One year ago, before Gimmel Tammuz 5782, beloved Toronto Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Akiva Wagner sent out an email farbrengen to his students and alumni. Here it is.
Dear Alumni Sheyichyu!
The following story was shared with me by Reb Shamshi Junik, many thanks to him and zechus horabim toluy bo:
There was a Jew, who lived in Chicago, who was very secular. He raised his children to be completely indifferent to their religion, and the more assimilated they would be, the more successful this Jew felt he was with his “chinuch”.
Sure enough, with such an upbringing, his daughter met a gentile boy, and decided to marry him r”l. But, rather than feel remorse, the father was kvelling with nachas, seeing this as a reflection of how effective his parenting was.
The young couple were “married”, r”l, and the brides father couldn’t be happier. But, alas, his joy was short-lived. David, the young son-in-law took an interest in his wife’s religion. He began attending classes and shiurim, and slowly began living a lifestyle that incorporated more and more Judaism. The more he researched and inquired, the more interested and obsessed he became about Yiddishkeit, to the great consternation of his “shver” (they do warn about the dangers of marrying a non-Jew….).
Finally, he came to the point where he decided that he wants to…convert! He wanted with all his heart and soul to live fully as a Jew. He approached Rabbi Herschel Shusterman, who was the Lubavitcher Rov in Chicago, and requested that he help him convert. But, as we know, in Yiddishkeit we don’t encourage geirus, and, indeed, Rabbi Shusterman tried very hard to dissuade him, and sent him on his way.
David Willer (for that was his full name) was very disappointed. Here, he had decided to put his lot with the Jewish nation, and the Rebbe was giving him a hard time. He continued to petition Rabbi Shusterman, but to no avail.
It was at this time, that there was another tragic change in his life. David began experiencing extreme pains. He went to doctors and underwent extensive tests, and finally learned the tragic news; – they had discovered the dreaded disease, and it had already spread throughout his body. His doctor told him that it was so widespread at that point that treatment would be pointless, it would only cause him unnecessary suffering.
“Tell me the truth”, he asked his doctor, “how much time do I have left?”
In an emotion-laden voice the doctor clarified “about 3 months”.
David was, understandably, shaken. But, his first destination was Rabbi Shusterman. “Rabbi”, he implored, “you wouldn’t enable me to live as a Jew, please, at least enable me to die as a Jew”. He told the Rabbi what he had learned, and begged him to finalize his conversion in the short time he had remaining. But, Rabbi Shusterman, although very moved, continued to resist. “I will assist you in any way possible to find meaning, I will study with you and pray with you, but there is no reason for you to become a Jew”.
David was very disappointed. He felt his greatest desire just out of reach. He searched for a plan, and he came up with an idea. If Rabbi Shusterman was being unhelpful, he would appeal to his superior. Surely there was someone to whom he was answerable.
With just a bit of research, he learned that Rabbi Shusterman belonged to the Chabad organization, and in Chabad, there is a grand Rabbi. To David’s understanding, this grand Rabbi was higher up in the hierarchy, Rabbi Shusterman’s boss, and – having acquired the necessary information – he wrote to the Rebbe.
It was just a few weeks later that David Willer received a reply. The Rebbe’s letter to him is dated “23 Sivan 5746”. In the letter, the Rebbe wrote in length about the importance that the conversion be in accordance with halacha. “Accordingly, you have to get in touch with such an orthodox Rabbi in your city, and he will tell you what you have to do to fulfill your heart’s desire for good, to become truly and honestly a member of the Jewish people”
The Rebbe, then, addressed the significance of the time in which the letter was written, and then, in the final paragraph, the Rebbe wrote: “May Hashem grant that you should have good news to report also about your physical health. No doubt you know that with a Jew it is not only the soul that is holy, but also the body receives a special sanctity…”
David took the letter happily and returned to Rabbi Shusterman. He still had no idea what a “Rebbe” is, – in his mind he had merely managed to secure the intervention of Rabbi Shusterman’s boss. Rabbi Shusterman was, of course, in shock! He was holding in his hand a letter from the Rebbe, in which the Rebbe clearly was directing David to go ahead with David’s conversion!
But, when he reached the end of the letter, he was astounded! “Do you understand what the Rebbe is telling you?” he asked David excitedly, “the Rebbe is telling you that when you convert, you not only acquire a new soul, but a new body as well. You will see, there is no question that you will be cured!”
Sure enough, just 7 days after David’s conversion, he noticed a drastic change in the pains he had been experiencing. He went to the hospital to check things out, and, to their surprise and amazement there was no sign of the disease that had spread throughout his body! The doctors conducted test after test, but, of course, there was no trace of the disease. David lived another 25 years happily serving Hashem as a devoted Jew!
