(Translated from Yiddish and compiled by Hirshel Tzig at The Circus Tent. Reprinted with permission.)
There are all kinds of stories out there about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Some are nice, some are very nice and some are just, like "wow!" But even the "wow!" stories; how often does a story move you like never before? How often does it give you such a kitzel that it gives you no rest? How often does it tell you never to give up and never to lose hope? Here is one such story. You might say that there are two elements to this story, and that the point is not only what set the Rebbe apart, but also how a Jew must never lose hope.
(Photo – Mr. Natan Yellin-Mor (Friedman), columnist for the Algemeiner Journal)
Gershon Jacobson was the editor of the Yiddish-language "Algemeiner Journal" from its inception until his passing in 2005. There was a columnist in that newspaper by the name of Natan Yellin-Mor.(Friedman) Mr. Yellin-Mor was an extremely talented writer who write in both Yiddish and Hebrew, in the Algemeiner he wrote Yiddish, of course. He was a Yelid Grodno who was a member of Lechi during the Pre-State days, but switched ideological sides after the War of Independence, and even more so after the Six-Day War, when he became a sort of champion of Arab Rights. This was way before it became popular to look at Israel as occupiers. He would espouse his anti-Religious views in the Algemeiner every week, thanks to Gershon, who was a very liberal man when it came to publishing ideas and opinions. Reading his articles left you boiling mad, guaranteed. (I guess doing things for ratings is not a new concept, after all...)
In 5737 Natan Yellin-Mor came to see Gershon on the second day of Rosh Hashonoh. (Please don't ask me if he drove or walked, or if he wore a yarmulke.) Gershon took the opportunity to explain to his guest about was what about to happen later that day at 770, when the Rebbe would wash before Shkiah (evening), farbreng (have a chassidic gathering), speak divrei torah (give words of Torah), bentsh (say grace after meals), daven Maariv (pray the evening prayer), make Havdoloh (the separation from Shabbos and Yom Tov ceremony) and distribute Kos Shel Brocheh (wine from the glass used for Havdoloh – wine from the cup of blessing by the tzadik). Gershon told him to accompany him to kos shel bracha and take the opportunity to meet the Rebbe. Natan thought that idea was preposterous; "Gershon, he said, the Rebbe knows what my opinions are, and his opinions are the complete opposite of mine, he'll throw me out of his shul if I come and see him!" "Nonsense, said Gershon, the Rebbe is a Gentleman and would never do that to you. Of course he has very specific opinions, but he speaks gently and will be very happy to meet you. You'll be happy you met him." The two arrive at kos shel bracha; Gershon gets wine and then introduces Natan Yellin-Mor , telling the Rebbe "dos iz Natan Yellin-Mor." (this is Natan Yellin-Mor).
Yellin-Mor though that this was it, the Rebbe would throw him out shul, but to his surprise the Rebbe raised both his hands and exclaimed (I'm paraphrasing here) "Mr. Natan Yellin-Mor, far mir iz a greyser koved az ihr zent gekummen af ah bazuch tzu mir in shul. Ihr zent a gevaldig'e shrayber, ven ich bakum di tzeitung mitvoch ovent iz di ershte zach lein ich ayer artikel. Ich bet mechilleh fun der redakter, noch far zayn artikel. Ich bentsh aych az ihr zolt oysnutzen ayere talenten tzu lange gezunte yohren." (It’s a great honor for me that you came to me in shul. I see you’re a great writer, you’re the first article I read in the newspaper when the newspaper comes out on Sunday. And I give you a bracha that you should have long and healthy years.)
NYM almost fainted right then and there. He stood there, unable to get a word out, until he stammered, "Ihr leint meine artiklen!?" Ich farshtey nit, ihr zent maskim mit vos ich shrayb?! (You read my article?? I don’t understand, you agree with what I write????) The Rebbe smiled and said, "If I would read only what I agree with I'd have very little to read... I read lots of things, including your articles." NYM was confused; "If you don't agree with what I write why do you bless me to continue writing,?!" he asked. "One day you'll yet write the truth," the Rebbe said, "for now continue writing. Every person gets talent from G-d that he needs to utilize to its fullest, and I'd like to see you utilize that talent in the future even more than you had done until now."
