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Wednesday
Dec022015

THE PRESIDENT AND HIS CHABAD CONNECTION

On Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sara, Mr. Yitzchak Navon, fifth president of the State of Israel (5738-5743), passed away at the age of ninety-four. He served many years in positions of power in Eretz Yisroel, maintaining regular contact with Chabad Chassidim and the Rebbe. His nephews son-in-law, Nosson Avraham, a regular columnist with Beis Moshiach Magazine, reveals aspects of Mr. Navons life story from a Chassidic and family perspective: Why didnt Mr. Navon travel to the Rebbe? What did he hear from his friends who did visit the Rebbe? What did he suggest in a meeting with Reshet students and how did the Rebbe respond? Whattshuradid the Rebbe send to him with his personal signature, and what was his connection to his nephew, who became a Chabad Chassid? Presented in commemoration of the Shloshim on Erev Chanukah.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

Mr. Yitzchak Navon at a bar-mitzvah celebration for his Chabad family membersOn Shabbos Mevarchim Kislev, Mr. Yitzchak Navon, fifth president of the State of Israel, returned his soul to its Maker at the ripe old age of ninety-four. He was a politician, author, and educator. Navon also served as a Knesset Member, deputy prime minister, and minister of education and culture in previous Israeli governments. In these roles, he maintained contact with Chabad Chassidim and the Rebbe, gladly providing his assistance in various Chabad activities designed to bring his fellow Jews closer to their Father in Heaven.

While Mr. Navon was a public figure, the following article comes to tell his story from a Chassidic and family perspective.

Among his close family members, he was called simply “Uncle Isaac.” Not “Mister President” and not any other expression of honor. Anyone closely acquainted with him knew that despite his high position and authority, he shunned the external trappings of his office. He embraced depth, wisdom and philosophy over the honors of head of state. He conducted himself with nobility and decency, never turning anyone away empty-handed. That was Uncle Isaac, or as he is better known – the fifth president of the state of Israel, Yitzchak Rachamim Navon a”h.

Not many people know that alongside this successful political image, Yitzchak Navon was a very scholarly man. He knew the Tanach in its entirely, was most knowledgeable of s’farim on halacha, and was quite familiar with the mysteries of Jewish prayer.

Since becoming a part of his family upon marrying my wife, his nephew’s daughter, I met him on numerous occasions. The Navon family is small in number, and therefore, the connection among its members was unusually warm and close. Even at his advanced age, he made certain to attend every wedding, bar mitzvah, and even the bris mila of his grandnephews, traveling as far north as Tzfas. I met him at my wedding, and at countless opportunities ever since. Our conversations were always quite interesting and even fascinating.

As he was being brought to his final resting place among the nation’s leaders in Yerushalayim, I listened to the eulogizers speaking about his graciousness and how important Jewish tradition was to him. The incumbent president and prime minister even spoke about how he eagerly anticipated the Redemption. I recall a lengthy discussion that we had four years ago, when we spoke during the Shiva of his brother, Victor Chaim Meir, my wife’s grandfather. We had time on our hands, and unlike all previous events where people around us made considerable noise, this time our conversation flowed. I wanted to know the nature of his connection and appreciation for the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach, and Chabad Chassidus.

“I was not privileged to meet the Rebbe face-to-face,” he replied to my question, immediately adding, “but there were letters and a continuous connection with the Rebbe through Rabbi Shlomo Maidanchik.” He said that as a public representative, he felt that he couldn’t travel to the Rebbe’s court and meet him personally since he hadn’t been given any authority as head of state for such a mission. However, he also noted that he regretted this very much. “I often heard from close friends whose opinions reflected my own, not those raised in Chassidic society, that their meetings with the Rebbe simply fascinated them. There were those who told me that the Rebbe’s eyes were like a prophet’s, and some of these people have met world statesmen of the highest order. It would appear that I missed out on a marvelous opportunity.”

Yet, it turns out that while he didn’t actually meet with the Rebbe, there were numerous correspondences with expressions of respect and appreciation. The feeling appears to have been mutual, as can be seen in the letters sent by the Rebbe to Mr. Navon, and the titles of honor with which he addressed him.

