This is an amazing story told by Rav Shalom Dov Ber Volpe.
The following extraordinary story happened in Tishrei 5741. R’ Sholom Dovber Wolpo kept it to himself for two years, until 11 Nissan 5743. Then he decided to publicize it in Kfar Chabad. Since then, for over 35 years, the story has almost been forgotten. Now, by our request, he reviews the events as though 36 years have not passed.
He retells the story in order to strengthen hiskashrus. “If, thanks to this, one or two people will strengthen their hiskashrus and the understanding that we must obey the Rebbe without chochmos, let that be my reward.”
UNUSUAL ENCOURAGEMENT FROM THE REBBE
It began in Iyar 5740/1980. I flew with my family to New York in order to prepare the first dinner in the United States to benefit the Chabad mosdos in Kiryat Gat, which I ran at the time. The flight to the US and the dinner were the result of explicit instructions I received from the Rebbe. The Rebbe greatly supported a dinner in New York and even said to bring my family with me, though not without permission from a rav moreh horaa who approved their leaving Eretz Yisroel.
There were good friends of Anash who advised me to drop the idea of a dinner. They thought it would fail, but I was happy when the Rebbe told me to continue working on it and to have the dinner as planned. Amazingly, the Rebbe even sent a letter in English to the participants of the dinner.
At the beginning of Tammuz, after weeks of preparation, the dinner was held at the Hilton hotel in Manhattan and was very successful. The great success wasn’t only the dinner, for it also served as the launchpad for similar events to benefit the mosdos. We collaborated with philanthropists who, incredibly, helped us make connections that led to receiving a grant for $600,000 from the US Senate, thanks to the efforts of Senators Jesse Helms and Chic Hecht who even visited the yeshiva in Kiryat Gat. At the time of the dinner I didn’t know about this yet, but the Rebbe predicted this in his letter to me when he wrote, “and it will assist in receiving help from Washington.”
After Shavuos, I asked the Rebbe how I should plan for the coming months. My dilemma was whether to plan our stay in such a way that we would return to Eretz Yisroel immediately after the summer, or should we stay until after Tishrei. As far as my work for the dinner, it would be enough if I stayed until after the summer, but right after that were the Yomim Nora’im and the rest of the Yomim Tovim in Tishrei, and that year would be a Hakhel year. Like many Chassidim, we wanted the entire family to be with the Rebbe in the year of Hakhel. However, being absent from the shlichus in Kiryat Gat until after the Yomim Tovim meant I would not be there at the start of the new school year in Elul. I wrote all this to the Rebbe and asked what I should do.
The Rebbe’s response came without delay, “preference – to before the beginning of the school year.” I understood from this that the Rebbe’s view was that we should return to Eretz Yisroel before the school year which began on Rosh Chodesh Elul, so we began preparing to fly home during the month of Av. However, as the date of the flight drew nearer and Chassidim began arriving in 770, the atmosphere of Elul in the proximity of the Rebbe began to heat up, and the thought of leaving the “Gan Eden” of 770 and returning to Eretz Yisroel became difficult. And when close friends began to arrive with their wives and children, it became that much harder.
The internal struggle reached its peak when a few close friends noticed that we were packing up to leave and responded in shock, “How can it be that you are set up in the neighborhood, with good accommodations near 770, and are not taking proper advantage of it? You are going to leave now, when guests are arriving from all over the world?!”
When we shared the Rebbe’s response with them, they said that we should not think that the Rebbe meant for us to return. The Rebbe was only suggesting that returning was a “preference,” but he did not write clearly that we were to pack up and return to our place of shlichus. Some clever Chassidim concluded that the word “preference” meant that if it would be too difficult for us, we could remain in 770. And besides, a true Chassid must have mesirus nefesh in order to be by the Rebbe for Tishrei…
What finally tipped the scales in favor of remaining in Crown Heights was the exciting news that my parents had decided to spend Tishrei with the Rebbe, and who would look out for them if not us. In the beginning of the month of Elul, I wrote another letter to the Rebbe asking for permission to remain for Tishrei. Obviously, I added that I would oversee things from a distance and ensure that the operation of the educational institutions in Kiryat Gat went smoothly. I did not merit to receive a response to this letter, and sorry to say, I decided to remain.
