Wednesday, August 15, 2007

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32 Years to a Bracha

By Shifra Hendrie, excerpted from Algemeiner.Com

S. Paul, Minnesota, February, 1979: I sat in the hall waiting for the program to start. I felt alone in a room filled with hundreds of people. I had missed my ride to the country. Instead, I was here, in this hall full of chassidic Jews--a stranger in a strange land...

I grew up like any other middle-class American. I went to college, dated, had fun with my friends. Although I happened to be Jewish--and was proud of it--my Judaism didn't play a big role in my life.

My mother grew up in Chicago in an observant home. Her father, my beloved grandfather, passed away in 1973. When I was little he held me on his lap and told me stories of his own childhood--stories that seemed like fairy tales to me.

When he was six years old and his little brother only five, their parents left Europe for America to build a better life for the family. The two little boys--practically babies--were left in the old country. There, they lived and studied full time in a "yeshivah"...

At night, the children slept on benches in the school. They studied standing up so that they wouldn't fall asleep over the complex texts. All was for the purpose of passing the learning, the tradition, to the next generation in a pure and unbroken chain.

Although my grandfather's stories told of a life of struggle and sacrifice, when he spoke of his life in the old world it seemed filled with magic and beauty.

My great-grandparents worked hard, and by the time my grandfather was seventeen years old they were able to bring him and his brother to America... The foresight and self-sacrifice of his parents saved the family's lives. Some years later, when the Nazis rolled into that very village, not one person was left alive...

I loved my grandfather very, very much. But when my grandparents passed away, whatever little bit of connection to our Jewish roots my family still maintained eroded. I was no longer an adoring little child. I was a hip college student, quite disinterested in tradition or religion.

And then, out of the blue, my fifteen-year-old brother suddenly declared that he wanted to be observant. My reaction was… huh??? That's for grandparents, not for you! Judaism is beautiful, yes -- in its place. In the past.

But my brother persisted, eventually introducing me to the vast mystical world of Kabbalah and Chassidut... But it still didn't seem to feel right. The problem wasn't with the observance itself. It was me. I felt acutely and painfully out of place, caught between two worlds without a solid foot in either one.

Hardly any of my friends were Jewish. In fact, I wasn't even sure that I believed in G-d--and I was sure that if there was a G-d He wouldn't particularly notice or care about me.

So when the opportunity came up to drive to the country that Friday night with some friends I was tempted to go. But at the last minute I decided to give the Shabbat one last try. I said no.

So there I sat, that Saturday night, feeling that I had very little in common with these odd people--but still curious to get one final glimpse into their fascinating, mystical world.

The white-bearded Chassidic rabbi at the dais was a disciple of a Rebbe--a great Chassidic Master--whose passing, some 29 years before, was being commemorated this night. The Rebbe was said to be a great tzaddik--a righteous and holy man on the spiritual level of Moses himself. He was said to have the power to do miracles and the Divine insight to see into a person's soul...

The visiting rabbi, whose home was in Chicago, was known as an unusually talented speaker. Interestingly, the small chassidic community of St. Paul, Minnesota had been trying to book him, on and off, for the last ten years, but somehow it never worked out. But he was there that night. His talk began.

"It's no accident that we're all here together on this particular night," began the rabbi in a deep, sonorous voice. "The Rebbe often quoted the Baal Shem Tov, first of the chassidic masters, concerning the principle of Divine Providence. He constantly emphasized that everything a person sees, he's meant to see, and everything that he hears, he's meant to hear. He taught that whenever something happens that makes a particularly strong impression on a person, that person needs to be aware that this experience was custom-created by G-d specifically for him, in order to give him direction and insight in fulfilling his Divine mission.

"The fact that I'm here tonight--together with all of you--is surely significant."

The rabbi continued speaking. He talked about the Rebbe, telling stories of his life--stories that illuminated his greatness, his genius, his holiness, his kindness.

Then he began a story that caught my attention. In fact, it riveted me.