Yellin-Mor was dumbfounded. He said goodbye to the Rebbe and the Rebbe responded in kind. Then he hears them calling him back. The Rebbe wants to see him again, they say. Gershon Jacobson was perplexed. Confused. Embarrassed, perhaps. Here he brings this "anti" reporter, ah Yelid Grodno who attacks Torah and Yiddishkeit every week, and the Rebbe only bentshes him, as if none of this happened. When Yellin-Mor comes back the Rebbe asks him "Now I have a question for you: What happens in your personal life as far as Torah and Mitzvos are concerned?"
NYM: "Ah Yid tracht." (A Jew tries.)
Rebbe: If you'd be 17 years old then thinking would be a great thing, but you're not. You've passed your 70th birthday. It's time to stop thinking and take action. How much longer will you delay doing something?
Yellin-Mor, when remembering the story a while later, said that he was thinking to himself at the time; "What do I tell the Rebbe, that I despise his religion? That isn't very polite. Do I tell him that I keep Torah and Mitzvos? That'd be a lie, and I don't lie. So I told the Rebbe the following: It's like the story with Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of of Berditshev.
Without batting an eyelash the Rebbe responded "That story was what he said about another Yid, you're saying it about yourself." Yellin-Mor quietly said goodbye and left. Upon arriving back to the Jacobson's home he told them how surprised he was that the Rebbe knew which story he was referring to. "There are countless stories of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of of Berditshev, but the Rebbe knew which one I meant. I was talking about the time that Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditshev saw a Yid smoking on Yom Kipper and asked him if he knew it was Yom Kipper today. The Yid answered affirmatively. "Maybe you don't realize that smoking is prohibited on Yom Kipper ?" Again, he said he knew. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditshev lifted up his holy eyes to heaven and exclaimed: "Ribono Shel Olam, look at your children, they won't lie on Yom Kippur, even if they smoke in public!" The Rebbe answered me that the story there is Rabbi Levi Yitzchok focusing on the merits of another Yid, the Yid didn't say it on himself (and therefore focus his on own faults)..." We had freedom of choice and we CAN make our own choices, but we also have the choice to change and begin to keep Torah and Mitzvos.
There was no doubt that the encounter had shaken Yellin-Mor to the core, but that was not evident in his writings. Yet. Gershon knew what the Rebbe had accomplished when meeting with people, but even he began to think that maybe the Rebbe couldn't crack a nut like Natan.
In 5740 the phone rang in GJ's office. It was NYM on the line. Sadly he was calling from the hospital. They had found "yenne machleh" (cancer) and there was nothing they could do about it; he had only months to live. He called to "say goodbye and to thank Gershon for giving him the opportunity to publish his thoughts in his newspaper, despite it not being easy and us being on opposite sides of the spectrum." Natan wanted Gershon to come visit him at the Hospital, since he had something to give him. It was an envelope.
He asked Gershon that he open it only after NYM's death. Gershon was quite surprised about this strange request and asked him about it. "You're not getting all mystical on me, now are you? You don't even believe in life after death!" But Natan was adamant and Gershon promised not to open it until his passing. "It was a pleasure working with you," Natan said. And with that they departed company, never to see each other again.
