Baruch Hashem

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To Infinity and Beyond

For a harrowing 14 hours, a father and his 12-year-old autistic son floated in shark-infested waters off the Florida coast, but it wasn't a chopper or a fisherman's boat that came to the rescue first - it was an animated toy hero.

"Buzz Lightyear got us through," said a relieved Walter Marino, 46, who recounted the pair's terrifying ordeal yesterday on NBC's "Today" show.

To keep their spirits up - and, more importantly, for Marino to gauge how far his son was treading water from him - he would call out the first part of the "Toy Story" space ranger's catchphrase, "To infinity," and his son would reply, "and beyond!"

Their nightmare at sea began Saturday morning as they waded in the Atlantic near Daytona Beach. Christopher, who is severely autistic and is considered nonverbal, got caught in a strong current. His dad jumped in to get him. "The forces just took us out so quickly, it totally took me by surprise," he said.

Throughout the night, Christopher would float on his back and shout out his line. But there was a point when the Florida father of two knew they were slowly drifting apart in the five-foot swells.

"I'd be screaming, 'To infinity, and beyond,' and then I would hear him, and it would get more and more distant until finally, I couldn't hear anything else," Marino said.

"That's when I resigned myself that he was gone," he told CNN.

But he thought of his daughter Angela, who has just started taking ballroom classes, and he swore that he would see her perform.

"I just kept thinking about her and how I was not going to leave her without a brother and her father in the same day - not on my watch," he said.

By morning, fishermen spotted the glint of Marino's necklace bearing a religious medal and pulled him to safety in their boat. He was distraught. It had been eight hours since he had seen his son.

"The Coast Guard asked me if I wanted to be evacuated to a helicopter to go to the hospital, or stay on the boat and continue the search. I stayed on the search," he said.

"They asked me if I wanted to be above or below - I chose to be below, because I knew in my mind that Christopher was gone and I didn't want to see my son floating face-down."

But after nearly two hours, a crew member asked Marino to come on deck.

"I thought they wanted me to come up and identify the body," he said.

Marino recalled the man pointing. "See that helicopter over there?" he said, "That has your son, and he's fine."

Overcome with joy, Marino broke down. "I never kissed so many Coast Guard men in my life!" he said.

Rescue-chopper pilot Lt. James Hannam recalled how calm Christopher was after he had been hauled up in a basket and to safety: "He didn't say anything. He just wanted to hold someone's hand."

Christopher was picked up some three miles from where his father was found, more than eight miles from shore.

Marino said taking his son for swimming lessons probably saved his life.

"He was on an adventure," he said. "I mean, he was laughing . . . It wasn't until the jellyfish started stinging that he started to freak out a little bit."

They were reunited at a hospital.

"We were both very weak, tired and thirsty, but I reached out and touched his hand and could tell from the sparkle in his eye that he was going to be fine," the dad recalled.

A rescuer, David Birky, said, "That kid is an amazing kid. To tread water for almost 14 hours - I don't know about you, but I don't think I could do that. They have amazing willpower to be able to do it."

Who is that Young Baby?

The tables were set for twenty-thirty people with a few meager pieces of fish, cucumbers, onions and potatoes and two loaves of bread. But the two candles, the white tablecloth and the bottle of wine betrayed that something festive was happening.

It was a brit; the festival of circumcision the Jews had been making on their eighth day old male babies since the days of Abraham. But this was not just any brit.

It was the brit of the first born child of a simple, poor Jew by the name of Reb Yitzchak (Isaac) after twenty years of barrenness!!

That's right! For twenty years G‑d had not answered his and his wife's prayers - until now! But for some reason Reb Yitzchak wouldn't allow the event to begin. The crowd was getting impatient but hour after hour passed and he kept telling everyone to wait for just a few more minutes.

An older man, a stranger with old, patched up garments entered the door and looked around. He was obviously some sort of vagabond or wanderer and looked like someone who needed a meal and a handout. But as soon as he entered Reb Yitzchak smiled with joy and yelled out "Let us begin".

He escorted the fellow to the center of the room where there had been placed a large chair and sat him down. He was to give him the honor of being 'Sandek' (the one who holds the child at the time of circumcision) an honor usually reserved for either the father of the child or the most honorable person present.

After the circumcision was finished and the name Shlomo (Solomon) had been given to the child, they all sat down and began the 'festive' meal at which point the disheveled 'Sandek' stood and began to speak.

He spoke simply about how the name 'Shlomo' was reminiscent of how king Solomon was offered one wish by G‑d and he chose wisdom (Kings 3:5-9). So also, he concluded, this child will be wise and teach the Jews wisdom.

