Chassidic Story #223

(s5762-19 / 8 Shvat 5762)
A RESERVED CHAIR
"No one may sit in that chair!” the elderly man exclaimed. (A story
of the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes)

A RESERVED CHAIR

One day in 5717 (1957), Michil Vishetsky entered a shul in the Bronx (he was making the rounds of the synagogues to raise money for Ezras Achim, an American organization which sent food packages to Jews in Russia). The only person on the premises was an old Jew, who was sitting off to the side, immersed in a volume of Talmud. He turned out to be Rabbi Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the shul. When R. Michel asked to speak to him, the Rabbi led him to a table that he explained was used for the third Shabbos meal.

The Rabbi sat down on a chair along the side of the table. When Reb Michel happened to sit at the head of the table near him, the Rabbi jumped up and asked Reb Michel to please move to another chair. "No one may sit in that chair!" the elderly man exclaimed.

"Why is that?" asked the curious chassid.

"It is a long story, but if you have time, I am happy to tell you," said the Rabbi.

"I am from Poland, from a chassidic family. When World War II broke out, I managed to escape across the Russian border. There I fell in with a large group of Chabad chassidim who were headed for Samarkand in Buchara. When I saw the great sacrifices they made for Torah and mizvot, I became very close to them with all my heart and soul.

"When the war ended, I flitted from one place to another. Eventually, in 1949, I arrived in New York.

"Since I had heard so much from those Russian Chassidim about Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, I wanted to visit him. When I was able to enter for yechidus (private audience) and mentioned to the Rebbe about my war experiences, the Rebbe asked me many questions about the situation of the chassidim I had met. When I related him the hardship and suffering I had witnessed, he started to cry in front of me.

"After that, the Rebbe asked me about my plans. 'I have always been a Rabbi,' I answered him, 'but here in America nobody seems to need an European-style Rabbi, so I will probably take a factory job.'

" 'No,' the Rebbe said to me firmly, 'You must remain in a Torah framework; you should continue to serve as a Rabbi.'

"I accepted his holy advice and began to look for a rabbinic position. I was unable to find anything. I went back to the Rebbe and reported my lack of success, but he insisted that I be determined and continue to search. Finally, I discovered this shul. The members all spoke Yiddish. They seemed to like me and decided to offer me the position.

"I traveled back to Brooklyn to consult the Rebbe if I should accept. He gave me a strange reply: 'A shul is a shul, but I don't like the shames,' were his words.

"I asked him again what I should do, but the Rebbe only repeated his words. I couldn't understand so I asked him a third time, but the reply was the same thing. Finally he agreed for me to accept the offer.

"After I started the job and was there a while, I found out the meaning of the Rebbe's previously incomprehensible statement. The shammes (manager of the shul) had a long beard and an impressive appearance, but I quickly discovered that his behavior did not measure up. Then, once, when Shabbos had already begun, I found him lighting candles in the shul! I screamed at him. After that, he seemed to devote himself to making trouble for me, both in shul procedures and with the congregants.

"After a while, I felt I couldn't tolerate it any more. I went to see the Rebbe, this time asking his permission to quit. 'No,' he replied, 'Didn't I tell you: A shul is a shul, but I don't like the shammes. Don't leave.'

"The situation continued to worsen. The shammes succeeded to make my life even more miserable. Once more I ran back to the Rebbe. 'G-d will help,' he assured me. 'Remember a shul is a shul, with everything that belongs to it.'

"As I was leaving, the Rebbe called to me at the door, 'Also, you should come here Sunday morning.'

"I didn't know why he said that, but I came that Sunday anyway. A huge funeral was taking place. The day before, on Shabbos, the 10th of Shvat 5750, the Rebbe passed away. Then I understood: he knew I would want to be there.
* * *

"A year passed, but the situation remained oppressive. I heard that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's younger son-in-law had accepted to be the next Rebbe, so I went to visit him and told him my problem. To my surprise, as soon as finished speaking he responded, 'Isn't it so that my father-in-law told you that a shul is a shul and he didn't like the shames?'

