Of Rebbes and Stories
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
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
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 note1 that the prophet Elisha
is praised for “pouring water over the hands of Eliyahu,”2
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
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
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
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-\'e0-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
1. Berachos 7b.
2. II Kings 3:11.