Baruch Hashem

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The monk in the minyan

If only the abbot could see Justo Jorge Calderon now. With curling peyot dangling below his chin and the long black cloak of his small hassidic sect hanging off his broad shoulders, Calderon sure doesn't look like a Benedictine monk anymore. Besides, he goes by Aharon now, and he's the proud father of three little children.

Calderon's story is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that grows more intriguing the longer it goes on. Fortunately, it's also one he doesn't mind sharing. It begins in a small town outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Justo Jorge was born into a family of Roman Catholics.

"Today I am a very kosher Jew," the 36-year-old says with a smile, "but once I was a very kosher goy."

When Calderon was 12, he says, his parents sent him to a private religious school to get a better education than the public schools provided. Before long he was spending extra time studying with the monks. At 14, he joined the pre-mission seminar.

"I was young and idealistic," he explains with a shrug.

After high school, with his religious zeal increasing, Calderon went looking for the "ancient, original teachings" of Catholicism. The local Benedictine monastery offered the oldest, "purest" form of Christian life around. Based on a 1,400-year-old order and centered around a largely self-sustaining "holy village," it meant spending most of the day in silence, reflecting on the divine.

"The word 'monastery' is derived from the Greek 'monos,' meaning one, or alone. We monks were each one seeking the One," explains Calderon, revealing his divinity student's mind-set.

Although Calderon's parents weren't happy about his commitment to the monastic life - he's their only son, and they hoped for grandchildren - the young man felt at home in the Benedictine monastery. At home, that is, until he experienced what he calls "my two surprises." The first came in the monastery's library. One of the largest around, it helped make the monastery famous, Calderon says. Of the thousands of volumes it held, though, one particular book would change his life.

"One day," he says, "I chanced upon a Haggada, in Spanish and Hebrew. I was drawn to it, and read it from beginning to end, in amazement." At the end of the Seder service, Calderon read the prayer looking forward to celebrating the Pessah holiday "next year in Jerusalem - Jerusalem rebuilt" and stared at a drawing of the Third Temple.

Calderon sat in silence - not his usual contemplative silence, but a stunned silence.

Justo Jorge Calderon.
Photo: Isaac Harari

"Christianity," he explains, "looks at Judaism as something of an archeological concept, not as something that is still alive, relevant and flourishing... Looking at this prayer at the end of the Haggada, I was shocked that modern Jews still nurtured hopes for the future of their religion."

The discovery rocked Calderon, but he was still unsure what to make of it. Shortly thereafter, though, he experienced his second "surprise," which sent his spiritual quest in an entirely unforeseen direction.

It came on one of his weekly visits to the abbot of the monastery. Upon entering the abbot's study, Calderon found him poring over a Hebrew Bible. (The abbot, Calderon learned, had once studied in Jerusalem, and was comparing ancient texts.) "I was fascinated by the language," he recalls. "I wanted to know, what secrets are in those letters?"

By that point Calderon had spent several years in the monastery and, although he was well on his way to a permanent stay there, he returned to his home for a planned one- or two-year break. Once at home he began attending classes at the Catholic-run university in town and working as a nurse for the Red Cross. But, with his "surprises" spurring him on, Calderon also sought out Jews who would be willing to teach him Hebrew.

At the time, conversion was not on his mind. "I just wanted to know how Jesus prayed," he says.

On Friday nights, Calderon attended services at a local synagogue ("it was kind of like a Protestant church") where the rabbi agreed to let him join the weekly Hebrew class. He also discovered a Messianic Jewish congregation, and prayed there as well.

Thus began a period when, Calderon recalls, he would pray to Jesus while in synagogue on Friday night, and wear a kippa to church on Sunday morning. To Calderon, these interreligious prayer sessions didn't seem like a contradiction.

"It sounds strange," he admits, "but at the time, it made sense to me. Judaism was not 'outside' Christianity, but part of it... like an ancestor."

Soon, however, something in the Shabbat prayers struck Calderon, and shook the foundations of his faith. It was part of the Saturday morning kiddush, specifically, the passage from Exodus that says: "And the Children of Israel observed the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever..."

