This is an absolutely amazing, extraordinary story that Rabbi Elimelech Biderman recently told in Eretz Yisrael. It’s about Rabbi Yoel Palach, zt”l, a very special, wonderful person, a Gerrer chasid who had a good, religious, happy family, and who spent most of his time learning Torah. Plus, encouraged by his Rebbe, every day he would go to north Tel Aviv, one of the most secular neighborhoods in Eretz Yisrael, to give a Torah lesson and thereby hopefully bring awareness of Torah, mitzvos and what it means to be and live as a Jew to whoever would come to his class.
Sometimes there were more people, sometimes less. No matter how few listeners there were, Rabbi Palach would give his class with tremendous intelligence, love and enthusiasm as he eagerly tried with all his heart, mind and neshama, soul, to share the meaning and importance of our holy heritage with his unlearned and therefore estranged fellow Jews in north Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Palach passed away over ten years ago and during the shiva, the first week of mourning, a man came to pay his condolences to the rabbi’s family. He was a fine looking person, looked basically like the other visitors there, and he told the family of Rabbi Palach of an incident that he knew about that maybe they didn’t know. And this is what he said: One extremely cold and rainy evening Rabbi Palach went to give his Torah class in Tel Aviv and saw that no one was there. He waited a while, but still no one arrived, so, unwilling to forego his holy task, he went outside in the cold and rain looking for people to come to the class. He stopped a man on the street and asked him: “Would you like to hear a fascinating class about your heritage?” The extremely secular man looked at Rabbi Palach from top to bottom as if he had just descended from the moon, made a strange face which clearly dismissed the invitation, as well as the rabbi, and walked away.
There weren’t many people out that night because of the weather but Rabbi Palach continued to approach whoever he saw and asked the same question, offering the same warm invitation to come hear a Torah class. And he received from all of them basically the same answer. Something like: “You must be kidding.”
But he didn’t give up. Instead, he entered the nearest building, went up to the first floor and knocked on the door to see if there was anyone there who would come to his class. When no one answered, he went to the adjacent apartment on the same floor. There was no answer there either, and so he continued going to all the apartments in the building, knocking on doors. A couple of people did answer but no one was interested in his ‘weird’ offer to learn Torah.
And then, just before he left the building, Rabbi Palach decided to go back to the first apartment he had gone to and knocked there again. Why? Why not try another building or . . . He didn’t know why, he didn’t think about exactly why he was knocking there again, but he did. He knocked again, and again, and again, but no one answered. Though that’s what had happened several minutes before, this time, for some reason he kept knocking. He knocked and knocked, louder and stronger than before. BANG! BANG! BANG! But no one answered. And yet, for some reason, he kept doing so. He didn’t try another door or another building. For some reason unknown to him, he just kept knocking there, louder and louder, again and again. He didn’t really know why he was doing this since there was no response, nor was there any noise from inside the apartment which would indicate that someone was home. But still he kept knocking, again and again and again, very, very loudly.
And then suddenly he heard from inside: “Who is it?!! Who is it?!!”
Rabbi Palach answered through the closed door: “You don’t know me. I’m a rabbi, and I’m going to give a Torah class soon and I wanted to invite you.” There was silence. And then slowly the door opened and a huge man with long unkempt hair, a scruffy beard, dirty, disheveled clothes and a glaring face, stared at the rabbi ominously and said: “What??!! Who are you and what do you want???!!!”
Rabbi Palach responded as calmly as he could: “I’m a rabbi, and I wanted to invite you to hear a Torah class that I’m giving soon.” The man stared at him with his wide, wild eyes and bellowed: “Who sent you?” And the rabbi said again: “I want to invite you to a Torah class I’m going to give soon.” “Who sent you?!” the man asked, and again Rabbi Palach repeated his invitation to come to a Torah class.
Now the man shouted: “I asked you something! Who sent you?!” And again the Rabbi said simply: “I’m giving a Torah class soon and I . . . . ” At that, the man grabbed Rabbi Palach’s jacket and pulled him into the apartment, locking the door behind them. “Who sent you??” the man shouted at him again. And again the rabbi said: “I just wanted to invite you to a class I’m giving about the Torah and mitzvos.” This time the man screamed: “Who sent you???!!!” And the rabbi said: “Would you like to come to a Torah class that I’m giving in a little while? It’s right nearby.” To which the man answered: “I’m giving you three minutes to answer my question – who sent you?!!” And the man left the room, for three minutes.
Rabbi Palach was obviously extremely shaken and when after three minutes the man came back for his answer, Rabbi Palach just repeated that he was inviting the man to come to a Torah class. There was silence and then the man said: “Come with me” and he led the rabbi into a room where a noose was hanging! The rabbi felt as if the blood was draining from his head and heart and body as all his strength left him.
Believing that he was about to be murdered, he summoned whatever life he had within him and began saying viddui, confession before dying, and was about to say Shema Yisrael when the man said: “You see this noose?” The rabbi silently nodded. The man continued speaking: “Forty years ago I had a big argument with my parents and so I moved out of their house and moved into this apartment. I’ve been living here alone ever since then and no one has ever knocked on the door. I am totally alone, my life isn’t a life, and I saw no reason for continuing it. And so I decided to end it. I stood on this chair and put the noose around my neck and then, though I am in no way religious, suddenly I heard myself crying out: “Creator of the Universe, if you want me to continue living, please give me a sign . . . And then suddenly I heard knocking on my door!
“I was shocked. And then I thought that maybe Hashem sent me whoever was there as a sign. But by the time I got down from the chair and went to the door, no one was there. So I went back and again got on the chair and put the noose around my neck, this time even tighter.
“And then again I suddenly heard knocking. I decided to ignore it because the first time it happened nobody was there. But the knocking continued, louder and louder, again and again and again! And still louder and more, and more, and I just couldn’t ignore it. So I took off the noose again, got down off the chair and went to the door. And there you were, inviting me to a Torah class! It was so unbelievable, beyond any sign I could dream of. And that’s why I kept asking you: ‘Who sent you???!!!'”
The rabbi, thoroughly relieved that the noose wasn’t for him and thanks to Hashem’s mercy would also not be for this man, explained why and how he came here. He explained that his Rebbe had encouraged the chassidim to try to bring our fellow Jews closer to Torah and the beautiful, holy Jewish way of life, and that that’s why he gave Torah classes in this totally secular area of Eretz Yisrael. When the man heard this, he realized that Hashem had heard and answered his prayer – Hashem gave him a sign that he should continue to live.
And a deep, totally sincere, honest and beautiful relationship began between Rabbi Palach and this poor, miserable man. Rabbi Palach taught him Torah, and he taught him that he is Hashem’s beloved child, that Hashem loves him unconditionally. And little by little, with Rabbi Palach’s loving care, the man became totally well in every way. He even married and built a Torah home filled with love, joy and holiness. And then the man who had come to comfort Rabbi Palach’s family said: “That man . . . was me.”
Let’s learn from this amazing, true story to never give up on life; to believe in the infinite value of your life and your neshama, your holy soul. And to never give up on others, either, because every Jew, no matter how he looks or acts, has a holy neshama that is yearning to be revealed and related to with love and respect.
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