By Rabbi Shmully Hecht for COLlive
This past summer I was asked to officiate at the wedding of a young man who is a fighter pilot and commands one of Israel’s elite F16 squadrons. For security purposes I would rather not mention his name.
I met this man last year at Yale and we have since become personal friends. Along with his lovely wife we have spent many hundreds of hours together in meaningful dialogue, Torah study, dinners in our home and Jewish celebrations at the institutions we are involved with at Yale.
At his wedding In Israel I met his parents, both in their 70s, and both Holocaust survivors. While sitting and conversing at the wedding his dad mentioned that he was so happy his son had met me at Yale and that we had become friends.
Although the family didn’t consider themselves by any means observant , he mentioned that he had already had a long relationship with Chabad.
This connection was solely by virtue of having carried a picture of the Rebbe in his wallet for many years. He carried the photo despite never having actually met the Rebbe, didn’t believe in miracles, was by no means observant, and made sure to remind me that the sound of the Israeli Airforce over the skies of Israel were the guarantee that the Nazis had lost and the Jewish people were destined to survive.
I asked him why a self proclaimed non-believer would carry around a photo of a holy and righteous man and what value this could possibly have. He told me that he had been in the hospital many years back for a procedure that was extremely risky and the doctors were not sure if he would survive.
Interestingly, when he woke up from the surgery he found a photo of the Rebbe on his bed that seemingly someone had left for him. He had no idea nor did he ever find out who that person may have been.
While recovering from surgery he looked at the photo and assumed his survival was somewhat connected to this holy man, ultimately realizing it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and despite not knowing who had left it, he put it in his pocket and never left home without it since.
Sitting at the wedding he then took the picture of the Rebbe out of his pocket and showed it to me and then the groom as he explained that he had never told anyone, including his children, the story and that he carried this photo with him every day of his life.
A few weeks ago, the young man emailed me that his father’s wallet was misplaced and asked me to send him another photo to forward to his dad. I told him that I was returning to Israel for yet another wedding and it would be my honor to visit his father again and personally give him a photo of the Rebbe.
On the last day of my trip, I went to this man’s house to visit him and deliver the photo of the Rebbe. I knew this would be a great opportunity to ask him to do a mitzvah and while sitting in his living room I started a conversation about putting on Tefilin.
We talked for quite a while and I listened to him explain that he was a historical, philosophical, intellectual, Jew but by no means a religious or observant one and had no reason or intent in performing a religious ritual with me.
I then asked him to repeat the story of the Rebbe’s picture and challenged his agnosticism and refusal to put on Tefilin by virtue of his the need to have a photo of the Rebbe in his wallet.
But then he told me that the story in the hospital actually happened 3 times. Yes, three times he had been at the hospital for serious procedures and each time someone had left a photo of the Rebbe at his bed. And so he felt compelled to get the new photo. He then told me that there was one other reason he could not put on Tefilin with me.
While holding back his tears this distinguished looking man with silver white hair began to speak in a broken voice and old European Yiddish accent. He leaned back on his couch and gazed at the ceiling as my brother sitting to my right, the taxi driver to my left and his wife across the coffee table all leaned forward to listen to why he had no reason to pray to G-d. And then he said.
On the eve of Yom Kippur 1973, he had gone to Shul in Tel Aviv for Kol Nidrei. The rabbi got up at the pulpit and declared that there was going to be a terrible war the following day and that everyone should prepare. He was sitting in the synagogue that Yom Kipur eve with three friends, each of whom had an only child, all of whom were young men. And then he stared into my eyes and softly whispered that those three sons never came back from the battlefield.
I felt the power of this amazing man, amazing father, amazing Jew, challenge me with the type of question we often have no answers for. But then I said: “Reb Yid, when I went to the store on Friday to buy you the one picture of the Rebbe you asked your son to have me buy, I couldn’t decide which one you would like, so I actually bought you three. God saved you three times and these three young men gave their lives for Am Yisroel. I put my hand into the bag and showed him the three photos. He rolled up his sleeve. We put on Tefillin. He prayed. The taxi driver rolled up his sleeve, put on Tefillin and he prayed. We all cried and hugged and then we said goodbye.
Rabbi Shmully Hecht is the Founder of Eliezer at Yale and Chabad at Yale