"This expression stuck in my mind," Calderon says, repeating the words. "'It is a sign forever.'"

"That meant," he says, "that there is an eternal bond, established by God. And since God does not change, then that bond" - the sign observed by Jews, marking Saturday as the Sabbath - "must still be in effect!" Why, Calderon asked himself, would the Church move the Sabbath day to Sunday, if it wasn't really a day sanctified by God?

The question was more than a little troubling to Calderon. After all, if Sunday was not really the holy Sabbath, and if God's covenant with the Jews had not been abrogated and superseded by Christianity, then maybe other tenets of the Christian religion were also not true. Maybe, he allowed himself to think, Jesus was not actually the son of God?

Calderon stopped going to church.

"Everything I believed," he says, "just fell apart."

He started a conversion class at the local Reform synagogue. When the synagogue closed down due to financial difficulties, Calderon sought out more Jews and discovered the local Chabad rabbi.

Rather than eagerly welcome a new convert, the rabbi at first tried to dissuade Calderon.

"He would say, 'Why would you want to be Jewish? We have so many commandments, while non-Jews need only to observe the Noahide laws. Besides, you are already a good person in God's eyes!'" This, however, only made Calderon's desire to convert even greater.

"Until then, I had thought that Judaism was a religion of strictness and law, whereas Christianity was a religion of love. But suddenly I realized that it was really the opposite."

"You see," he explains, "in Christianity, if you don't believe in Jesus, you can't go to heaven. But in Judaism, there is a place in heaven for everyone; you don't have to be Jewish. So really, Christianity is the religion of strictness, and Judaism is the religion of love!"

After a period of "trying it out," Calderon knew that he wanted to convert, and that he wanted to move to Israel to do so. There was just one problem: finances.

"A ticket to Israel cost $1,200. As a nurse, I was only making $200 a month. How could I ever afford to go to Israel?" he says.

The situation was bleak. But then something happened that would be right at home in a hassidic story, the kind that circulates in the little Stropkover shul in Jerusalem where Calderon is now a gabbai: There was a raffle in Calderon's town, with a grand prize of a new ambulance; he entered. Just before Rosh Hashana, Calderon was informed that he had won the grand prize. He sold the ambulance and, suddenly able to afford the airfare, flew to Israel.

At first, Calderon, in his new identity as Aharon, studied at a yeshiva for potential converts. But within a few months the yeshiva had closed. In early 1999, Calderon met Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum and joined the Spanish speakers' ulpan his wife had just started. Around Rosh Hashana that year, Calderon underwent a brit mila. Before Succot, he entered a mikve and completed his conversion.

Back home in Argentina, there was little celebrating going on. Although Calderon's mother was happy that he would, having given up the monastic life, provide her with grandchildren, several family members told Calderon, "If you're Jewish, don't come back here."

"A few years earlier, I had realized that love, hate and jealousy were separated only by a fine line," Calderon says. "I made a choice to love the Jewish people. Later, I began to see the hatred that some people in my town had for Jews."

A Braid of Hair saved the Jews
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Braditchev lived some two hundred years ago.

His fame spread throughout Poland and the neighboring areas as a wonder worker whose love of G‑d, the Torah and the Jewish people was unlimited.

But Rabbi Levi Yitzchak really shined on Rosh HaShanna when he blew the Shofar.

Blowing the Shofar is the first commandment of the year and it is the
highest and most powerful of all the commandments. 

Every commandment is preceded by a blessing declaring G‑d as King of the Universe - but with the blowing of the Shofar we really do it; we actually coronate G‑d and make Him a King!! 

Especially when Tzadikim, (holy righteous people) like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak do it. When they blow the Shofar they can actually 'cause' G‑d to re-arrange the world, 'change' the heavens and draw blessings into even the lowest places.

It is the holiest and most pristine moment of the year. 

So the congregation was aghast when one year Rabbi Levi Yitzchak went up on the podium to blow the shofar and, weeping profusely, pulled a long braid of blond hair from his pocket, held it high in the air for several moments, and mumbled something. Only then, after he put the braid on the table before him, did he begin to blow the shofar.