President Navon would regularly take part in both official and unofficial Chabad events, emphasizing his love and approval for the Chabad movement and the Rebbe on the great work that he does for the Jewish People. Whenever he spoke, he spoke words of unvarnished truth – he wasn’t the type to say one thing with his mouth and think differently in his heart. When he said words of praise for Chabad, he didn’t just do so in the presence of Anash audiences; it was meant for people from all communities.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Navon was invited to Eilat to speak before the three hundred members of the Israel Rotary Club, at the invitation of its chairman, Mr. Menachem Hoffen, on the unifying and divisive forces in Israeli society. Another invited guest at this event was the city’s head Chabad shliach and chief rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Hecht. As part of the lecture, Navon spoke about the growing polarization between the religious and secular communities, which he considered to be the most serious schism within the overall population of Eretz Yisroel – and with no ready solutions on the horizon. Nevertheless, there was still a great deal that could be done in this area, as Chabad activities have demonstrated.

“Sitting here with us is the honored chief rabbi, Rabbi Hecht, counted among the Chabad Chassidim,” Mr. Navon said. “Chabad is indeed a movement of true Ahavas Yisroel. Chabad does much to bridge the gap between the religious and the non-religious, doing so lovingly in the ways of pleasantness and enthusiasm. Their activities among all sectors of the population are most praiseworthy and bring them much closer to one another. When I was president, my office was always open to Chabad Chassidim; if only others would learn from them.” His heartwarming words on the Chabad movement caused a tremendous Kiddush Sheim Lubavitch.

THE REBBE’S SPECIAL SICHA ON THE NAVON PROPOSAL

During this past year, the driving force behind the Rebbe’s amazing sicha at the Yud Shvat 5739 farbrengen was finally revealed.

Toward the end of the farbrengen, the Rebbe spoke about the need to unite Sephardim and Ashkenazim, even noting that this would be a prelude and preparation to “And he will gather the dispersed of Israel,” which will be at the True and Complete Redemption. Many people in attendance failed to understand the reason behind this statement. Today, we know that this sicha came in response to what President Navon had said before a group of ‘Reshet’ students who had come to his official residence.

The Rebbe’s words were quite amazing, and he said that they came in response to a proposal, without noting its source: The aforementioned is also a response to the suggestion that Ashkenazim should unite with the Sephardim, in a manner of ‘and they shall be one in your hand,’ and that they should also speak about the greatness of the Sephardim, etc. In truth, there’s no need to come to an external arousal (in this matter), since in addition to the world of Nigleh, it is known to everyone, both in Chassidic circles and those currently not Chassidic, that the Rambam was among the greatest halachic authorities and among the greatest Rishonim, and the Rambam was a ‘pure Sephardi.’

There is a special emphasis among Chassidim – as we see in relation to the Ohr HaChayim (who was also Sephardic), who describe him as the ‘Holy Ohr HaChayim’ and in particular as we see in explanations, details, and elucidations in the discourses of the Tzemach Tzedek, based on the Ohr HaChayim’s commentary on the Torah.

…And in particular, according to the Chassidic story about the connection of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chassidus) with the Ohr HaChayim, and the saying among Chassidim that if the Baal Shem Tov would have managed to arrange a meeting with the Ohr HaChayim in Eretz HaKodesh, Moshiach would have come immediately, the relationship between Chassidim and the Ohr HaChayim is thereby understood.

And as is known, there is also the letter of our Rebbe, baal ha’hilula, which he wrote to our Sephardic Jewish brethren about the greatness of their ancestry, etc., and as is printed in the letter. May it be His Will that we should soon merit ‘And he will gather the dispersed of Israel’ through our Righteous Moshiach.

Several hours before that sicha, representatives of the ‘Reshet’ school system had gathered at the president’s residence in Yerushalayim. This was the first time that such a meeting had taken place under the auspices of the new chief of state, Mr. Navon, since he assumed office six months earlier.

In his statement, Mr. Navon mentioned the need for uniting Ashkenazim and Sephardim, placing an emphasis upon the great Sephardic rabbanim of generations past. He had a great deal of sensitivity toward Sephardic Jewish tradition. He wrote about it often, speaking at every opportunity about the unique quality of the great Sephardic scholars.

The program of the gathering and its theme was sent to the Rebbe, including Mr. Navon’s speech in full. Anyone who reads his opening statement will understand the great esteem he had for the Rebbe. “Honored guests, rabbis, and dear students – I welcome you again most warmly. First of all, in your merit, a blessing was sent to the Rebbe shlita, may he have many good, long, and healthy years, and may it be fulfilled in him, ‘They shall be fruitful even in old age; they shall be full of sap and freshness…’ I pray that we shall soon see him in our land, as there are many who are surely longing to see him in Eretz Yisroel in complete health – and if it is said on one thing, ‘In its time, I will hasten it,’ this too will surely be ‘In its time, I will hasten it.’”