I COULD NOT LIFT MY HEAD OUT OF THE WATER
Before Shabbos Slichos, I had to fly to California to take care of something to benefit the mosdos. I set out for the flight together with one of my friends, the renowned educator R’ Moshe Levin. We spent two days in S. Francisco, and after that we rented a car to drive to Los Angeles. I remember that the day was unusually hot, the air conditioner in the car was not working properly, and the trip was very difficult.
During the eight-hour trip, we spoke a great deal, we completed the entire T’hillim and spoke about Torah matters. During the conversation, an idea cited in a maamer about repentance and regret was brought up. My fellow traveler said that he could not really picture exactly what real regret looks like. When he said this, I was reminded of an analogy of the Alter Rebbe on this subject. The analogy is about a person who wanted to cross a frozen river to get to the other side. His friends warned him that the river was not frozen enough and there is a real concern that the ice would break and he would drown. He decided not to heed their warnings, and sure enough, the ice actually did break and he fell into the freezing waters and began to drown.
All his efforts to extricate himself were to no avail. When he felt that all hope of saving himself was lost, and it seemed to him that his end was imminent, that is when the thought kicked in, why-oh-why did I not listen to the warnings? Why did I go out on the water? “That is how real regret looks,” I concluded the analogy and added that even with the analogy it is difficult to picture real regret for someone who has never experienced such a situation.
After eight hours of exhausting travel in the heat and humidity, we arrived in Los Angeles at 1:30 in the morning and we rented a room in a small motel on the highway. Being that we were feeling somewhat out of sorts, to put it mildly, after the trip in the heavy heat, I suggested that we visit the pool in the yard of the motel and cool off in the water. We put our things down in the room and went to the pool, and seeing that nobody was around at that hour, we took off our top layer of clothing and went in.
A few seconds went by when, for no apparent reason, I suddenly felt my awareness becoming fuzzy. It felt like I was losing control and sinking to the bottom of the pool. It lasted maybe a minute which seemed like forever. When my awareness returned, I was at the point where I had no more strength and could not get out or even raise my head above the water to get some air. I hoped that my friend in the pool would realize I was in trouble and rescue me, but the seconds passed and nothing happened. I suppose he did not realize the seriousness of my situation and continued enjoying his swim.
At first I kept trying to get up and get my head out of the water, but when all my attempts failed I realized this was it. Apparently, for my many sins, I had to end my life in this pool. When there was no more hope I began making peace with the situation. My family passed before my eyes, as did my shlichus in Kiryat Gat that had turned into an empire thanks to the Rebbe’s blessings. I figured the Rebbe would make sure someone would carry on my shlichus there.
It’s hard to believe that so many thoughts passed through my mind in seconds. Only someone who experienced such a terrifying experience can understand it, when your entire life, your work and actions, pass through your head like a movie on fast-forward.
When it was clear to me that I was moving into the next world, a thought came to me. Just a short while ago, I had told my friend the analogy that the Alter Rebbe uses to explain what regret is, an analogy that was remarkably similar to the situation I was experiencing. I now understood well both the analogy and what regret actually is.
As I was losing consciousness, I pictured the Rebbe and went on to picture each of the Chabad Rebbeim. I resolved to request, when I got up above, that I only want to go to the Rebbeim …
Then suddenly, I felt a strong hand grabbing me and lifting me up. My head cleared the water for a brief second and I breathed in some clean air. I took in some oxygen and then plunged down again. This happened several times until my friend succeeded in getting me out and to the side of the pool.
For quite some time I lay there in shock from the experience that I just lived through. If he had come to save me a scant five seconds later, my lungs would already have been filled with water r”l. Boruch Hashem, I remained alive, and later it became clear that with Hashem’s kindness the lack of oxygen did not have any adverse effect on my long-term health. The first line that flashed through my head after my breathing and racing heart had stabilized somewhat was, “Hodu l’Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo.”
I thanked my friend for saving my life, and after a restful night in the motel, we returned to normal operations. We stayed in Los Angeles for two days and our mission was a success, and from there we returned to New York.
During the days that followed, I was still under the powerful impression of the drowning and miraculous rescue.
SHOCKING EARLY MORNING ARREST
Rosh HaShana passed, and then the Aseres Yemei T’shuva and Yom Kippur, and throughout this time I did not share with anyone what I had lived through. I preferred to keep this traumatic experience to myself. My prayer was that Hashem seal me in the “book of life,” and that this event had served as an atonement.
