Monday, March 5, 2012
Lubavitcher Rebbe's Trouble on Purim
The story takes place in the year of 1932. Others say It was 1933. Some say it took place in Berlin, others in Paris. Rabbi Shmuel Buttman has told the story twice in recent years. On one occasion he spoke of Berlin, and on another occasion he spoke of Paris. But it has been confirmed by Rabbi Chaim Ciment, who heard the story directly from Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, who was present at the time, that the story did, in fact, take place in Berlin. The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menamchem Mendel Schneerson, had attended both the University of Berlin and the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris around this time. Just as an aside, there is a machlokes (disputation) as to whether the Rebbe received a degree in engineering from the Sorbonne, or whether he audited classes. Whatever the case, he was an expert in the field. Years later, when an issue came up in the State of Israel, whether or not it was permissible to drive steamships on shabbos, the Rebbe was consulted. The workers could hardly be dissuaded from their position, namely that it was permissible to operate the ships, and that they can thereby earn their wages for an extra day's work. In an extensive dissertation on the subject the Rebbe explained the principles of engineering that applied to the case and the mechanics of the ships, which would render them unfit for use on shabbos. The experts in the industry were so baffled by the Rebbe's expertise, and so convinced of the correctness of the report that they immediately halted all use of the steamships on the Seventh Day.
And now to the story. It was Purim night in Berlin, and the Rebbe sat in his apartment a good few hours after the reading of the Megillah. He had had a few drinks, as is the custom on Purim, and was deep in thought, contemplating Megillas Esther (scroll containing the story of the holiday of Purim) and its deeper meanings. He was overcome by fervor and enthusiasm as he sank deeper into his thoughts. He pondered the fact that in the midst of a plethora of new political and social movements, and "isms" in Europe at the time, there had been too many Jews swept away by the fervor of these false ideologies. The Rebbe felt an immediate need to do something about it. A fire began to burn within, and he ran from his apartment down into the street. With great fervency he searched for the first Jew he could find. He had a burning need to teach Torah, and give over some of the lessons of Purim. He began talking to a couple of Jews with depth of feeling. He poured out his heart to them. Soon, more Jews began to walk by, and they gathered around to hear the religious teachings of this young, unknown religious man in the street. In time there was a small gathering around the 31 year old Menachem Mendel. It soon became a small crowd, and the Jewish residents of Berlin were enraptured by his words. More time had passed, and nobody would budge. Within the hour there was a large crowd gathered around the Rebbe, Jews and non-Jews alike. Passers-by did not know what the excitement was about, and stopped to listen, by this time from afar. The crowd swelled, and two policemen on the beat spotted the mass gathering. They began to break through the crowd, asking what the purpose of the gathering was about, and who was in charge of the mob. Fingers pointed to the front, and the police made there way toward the Rebbe. Angrily, they asked for an explanation. The Rebbe tried to explain, but to no avail. They asked to see his permit for conducting such a large gathering on a main thoroughfare, and he tried to explain that it was an impromptu assembly. The police did not take his answer lightly, and the Rebbe was put into handcuffs and taken down to the city jail.
The Rebbe had his one phone call, and called Rav Soloveitchik, who had also been in Berlin at the time. Rav Soloveitchik rushed to police headquarters, and explained to the chief that this young man had no evil intent in giving a speech, and had no political motivations whatsoever. After a lengthy explanation of the man's kind and humane nature, and his involvement in charitable causes, the chief was convinced. The Rebbe was let go, and the two went up to Rav Soloveitchik's apartment, where they spent the entire night learning the deeper and esoteric meanings of the events of the story of Purim.
About forty years later at a farbrengen(religious and musical gathering) at 770, Lubavitch headquarters, people were passing by the Rebbe to say l'chaim ("to life", said over a drink). One man stopped and, with great excitement, said to the Rebbe, "forty years ago, I was there! When the Rebbe was in the street teaching Torah, and the Rebbe was taken to jail. I was there!" The Rebbe gave this man a sharp look, and said (and you could forgive my Yiddish), "lass das bleiben zvishen uns (let it remain between us), because here in Lubavitch they will make it another Yom Tov (joyous holiday)."
The Rebbe meant it.
I am still not sure if this story is well-known among Lubavitchers, or if it did indeed remain hidden for many years for the reason cited by the Rebbe. I have asked a number of Lubavitchers. Some know of the story, and some don't. If anyone has anymore information please let me know.
Video of the Lubavitcher Rebbe sixty years later on Purim.