Later in this riveting speech, President Navon spoke about Chabad and its unique Ahavas Yisroel, which is expressed not just as an indistinct expression of love for the Jewish People as a whole, but for each individual Jew. To explain his meaning, he brought an example: He told about a visit he had made some years earlier to a remote village in Brazil, where he had met two young Chabad bachurim. When he asked what they were doing in the region, they explained to him that they were looking for wandering Jews to bring them back to their roots. After completing this brief story, Mr. Navon asked if he could make a suggestion.

“With your permission, I also have a suggestion, although it would seem that it might be unnecessary since it’s already being done: Your network of schools includes young boys and young girls from various countries throughout the world. One important thing is for students not only to know and become familiar with their Jewish heritage in general, but especially how the ‘tribe’ to which they belong has contributed over the years to the Torah, Jewish thought, and Judaism. While I assume that you are doing this, it’s always possible to augment and strengthen.

 

“This matter will radiate to other sectors. It will create greater Jewish unity by the fact that we know and learn about Jewish leaders from all ethnic groups, regardless of their origin. In my family, I know that there is a tradition relating to the Ohr HaChayim – from his family, apparently his brothers, not his descendants, since he had no children. The tradition is, and we know there was a great ideological closeness between the Ohr HaChayim and the Baal Shem Tov, that [the latter] wanted to come to Yerushalayim to meet the Ohr HaChayim, who possessed a spark of Moshiach ben Dovid, and together they would bring the Moshiach. However, this meeting was prevented by Heaven, as the time for the Redemption was not yet at hand.

As we have mentioned, the content of President Navon’s suggestion to the ‘Reshet’ delegation at Beit HaNasi was submitted to the Rebbe, and just a few hours later, the Nasi of our generation referred to that suggestion in a sicha during a Yud Shvat farbrengen before thousands of Chassidim. As we have seen, the Rebbe adopted this approach, noting the connection between the Ohr HaChayim and the Baal Shem Tov, and even elucidated on the concept with great clarity. Another interesting point: As per the Rebbe’s instructions, a special booklet was printed containing several educational guidelines the Rebbe had discussed at the recent farbrengen, including the need for unity between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. He also requested that a copy of this kuntres be sent to Mr. Navon as a gift.

 

When I mentioned this to the president’s nephew, Rabbi Yosef Navon, a respected member of the Chabad community of Tzfas and a veteran educator, he noted that his return to Yiddishkait had begun that year, and he recalled that they spoke about this in the President’s Residence. “There was an interesting episode that took place at another gathering of Reshet students, attended by Rabbi Yitzchak Yadger, principal of the Chabad school in Ta’anach. Anyone familiar with him knows that his Sephardic nature is most prominent. He began a discussion with my uncle, who told him that he knows that there are many Sephardim in Chabad. Rabbi Yadger noted with a chuckle that Chabad has Yemenites, Moroccans, and it even has Ashkenazim. My uncle enjoyed the clever remark.”

THE REBBE’S LETTER TO A CHILD

In Marcheshvan 5771, Mr. Navon’s brother, Victor Chaim Meir, my wife’s paternal grandfather, passed away at the age of ninety-one. During the Shiva, which took place in Yerushalayim’s Rechavia neighborhood, Mr. Yitzchak Navon, who had already left the presidency, sat together with the rest of the mourning family. I took the opportunity to discover more about his connection with the Rebbe. I heard words of appreciation and admiration, but in the custom of investigative journalists, I searched for something special – a miracle story or a case of Divine Providence. However, I didn’t uncover anything.

