Weekly Chasidic Story #817 (s5773-46 / 16 Menachem-Av 5773)
Jet Stranded in Kazakhstan
“Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak Schneerson was the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our generation. An outstanding scholar and leading Kabbalist of ther first half of the 20th century, he was the Chief Rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (the major Ukrainian city today called Dniepropetrovsk) until his arrest and exile.
Connections: Seasonal — 20th of Av (2013: Shabbat, July 26-27) is the 69th yahrzeit of Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak.
The pilot and co-pilot started the engines of the large El Al aircraft and performed all of the routine checks preparatory to takeoff. Also in the cockpit was the flight chief, and sitting behind him was his son, a young man completing secondary/high school and about to be drafted into the Israeli army. As this was an air-freight flight, it was permitted for the crew to bring along a family member.
The plane was on the return leg of a flight to the Far East. The takeoff took place smoothly, as usual. Several hours later it landed, in order to refuel, at its regular stop in Alma Ata (Almaty), the former capital of Kazakhstan. The crew awaited patiently in the plane for the fueling process to be completed, in order to take off to home, to Israel.
But then one of the mechanics approached the flight chief. “There is a problem with the door of the plane,” he reported, startling all those who heard him.
The chief went to inspect the door himself. Sure enough, there was a problem, and it was so rare that although it was described in the instruction manual, no one had ever heard of it actually occurring.
It meant they would have to remain in Alma Ata for an unknown amount of time.
The crew members took their personal belongings and went to relax in the hotel next to the airport where rooms had been arranged for them until the repairs would be finished. In the process another problem came to light. All the crew had visas for Kazakhstan, but not the son of the flight chief. It didn’t occur to anyone that he would need one, and now the local officials were refusing to allow him to leave the airport.
The flight chief had to spend hours on the phone. He requested, pleaded, cajoled, until finally some high-ranking Israeli officials that he was able to involve were able to exert sufficient pressure to obtain for his son a temporary pass.
The chief and his son were at last able to go to the father’s room at the hotel. They were completely exhausted. Nevertheless, “We have to tell Eema (‘Mom’) about the delay,” the boy said.
“You are right. Because of all the complications, I never got around to calling her. Let’s do it right now,” responded his father and picked up the room phone and began the process of placing an international call.
At that point in her life, the chief’s wife had already started drawing closer to Judaism. She attended regularly a weekly class in Chasidut being given in her Moshav by a woman from Kfar Chabad (near Tel Aviv). Her husband was careful to respect her new interest, but he himself had made no lifestyle changes at all.
When he told his wife about the unexpected and indefinite delay, she groaned in frustration. But then, almost right away, the significance of the location and date resonated in her and she called out excitedly, “Surely this is from Heaven! Today is the 20th of Menachem-Av on the Jewish calendar, which is the hilula (yahrzeit) date of Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and a great Kabbalist in his own right. And he is buried in Alma Ata!”
The flight chief was already accustomed to hearing tales from his wife about faith and Heavenly supervision. “So what do you want from me?” he asked in a weary, resigned voice.
She explained that the yahrzeit of a tzadik (pure, righteous Jew) is a day of great merit and opportunity. Therefore she would be so delighted if her husband and her son would go to the burial site and pray for whatever their hearts desired.
“Forget it,” he responded quickly, “I’m much to exhausted for that.”
Anyway, in his supervisory position, he needed to be on site. Already his mind was racing over all the problems that had emerged from the broken door and the delay. Meanwhile, the mechanics had reported that this was no simple repair.
After a succession of consultations of El Al’s top mechanics at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, they were forced to conclude that their best option might be to send a whole new substitute door. Every hour of delay was costing them a huge amount of money, as well as damages to their freight customers. Although it was frighteningly expensive to send a plane solely to carry a new door and a technical crew to install it, this was the most practical choice to cut their losses.
Immediately upon receiving confirmation of the decision, the flight chief notified all the crew members that they would have to wait for the special flight from Israel to arrive, and then for the installation of the new door.
As the crew grumbled to each other about how much longer they might have to be stuck there, they were interrupted by the flight chief’s sudden – and astonishing – second announcement:
“I and my son are going to visit the grave of Rabbi Schneerson, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and a great Kabbalist. Does anyone else want to come along?”
He didn’t really believe anyone else would want to, but surprisingly, the co-pilot stood up right away and said he would like to go too. His companions stared at him in astonishment.
“My mother has some sort of connection to Chabad,” he explained sheepishly, “and a number of times already she has asked me to go to the grave of Rabbi Schneerson one of the times we land in Alma Ata. I haven’t done so until now, so this is a good opportunity. We certainly have enough time on our hands.”
After that, one after another stood up, until [nearly] the whole crew signed up for the expedition. “Is there anything better to do when you are stranded in Kazakhstan?” they said to each other. They asked someone from the Israeli embassy in the capital for directions, but no one there knew. Finally one diplomat referred them to the local Chabad Center. When they telephoned to enquire, the Chabad rabbi told them he would be happy to guide them to the burial site, and invited them to meet him at Chabad House of Alma Ata. So later that day, after the special flight from Israel arrived, they set out.
After a warm reception including drinks and refreshments, the Chabad rabbi escorted them to the gravesite, helped them to wrap tefilin, and distributed books of Tehilim (Psalms). The crew members each read a few chapters and then murmured their private prayers. When they left the site, they all declared it had been a special, uplifting experience.
The flight chief telephoned his wife as soon as he possibly could. He knew his report would delight her. And indeed, her reaction was saturated with happiness. She also declared with certitude that of course now that they had prayed at the great rabbi’s gravesite, the fixing of the door problem will go quickly and smoothly, and very soon they will be in the air to Israel.
Her husband chuckled at the naiveté. He explained that the door problem was quite complicated, so the repair would still take a long time, and they would have to accustom themselves to wait with patience.
His wife replied with even more confidence that while she understands nothing about airplanes, she is convinced that the real reason this rare problem overtook them was in order that he, their son, and the crew would attend the holy site on this day of the yahrzeit.
“Heaven guided events to get you to go,” she insisted, “Now that the goal has been achieved, there is no reason Above for you to have to be stuck there any longer. I’m positive about this.”
The flight chief was skeptical – his usual reaction to his wife’s faith-based outbursts. But she turned out to be right. Not long after they got back to the hotel, he received word that the door replacement had been accomplished much quicker than anyone had anticipated, and the technical team estimated that their work would be completed shortly.
Just a few brief minutes later, the crew was summoned to return to the airport, board the plane, and prepare for take off. “The new door is one hundred percent”‘ they assured the flight chief.
He glanced at his son and they both smiled. Said the father: “Eema may not know much about airplanes, but we have to admit that she does understand about Divine supervision.”
[Source: Translated and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the Hebrew weekly, Sichat Shavua #1335.]
Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak Schneerson (1878 – 20 Menachmem-Av 1944), father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of our generation, was considered by the Rebbe Reshab to be one of his three greatest chassidim. An outstanding scholar and one of the leading Kabbalists of the first half of the 20th century, he was the Chief Rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (a major Ukrainian city, today called Dniepropetrovsk) until his arrest on the day before Passover in 1939. He was sentenced to exile in Kazakhstan, in the village of Chi’ili, where his health rapidly deteriorated. His extensive writings while in exile crammed into the margins of his books, were rescued, smuggled out, and brought to his son in Brooklyn. A number of volumes in the projected multi-volume set called Toldot Levi Yitzchak have already been published.
Connection: Seasonal – 69th yahrzeit of Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak.
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.