1967 - The Lubavitcher Rebbe & The Six Day War
As Told To Rabbi Aharon Dov Halperin
Editor of Kfar Chabad Magazine
By: Yosef Ben-Eliezer
I met the Rebbe the first time a month before my bar mitzvah. My grandfather, of blessed memory, a second generation American, was one of the few to preserve his family’s Chassidic traditions in the years when America s nickname was a land that devours its inhabitants, so-called because of the difficulties Jewish immigrants faced in keeping alive their rich spiritual legacy from Europe.
My father and mother were not as observant, though they sent me to shul in Manhattan’s Lower East Side every Shabbos with my grandfather. I studied Jewish subjects three times a week with my grandfather after public school, and it would be fair to say that those hours of learning, the walks to shul, and just being in my grandfather‘s presence, were instrumental in sustaining my Judaism during my early adventures.
In 1954, before my bar mitzvah, my grandfather took me to receive a blessing from the Rebbe of Boyan and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I remember my surprise at the Rebbe’s youthful appearance; my childhood image of a “Rebbe” was a Jew with a long white beard.
My grandfather gave the Rebbe a note and, after reading it, the Rebbe spoke with him in Yiddish, a language I knew only bits and pieces of. Minutes later the Rebbe turned to me and asked in English what my favorite sport was. Surprised to hear such a question, I answered at once: Baseball.
“Which way,” he asked, “do you like this game? When two sides are playing, or only one?
I endeavored to teach the Rebbe the ABC’s of baseball: “Rabbi, it’s impossible to play baseball with only one Side.
“Why?” he asked.
My patience faltered; how would I explain what even a child knows? Nevertheless, I tried: “Rabbi,” I said delicately, the whole point is to win; there must be two sides. “When the Rebbe understood I sighed in relief.
“Generally speaking, who is the winner?”
“The one who plays better,” I answered, pleased with my brilliant spontaneity.
I have no clue what my grandfather was thinking during this exchange. At any rate, the Rebbe didn’t seem to notice him, but continued instead with baseball. “Tell me, do you occasionally play baseball with your friends?”
“For sure,” I answered, ready for the opportunity to extol my playing skills.
Do you ever go to see major league baseball?”
“Sure!” I answered with not a little pride.
“But why aren’t your own games with your schoolmates enough?
“Rabbi,” I replied, exercising my finest social graces, “when we play it’s only children playing; in the big leagues it’s real!
Had I thought until then that this youthful Rebbe was truly concerned with baseball; I was to be sorely disappointed.
“Yosef,” the Rebbe said, breaking into a smile, “you have a large baseball diamond in your heart. Until now there have been two players: your yetzer tov, the ‘good inclination,’ and your yetzer hara, our ‘evil inclination.’ But that was a children s game.
From today on, though, from your bar mitzvah, it will be a real game, and therefore you will receive from G-d the most precious of gifts: a true yetzer tov, with unique powers from G-d. You must take care from now on to always win against the yetzer hara, and remember: Just as in baseball, the best player wins. When you really want to, you can always be victorious."
“I give you my blessing,” the Rebbe concluded, “for your grandfather and your parents to always receive much nachas, pleasure, from you.” My grandfather, radiant, answered “Amen” in a powerful voice and signaled me to do the same.
I imagine one would have to be a psychologist to measure the depths to which the things a thirteen-year-old hears become engraved in his soul and fixed in his consciousness. Whatever. I cannot pretend that the Rebbe’s comments about baseball and rival inclinations assumed any particular significance at the time.
At the bar mitzvah celebration my grandfather repeated the Rebbe’s words, and I had warm memories of my meeting, but little beyond that.
Subliminally though, his words had penetrated far beyond measure, and as the years progressed, in high school and university they put forth blossoms on two occasions. In one of them, a critical decision was in the balance, so much so, that looking back I can only wonder if the Rebbe’s “baseball talk” wasn’t intended for that remote episode when my Jewishness was at stake.
I remember both events vividly; in each of them the sudden memory of the Rebbe’s words led me to decide the way I decided. Of no less interest and charm, perhaps, is their direct connection to baseball.