When his only son, Erez, a successful businessman specializing in real estate, later heard that I hadn’t found any special story about his father and the Rebbe, he jumped from his place. “You want a special story? I’ll give you one,” he told me. The following story had until then been known only to close family members:

“To this very day, I have kept a letter that I received from the Rebbe when I was a small boy,” he began. “I received this letter in 5743, when I was just nine years of age. My father was then serving as president of the State of Israel. A few days before Rosh Hashanah I decided to write New Year’s greetings to several prominent people with whom I was acquainted. Among them were then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was a regular guest in the President’s House, and many others of great stature whom I knew during the time I lived in the presidential residence. Another person who was a most welcome and regular guest in the house was R’ Shlomke Maidanchik. My father was very fond of him. He was a special Jew, a true chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When he saw that I was writing New Year’s cards, he offered a suggestion: ‘Why don’t you send New Year’s greetings to the Lubavitcher Rebbe? I’ll make certain to bring it to the Rebbe’s secretaries in New York.’ I happily agreed, and a short while later, I placed the letter to the Rebbe in R’ Shlomke’s hands. He had already previously given me a coin from the Rebbe during Chanukah and a dollar bill on another occasion. I have preserved and cherished both of these items to this day.

“I eventually received a response from the Rebbe, and as the time has passed since that day, I have come to appreciate it more and more. As a young boy, I didn’t fully understand the power attached to this letter as I do today.

“The Rebbe wrote to me as follows:

B”H The Days of Slichos 5743

Brooklyn

Dear Erez sh’yichyeh,

Shalom u’v’racha!

I was pleased to receive your blessing for the coming New Year, may it be good and blessed for all Israel. As our Sages, of blessed memory, have said: All who bless shall be blessed by Alm-ghty G-d, the Source of all our blessings, from His Full, Open, Holy, and Broad Hand.

I bless you as well with a good and sweet new year, and especially for a year of much success in your studies and your conduct, and it should be [a source] of honor for your parents, and glory for all our people in the House of Israel.

With blessing,

/the Rebbe’s signature/

“As a young boy, I was very moved by this letter and kept it as a memento. To this day, the letter has helped me on numerous occasions. Here is an example of one such incident:

“When I started my real estate work in Panama, I wanted to bring another entrepreneur into the picture. This led me to a certain wealthy businessman, a Torah observant Jew who lived in one of the capitals of Europe. Today, he is one of my closest and most loyal friends. When we became close I decided to show him the Rebbe’s letter, which I had framed and mounted in an appropriate place. While I usually refrained from showing this letter off to people, I chose to make an exception in this case due to our relationship.

“My partner was equally enthused by the letter, and it forever changed the nature of our professional discussions. The official businesslike distance was gone, suspicions faded away, and the rapport between us became a sheer pleasure in light of the intense love he displayed for the Rebbe when I showed him the correspondence.

“He was amazed as he looked at the letter, reading the text over and over again. It turned out that he too had received several letters from the Rebbe and he had even experienced his own miracle when the Rebbe virtually saved his life.”

“These words coming from a man such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who deals with some of the loftiest matters in the world, yet finds time to reply to a young child’s letter, shows the Rebbe’s true greatness. This is especially so since Chassidim explained to me that during Slichos the Rebbe limits his letter writing to a minimum. Even when he does decide to write letters at this time, it’s only on extremely urgent matters, thereby making this case even more astonishing.”

THE CONNECTION TO CHABAD

Numerous members of President Yitzchak Navon’s family are Chabad Chassidim and he expressed his great pride in this fact whenever the opportunity arose. While the person who brought his nephew, Rabbi Yosef Navon, to Chabad was R’ Shlomo Maidanchik, it was Mr. Yitzchak Navon who brought the two of them together. In general, an unusually strong relationship of friendship and affection existed between Mr. Navon and Rabbi Maidanchik.

The connection between them, which began during Mr. Navon’s service as Knesset Member and minister of education, became far greater on the 22nd of Iyar 5738, the day that Mr. Navon was chosen to serve as president of Israel. That night, there was a knock on the door of the Navons’ home, and two bearded men came in. One of them was Rabbi Maidanchik, and they presented Mr. Navon with a gift from Chabad – a set of tallis and t’fillin.

About five weeks later, after Mr. Navon had assumed his high office, R’ Shlomke Maidanchik submitted a formal request to hold bar-mitzvah celebrations for IDF orphans in the president’s residence. Navon, who had been acquainted with the Vaad Kfar Chabad chairman for a long time, immediately gave his consent. Since then, this event has become an annual tradition.

Not long afterward, Rabbi Maidanchik invited the entire Navon family for a journey along Israel Railways, with the engineer’s controls firmly in his hands. The family visited him in the cockpit, took great interest in his work, listening most attentively to his knowledgeable yet lively explanations on the history of trains in Eretz Yisroel. They quickly became most fond of the Lubavitcher Chassid who radiated such heartfelt warmth and simplicity.