When he finished he was beaming with joy and later at the holiday meal, when one of his pupils got up the courage to ask him what had happened, he explained.

"Weeks before Rosh HaShanna I and other Tzadikim (holy ones) sensed that this coming year would be filled with pogroms and unspeakable tragedies for the Jews. All the Tzadikim, especially Rebbe Boruch of Mezibuz and myself, were very worried and finally we agreed to devote all our energies, day and night, to fasting and prayer - but after all this nothing helped.

It was obvious that it was out of our hands.  We needed a big miracle.

"So, yesterday, the day before Rosh HaShanna I suddenly felt an urge to search for something, some sort of merit that might change things.

"I left my house and my feet took me to the poorest part of town, I walked aimlessly until I noticed a house in the Jewish section that seemed to be calling to me.

"I knocked on the door and a woman answered, but when she saw me she almost fainted. She began moaning and weeping uncontrollably as though she had been fearing this moment.

"It took her several minutes to allow me to enter, and several more till she sat down, stopped crying and was able to speak, and finally she began talking.

"She told me a tragic story. She and her parents had lived on land rented from the local Baron. They managed to pay the rent and eke out a meager living by milking cows and selling the milk and cheese to nearby farmers but things were not easy. 

"Then, when she was sixteen years old, tragedy struck.  Her parents fell ill and several months later they both passed away.  Suddenly she was alone with no money. All this time there had been no income so there were many debts and if she didn't do something fast she would be without a home as well. 

"She had no choice other than to go to the Baron and plead her case. Perhaps he would have mercy and allow her some time to get back on her feet.

"But when she finally got into the Baron's Castle and was ushered into his room he took one look at her and transformed into an animal before her very eyes.  He began snorting and became flush with passion as he stood up and approached her. 

"But when he saw that she became startled and turned to the door to run he got hold of himself and changed his tune.

"He stood at ease, sat back down and explained to her in as soothing a voice he could muster, how he was offering her luxury and comfort with servants and excitement instead of being a lowly Jew with no future.  He pointed out to her that all of the young ladies in the town would jump at such an offer, how fortunate she was to have found favor in his eyes etc.

"But when it was obvious to him that this also did not impress her he stood up and said, 'Well, then, let me just kiss the locks of your beautiful hair. Just one caress and I will waive your debts and give you the next three years rent at half price.'  And saying this he suddenly stepped forward and, as she turned her head from him, grabbed her hair in his two hands and kissed it lustfully.

"She bolted out the door and ran for as long as she could until she could run no more.  When she finally reached her home she felt so humiliated that she wasn't able to sleep all night. The next morning instead of cashing in on the Baron's promise, she took a scissors, cut off her hair, packed a bag and ran off never to return again.

"She found a job in the city as a housemaid where she worked for several years until she got married.

"This was several years ago. Last year her husband passed away and she felt that perhaps the foul kiss of the Baron had something to do with it.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak continued, "I assured her that this was certainly not true and asked her anxiously if perhaps she still had some of that hair and this is what she gave me."

"This is what I did this morning before I blew the Shofar. I held it up and wept to G‑d, 'Ruler of the Universe, if you have any doubt who Your eople, the Jews, are then just look at this lock of hair.  A poor, orphan girl ave up a life of fortune and comfort, just in order to be your servant! Now, G‑d, you have mercy on us and be our King.'

"And it worked!  The heavenly decree has been annulled!"  (Sipuri Chassidim of Rav Zevin, Moadim, pg 30)  
My Vision
 by Rabbi M. M. Gorelik (of blessed memory)

I was imprisoned in a labor camp in the far north of Russia. The crowding in the bunk was terrible and there wasn't even enough air to breathe. I went out into the yard in order to get some fresh air and was met with 60 degrees below zero temperatures; all that could be seen was snow, snow, snow.

It was Rosh Hashana and one thought plagued my mind and heart: Where is my wife? Where are my children? The K.G.B. had told me terrifying things about my family. They had said, "Your wife is dead. When our men came to her house to take your children from her - because she cannot educate them in the Soviet spirit - she adamantly protested and went into a panic. In her great emotion she had a sudden heart attack and died. But don't worry. Your children are with us, in a Soviet orphanage where they'll get an excellent education in the spirit of communism. There will be none of your Jewish nonsense and religious stupidities."

