Weekly Chasidic Story #854 (s5774-32 / 7 Nisan 5774)

Japan’s Best-Selling Talmud Teacher

“The Rebbe kept zeroing in on Japan and how this was the right place for me. He even made a comparison to the Peace Corps of President Kennedy.”

Connection: Seasonal — 11 Nissan is the 112th anniversary of the birth of Rabbi M. M. Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our generation.

[As told by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer to JEM (Jewish Educational Media) recorded on Chol Hamoed Pesach 5773 (March 30, 2013).]

The first time I met the Rebbe was as a student at Yeshiva University. It was a fascinating two-hour meeting where we spoke about a Jew’s role in “perfecting the world” (tikkun olam). The next time I saw the Rebbe was several years later, in May of 1967. During the interim, I had served as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Japan. Upon my return home, I was hired as the rabbi of a community in Great Neck, New York and became engaged. Encouraged by a Chabad chasid, a kosher supervisor for a caterer in my neighborhood, I sent the Rebbe an invitation to my wedding.

To my shock, within a week of the Rebbe receiving the invitation, I received a telephone call that he wanted to see my fiancée and me for a blessing. We went with no agenda, expecting the meeting to last a few minutes.

When we came in, the Rebbe gave me a big smile and said in Yiddish, “Lange tzeit nisht gezen – I haven’t see you in a long time! You disappeared on me.”

It’s true that I disappeared, but I was not a Lubavitcher chasid, so what contact was I supposed to have? Perhaps I should have had some contact, but it was remarkable that he noticed.

And then he said to me, “Genug arbeten mit de maysim; yetzt darfst du arbeten mit de chaim – Enough working with the dead, now you have to start working with the living.”
At first I didn’t get it. I said, “I don’t do funerals.”
But he only repeated it, “Enough working with the dead, now you have to start working with the living.”

I looked at my fiancée. I didn’t have a clue as to what the Rebbe was trying to tell me. Maybe this was some kind of a mystical riddle. So I said, “Excuse me, but I don’t understand. I’m embarrassed that I don’t understand.”

He smiled. “I read that you located a Jewish cemetery in Nagasaki. Why are you wasting your time finding Jewish cemeteries? There are living people in Japan. There are Jews living in Japan, and they need your help.”

The truth is that I did locate a Jewish cemetery in Nagasaki, where the first atom bomb fell in 1945, and found that it was not decimated. This was reported in the newspapers here in America: “Jewish Chaplain Locates a Cemetery in Nagasaki.” I was very surprised that the Rebbe had read this and that he cared about the Jews of Japan.

When I was over there I was in the military, I didn’t deal with civilians, so I had no connection with the Japanese Jews, who lived mostly in Tokyo, many miles from where I was stationed. But the Rebbe was telling me, “I think you should go to Japan and be the rabbi of the Jewish community there.”

My fiancée did not understand Yiddish. She was an Israeli of Yemenite ancestry. To her, Japan was the end of the world. When I translated for her what the Rebbe had said, she replied, “I think you should tell the Rebbe that we’d sooner go to the moon. We’re not interested in Japan.”

I tried to change the subject, but the Rebbe seemed oblivious. No matter how I tried to steer the conversation – to our getting married or to the blessing we came for – the Rebbe kept zeroing in on Japan and how this was the right place for me.

Finally I asked, “Why? Why should I go to Japan?”

In response, he brought up the Peace Corps, a popular program started by the Kennedy Administration. The objective was to send young Americans to impoverished areas all over the world to help ease the plight of the people from there. After completing college, many young Jews rushed to volunteer in the Peace Corps for a year of two. They wanted to make the world a better place.
The Rebbe said this was very nice – to help your fellow human beings. “But there are Jewish people all over the word, as well, and they also need help. There are Jewish people in Japan and they have no rabbi. Who’s going to teach their children? Who’s going to instill them with pride in being Jewish? Who’s going to tell them about Passover and Chanukah and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? You know the country, you were there. It’s not so strange to you. You should go there. You have to go there.”

I pointed out that the Rebbe sends his emissaries, his shluchim all over the world. Why not send somebody there? He looked at me and said, “If I had somebody, I would send them.”

He countered every argument I presented against my going. “Don’t say that you are married; you’re not married yet…Don’t say you have children and you need to send them to yeshiva; you have no children yet…You don’t have to go forever. Spend as much time as you want, but be of service to the Jewish people.”

I explained this to my fiancée, but she thought it was meshugah [crazy] to go to Japan. She pointed out that we don’t speak Japanese and know nothing about the Jewish community over there.
And so we said thanks, but no thanks.

