By Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic of Crown Heights
Arriving at the Ohel last week, a gentleman came over, asking for a ride to Brooklyn. He said that since it’s so cold, he’d rather take the subway and not wait outside for the buses.
He waited till I finished saying what I came to say at the Ohel and I then gave him a ride to Crown Heights. While traveling I heard this wondrous tale: When he was six years old, in 1976, he contracted a serious disease which could not be treated in Russia, but only in Boston, at a very high cost.
Someone contacted the Rebbe, who had calls made to various sources in order to raise the needed sum. Next came the biggest hurdle—getting Soviet permission to travel to Boston for the operation. This was denied out-of-hand by the local board to which his parents applied.
His mother persevered: one of her former bosses had by then become a government official. She somehow (miraculously) got to him, and he overrode the local board. Off they went, father mother and son, to Boston, where he was hospitalized for two months.
Before returning to Russia, they went to visit the Rebbe and thank him. It was parshas Korach, and the Rebbe, who of course speaks Russian fluently, mentioned that Korah had been swallowed into the ground.
The little boy, A.B., pipes up: “Into the Metro?” (subway, in Russian), eliciting laughter from his parents.
The Rebbe said: “Don’t laugh. We sometimes gain lessons from questions raised by children.”
The lesson, as I understood it from A.B.’s recollection, was: The subway underground system is found only in big cities plagued by tremendous traffic above ground—thus facilitating faster access to various points of the city. It is also precisely the big cities (such as NYC—A.B. recollects that the Rebbe mentioned NYC) that are also plagued by an abundance of sinful destination points.
Korach would have used the subway to reach such points, but we have to make sure to use this useful system to reach only the good, rather than the evil, destination points. The Rebbe then gave A.B. two dollars to give to tzedaka (rather than the usual one dollar he gives those passing by him) telling him to give the 2nd dollar at the “kotel” in Yerushalayim.
At this, his parents reacted: “Rebbe! This is just impossible!” (in view of the current climate of those days in Soviet Russia, prohibiting travel outside of Russia).
To which the Rebbe replied: “You will yet see.”
Years passed, with A.B’s family back in Russia. Then, in ’89, the Soviet regime falls and the borders open up. A. B. visits Israel and gives his Rebbe dollar at the kotel. He then decides, while in Israel, to marry a Jewish girl he knew and they have a religious marriage with Chuppah and all.
To make a long story short, he eventually becomes an American citizen, living in Brooklyn, while she goes back to Russia.
As they never yet became legally married, for years to this day they alternate being together as visitors in Brooklyn and St. Petersburg, and are blessed with a daughter (who is presently learning in an Israeli Girls Seminary).
Now comes the interesting part. When their daughter is six years old, they happen to be visiting Haifa in Israel. It “happens” to be Parshas Korach. They are visiting a certain rabbi… who mentions about Korach being swallowed into the ground. His daughter pipes up: “into the Carmelit? (Haifa subway system is called “Carmelit”) .
Well, as you may surmise, this question jolted him back to the time he, as a six year old, stood before the Rebbe, posing the same question. He, of course, told her what he had heard from the Rebbe.
I then ask him: “Tell me A.B., are you frum, in which shul do you daven etc.”
He opens up his briefcase and shows me the Tefilin he dons daily, saying: “these give me the most trouble when I travel to St. Petersburgh to be with my wife. The dumb Russian officials will invariably question me as to whether they might be some kind of bombs!”
I then ask him: “What blessing did you ask for at the Ohel today?” to which he replied: “My mother has cancer and my father has glaucoma, so I asked for a blessing for them—and also that my wife should finally be able to join me in Brooklyn”.
I say: “For that you need a good lawyer friend of mine.” I take out my cell phone and call M.I., an expert in these matters. Unusual of him, he answers the call (his voicemail is often full to capacity) and has a 10 minute conversation with A.B., discussing all the pertinent ins and outs of his situation.
Their conversation ends precisely as I park my car at the corner of President Street and Kingston Avenue.