By RABBI MOSHE FELLER
I will preface my story with an all-embracing Torah commandment in last week’s Torah portion, Va’eschanan: “V’dibarta bom” — “you shall speak of ‘them’” — referring to Torah. When you are at home, or travelling; when you lie down at night, and when you rise in the morning. We recite this commandment in the daily Shema. That being said, I’ll get on with my story.
The year was 1972. The world of Lubavitch was celebrating a milestone birthday for the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory — his 70th. On the 11 of Nissan, 5732 (1972), dignitaries from countries around the globe converged upon Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, with greetings and felicitations from their respective governments in honor of the occasion.
Yitzchak Rabin was there representing Israel. Herman Wouk, one of the outstanding authors in the United States, was President Nixon’s chosen emissary. I was also present, and was amongst those who danced with Rabin and Wouk as they exited the Rebbe’s office mesmerized by his personality and wisdom.
It then occurred to me that Herman Wouk would be the ideal guest speaker for our Twin Cities celebration of the Rebbe’s birthday. Wouk was close to Lubavitch and had addressed banquets of ours in London, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. When I returned to the Twin Cities, I called Wouk to invite him.
“Reb Chaim Zelig, I’d like to invite you to be the guest speaker at our dinner, celebrating the Rebbe’s birthday, two weeks before Pesach in Minneapolis.”
Wouk told me that I was in luck, because he only accepts five speaking engagements a year, and he had already accepted five engagements for that year. One event, however, had been cancelled. So if I would promise to get him home to Washington, D.C., before midnight of the event, he would come. I told him that I would get back to him as soon as I checked the airline schedules.
After checking Northwest Airlines’ schedule, I realized that their last D.C.-bound flight was at 4:30 p.m. I phoned the celebration’s chair, future senator Rudy Boschwitz, who was then chairman of Minnesota’s Republican Party, regarding my wish that Wouk should be our guest speaker. I told him of Wouk’s condition for coming: “Rudy, the only way we can get Wouk back by midnight is by putting him in a Learjet, and renting that would cost more than what we’ll make on the dinner.”
Rudy responded, in his usual jovial manner: “Rabbi, hang on a few hours before you call Wouk back, I’ll try to get us a jet.”
Sure enough, in less than two hours Rudy was back on the phone: “I got us a jet from General Mills. One of their jets is leaving on the night of our dinner to Teterboro, New Jersey, at 8:30 p.m. They’ll be glad to take Mr. Wouk along to D.C., which is not much out of their way.” Very happily I called Wouk back and confirmed the arrangement.
Wouk arrived that afternoon on a regular flight from Washington, D.C., and spoke fabulously at the dinner, quoting the Rebbe a number of times. He was a great writer and speaker. Promptly at 8 p.m., we got him into Percy Ross’ Lincoln Continental. Percy drove him to General Mills’ airplane hangar. My wife of blessed memory and myself followed Percy’s car in our Chabad car, which was not exactly a Continental.
In the car, I asked my wife what she thought of my accompanying Wouk on the jet. I would have two hours to spend with the most famous Orthodox Jew in America, and would interview him for an article in our local Anglo-Jewish newspaper, the American Jewish World. I would also be able to daven with the Rebbe’s minyan in Crown Heights on Monday morning. Crown Heights is only an hour away from Teterboro airport, so I would grab a cab and proceed to Brooklyn. My wife thought it was a very good idea.
At the General Mills hangar, I updated Wouk of my plan to accompany him on the jet. He was very happy to hear this, and we boarded and made ourselves comfortable. I had never been on a Learjet, and, my friends, that’s the way to fly. It’s like sitting in your living room! I asked Wouk if I could interview him, to which he agreed. On the plane I changed my mind about the interview, deciding instead to relate the Rebbe’s commentary on the Haggada. My conscience asked, “What are you, some kind of reporter? You are always preaching v’dibarta bom, talk the Torah.” And talk Torah we did, throughout the entire flight. I shared the Rebbe’s talks and insights on the Haggada, and Wouk gave over some of his own thoughts on the subject as well.
The time flew by, and, as promised, we dropped Wouk off in Washington, D.C., prior to midnight. I proceeded to Teterboro with the pilots and flight attendant.
In Teterboro, I jumped into a cab for the one-hour drive to Brooklyn, and we arrived at about 2:30 a.m. The Rebbe was still in his office at 770, and I hoped I could get a note in, describing a capsule digest of the pre-dinner publicity, successful banquet and Wouk’s talk. I would have to very quickly write the note and submit it to Rabbi Hodakov, the Rebbe’s chief of staff. He would usually come in with a huge stack of papers. Fortunately, I made it just in time to jot my note and hand it to him for the Rebbe.
Rabbi Hodakov very kindly took my note and entered the Rebbe’s office. This was the first moment I had to relax from my very successful but stressful day, but that was short lived. Hodakov came out of the Rebbe’s office almost immediately after entering. I was still standing in the hall when Hodakov approached me and said, “Moshe, the Rebbe wants to see you now!”
My heart skipped a beat, as a summons from the Rebbe is very rare. I entered the Rebbe’s office. The Rebbe greeted me and proceeded to ask, “Vos hot zich g’redt aff dem plane?” which means, “What did you discuss on the plane?” (The Rebbe knew that we were bringing Wouk back in a private jet and was very pleased with that. After I submitted the note, he assumed I had accompanied him.)
I was very surprised that the Rebbe’s first response was to inquire after our conversation. I answered, “Es hot zich geredt dem Rebbin’s Sichos aff der Haggada — the Rebbe’s commentary and talks on the Haggada.
I got a million-dollar smile from the Rebbe.
Rabbi Moshe Feller is director of Upper Midwest Merkos – Chabad Lubavitch.