/ Erev Rosh Hashana)
Rabbi Chaim Gutnick tells:
was during my first years in Sydney when I taught a half-day and worked in my
father-in-law's business the other half.
There is a city in Australia called
Adelaide, and with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approaching, and no rabbi in the
vicinity, they were becoming worried. They asked Sydney's chief rabbi to find
someone to officiate and he referred them to me. We had four small children then
and leaving home to spend the Days of Awe in a distant city would be difficult.
In brief, I turned down the offer.
When they told the chief rabbi that
I had refused, he advised them: Rabbi Gutnick is a Chabadnik. Write to the
Lubavitcher Rebbe that you need a rabbi; if he tells him to go, he'll go.
days later I received an urgent letter from the Rebbe (this was before I had met
him) with the message - the tone hinted of incredulity - What do you mean, "You
refuse"?! It's a great mitzvah - you have to go! At the bottom, the
Rebbe handwrote that during my stay I should look after the Egyptian Jews there.
packed two valises and left, arriving in Adelaide* the day before Rosh Hashanah.
I went at once to the synagogue. As I walked around, a woman suddenly approached
and asked, "Where is the holiest place here?" I didn't know what she
meant, but then I pointed out the Holy Ark where the Torah scrolls were.
woman went out and returned with a fifteen-year-old blind girl. She brought her
to the Holy Ark and left her. The girl kissed the curtain of the Ark and fell
to the floor sobbing. Minutes later the woman reappeared, took the girl, and left.
was all so strange. I found the attendant and asked for an explanation. "It's
ridiculous," he snorted. "She's one of those Egyptian Jews who came
here but avoid any connection with us. Her parents don't come on Rosh Hashanah,
so she must have decided to come the day before."
The Rebbe's words flashed
in my mind: to look after the Egyptian Jews. I raced outside to find her, but
she and her escort had disappeared.
On Rosh Hashanah I noticed a small
group praying on the shul's perimeter; from their darker complexion I knew
they were the Egyptian Jews. When the prayers ended I stood at the entrance, at
the president's request, together with the cantor, wishing everyone a kesivah
va'chasimah tovah, a happy and prosperous New Year. I saw that the Egyptian
Jews didn't budge, and when I asked an assistant, I was told, "They're at
odds with the community; there was a dispute, and now they have nothing to do
The following day, after the prayers, instead of going to
the entrance, I headed straight toward the Egyptian Jews to wish them a good New
Year. Everyone else's eyes were daggers in my back.
"Is there a blind
girl among you?" I asked.
"Where are her parents?"
don't come to synagogue."
"If you see her," I requested, "please
give her, in my name, my best wishes for a kesivah va'chasimah tovah."
morning the telephone in my room rang: "I'm the blind girl." Before
I could reply, someone grabbed the phone from her hands and banged it down.
was very disturbing. When Thursday night, the eve of Yom Kippur, came, I was quite
upset and told the cantor what had happened. "Don't be foolish," he
answered. "Do me a favor and stay away from the Egyptians; don't make trouble."
course, I didn't take his advice. I asked him to find the girl's address and phone
number, and called her immediately.
"Is this the blind child?" I
"Yes. Who is speaking?"
"Rabbi Gutnick." The
line went dead.
Again and again I tried. They would answer and hang up.
to give up, I jumped into a taxi and gave the girl's address. More than a half-hour
later, 11 P.M., I reached their house. I knocked on the door and stuck my foot
in when it opened.
"Please. Help me," I said. "It's a long trip
and I came especially to talk with you."
They brought me inside and we
sat together in the living room, where the blind girl joined us. I spoke with
them from my heart. My familiarity with Jewish life in Egypt helped break the
ice and, to some degree, I won their trust.
When her mother went to prepare
some tea, I turned to her blind daughter. She faced me and broke down sobbing;
tears sprang to my eyes, as well.
"What is it?" I asked her.
calmer, she began her story:
"We arrived here about a year ago after fleeing
with other Jews from Nasser. I have been blind from birth and have a younger sister.
When my parents were looking for a school for the blind, the only facility around
was Catholic. They registered me and, for my part, I was very happy. Then, five
months later, a priest who came there weekly started talking with me about 'you
know who.' I didn't take anything he said seriously. A few months later, though,
they said I had to convert. They also sent my parents an official letter informing
them that, since they lacked space for people of their own faith, if my parents
wanted me to continue at no expense, I would have to convert.
day I overheard my parents discussing things, and my father told my mother: 'We
have no choice; we have to agree to the conversion. She's a burden to the whole
family.' It hurt so much to hear that; it was as though they wanted to get rid
of me. But I made up my mind: if my parents, my family, don't care if I convert
- then I also don't care.
"Nevertheless, I'm Jewish. I may not know
the first thing about Judaism, but I know there is a G-d of the Jews, and I made
up my mind to pray to Him to show me what to do. The Jewish Holy Days, I knew,
were approaching, so the day before Rosh Hashanah I told my mother I had a headache
and couldn't go to school. Then, when I was alone, I went to our non-Jewish neighbor
and told her that since tomorrow is our New Year and my parents are not going
to the synagogue, could I ask a favor - to bring me to the synagogue to pray for
a few minutes? She brought me there and, at my request, asked where the holiest
place was. I fell to the floor and asked G-d to show me what to do. Then I went
back home to wait.
"The second day of Rosh Hashanah some guests came
to visit. Seeing me, they joked: 'Betty! It's so strange: some rabbi came from
Sydney and all he talks about is you! How does he know you?' They laughed, with
a touch of sarcasm. But when I heard this I ran to my room and cried and cried.
I knew: you were the one that G-d had sent to tell me what to do. I tried to call
you after Rosh Hashanah, but my mother hung up the telephone. I think she's afraid
I'll tell you everything, and you'll become involved. But I knew you would come,
no matter what, and tell me what to do, whether or not to convert."
I asked, "will you do whatever I tell you?"
"Yes, even if you
tell me to run away from home!"
"No, that won't be necessary."
parents came into the room then and, seeing the tears, they knew she had confided
in me. They wept then, too: "We didn't want her to convert; we're Jews. But
what choice did we have? We had to do this for her own benefit."
them, "With G-d's help everything will be OK."
Then I called the
synagogue administrator. Telling him briefly what was happening, I asked him to
come over right away.
"Are you insane?!" he screamed, "12:30
at night?! I'm in pajamas, sleeping!"
"Pajamas or not, get in your
car and come over. Unless you would rather look for a new rabbi for Yom Kippur."
few years later I went to the Rebbe for yechidus. Looking at me intently,
with a faint trace of a smile, his words were:
"That 'sign' was not only
for the blind girl. It was for you, too. You should know that your life's work
is opening the eyes of the sightless in ruchniyus, in matters of the spirit
everything else now and become a full-time rabbi."
Rebbe referred to it as ad de'lo yada -- concerning the celebration of Purim,
one may rejoice in high spirits "ad de'lo yada": "beyond knowing."
by Tuvia Natkin for his soon-to-be-published Our Man in Dakar
(based on the Hebrew original, VeRabim Heishiv MeiAvon by Aharon-Dov
Halperin). Tuvia Natkin is a writer and translator who resides in Tsfat. He may
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story is copyrighted material and may
not be reproduced in either print or electronic form without permission of the
publisher, Sifriyat Kfar Chabad.
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
in the original Hebrew and Yiddish versions, as well as dozens of English renditions.
Chaim Gutnick has been a major rabbinical figure in Australia for over four
decades and is currently president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Association of Australia.
His son, Yosef-Yitzchak, is a well-known Jewish philanthropist.
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of
Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and
KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.