He stood up then and gave us a blessing, and I thought that was the end of it. But soon thereafter I received a telephone call from the president of the Jewish community in Japan. He explained that he was in New York and wanted to meet me for a coffee.

Out of the blue, he offered me the position of rabbi of the Jewish community. I declined, but he was back a month later. We had coffee again, he offered me the position again, and I declined again.

The third time he came back, I finally agreed. My wife and I decided that maybe it would be a good idea to do this for two years. We would be just the two of us together, away from it all, it would give us a chance to cement our marriage. Plus we would be near Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. It would be a great vacation in the Orient.

About a year later, our household goods and books were shipped off toJapan. My wife was expecting our first child, so we decided to wait for the baby’s arrival before setting off for Japan.
But then, suddenly and totally unexpectedly, my father passed away. While I was sitting shiva, a letter arrived from the Rebbe. The Rebbe comforted me on my loss. It meant so much to me because I was struggling with my decision, yet again, whether or not to leave. Now I was facing a new dilemma: Can I leave my mother at a time like this? I didn’t know what to do.

When I got up from the week of mourning, I called the Rebbe’s office and asked if I could see him. I received an appointment right away.

First, I thanked him for his letter, expressing how meaningful and helpful it was, to both my mother and me. We must have read that letter 100 times.

But then I told him I was not sure if I should still go to Japan. I was worried about my mother and concerned that there would be no minyan for me to say Kaddish every day in a foreign country. The Rebbe responded, “You should go. If you are concerned about your mother, then take her along, but don’t back out.”

And then he advised me on how to conduct myself there. “You’ll be the only rabbi in the area. You won’t be just the rabbi of the shul, you’ll be the rabbi of the entire community, even of those Jews who don’t come to shul. You must be open to everyone, and everyone should know that you are his or her friend. They need to know that they can come to you, and that you’ll go to them if they need you. Whether they attend shul or not, you should be interested in them and concerned about them.”

He told me to build a school and to teach a class in Mishna, using the actual text. “Use a text – whatever text you like, but teach via text, because then, even if they don’t like what you say, they’ll have the text. If you just give a lecture, it goes in one ear and out the other, but if there’s a text, that’s something they can take home with them.”

He also told me to study Torah with my wife, in particular Chumash with Rashi’s explanations. “Study it together, and it will unite you. You’ll be all alone there, far away from family and friends, and this will be quality time you will spend together.”

He told me to choose an advisor over here, someone to whom I could address questions in Jewish law, someone of authority whom I could call upon. I said that I’d like to call Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and he said, “That’s very good. I will mention your name to him and ask him to accept your calls, since you are responsible for such a large area.”

And then he said to me, “Chayei mitzvos yom yom” – “Live the Torah commandments day to day.” And in that, he gave me my theme, my motto. I wrote it down on a little card and I kept it with me all the time: “Live the Torah day to day.”

Those years turned out to be the best years of our lives. A whole world opened up to me. I learned a great deal about myself as a human being, as a Jew and as an American.

A fascinating two years passed and we ended up staying on for three, then four, five, and finally eight years. At first, I said we wouldn’t send our children to school there. But because I had decided that I would not leave unless I had a replacement, I had no choice but to enroll them in school.

During this time I observed that the Japanese were curious about Judaism, and especially the Talmud. One day someone called and asked if he could borrow a Talmud. “I’ll read it overnight and bring it back in the morning,” he said. Smiling to myself, I advised him to bring a truck. Only when he came to pick up the books did he realize how many volumes there are in the Talmud.
After our conversation, he suggested that I write an introduction to the Talmud, translating its best stories and insights into Japanese, which I did. The book became a number one bestseller in Japan, selling close to a million copies. And it’s still selling today; I think in its thirtieth edition.

Throughout all the years, I will never forget my meetings with the Rebbe and the expression in his eyes. They were warm and beautiful, but also penetrating. They seemed to look right through me. It’s a memory that I cannot erase, and it’s hard to convey to someone who never met him. You felt that this was a person you couldn’t deceive. That this was not an average person, but someone with unique powers, who was as close to holiness as a human being could get.

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from a mailing of “JEM – Here’s My Story” (//JEmedia.org), based on their extraordinary “My Encounter with the Rebbe”project, documenting the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M Schneerson of righteous memory. The story is one of thousands recorded in the 800 videotaped interviews conducted to date with seniors who knew the Rebbe in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.

Connection: Seasonal — Friday, 11 Nissan is the 112th anniversary of the birth of Rabbi M. M. Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our generation.

Biographical note: 
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersonthe 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.

NEXT WEEK: More from Japan, but a different rabbi in a different city


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.

To receive the Story by e-mail every Wednesdaysign up here!