 

The Work Begins 

Within days, I was invited by Professor Yirmiyah (Herman) Branover to participate in the first international Torah/Science conference co-sponsored by his B’Or HaTorah Journal of Science, the Arts and Modern Life in the Light of Torah, as well as by R’ Shalom B. Lipsker’s Aleph Institute. Jewish scientists from the world over gathered during Chanukah 5748 (1987) in Miami Beach to explore the synergy of Torah and science. 

“Aryeh, do you have a topic in mind?” Professor Branover asked. 

“As a matter of fact, I do,” I replied. “Description and Explanation in the Sciences.” 

Following the conference, I was delegated the task of preparing the proceedings for publication. The resulting Feldheim book, “Fusion: Absolute Standards in a World of Relativity” has as its first chapter my free translation of the Rebbe’s letter from Emunah Umada quoted above. And as its fourth chapter, is my essay called “Beyond Description: The Boundary Between Religion and Science.”

Throughout the many years since then, this service continues to be my hobby, my passion, my gift to the Rebbe, my contribution to the Jewish journey. 

Books included “Living in the Age of Moshiach” by Mendelson Press, “Mind Over Matter: The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Science, Technology and Medicine” by Shamir Books, and “Faith and Science,” a textbook I created for the accredited course I taught on the subject at the University of Toronto. 

There have been radio interviews, video productions, and hundreds of lectures in dozens of cities on three continents. Hundreds of articles have appeared in academic, secular, and Jewish publications as well as on many popular Jewish websites. 

The Rebbe’s needles in the haystacks of my life keep poking me every now and then, urging me on to continue promoting that great dream which Abraham had and which we are all striving to fulfill, a vision of humanity united in goodness and kindness under one G-d. May it take place immediately.

Send us your feedback

advertise package