"I was stunned speechless. How did he know? The Rebbe continued. 'This means that he can't remain the shammes, because my father-in-law doesn't approve!'

" 'But,' I interjected, 'it is impossible for me to fire him.'

" 'Nu. When you catch him doing something wrong,' smiled the Rebbe, 'then you can dismiss him.'

"I left the Rebbe's office and returned to the Bronx. There, outside the shul, I encountered one of the congregational leaders. We entered the shul together, and were greeted with a shocking sight. There was the shammes, emptying all of the contents of the different tzedakah boxes into his pocket. Caught red-handed by an important member of the shul in addition to me, none of his machinations could help him. He was summarily dismissed from the job.
* * *

"Several years passed. A new problem arose. Years before, there had been a butcher shop next to the shul. Its owner prospered, and decided to move the store to larger premises across the street. He offered to sell his old shop to the shul, which the board had been happy to agree to, in order to be able to expand the shul. For certain reasons, however, the contract was never signed.

"One day, all of a sudden, the owner of the butcher shop came and demanded that the shul return his property to him. He had never sold it to us, but only allowed us to use it, he claimed. We were shocked, but had no proof. He took us to court and, of course, he won, since the deed was still registered in his name.

"After the official verdict, I hurried to the Rebbe and asked him what to do. The Rebbe looked at me, smiled and said, 'It seems that you are not a chassid, Rabbi Rabinowitz. My revered father-in-law said that a shul is a shul with everything that belongs to it. It is not possible to turn a shul into a butcher shop!'

"I left, perplexed but hopeful.

"The night before the court decision was to be executed and the shul evicted, I had a dream. I saw the Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, of blessed memory, sitting at the head of this table. Next to him was the present Rebbe. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was smiling at me with a shining face and saying 'A shul is a shul. It will never turn into a butcher shop.' I woke up suddenly in confusion and was shocked to discover that it was already eight o'clock! I was always at shul by six o'clock in the morning.

"I ran to shul as fast as I could. A frenetic, distressing scene was already taking place. Policemen were dragging benches out of the shul onto the street. A large crowd had gathered to stare.

"Suddenly we heard the wail of an ambulance. It stopped right outside the butcher shop across the street. I went over, and there was the owner, stretched out on the ground, unconscious. A large beam had somehow become dislodged from the ceiling and fallen right on his head.

"The men from the ambulance placed him on a stretcher. Just then, he opened his eyes. His gaze found me and he cried out 'Rabbi! I admit it! I admit it! I did sell you my old shop. Tell the police to leave the shul alone.'

Rabbi Rabinowitz concluded his astonishing story to a, by then, deeply moved chassid: 'From then on, nobody sits on that chair at the head of the table. That is the chair on which the Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of blessed memory, sat.' "

[Translated-adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles (and first published in Kfar Chabad Magazine - English) from Sichat HaShavua #263. You may pass on this email rendition to whomever you wish as long as you give full credit, including Ascent's email and internet addresses.]

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (12 Tammuz 1880-10 Shvat 1950), known as the Rebbe Rayatz, was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, from 1920 to 1950. He established a network of Jewish educational institutions and Chassidim that was the single most significant factor for the preservation of Judaism during the dread reign of the communist Soviets. . In 1940 he moved to the USA, established Chabad world-wide headquarters in Brooklyn and launched the global campaign to renew and spread Judaism in all languages and in every corner of the world, the campaign continued and expanded so remarkably successfully by his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (11 Nissan 1902 - 3 Tammuz 1994), became the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty on 10 Shvat 1950. He is widely acknowledged as the greatest Jewish leader of the second half of the 20th century. Although a dominant scholar in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah and fluent in many languages and scientific subjects, the Rebbe is best known for his extraordinary love and concern for every Jew on the planet. His emissaries around the globe dedicated to strengthening Judaism number in the thousands. Hundreds of volumes of his teachings have been printed, as well as dozens of English renditions.

 

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