By Yochanan Gordon
The first night of Selichot has always been a significant event. It arrives almost suddenly at the tail end of a more relaxed summer atmosphere, and while many have seemed to figure out the right game face to put on for this particular event, the internal feelings are difficult to access in contrast with the summer season with which it coincides.
I’m old enough to recall the stories retold this time of year in yeshiva about the vekker who would walk the streets of town, calling in an elevated voice: “Rabbosai, Shtei oif la’avodas haBorei!” In his inimitable fashion, he would make his way through town waking up the townspeople and putting them in the Selichot state of mind.
Well, let’s just say that was then, and now it’s a little bit different. While still significant, it’s the type of event for which I might mistakenly browse SeatGeek or Ticketmaster to get tickets. While this seems to be the frum version of a Saturday matinee, it is nevertheless regarded importantly, which itself is an indication that people are thirsting to taste from the reservoirs of repentance, which is the call of the hour.
I spent the Shabbos of Selichot in Monsey with my wife’s family. I had planned to go to the Atrium where Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson was having a pre-Selichot melaveh malkah with Yoeli Leibowitz, followed by a choice between a musical Selichot or a more traditional one depending on one’s comfort zone as far as these things go.
Over 1,000 men, women, and young adults packed the Atrium for the melaveh malkah, which consisted of intermittent singing and speaking. And while a lot of Torah was shared throughout the two-plus hours that we sat there, there’s a story that Rabbi Jacobson retold at the end that is appropriate going into Kol Nidrei.
Some of you may have heard this story, which has made its rounds on WhatsApp and other social-media platforms. However, I have reviewed this story tens of times, so even if you have heard it before it won’t hurt to review it now, in the vicinity of Kol Nidrei.
The story is about a chassidic Jew from Antwerp named Reb Feivel Shapiro. Feivel had called Rabbi Jacobson from Belgium that motzei Shabbos of Selichos at 9:45. The event was called for 10 p.m., but only got underway closer to 10:30, presumably delayed due to the phone call that Rabbi Jacobson had received.
Reb Feivel relayed that the story he wanted to share took place in the late 1970s around Purim time when he was in New York for business and decided to check out the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s farbrengen being held that night.
But first, a word on his background. The Shapiros are a chassidic family, but not followers of the Chabad movement. Reb Feivel’s father, Reb Naftoli Hertz, was a close disciple of the Damesek Eliezer from Vizhnitz. His mother, Rachel, hailed from a Satmar family from prewar Europe, and he had davened in Belz all his life, the closest style of davening and Yiddishkeit in Antwerp that they, as a family, were accustomed to.
You’re probably wondering what compelled Feivel Shapiro to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe that Purim night.
From Feivel’s standpoint, it was a decision fueled by curiosity from having heard so much about this tzaddik, and also the fact that his trip coincided with this important farbrengen.
Reb Feivel told Rabbi Jacobson that the Rebbe had spoken over many hours and the gathering had carried on into the early morning. At one point, a path was cleared for the Rebbe to walk through to his office and then back home for what was left of the night. Coming from a chassidic background, Reb Feivel began to extend his arm to wish the Rebbe shalom as he made his way past him. Before he could fully extend his arm, a couple of gabbaim who were there gave him a quick look, signaling that it was not the time and place for that, and he quickly withdrew his arm.
However, the Rebbe noticed his half-extended gesture and he grabbed Reb Feivel’s arm. He wouldn’t let go and began walking with him towards his office. Reb Feivel tried to figure out what was going on because this was far from what he had intended. All he had wanted was to wish the Rebbe shalom aleichem and move on with the night.
The Rebbe took him into his room. At that point, there was nothing the gabbaim could do. Inside, Reb Feivel said, the Rebbe grabbed a chair, put it alongside his desk, and asked him to take a seat. Meanwhile, the Rebbe went over to a filing cabinet and removed a letter. He handed it to Reb Feivel and asked him to read it.
Reb Feivel tells Reb Yossi that he sat there reading a letter about a 36-year-old woman who was battling a bout of breast cancer that had spread, and the doctors had given a very grim prognosis. She writes that she has 12 children; the oldest is 14 and the youngest is 1. She continues that she has lived her life and that she is ready to meet her Maker in heaven and she has no complaints. But there’s one thing that worries her more than anything else and that is the wellbeing, both physical and spiritual, of her children. So there, in the letter, with all that she was enduring, she asked the Rebbe to daven for the wellbeing of her children.