Since it is already late, I will have to leave you just with the story for now, maybe next week we can discuss it further…
On a personal note…
I had a bit of a rough week this week, and yesterday I experienced intense pain for a number of hours.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Everyone experiences aches and pains. What is he, some old man in a nursing home, who thinks we have nothing better to do than listen to his litany of aches and pains? But I ask you to please be patient, and you’ll see that in fact this is significant.
In the evening, I had to be admitted to the hospital, to urgent care. We called Hatzoloh, and they came over to transport me to the hospital.
Okay, you’re still not impressed. So, he had an exciting ride with a siren and flashing lights, is that really of importance the Shabbos before gimmel tamuz? But I ask you for a bit more patience, and you will see how this is all significant.
One of those accompanying me in the ambulance was Reb Yingy Bistritsky of Hatzoloh. During the ride to Manhattan, he shared with me some amazing stories. I now knew why it was necessary for me to endure the pain and be admitted to the hospital. That led me to hear these beautiful stories, one of which I will share with you (and, possibly, I needed to endure the pain to be more of a keli for the amazing stories):
“It was after chof zayin adar, on a motzoei Shabbos. One of the nurses who was then with the Rebbe was a young baal teshuva, and I was in the Rebbe’s room with him. The Rebbe was sleeping, and appeared to be sleeping very deeply, very comfortably.
[Often, even when the Rebbe was sleeping, he would be uncomfortable and seemed to be experiencing pain. But, on this occasion it seemed to be a very tight sleep].
At one point, the other nurse whispered to me that he feels like he’s falling asleep. I told him, the Rebbe is sleeping now, and I am sitting with him, so he can go out for a few minutes and get a coffee etc.
A few minutes later, the other nurse returned. ‘I couldn’t drink my coffee yet’, he whispered to me, ‘but while I was outside, I heard the phone there ringing incessantly. It was ringing, and stopped and then resumed ringing. Finally, I picked it up, it was a Rabbi Nachman Schapiro, who needs a brocho for something. I said I would give it over to Yingi Bistritsky’.
I told him that there was nothing I could do now. First of all, the Rebbe is in a deep sleep now, and I can’t disturb him. Besides, I’m not a mazkir, I can’t ask the Rebbe for brochos. But I would go out and take the phone and explain the situation.
I took the phone, and explained why there was nothing I could do at this point. ‘You don’t understand’, he exclaimed, ‘this is an emergency. My brother lives in Australia, and there are wildfires raging there, and they are headed straight for the Jewish community! They desperately and urgently need the Rebbe’s brocho’.
But I remained adamant (what choice did I have?). I explained that despite the urgency of the situation, there was really nothing I could do. The moment rabbi Leibel Groner would arrive, I would see to it that he addresses this.
I came back into the Rebbe’s room, trying to be completely quiet, and I immediately noticed that the Rebbe was up, with his hand out, as if asking for something. I asked the other nurse when the Rebbe had woken, and he told me that the Rebbe just woke up.
I immediately went around, to the side of the Rebbe’s bed, where I would face the Rebbe, and tried to determine what the Rebbe was asking for. I asked the Rebbe if he wanted to get out of the bed, but he shook his head, no. I asked him if he wanted to wash his hands, and again he shook his head, no. I asked him if he wanted to eat something, and again he shook his head, no. In this manner I went through about 10 questions, without getting any closer to knowing what the Rebbe was requesting. And, the Rebbe’s hand remained extended, as if to say “Nu!”.
I took a step back, and tried to come up with some other idea, when suddenly I thought of something. “Can I ask for a brocho for someone?”, and the Rebbe nodded, yes. I briefly repeated what I had heard about the situation in Australia, and asked for the Rebbe’s brocho, and the Rebbe nodded for a brocho.
I called back Rabbi Schapiro to relay what had happened, and thus the matter ended.
Sometime later, I learned the end of the story. Rabbi Schapiro tried desperately to reach his brother, but, because of the situation with the wildfires, the communication was affected, and he had difficulty getting through. Finally, he reached his brother, who immediately informed him “We had a true miracle, the fires suddenly changed direction, inexplicably, and went away from our area!”
I guess one of the lessons we learn from the story is that when there’s a Jew in need, the Rebbe doesn’t sleep. He may appear to be sleeping, sleeping comfortably, sleeping “tight”, but we can be sure of one thing: If a Jew, if any of us, is in need of anything, the Rebbe is not sleeping but looking for how to help us.
