Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Case of the Missing Week

Imagine sitting at the same table opposite the holiest rabbi of the generation, close enough so you can see into his eyes and near enough to catch every sound he makes. Your attention is peaked to listen to everything he now has to say.

The time of year adds more lift to your adrenaline rush. It's the 2nd day of Shavuot, the holiday we celebrate to commemorate the fabulous gift God gave us - the holy Torah. God gave it to us, we His people, and the leader of the generation, the best representative of that holiness, is now about to deliver, at this opportune time, words of Torah. And you know it is as if God Himself speaks from the throat of this holy man.

This informal get-together took place 71 years ago, as the Previous Rebbe sat with chassidim, on the 7th of Sivan. He began by speaking of the habits of Jews, that they constitute Torah as well. Then he spoke of the custom to greet Shabbat early and escorting it out late, thereby extending the holy day beyond 24 hours.

Then he said this, "I don't mean to get into complicated reasoning; I just want to be frank and clear. The world's custom is, in preparation for a guest, that we begin to prepare long before the guest's arrival. Two weeks earlier we get the house in order, and we clean out all the corners. The entire household speaks about it, and they tell their neighbors too about the guest that's due to arrive."

After a slight pause he said, "For the time is now soon that Moshiach arrives, so we must prepare for the guest."

"We must wash and purify; We must wash and clean for the guest who's coming. We must clean ourselves, our household, where we eat, where we sleep, where we sit; We clean everywhere, everyone as best he can, rabbis, workers, businessmen, students, everyone according to his conditions." Then he spoke on other topics.

Upon reading this talk (Sefer Hasichot, 5701, p.129), which transpired on the 7th of Sivan, I was taken aback. It was on the 28th of Sivan that the present Rebbe set foot on American soil. But the Previous Rebbe had everyone believe this event was - two, not 3, weeks away! How could the Previous Rebbe, a man of divine insight ("ruach hakodesh") be off by one week?

I asked a rabbi friend, who found part of the answer in the book "Yemai Melech", vol. 1, pp. 535-6. There it describes the short interlude of history that occurred between the talk and the Rebbe's arrival. And the late Rabbi Tzvi Meir Steinmetz, ע‫''‬ה, a friend of Rabbi David Halberstam, who knew the Rebbe when he too was in Paris, told me what Rabbi Halberstam told him, which filled in more details of the story.

This happened in 1941, with World War II erupting. The Rebbe and Rebbetzin sailed from France to Portugal. From there they stole their way into Barcelona, Spain. Many sought urgently to get tickets to sail to America, which were hard to come by. The couple did as well, and succeeded. A short time before the embarkation day, the Rebbe received a telegram from his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, telling them not to take that ship. They heeded the Previous Rebbe's exhortation. The danger of sailing waxed, because German U-boats patrolled the seas, but, by the grace of God, the couple managed to find tickets for yet another ship that would set sail from Barcelona to America a week hence. The ship arrived safely to New York City.

Now we know the cause for the Rebbe's one-week delay in arriving. As for the ship they opted out from, it was captured by Mussolini, and its passengers remained in captivity until the Fascists surrendered years later at the end of the war.

(Rabbi Steinmetz, who retold the story, tells of his friend's amazement, not so much of the Previous Rebbe's ruach hakodesh, but of the unquestioning simplicity with which the Rebbe and Rebbetzin discarded the tickets in heeding the Previous Rebbe's words.)

(See this short video of that eventful day the Rebbe arrived to America, here.)

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