When they saw that I believed them, they continued to torment me, saying: "Where is your G‑d for whom you sacrificed your wife and children? Where is He? Why doesn't He save you from our hands?"

I wanted to cry but I had no tears. I kept all the pain deep inside. I felt that in another moment I would die from a broken heart. I decided to speak my heart to G‑d before my end, before I left this world of falsehood.

I began: "Master of all, today is Rosh Hashana and we don't say 'Al Cheit' asking You for forgiveness from our many transgressions. But under the circumstances I cannot wait until Yom Kippur. I ask forgiveness for every day and year of my entire life in this world of falsehood. And You, in Your great mercy, forgive me also for saying Al Cheit today, on Rosh Hashana."

I began to emotionally recite my unique Al Cheit: "For the sin of organizing a secret school; for the sin of organizing workplaces so Jews wouldn't be forced to work on the Sabbath and holidays; for the sin of organizing factories in which they worked a few hours and in the rest of the time they taught children Torah; for the sin of arranging documents for those children so they wouldn't be caught and be sent to where I am now.

"I sinned greatly against these wicked people, but I did it all in order to preserve Your Torah and Your commandments, so please forgive me for my sins. Please allow me to express my final request: Tell me where my wife and children are. What has happened to them? Show them to me so it will be easier for me to leave this false world. Show me Your kindness.

"And one last thing. Today is Rosh Hashana. Merciful Father, give me the opportunity to fulfill today's mitzva of hearing the shofar."

Then, a voice resounded in my heart so clearly, I was sure it was a voice from heaven. It said, "Don't be sad and don't believe those wicked ones. Your wife and children are alive and are at home, as always. You will see one another with joy and success."

I cried out, "G‑d! Please change Your rules of nature! We can hear long distance via the radio. Do me this kindness, let me actually hear the sound of the shofar."

Suddenly, I saw before my eyes a large synagogue with a bima in the center, and on the bima stood the Lubavitcher Rebbe blowing the shofar. T'kia - my heart cried wordlessly at this sound. Shvarim, t'rua - my crying intensified but without sound. My heart stopped beating in anticipation, and once again I heard: shvarim, t'rua. I stood there, drinking in this awesome and holy sight. I cried deep in my heart: "Father! Have mercy on us! Father! Rescue your children who need help..."

And then tears began to burst forth, copious, warm tears. I cried out before G‑d for my troubles, for my wife's difficulties, and for the children, who did not sin, and for my brothers and sisters in these same straits.

During those moving moments, there was no snow and ice covered camp, no guard dogs or human-animals who patrolled the fence. What I saw and felt was only G‑d, the holy Torah, the Rebbe blowing shofar, and many Jews who were listening to the sound of the shofar and were crying from the depths of their hearts. The Rebbe, too, was crying.

Many years passed and with G‑d's kindness I remained alive. I was freed from the labor camp and returned home. I found my wife and children  alive and observing Torah and mitzvot despite the dangers they endured  while I was away. More decades went by and miraculously we were freed from that hell. Together with my wife and children we arrived in Israel.

I travelled to the Rebbe in New York at my first opportunity, to pray in  his synagogue on Rosh Hashana, to thank him for praying for us, and for  his blessings that encouraged us to be strong.

I entered "770." I saw before me a large synagogue with a bima in the center. The Rebbe prepared himself to blow the shofar as thousands of  chasidim watched in awe. It was utterly silent. The Rebbe went up to the  bima. He took three bags with him that contained letters requesting  blessings, many from Jews in the Soviet Union requesting a blessing to be able to leave.

The Rebbe covered his holy face with his talit and cried. He cried for all the Jewish people. The Rebbe began to blow the shofar. T'kia, shvarim, t'rua...

It was the same vision I had seen in the labor camp decades ago. But this time it was not a vision!