After the meal everyone asked Reb Yitzchak who the old fellow was and he answered.

"The story is a long one but I will make it short.

"For years my wife and I lived at the edge of poverty. Our house was, and still is, a one-room ruin and many nights we had to go to sleep hungry. But what bothered us most was that we had not been blessed with children. We prayed, did good deeds, everything possible with no results.

"Well, one day I happened to be wandering aimlessly at the edge of the river praying to G‑d for some sort of miracle when suddenly a glimmering in the mud caught my eye,

"I bent down and picked it up and.. lo and behold it was what looked like a large precious stone. Huge!! I ran to the jeweler and after looking at it for a minute or so declared that not only was it a genuine diamond but it was the largest stone he had ever seen in his life and was worth …. a fortune!!

"I excitedly ran home to tell my wife about our amazing blessing and we decided to sell it as soon as possible … it was dangerous keeping it in the house and give a large portion of the money to charity.

"I left for a few moments to see if I could find a buyer and just after I left the jeweler arrived. He excitedly produced a bag of golden coins, poured them on the table and offered my wife a small fortune for the gem.

She almost took the money then and there, but he happened to blurt out in glee that the priest would probably be overjoyed! He had been searching for months for a diamond like to be used as one of the eyes in the massive statue in……the church!!

"When my wife heard that she almost fainted. The stone would be used for idolatry, she would be supporting idolatry!!! But she hid her surprise and calmly answered that she would have to ask me.

"Of course when I came home and heard the story I refused. I was sure that if G‑d wanted us to be rich He would do it in a completely permissible way.

And sure enough He did!!! (or so I thought at the time).

"The next day there was a knock at my door and when I opened it there stood the local duke with a job for me. He wanted me to accompany him, at a very high wage, for a week on a sea journey to buy some things for his business. He said that he would be dealing with Jews and needed a Jew with him to help. He heard that I was honest etc. and even paid me something in advance.

"Needless to say I took the offer and the next day we set sail. But after a few days at sea he pulled out an even larger bag of coins than the jeweler did and offered it all for the diamond. He must have known that I would be afraid to leave the stone at home with only my wife to guard it. He said that if I refused it wouldn't be good for me and my wife… and he was dead serious.

I was stuck!

There was no where to run and at any time he could have just killed me and taken it so I sort-of owed him a favor. And the duke kept stressing that it was enough money to make me a rich man for the rest of my life!

"I had to think fast. In my mind it was obvious that I could not give him the stone… so I pretended to be happy and told him I agreed.

"Then I kissed the diamond as though saying good bye, held it up the sun and declared 'Ahhh, just look at this beautiful gift from heaven!'" and suddenly 'slipped' on the deck and 'accidentally' tossed the diamond from my upraised hand over the railing of the ship and into the churning sea below us.

"I even screamed in horror and began weeping so convincingly that the duke actually began to comfort and console me. But inside I was rejoicing that I avoided being a partner to idolatry.

"At that moment suddenly everything became silent, I didn't hear anything around me rather a voice, like an echo, issued from heaven and said: 'Rejoice Reb Yitzchak. Because you lost riches to avoid idolatry you will have a son that will illuminate the Torah like a precious gem'

"A year later my wife gave birth to our son and the very night she gave birth I had a dream. A holy Jew with a long white beard and joyous eyes appeared and said,

"'Ask what you want the child to be blessed with and it will be given; perhaps riches, perhaps long life, perhaps wisdom'.

"Immediately I yelled out 'Wisdom!

"'The old man smiled and said, 'Because you requested wisdom as did Melech Shlomo (King Solomon) so your son should be called Shlomo and he will enlighten the Jewish people with his wisdom in the written and oral Torah.' Then he added, 'Tomorrow wait for me. I want to hold the child at the time of circumcision.'

"That man," continued Reb Yitzchak, "was the one that we waited for, I recognized him when he entered the door. I'm certain that he must be none other than Elijah the prophet" (who attends every Jewish brit but is rarely seen or recognized.)"

The child, Shlomo ben Yitzchak was none other than the great Rash'i' whose genius commentaries, found on every page of the Pentateuch and Talmud have made the Torah clear and helped keep Judaism alive for the last almost one thousand years.

       The Cardinal And The Counsellor

Over 400 years ago there lived a nobleman who held a very important position in the Spanish royal court. He was the chief advisor to the King, who held him in high regard. For the King's counsellor was so wise and knowledgeable that there wasn't any matter on which the King did not seek his advice.