Two months after they met at the Hospital Yellin-Mor passed on. Jacobson opened the envelope soon after and found an article, ready for publication, and a note thanking Gershon for allowing him the opportunity to publish his articles in the Algemeiner. He also asks that he publish the article enclosed therein under his name, which Gershon did. The style was very dramatic; Yellin-Mor was a master and knew how to make a very good point, no matter what the topic. The article started as follows:
"I'm no longer on this Earth, I am now in the shiva medurei gehennom" (the fires of hell). He then goes to describe the hellish fire that is gehenom, using a very vivid imagination, replete with a very colorful and scolding list of fires, one more colorful and frightening than the next. The reader is scared to death just from reading it. The cynic has totally lost it. He continues: "Rabbosai, I am definitely in a gehenom like the one described here. My whole life was one long fight against Hashem and his Torah. I never believed in the Afterlife, but if there is one then you know where I am now. The fires roar here. But suddenly a great light, the Or Shivas HaYomim, which corresponds to the Shiveh Medurei Gehenom, shines through the fires and reaches the lowly place where my soul finds itself. The great light smashes the mechitzeh shel barzel (the iron barrier) that separated me from our father in heaven and conquers the depths of my essence, the pintele yid, and attempts to redeem my soul from the abyss. I believe that this great light will yet get me out of here one day. You may ask what that great light is... the light is the soul of the Manhig Yisroel UKedoshoy (the holy leader of Israel), The Lubavitcher Rebbe, shlit"a."
"Allow me to share with you a story that happened with me." Here he goes on to tell the story of his מוצאי ר"ה encounter with the Rebbe. “If I have one zechus in my life it is that meeting with the manhig yisroel who had such faith, not just a faith in Hashem, but a faith in Hashem that was so strong that he believed in me as well. He believed in my Yahadus (Jewishness) and in my power to do Tshuveh (return/repentence). Because of his faith in me, a faith that I myself did not know I possessed. because of that faith, and despite the fact that I did not know I had it in me, I now believe that light will one day shlep me out of this blutteh and bring me to the eternal light that is getlichkeit (that lights up the darkness).
A vareme grus fun gehenom." (Warm Greetings from Hell.)
Those were Natan's final words.
(Hirshel Tzig, the translator of the story from The Circus Tent blog, adds these thoughts…)
I spent time on gathering and translating this story because I wanted to give you a small window into what we "see" in the (Lubavitcher) Rebbe, which many fail to understand, whether willingly or unwillingly. This story is a prime example of what we see. It's an example of the selflessness of the Rebbe and of his life's mission, no matter who the person was and no matter how nasty he was all his life to frum Jews, including Lubavitch. We see the Rebbe saving neshomos, and literally shlepping them out of the She'ol Tachtis (the depths of hell).
There were two ways to approach this man - Natan Yellin-Mor (Friedman) and his ideas:
1) Ignore him or yell at him, which is what he expected to happen, presumably because that's what had happened to him in the past.
2) Realize that he's influential, and try and influence him so that we can influence others through him.
The former is short-sighted; and despite the fact that we THINK that we're standing up for Kvod Shomayim (the honor of heaven), most of the time we're just defending our own honor. He disagrees with us, and with our way of life, so we dislike him and run him out of town.
A wee bit of thought on the part of any man will make you come to the conclusion that the latter is the correct way to deal with it. You might even say that the approach here was a two-pronged one; influence him and revive a Jewish soul, a soul (and eyes) that saw Reb Shimon and many of the greatest Torah minds of that era, (remember, he was from Grodno...) And try and bring many people back with him by realizing that he might share his new way of life with his readers, just as he would do when he loathed Torah and Yiddishkeit. The same way that people like Uri Zohar and Amnon Yitzhak and others are considered success stories; since they had a large following in their previous life and are influential ad haYom haZeh (until today).
Then there's how these stories help us stay close, even after 16 years. And like we all know, Hiskashrus and Dveykus in Tzaddikim is crucial. It helps keeps us on the "up and up." It makes us feel warm all over. It brings us close to Hashem. It teaches us and our kids about G-d's presence on this world, which is why we have Tzaddikim doing wonders in the first place - to help Yidden and to show them Hisgalus Elokus in some form on this world. And it keeps us proud. Which is why Chassidim - and now non-Chassidim as well - tell Sippurei Tzaddikim whenever they congregate.