When the Rebbe Empowered Exceptional Soldiers

Today, 43 years ago, the Rebbe’s addressed a group of disabled Israeli soldiers and called them “exceptional,” radically changing their mindset. The story and the sicha.

Thanks to Reb Pesach Laufer for sharing it with us.

In 5736/ 1976, Mr. Yosef Lautenberg led an Israeli delegation, made up in large part of injured IDF veterans, to the Paralympics in Toronto, and during their trip they came to visit with the Rebbe. Mr. Lautenberg himself was injured in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948, and among the founders of the IDF Disabled Veterans Organization. The Rebbe spoke to the group in Hebrew, and afterwards went over to each one of them and shook their hands. Years later, Mr. Lautenberg recalled how the group felt the Rebbe’s great empathy and they were very moved by the experience. He also attested that, as a person who spent his entire life in this field, the Rebbe’s words served as a guiding light for him. [1]

Mr. Joseph Cabiliv—who later became a successful real estate developer—was part of the group. While serving reserve duty, his legs had been severely injured and they had to be amputated. He later recounted that he was accustomed to being looked at with pain, pity, revulsion or anger. In the Rebbe’s presence, it was the first time that he encountered true empathy. When the Rebbe came to shake his hand after the address, he felt the Rebbe gaze deeply into his eyes, press his hand firmly, and say “Thank you” with a slight nod. In Mr. Cabiliv’s words, “I later learned that he had said something different to each one of us; to me he said ‘Thank you’… With those two words, the Rebbe erased all the bitterness and despair that had accumulated in my heart. I carried the Rebbe’s ‘Thank you’ back to Israel, and I carry it with me to this very day.”[2]

The Rebbe, as a leader who was exemplary in his care and sensitivity for every individual, utilized the opportunity to encourage and guide these disabled veterans how to cope with their challenges with a positive frame of mind. He explained that when someone has a physical weakness or lacking, it is proof that the Creator has endowed him or her with special spiritual powers which enable him to overcome and succeed where the ordinary person cannot.

These people should not be called “handicapped,” indicating inferiority. To the contrary, they are “exceptional.” They have the ability to be a living example of joy and self-confidence, and express how every Jewish man and woman—regardless of their physical or bodily state—possesses a Divine soul which enables them to overcome any limitations.

In the Rebbe’s words:

Listen to Rebbe speaking to the soldiers.

Transcending Time and Place

I will speak in the Ashkenazic pronunciation, to which I am accustomed, but I hope that everyone will understand.

When Jews meet, it is customary to begin with a blessing. The foremost blessing is one of peace, thus the greeting, “Shalom Aleichem! Peace unto you!”

When Jews from several locations and countries meet, this is a cause for joy. Particularly so when Jews from the Holy Land—“on which ­G‑d’s Eyes are focused from the beginning of the year to its end”[3]—meet with Jews who live, for the time being, in the Diaspora. Notwithstanding being exiled from our land and living in the Diaspora, the physical distance does not truly separate us. Despite being “scattered and dispersed among the nations,”[4] we remain “one people” through our “distinct laws”—the laws of Torah—given to us by the one G‑d. This is what unites us all, underscoring our ability to lift ourselves above the limitation of place.  

We are not separate entities that happened to meet by chance. Quite the contrary, we are one entity (“one people”) which happens to be dispersed and scattered throughout the Diaspora, or in different parts of the Holy Land. When we get together, our inner truth is revealed, that we are all part of one people.

Moreover, just as we can unite by rising above the confines of place, so too are we able to unite by transcending the limitation of time. This is the secret to the power and eternity of Am Yisroel. We are “the fewest amongst the nations”[5] only when considering a particular time and place. However, all Jews, from the experience at Sinai until the end of generations, are intertwined[6] to the point that we constitute one entity, one nation, thus we are numerous and powerful quantitatively as well.

Our ability to transcend the bounds of place and time stems from a Jew’s innate ability to elevate the spiritual over the physical and quality over quantity. For this reason, despite being a minority, we did not agree to assimilate under any circumstances—even though it meant, at certain times in history, Jews giving up their lives. In prosperous times as well, when we were invited and pressured to remove the distinguishing barriers by adopting the lifestyle of our non-Jewish neighbors, we steadfastly held to the principle that we are a unique and special people. Even though we were a minority, we elevated quality over quantity, thus imbuing our quantity with the strength of our quality.

