By Rabbi Akiva Wagner
Rabbi Reuven Dunin of blessed memory was a one-of-a-kind Chassid, shliach, and mashpia (chassidic mentor)—Someone truly unique.
He made his first acquaintance with Chabad when he walked into the study hall of the Chabad Yeshivah, Tomchei T’mimim, in Lud Israel wearing khaki shorts. Something completely out of place to the environment there.
Later, he went to the Rebbe and became utterly bound (mekushar) to him. The Rebbe reciprocated with great love towards him and treated him as only very few Chassidim were treated.
Indeed, there are countless stories that portray his unique relationship with the Rebbe; following is one incident of many:
On one of the first occasions that R’ Reuven visited the Rebbe, he was present during a time when the Rebbe davened (prayed) in 770, the Chabad center headquarters. While the Rebbe was davening, R’ Reuven observed that shoe was not properly on; the back of the shoe was bent in and the laces were undone.
[For many years the Rebbe had suffered great pains in his foot, preventing him from being able to put on that shoe properly. In fact, in the year 5747, when a custom-made car was manufactured for the Rebbe’s use (a gift that the Rebbe subsequently declined), one of the features it was built with was one that would accommodate the Rebbe’s foot ailment].
R’ Reuven assumed that the Rebbe had been in a rush to come to minyan, and did not have ample time to put on his shoe properly. Ever the devoted chosid, he immediately decided to rectify the situation himself.
Thus, as the Rebbe davened, R’ Reuven crawled onto the floor by his feet, opened the shoe, pulled it over the Rebbe’s feet, and tied the laces.
However, as soon as the Rebbe completed his davening, he motioned to R’ Reuven that the shoe had in fact been that way intentionally. R’ Reuven didn’t hesitate, and immediately got back onto the floor and crawled over to the Rebbe’s shoe and restored it to its’ earlier state.
In truth, many of us often make the same mistake as R’ Reuven. We see situations that – to our perception – are not the way they should be. We see areas in which we can ‘help out’, where our input can improve the situation.
Unfortunately, we often don’t realize or acknowledge that Hashem knows precisely what he’s doing, and everything – as incongruous as it may appear to our limited vision – is exactly according to plan. The best – and only – way for us to ‘help out’ is by following our instructions.
The story is told of a man, we’ll call him Chaim, who rode up to the border on a motorcycle, with a large crate on the back.
“Any alcohol or tobacco?” the border guard asked him, after inspecting his papers.
“No” said Chaim.
“Any gifts or articles of value that you purchased that you’re bringing over the border?”
“And what are you carrying in that crate?”
“Sand” said Chaim.
The border guard looked at him incredulously. “Are you telling me that crate is filled with sand?”
“That’s right”, Chaim told him.
“And why, pray tell, are you transporting a crate full of sand over the border?”
“Well, you see I’m building myself a new home in Canada, and I find that the sand from the States is much better for building, so I’m bringing over this sand to use for the construction”.
The border guard burst out laughing. “You must think I’m really gullible if you’re trying to sell me a story like that. Go over to customs, they’ll do a thorough inspection of your crate, and we’ll find out what you’re really up to.”
Chaim drove over to customs, parked his motorcycle, and brought his crate over to the guards, who had already been radioed in advance of his arrival. They took the crate and wend through the contents meticulously, they put it through metal detectors and had the trained dogs sniff at it; but try as they might, they could not find it to contain anything but sand.
Finally, they had no choice but to let him go. “I just know you’re up to something here”, the guard told him as they parted, “you watch yourself, I’ll get to the bottom of this yet!”
Two days later, the border guard looked up to see Chaim drive up again, with his brand new motorcycle, and an even bigger crate. “What are you carrying this time?” the guard growled at him.
“I already told you, it’s sand”, replied Chaim with a disarming smile, “and I already explained you why I need it”.
“Nonsense, I don’t believe a word of it, bring the crate over to customs, they’ll get to the bottom of it this time!”
But once again, the lengthy search proved fruitless, and at the end they had to begrudgingly let him go.
To make a long story short – this repeated itself every few days, over a period of a number of months. Every time Chaim came to the border he was searched and investigated, but nothing significant was ever discovered. Most of the officers were ready to conclude that he was an eccentric individual, and this was one of his idiosyncrasies. However, the original border guard was convinced that this was not the case; he had found Chaim to be an intelligent and down to earth fellow, and he was convinced that there was some explanation to his conduct.