The first episode happened in my second year of high school when I was sixteen. Our class had won the yearly competition for “best class,” and the prize included a weekend at a prestigious youth camp in New Orleans, a dream trip that no student would consider missing. When I came home and announced the good news and fun that lay ahead, my mother said, “Joe, there’s a problem. Yom Kippur is this weekend and, you know, this is one day out of the year about which we’re careful; we fast and go to shul. I hope you won t break our tradition.
I was stunned. Mom, I can't do it. Please, understand. All year we’ve dreamed of winning this. I’ll never forgive myself if I pass this up; it’s a one-time chance.” The arguments, non-stop, lasted all week. My parents understood me; they knew how much it meant to me. But, they contended, there are things, holy things that one simply cannot abandon. My own argument was: G-d forbid, there’s no issue of disrespect. I’ve always observed this holy day and always will in the future, but it’s okay to be a little flexible when it comes to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After vacillating, my parents - cultured and progressive, left the decision in my hands; in other words, they made peace with the fact that I was unable to forfeit this unique trip.
Thursday night, the evening before leaving for New Orleans, I was sitting in a friend’s house watching base ball on television. At the conclusion of the tense game, which ended in a surprise upset by the underdog, I heard the commentator say: “When all is said and done, there’s justice in the game. The best player wins.”
I have no idea how, but in that lightning moment, out of the blue, I saw myself standing in front of the Rebbe and hearing him say: “Remember, the best player wins; when you really want to, you can always be victorious...,”
Three years had gone by since the bar mitzvah, and not once had I thought of that meeting with the Rebbe. And now, suddenly, facing the screen, everything became crystal clear. That instant I reached a decision: I would not desecrate Yom Kippur.
The second event, of much greater significance to me, took place five years later at the beginning of the sixties. I was a young discontented university student, searching for meaning.
A Christian group connected to the Mormons was succeeding in nabbing many university students, in particular, Jewish students. Two of my best friends fell under the spell of their leader and after a relatively short time succeeded in enticing me, as well, to taste their “forbidden fruit.
From week to week I was drawn in deeper. At first I felt there was content, purpose in my life. Then the stage came when I was to undergo baptism.
What troubled me was how to tell my parents. I knew the news would hurt them, in spite of their liberal views, and I decided to keep the matter secret as long as possible. Perhaps - who knows- with cunning I’d be able to draw them, too, to the “truth” I had found.
The last day before the ceremony destined to turn me into a good Christian - we played a routine baseball game. At the end of the game, when the other team won, I was gushing with camaraderie and told the captain of the winning team: “There were no tricks; it was honorable. The best player wins”.
I could barely finish the sentence. My friend didn’t understand why I suddenly turned crimson - I don’t know myself.
My “guide” and of course, my close friends were puzzled when I abruptly broke off any association with them. Only after much wavering, and many appeals, did I tell them the story.
And my two friends who left on my account owe their Judaism to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and his curious interest in baseball.
The Rebbe and The Six Day War
I met the Rebbe a second time in June 1967, just days before the Six-Day War broke out.
Like many of my college friends whose poise shattered during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis- when all at once our American tranquility crumpled into sheer terror - I decided to major in political science; and like others with good connections, upon graduation we joined the “best and brightest” from the top schools in the U.S. to work on various government staffs. Many of my friends took key positions in the White House and the corps of congressional advisors and aides. I climbed surprisingly rapidly, as well, and in 1967 - twenty-six years old and unmarried – was appointed a senior staff member of Mr. Arthur Goldberg, the U.S. delegate to the U.N.
One day at the start of June that year, I received a call from my niece; close to tears, she asked me to come urgently. She and her husband were extremely worried. Their son Avraham had become a “baal teshuvah” a year earlier. He was studying at a Chabad yeshivah in Israel and refused to come home in spite of the tense security situation. They had sent him an airline ticket, begged him to come back to New York until things calmed down, but he refused: the Lubavitcher Rebbe had told him not to leave.
