“No, I’m not a follower of the Rebbe,” the scholarly looking man confided in me. “As a matter of fact I am the head of a Kollel (an intensive adult Torah study program) and my lifestyle is far from chassidic. But I do recognize greatness….”
I sat back to listen as the man related his tale:
“I was born in Paris after World War II, about forty-five years ago. I remained an only son, as my parents were already middle-aged. Even when I was young, I sensed that my parents were withholding some secret about my birth.
I became engaged at the age of twenty-four. A short while before my wedding, my father, may he rest in peace, disclosed the story. I can still see him, as he sat close to me, with tears coming to his eyes when he lifted the veil of confidence from his long-kept secret.
“My parents were among the lucky Polish Jews who escaped to Russia during World War II. They joined bands of homeless refugees who wandered from place to place until they arrived in the city of Tashkent in the Carpathian Mountains. Tashkent was a temporary haven for refugees, including many Lubavitcher chassidim.
“My father always spoke highly of the Lubavitchers whom he had met in Tashkent. Self-sacrifice was their way of life. They offered assistance and support beyond their means. Their prayers reflected a deep commitment to Judaism. But most outstanding was their intense struggle to educate the young, despite their hardships during those difficult years.”
My acquaintance paused, as if he was reflecting upon his father’s tale, and then he returned to his story:
“My father was already nearly fifty years old, and my mother was about forty, when the war ended. They wanted to establish a home. Fortunately, being Polish citizens, they were able to leave Russia. They mingled with the migrating masses who were crossing Europe, and eventually made their home in Paris. They were grateful for having survived, but they faced the pain of childlessness after twenty years of marriage.
“In those days, Paris was a melting pot of refugees, and my parents were delighted to come across former acquaintances. Among them were some Lubavitcher chassidim whom they had befriended in Tashkent.
“One day, shortly after my parents arrived in Paris, my father met a beaming Lubavitcher chassid. ‘We’ve merited a great guest in town. Rabbi Schneerson, the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, has arrived in Paris. He came to welcome his mother, Rebbetzin Chanah Schneerson , who just left Russia.’
“On several occasions, my father met Rabbi Schneerson in the shul at the Pletzel in Paris and talked with him. My father was a learned scholar, and he cherished these talks with Rabbi Schneerson. During one of those conversations, Rabbi Schneerson inquired about my father’s experiences during the war. When he touched upon the topic of family, my father tearfully explained that he did not have children.
“With compassion in eyes, Rabbi Schneerson gripped my father’s hand warmly, and blessed him, ‘May G‑d enable you to fulfill the mitzvah of Vehigadeta levincha (“Relate to your children…”) next year.’
“The following year, I was two months old when Pesach approached. Two more years passed, and my parents emigrated from Europe to Israel. From the time I can remember, the Seder has always been an emotional experience for my father. He always expounded upon avadim hayinu patiently, extensively, and with much love and joy.
“I could not appreciate my father’s intensity at the Seder until he disclosed the story of my birth.”
My acquaintance was visibly moved as he retold his father’s story. I could see his eyes glistening at the edges. Before I could think of an appropriate response, he waved his hand as if beckoning me not to interrupt.
“And that’s not all,” he exclaimed. “Three years ago, my daughter married a yeshivah student from Lakewood, New Jersey. She was due to give birth the following Pesach. We had planned a family trip to the States to spend the holiday together, and celebrate the arrival of our grandchild. My wife arrived a month earlier to assist my daughter, while my younger children and I arrived in New Jersey a week before Pesach.
“At that time, I told my son-in-law, ‘I would like to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe and have my younger son receive his blessing.’
“My son-in-law was less enthusiastic. His home community did not have many followers of the Rebbe, and he felt no need to make the two-hour journey. I, however, was not to be dissuaded. When my son-in-law saw that I was intent on going, he told me about the opportunity to meet briefly with the Rebbe on Sunday morning, when the Rebbe distributes dollars to be given to charity. I readily agreed, and my son-in-law arranged a ride into Brooklyn for me and my young son.
“We neared “770”, and we were amazed to see a winding, block-long line of people waiting to see the Rebbe. During those hours in which we waited our turn, I told the miraculous story of my birth to my son.
“He was very moved to hear the story. ‘I was surprised that you were so determined to come here,” he said, “and I did not know why you were willing to wait so long. Time has always been very precious to you. Now I understand.’
“Finally, after hours of slowly inching forward, we reached a point from where we could see the distinguished and impressive appearance of the Rebbe. There was a tangible spirit of divinity in the air. I was amazed at the Rebbe’s alertness, despite many hours of speaking to the thousands of people who passed by. He blessed each one and handed out tzedakah personally.
“Though the line of people passed quickly, I could see that some of them said something to the Rebbe and that he responded. I hadn’t planned to say anything. I just wanted to see and approach the Rebbe once. ‘Maybe it was my personal need to thank him for the blessing that he gave my parents, which culminated in my birth,’ I thought to myself.
“Our turn arrived more quickly than I had anticipated. The Rebbe gave my son, who was standing before me, a dollar. Brochah v’hatzlachah , the Rebbe said. Then he asked him in Yiddish. ‘Are you ready to ask the Four Questions?’ My son was caught by surprise, not having expected the Rebbe to address him. Sensing his surprise, the attendant explained the question.
“My son regained his composure and responded, ‘Yes.’ The Rebbe smiled and handed him another dollar. ‘This is for the Four Questions’ he said.
“As I approached the Rebbe, he handed me a dollar saying: ‘Brochah v’hatzlachah.’ He handed me a second dollar, ‘for the answer to the Four Questions.’ Then he gave me a deeply penetrating look, and with a tremendous smile he added: ‘And for Vehigadeta levincha. ’ ”
To Know And To Care - R' Eli Touger