Photo Credit: Jewish Press

A young 14-year-old boy is keenly watching a man dancing as if there are no worries in the world. His legs pump in a rhythm only his soul could produce. He looks like a flame, flickering on and on, reaching for a place beyond anything he has ever known. Wow, the boy thinks to himself, “How could that man be so happy?”

“Which man?”


Startled, the 14-year-old boy didn’t realize he’d asked that question aloud.

“Which man?” His father asks him again.

“That man,” the young boy points to the whirling dancer. “He must be the happiest man on earth.”

As his father looks to where his son is pointing and he sees the black-bearded man with five children in tow, his eyes fill with tears and he sighs. “That man lost his young wife just six days ago.”

“But then how can he be so happy, how can he possibly dance like that?”

“Because today is Simchat Torah and it is a mitzvah to dance and to be happy. This is what a Jew does; this is what a real chassid does.”

The year was 5730, 1969, and, on the second day of Sukkot, a young 42-year-old man lost his wife to leukemia. As was the custom instituted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, every year, on Simchat Torah, hundreds of chassidim would walk near and far to celebrate with Jews in synagogues across New York. This man was one of those chassidim. Each year on Simchat Torah he would take his young children to a shul in East Flatbush where they would dance with the Torah and rejoice with the community. That year, the young man did the same. The children’s grandmother, their mother’s mother, dressed them in their finest clothing and sent them off with their father to East Flatbush.

It was there, in that shul on East 37th Street, that the above dialogue between father and son took place.

After the dancing was over in East Flatbush, the young man and his children walked back to Crown Heights. He dropped his younger children off at home with their grandmother and hurried to 770 where the Lubavitcher Rebbe was in midst of a farbrengen. Every year on Simchat Torah, before hakofos, the Rebbe would speak for a number of hours, discussing the intricate energies of Simchat Torah and hakofos. The farbrengen would consist of several talks, each one punctuated by the singing of a niggun, a chassidic melody sometimes dating back hundreds of years. The man of whom we are speaking was the one who began the niggunim at the Rebbe’s farbrengens.

The shul at 770 Eastern Parkway was packed from floor to ceiling; people were clinging to bleachers and rafters as they listened to the Rebbe’s every word. As the Rebbe finished one segment of his talk, the crowd looked to the new widower to begin a song. What happened next was one of the most dramatic experiences in the lives of those who attended that gathering. A rare moment of truth…

Through the hush of thousands of people, a gentle but defiant voice began to sing: “Uh vadzeh mi nye utonim ee v’agnye mi nye s’gorim,” a vibrant chassidic Russian melody meaning, “In water we will not drown, and in fire we will not burn.” The Rebbe looked up and stared at the man – with a piercing, knowing gaze that is impossible to describe. Suddenly the Rebbe sprang up from his chair, pushing it back with such force that it nearly fell over. The Rebbe began dancing in his place, rocking up and down, swaying back and forth, with incredible intensity and passion. Witnesses say that in all the years the Rebbe never danced – never before and never after – quite like that.

As the Rebbe swung his arms, leading the singing, the crowd became more and more energized, chanting in unison, “We in water will not drown, and in fire will not burn; we in water will not drown, and in fire will not burn.” Faster and faster they chanted, as if in a trance.

People present later described the unbelievable sight of this fragile man who had just experienced utter devastation, swinging back and forth – surrounded by waves of people, being led by the Rebbe himself – singing: “In water we will not drown, and in fire we will not burn,” nothing can vanquish our spirit – as if G-d had not just taken his wife, as if he was the happiest man alive.

Everyone melted in the dance and the song. The joy and the tears all dissolved into one transcendent dance; a dance that captured the essence of joy and pain, ecstasy and agony – the indestructible core of life itself. At that moment everything and nothing made sense. “Uh vadzeh mi nye utonim ee v’agnye mi nye s’gorim – In water we will not drown, and in fire we will not burn.”

Moments like that become frozen in time.

On the 23rd of Cheshvan 5767 (2006), the man of this story, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Gansbourg, the one who lost his wife in 1969, rejoined her in the Garden of Eden. Yet, through his and her (Rashah bas Hachosid Reb Yeshaya Denberg) children and grandchildren, their “life,” live on. They have built families and communities, changed people’s lives, and continue to make the world a better place.

I am a partial witness to this story as I attended the hakofos in the Shul on East 37th Street with Rabbi Sholom Tzvi Barenholtz and after that, the Farbrengen in 770.

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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. He can be reached at [email protected].