“We tried going to the Rebbe,” my niece told me, “to
explain that Avraham is our only child, our whole life. We wanted him to listen
to our hearts, and allow our son to return home. But it was impossible to meet
with him. We wrote a note, according to his secretaries’ advice, and he answered
with a single sentence, not very convincing:
‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.’
“Joe,” my niece said, “this is why we called you. You have connections in high places who know what’s happening. Tell the truth: What’s the situation there - is it dangerous or not?”
I had no wish to frighten them, but I had to tell the truth: “We see a great danger for the State of Israel. We don’t know who will win the coming war, but if the Arabs win - and there is a strong possibility - I would rather not say what will happen to the Jews. Like any other Jew, I’m worried over what Israel is going through; as someone deeply involved, I’m worried sevenfold. My boss, Arthur Goldberg, a warm-hearted man, cannot sleep at night. You must get Avraham out of there.
“But don’t worry,” I told them. “I’ll use my position to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I’m sure I can persuade him to let Avraham return home.”
I got to work immediately. The secretary I had asked to help gave me the telephone number of someone named Rabbi Hodakov. “He is the one who sets up private meetings with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.” I called several minutes later, introducing myself’ as Arthur Goldberg’s senior aide, and asked for an urgent meeting with the Rebbe. Rabbi Hodakov promised to answer me in a short while, and half an hour later called to tell me that the next day, at 2a.m., I could meet with the Rebbe.
“But this is urgent!” I said.
“That is why you are able to meet the Rebbe tomorrow", he replied.
Meeting With The Lubavitcher Rebbe
They were the same refined features, the nobility I had seen thirteen years before. With the exception of his beard’s white tinge the Rebbe’s youthfulness and intensity, and penetrating gaze were undiminished.
"I visited the Rebbe once before", I said after a warm handshake. “My grandfather came with me before my bar mitzvah".
From the Rebbe’s smile it was clear that he remembered me. “I want to apologize to the Rebbe,” I continued, “for perhaps using my official status improperly, because I have come here on a personal matter.” The Rebbe’s smile encouraged me to relate the story of my niece and her husband, and to request that the Rebbe permit their only child Avraham to return home.
The smile disappeared; his expression was utterly serious. “I have thousands of only children in Israel!" He said, “and if I tell them to stay, it is because I am certain that nothing will befall them. You can tell your niece and her husband that they can relax. ‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.’ G-d watches over a Jew wherever he may be, but especially in the Holy Land.”
“Rebbe,” I said, “with all due respect she simply cannot relax, nor can I. Perhaps the Rebbe is unaware, but I have authoritative information that the State of Israel is in great danger today.”
“Israel,” the Rebbe said - and I was struck by the sheer force of the Rebbe’s self-confidence- “is not in great danger. It is at the threshold of a great victory. This month, with G-d’s help, will be a month of boundless Heavenly kindness for the Jewish people.
“Now,” he said, “with your permission, I have a personal request. Tell Avraham’s father that he, too, can do something on behalf of the Jewish people in the Holy Land: he can put on tefillin each weekday. And you, as well, being a good Jew, start putting on tefillin every weekday. I do not know to what extent, in your post with the U.S. Embassy, you are able to assist Israel. Nonetheless, by putting on tefillin every weekday you can definitely help, and there would be no problem of ‘dual loyalty’.
“And something else, “ he said, “When everything concludes in the best possible way, I would like to speak with you.
I was speechless. Had the meeting lasted seconds, or minutes? I remember standing and gaping at the man seated before me, at the fantastic energy radiating from him. The awesome responsibility he took upon himself.
That moment, with not a little wonderment, I understood how so many Jews relied on him in matters of the greatest importance.
“Rebbe” - my words flowed spontaneously, tears choked my throat - as a Jew, I feel fortunate we have someone like you in these difficult and frightening moments. Thank you for your time.”
“Let us hear good news,” the Rebbe said. “By the way,” he smiled broadly as I neared the door, “are you still a baseball fan?”
A few days after my meeting with the Rebbe, the world held its breath. Israel - surrounded by enemies, fighting for its existence on three fronts defeated her opponents in a lightning victory unparalleled in military history.