For many years the counsellor served the Kig faithfully. But as he grew older, he felt his duties becoming increasingly difficult So he asked the King to allow him to retire.

"My dear friend," replied the King. "if you find me someone who is as gifted as you, capable of replacing you, I will release you from your duties."

The counsellor had no choice but to stay on.

One day the counsellor suddenly fell ill. The King immediately ordered his personal physician to treat his dear, beloved counsellor. But all the doctor's efforts seemed to fail. The counsellor's condition deteriorated from day to day, and he seemed to be at death's door.

The King then sadly sent for his personal priest to hear the counsellor's last "confession," for he had been a devout Catholic all his life. The cardinal entered the room of the dying man, lit candles, and asked everyone else to leave the room. After the cardinal had carried out all he had to do, he took a last look at the counsellor, whom he, too admired and loved, and left the room looking very sad and mournful.

The doctor now returned, expecting his patient to breathe his last at any moment. But to his unbelieving eyes he beheld a different person!

The unconscious counsellor was actually moving his lips as if whispering a prayer! Beads of perspiration glistened on his pale face and he began to breathe deeply; he opened his eyes and asked for a drink of water.

From then on, the patient began to make an amazing recovery. He got better every day, and a few days later he was even able to get out of bed. The King visited him and told him how relieved and delighted he was that his dear friend had recuperated in such a wonderful manner.

When the counsellor had fully recovered, he sent word to the cardinal, asking the clergyman to visit him.

The cardinal came promptly, and the counsellor said to him, "First of all I want to thank you for praying for me when the doctors had given up all hope for my recovery."

"If my prayers helped," replied the cardinal, "I am sure it was due to the fact that you had served the King and country so loyally."

"But I have the distinct feeling that your prayers, in particular, helped me; especially the short, strange prayer, not in Latin, nor in our Spanish tongue, which you recited repeatedly..."

The cardinal paled and started to stammer, saying "The Al-mighty accepts prayers in any language; it is only important that the intention be sincere and the prayer come from the heart."

"But," persisted the counsellor, "I am especially curious to know what that prayer was which you repeatedly whispered into my ear. Was it some form of magic?"

"G‑d forbid!" exclaimed the cardinal.

"So what was it then?"

"There are certain things which a clergyman has to keep secret," answered the cardinal.

"That's just an excuse. Tell me the truth," the King's counsellor demanded.

"The cardinal wiped the perspiration from his pale face and remained silent.

"Listen, my friend," said the counsellor earnestly. "When I lay unconscious, my soul hovering between life and earth, the prayer that I heard you recite repeatedly sank into my brain. I had never heard such a prayer from you before, but I had heard the same words come from the lips of those secret Jews, the Marranos as they were being burned at the stake. With the last breath they called out the words Shema Yisrael..."

The cardinal remained silent, but he listened intently as the counsellor continued:

"I have given this matter much thought. I have come to the conclusion that you are one of the Marranos! Not only are you secretly practicing the Jewish religion, but at the same time you are dishonoring the priestly cloth you are wearing..."

The cardinal's face turned ashen. He seemed utterly crushed. The counsellor pressed his point relentlessly:

"As you know, it is the duty of every true Catholic to inform the Inquisition of any suspicious behavior of the secret Jews who are supposed to be practicing Catholics, but secretly continue to live in the faith of their ancestors. If you will tell me the whole truth and promise that from now on you will behave as a true Catholic should, especially as a priest, I will not inform about you to the Inquisition."

For a while the cardinal remained silent. Then he quietly replied:

"It is true that I come from a family of secret Jews. When I was twelve years old, my father told me this secret. He told me further that in a year's time I would be `bar mitzvah,' and would from then on be obligated to carry out all the mitzvohs of a full-fledged Jew. He warned me about the terrible danger in which secret Jews have to live in Spain under the watchful eyes of the agents and spies working for the Inquisition. But, he said, we were Jews and had to face this danger. He further told me that he himself would prepare me for my bar mitzvah. This he did every day in a secret room in the cellar of our house, where we spent an hour in the morning and an hour at night. Here I began to put on tefillin. Later, when I became fifteen years of age, my father told me he was going to have me enrolled as a student in the Royal Seminary for the priesthood. He explained that as a priest I would have opportunities to help my Jewish brothers. I would have free access to every home and family without arousing suspicion. I would thus have the opportunity to encourage my Jewish brethren to keep firm their Jewishness as much as possible. There would also be the possibility of my winning the confidence of the inner circle of the Inquisition, and then I could do even more to help my brethren, warning those who were under suspicion, or about to be caught in the clutches of the Inquisition. All this, in fact, I was actually able to accomplish during these many years. The Al-mighty protected me from all danger..."