    This memoir of Rabbi Gorelik was originally printed in a publication for new immigrants to Israel from the Soviet Union.
The Boy who Loved Horseback Riding
The Alter Rebbe, author of the Tanya and (Rav’s) Shulchan Aruch, had many thousands of followers. When any one of them had a serious problem, they would come to Liozna, the small town in White Russia where the Rebbe lived, to ask his advice and blessing.

So it was that one of his followers, who lived in a nearby village, came to the Alter Rebbe one day with tears in his eyes, and poured out his troubled heart to him. He told the Rebbe that he had a teenage boy, whom he tried to bring up in the way of the Torah and mitzvos. He was a fine boy, devoted to his studies, and observant of the mitzvos. But suddenly, something got into him, and he began to turn away from Torah and mitzvos. The heartbroken father feared that his son might go completely astray, and he begged the Rebbe to tell him what to do to bring him back to the right path.

"Do you think you could persuade your son to come and see me?" the Alter Rebbe asked.

"I’m afraid that in his present state of mind he may not be willing to come to the Rebbe," the villager answered sadly.

"Then try to find some excuse to get him to come here. Perhaps you can send him into town on some errand?" the Rebbe suggested. "Once he is in town, a way will be found to get him to see me."

Somewhat encouraged by the Alter Rebbe’s optimism, the Chassid returned home with a lighter heart.

Thinking about a way of carrying out the Rebbe’s suggestion, he suddenly had an idea. His son was very fond of horseback riding. Now, it was not considered nice for observant young Jews to ride into town on horseback, but his son did not worry about what people might say, and whenever the opportunity presented itself he would ride right into town on horseback like any non-Jewish country yokel.

So the Chassid thought up an errand and asked his son to go into town.

"If I can ride into town. . . ." the son said. His father nodded.

The young man went galloping into town. Little did he know that the errand was really a pretext for his father’s friends to get him to the Rebbe’s house.

Shortly he found himself facing the Rebbe, who greeted him warmly.

"But why did you choose to ride into town on horseback, instead of in a buggy?" the Rebbe asked.

"Well, I just love horseback riding. My horse is a fine animal; why not take advantage of such a fine horse?" the boy replied.

"And what are the advantages of such an animal?" asked the Alter Rebbe.

"A good horse runs fast. You gallop away and you reach your destination so much quicker," said the young man enthusiastically.

"That is all very well—if you are on the right road," countered the Rebbe, "but if you are on the wrong road, you can only travel quickly in the wrong direction!"

"Even so," insisted the young man, "the horse could help you quickly get back to the right road, if you catch yourself and see that you are on the wrong road. . . ."

"If you catch yourself and see that you are on the wrong road," the Alter Rebbe repeated slowly and emphatically. "Yes, my son, if you catch yourself before it is too late, and realize that you have strayed from the right path; then you can quickly return. . . ."

The words of the Alter Rebbe, uttered deliberately and pointedly, struck the young man like a bombshell, and the Rebbe’s penetrating eyes seemed to pierce right through him. The boy fell down in a faint.

He was quickly revived, and in a subdued voice he asked the Rebbe’s permission to remain in Liozna, so that he could renew his Torah studies and come back to his family as a good Torah-abiding Jew.

Even Non Jewish Kings Can't Have Many Horses

About two hundred years ago in the days of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad (whose birthday was earlier this week on the 18th of Ellul) lived a rich Jew who made his fortune by building ships for the Russian Navy.

The Russians have no love for the Jews, most of them are outright
anti-Semites, and it so happened that a large group of his workers were 'blessed' with an unusual measure of this hatred.   They despised their Jewish boss, were jealous of his success and would have killed him outright were it not punishable in court.

So they came up with a plan. They purposely put flaws in their work and then went to the police presenting a neatly fabricated story, supported by the the defects in the ship they were building, that it was all the doing of their boss.

In no time the whole thing became a public scandal:  A Jew took money from the government, sabotaged the Czar's navy and tried to undermine the entire kingdom!

Our hero was taken by complete surprise!

Before he knew it he was being led to Jail. He had no choise but to put up a high bail and make tracks to the best lawyers possible. But none of them wanted to touch his case.  There were too many witnesses and too much evidence against him.  He tried to offer them more money but it didn't help; all the money in the world couldn't convince them to defend a traitor!