One day, Chaim turned to the border guard with a big smile: “Well good bye now, you won’t be seeing me anymore, as today is the last of these trips that I’ll be making.”
The border guard began to plead with him: “I’m begging you, share with me the secret behind your trips. I promise you no harm will befall you. I just there’s some explanation, and I feel that I must know it!”
Chaim acquiesced. “It’s all very simple”, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve been smuggling motorcycles. Every day I crossed with a brand new motorcycle, and now I’ve accumulated enough to open my motorcycle store. You’ve all been so preoccupied with the crates – which were in fact crates of sand – that you never gave the vehicle a second glance!”
Let us try to develop the story a bit. Let’s assume that Chaim is a courier; he’s been hired to drive over the border with a crate of sand. Now, let’s assume that Chaim was himself not explained the real purpose of his trips.
It is very conceivable for Chaim to stop and think: “This is ridiculous. Instead of making 50 trips with a motorcycle, I’m going to rent a truck, and fill it with 50n crates of sand, and drive it across the border at one time.”
Yet, we all know what would be the result of such a decision – of Chaim trying to ‘help out’; the result would be nothing, nothing would be achieved, and the entire project would be foiled.
There are many areas where we may conclude that we can ‘help out’.
‘It’s ridiculous to wake up at 6:45 and then be tired the whole day. I could accomplish much more if I wake up a bit later. I’ll actually be ‘helping out’ the G-d that way’.
‘It’s ridiculous to restrict ourselves to saying only 4 times L’chayim by a farbrengen. That can’t accomplish anything. If we get everyone to say just a bit more L’chayim, we’ll be able to get them so much more inspired. There will undoubtedly be much better results, much more reselutions etc.; we’ll actually be ‘helping out’ the Eibishter that way.’
And so on and so forth. There are many ways to ‘help out’ if we judge by our limited – and erroneous – perception. But there’s only one true way of ‘helping out’ – by following instructions precisely.
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We all know the allegory that in the month of Elul the King is in the field and everyone is permitted and able to greet him. An allegory that is discussed, analyzed, and dissected extensively in chassidic discourses and essays. The Rebbe attaches supreme importance to every single seeming minor detail of the allegory.
At the same time, we have to remember to focus on (one of) the main point of the allegory: The idea of greeting the King is an analogy to accepting the yoke of Heaven. The tremendous opportunity of Elul, of being permitted and enabled to greet the king, is an opportunity for Kabolas Ol (accepting G-d’s kingship), no more and no less. As the dictum goes “the rest is interpretation.”
The definition of Kabolas Ol (accepting the yoke) is: אזוי אזוי און ניט אנדערש (“Exactly this is what must be done, no different”).
It consists of following our directives precisely and unquestioningly. There is a time, primarily in Tishrei, when the King is in his palace, in all of his glory and splendor. Then is a time when we deal with our feelings towards the King, with our sense of awe and devotion.
But Elul is not a time to focus on feelings, it is a time to just do. Never mind what seems right to you or what makes sense to you. Now is the time to act as subjects of the Almighty, by putting our entire being aside, and subjugating ourselves fully to our King.
This is a time when we are all beginning to sense the new aura of solemnity in the atmosphere. It is a time when we scramble to find positive resolutions; ways to increase in our Jewish practice to try to be better for the new year.
It is a time when it would do us well to bear in mind that the best resolution – the primary mission of Elul – is accepting G-d’s yoke.
It doesn’t matter in what it is expressed, the main thing is to re-establish and reaffirm our realization and commitment to be true subjects to Hashem, for whom the only thing that is important is obeying the instructions of our Master and King.
As the Rebbe writes in a maamor; although this service may be dry and un-glamorous, although it may be only surface-deep and not penetrating to our inner feelings and emotions, nonetheless it is most precious to Hashem, it is “extremely precious in the eyes of G-d.”
And as a result of the enjoyment Hashem derives from our accepting His yoke, He greets us all with increased friendliness and happiness, and an increased readiness to bless us all with a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, and to fulfill all of our requests, and especially the request for the immediate revelation of Moshiach!
Rabbi Akiva Wagner is the Rosh Yeshivah and dean of Yeshivas Lubavitch Toronto. He is known for his brilliant lectures and his passionate farbrengens. As a fiery example of what a chassid ought to be, he serves as a mentor for thousands.