story #286

(s5763-32 / 7 Nisan)
"A Lesson from Baseball"

The Lubavitcher Rebbe....


"A Lesson from Baseball"

by Yosef Ben Eliezer

I first met the Lubavitcher Rebbe a month before my Bar Mitzva in 1954, when my grandfather took me to get a blessing. The Rebbe spoke to my grandfather in Yiddish After, he looked at me and asked me in English, "Which sport do you like the best?" Though shocked to hear such a question, I answered, "Baseball!" The Rebbe continued, "Do you like to play when there are two teams or just one?"

I realized this rabbi from Russia didn't know much about the game. "Rabbi, you can't play baseball with just one team." "Why not?" the Rebbe asked seriously. I explained patiently, "Rabbi, the whole trick is to see who will win, so there has to be two teams." "And who usually wins?" asked the Rebbe. "The one who plays the best," I smiled.

The Rebbe continued, "Do you ever play baseball with your friends?" "Sure," I answered. "Do you ever go to see professional games?" "Sure I do." "Why isn't it enough just to play with your friends?" A bit frustrated, I answered, "Rabbi, I'm just playing kids' stuff with my friends. But at a professional baseball game, it's for real."

"Yosef," the Rebbe addressed me with a broad smile, "in your heart you have a big field. The two sides are your yetzer hara (evil inclination) and your yetzer tov (good inclination). Till now they played kids' stuff. But from your Bar Mitzva day on, the game is for real. You've got to make sure to always win against your yetzer hara. Remember, just like baseball, the one who plays the best wins. If only you'll want to, you'll always be able to win. And may your grandfather and parents always have much nachas from you."

That meeting with the Rebbe stayed engraved in my mind, although outwardly I continued with my life as before. In two instances the Rebbe's words literally saved me:

The first was when, at age sixteen, my class was rewarded with a trip to New Orleans for special achievement. When I came home with the good news, my parents realized that the trip was scheduled for Yom Kippur. "You can't leave for the weekend of Yom Kippur," they said. "We've never broken Yom Kippur!"

"Please try to understand," I pleaded. "All year we've been dreaming about this trip. I'll never forgive myself if I don't go!"

My parents understood me well enough, but still they maintained their stance. I claimed that Yom Kippur was still holy to me. I fasted last year and would fast next year, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. My parents ultimately left it up to me, and I decided to go.

The night before the trip, I was at my friend's house watching a baseball game. At the end one team won the game in a surprise upset. The commentator discussing the outcome said, "After all, in baseball, the team that plays the best wins." When I heard these words, I had a sudden flashback to the Rebbe's office three years earlier. I changed my plans and stayed home for Yom Kippur.

The second incident occurred during my college days. A group of Mormon missionaries had a successful mission on campus. Many Jewish students became interested and "converted." My friends joined the group and urged me to go. I, too, became involved.

The day before my conversion, I was playing a game of baseball with my friends. My team lost. I went over to the coach of the winning team, patted him on the back and said, "The team that plays the best, wins."

It was like I was hit in the head. Again, a flashback to eight years earlier. I turned white. And I didn't go through with the conversion. Not only that, but when I explained to my friends what had happened and described my memories of the Rebbe, they joined me in leaving the Mormons.

The next time I met the Rebbe was just before the Six Day War in 1967. At that time, I was working as an assistant to Arthur Goldberg, then the USA representative to the United Nations. One day in June I got a phone call from my cousin about an urgent matter. She told me about her precious only son, Avraham, and how he had become a baal teshuva, a returnee to traditional Judaism, and was learning in a Chabad yeshiva in Israel. Now, with threats of war escalating, she had sent him a ticket to come home. Avraham, however, refused, saying that the Rebbe said that no Jews should leave Israel.

She then said, "I wrote to the Rebbe, explaining that Avraham is our only child, our whole life. He answered with one sentence: 'The Al-mighty G-d, who never sleeps, watches over the Jewish people.' Tell me," she asked, "How bad is it in Israel?"

I didn't want to scare her. I simply said, "Avraham has to come home. I'll try to get into the Rebbe. I have ties with Arthur Goldberg that might give me some pull."

The next evening I entered the Rebbe's room. "I was here once before, when I was 13," I told the Rebbe. The Rebbe smiled broadly, his beard whiter than before, but his piercing eyes were still young. "I want to make this a personal visit," I said, and then explained the plight of my cousin and her only son.

The Rebbe's face became serious. "I have thousands of only sons in Eretz Yisrael. If I tell them to remain there, it's because I'm sure nothing will happen to them. Tell your cousin that she should be completely calm. G-d Al-mighty, who never sleeps, watches the Jewish people everywhere and especially in Eretz Yisrael."

"Rebbe," I responded, "with all due respect, I can't be calm. Maybe the Rebbe isn't aware, but I know the extent of the danger to Israel." The Rebbe answered, "The land of Israel is in no danger. It stands before a great victory. This is a month of great goodness for the Jewish people."

The Rebbe continued, "I have a personal request: Tell Avraham's father that there is something he can do for the Jewish people - put on tefilin every weekday. You too, should put on tefilin every weekday. And when everything ends well, I would like to talk to you again."