I was sitting with Mr. Goldberg in his U.N. office viewing the newly liberated Western Wall on television; Rabbi Goren was blowing the shofar, the soldiers were crying. Mr. Goldberg couldn’t hold back his tears; neither could I. Arthur’s personal secretary a non-Jew, stared at us, perhaps in wonder, but seemed to know that some~ thing extraordinary for Jews was flashing on the screen.
Tears were still welling in our eyes, and I told him, “Arthur, we feared the worst; Jews and their supporters were filled with suspense and dread, but there is one Jew who, with absolute confidence, prophesied this great victory” I told him then for the first time of my meeting with the Rebbe the previous week.
My Meetings With The Rebbe After The War
I remembered the Rebbe’s request and once more telephoned Rabbi Hodakov. This time I waited a week before being called to come. Expecting to see the Rebbe in a joyful mood - something resembling: “Nu, what did I tell you?” - Instead he was solemn. After shaking hands he began to speak.
“This is a very special time for the Jewish people, a people who have experienced miracles throughout their history; indeed, their entire existence has been one long chain of miracles. Yet only rarely have there been miracles that G-d has shown the whole world, as if blowing a great shofar and acclaiming His eternal people, the Jewish nation. It happened with the exodus from Egypt and several other occasions and it was also the case last week.
“There are periods when G-d, so to speak, conceals His presence from His children; but there are moments when His kindness and miracles are limitless and revealed to all.
“G-d, who creates and directs the world, gave the Land of Israel to the People of Israel. For a time, a lengthy time, He took the Land from us and gave it to the gentile nations. This past week He took it back from them and gave it to the Jewish People.
“And to avoid any doubt that it was G-d who gave this to us, the event was bound up with great miracles. When all of Israel’s enemies surrounded her and conspired to destroy the Jewish People in the Holy Land, and the whole world and all the Jews trembled in fear and anxiety over her fate, G-d showed His miracles and wonders and speedily routing Israel’s foes presented her with the Land of Israel’s holiest sites.
“Yet, Jews have the freedom of choice, and in two vital matters we need to be on guard now: first, that no one, G-d forbid, should say ‘My power and the might of my hand.’ no one should pride himself in thinking that Israel’s military strength was behind the victory. It was a minor tool needed to provide a natural veneer. The supernatural triumph came from G-d, and only from G-d.
"The second matter,” continued the Rebbe, “is related to you, and for this reason I wanted to talk with you. I am familiar with the temperaments of Jews, including those currently heading the Israeli Government. I am very concerned that in the coming days they will already be sending envoys to Washington to inform them of their readiness to return the areas they captured. They fail to realize that they have not captured a thing; G-d has given them an enormous gift accompanied by awesome miracles; He has given them their own land. This must be prevented by any possible means.”
In the ten minutes that the Rebbe spoke, I didn’t open my mouth. I was enthralled - surprised that the Rebbe chose to speak of these lofty matters with me. I braced myself and asked, “Rebbe, how am I part of the picture?”
“You have contact with the Israelis who come to the U.N.: the Israeli Ambassador and such people; you go back and forth to the State Department. You have a good feeling of what transpires. My request is that when you encounter the Israeli representatives’ bleak spirit, rephrase for them the subjects you have heard here, and as forcefully as possible.
The Rebbe, apparently reading my thoughts, continued: I have no intention whatsoever for you to do anything as if behind the back of the American Government- to which you are responsible and whose interests you represent. However, first of all, the United States has no interest in Israel returning the captured areas; quite the contrary. Secondly, as a Jew and a private citizen, you have every right to express your personal opinion.”
The Rebbe continued with great passion: “And if anyone should ask you where your strong convictions come from, on what basis do you know what is good for Israel and what is not tell them about the only son whose parents were alarmed over his fate and wished to bring him to the United States, and that from this room he, and thousands of other only children, were promised there was no need to worry and that everything would be all right. And on what grounds was that promise made from this room? On the grounds that there is a Creator of this world Who is in charge, and the Creator of the world decided to present the Land of Israel to the People of Israel, and when the Creator of the world gives us a gift, we have to cherish and keep watch over it - not seek ways to rid ourselves of it!”
