Following Israel's miraculous victory of the Six Day War in 1967, the Lubavitcher Rebbe
intensified his "tefillin campaign," instructing his followers to take to the streets
and invite Jews to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin (observed by binding
on one's head and arm leather boxes containing Biblical passages encapsulating
the fundamentals of Judaism).
The idea of approaching non-religious strangers in the street with a request
to do a religious act, and such a novel one at that, was unheard of at the time
(even today only Chabad is "crazy" enough to do it). No one knew exactly
how to "take" this new directive from the Rebbe. In Chabad-Lubavitch
communities across the globe, the Rebbe's Chassidim talked about virtually
nothing else. Many of these discussions took place at farbrengen gatherings
(a farbrengen is an infomal, but very serious, gathering of Chassidim
of all ages, with the goal of doing -- and being -- what the Rebbe wants; l'chaim
is often consumed and people bare their hearts and minds to one another).
At a farbrengen in Kfar Chabad (the Chabad-Lubavitch village in
Israel) was Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, a salty Chassid and the mashpia
(Chassidic teacher mentor) of the central Yeshiva, who had spent many years in
Soviet prisons and labor camps for his Jewish outreach activities. The discussion
went on all night long, with everyone at the farbrengen trying to explain this
totally unorthodox, seemingly unacceptable idea, with no success.
Then Reb Mendel remembered something he had heard in Siberia fifteen
years earlier. During his years in the gulag, with
nary a Jewish book to
nourish his soul, Reb Mendel tried to learn a lesson in the service of
G‑d from everything he heard and saw (in accordance with the famous
teaching of the Baal Shem Tov) -- and usually he succeeded.
(He once told me that he believes that the reason that the great
Chassidic master Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli said that it's possible
"to learn seven positive lessons in the service
of G‑d from a thief" is because Rabbi Zusha never sat
in prison. If he had sat in prison he would have learned thousands of
things!) But there was one story -- said Reb Mendel to his fellow Chassidim at
the farbrengen that night -- that, try as he might, he could not figure
out what was its spiritual point... until now.
One of the prisoners in the labor camp had been a deep-sea diver in the Czar’s
navy, and was talking about his exploits: "It occasionally happened that one
of the ships of the Czar’s navy would sink, sometimes because of a storm at sea,
or because it struck a rock, or sometimes in battle.
"Now, ships are worth a lot of money, just the metal and the equipment
alone were often worth millions, so the navy developed a means to lift the ship
from the ocean floor so it could be towed to shore and repaired or at least
partially salvaged. And that's where I came in.
"What they would do is situate two towing-ships on the sea above where
the sunken ship was. Each ship would lower a long, thick chain with a huge hook on
its end, and I would dive down, attach one hook to the front and the other
to the rear of the sunken ship. Then the towing-ships would reel in their
chains, lift the sunken ship from the ocean floor, and tow it in to shore.
"Now, this was all good and well when the sunken ship had been under water for a
month or so, but after that the ship began to rust and the hooks would bring up
only huge chunks of iron, leaving the rest of the ship behind.
"So someone developed a brilliant idea. The two tugboats, instead of lowering
just one chain each, would spread a huge inflatable rubber mat over the place
where the sunken ship was. Inside the mat was a large flat sheet of steel with hundreds
of steel cables attached to it. The cables ran though special airtight holes in the
rubber bottom of the raft in a way that no water could get in and no air would
escape. At the end of each dangling cable was a hook.
"My job was to go down with a few other divers, lower the mat, spread it over
the sunken ship, and attach the hooks to as many places as possible. Then
a motor on one of the two tugboats would pump air into the mat and slowly
inflate it. It began to pull upwards until... WHOOPA! The entire
ship rose to the surface and could be towed to dry land. Because there were cables
attached to so many parts of the ship, the disintegrating ship could be lifted
in one piece, without falling apart."
"Only now am I beginning to understand the meaning of this story," said
Reb Mendel that night in Kfar Chabad. "The ship is like the Jewish
people, rusting and falling apart because they have been submerged in
exile for almost two thousand years.
"The Rebbe’s idea is to save the ship and we are the Rebbe's
deep-sea divers. Trying to pull up the whole thing up with one or
two big hooks won't work. We need to attach a cable to every single Jew...
bind tefillin on as many Jews as possible, and then when enough
"hooks" and "cables" are attached... WHOOPA! G‑d will pull us all up