Book Review By Yochanan Gordon
There are multiple Hebrew terms for the word “story,” including ma’aseh and sippur. On Pesach, when we recount the narrative of the Exodus, it is termed “sippur yetzias Mitzrayim.” The word sippur is a derivative of the Hebrew word for sapphire or illuminate. The Sefer Yetzirah states that the world was created with a book, a sapphire, and a story.
The Torah commences with stories. The whole book of Bereishis is replete with stories—the story of creation, the story of the first man, his wife, his children and their children, Noach, Avraham, etc. Why was it necessary for G‑d to begin the Torah, the book of laws and guidance, with stories? Apparently there is a depth conveyed through stories that cannot be communicated any other way.
The Maggid of Mezeritch, in his sefer Maggid Devarav L’Yaakov, explains that when a father wants to spend meaningful time with his young children, it wouldn’t be enough for him to philosophize with them or discuss his expertise with them, because of the great intellectual gulf that separates them. The most meaningful expression of fatherly love and compassion is when a father descends to the level of his children, engaging with them at their own level.
In a sense this is what makes the book My Story, published by Jewish Educational Media, so important. Through 41 simple but deeply moving and profound stories, the reader comes face-to-face with an aspect of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s persona that may not emerge throughout his intellectual tomes.
However, this book accomplishes something else equally important. The Jewish world at large—that is, outside of Chassidic society and, more specifically, outside the world of Chabad—has never been able to distinguish between the Lubavitcher Rebbe and other rebbes or other great Torah luminaries. Throughout the stories in this book, one can easily highlight a clear distinction, which is what brought so many people to the Rebbe’s doorstep when they were most in need of a blessing, his sage advice, or his words of empowerment. The Rebbe possessed what is known in Chassidic works as a neshamah klalis, an all-encompassing soul. There is a saying of Chazal that the general principle is an amalgamation of all of its specificities. What that means in this case is that the souls of all the Jews are fragments of the Rebbe’s soul. This explains a lot of things.
In many of the stories, the subjects come to realize that the Rebbe was aware of certain things that no one had ever told him. So how could he know these things? Unquestionably, it’s because the Rebbe possessed ruach ha’kodesh, and if we understand that the souls of all the Jews are bound up in his soul, it all begins to make that much more sense.
In the preface of this book, a midrash is cited regarding Moshe Rabbeinu. The Midrash states, “Several of our nation’s earliest leaders began as shepherds. G‑d did not choose them for their focused adherence to His mission—though they certainly fulfilled His will dutifully—nor for their vision, genius, or even ability to influence others. They were deemed worthy of the responsibility because of how they tended to their sheep. Once, as he cared for his flock, Moses saw a young lamb wander away. As it ran through a thicket to a small watering hole, Moses gave chase and then waited as the lamb drank. After it had quenched its thirst, he gently lifted the sheep onto his shoulders and carried it back to the flock. Said G‑d, ‘Since you tended to your flock with such love and devotion, by your life, I swear you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.’”
From the first story in this book, the Rebbe’s love of every Jew comes out. Herbert Wolinsky grew up in a traditional Jewish family. Around the time of the Holocaust, he was studying to become a dentist. Because of his medical expertise, he was assigned to an Army specialized training unit which required that he come to work in uniform, but he was not active on the frontlines. After the war, Herb opened up a practice in Brooklyn, but after three years it still had not taken off. On top of that, his mother was suffering a heart condition and his wife had postpartum depression. And then he began receiving reenlistment letters from the U.S. Army to join the Korean War, at a time when he was needed most at home.
He retells how he had a patient who was a chassid of Lubavitch who had urged him to seek the counsel and blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It was 1950, shortly after the passing of the previous Rebbe and before the Ramash’s ascension to the position of Rebbe. After setting up an appointment and enduring a significant wait, he entered the Rebbe’s office and laid out all of his issues.
First he spoke about his mother’s heart issue; the Rebbe asked him a few questions about her medical care and concluded that the doctors would be able to help her. Next he discussed his wife’s depression, and the Rebbe said that when she was ready he had a good psychiatrist who would be able to help her.
Lastly, he discussed his financial woes and the letters from the Army. The Rebbe inquired into his religious background, and he replied that he was influenced by his maternal grandfather, who was a Stoliner chassid and in whose presence his family was much more adherent to the Jewish way of life. However, his father’s background was less religious and his business operated on Shabbos. So when Herbert Wolinsky set up his dental practice in Brooklyn, it wasn’t a question whether his office would be open on Shabbos—besides, Saturday was typically the busiest day in his profession.