When the Rogatchover gaon was asked, by some talmidim of tomchei tmimim, to define what a Rebbe is, he replied: “What a Rebbe is I don’t know, but one thing I can say with certainty, that the “krias shma al hamitah” of a Rebbe includes assessing the situation of every chosid throughout the world, and if anyone is need of anything, he does not conclude his krias shma (and go to sleep) until he has helped him.
Undoubtedly this is one of the defining aspects of the Rebbe’s nesius; – the Rebbe could not sleep when there was a Jew anywhere with a physical or spiritual need (the Rebbe himself once commented that he can’t sleep at night because of spiritual challenges (in the area of tznius) that were facing two schools in Eretz Yisroel).
Specifically, in this story, the rebbe was concerned about a Jewish community – at the other end of the world (down under) – that was threatened by wildfires.
Fire, in general, is a good thing. In fact, the neshomo, the nefesh Elokis which is one with Hashem, is compared to a fire, נר ה’ נשמת אדם, רשפיה רשפי אש שלהבת קה and so on. This is because fire represents to burning desire of the neshomo to G-dliness, and its fiery excitement and enthusiasm for all matters of good and kedusha.
But, that is all when the fire is controlled, when it is channelled properly. If it is, ch”v, a wildfire, a fire that is out of control, then, rather than being constructive, it becomes one of the most destructive forces imaginable. That is when our fiery enthusiasm turns, instead towards physical matters and worldly pleasures. We become excited about a good vacation trip, and get all heated up about tasty foods and the like.
Such a fire is not a source of light and warmth and life, it is rather the most dangerous threat and can be all-consuming. It can threaten an individual, or it can threaten – G-d forbid – an entire community (as the gemoro relates that when R’ Yosef travelled to a place where they were immersed in worldly pleasures, not only did he not change them, but he was affected by them, to the point of forgetting his learning).
What firefighters can be employed to protect us from this terrible danger? The answer is that this is why we have a Rebbe. The world, with its attractions, is unquestionably a dangerous place. כל הדרכים בחזקת סכנה וכו’. But we have the ability to connect with the Rebbe, and be lifted up above the world, be elevated to a state in which the worldly fires no longer threaten us (as much).
It’s not enough for us to know that we have a Rebbe and to talk about the greatness of the Rebbe. The greatness of the Rebbe must have an effect and make a difference in our own lives. The Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh is to pick up every chosid, that every single chosid – every single Yid – should be associated with the Rebbe’s world and the Rebbe’s daled amos, with the world of Elokus bepshitus. But that has to come through our own efforts. Through learning the Rebbe’s Torah, through dedicating ourselves to the Rebbe’s directives, we each become more refined, more uplifted, less engulfed in the quicksand and mire of olam hazeh, which puts us in the path of these deadly fires.
This is doable and viable for single one of us, everyone on his level. The Rebbe brought down every aspect of Torah to the lowest and simplest level, so that every single person on their level can understand it and internalize it. But it’s up to us to take advantage of it, to increase in our learning the Rebbe’s Torah and following his hora’os, in a way that we internalize them and they change us and elevate us. We can’t just be learning it, going through the motions. We have to become immersed it, to study it with complete involvement, in a way that it changes our pnimiyus and makes us new people.
Gimmel Tamuz every single one of us is intensely preoccupied with increasing our hiskashrus. We all know what are the tools to hiskashrus. But we have to remember that hiskashrus is not merely about acting in a certain manner, but we need to actually become different. In chassidus we learn that when two things are bound together, there is an internal connection between them (as in ונפשו קשורה בנפשו). Our hiskashrus has to be in a way that it elevates us and changes us, so that every aspect of our being can be characterized as being mekushar to the Rebbe.
When the Rebbe senses that we are threatened by the raging fires of materialism, he does not rest until he offers us assistance. And the assistance is by extending his hand in a gesture that reminds us that we have to turn away from the world and turn to him.
We have to recognize and remember that the Rebbe, still today, is extending his hand to us and gesturing to us, – waiting for us to turn away from the mire of olam hazeh and immerse ourselves in his world that he kindly shared with us. Then we can be sure to transform the wildfires into G-dly fires of ה’ אלקיך אש אוכלה, fires that will consume the last remnants of golus and replace them with a new world of והיתה לה’ המלוכה!
L’chaim! Let us each do our part to inhabit the world that the Rebbe shared with us, and use out the special day of gimmel tamuz to increase our internal hiskashrus with the Rebbe, and may we merit to spend this Shabbos already together with the Rebbe lematoh meiasoroh tfochim, with the immediate hisgalus of Melech haMoshiach TUMYM!!!
Rabbi Akiva Wagner