310 (s5764-01 / Erev Rosh Hashana)




Tuvia Natkin

Rabbi Chaim Gutnick tells:

It 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.
Several 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.

I 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.
The 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.

It 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 with us."

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?"
"They 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."


Monday 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.
It 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."

Of 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 asked.
"Yes. Who is speaking?"
"Rabbi Gutnick." The line went dead.

Again and again I tried. They would answer and hang up.
Refusing 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.

Somewhat 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.

"One 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."

"Betty," 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."

Her 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."
I calmed 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."


A 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…Drop everything else now and become a full-time rabbi."

*the 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."


Translated 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 tuvian@actcom.co.il. This story is copyrighted material and may not be reproduced in either print or electronic form without permission of the publisher, Sifriyat Kfar Chabad.

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.

Rabbi 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.

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