Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Part 1. 1967 Six Day War Miracle. My Personal Experience with the Rebbe: Yosef Ben-Eliezer.

 Childhood and the Baseball story 

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.

Hebron 1850's
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.

From Book: “Our Man In Dakar” page 111.  By HaRav Aharon Dov Halperin 
Translated By Tuvia Natkin  Published by ‘Sifriyat Kfar Chabad’

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