The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who passed away in 1950, on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Shevat.
S. Paul, Minnesota, February, 1979
I sat in the hall waiting for the program to start. I felt alone in a room filled with hundreds of people. I had missed my ride to the country. Instead, I was here, in this hall full of chassidic Jews--a stranger in a strange land...
A World That Was
I grew up like any other middle-class American. I went to college, dated, had fun with my friends. Although I happened to be Jewish--and was proud of it--my Judaism didn't play a big role in my life.
My mother grew up in Chicago in an observant home. Her father, my beloved grandfather, passed away in 1973. When I was little he held me on his lap and told me stories of his own childhood--stories that seemed like fairy tales to me.
When he was six years old and his little brother only five, their parents left Europe for America to build a better life for the family. The two little boys--practically babies--were left in the old country. There, they lived and studied full time in a "yeshivah"--the kind of traditional Jewish school that didn't exist in America at that time.
The village they lived in was extremely poor, and their school had no budget for feeding the kids. The villagers helped out by opening their homes and sharing what little they had. Often that little was almost nothing.
At night, the children slept on benches in the school. They studied standing up so that they wouldn't fall asleep over the complex texts. All was for the purpose of passing the learning, the tradition, to the next generation in a pure and unbroken chain.
Although my grandfather's stories told of a life of struggle and sacrifice, when he spoke of his life in the old world it seemed filled with magic and beauty.
My great-grandparents worked hard, and by the time my grandfather was seventeen years old they were able to bring him and his brother to America. When he saw his mother for the first time in America, he was an adult. He didn't recognize her.
Nonetheless, the foresight and self-sacrifice of his parents saved the family's lives. Some years later, when the Nazis rolled into that very village, not one person was left alive. The pictures of my grandfather's lost village, Eisheshuk, now cover the tower of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. They tell the story of a world that once was and is no more.
I loved my grandfather very, very much. But my grandparents had passed away several years before, and whatever little bit of connection to our Jewish roots my family still maintained was eroding. I was no longer an adoring little child. I was a hip college student, quite disinterested in tradition or religion.
And then, out of the blue, my fifteen-year-old brother suddenly declared that he wanted to be observant. My reaction was… huh??? That's for grandparents, not for you! Judaism is beautiful, yes -- in its place. In the past.
My Journey Begins
But my brother persisted, eventually introducing me to the vast mystical world of Kabbalah and Chassidut. Once I began to study, I was exposed to a profound and fascinating wisdom that was unlike anything I had seen or heard anywhere else. I sensed a truth that I couldn't deny. I began--tentatively--to eat kosher food and observe the Sabbath. But it still didn't seem to feel right. The problem wasn't with the observance itself. It was me. I felt acutely and painfully out of place, caught between two worlds without a solid foot in either one.
Hardly any of my friends were Jewish. In fact, I wasn't even sure that I believed in G-d--and I was sure that if there was a G-d He wouldn't particularly notice or care about me.
So when the opportunity came up to drive to the country that Friday night with some friends I was tempted to go. But at the last minute I decided to give the Shabbat one last try. I said no.
So there I sat, that Saturday night, feeling that I had very little in common with these odd people--but still curious to get one final glimpse into their fascinating, mystical world.
The Rebbe's Disciple
The white-bearded Chassidic rabbi at the dais was a disciple of a Rebbe--a great Chassidic Master--whose passing, some 29 years before, was being commemorated this night. The Rebbe was said to be a great tzaddik--a righteous and holy man on the spiritual level of Moses himself. He was said to have the power to do miracles and the Divine insight to see into a person's soul.
His successor, who was living in Brooklyn, was the spiritual leader of the global Chabad Chassidic movement and was said to have, if anything, even greater spiritual stature and powers than his predecessor.
The visiting rabbi, whose home was in Chicago, was known as an unusually talented speaker. Interestingly, the small chassidic community of St. Paul, Minnesota had been trying to book him, on and off, for the last ten years, but somehow it never worked out. But he was there that night. His talk began.
There Are No Accidents
"It's no accident that we're all here together on this particular night," began the rabbi in a deep, sonorous voice. "The Rebbe often quoted the Baal Shem Tov, first of the chassidic masters, concerning the principle of Divine Providence. He constantly emphasized that everything a person sees, he's meant to see, and everything that he hears, he's meant to hear. He taught that whenever something happens that makes a particularly strong impression on a person, that person needs to be aware that this experience was custom-created by G-d specifically for him, in order to give him direction and insight in fulfilling his Divine mission.
"The fact that I'm here tonight--together with all of you--is surely significant."
The rabbi continued speaking. He talked about the Rebbe, telling stories of his life--stories that illuminated his greatness, his genius, his holiness, his kindness.
Then he began a story that caught my attention. In fact, it riveted me.
"In the months and years after the Holocaust," he told, "we had a fund. We collected money to distribute to the desperate refugees left in Europe after the war.
"Among those there at the time was a man by the name of Mr. Samuel Broida. He was the owner of a kosher meat packaging company in Chicago. He was also the president of our fund.
"Altogether we managed to collect $180,000; a great deal of money at that time. Mr. Broida was delegated to take the money to Europe, to help a group of refugees who had fled from Russia to a suburb of Paris. When he returned home, he told us that something had happened to him; something he would never forget.