Exceptional, not Handicapped

This brings us to the next point: When, for some reason, a person is lacking in the physical sense (i.e. quantitatively)—all the more so if their injury was a result of doing something positive, especially by sacrificing themselves in defense of the Jewish people, and particularly in the Holy Land—it is not reason to be dejected, G‑d forbid. Quite the contrary: The fact that they are lacking in this regard, by no fault of their own, is proof that the Creator endowed them with special spiritual energy, which enables them to overcome that which ordinary eyes perceive as a physical, bodily lacking. Furthermore, they can demonstrate that they are not only equal to those around them, but they also have superior spirit which enables them to achieve and rise in important and good areas, succeeding above and beyond the ordinary person, notwithstanding their apparent physical shortcoming.

For this reason, I do not approve of the term “handicapped” being used, as it suggests some type of inferiority. To the contrary, we must emphasize that they are considered special and exceptional by the Creator, Who endowed them with special energies above and beyond the capacity of an ordinary individual; thus they can overcome hardships and obstacles which an ordinary person cannot overcome.

In keeping with the “Jewish custom” of offering advice even in areas that are not quite one’s own business, I would like to suggest that the name be changed from “handicapped” (petzu’im) to “exceptional” (metzuyanim), whether they are exceptional by cause of war, or otherwise. This term also calls to mind the teaching of our Sages that when our ancestors were exiled in Egypt, “they were distinctive (metzuyanim) there.”[7]

This change in name is not merely semantics, but rather describes the situation in the truest way. The very name highlights their unique and outstanding qualities which give them the ability to be a living example. With joy and self-confidence, they demonstrate how every Jewish man and woman—regardless of their physical or bodily state—possesses a soul which is “an actual part of G‑d above”[8] (in the words of the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad Chassidism), and that this Divine soul ultimately overcomes the limitations of the body, with the body acting in alignment with the soul’s directives.

The Joy Imperative

The above underscores another fundamental area in Torah, especially as it is elucidated in the teachings of Chassidism. Because the Torah requires of us to “serve G‑d with joy,”[9] and our service of G‑d encompasses our entire lifetime, it follows that we are provided with the ability to be in a state of joy throughout our entire life.

When a person encounters difficulties, it arouses within him hidden powers that surface and become active. This enables him to proceed with happiness—notwithstanding the obstacles—and fulfill his mission of increasing light, spirituality and holiness in the world. Doing so will spread recognition of G‑d in the world, and that His commands and way of life are accessible to everyone to be fulfilled in a joyful manner.

As mentioned above, a Jew has the ability to transcend the limitations of time and place. Nevertheless, the goal is to accomplish the above within the framework of time and place. The place in which we find ourselves is a place of prayer and Torah study. The present time is the conclusion of the month of Av when we mourn the destruction of the Temple, and we are approaching the month of Elul when we prepare for the coming year, may it be good for us and for all the Jewish people.

The Alter Rebbe explains[10] that during the month of Elul, when each person is preparing himself to merit a positive verdict for the coming year, G‑d makes it easier and assists him. In the terminology of the Alter Rebbe, G‑d makes Himself accessible like a king in the field. When the king is in his palace, entry to submit requests is very restricted. However, when the king goes out into the field, there is no need to gain permission from the various officers, rather each and every person can approach the king directly—regardless of how he is dressed—and the king receives him with a smiling countenance. The king patiently listens to his requests, and ensures that they will be taken care of.

May it be G‑d’s will that just as the month of Av is concluding, similarly all aspects of destruction should cease. Through each individual illuminating his life with Torah and holiness and building his personal Beis Hamikdash, this will hasten the conclusion of the exile and the redemption through Moshiach who will build the Beis Hamikdash. Until this happens, each and every one should be blessed with a good and sweet year.

Spiritual and Practical Security

In line with another Jewish “custom,” I will conclude with a request, and I hope that every man and women here will receive my request graciously. The recent incidents perpetrated by terrorists in Uganda and Istanbul—as well as prior and subsequent attacks—require of us to intensify practical measures of security, which is connected with intensified spiritual security. This is, first and foremost, connected with the mitzvah of mezuzah.

