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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Full Circle as appeared in Bridging the Golden Gate Bridge

Full Circle

Only rarely do we get a glimpse of the full story. The following story is one such glimpse. All names and identifying details have been changed for the sake of privacy.

About eight years ago, Rabbi Shmuel Davis, a Chassid living in Yerushalayim, decided that the time had finally come for him to realize his childhood dream and visit the kivrei tzaddikim in the Ukraine. He spent months researching different tours, until he found one that seemed just perfect -- and cost several hundred dollars less than the competition.

A detailed itinerary arrived in the mail just a few days before departure. Late Tuesday night the tour members were to fly directly to Bucharest, Romania. From there they would travel to the Ukraine via an eighteen-hour bus ride through Romania and across the Russian border. The highlight of the trip would be the Shabbos they would spend in Mezibuzh, home of the holy Baal Shem Tov.

"It sounded just wonderful," recalled Reb Shmuel. "Everything was set. All I had to do was pack and go."

On Tuesday night Reb Shmuel arrived at the airport and was given his plane ticket and all the appropriate papers. But for some reason, eight members of the tour -- including Reb Shmuel -- did not receive Russian visas. The travel agent explained that there had been some technical difficulties, and the visas were waiting for them in Bucharest.

"When we got to Bucharest," said Reb Shmuel, "the guide told us that the visas had already been sent to the Russian border."

The visas, however, were not at the Romanian side of the border. The  eight Chassidim were told not to the worry -- the visas were waiting  for them on the Russian side. But there, too, the visas were nowhere to be found.

"The guide took our luggage off the bus and told us that he would continue with the rest of the group," said Reb Shmuel. "He also informed us that one of the buses would remain to take us to the hotel in Mezibuzh where we would rejoin our tour -- when we finally had our visas. We weren't pleased, to say the least, but there was little we could do.

"Everyone was exhausted," continued Reb Shmuel. "It was already close to midnight, and we were hoping that we could soon continue on our way."

Instead, the officer in charge informed the eight Chassidim that in a few minutes the border would be closed for the night and that they must return to Romania. That was when Reb Shmuel discovered that all the buses were gone.

"We were suddenly surrounded by Russian soldiers carrying bayonets," said Reb Shmuel. "They told us to take our luggage and return to Romania -- over half a mile away. Every time I tried to catch my breath, I saw the bayonets pointed at me and I forced myself to run even faster."

The Romanians, however, refused to allow the Chassidim to enter the country because their transit visas had already expired. So the eight Chassidim spent what remained of the night surrounded by armed guards at the deserted border station. Some tried to bed down on the icy cold floor. Reb Shmuel didn't even bother.

By the next morning, the exhausted group decided to abandon the tour and return to Eretz Yisrael. But first, they had to find their way back to Bucharest.

"When a customs officer arrived," said Reb Shmuel, "I asked him if he could contact the Israeli ambassador for us. He refused. When I asked him if he could help us find a way back to Bucharest, again he refused. 'This is your problem, not mine,' he said."

But the customs officer did issue new transit visas to the stranded Chassidim. At least now they could enter Romania.

A short while later, another officer arrived, and he was slightly more helpful. He knew of a plane that was leaving to Bucharest in five minutes, from a nearby airport. "The officer asked us if we wanted to try walking the two miles to the airport in five minutes," Reb Shmuel laughed.

Eventually another officer came into the office and was willing to arrange transportation to Bucharest in a private car.

"We spent over ten hours squashed in a tiny Russian car," said Reb Shmuel. "To make matters even worse, the officer had bought an enormous peacock feather for his wife and it tickled the back of my neck throughout the entire trip."

At one of the rest stops, the driver, who knew both Romanian and English, called information and asked for the number of the Israeli embassy. But when Reb Shmuel dialed the number, he discovered that it had been changed -- almost fifty years earlier.

During their journey, the driver stopped to visit an acquaintance who lived in a tiny village. When the Chassidim got out of the car, they were approached by an old man who asked if they understood Yiddish.

"We were so happy to see another Jew that we started hugging him," said Reb Shmuel. "He was very helpful, and through him we were able to obtain the embassy's number. Now, at least, we knew that there would be someone waiting for us in Bucharest."

Although the embassy was closed, the ambassador had arranged lodgings for the group in a deserted building owned by the Jewish Agency. "Once again we slept on the cold floor, under armed guard," said Reb Shmuel. "But at least now we knew that we were among friends."

Reb Shmuel returned to Eretz Yisrael the following morning, just in time for Shabbos. "We were exhausted," said Reb Shmuel, "but grateful to be home."

It took a few days before Reb Shmuel had recovered enough to contact the travel agency and ask for a refund, which they gladly gave him.

"I also insisted that they compensate me for the days that I missed from work," said Reb Shmuel. "The manager of the agency refused. Although I really felt that they owed me compensation, I decided not to make a fuss over it and let it go."

Little did Reb Shmuel know that the debt would eventually be repaid many times over.

A few years later, Reb Shmuel's youngest daughter was engaged to marry a promising talmid chacham. The wedding had been set for the middle of Elul. Late that summer, just weeks before the wedding,  the young chassan decided to spend bein hazemanim with his friends at a yeshivah-run camp. The highlight of the vacation was a full-day hike in the Judean Desert.

