Sometimes, I hear a story during an interview and I can’t wait to share it; the weeks until an article will appear in print stretch out in front of me like a math period before recess.
I know, I should internalize the story, let the story bake inside of me, all that stuff they teach in writing classes. Maybe next Elul, I’ll work on that type of self-control. (Actually, I think I already committed to ka’as, or maybe gaavah for next year — one of them, anyhow. The year after, then.)
It turns out that Benny Friedman, who’s a great singer, is also a pretty good storyteller. And he casually dropped a story, a childhood memory, one afternoon this summer that is too good not to share before the holiest days of the year.
He was discussing the latent kedushah within every Jew, the fact that there is only One who can perceive what’s inside the heart of man — we know nothing.
He remembered walking with his father — noted Chabad Shliach, educator, author, and lecturer Rabbi Manis Friedman — one Erev Yom Kippur back home, in Minnesota. The Twin Cities have a sizable Russian population, and an older Russian fellow noticed the senior Rabbi Friedman.
The gentleman, not a member of the Chabad House or any other shul, wasn’t religious, but he eagerly approached the rabbi just the same. “Rebbi, I have a question,” he announced. “The doctor said I can’t fast tomorrow, that I’m not healthy enough.”
Rabbi Friedman patiently explained that if his situation was such that he had to eat, then it was Hashem’s will, just as it was His will that healthy people fast.
“Rebbi,” the Russian shook his head stubbornly, “I’m not eating on Yom Kippur.”
The rabbi tried again. The fellow pulled his cap lower, jammed his hands deeper in to his pockets, and sighed. He wasn’t eating on Yom Kippur.
Without fanfare or drama, he looked at Rabbi Friedman.
“Rebbi, when I was a young man, I was in the Red Army, on the front. We needed every morsel of food in order to live, but when Yom Kippur arrived, I knew I wasn’t eating. I skipped supper, and then breakfast. I didn’t touch food the entire day, fighting off the hunger to keep going. Finally, the sky darkened and night fell. I hurried back to the barracks to find food, any food. I had no more strength.”
Standing outside a Minnesota strip-mall, the elderly Russian Jew looked back to a different time. “I came in and rummaged for something to eat, and my friend said to me, ‘Grischa, what are you doing? You can’t eat now, it’s Yom Kippur tonight.’
“No,” I told him, “Yom Kippur was today, you’re wrong.”
“Grischa,” he said, “Yom Kippur is tonight. You have made a mistake.”
The old man paused. “Rebbi, you know what I did? I fought off hunger all over again and fasted for a second day in a row, because a Jew doesn’t eat on Yom Kippur.”
Rabbi Friedman was silent. “Grischa,” he said, laying a hand on the other Jew’s shoulder, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave you two Yom Kippurs back then, when you were young and strong, because this year you can’t fast.”
And the two Jews wished each other well and parted ways.