As a young man, I studied in the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Montreal, but I would spend some of the holidays in New York. Once, in the late ‘50s, I came to New York on the first intermediate day of Sukkot. As always, the Rebbe held a big gathering – a Simchat Beit Hasho’eva farbrengen, as we would call it – that night in the sukkah. Thousands of people used to come for this event, and I was one of them. The next day, I was summoned by the Rebbe’s secretary Rabbi Hodakov.
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“The Rebbe saw you last night at the farbrengen,” Rabbi Hodakov tells me in his office, “and he asked me: ‘What is Nissan Mangel doing here in Crown Heights? He should be in Lakewood!”
“What do you mean?” I wondered out loud. Lakewood, New Jersey, is a bastion of Lithuanian non-chasidic Jewry in America, its Beth Medrash Govoha a famous yeshivah. The Rebbe had sent me there several times before to share teachings of Chasidut with the students, faculty and members of its Kollel for older students.
But this time, I tried making a case to stay in Crown Heights:
“I wasn’t here for Rosh Hoshanah and I wasn’t here for Yom Kippur; now that I’ve come to be with the Rebbe for Sukkot, I’m being sent to Lakewood?”
“Are you arguing with the Rebbe?” Rabbi Hodakov replied. “The Rebbe says you should go!”
Rabbi Hodakov instructed me to take along a lulav and etrog; I would be going for a few days, and of course I would need to perform this mitzvah every day of Sukkot. In addition, he also told me to bring hoshanos, the spray of myrtle used in the prayers on Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot.
“Does that mean I have to stay until then, for all of the intermediate days of Sukkot?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes, that’s what the Rebbe said,” answered Rabbi Hodakov. “You should take some hoshanos along in case you have trouble obtaining them in Lakewood.”
Each evening in Lakewood, Rabbi Aharon Kotler – the head of the yeshivah there – and his son Reb Schneur led a Beis Hashoeva celebration in the sukkah. The younger students had gone home for the holiday, so only the Kollel men – the yungerleit, as they are known, most of whom were married men who lived with their families in Lakewood – participated in these celebrations.
Although Rabbi Kotler was opposed to Chasidus, he was cordial and friendly to me, and I had the opportunity to discuss various Torah matters with him.
Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Reb Schneur would spend an hour or so in the sukkah, and then would leave. After that, I would farbreng with the Kollel yungerleit for many hours into the night, discussing chasidic ideas and sharing stories. This went on every night, until the last of the intermediate days of Sukkot.
By the time Hoshana Rabbah came, I was really tired. Since we had the nightly farbrengens, I hardly had any time to rest during those few days. Our custom is to read the Book of Deuteronomy on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, as well as the entire Psalms, so I was just hoping to finish that quickly and go rest a little.
By approximately 1:00 AM, only Rabbis Kotler senior and junior, a few Kollel yungeleit and myself were sitting in the main study hall. They were learning, and I was close to finishing Psalms. Suddenly, somebody walked in, looked around, spotted me, and came over.
“Shalom Aleichem,” he greeted me. “Are you a Lubavitcher?”
“Could I ask you a favor?”
“Could you come over to my apartment? I want to discuss something with you.”
I agreed to go to his apartment, where he introduced himself as a member of the Kollel. “I couldn’t do this in the presence of Rabbi Kotler – he once said something that was not very positive about the Tanya – but I would like to learn a chapter of Tanya with you.”
I was tremendously sleepy, but the Rebbe sent me to Lakewood, and this person just asked to learn some Tanya; how could I refuse? So I taught the chapter to him. I didn’t just do it fast either; I went through it thoroughly and I explained everything. It took at least forty-five minutes.
On finishing, he had another request: “Can I ask you for an even bigger favor? I see that you are tired, but please learn another chapter with me.”
I had to oblige him, telling myself: The Rebbe has sent me here on a mission, so I need to make some sacrifices. Slowly, explaining every word and every phrase, we learned a second chapter of Tanya. It took another forty-five minutes.
“Can I ask an even bigger favor?” he asked again.
I could feel my eyelids closing but made every effort to learn a third chapter with him. Finally, he explained himself. “Let me tell you why I want to learn Tanya,” he began.
“I am in my early thirties, and for a long time, I very much wanted to get married, but nothing seemed to be working out. I went to seek the blessings and counsel of various great Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel. But I still wasn’t able to find a wife.
“Although I’m a devoted disciple of Rabbi Kotler, and I know that he doesn’t see eye to eye with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I had no choice. I decided to go to the Rebbe for a blessing that I find a match.
“‘Learn a chapter of Tanya every day and you’ll soon become a groom,’ was what the Rebbe told me. Well, that was a few months ago, and since then, I’ve learned a chapter of Tanya every day.
“Tonight,” he concluded, “on Hoshana Rabbah, I got engaged. The Rebbe’s blessing was fulfilled. Out of gratitude, I wanted to learn three chapters today instead of just one.”
He then inquired when I planned on returning to New York. I tell him that I will be catching a Greyhound bus the next afternoon, and will arrive in Crown Heights before Shmini Atzeret.
On hearing this, he asked whether he could give me a letter for the Rebbe. Then, he sat down to write a lengthy letter, informing the Rebbe of his engagement. As soon as I arrived back in Crown Heights, I delivered the letter to the Rebbe’s office.
The day after Simchat Torah, I went to have a private audience with the Rebbe, as I would every year.
I opened the door to the Rebbe’s room, and saw the Rebbe’s face beaming with joy as soon as I stepped over the threshold.
“He wasn’t afraid to tell you that he learns Tanya?” asked the Rebbe. I filled him in on the story, how this young man was afraid, and how we learned those three chapters quietly in his apartment. Then my own audience with the Rebbe began.
Rabbi Nissen Mangel is an author and lecturer who serves as rabbi of congregation Ksav Sofer in Brooklyn. He was interviewed in December of 2011 and March of 2012.