Weekly Chasidic Story #873 (s5774-51 / 22 Menachem Av 5774)

The Present of Iron

"To his astonishment, the Skulener Rebbe in New York had personally telephoned him in Mexico.

Connection: Seasonal--32nd yahrzeit of the Skulener Rebbe


The Present of Iron

When the telephone rang in his house, R. Shlomo ran to answer it. He was expecting an important business call. Instead, it turned out to be the surprise of his life: the voice emerging from the receiver was that of his Rebbe, Rabbi Eliezer-Zusya Portugal of Skulen. He snapped to attention and listened with awe and respect to his beloved rebbe's words.

R. Shlomo was a wealthy businessman who lived in Mexico City. But he did not let his business dominate his life or his wealth and success go to his head. His humility was such that he lived a simple life and was satisfied with very little, and in this spirit conducted his household. His children received a pure Torah education imbued with Chasidic values.

As a loyal Skulener chasid he traveled periodically to New York to visit his Rebbe, who had moved there from Rumania after the Holocaust. But he never expected to receive a phone call initiated by the Rebbe himself. The Rebbe asked him how he was and then went on to inquire about the members of his family. He expressed particular interest in the education of the children. R. Shlomo expressed gratitude for all that the Creator had granted him in health and wealth, and especially the nachas, the Jewish satisfaction, that he had from the studies and behavior of his children.

"And what of your son Moisheleh," the Rebbe continued to enquire. "Are you making sure that he is learning Torah properly?

Moshe was a very smart post-bar mitzvah boy, but he was also exceptionally energetic and he could be quite mischievous. The Rebbe knew this from when his father had brought his son along with him on his previous visit to the Rebbe in New York.

"Certainly," replied R. Shlomo proudly. "He is on schedule to complete Tractate Sukkot in about two weeks. He learns very well, praise G-d."

"So, have you given him a nice prize for his study achievements?" the Rebbe pressed on. R. Shlomo admitted that he hadn't.

"If so, I advise that you promise the boy that if he completes Gemara Sukkot and does well when he is tested on it, you will buy him a special present as a reward for his excellent achievement. Tell him that he can choose the present.

"This is important for the good of the child, and for your benefit as well. But remember, you must let him select the present," concluded the Rebbe.

R. Shlomo felt both amazed and honored by the Rebbe's concern for his family in such minute detail. When he told his son that he would get a special present that he himself could choose for completing the tractate, Moisheleh jumped for joy. He studied enthusiastically day and night until he knew all the material very well. When his teacher tested him, he was impressed with how well Moshe did.

Now it was the turn of the father to fulfill his commitment. He asked his son what he chose for his reward. Moisheleh's answer astonished him. It made no sense whatsoever. He requested a long thick iron chain, accompanied by a big lock so that he could open and close the chain at will. His father was not pleased at all by this choice. He had expected a set of books…or a trip to Israel. Nonetheless, he well remembered the Rebbe's emphatic insistence that the boy be the one to pick his own reward, so he accepted the decision and made the purchase.

A few days later, in the afternoon shortly before the scheduled hour of the afternoon Mincha prayer, Moshe was playing in the large front yard of their house. His father had returned just before, and had gone to his room for a brief rest before heading for the synagogue for the Afternoon and Evening prayers, and his regular Torah study session in between.

What he didn't know was at that moment there were two criminals waiting in their car with darkened windows that was parked near the house. For several days already they had been keeping watch on the house and scouting the area. They were well acquainted with R. Shlomo's daily schedule. Their intention was to lie in wait till he exited the house to go to shul for Mincha, and then they would snatch him and hold him for ransom.

This was a pattern that was repeating itself all too often in those years in Mexico. Abductions of the wealthy were a commonplace occurrence, and the police had proved themselves to be unable to prevent them. Sometimes the ransom would be paid and the victim released, but sometimes the victim was never seen alive again.

This time the snatch began smoothly for the kidnappers, according to their plan. R. Shlomo emerged from the house at precisely the expected minute and locked the door behind him. At that moment the bandits snuck up behind him. One pinned his arms and the other stuffed a rag in his mouth so that he couldn't scream for help or attract attention. Then they knocked him to the ground and kicked and beat him almost to unconsciousness, and quickly dragged him over to their waiting car.

But that is when the scenario fell apart for them, and in a way they could not possibly have anticipated, or even imagined. They rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Their getaway car was securely chained by a long heavy iron chain and giant lock to the electric pole that it was parked next to! In shock, they momentarily relaxed their grip on their still groggy captive, who nevertheless was now sufficiently alert to promptly flee as speedily as he could, while flinging the rag from his mouth and screaming for help.

A crowd began to gather and the police were summoned. The bandits realized they were in a dangerously vulnerable situation. The packed crowd would hinder any attempt to escape on foot. In desperation they jumped into their car. The driver revved the engine, put the gear in Drive, and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The engine roared and whined but was unable to pull away from the curb. Finally the chain snapped and detached from the electric pole. The car zoomed away at its maximum speed, with the long chain still dangling from it.

The police on the scene quickly radioed a bulletin about the speeding car with a long chain dragging after it. Armed with this unique description, it did not take long until the fleeing car was trapped between a pair of police vehicles, and the two kidnappers were arrested and imprisoned securely behind bars.

After receiving first-aid, R. Shlomo spent the next several hours at the police station, answering questions and recording testimony. When he finally reached home late in the evening, he went directly to his son's room and asked him how did it happen that he chained the car to the electric pole. Moshe smirked and confessed that he was being naughty, playing a trick. That a car was parked next to their house adjacent to an electric pole was too strong a temptation to resist-he just had to try to lock it to the pole with his new strong cable chain.

The father grasped his son around the shoulders and, after giving him a warm hug, emotionally showered his cheek with kisses. "Your mischievous behavior saved my life," he kept repeating.

Soon thereafter R. Shlomo decided to travel to his Rebbe in Brooklyn. He told the Skulener the whole story of what had happened and profusely thanked him for his inspired advice.

The Rebbe rejoiced when he heard about the miraculous rescue, and remarked smilingly that since the bandits had broken Moshe's new chain and lock, it would be appropriate for his father to buy him a replacement present.

Source: Translated by Yerachmiel Tilles from Sichat HaShavua #1395. (First posted on AscentofSafed.com.)

Biographical note:
Rebbe Eliezer-Zusya Portugal [1 Cheshvan, 1898 - 29 Av 1982], the Skulener Rebbe, immigrated to the USA in 1960, after imprisonment in Rumania and international efforts to secure his release. He was a prominent follower of the Shtefaneshter Rebbe and the author of Noam Eliezer and Kedushas Eliezer, but is best known for his superhuman efforts to rescue Jewish orphans and refugees in Eastern Europe before, during and after WWII and his continuing support of them, and his Chessed L'Avraham network of schools for children that continue until today. Those who merited to be in his presence were astonished by the length of his prayers and the beauty and intensity of the tunes that he composed, many of which have become internationally famous today. He has been succeeded by his son and only biological child, Rabbi Yisrael-Avraham Portugal (born 5783 (1923)], who has eight children of his own and scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Editor's note:
In the mid-seventies I had the merit and great pleasure to be a sole Shabbat Evening Meal guest of the Skulener Rebbe and his Rebbetzin. Forty years later, I still tremble when I recall the intensity, focus and slow pace with which he recited Kiddush.

Connection: Seasonal-the 32 yahrzeit of the Skulener Rebbe.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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