When the Rebbe got confused

Friday, 29 October, 2021 - 7:10 am

She belonged to the Vishnitz chassidut and lived in Bnei Brak; her sister belonged to the Satmar chassidut and lived in Williamsburg. The period was the late 1980’s, when the relationship between the Chabad and Satmar communities was at a low ebb. Both Williamsburg and Crown Heights are neighborhoods in Brooklyn, quite close geographically at least, and nowadays they are emotionally close as well, but back in the 1980’s the distance between the two communities was huge. 

She came from Israel because there was evidence that she might have a malignant growth, and the specialists recommended that she go to New York to be examined further. But really, there was another reason for going to New York. She knew that every Sunday the Lubavitcher Rebbe sees people, and anyone who wants to can come without prior registration, stand in line, say what is troubling him or her, receive a dollar for tzedaka and bracha, and, mainly, have the Rebbe’s full attention for those few seconds or minutes. 

She very much wanted to go to the Rebbe and ask for his blessing. She had children at home who needed her to be healthy, and the Rebbe’s blessing was no less – and perhaps more – important to her than the tests that would be performed by the expert doctors in New York.

And so, on Sunday, a few minutes after her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband – left to go to shul, she approached her sister and made her request: “Come with me to Crown Heights; take me to Lubavitch.” Her sister refused – she can’t. It was unthinkable in those times of division between the two groups. Her husband was an important person in his community – how would he be able to show his face in public if it would become known that his wife had gone to ask the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a bracha? There was no way that he would be able to accept this, and it would be impossible to go without telling him, impossible! How would she face her husband if she deceived him and kept such a thing from him?

But the Vizhnitz sister was insistent – her life was hanging in the balance, and she pleaded with her again and again, until the Satmar sister gave in and agreed to help her. 

They stood quietly in the long line, hoping not to meet anyone they knew – so deep was the estrangement then. And then they were standing in front of the Rebbe. The lady from Bnei Brak told him that she had been diagnosed with “the machala” (the illness, code word for cancer), and she was asking for a blessing. Her sister was standing next to her. The Rebbe listened, gave her a dollar to give to tzedaka and blessed her with the usual blessing: “Bracha and hatzlacha (success)”. The Rebbe then gave a dollar to her American sister as well and said to her: “Refuah sheleimah ukrova (have a full, speedy recovery).”

“You see, he got confused,” said the American sister to the Israeli one. “It’s a pity we came. I deceived my husband and in the end the Rebbe made a mistake: he gave you the regular blessing and me – the blessing for recovery.”

In the evening, when her husband came home, he saw immediately that something was wrong. “Don’t be angry,” she said to him. “We went to get a dollar from the Lubavitcher – I couldn’t say no to my sister – and really it was a waste of time; in the end the Rebbe got confused”. And she told him about the switched blessings. Her husband’s expression became very grave. He was a serious person, and he said immediately, “Come with me. we are going right now for tests in the hospital. Ture, you shouldn’t have gone, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe never gets confused. If he wished you a complete recovery, then it is you who needs it.” The tests did, indeed, show the beginnings of a serious illness requiring immediate treatment.

Her sister’s tests, as you can probably guess already, showed that the growth was benign and that she was perfectly healthy. 

I remembered that story this morning – early Thursday morning – when I stood in the ohel of the Rebbe, praying for myself and for those who sent me. I wasn’t alone. Every few minutes men and women came and went. Some stayed for a few minutes and some for longer; some said Tehillim, and others just prayed from their hearts; some were reading out their request, and others were carrying many requests with them. One was sobbing, and another was praying softly; one was praying with his eyes closed, and another leaned her head on the headstone, and everyone there – everyone – knew what the Williamsburg sister’s husband knew – and that is why they were there and that is why I was there as well.

From the World Conference of Shluchim, I wish you Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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