On the morning of 13 Tishrei, the yahrtzait of the Rebbe Maharash, I was driving in my Hertz rental car towards 770 for Shacharis. At the corner of Brooklyn and President there was a police car parked, and the officer signaled me to pull over. I was sure that after a quick perusal of my documents he would let me go on my way. The officer asked for my license and other documentation, returned to his patrol car, spoke to the base operator for a few moments, and then came back to me with a very serious look on his face. He instructed me to exit and lock the car and to walk back to the patrol car with him.
When I asked him what the problem was, he answered sharply that a check in the computer back at the base showed that the car was stolen, no less. I was shocked and hurried to point out to him the rental agreement between myself and the Hertz rental car company, which proves that they had entrusted the car to me. He showed no interest in trying to solve the issue, but stated that if the car is listed as stolen, then the driver of the car is assumed to be the thief. I asked him to at least allow me to stop off at 770 to get my tallis and t’fillin, but I was refused emphatically. “You need to stand before a judge who will get to the bottom of the matter,” he insisted. “The computer does not make mistakes,” he explained to me during the ride to the station, “and if it is listed in the police computer as stolen, then the one driving is the thief, and he goes to jail.”
As soon as we arrived at the station, the officer put me into a holding cell, and he only got back to me after a long wait. This was personal alone time with myself and my Maker. Afterward, they moved me to a larger cell with many other prisoners, and I found myself in the company of a murderer, a robber, and so on, from the best and finest of underworld society.
My train of thought was disrupted by the sound of keys, followed by the entrance of a group of police officers, who chained all the prisoners together, like a string of rotten fish, and took us out to the prison transport that was waiting for us outside. The windows of the bus were completely blacked out so you could not tell if it was dark or light outside. After a drive of about twenty minutes, we entered an underground parking garage and the door was opened. I quickly found myself in a new holding area. One of the officers announced that the public defender would be arriving soon, and each of the prisoners could lay out his pleas, and the defender would represent him before the judge.
The police took my fingerprints and filled out all sorts of forms about me. The entire time, I was pleading with the officers to allow me to contact 770 in order to request at least that my tallis and t’fillin be brought, but they refused.
As I continued to wait in the holding cell with the others, I brought up my request again, this time to one of the guards who miraculously agreed. With my hands in handcuffs, I gave the guard the number of the payphone in 770. He called the number, and when somebody picked up I asked them to call my friend R’ Yehuda Friedman, who of course could not believe his ears when I told him my predicament. “Don’t ask questions,” I said to him, “grab my tallis and t’fillin and come to the main courthouse in Brooklyn. I am currently locked up in the basement of the courthouse, awaiting arraignment for car theft.” I also asked him to come up with some story to tell my wife as to why I had not yet returned home.
Then I spoke with the policeman who allowed me to speak on the phone, and explained that they had incarcerated an innocent man, but he simply stated with a blank face, “Only the judge can make that decision.” I was the only Jew there and the only white person. It is hard to describe the three miserable hours I spent in cell 25 with all sorts of criminals. It seemed like forever. Then I understood the prayer, “Hoshana Shalosh sha’os …”
At some point I found a spot in a corner of the cell and concentrated on Torah ideas. I once thought that I had many Torah topics that I could review in my mind, when necessary, but I was surprised that I went through them before very long. I thought how useful it would have been if I had learned some orders of Mishna by heart. During those three nerve-wracking hours I thought about the descent of the soul into the physical animal body, and in this world itself it experiences descent after descent. I actually felt it then…
When I entered the new cell, I asked to meet with the top supervisor. After much effort, a high-level officer came to the cell. I told him that in the building was a friend of mine who had brought a bag containing my prayer shawl and phylacteries and could I have my basic right to pray. He was tough and refused. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, not that long before sunset. I saw that being polite was not helpful so I made a loud commotion. The police officers brought the cell commander and to my delight, he was nicer and agreed to my request.
I was thrilled when a short while later I saw one of the officers coming with my tallis and t’fillin bag. He handed them off for a security check and then gave them to me. I said I was unable to pray in a cell with the filth and unsavory characters around, and asked permission to be allowed to use one of the offices. Surprisingly, he agreed. I was taken to a room and was watched by an armed guard. I put on my t’fillin and tallis and davened Shacharis and Mincha. That was the first time that day that I felt uplifted.