Despite this, he spoke warmly and glowingly about his grandfather and how he had taught Herb to say Shema before going to sleep, telling him that it would cause him to rest well. The Rebbe encouraged him to continue to say Shema but then made two other requests of him: that he begin to put on tefillin daily and that he close his practice on Shabbos.
Shortly after that meeting, Wolinsky received notice that his records had been transferred from the Army to the Navy. Furthermore, after he starting closing his practice for Shabbos, his office began to see more patients, which Mr. Wolinsky attributes to the blessing that the Rebbe gave him during that meeting.
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While I relished all of the stories in this book—which I urge you to read in full—a few stood out in my mind and I would like to highlight some of them here.
“Sensitive Souls,” retold by Yosef Segal of Colel Tzemach Tzedek in Jerusalem, is about the great relationship between the Rebbe and the Bais Yisrael of Gur. Rabbi Segal tells of his trip during the 1960s to join a charter flight from Israel to New York to spend the Yamim Nora’im by the Rebbe.
“Despite always being a follower of Chabad, I had developed a close relationship to Reb Yisrael Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe and I decided to inform him of my plans to spend Yamim Nora’im by the Rebbe in New York. Upon hearing this, he requested that I do him a personal favor and convey his blessings to the Rebbe for a sweet and successful new year. After arriving in New York, I met with the Rebbe and when I concluded all of my personal matters, I conveyed the Gerrer Rebbe’s wishes to the Rebbe. As soon as the Rebbe heard the words ‘My wish is that he be inscribed for a good year’ in the name of the Bais Yisrael, he rose from his chair and answered, ‘Amen! May G‑d grant that the blessings we all wish each other be fulfilled.’”
He continues: “I returned to Jerusalem after the conclusion of the month of Tishrei and the very next day received a message that the Gerrer Rebbe was looking for me. I went to see him after Shabbat had ended. When I entered, he was still sitting in his Shabbat attire, his face radiant. He greeted me warmly. ‘Tell me something interesting that the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught you.’
“‘Do you mean something he said by the Chassidic gatherings?’ I asked.
“‘No, tell me something he said during the yom tov meals,’ he specified. I could tell that he was waiting to hear something specific . . .
“Present at the meal were several distinguished rabbis, some who had made the trip from Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe turned to them and asked, ‘Maybe you could issue a rabbinic ruling that Mashiach should arrive immediately.’ In response, the most senior among them humbly replied, ‘Who are we? If the Rebbe agrees that Mashiach should arrive now, that should be enough!’
“The Rebbe’s face looked crestfallen as he sighed. ‘You are waiting for my agreement?’ Apparently one of the other rabbis must have kicked this rabbi under the table because he quickly backtracked: ‘No, no, we do agree. Mashiach should come now.’ But clearly it was too late, the Rebbe did not react.
“As I was recounting this story, I noticed that the Gerrer Rebbe, who was listening intently so as not to miss a single word, had become quite agitated. I saw that his eyes were red, welling up in tears. I was truly shaken, having never seen him this way.
“I continued with my story. I told him that several days later, on the night of Sukkot, I was again present at a holiday meal with the Rebbe—this time in the sukkah. The rabbis from Israel were there again, as well. They began discussing a halachic question: Were Israeli yeshiva students—who normally observed one day of yom tov in Israel—obligated to adopt the practice of the Diaspora and observe two days while spending yom tov in America?
“Before they could finish presenting the question to the Rebbe, the Rebbe said quietly, ‘The second day of yom tov? Why, you could have completely avoided it!’ As if to say that had they immediately issued the ruling after Yom Kippur that Mashiach must come now, then the second day of the holiday would have been annulled, since Mashiach would have come! As I concluded this story, I saw that two tears rolled down the Gerrer Rebbe’s cheeks. He said, ‘Nu, may it be for good.’”
• • •
No one understood the value of a Jewish soul like the Rebbe. No one understood the value and potency that a p’sak halachah had like the Rebbe—clearly not even the rabbis who passed on the opportunity to bring Mashiach. But having just observed the 23rd yahrzeit of the Rebbe, we have new opportunities to renew our connection to him. And that is in large part due to the great dedication and selflessness of the JEM team who have enabled a generation growing up without the Rebbe’s physical grandeur to live with him, as well as to add a new dimension even for those who grew up around the Rebbe. And although this book comprises the stories of 41 individuals and their seemingly personal meetings with the Rebbe, their stories are our stories because through this book and similar works, it is clear that the Rebbe continues to live through us and we thereby continue to be blessed and impacted by his great soul.
My Story is a must-read for anyone seeking to renew their connection to G‑d, the Torah, and the Jewish people.