On the afternoon of the hike, Reb Shmuel's future son-in-law, Yaakov, was climbing up the side of a mountain when he realized that, somehow, he had become separated from his friends.

At first, Yaakov was not concerned and spent what was left of the afternoon wandering through the desert, trying to find his way back to the bus. The desert was quiet and full of rocks that made walking difficult. Yaakov was aware that this part of the desert was known for its deep crevices that had claimed many lives. Before every step, he tentatively tested the ground to make sure it was solid.

That same night, Reb Shmuel's daughter woke up and, for some inexplicable reason, tearfully began reciting Tehillim for her chassan's welfare. Meanwhile, Reb Shmuel and his family slept peacefully.

In another small Yerushalayim neighborhood, Yaakov's parents were roused from their sleep when the police called at 3 a.m. to inform them that their son was missing in the Judean Desert. The parents immediately ran to their next-door neighbor, a renowned tzaddik, and begged him to pray for their lost son.
Yaakov's mother, aunt and sister went straight from the neighbor to a small shul near their home. The shamash recognized them and let them in. They flung open the aron kodesh and began to beseech Hashem to send their precious chassan home.
A friend of Yaakov's family heard the news and woke up his entire family. "It's assur to sleep now," he said, while hailing a taxi to take them to the Kosel. Before dawn, Yaakov's mother, sister and aunt had joined them there.
By the time everyone returned from the Kosel, many neighbors and friends had already heard about the lost chassan. Yaakov's mother took a group of women back to the nearby shul, reopened the aron kodesh and recited more Tehillim. Outside, a group of over fifty men and children were tearing the very Heavens apart with the power of their tefillah. Even the small children were wailing. The children's cries drowned out the sobs of the women inside.
Word of the lost chassan spread throughout the city, and within a short time, hundreds of people were davening for Yaakov's safe return. But each person was warned that that they must be careful; under no circumstances should Reb Shmuel's family know anything about what had happened.

Reb Shmuel and his family remained oblivious to the drama taking place around them.  "When I went to the store that morning," said Reb Shmuel's wife, "I noticed some people pointing in my direction. But I didn't think much of it."

At ten o'clock that morning, Yaakov's mother traveled to Kever Rachel with a large group of women. Their tefillah was said with such emotion that the soldiers and guards stationed outside the kever came in to see what had happened.

What happened to Yaakov? Without realizing where he was going, Yaakov had wandered far from his friends. He walked so far off course that when the Israeli army began searching for him the next morning, they didn’t bother looking for him in the area where he was finally located. They claimed that the terrain was so rough that it would have been impossible for him to remain alive if he had gone in that direction.
But Yaakov had actually been plodding through the desert, searching desperately for something to drink. He had spent the entire night walking, and was so thirsty that he chewed on grass to extract its liquid. He also wrapped his tzitzis around his head to protect himself from the fiercely hot sun.  When he happened upon a small dirt path, he began to follow it, assuming that it must lead somewhere.
Meanwhile, a family of Chassidim decided to rent a jeep for their last day of vacation and drive through the desert. They had planned to visit a nearby river, but were put off by the lack of modesty there. When they saw another jeep turn off the highway onto a dirt road, little more than a path, they decided to follow, assuming that the road must lead somewhere.
The Chassidim followed the other car through the monotonous desert for over two-and-a-half hours! They were tired and bored and kept on telling each other that the time had come to turn around, but for some inexplicable reason they continued on.
It was already close to noon when Yaakov decided to rest at the side of the road. When he saw a car appear on the horizon, he frantically waved at it to stop. But the driver mistook him for an Arab and sped by.

Five minutes later, Yaakov saw another car in the distance. This time he took no chances and lay down in the middle of the road, screaming for water. The driver slammed on his brake, and the Chassidim jumped out to give the thirsty “Arab” a drink.

With his gun trained on the "Arab," the driver cautiosly handed Yaakov a canteen of water. The moment he heard Yaakov's heartfelt brachah, however, he realized that the "Arab" was really a Jew and that the kaffiyeh perched on his head was really tzitzis.
Yaakov gulped down a gallon of water before he was able to speak. The first thing he asked for was a pair of tefillin; he had not yet davened  Shacharis.

That Friday afternoon, Yaakov was brought back to his parent's home in Yerushalayim. Hundreds of well-wishers came to celebrate his safe return. And a few days later, less than two weeks before the wedding, Reb Shmuel was invited to a seudas hoda'ah in honor of his future son-in-law's miraculous rescue.
Reb Shmuel had the shock of his life when he walked into the seudah and saw the driver of the jeep who had saved his future son-in-law's life. It was none other than the manager of the travel agency, the same manager who had sold him the ticket to the Ukraine and refused to compensate him for the loss he had incurred.

With tears in his eyes, Reb Shmuel expressed his gratitude to Yaakov's benefactor. "Well, I guess the debt has finally been paid," he said with a smile. "And I'm glad I waited for payment. Thank you."

The score was settled.


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