"In the months and years after the Holocaust," he told, "we had a fund. We collected money to distribute to the desperate refugees left in Europe after the war.

"Among those there at the time was a man by the name of Mr. Samuel Broida. He was the owner of a kosher meat packaging company in Chicago. He was also the president of our fund.

"Altogether we managed to collect $180,000; a great deal of money at that time. Mr. Broida was delegated to take the money to Europe, to help a group of refugees who had fled from Russia to a suburb of Paris. When he returned home, he told us that something had happened to him; something he would never forget.

"'When I was in Paris,' said Mr. Broida, 'I met a little boy about eight years old. I asked him if there was something I could do for him. I thought the poor little boy would ask me for shoes, clothes, food, candy, a suit, a hat… but I was wrong. He asked for none of those things. Instead, he said to me, "I want to be able go to America and see the Lubavitcher Rebbe someday."

"'I myself,' continued Mr. Broida, 'am not a follower of the Rebbe--not at all. I've heard stories of the Rebbe, of his holiness and greatness. But I didn't really believe them. I thought to myself: How is this possible? How is it possible for any human being to leave such a powerful impression on his followers, that he is more real to them than their hunger, their devastation or their poverty? And this was a small child! His answer was completely spontaneous. How it is possible that a small child, a poor child, a hungry child, wants nothing in the world but to catch a glimpse of this holy man?'

"'If a Rebbe,' concluded Mr. Broida, 'thirty years after leaving a place, leaves this kind of impression, then it has to be because he truly is the kind of human being that the world knows nothing of. The kind of human being that I had assumed could not exist. The kind of human being that is head and shoulders greater than the rest of us...'"

"After this," the rabbi said, "Mr. Broida asked me if I would take him to New York to meet the Rebbe for himself. This was 1947, just a couple of years before the Rebbe's passing. The Rebbe's health by this time was frail. He had been imprisoned and severely tortured by the Russians who found his powerful religious leadership a great threat to the communist regime. He was able to see very few people each day and there was a long waiting list--but I managed to get Mr. Broida an appointment. And he told me afterwards that it was one of the most profound and incredible experiences of his life.

"But then," continued the rabbi, "Something even more amazing happened. A Rebbe, like any person who receives the confidence of others, never repeats a word of what happens in a private audience between him and any other person. If a lawyer or a doctor is bound by confidentiality, how much more so a Rebbe! Nevertheless, after Mr. Broida saw the Rebbe, the Rebbe called me into his office to tell me about his meeting with Mr. Broida.

"'Mr. Broida came in to me today,' the Rebbe told me. 'I asked him about his business, his community work. We talked. And when we were done talking, I asked him: "And what are your children doing?" He burst into tears and told me that of his six children, none were observant anymore. I promised him,' continued the Rebbe, 'that he would have the joy of seeing his Judaism come alive again one day in his grandchildren.'

"I have often wondered since then," concluded the rabbi, "what happened to the Rebbe's promise. Mr. Broida passed away years ago and I don't know what happened to his family. But one thing I do know. The promise of a tzaddik, of a Rebbe, is never made in vain."

The speech was over. I sat in my seat with tears pouring down my face.

I knew what had happened to the Rebbe's promise.

Mr. Broida was my grandfather...

On that night, I, the agnostic, was granted a rare privilege. I was given an open glimpse of Divine Providence.

In that glimpse I saw many things. I saw the complex and awesome power and the infinite care with which G-d weaves together the events of every person's unique and personal life. I saw the awesome power of a true tzaddik, his ability to see beyond time and beyond worlds, to reach into the reservoir of souls and empower a specific soul to fulfill its destiny, to make a promise and keep it.

And finally, I saw that G-d plants messages for us all, and those messages, if we allow them to, can change our lives. Sometimes they're big and blatant, sometimes small and subtle. But they are always there if we want to see them.

Read the whole thing. I cut out some good parts to prevent it from running too long here.


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