"But whatever gave you the idea to whisper the Shema Yisrael in my ear? Did you, perhaps, think that I too might be a secret Jew?"

"Not really. I had no reason to believe this at all. But it has been my practice when called upon to administer the `last rites' to whisper the Shema Yisrael prayer in the ear of the dying person, for several reasons. First, unfortunately, the practice of Judaism on the part of Jews who have been forced to convert has become gradually weakened. It is not easy to know who is, or who is not, a secret Jew. Therefore, I reasoned, if I whisper this prayer to one who is not a convert, but a born Christian, he would not know what it was, and would be none the worse for it. But if the dying person was, in fact, a Jew, the holy words of the Shema could awaken in him his Jewish spark and a feeling of repentance in the last moment of his life, and he would then feel that he is dying as a Jew."

Both men were now silent, each lost in his own thoughts. The counsellor was the first to break the silence.

"I am sure you have told me the truth," he said. "However, are you now prepared to forget everything and from now on behave as a true Christian priest? For, if not, I have no choice but to put you in the hands of the Inquisition. I beg you, don't force me to do this."

"This I cannot promise you," replied the cardinal resolutely. "You do what you have to do, and I will do what I must. I am ready to give my life for my Jewish faith, as did my forebearers who died at the stake with the Shema on their lips."

A feeling of great inner joy filled the heart of the Royal counsellor. He jumped up and lovingly embraced the "cardinal."

"That's exactly what I was hoping to hear from you," said the counsellor with great emotion.

The cardinal was stunned, and the counsellor did not keep him in suspense.

"You are naturally astonished at my behavior. So listen to what I am going to tell you. I know I can trust you. I, too, was born a Jew, and my parents were also secret Jews like your own. But my parents died when I was a very small child and I was brought up by my uncle who had an important position in the Royal Court. Just before my 13th birthday, my uncle told me the secret that I was a Jew. He arranged for a teacher to prepare me secretly for my bar mitzvah. But here my Jewish education ended. Later, as I had distinguished myself as a highly educated young nobleman, the King appointed me to take over the position of Royal counsellor which had been left open after my uncle's death. From then on I became further and further detached from Jewishness, and soon forgot entirely that I had ever been a Jew.

"When I became ill," continued the counsellor, "I felt that my days were numbered and that I would soon have to appear before the Heavenly Court to give an accounting of my life. I remembered then that I was a Jew and felt terribly troubled and confused. How could I have wasted all these years of my life?! If only there was some way that I could die as a Jew, I would die peacefully, with the holy words of Shema on my lips. But try as I could, the words would not come to my mind. Then, suddenly, as if in a dream, I heard those elusive words Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad! My whole being became alive again... such a sweet feeling. I made a vow that if the Al-mighty spared me and let me live, I would return to my Jewish faith with all my heart and soul.

"Now, my dear friend and brother, you can well understand how grateful I am to you that you have saved my life and my soul..."

The King's counsellor paused only long enough to compose himself, for he was overcome with feeling and barely managed to hold back his tears. Then he continued:

"Words cannot express my gratitude, but I hope I can do more than that in return. Now that G‑d helped me to get well, I began to search for a way to fulfill my vow. I thought of a plan that would enable us both finally to throw off this hateful disguise and be Jews openly, without fear, accept the fear of G‑d. Would you be interested in such a plan?"

"It would make me the happiest man alive!" the cardinal exclaimed.

"Not the happiest man," corrected him the counsellor, "but one of the happiest; I would be the other. Well, here is my plan, I would go before the King and tell him that at the height of my sickness, when I felt that my end had come, I made a solemn vow that if the Al-mighty would spare me, I would settle in the Holy Land to spend my remaining years in seclusion and holiness. I feel certain that the King would give me permission to fulfill my vow, and then I would ask him for a special favor; to allow you, my dear friend, to join me, to be my spiritual mentor and teacher in my old age. So, what do you say to my plan? Agreed?"

Words were not necessary.

Within weeks all preparations were completed. The King did everything possible to see that his two loyal friends, the cardinal and the counsellor, left the shores of Spain with great honor and well provided with all their needs. After a long and exciting voyage, they arrived in the Holy Land and settled in Safed.

At that time, the Holy Land was under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, who were Moslems. In the Ottoman Empire Jews could practice their religion freely. Thus, the former Royal counsellor and the cardinal of Spain could start a new life here, a life of Torah, mitzvohs, and good deeds. They particularly devoted themselves to helping other Jews to come to the Holy Land and return to the Jewish fold as free, loyal and proud Jews like themselves.

