It was about two o'clock in the morning, and the chassidic mentor and his young students had been sharing several earnest hours of candid soul-searching around a long table at a farbrengen. As happens, the formalities of the early part of the gathering began to fall away. The melodies they were singing together became imperceptibly slower, deeper and more intense. The tone of the discussion likewise turned from the theoretical to the personal.
Reb Yoel Kahan, the elder chassid leading the gathering, turned to one of his students and quietly asked, "Nu, Yossel? How many Rebbes do you have?"
The student did not understand. Without minimizing the importance of any other contemporary tzaddikim, it is axiomatic in every chassidic group that a chassid has one Rebbe, one spiritual guide whom he has chosen to direct his personal growth.
After pausing to let his question sink in, Reb Yoel continued: "The Rebbe is a Rabbinic scholar par excellence; look at his studies of the Talmud. He is acclaimed as the generation's master in nistar, the mystical dimension of Torah study. He has introduced a new perspective on the study of Rashi, showing how his commentaries reflect the simple meaning of the Torah. His is the address to which tens of thousands turn for a blessing when they are in need, and he is a leader who takes a stance on political matters in Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere. And you can go on and on. Now how many Rebbeim do you have?
"Do you consider all of these as different qualities? Or can you perceive something deeper, a comprehensive thrust that unites all these different dimensions? Can you see all the Rebbe's different accomplishments as reflecting a single whole?"
* * *
With Reb Yoel's insight in mind, the stories contained in this book reveal a multi-dimensional picture of the Rebbe's leadership, showing many different perspectives of his personality. Our intent, however, is also to communicate something more than what is being said, to intimate to our readers an awareness of the general thrust that runs through all these different narratives.
Giving sole focus to any particular aspect of the Rebbe's personality, for example, the miracles that he works, the advice he gives people, his scholarship, narrows - and in that way, distorts - the picture of the Rebbe we all have.
Every person who has developed a relationship with the Rebbe Shlita has his own way of talking about him. But every person also realizes that his viewpoint is only a limited one and that there is something much greater about the Rebbe that he cannot describe. Nevertheless, by seeing a variety of these personal perspectives, it is possible to develop a heightened sensitivity to what that greater dimension is.
It is our feeling that stories express this best. Stories are alive. In contrast to a biography, which may often represent an academic perspective on a person's life, in stories his responses to the people and the circumstances he encounters breathe with vitality. Besides, biographies come with explicit or implied conclusions; stories quietly allow the reader to draw his own.
Storytelling is an age-old chassidic practice. The Rebbeim of Chabad would refer to chassidic stories as the Torah Shebichsav (the Written Law) of Chassidus. That name is significant, for chassidic stories, like the stories of the Patriarchs, Moshe Rabbeinu, and the other heroes of the Tanach, are "living Torah," expressions of infinite G-dly truth. Moreover, these truths are not expressed as theoretical principles, but as events occurring within the real-life framework of day-to-day experience.
In this vein, the question has frequently been asked: Why doesn't the Talmud include a tractate devoted to the subject of the love and fear of G-d? Chassidim would answer that this is unnecessary. The tzaddikim, the righteous sages of every generation, provide us with firsthand experience of these qualities, and hence there is no need to have recourse to a mere academic treatment of the subject.
Similarly, our Sages note that the prophet Elisha is praised for "pouring water over the hands of Eliyahu," and explain that sharing in the day-to-day life of a sage is even more instructive than studying with him. For it is through seeing a Torah leader's response to actual life experiences that we can plumb his inner depth and appreciate the direction and purpose with which he endows others. This kind of perception is shared through stories.
* * *
In some circles, chassidic stories are considered to belong somewhere in history. Yes, such things would happen, but in the past. In the ongoing Lubavitch tradition, chassidic storytelling is and was always a fusion of past and present, because new chassidic stories are continually taking place. Publishing this collection of stories is intended to reinforce this conception of ongoing activity, for stories show life, and one of the signs of life is continuous growth and movement.
This is of course not intended to be a complete collection of the stories told about the Rebbe Shlita. This is impossible, because as mentioned before new stories are always happening, and moreover the number of stories concerning the Rebbe would fill many volumes the size of this one. We have chosen these stories, because we feel that they contain a lesson or a directive that a reader can apply in his divine service.
* * *
The Kotzker Rebbe was wont to say, "Anyone who believes that all the stories ever told about the Baal Shem Tov actually happened is a fool. At the same time, anyone who says that it is impossible for any particular story to have taken place is a non-believer, for nothing is beyond the potential of a tzaddik."