"'When I was in Paris,' said Mr. Broida, 'I met a little boy about eight years old. I asked him if there was something I could do for him. I thought the poor little boy would ask me for shoes, clothes, food, candy, a suit, a hat… but I was wrong. He asked for none of those things. Instead, he said to me, "I want to be able go to America and see the Lubavitcher Rebbe someday."
"'I myself,' continued Mr. Broida, 'am not a follower of the Rebbe--not at all. I've heard stories of the Rebbe, of his holiness and greatness. But I didn't really believe them. I thought to myself: How is this possible? How is it possible for any human being to leave such a powerful impression on his followers, that he is more real to them than their hunger, their devastation or their poverty? And this was a small child! His answer was completely spontaneous. How it is possible that a small child, a poor child, a hungry child, wants nothing in the world but to catch a glimpse of this holy man?'
"'If a Rebbe,' concluded Mr. Broida, 'thirty years after leaving a place, leaves this kind of impression, then it has to be because he truly is the kind of human being that the world knows nothing of. The kind of human being that I had assumed could not exist. The kind of human being that is head and shoulders greater than the rest of us...'"
The Rebbe's Promise
"After this," the rabbi said, "Mr. Broida asked me if I would take him to New York to meet the Rebbe for himself. This was 1947, just a couple of years before the Rebbe's passing. The Rebbe's health by this time was frail. He had been imprisoned and severely tortured by the Russians who found his powerful religious leadership a great threat to the communist regime. He was able to see very few people each day and there was a long waiting list--but I managed to get Mr. Broida an appointment. And he told me afterwards that it was one of the most profound and incredible experiences of his life.
"But then," continued the rabbi, "Something even more amazing happened. A Rebbe, like any person who receives the confidence of others, never repeats a word of what happens in a private audience between him and any other person. If a lawyer or a doctor is bound by confidentiality, how much more so a Rebbe! Nevertheless, after Mr. Broida saw the Rebbe, the Rebbe called me into his office to tell me about his meeting with Mr. Broida.
"'Mr. Broida came in to me today,' the Rebbe told me. 'I asked him about his business, his community work. We talked. And when we were done talking, I asked him: "And what are your children doing?" He burst into tears and told me that of his six children, none were observant anymore. I promised him,' continued the Rebbe, 'that he would have the joy of seeing his Judaism come alive again one day in his grandchildren.'
"I have often wondered since then," concluded the rabbi, "what happened to the Rebbe's promise. Mr. Broida passed away years ago and I don't know what happened to his family. But one thing I do know. The promise of a tzaddik, of a Rebbe, is never made in vain."
The speech was over. I sat in my seat with tears pouring down my face.
I knew what had happened to the Rebbe's promise.
Mr. Broida was my grandfather.
The Other Side of the Tapestry
The rabbi began that night his talk with a discussion of Divine Providence. That was no accident. Nothing ever is.
Though he was only in his fifties, this rabbi--Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Hecht of Chicago--unexpectedly passed away a short few months after that evening. If he had not been there at that time, if I had taken the Friday night ride to the country, if he had told a different story, if he had told this one and just not mentioned my grandfather's name… I would be living an entirely different life. And you would not be reading these words today.
Our lives are like the reverse side of a great tapestry. From the back, all we can see are the knots, the imperfections, some bumps, some smears of color. It all looks random and chaotic.
Only from the front side of the tapestry is it possible to see how it all fits together. From the front you can see that every stitch and every knot forms an integral part of a vast, magnificent picture.
In life, for the most part, we only see the back of the tapestry. We have to use our intuition, our knowledge, our wisdom, to try to fit the parts together, to guess at the picture that might be on the other side.
But on that night, I, the agnostic, was granted a rare privilege. I was given an open glimpse of it.
In that glimpse I saw many things. I saw the complex and awesome power of Divine Providence and the infinite care with which G-d weaves together the events of every person's unique and personal life. I saw the awesome power of a true tzaddik, his ability to see beyond time and beyond worlds, to reach into the reservoir of souls and empower a specific soul to fulfill its destiny, to make a promise and keep it.
And finally, I saw that G-d plants messages for us all, and those messages, if we allow them to, can change our lives. Sometimes they're big and blatant, sometimes small and subtle. But they are always there if we want to see them.
When I stumbled over my destiny I wasn't expecting it. In fact, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I wasn't even sure that I believed in G-d. But when I ran headlong into an alternate plane of reality, I saw clearly that it was vaster, deeper and far more compelling than anything I had believed possible before.
Racing Toward Destiny
That was in 1979. Since then, more than my own life has changed. During the past 28 years, the train of history has traveled many stops en route to its ultimate destination. And its speed is accelerating day by day.
We are living today in the times spoken of by sages and prophets. This is a time of transition between the old order and the new. It is a time of crisis and of awesome possibility. The potential of these times is unprecedented--both for good and ill. During these times we can choose to remain small, confused and helpless--or, instead, to embrace the G-d-given power that each of us has been given to change the world for good.
If we choose to turn our backs on our messages, we remain like wanderers in the dark, confused, isolated and disempowered. But if we choose instead to open our eyes, to see and hear those messages, to put the pieces of the puzzle together and see the picture as it actually is, it can make all the difference--not only for us personally, but for the world at large.
*) Shifra Hendrie specializes in helping talented, spiritually-minded people create breakthrough results in their lives, businesses and relationships through a combination of spiritual wisdom and cutting-edge coaching tools. To read more of her articles, listen to audio classes or download her course, “Seven Kabbalah Secrets that Can Change Your Life”, visit www.KabbalahOfTransformation.com.