Weekly Chasidic Story #846 (s5774-24 / 10 Adar Rishon 5774)
General vs. General and Elijah “the Prophet”
An air force pilot is cruelly punished. His crime? Giving bar mitzvah lessons.
Connection: Weekly Reading–Haftorah (Eliyahu HaNavi / Elijah the Prophet)
Eliyahu Gabai was an outstanding pupil in high school back in 1986, a guy singled out for special training in the Israeli Air Force. Eventually he was inducted to train fighter pilots in flight-simulation machines.
But before beginning his service he met up with the charismatic Rabbi Reuven Dunin and became a Chabad chasid. Rabbi Dunin himself had once been an atheist tractor driver from notoriously left-wing Haifa who had met up with Chabad chasidim some years earlier. His infectious enthusiasm was redirected to spiritual goals.
Of course, all this had nothing to do with Eliyahu’s army service, which he performed diligently, but it did give him a greater sense of responsibility and the desire to make a difference. After all, the Lubavitcher Rebbe had taught that peace in the world would come only when the “Jewish spark” is revealed within each and every Jew. But Israeli society, and especially the army, was cold to Judaism. Although there was a rabbi on every base, it was more a passive than active job.
On every Israeli air force base were (and still are) housing neighborhoods for the pilots and their families, which naturally included boys approaching the age of bar mitzvah. Eliyahu, well acquainted with a number of the pilots, was the obvious candidate to prepare their sons for what would be for many the only religious occasion in their lives.
The class began with seven boys, and Eliyahu was thankful for that many. However, to his delight, the boys enjoyed the class, friends brought friends, and soon over seventy were meeting twice a week. A story Eliyahu told about Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) earned him the nickname “Eliyahu Hanavi” and the classes became “the course of Elijah the Prophet.”
Eliyahu wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe reporting his success. He felt it was like heaven on earth!
But, as we know, heaven and earth aren’t always compatible. Dark clouds soon gathered over the horizon.
One evening, the commander of this base, a general,* came home. “Hello,” he called out.
No reply. He caught sight of twelve-year-old son, Gad, standing silently in a corner, feet together, swaying back and forth and reading from a book.
The general approached the boy. “Hakol beseder?— Is everything all right?”
The boy continued swaying, eyes on the book.
His mother entered and saw what was happening. “Nothing to worry about,” she explained. “A rabbi’s been coming to the base and giving bar mitzvah classes. He told the boys not to interrupt in the middle of prayer.”
“Prayer? Rabbi? On the base? In my house? Brainwashing my son?” the general screamed. “Who is this rabbi? How did he get here? Why didn’t anyone stop him?”
When the boy finally found a break in prayer, he told his father of “Eliyahu Hanavi.” But because Eliyahu always changed into civilian clothes before class, that was all the boy knew about him.
Apparently prophets don’t wear army badges or uniforms.
Immediately the general contacted the chief of security. “How dare you allow unauthorized personnel on the base,” he shouted.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the chief answered. So he yelled at the chaplain, who was also bewildered.
Fearing further wrath from the commander of this base, the chief went to the commanding general of the entire air force. When told that the invading rabbi’s name was “Elijah the Prophet,” the general almost fell off his chair laughing.
The next step was a meeting with several other officers. When this didn’t help, the chief decided to take things into his own hands. He lay in wait at the classroom as the boys were entering, and the very next day caught “Elijah the Prophet” red-handed.
When Eliyahu revealed his identity, he was ordered to pack his bags and leave the base first thing the next morning. Heartbroken, he went home. Soon he started weeping, then fell asleep in exhaustion.
That night he had a dream. The Lubavitcher Rebbe appeared and asked him how things were going. When Eliyahu burst out crying; the Rebbe approached, opened his coat, placed Eliyahu’s head inside, and covered it as if to say, “There is no need to worry.”
The next morning Eliyahu received an envelope from New York containing two letters from the Rebbe. The first thanked him for the news about the classes and the second was a lesson for the weekly Torah portion. Clearly, miracles were starting to happen.
He finished packing, left the base, and took a bus to central command where he was to be reassigned to a new location. The officer there examined his papers, scratched his head, and examined them again. “What is going on?”
Eliyahu stammered, “What do you mean?”
“Why are they kicking you out?” The officer waved the papers around his head. “It will take me months to find someone to replace you. Why do I need such headaches?” Scanning the papers again, he continued, “And I don’t see anything wrong. No problems with health, conduct, performance, attendance.”