In other words, there are inconsistencies and contradictions between one story about the Baal Shem Tov and others, so that it is impossible for all of these stories to have actually occurred. Nevertheless, every one of the stories, no matter how wondrous the miracles involved, could have transpired. For a tzaddik is uniquely able to reveal a level of spirituality that transcends the natural order.
The above adage can be applied, not only to the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, but to those involving his spiritual heirs, the chassidic Rebbeim who have continued his tradition until the present day. Since these stories have been mainly communicated by word of mouth, some particulars could have been embellished or omitted by one of the tellers, or forgotten by a listener. Nevertheless, the germ of each story, the spiritual message which it intended to convey, remained intact.
In regard to the stories recounted in this series, we have endeavored to minimize the number of inaccuracies, trying to present the details of the stories as they took place. With this intent, we have tried to check these particulars with the people involved, or at the very least, with those who heard the stories from them.
Nevertheless, when it was impossible to contact the principals, we have occasionally had to rely on second- and even third-hand narratives, and thus there is a possibility of minor inaccuracies creeping in.
* * *
Two years ago, this introduction would have ended here. At present, there is a further point which must be clarified. And, in the time-honored tradition of chassidim, we have chosen to do so via the medium of a story.
It so happens that the exchange rate of the Israeli shekel is established by the government according to the American dollar. When the dollar is strong, the shekel can be drastically devalued and in one moment, its worth vis-à-vis the dollar can change by several per cent. In regard to European currency, by contrast, the fluctuations of the shekel are more gradual.
One of the diamond merchants in the main diamond exchange in Ramat Gan, Israel, buys diamonds in Israel with American dollars. He then travels to Europe and sells them for European currency with which he returns to Israel and changes into dollars or shekels.
Once this merchant bought diamonds for dollars in Israel and sold them in Europe, returning home to Israel satisfied with his transactions. Suddenly, however, it became clear that although his actual sales had been successful, he was going to lose money on the deal. The dollar had risen sharply and the European currency he was now holding had lost a tremendous amount of its original value. What had been a comfortable profit was now a minor loss.
He didn't know how to proceed. His logic told him to accept the loss, buy dollars with his European currency despite the high rate, and proceed further. But his heart told him that maybe he would be making a mistake. Although he was not a Lubavitcher chassid, he was experienced enough in his relationship with the Rebbe to know the address to which to turn in a time of doubt.
The dealer relayed his question to a Chabad emissary in Kiryat Gat who in turn, called the Rebbe's office. Within hours, the Rebbe gave his answer; not to buy dollars.
On that very same day, one of the merchant's friends also went to the diamond exchange on his return from Europe. He found himself in the very same situation; he too had made a profit on diamonds in Europe, but now had lost money due to the change in the exchange rate.
When his friend heard about the Rebbe's answer, he asked the dealer, "Is this advice for everyone or just for you?" The dealer didn't know what to reply, so the friend picked up the telephone and asked the Rebbe's secretary to submit the same question again, but with his own name.
Shortly afterwards, together with the Rebbe's other mail, the secretary submitted this question. This time, only a few hours after the previous answer, the Rebbe gave instructions for the person to buy dollars.
The jewelry merchant was confused when he heard the answer: "Didn't the Rebbe just instruct my friend a few hours ago not to buy dollars?"
"That's right," answered the secretary. "But now the Rebbe is telling you to buy dollars."
A few weeks later, the first diamond dealer called the Rebbe's secretary and told him: "I waited until the dollar dropped once more. Thank G-d, I was able to convert my European currency into dollars with a sizable profit.
"My friend followed the Rebbe's directive and exchanged the currency for dollars immediately. On the very next day, someone approached him with a solid business venture which required immediate cash; he would accept only dollars, no other currency. My friend joined in, and profited greatly. Had he not had the dollars in his possession, he would have lost the opportunity!"
This story happened several months ago, in the fall of the previous year (5753/1993).
The Rebbe remains the Rebbe. Countless people from all over the world continue to turn to him with questions regarding their spiritual and material concerns. And they receive answers. The stories that are recorded in the pages that follow are not merely past history: they are part of an ongoing present. Indeed, the Rebbe's secretaries report that the volume of mail the Rebbe receives has increased in the last year. More people from all over the world are turning to him. And the answers they receive encourage them to write again and again.
May the vitality which the stories of the Rebbe Shlita generates in our divine service arouse Divine blessings which will bring him a complete and speedy recovery, and enable him to lead the entire Jewish people to the Redemption in the immediate future.
13 Tishrei, 5754
- (Back to text) Berachos 7b.
- (Back to text) II Kings 3:11.