I was left speechless. I don't know how long I stared at this man opposite me, awed by his fantastic strength and the great responsibility he was able to shoulder. "Rebbe," I said, choking back tears, "as a Jew I am proud that we have someone like you leading us, and I thank you for the time you gave to me."

"Let us hear good tidings," the Rebbe ended. As I prepared to leave, the Rebbe smiled and asked, "By the way, do you still like baseball?"

Words cannot describe the trying days before the Six Day War. The world held its breath as the war began. The sudden victory found me, Arthur Goldberg and his assistant glued to the television. We cried as we watched the soldiers running to the Western Wall to kiss the stones of the Western Wall and Chief Rabbi Goren blowing the shofar. "Arthur," I said, "I thought the worst was going to happen. But there is one Jew who knew with certainty that victory was near." And I proceeded to tell him of my audience with the Rebbe.

As I had promised the Rebbe at our meeting before the war, I returned to the Rebbe's headquarters. I expected an "I told you so" from the Rebbe. But that was far from what I got.

The Rebbe greeted me and then began, "This is a very great period for the Jewish people. Sometimes G-d makes a miracle for us, proclaiming it as if with a shofar to the whole world, 'These are My people, the Jewish people.' This is the way it was last week. At times it is as if G-d hides Himself from His children, but at other times His goodness is open for all to see. G-d, who created the whole world, gave the Jews the Land of Israel. For some time, a long time, He took it away from the Jews and gave it to other nations. Last week G-d took the Land of Israel back from the nations and gave it to the Jews.

"No one should have any doubts that it was G-d who did it all. It was done with miracles, great miracles. The whole world witnessed how the Land of Israel was surrounded by enemies on all sides and everyone was terrified. G-d made our enemies fall in the quickest of time and gave us our holiest places. But Jews have free choice, and two things must be dealt with immediately. No one should say, 'My might won the war.' It was not the army that brought the victory; the miracles came only from G-d Himself. This is what pertains to you, and this is why I asked you to come again.

"I know," the Rebbe continued, "the nature of the Jewish people, including those in power in Israel. I am suspicious that very soon they will send a proposal to Washington agreeing to give back the acquired territory. They don't understand. They didn't win any territory. G-d gave it to them as a present, through miracles. G-d gave them back their land. You must prevent any returning of territory."

I told the Rebbe that it was not my prerogative to agree or disagree with giving back land, but the Rebbe insisted that I tell the Israeli representatives I come in contact with what he had said. He insisted that it was my right as a citizen to be able to do this.

"If they ask you where you get your certainty that this is so, tell them the story of the only child, and how his parents were in fear and how from this room he was promised his safety together with thousands of other only children. And if they ask how this room got its certainty, and on what basis, tell them that there is a Creator of the world who decided to give back the land of Israel to the people of Israel, and if the Creator of the world gives a present, one is to hold it dear, protect it and not to look for ways to get rid of it."

My views were shaken. My whole perception of Judaism changed. I thought, "Fortunate is the nation that has a man like the Lubavitcher Rebbe in its midst."

I tried my best to perform the mission the Rebbe had given me. One day an Israeli in the UN approached me. "I was at the Simchat Torah celebrations of the Rebbe yesterday. He sends you his regards and his thanks."

Such personal encouragement from the Rebbe let me know I was doing something right. I married an Israeli woman, moved to Israel, and later joined the ranks of the Israeli government. I witnessed closely the great changes the Rebbe created in the world through his emissaries.

My last meeting with the Rebbe was on a Sunday at "dollars", when he distributed bills to be given to tzedaka. I received a dollar and told the Rebbe I was planning to visit Germany. Though a top-secret visit, the Rebbe understood why.

Then the Rebbe gave me an extra dollar and said, "This is for charity in Stuttgart." "I am not planning to go to Stuttgart," I told the Rebbe. But the Rebbe ignored my statement, wished me success and looked to the next person in line.

I traveled to Germany. After leaving Frankfurt, the captain of the plane suddenly announced that there would be an emergency landing in Stuttgart. I remembered the extra dollar in my pocket and, while waiting for the pilot to announce our continuing journey, I began speaking to a fellow traveler. We became friendly, and he told me that he was born a Jew, and that after the Holocaust he was left alone, confused, fearful and angry. During this trying period he decided to convert to Christianity. "And I have not done so poorly. I am a wealthy man," he added.

I had an idea. I told the man, "Listen, there's a rabbi in New York, a great rabbi of the Jews. This week he gave me a dollar to give to charity in Stuttgart, even though I didn't think I'd be here. I know you don't need charity, but since you are Jewish, and the only Jew I've met along my journey, maybe the Rebbe meant it for you."

"I'm not a Jew," the man insisted. "Listen," I said. "It is true that you have not been living as a Jew, but maybe, just maybe, the Rebbe wanted at least that you should die as a Jew." I don't know what made me say those words, but the sudden gush of tears of my traveling companion made me think that I had said the right thing.

The Rebbe was blessed with eyes that see further than other human beings. When I heard the news of his passing on the third of Tammuz 1994, I thought of the Rebbe's words: "I have thousands of only children". I consider myself one of them.

[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the translation by Chaya Korf from Kfar Chabad Magazine.]

Biographical note:
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.


Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the and websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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