The Jewish Soul Lives Forever

Rabbi Kaminetski in Dnepropetrovsk Russia was a very busy man. Besides having to direct the activities of his Chabad House; give Torah classes, visit homes, encourage Judaism, overcome opposition, collect money, run his schools and help as many Jews as possible both spiritually and physically he also had to worry about his personal life; educating his children etc.

Once he was approached by a young gentile girl with a big cross dangling around her neck who asked him to give her dying grandmother a visit.

The girl explained that the old lady was over ninety years old, didn't have a penny to her name, felt she was about to die and wanted a Jewish priest to perform the last rites and, oh yes, she lived over two hours drive away!

When the Rabbi asked why she didn't just get a normal priest she answered that the old lady hated them all because of something some priest did or said to her some fifty years ago, so she said that a Rabbi would also do. She added that her grandmother was also bit senile which also could explain her strange request.

He began asking the girl questions. Perhaps she had seen her grandmother light candles on Friday or separate milk and meat - something... anything Jewish? Maybe she once mentioned something about Judaism?

But it was a dead end. There was nothing. It was clear as day; there were some three hundred million gentiles in Russia and among them was this old lady her daughter and granddaughter.

Rabbi Kaminetski apologized, explained that he was sorry but he didn’t know any Church rites, he didn't know how to help.

But a week later the girl returned. This time she wasn't as easily dissuaded as before.

She began speaking quietly but gradually raised her tone to weeping and moaning. She had traveled two long hours and would never leave until he fulfilled her precious grandmother's last request. He had to have mercy. Only he could do it. The lady was dying!!

He considered personally taking her to the local Church and introducing her to a real Priest but it was all in vain. Her grandmother wants a rabbi.

The Rabbi was stuck. He couldn’t ignore her.

They drove silently and two hours later they arrived at a large run down hut in a typical Russian village. On the porch was sitting a very old woman in an old stuffed living-room chair. She was no more than skin and bones with a blanket covering most of her body and looked out of contact with the world. But when she saw the bearded Rabbi her eyes lit up and filled with tears. She began silently weeping.

The Rabbi walked up the few stairs and as he approached she looked deeply into his eyes and began Yiddish!

"My whole life I have been waiting for this moment," she said in a wavering voice.

"I am a Jew!"

She hesitated, took out a handkerchief and wept aloud.

"When I was nine, my parents were killed in a pogrom, and I was put in a Church orphanage. One nun there once told me that I must never tell anyone I am Jewish because all Jews get killed. Now I am ninety-six, that's right, ninety-six years old, and my entire life I have been keeping this secret, even from my children."  

"You're thinking that maybe I'm not Jewish, right? Well you should know that I remember how my mother would light the candles and make a Brocha (blessing) before Shabbos; Boruch Ataw etc." (and she repeated the blessing). "And my father would put on T’filin and a Tallis and daven in Shul in the weekdays. And she repeated some more details."

She paused for a few minutes, dried her eyes again and continued.

"My whole life I have been repeating these things because I was afraid that I would forget them. See, I remembered! But I didn't tell my daughter because I didn't know how to explain it.

"Now I want you to tell her and my granddaughter that they are Jewish too, so that they will remember. Will you do that Rabbi? And teach them what it means to be Jewish. Then I will be happy."

Think Positive & it Will be Positive!

"It was the winter of 1959, I had been living in Crown Heights for about two years," recalls Reb Avraham Rothenberg of Bnei Brak, Israel, "it was decades before the fax era, and overseas calls were prohibitively expensive. So by the time I heard that my father in Israel had suffered a heart attack, he had already been in critical condition for a few days.

"I was very worried. I wrote the Rebbe in a disconnected stream of consciousness: 'I don't know what to think.'

The Rebbe replied promptly, gently, and firmly: "In similar situations, the previous Rebbeim taught: 'Tracht gut, vet zein gut. Think positively and the outcome will be good.'

"I await good tidings," the Rebbe added.

The Rebbe's answer helped Reb Avraham pull himself together.

Three days later, the Rebbe turned to Rav Avraham: "Nu, do you have any good news to relate?"

"Yes. I just spoke to my family in Israel and my father overcame the crisis."

"When?" inquired the Rebbe.

"This past Thursday evening."

"When did you begin to think positively?" continued the Rebbe.

"Immediately upon receiving the Rebbe's reply."

"And when was that?"

"Thursday evening."

"May such events never occur again," said the Rebbe. 'But you should always remember the importance of thinking positively."

Reb Avraham's father lived for another seventeen years.