Reb Feivel reaches the end of the letter and is winded when he sees that it was signed by a woman named Rachel Shapiro, his own mother, who passed away when he was but 12 years old.
Reb Feivel told Reb YY that he sat in the chair and began sobbing. He said, “I cried and cried until I regained my composure and then I turned to the Rebbe and asked, ‘Rebbe, I have one question to ask you. Can I take this letter with me? I lost my mother when I was still very young and I have very few memories of her.’”
Reb Feivel added to Reb YY that in the letter, his mother writes about herself, where she came from, her children, and her concerns, and it was extremely sentimental.
The Rebbe replied, “No, you can’t take this with you.”
Reb Feivel couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t let. He gets tens of thousands of letters from people with similar situations; what was it about this particular letter that he needed it?
The Rebbe then turned to Reb Feivel and said, “I cannot enter into Kol Nidrei on any given year before reading your mother’s letter.”
Reb Feivel said that he understood that, and he got up and walked out of the office.
That’s where Reb Feivel’s personal encounter with the Rebbe ended. But there were so many variables about this story that needed to be clarified. The first mystifying aspect of this story is how the Rebbe knew that the person extending his hand to him had any connection to this Rachel Shapiro that he would bring him to his room and show him this letter? Rabbi YY asked this of Reb Feivel, who answered, “Until this day I can’t forgive myself for not asking him how he knew who I was. But I was so overtaken by the emotion that pervaded me at the moment that it didn’t dawn upon me to ask. I recall leaving the room and a minute or two later realizing that I should have asked and bemoaning the fact that it was too late.”
Rabbi YY continued, “How, takeh, did he know? Why did your mother, coming from where she came from, write to the Lubavitcher Rebbe of all people?”
Reb Feivel answered, “I can’t tell you how he knew; obviously he saw things that regular people couldn’t see. But this is why she wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe: My father, Naftoli Hertz, was a very successful businessman who was involved in Macy’s and other business ventures and would travel often to New York and visit the Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoilish. He was extremely impressed with the great genius of the Satmar Rebbe and he could sit with him for hours on end discussing various different things. On one such visit, after a few hours with the Rebbe, the conversation turned to Chabad, and the Satmar Rebbe said, ‘Reb Naftoli, let me tell you the truth: whenever someone comes to me with a situation that I feel is beyond my capacity to undertake I send them to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.’
On his return trip back home, Reb Naftoli said to his wife, Rachel, “Do you want to hear something interesting? The Rebbe told me that he would refer all difficult cases that he could not deal with to the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”
So Reb Feivel said that when his mother got sick and the situation turned bleak, she wrote to the Rebbe on her own, without telling anyone. This was the letter that the Rebbe showed him on that Purim night, which he would read as a preparation before Yom Kippur.
There’s a postscript to the story, which I witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the melavah malkah. I was standing around, waiting to wish Reb YY a yasher koach, when a young chassidishe man told him that his mother was this Rachel Shapiro’s youngest daughter and he was aware of this story.
The lesson that Reb YY conveyed was that we need to be our own micro-manhigim at this late stage in history. We have to open our hearts and start to focus on the things that bind us rather than the things that divide us.
What is a manhig? The head is a manhig. The brain sends signals to the rest of the body to carry out its capacities. But one thing about the head that the other limbs don’t possess is the ability to feel the rest of the body. A head that declares “I don’t care about toenails” is not a head. What made the Rebbe a leader was his ability to feel the pain of every Jew, even those he seemingly didn’t know.
This is the message of Yom Kippur, and really the message of all the holidays of Tishrei—and that is that we are all the Eibershter’s kids, and we are all equal and need to see each other in that light. That is why we say on this holy day, “Anu matirin l’hispallel im ha’avaryanim.” This is the message in the ketores of Yom Kippur which manifests itself as the schach atop the sukkah, which has a gematria of 100, corresponding to the 100 blasts of the shofar.
We should pray this Yom Kippur with a healthy and wholesome sense of inclusiveness and make our way into the sukkah, which needs to be one in which all Jews feel comfortable sitting. May we all merit to be sealed in the books of life, health, and wealth, and to be redeemed from this dark exile today!