I request that on your return to the Holy Land, each of you check that your mezuzos are all kosher and in the proper position, so that the mitzvah will be fulfilled properly. I would consider it a great honor if you would accept a gift from me through my representatives in the Holy Land: If those present will leave their addresses, you will each be visited at home by my representatives there who will assist in checking the mezuzos and affixing them to the doorposts. They will also bring additional mezuzos for those who need. …the mitzvah of mezuzah will certainly arouse and reveal G‑d’s protection over every Jewish man and woman, wherever they may be. In the words of Dovid Hamelech, “G‑d will guard your goings and comings, now and for all time.”[11]

The Handshake – Five and Five

Since we began with one Jewish custom, let us conclude with another: When two Jews meet, it is customary to extend one’s hand. This highlights the difference between “the hands of Eisav”[12] and the hands of Bnei Yisroel. The hands of Eisav engage in war, terror, destruction and the like. Whereas when Jews meet, they take each other’s hand, expressing the fact that they are united as one.

There is an allusion to this in the Torah: When the Ten Commandments were given, five were engraved on one Tablet and five on the other. Thus, when two Jews shake hands, the five fingers of one person meet the five fingers of the other, and together, they reflect the Ten Commandments. They also reflect the Ten Divine Utterances by which G‑d created the world and G‑d’s Divine Providence over every single individual wherever [he or she] may be.

Therefore, before we conclude, I would be honored if I could greet each of you individually with a “Shalom Aleichem.” May your return to the Holy Land be in a successful and auspicious time, as planned. May it also be a true “aliyah”—the term commonly used—to Eretz Yisroel, an ascent in every sense of the word: both in your personal lives and in your public activities. Finally, the ultimate blessing is that G‑d fulfill His promise: “I shall set peace upon the Land”[13] as well as upon the entire world, in addition to the promises: “You will sleep securely, with no one to fear; and I will lead you with your heads held high.”[14] May every man and woman here, amongst the entire Jewish people, merit very soon the true and complete redemption through our righteous Moshiach.

You should all be blessed with a good and sweet year, and may we all meet again soon, with the coming of Moshiach. Then, we will also be united with our fellow Jews who are scattered amongst the nations, for “a great multitude will return”[15] to the Holy Land, speedily and joyfully. At that time, “G‑d will be King,” in a calm and peaceful manner, and everlasting joy will reign. 

I would also be honored to present each one of you with a dollar … I thank you in advance if you would donate it to tzedakah when you return to the Holy Land.

May each and every one of you be blessed in all that you need, both materially and spiritually, and in the spirit of the mission of the eternal Am Yisroel (as discussed earlier): to elevate the spiritual over the physical, form over matter and the soul over the body. This will be the true victory for the Torah in Eretz Yisroel and throughout the entire world, when all nations of the world will recognize that we were justified in our struggle throughout the ages to preserve our existence and distinction; despite our dispersion, we remained one nation, living by our one Torah, given to us by the true and one G‑d.

With blessing and many thanks for the great honor you have given me through your visit. May it be G‑d’s will that you succeed many times over in bringing joy, light and Judaism to every place you will visit in the Diaspora and afterwards in the Holy Land as well.

[Following the address, the Rebbe extended his hand to each one with the greeting “Shalom Aleichem,” and gave each one a dollar to give to tzedakah. Before leaving, the Rebbe wished everyone a good and sweet year.]

[1] See an interview with him at http://www.chabad.org/2349213

[2] http://www.chabad.org/1202

[3] Devarim 11:12.

[4] Esther 3:8.

[5] Devarim 7:7.

[6] Based on the Talmudic phrase (Shevuos 39a) “Areivim zeh bazeh.”

[7] Sifri, Ki Savo §31, quoted in Pesach Hagadah.

[8] Tanya, beginning of ch. 2.

[9] Tehillim 100:2.

[10] Likutei Torah, Re’eh, 32b.

[11] Tehillim 121:8.

[12] Bereishis 27:22.

[13] Vayikra 26:6.

[14] Vayikra 26:6; 26:5; 26:13.

[15] Yirmiyahu 31:7.

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