Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Rebbe's Feelings For a Challenged Jew - Moving Encounter

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was born Friday, April 18, 1902 (11 Nissan 5662) in the Ukrainian town of Mikolaiv. Over the years this date became a monumental occasion for a Farbrengen the Rebbe held at 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad headquarters. The Rebbe’s birthday was also marked by the famous Mitzvah Tank parade that would roll through New York City while thousands of matzoth were distributed, in celebration of the upcoming Passover holiday, and hundreds of Jews would don tefillin, often for the first time.

In honor of this special day the Avner Institute would like to present a highly influential encounter from April 1981 with Aharon Levy, who worked in the Consulate General of Israel in New York City. Born crippled, Aharon suffered from many physical ailments, which he described in a letter to the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s response—which effected Aharon’s improvement—greatly shows the Rebbe’s sensitivity. We would like to thank Rabbi Tuvia Litzman, author of the popular Chassidic Gems series for the encounter.

Good Shabbos

*Rabbi Levin at the time an Israeli yeshiva student, relates the following:

Towards the end of Elul 5740 (September 1980) I arrived at 770, together with friends from Israel, to spend the year studying and being with the Rebbe. It was understood that everyone was to make the proper arrangements for his stay, materially as well as spiritually. This included a suitable place for outreach programs on Fridays, when certain hours were set aside for these activities.

I wandered from place to place for months, until I finally found my niche with the delegation of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, stationed near the United Nations, in New York City. Every Friday, after finishing the daily curriculum, six of us went to these offices in order to lay tefillin with the employees, hundreds in number. The majority of them were Israelis, and they performed this mitzvah with the help of the students while receiving a few words here and there about Judaism.

The Mitzvah

It rarely happened that someone refused to lay tefillin. Interestingly, among those who performed this mitzvah quite naturally were many who probably would have refused to do so in Israel. Here, living among so many non-Jews in the U.S., they readily agreed.

However, there were exceptions to the rule, and there were those who stubbornly refused to lay tefillin. One of them was Aharon Levy, a high-ranking emissary. During my first weeks in these offices I tried my best to get him interested, but Aharon made it abundantly clear that it was out of the question. Since no Jew could be forced to lay tefillin, I stopped trying to persuade him. Nevertheless, I would enter his room every Friday, hand him a copy of the weekly publication Likrath Shabbat, and wish him “Shabbat Shalom” with a smile.

A few months went by, and at the beginning of Tammuz (July) there was a change. When I entered his office in my usual way, he suddenly turned to me and asked me to be seated.

To my surprise he told me straight off the bat: “I want to write a letter to the Rebbe. How do you suggest I go about it?”

“Very simple,” I answered without hesitation. “Write your letter, give it to me and I will give it to the Rebbe’s secretary. If the Rebbe writes you an answer, I’ll bring it to you.”

“Very well,” he announced. “Next week the letter will be ready.”

I had no idea about what he wanted to write, nor did I attempt to ask him. Letters to the Rebbe are considered something private, and no outsider should pry without being asked.

Question & Answer

The following week, when I entered his room, I at once noticed an envelope awaiting me.

“Here is the letter,” he said, and handed me the envelope. “I want you to read it.”
“Why do you want me to read it?” I gasped.

But he was adamant. “What do you care? I want you to know what I’m writing to the Rebbe.”

I read the letter. It was short and concise. At the top were his name and his mother’s name, as I had instructed him. He added a few private facts, defining himself as “an independent cripple” (although confined to a wheelchair, with difficulty moving his hands, he functioned quite effectively in the office). He wrote about his work in the Ministry of Defense and concluded by asking for advice and encouragement.

However, he did not specify what troubled him.

After I finished reading I could not resist asking, “So what do you want from the Rebbe? What exactly do you need?”

A broad smile appeared on his face. “You don’t understand, and that’s why you are not a Rebbe. I am sure that the Rebbe will understand exactly what I want. He has to perceive everything from half a word.”

I would be the last one to argue with a man of such strong belief in the righteous. I took the letter and handed it to one of the Rebbe’s secretaries that same Friday.
On Sunday, which was the fast day of 17 Tammuz (July 19), I received a handwritten reply from the Rebbe. These were his words:

Daily observance according to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), which includes trust in G-d -- and you have merited getting a position, the purpose of which is to establish the security of the holy people in the Holy Land. I shall mention the above at the gravesite of my father-in-law.