He glared at Eliyahu. “Nu, say something! Why are they expelling you?”
Eliyahu had no choice but to tell him. “I taught children on the base Torah.”
“Torah?” The officer lapsed into thoughtful silence. After a while he leaned forward, narrowed his eyes and asked angrily, “Tell me, does this have anything to do with the Lubavitcher Rebbe?”
“If so,” the commander yelled, “they will kick me out before they kick you out. I’m sending you back! After the Rebbe saved my father’s life I’m ready to do anything for him. Anything!”
He pounded his fist on the table with all his might. “Now you go back to your base and tell them I sent you!”
Eliyahu couldn’t believe his ears. This officer, who had appeared blatantly non-observant, suddenly transformed into a self-sacrificing chasid.
“Thank for very much, sir,” Eliyahu mumbled. “I’m very grateful someone is fighting for me. But I can’t help wondering…why?”
The officer scribbled something on Eliyahu’s papers and pushed them back to Eliyahu on the table. Then he cleared his throat and began.
“About ten years ago my father awoke one morning to find he couldn’t move his legs. We called a doctor and took my father to the hospital. The biggest medical team in Israel showed up, but after thorough testing they advised us to take him to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for expert treatment.
“We did what they said, but over there it was pretty much the same story. They made all kinds of tests but weren’t sure what exactly to do, except make more tests.
“Meanwhile, a bunch of young religious boys came in and began asking the men there if they were Jewish and if so would they please wrap tefillin. My father and I agreed and put them on. We started talking, and in no time these kids suggested taking my father to the farbrengen–some sort of happy gathering–of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in honor of the Chassidic holiday Yud Tes Kislev.
“My father didn’t exactly agree, but before we knew it they got a wheelchair and permission from a doctor. An hour later we were in this big synagogue in Brooklyn that was packed with people. The place was called ‘770.’
“They made way for my father’s wheelchair, and we got a place close to the Rebbe. My father said it was one of the happiest moments in his life; everyone was singing and smiling–exactly the opposite of the hospital.
“Suddenly the Rebbe gazed at my father and motioned for him to toast l’chaim. Someone produced a small plastic cup with some vodka in it and he drank. It was bitter, maybe not even permissible in his state, but he figured one time wouldn’t hurt.
“But then the Rebbe motioned for him to stand and make another one. We tried to refuse, pointing to his wheelchair, but the Rebbe just kept signaling. Someone placed a hand under my father’s arm, and with a superhuman effort…he stood! And even more amazing, he didn’t fall back down! From that moment he was on the road to recovery, and in a month or so he was totally healthy.”
The officer pointed to the door. “And now…go back to your base!”
Eliyahu returned to his base. There he was warned never to teach the children again. Nevertheless, he requested and was granted permission for one farewell meeting.
He gathered the boys around. “Children, remember how I told you that in the days of Rabbi Akiva there were harsh decrees against learning Torah? Well, now there is a similar decree on us. So we will do what the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe did in Russia and what Rabbi Akiva did here in the Holy Land; they taught Torah ‘underground’.”
The boys agreed enthusiastically and began whispering to each other in excitement, Eliyahu continued that once a week he would put a code in the corner of a certain blackboard on the base indicating where and when to meet. And so, for the next year, until he finished his service in the army, Jewish children overcame all obstacles and learned Torah…on the secular-to-an-extreme base.
Occasionally, even today–over 25 years later–Eliyahu runs into some of those “children,” and each one tells him how his classes changed their lives.
* Editor’s note: Subsequently the mayor of Tel Aviv.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from a mailing of the Avner Institute <Rebbebook@Gmail.com>, based on the rendition of Rabbi Tuvia Litzman (in Chassidic Gems?).
Connection: Weekly Reading – Haftorah (Eliyahu HaNavi / Elijah the Prophet)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe: [11 Nissan 5662 – 3 Tammuz 5754 (April 1902 – June 1994 C.E.)], became the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty after his father-in-law’s passing on 10 Shvat 5710 (1950 C.E.). He is widely acknowledged as the greatest Jewish leader of the second half of the 20th century. Although a dominant scholar in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah and fluent in many languages and scientific subjects, the Rebbe is best known for his extraordinary love and concern for every Jew on the planet. His emissaries around the globe dedicated to strengthening Judaism number in the thousands. Hundreds of volumes of his teachings have been printed, as well as dozens of English renditions.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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