With no recourse he ran to the city of Liozne where Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe, lived. He heard that this Rabbi did miracles to help people and he desperately needed one!!

He made it to the Rebbe, asked for an audience and, after a few hours wait found himself pouring out his heart to this holy man.

The Rebbe heard his problem, thought for a few seconds, smiled and said. "You have to go to the local horse market and buy four of the best and most expensive horses there, spare no money.  Just make sure they are the strongest and most impressive horses there. "

"Horses?" he blurted out in surprise.

"Yes", answered the Rebbe "Then ask where you can buy a carriage and buy the most ornamented and costly one available. Have the horses hitched to the carriage and drive to the city of Petersburg where the Czar's palace is and drive back and forth in front of the royal palace.  Do you understand?

The poor fellow shook his head yes but was completely bewildered. He didn't believe that this was happening to him! First being accused of capital crimes he never committed and now horses!  But he had no choice.

The Rebbe continued. "Eventually one of the Czar's men will stop you and ask you if the horses are for sale but you must answer 'no, not for all the money in the world!' Do you understand?  

He meekly shook his head yes and the Rebbe continued,

"He will offer you more and more money but refuse until he will say that the Czar saw them from his window and wants them.

"When he says this, you get out of the wagon, stand at attention and say, 'For the Czar?! I give them to our glorious Czar as a gift!' and hope for a miracle!"

The poor fellow backed out of the Rebbe's room as though in a bad dream but with no other option, he did as he was told.  He went to the horse market, bought the best ones there, had them harnessed to the finest carriage, drove many hours till he reached Petersburg and finally began driving around and around before the Czar's palace thinking to himself 'I hope they don't think I'm insane and put me in a hospital! And even if the Czar does notice me and I give him the horses. how will he know who I am? Maybe I should write a note or something.'

But as he was thinking... sure enough; a servant came out of the palace, motioned for him to stop and offered to buy the horses!  He refused as the Rebbe told him to and, as the Rebbe said, the servant raised the price over and over until the Czar's name was mentioned at which point he feigned surprise, stood at attention, raised his eyes majestically to the heavens and gave the horses and carriage. (But in his heart he was praying to G‑d that he wouldn't get too much time in jail).

Meanwhile the Czar himself was watching all this from his palace window and his curiosity was really aroused. Then when he saw his servant returning with the horses and nothing more he sent another servant with orders to ask his benefactor for his full name and city of residence.

In moments the servant returned with the information and when the Czar heard it he shook his head knowingly saying, "A Jew ehhh! Well well! This Jew has succeeded in bribing even the Czar himself!"

Then suddenly the Czar remembered something. this name was familiar. Aha! He remembered!  This must be the Jew that was accused of sabotaging the ship! But, unexplainably, something inside him told him that something was wrong; that the charges were trumped up.

He paced about in his room for a few minutes then went into the royal stables to admire the new gift horses and the more he petted and stroked them the more his intuition told him the Jew was innocent.

That next day he issued an order to the Minister of Justice to delay the case until further notice and then formed an official committee and set off to investigate the ship personally.

Sure enough, after a few hours of inspection and interrogation of the 'witnesses' their evil plans were exposed! The charges were dropped and the real culprits were imprisoned.

The Jew was beside himself with awe for the Rebbe and joy for his release! And at the first opportunity he went to the Rebbe to thank him profusely for the miracle he did.

But the Rebbe just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "I did a Miracle? Heh! HaShem did the miracle! I just remembered that the Torah forbids a Jewish king from increasing horses (Deut.17:16) so I reasoned that if even a holy king like King David or King Solomon has to be warned about horses it means that kings, even gentile kings, must have certainly have a lust for them! Once he took the horses, Hashem did the rest.

                            MOSHIACH MATTERS
In the future, when Moshiach comes, every creation in this world will understand and recognize that there is a G‑dly power within which makes it exist and gives it its life-force. This is the meaning of the line from the Amida prayer which we say on Rosh Hashana. We beseech G‑d to reveal His Kingship in this world - "May everything that has been made know that You made it"- because in truth nothing exists without this G‑dliness.