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A Birthday Surprise

Rabbi Yitzchak Lieberman has arranged many birthday parties in his lifetime. As an elementary school teacher in Kfar Chabad, Israel, Rabbi Lieberman arranges dozens of birthday parties each year for his young students.

However, this story concerns Rabbi Lieberman's own birthday, which he celebrated one year in the office of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

This story took place in 1973. Rabbi Lieberman was then a young yeshiva student of 19, who had traveled to New York to study for a full year in the Rebbe's yeshiva, as is customary for Chabad yeshiva students to this day. At the time, the Rebbe would also receive individuals for a private audience, known as Yechidus. Yeshiva students would enter for a private audience once a year, on their birthday.

That year, Rabbi Lieberman arranged an appointment for himself on the 4th of Cheshvan, when he would celebrate his birthday. As the day drew near, Rabbi Lieberman's excitement grew. A private audience with the Rebbe was no casual event; Chassidim looked upon this occasion as momentous and life-defining. To prepare for his Yechidus, Rabbi Lieberman intensified his Torah study and recited many additional chapters of Psalms.

As is customary, Rabbi Lieberman wrote a letter to the Rebbe with all his requests and matters that he wished to discuss. On top of the page, he wrote that he would be celebrating his birthday on the 4th of Cheshvan, and asked for the Rebbe's blessing for a successful year. At the appointed time, he entered the Rebbe's room with trepidation and placed the letter on the Rebbe's desk.

The Rebbe opened the letter, read it swiftly and then looked at Rabbi Lieberman quizzically, asking, "When is your birthday?"

Rabbi Lieberman was confused. Innocently, he answered that he had written the date on top of the page: the 4th of Cheshvan. The Rebbe repeated again, questioningly, "The 4th of Cheshvan is your birthday?"

What was so surprising to the Rebbe that his birthday is on the 4th of Cheshvan, wondered Rabbi Lieberman. Again, the Rebbe asked, "When is your birthday?"

Now it became clear that the Rebbe was not asking out of curiosity. Rabbi Lieberman realized that the Rebbe was raising a question on the very date of his birthday, the 4th of Cheshvan. Rabbi Lieberman answered hesitatingly that he had always celebrated his birthday on the 4th of Cheshvan; he had had his bar mitzvah on that date, and as far as he knew it was his correct birthday.

At that point, the Rebbe changed the subject and began to address the matters that Rabbi Lieberman had mentioned in his letter. The Rebbe concluded the audience with the words he usually said to those who entered into Yechidus on their birthdays: "Certainly he will follow the customs of a birthday" [as observed by Chabad Chassidim]; however, the Rebbe said this while making a questioning gesture with his hand.

Confused, Rabbi Lieberman left the Rebbe's study and approached the Rebbe's chief secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Isaac Hodakov. He told Rabbi Hodakov what had happened during his Yechidus, and asked for an explanation.

Rabbi Hodakov admonished Rabbi Lieberman for even having entered into a dialogue with the Rebbe on the matter: "If the Rebbe indicated to you that the date was incorrect, even if it seems to you otherwise, you should have accepted his words at face value!" He suggested to Rabbi Lieberman that he investigate in Israel, to find out the actual date of his birth. Of one thing Rabbi Hodakov had no doubts: the 4th of Cheshvan was not Rabbi Lieberman's birthday.

Rabbi Hodakov stated this with such confidence that it penetrated the cloud in Rabbi Lieberman's mind. Like the average person, Rabbi Lieberman had no reason to believe that the birthday he had celebrated his whole life could be wrong. He was sure that the Rebbe had some lofty spiritual intention. Now, his perspective had changed completely. The Rebbe had succeeded in casting doubt on what, to him, had been an accepted fact.

That day, Rabbi Lieberman sent an urgent letter to his brother in Israel, describing what had happened at Yechidus. He asked his brother to check in the Hadassah hospital in Tel Aviv, where he was born, to verify his birth date.

His brother made the inquiry, and sure enough, it turned out that according to their records, he had been born not on the 4th of Cheshvan but on the 14th! A difference of ten days.

After some further investigation, Rabbi Lieberman discovered the source of the discrepancy. Shortly after his birth, his father had filled out a birth certificate form, but had not written clearly, so that 14 was recorded as 4. This is the date that Rabbi Lieberman had kept for 20 years.

As soon as the mistake was uncovered, Rabbi Lieberman wrote a letter to the Rebbe, thanking him for revealing with his holy vision that which had been obscured for 20 years.

 

 


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