When I met with the public defender, I explained the error that occurred either with some lowly clerk or the computer, which is why I was in jail. One phone call to Hertz would tell them that I had rented the car and it wasn’t stolen. The defender was compassionate and he said that from the get-go he knew I did not belong there. He promised to look carefully into the matter and get me out quickly.
Half an hour later I was called to the judge. The public defender in charge of my file stood there with all the paperwork that explained the mistake. The judge looked at them and heard what I had to say and then began apologizing for the error that caused me to suffer a day behind bars when, with some goodwill and caring on the part of the policeman who arrested me, they could have seen that this was a mistake. In the name of all involved and in the name of the government, the judge asked forgiveness from the rabbi visiting from Eretz Yisroel who was jailed for no reason.
I was immediately released and was asked to come back in a few days, on Hoshana Raba, in order to retrieve the formal discharge papers and other papers that affirmed that I was innocent of any crime. R’ Yehuda Friedman was impatiently waiting for me outside for hours and he brought me back to Crown Heights.
I kept this story to myself too. I made up a story about where I had disappeared to for an entire day, but the experience of being jailed, in addition to almost drowning, were on my mind and gave me no rest. I was in shock over these two traumatic incidents and realized there was likely a common reason for both occurrences.
THE REBBE EXPLAINED
I planned on flying home a few days after Simchas Torah. I felt I had to tell the Rebbe what happened. I wrote down all the details and ended the letter by saying, “I do not wonder about the suffering I endured because I know I have what to rectify, and suffering purifies, but it seems to me that this isn’t only about atonement for sins but something else, because these two incidents were not at all normal events.” I added that I wanted the Rebbe to explain it to me.
A short while later, the secretary, R’ Binyamin Klein came looking for me in 770 with an answer from the Rebbe. I saw that he was very agitated. With trembling hands I opened the note that the Rebbe wrote and was stunned. My legs shook. The Rebbe had underlined the question that I wrote that I did not understand why this had happened and wrote: You asked me a while back when to return to Eretz Yisroel and I answered clearly, before the new school year. All this happened afterward, outside of Eretz Yisroel. Since they remained here already, they should continue as needed for now, and may the disobedience be transformed into merits. Divert your mind completely from these events. Go from strength to strength, materially and spiritually, and with joy and gladness of heart.
THE MERIT IN OBEYING THE REBBE
“I think that anything I could add, will ruin it,” said R’ Wolpo. “I read the answer again and again and took in the astonishing words, ‘may the disobeying be transformed into merits.’”
R’ Wolpo hopes that Chassidim who read this story will understand, “We shouldn’t wait, G-d forbid, for the results of disobeying, in order to understand the importance of obeying the Rebbe without rationalizations and interpretations. May we merit to be worthy of all the blessings the Rebbe bestows on us and not be ashamed, until the hisgalus of the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach immediately.”
THE POWER OF A STORY
R’ Wolpo adds a fascinating postscript: In 5759 I was sitting in a restaurant in Crown Heights and drinking a cup of coffee. A young man walked in that I did not recognize. When he saw me, he came over and excitedly said, “R’ Wolpo, do you see my hat? It’s yours! You see this suit? It’s yours!” I did not know him and what he said sounded bizarre. I figured he was making a mistake but he said, “In 5743, I was learning in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. Truth be told, I wasn’t actually learning, but I was there … I was going downhill spiritually and this was obvious from how I looked. A few days before Pesach I decided to go to Tel Aviv and have some fun. I got on the bus at the stop in the center of Kfar Chabad and waited for it to depart. Then I saw someone holding the Kfar Chabad magazine. I went to the store and bought a copy. “The bus set out while I read your story in that issue. I finished reading it and shuddered. When the bus made a stop at the Holon junction, I got off, crossed the street, and waited for the bus going back to Kfar Chabad. I thought, we have such a Rebbe and I’m going to do such stupid things?! “A few days later it was Pesach, which I experienced in an elevated emotional state. After Yom Tov I went back to yeshiva and immersed myself in learning and davening, with your story guiding me the entire time. Boruch Hashem, I have a family and I try to be a Chassid. I live in Kfar Chabad and I’m mekushar to the Rebbe.”