Unhinged and with much to ponder, I left the Rebbe’s office. I had never undergone a spiritual experience like this - an unforgettable half hour that completely reshaped my universe and produced a fundamental shift in Jewish relevance and Jewish identity. For the second time within a few weeks the realization dawned: How fortunate are we to have someone like the Rebbe.
Frankly, I am unable to say how and to what extent I carried out the Rebbe’s request. I can only report that he was pleased with my efforts. Firsthand confirmation of that came several months later when, one day, the Israeli Ambassador approached me at the U.N. to say: “Last night I took part in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Simchas Torah festivities. Among other things he asked me to extend his warm greetings, together with his appreciation and esteem.
In 1971, following my marriage to a kibbutz girl who worked in the Israeli Mission to the U.N., I moved to Israel. For a time I worked in the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and later left to work for the Israeli Government.
In my official capacity I took part in many covert missions that, even today, I cannot discuss or even hint at. Traveling to various countries with sundry tasks, I encountered an additional facet of the Rebbe’s greatness.
I can say with absolute certainty that the fate of Jewish populations around the globe was resolved to their benefit exclusively through the involvement and efforts of the Rebbe and his shluchim (emissaries). The State of Israel, as well not only the Jewish People owes an enormous debt to the Rebbe in critical decisions which I neither desire, nor am able to detail, beyond what I have already said.
Throughout those years I had the opportunity for direct contact with the Rebbe -with the knowledge and approval of my superiors through diverse channels I prefer not to mention.
Miracle In Stuttgart
I met the Rebbe for the last time a few years ago when, one Sunday, I came with a friend to receive dollars. At this meeting I experienced what the Chassidim like to call a ‘moffes’ (in Hebrew: ‘Mofet’), a supernatural sign.
I told the Rebbe that I planned to visit Crimea the coming week; the Rebbe was aware of the trip’s purpose. He gave me an additional dollar and said, “Give this to tzedakah, charity, in Stuttgart“.
According to my plans, I told him: “But I am not expecting to be in Stuttgart.”
But it was as though he didn’t hear me...
He said only, “Hatzlachah rabbah” - his blessing for success, and was already giving a dollar to the next person in line.
Shortly after take-off from Frankfurt, the pilot announced he was making an emergency landing... in Stuttgart.
I remembered, of course, that dollar in my pocket, and on
the surprise stopover I thought to myself: How can I fulfill what the Rebbe told
me? Who is there to give a “tzedakah dollar” to?
As I sat thinking, an old man, one of the passengers, sat next to me and struck up a conversation - how long I thought we would have to wait, and so on. The dialogue wandered; three beers later I had a detailed account of his life. His parents were Jewish, and he was the family’s sole survivor of the Holocaust. Either from anger or depression or fear he had decided to convert and cut all ties to Judaism. Over the years he was spectacularly successful in business.
As we spoke a wild thought darted through my mind.
Taking the dollar from my pocket, I told him: “Listen, in New York there is a very great rabbi. I visited him this week and he gave me a dollar ‘to give for tzedakah in Stuttgart,’ though I had no intention to be here. You obviously have no need for tzedakah, but since you’re the only Jew I met in Stuttgart and the plane will take off shortly, maybe the Rebbe’s intention was yourself...“
“But I m not Jewish”, the man cried out, not imagining until that moment that I was a Jew.
“Listen, I don’t know,” I said, “But maybe the Rebbe wanted that, at the least, you would die as a Jew?”
I have no idea how these words entered my mouth, nor do I know whatever became of that elderly Jew. But the tears that welled up in his eyes when I blurted out that last sentence might point to the mission’s success.
At any rate, the Rebbe as I learned, and not for the first time - was blessed with perceptive powers that soared far beyond our own vision.
From Book: “Our Man In Dakar” page 111
By Aharon Dov Halperin הרב החסיד אהרון דב האלפערין
Translated By Tuvia Natkin
Published by ‘Sifriyat Kfar Chabad’
Translated from the Hebrew original: Ve Rabim Heishiv Me-Avon – מספר: "ורבים השיב מעון"
Kfar Chabad, 1998 כפר חבד