Friday, March 18, 2011

A Moving Purim Encounter with the Rebbe

As Purim approaches, the Avner Institute would like to present a moving encounter that took place at a Purim Farbrengen in the early 1970s, when an Israeli yeshiva student who had strayed a bit too far came back, with the Rebbe’s help. With special thanks to author and scholar Rabbi Michoel Seligson, and to Rabbi Levin.
Photo Collection

The Rebbe Archive would like to a Photo of the Rebbe at a Purim Farbrgen 1959.

Good Shabbos

To Reveal a Soul

It was the mid-1970s. At that time I was 19 years old and like every other religious boy from Jerusalem—long coat, long peyos, a fuzz of a beard. My brothers and I went to Eitz Chaim Yeshiva. I was a good student, and it wasn't long before people began to suggest marriage proposals to my parents.

After a few months, I set out for New York to meet someone. Soon we got engaged and a summer wedding was planned. My parents wanted us to live in Jerusalem. Her parents wanted New York. They finally said, "Let the young couple decide."

But we couldn't decide. Arguments broke out and by Passover the engagement was broken.

I was devastated. My family was devastated, too. My parents insisted that I return to Israel, but I couldn't face returning alone. And so I stayed in America.
A friend of mine, also from Jerusalem, told me that he had a job offer in Cleveland. It sounded good so I joined him.
New Lifestyle

It was a different life for me there. Little by little, I began to leave my upbringing behind. I changed my long coat for a short jacket, shaved my beard, and was encouraged by my new friends to try other new things in America. Everything.
I couldn't bring myself to tell my parents of my new lifestyle. They only knew that I was in Cleveland, studying and working.

At Purim time I visited relatives living in Crown Heights, long before it was a Lubavitcher neighborhood. They almost didn't recognize me. After eating the Purim meal I decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air.

Suddenly, I saw two Chasidim running like crazy.

"What happened? Where's the fire?" I asked.

The boy called out, "We're going to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's farbrengen."

"Where?" I asked, and he pointed out the place.

I followed him inside, and saw hundreds of Chasidim listening to a man who I assumed was the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

It was hot and crowded, and I soon wanted to leave. This was no place for me. But as soon as this thought popped into my head, the talk ended, and hearty singing broke out and I was caught up.

“Seen . . . but not Close”

Suddenly, all fell quiet. The Rebbe was speaking again. He spoke about the World to Come, Moshiach, and that of all the Jewish holidays, only Purim would remain in the future. I don't remember everything, but I was fascinated with his beautiful explanation. It struck me when he said that on Purim every Jew's neshama, his soul, is revealed much more than even on Yom Kippur.

With a creeping awareness, I felt that the Rebbe was talking about me. He said that the Evil Inclination is a talented artisan, an expert in his field. First, he comes to a young man and convinces him to leave the yeshiva and go to work, because after all, Torah and work go hand in hand. Then he convinces the boy that America is different from all other places; he has to fit in, in order to make it. Then he tells him that "time is money": don't worry so much about prayer and putting on tefilin. The Rebbe carefully described my descent, step by step, and concluded by saying that even Yom Kippur isn't enough to arouse this youth.

But then comes Purim, self-sacrifice. A Jew says, "I will not bow down." His neshama reveals itself, and he is able to climb out of the pit.

As the Rebbe spoke, my face was burning. I knew the Rebbe described me well. I hastened to reassure myself: even though all the details fit, there was just no way the Rebbe could even see me. It was a coincidence. I was momentarily soothed.

But the Rebbe continued, "Particularly when the young man comes from Israel, from Jerusalem. It's possible that he is to be found here, even though he thinks that we don't see him. Close but not seen. Seen, but...not close."

The only thing that calmed me now was that no one understood except for me. No one was searching for a young man from Jerusalem in the crowd.
Drink of Life

At that moment, the Rebbe stopped speaking and the lively singing recommenced. Men called out "l'chaim" to the Rebbe, and I too, felt in need of a little external fortification. I looked up.

Everyone was looking at me. The Rebbe was looking straight at me. He indicated that I should say "l'chaim." A man gave me some vodka in a shot glass, but the Rebbe insisted -- a large cup.

There was no way I could drink it, and I said so. The man said, "Just make the l'chaim." I did and took a sip, but the Rebbe motioned for me to finish the whole cup. When I had finished, head reeling, he said, "Again." I drank the second cup to the end.

I don't remember anything else, just waking up on a bench, surrounded by sleeping Chasidim. It was early morning.
I never told anyone what happened that day. It stayed a secret between the Rebbe and me.

Today, I live in Jerusalem, with my religious wife and beautiful children. I have come back to America. Each time I wanted to go to the Rebbe, to thank him. But each time I was afraid. How could I approach someone who looked through me as if I were made of glass?

This year I came to the Rebbe. Somehow, I got up the chutzpa. I stood there at the Ohel, and whispered to the wind, and the walls, and the one who knows me so well. And I finally told the Rebbe, "Thank you."

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