Seeing that the Rebbe had answered so quickly, I decided I had no right to wait until the next Friday to bring the answer to Aharon. So the following day I made a special trip and handed him a copy.

Aharon took the slip of paper without saying a word, then looked it over with great concentration for an endless number of minutes. Afterwards he raised his head in my direction and said: “See? The Rebbe understood everything!”

Painful Issues

In my shortsightedness I still did not understand. I waited for an explanation.
“Look,” said Aharon, “there are two main problems that have been bothering me for a long time. The first was regarding my health. I know I am crippled. Okay, I realize that I’ll never be able to climb mountains. I have no complaints about that. However, lately I can’t even sit in my wheelchair. Every two or three weeks I have such intense attacks of pain that I have to stay in bed for a week or two. I can’t take it any more. All I want is to sit on a chair and work!

“I came to the conclusion that if G-d makes even this so difficult for me, apparently something in my connection to Him must be faulty. Who can you ask in such a matter? Only the Rebbe.

“My second problem was regarding my work. You can see for yourself that I remain here after hours when everybody has already gone home. I work way beyond my call of duty and my salary. I have devoted most of the years of my life to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, since I believe in the importance of this matter. As you well know, your efforts are not always fully valued by the people around you.

“This is my main cause of frustration. I began to think that perhaps the time has come for me to stop taking care of the whole world. If my efforts are not appreciated, it may be better for me to live my own quiet life and take care of my private affairs.

“These were the problems I wanted the Rebbe to feel when I wrote my letter to him, and, indeed, he did understand!

“Regarding my first question he answered that I should follow the Shulchan Aruch and trust in G-d. Regarding the second problem, he stressed the big merit of taking care of security matters concerning the people who live in Israel.”


When he finished, he fell into such deep thought that I did not dare disturb him. After a long period of silence he turned to me and said:

“I take it upon myself to fulfill what the Rebbe wrote to me. But please tell him that it would be too much to demand of me to start following all of the Shulchan Aruch. Tell the Rebbe that if you demand too much, you might lose all of it.”

I replied that I couldn’t simply speak to the Rebbe whenever I pleased, as he might well imagine. However, if this was not some kind of excuse but a serious problem — then he should contact the Rebbe’s secretary and ask that the Rebbe be notified.
Immediately Aharon picked up the receiver and dialed the Rebbe’s office. The secretary answered.

“Tell the Rebbe,” Aharon began, “that I don’t see myself fulfilling all of the Shulchan Aruch, since taking too much at one time might cause one to lose all of it.”
I returned to 770 and asked the secretary to let me know if an answer arrived. A few days later the secretary called me and said that the Rebbe had answered.

Before showing me the answer, the secretary asked me to explain to Aharon that as far as telling a Jew who up to now was non-observant that he should live his life according to the Shulchan Aruch, an integral part of the Shulchan Aruch is that “taking too much at one time might cause you to lose all of it” (meaning that there is no talk of concession or compromise, but of what is required of him in the beginning). These were the Rebbe’s words.

The Rebbe continued, “Be particular about kosher food and drink, be particular about laying tefillin (checked) every weekday, in accordance with the saying of our Sages: ‘A mitzvah (in itself) brings about another mitzvah,’ and an additional saying:

‘A man who possesses a hundred (coins) wants two hundred’.”

When I gave the Rebbe’s answer to Aharon, I could clearly see his pleasure. As a matter of course, I laid tefillin with him on that occasion. He also ordered a set of the highest quality.

After a few days I met him again, this time together with his wife, and we discussed various aspects regarding keeping a kosher home. They graciously accepted my suggestions.


A week passed. As was the case during the usual visits, I did not lay tefillin with him, but now it was for a different reason — he performed the mitzvah by himself at home!

Four weeks later he welcomed me with the news: “It works — I feel no pains in the meantime!” After an additional two months he informed me that his previous medical problems had disappeared.

Every time I visited his office, he spoke about the wonder. When other people were present in his room, he would also tell them the whole story.

The days went by, and time for departure came. My year of study had come to an end, and I returned to Israel. I did not hear anything from Aharon except that he had also returned to Israel.

Somehow, our connection was lately renewed. I met him in his house in Givatayim, Israel, and he proudly introduced me to his son, who was born two years earlier, after 13 years of childless marriage. A few months after our meeting, he phoned me to say that his wife was expecting her second child. His medical problems had vanished, and he found great satisfaction in his work at the Defense office, now in Tel Aviv.

And everything, as he explained, was in the merit of the Rebbe!

*Names have been changed