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The Dollar that Wouldn’t Give Up

One of the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in California tells the following story:

One Friday night in the middle of a festive Shabbat dinner we heard a knock on the door. One of the children opened it and we saw a young man with hair as long as - our exile. I had no idea who he was. Before we could ask anything he headed for the dining room table to join the ten or so guests and my wife and children. He sat silently. I tried to open a conversation, but there was no response. My wife served him some gefilte fish, but he wouldn't touch it. He neither drank, ate, nor spoke; his features suggested a melange of astonishment and rage.

The dinner resumed, somehow detouring our unusual guest. Chassidic melodies flowed interspersed with Torah insights, questions and answers from the guests - like every Shabbat I can remember throughout the years.

Our guest maintained his silence, but it was an angry silence. From time to time I offered him a LeChaim, but there was no reaction. Only silence. Silence and rage.

During the singing and conversation, whenever I glanced his way he appeared self-absorbed, paying no heed to anything or anyone. Then, without warning, he leaped from his chair toward the Rebbe's picture on the wall, tore it down, and smashed it on the floor. He was shrieking: “What does this man want from me?! Why won't he let me live?! What did I ever do to him?!”

* * * * *

Finally he calmed down enough to share his story.

He was born in S. Francisco, the son of a prosperous businessman and leading U.J.A. activist; his mother was a successful lawyer. Like most young Jews he received the standard American educational fare; his sole Jewish experience was his bar mitzvah party.

Attending college at Berkeley, he soon found his place with others who had cast off comfortable backgrounds and bourgeois values to adopt the lifestyle of the hippies. Within a few months of searching for the meaning of life - beyond drugs and other countercultural elixirs - they had wandered through the Far East to a city in India. Eventually they found their place in a sect which advocated complete isolation from the world. Any connection with parents, family, or acquaintances was forbidden.

He spent a pleasant year and a half there. Though a number of his friends cracked under the pressure and left in the middle, he remained resolute.

Then one day, a week earlier, he felt a sudden urge to return home. He had no idea what had come over him and had assumed it would pass, but it was irrepressible. He booked a ticket on the first available flight.

His parents were stunned to see him. After embracing, his father shouted abruptly: “Wait a second! Now I understand: you came to take the dollar!”

“Dollar?” he asked. “What dollar?”

Then his father told his story:

“This past weekend, in advance of their trip to Israel in two weeks, there was a two-day meeting in New York for U.J.A. leaders in the U.S. All 35 of us came on Sunday, the day before yesterday, to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for 'dollars' to be distributed to charity and a blessing. The Rebbe spoke a few minutes with the group's leader and then he gave each of us a dollar and his blessings for success.”

His father took his dollar and was about to continue, when the Rebbe called him back and gave him another dollar: “For your older son,” he said. The line carried him outside before he could tell the Rebbe that he couldn't give the dollar to his son, that for the past year and a half he had no contact with his son. “Well, no big deal,” he thought; he'd have another dollar in his pocket.

Now, though, with his son's sudden appearance, it was intriguing. “Tell me,” he asked, “how did the Lubavitcher Rebbe know you were coming? What's your connection with him?”

His son, meanwhile, was putting things together. “Dad, wait a second. You said he gave you a dollar for me last Sunday? What time? 3:30 in New York?” Figuring the difference in hours, the son recalled the precise moment of that sudden impulse. And his rage at the Rebbe started to boil.

“You have to understand,” he told the astonished rabbi and guests, “I was really happy there for a year and a half; it was my whole life. What difference does it make to your Rebbe if someone like me is satisfied? I've been running around all day like a crazed rat, trying to catch a return flight, but I can't. Each time I even think about it, I feel someone pulling me back to stay here. I can't explain it. I saw your newspaper ad this evening with a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and I came here. Maybe you'll ask your Rebbe to let go of me? Here's his dollar, give it back to him.”

* * * * *

Years later there was an extraordinary sequel to this story. Professor and former Knesset member Avner Shaki relates the following:

“Years ago, preparing for a trip to California, I wrote down the address of the Chabad representative at my destination. (I knew there wasn't anywhere in California without a shliach.) Friday afternoon I called him, introduced myself, and was warmly invited to be his Shabbat guest.

“At the Shabbat evening prayers I was surprised to see so many young chassidim in a city far from the beaten path. They were all baalei teshuvah, I was told. The synagogue was filled with young people with kippot and students. The shliach gave a talk before the prayers began and everyone listened attentively.

“Walking back to the Shabbat dinner, we were accompanied by another 15 or so guests, mostly students. The atmosphere at the Shabbat table was splendid: soulful Chabad melodies, Torah insights, and quizzes alternated with tales of tzaddikim and wide-open discussions. I was even asked to say a few words myself. Everyone felt uplifted. Then, suddenly, the door burst open and in walked three straggly hippies, who sat at the table and began to devour everything in sight. The rabbi sat by without a word. Then, a smile: 'Hey guys, what's happening?'

“I was quite upset by all this, but said nothing. At the end of the meal I asked the host, 'What's going on here? In the middle of such a wonderful and inspiring evening, how do you allow these wild men to invade your home? To put it mildly, they added little honor to your Shabbat table!'

“He answered me with a sentence I'll never forget. 'Take a good look at them,' he said, nodding at the three hippies gorging themselves at the other end of the room. 'You see how they look? Well, that's just how I appeared years ago when, one Shabbat evening, I burst into the house of a California Chabad shliach.'“

Translated by Tuvia Natkin for his recently-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.



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