By Rabbi Akiva Wagner
Rabbi Yossi Zaltzman, shliach of the Rebbe to the Russian Jews of Toronto, shared the following story about his grandfather, R’ Avrohom Zaltzman, at a recent farbrengen:
R’ Avremel Zaltzman was a yungerman about 5 years after his chasunah, and, sadly, there were no children. They had been to physicians, but to no avail. One top doctor examined them and stated unequivocally “When hair grows on my palm, then you may have children”.
It was Elul (before Tishrei of 5686 or 5687), and Avremel was filled with a great Chassidic longing to travel to Leningrad, and to spend Tishrei with the Rebbe. He approached his young wife and shared his thoughts with her, and she was fully supportive, encouraging him to indeed follow his heart, and spend the Yomim Tovim with the Rebbe.
But Avremel still looked downcast. ‘How can I go to the Rebbe empty-handed’ he asked her, ‘I must bring something to the Rebbe’,
But, while she emphasized with him, she did not see any practical solution, living as they did in abject poverty. “You can take anything from our house and pawn it to have something to bring the Rebbe. I don’t mind. But you know as well as I that our house is completely bare”.
But as she was talking to him, she noticed that he was eyeing her gold wedding band. She easily divined his thoughts, and happily removed her ring and handed it to him, telling him to get what he could for it, and bring it to the Rebbe.
Avremel was, needless to say, very embarrassed and uncomfortable about taking back his wife’s wedding ring (and becoming an “Indian giver”), but, seeing no other alternative, he accepted it. The ring was worth about 30-40 rubles, but R’ Avrohom, not being a man of business and therefore not knowing exactly how to go about getting the best price for it, decided to take it with him to Leningrad and sell it to one of the Chassidim there who deal in jewelry.
Sure enough, he made the trip, and when he arrived, he approached a fellow chosid and offered to sell him the ring. The chosid inquired as to where he had acquired it, and Avremel, put him off with meaningless platitudes.
But Chassidim, after all, are wise, and the chosid immediately ‘put two and two together’ and realized that this yungerman must be selling his wife’s wedding band in order to have something to bring to the Rebbe. The chosid, therefore, called together a few of his colleagues that evening and shared the story with them. He then places the ring on the table, and told them:
‘We will now auction off this ring. However, this will not be a standard auction; – instead, although the ring will go to the highest bidder, no-one else will get back their money. Everyone will place the amount of their bid – in cash – onto the table, and the entire accumulated sum will be handed over to the yungerman to give to the Rebbe’ (Chinese auction?)
They all complied, and when they were done, they had one thousand ruble to present to Avremel Zaltzman. The chosid who had organized the auction approached Avrohom the next day, and handed him the envelope, saying ‘the ring was sold, here is the money’. Avremel looked into the envelope, and almost fainted! A thousand ruble! ‘This is much too much’, he protested, ‘the ring was not worth more than 30 or 40 ruble’.
‘What concern is that of yours’, the chosid reprimanded him, ‘the ring was sold, now take your money’. But Avrohom was adamant; he refused to accept the money. Finally the chosid looked him in the eye, and said: “Listen, I know exactly what you did. Either you take the envelope and bring the money yourself to the Rebbe, or I will inform the entire city that you sold your wife’s wedding ring to have money to bring the Rebbe!’
The threat was effective, and Avremel took the envelope. When he entered the Rebbe’s room for yechidus, he handed over the money to the Rebbe, and then he burst into tears, and asked for a brocho for children. The Rebbe looked at him, and said “you will have children”. The Rebbe then repeated the statement, verbatim, a second time. And then a third time.
The Zaltzman’s ultimately bore 3 children, from whom are descended numerous Chassidim and shluchim today.
[After the third child, Mrs. Zaltzman wanted more children, and visited the same original physician to try to get help. The doctor looked at her and exclaimed ‘What are you doing here, I already told you that it’s impossible for you to have children?’ So she explained to him that since then she had indeed borne children, and she was visiting him because she wanted more.
The doctor was stunned to hear that, and he re-examined her. When he completed the examination he exclaimed: ‘Go to whoever gave you the last children and ask for more children, as far as I’m concerned it’s impossible for you to have children’].
There are a few beautiful ideas in this story that can be elaborated on, however there is one point that I think we should focus on now: As we begin the month of Elul, Chassidim are beginning to plan their trips to the Rebbe.
Whether it’s for Rosh Hashonah or for the entire Tishrei, whether it involves a bus, a car or a train, whether it’s a short plane ride or a transatlantic flight, each of us in our own way is anticipating spending the holy days in the daled amos of the Rebbe. For some of us, our physical presence may be required elsewhere, and the journey to the Rebbe will be a spiritual one; – regardless, each of us in our own way need to be involved in these preparations.
Of course, the preparations include ensuring that we have the funding in place, that we saved up enough money to purchase a ticket, or that we amassed enough air miles or points to get one for free. Some of us have a challenge organizing our lodging once in Crown Heights.
But, as the chosid in the story reminds us, there is another very important factor to remember. Perhaps the most important.
We surely can’t come empty-handed.
So we need to focus our effort at this time on ensuring that we have what to bring the Rebbe. And I don’t think the Rebbe wants us to bring him 30 ruble, or even 1000 ruble for that matter (especially considering that 1000 ruble today are only worth about $31). He wants us surely to present him with something meaningful. Like the chosid in the story, we should be prepared to part with something that may cause us discomfort and inconvenience, and may prove difficult to carry out.
In fact, perhaps he would like us to give our wedding band.
For aren’t we, after all, enjoined as Chassidim to grant a get, to dissolve our marriage with worldly pleasures? Is not the goal and objective of a chosid to transform our connection and union with mundane pleasures to a connection and total preoccupation with G-dly pleasures? Then, surely the best gift which we can bring to the Rebbe is a bit of practical implementation of this ideal.
This can be carried out in various ways; – through learning a little bit more and a little bit better rather that playing or relaxing; through davening a bit more intensely, to the point of disregarding our worldly concerns; or perhaps through placing our own interests aside for the sake of ahavas yisroel.
[And we have to make sure, as well, that we’re not like the guy in the following joke:
Avrohom walks into John Lewis department store and goes straight to the perfumery department. He says to an assistant, “Today is my wife Sharon’s birthday and I would like to buy her a nice bottle of French perfume.
The assistant says, “That will be a nice surprise for her.”
Avrahom replies, “It sure will – she’s expecting a diamond necklace.“
We surely don’t want to risk coming with a gift that is a surprise because it’s much less than what was expected of us. Everyone needs to properly assess his abilities and goals. And that means – amongst other things – talking to your “Rav” (remember him), and be sure that not only don’t you overestimate your goals, but you don’t either underestimate them].
The earlier we start working on it, the more we’ll be able to accomplish, and the more appropriate our gift will turn out to be. The main thing is to begin immediately, consistently, to work harder on those areas that are demanded from us to improve on (and we each know what they are for ourselves).
And in general, – to see to it that we are greeting the King in a fitting manner, which means to touch up on our kabolas oil malchus shomayim. Simply said: to act like a good Jew; – to learn and daven and serve Hashem.
And, although we don’t have ulterior motives, like the chosid in the story the one who brings the gift may actually turn out to in fact be the recipient of an infinitely greater gift. Because the extra effort we put into greeting the King, into doing something extra for our connection with the Eibishter makes us a fitting keili for all of His brochos.
Brochos in spiritual matters as well as in material matters, and first and foremost the ultimate brocho for the geulah ho’amitis vehashleima TUMYM!
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.