Yitzchak Navon never concealed his enthusiasm for Maidanchik and his Chassidic friends who conveyed such unconditional Ahavas Yisroel, and he always kept his doors open to the Kfar Chabad chairman and his people. For his part, Maidanchik hosted Navon at numerous festive events in Kfar Chabad.

Over time, the connection between the two became even stronger. They enjoyed meeting often in the president’s residence, speaking about Yiddishkait. For the president, Maidanchik was the first address for anything Chabad.

Rabbi Maidanchik also served as a liaison between the Rebbe and Mr. Navon. During his presidential term he was privileged to receive numerous letters from the Rebbe, who even instructed that various kuntreisim and collected works be sent to him. One of them is in my father-in-law’s home in Tzfas. This is a special kuntres of the maamer Nachamu Nachamu Ami, covered with an attractive and decorative binding. It’s interesting to note that the same kuntres with a similar binding had been sent many years earlier to the third president, Mr. Zalman (Rubashov) Shazar. At the conclusion of the preface, the Rebbe affixed his own holy signature.

“I learned this maamer on numerous occasions,” my father-in-law recalled. “This is a difficult discourse to learn, and I have no idea why the Rebbe chose to send it to my uncle. I heard from a son of one of the Rebbe’s secretaries that the Rebbe had printed a certain number of copies of this maamer with a special binding during Shazar’s time. Thus, when my uncle became president, the Rebbe sent him a copy.”

Many people were familiar with Mr. Navon’s noble attributes and patience for everyone. However, what is not well-known is the level of his profound knowledge of Torah texts, in addition to his strong proficiency in Tanach.

When his brother’s son began to develop a growing interest in the Rebbe and Chassidus, Navon turned to his friend the train engineer and asked him to check whether the young man was “merely looking into the matter” or he really wanted to become one of the Rebbe’s Chassidim.

Maidanchik met with the bachur (today my father-in-law) and discussed matters with him thoroughly without promoting his own beliefs. Finally, when he was totally convinced that the president’s nephew was firm in his desire to follow the path of Chabad, he agreed to help him on his spiritual journey. When I mentioned this to my father-in-law, he smiled and gave his own version of how his relationship with Rabbi Maidanchik developed:

“When I began to take an interest in the path of Torah, I turned to my uncle, as I knew that he had connections with Jews from all walks of life. I had many questions in need of answers, and I asked him to put me in touch with a rabbi from whom I could get the answers to these questions.

“My uncle told me that he knew two people who could help me: one was Uri Zohar and the other was Shlomke Maidanchik. I met the latter many times in the Beit HaNasi, and he would walk around there quite freely. I chose Rabbi Maidanchik as the person who could provide the answers I was seeking, especially since I heard about Chabad and had much appreciation for their work. He responded to my inquiries most agreeably, took me under his wing, and introduced me to other Chabad rabbanim and mashpiim. Eventually, when the time came, I was sent to learn in the Chabad yeshiva in Tzfas, and the rest is history.”

His wedding took place in Kfar Chabad, and his uncle the president was in attendance. He was also honored with reciting brachos under the chuppa and even with some chazanus. It became a major attraction. At the Sheva Brachos that Rabbi Maidanchik organized in his home, the president also participated alongside the Chabad rabbanim and shluchim. “In general, my uncle felt at home with the Maidanchiks,” his nephew recalled.

HE REAPED WITH JOY

There is no doubt that in the annals of history, the fifth president of the State of Israel will be known as a friend of Chabad who profoundly loved its ideological teachings. He had a great sense of appreciation for the greatness of the Rebbe and he encouraged his fellow Jews to walk in the brightly lit path of Chabad Chassidus.

“To a certain extent, my uncle was the one who prepared the groundwork for our shlichus in Moshav Dovev,” my father-in-law recalled. “When he assumed the presidency, he decided it was his mission to go out to the people. He and his wife Ofira would visit troubled neighborhoods, yishuvim, and cities along the country’s peripheral region. He would sit with people, listening to them, and speaking with them about their troubles and aspirations.

“During Operation Peace for the Galilee, he got up the courage to go and live in the yishuvim situated along the northern front. One such yishuv was Dovev and the local residents greatly appreciated the honor. When I arrived there and the people heard that I was his nephew, they welcomed us with open arms and showered us with love that continues to this very day.”

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