By Mendel Jacobson
Simchat Torah 5730, 1969.
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?”
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
“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.”
Although this story happened before I was born, I have
heard it many times.
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 Simchat
Torah he would take his young children to a small shul
in East Flatbush where they would dance with the Torah and
rejoice with the community. That year, 1969, 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 little shul, that this 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
hakofot, the Rebbe would speak for a number of
hours, discussing the intricate energies of Simchat Torah
and hakofot. 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 just as they did 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:“Mi vadiom nye patonyem, ee v’agniom
nye s’gorim,” a vibrant Chassidic Russian melody meaning,
“We in water will not drown, and in fire 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: “We
in water will not drown, and in fire 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. “Mi vadiom
nye patonyem, ee v’agniom nye s’gorim,” “We in water
will not drown, and in fire will not burn.”
Moments like that become frozen in time.
Fast-forward 20 years:
A phone call comes in to a major Jewish children’s
organization in Crown Heights, Tzivos Hashem.
“Hello,” the voice on the other end of the line says. “I
am so-and-so and I would like to sponsor children’s programs
for Simchat Torah,”
“Ok, sure,” the man working in the organization happily
replies. “But, if I may ask, why do you have this particular
interest in children’s programs for Simchat Torah?”
“Well, you see, when I was a boy, every Simchat Torah my
father and I would go to a small shul in East Flatbush
to celebrate. One year, when I was fourteen, as I was watching
the few people dancing in a circle, I noticed one man who
looked so happy, as if everything in the world was perfect.
I stood there transfixed, wondering how this man could exude
so much joy. I asked my father this question, and my father
told me that I should know this man just lost his wife but,
because he is a real Chassid and the Torah says to be happy
on Simchat Torah, he is happy. This made a very big impression
on my 14-year-old mind – that a Jew could put aside
all his pain and suffering and be happy just because it’s
a mitzvah to be happy was unbelievable to me – so
I decided I would like to help other children celebrate
the happiness and joy of Simchat Torah.”
Fast-forward another 17 years:
On the 23rd of Cheshvon, 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, his (and her) grandchildren, their “life,”
live on. They have built families and communities, changed
people’s lives, and continue to make the world a better
The story of the young man has taught me much: even in
the saddest of times, even when all seems lost, with a little
joy, a little dance, everything can change.
And it’s true, “We in water will not drown, and in fire
will not burn.”
How do I know? you may ask. Because I myself am living
proof. You see, my mother was the youngest of those five
children that walked with their father to that small shul
in East Flatbush those 41 years ago.