May 27, 2011
Rabbi Ben Zion Sobel is accused of raping dozens of boys. Yet Chabad's Beis Moshiach Magazine has a long article praising him and stessing Sobel's connection to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who encouraged him to teach boys
One cannot help but be impressed by Rabbi Ben Zion Sobel, an outstanding talmid chacham whose daily schedule in his Ramot home revolves around Gemara and commentaries. He made aliya decades ago but one can easily detect his American accent.
R' Sobel was born in 1948 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and he attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yosef on the East Side, a Litvishe yeshiva for Orthodox American boys.
One day, in the 60's, a friend told him that he had heard about Chabad and he suggested that they go together to attend a farbrengen of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights. R' Sobel did not know what a farbrengen is but he was curious to find out and so he went.
"I walked into the big beis midrash and saw the Rebbe sitting at his place in the middle of the farbrengen, speaking as thousands sat and listened closely. I thought that I had missed his drasha, as it seemed he would be finishing soon. I didn't know that a farbrengen isn't a single speech and that it lasts for several hours. Generally, the farbrengens I attended ended at two in the morning."
Although decades have passed since then, R' Sobel remembers that first farbrengen he attended including what was said.
"That first farbrengen took place on a Thursday night. I realized afterward that it was in honor of Yud-Tes Kislev. It was late at night; I think 1:00 or 1:30. Suddenly, the Rebbe said, 'It is Thursday night and there are women here who need to prepare for Shabbos.' And the Rebbe began speaking about the importance of preparing food for Shabbos so much so that Chazal say that Moshiach will not come on Friday so as not to interfere with the Shabbos preparations. As important as the Geula is to the Jewish people, we see that preparing the chulent is even more important. The Rebbe said he would end the farbrengen early so that the women could go home and cook.
"After the sicha they sang a niggun and then the Rebbe said, 'I was thinking during the niggun that Thursday night is called 'leil mishmar' in all the yeshivos and they stay up all night and learn, and here I am, shortening a farbrengen!' And on second thought, the Rebbe decided to continue farbrenging, 'as long as it goes.' The farbrengen ended at dawn."
My List of Questions
Ben Zion found the farbrengens quite captivating and he felt he wanted to maintain a connection, albeit without becoming a Chassid.
Over the years, R' Sobel made the acquaintance of many roshei yeshiva and rabbanim in America. He became close enough to them to be able to observe their conduct and their way of paskening. "I did not belong to any group but I got something from everyone."
Although during the course of this interview, he made it clear several times that he is a Litvak, it seems that his soul is drawn to Chassidus on some level.
R' Sobel continued visiting 770 and when he heard about the possibility of having a private meeting with the Rebbe he made an appointment. He was only 18 years old at the time. He wrote a kvittel at the end of which he attached a list of people who needed a bracha for a refua. "Among the names, I included the late Satmar Rebbe, Yoel ben Chana and the late Boyaner Rebbe. Neither one was in the best of health."
I handed the pidyon nefesh to the Rebbe and he read it quickly. When he reached the names of the two Admorim, he commented that these were the Satmar Rebbe and the Boyaner Rebbe. 'What connection do you have with them?' he asked me in surprise.
"I said that I was a Chassid of all talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov. The Rebbe asked, 'The Admor of Ozarov is sick – why didn't you write down his name?' I said I hadn't known. The Rebbe asked, 'And if you had known, would you have written it?' I said yes, and the Rebbe smiled."
Before his birthday he heard that those with an upcoming birthday could have yechidus without having to wait on the usual line and he took this opportunity.
"They warned me that in the birthday yechidus you cannot ask questions; you just submit your pidyon nefesh, write the date, and the Rebbe gives you a bracha and sometimes mentions to give extra tz'daka on the birthday, add to the usual learning one does, and get an aliya beforehand.
"I went as a Litvak, not as a Chassid, and I didn't listen to instructions too closely," said R' Sobel with a smile. "I prepared a long list of questions to ask the Rebbe and took it in with me to the Rebbe's room. After the Rebbe blessed me, I said I had some questions to ask him. 'Ask,' said the Rebbe. Our conversations were conducted in Yiddish.
"I took out the paper from my pocket and asked the first question. When I finished, I waited for the Rebbe to respond, but the Rebbe remained silent. I thought the Rebbe would answer each question separately but from his silence I understood that I should continue. I read all my questions, and there were many. I asked about fifteen questions. When I finished reading them, the Rebbe said, 'Now I will answer everything you asked,' and he proceeded to provide answers according to the order in which I asked the questions. He remembered every single one in order, which impressed me tremendously.
"A year later I had another birthday yechidus. This was at the end of the 60's and this time too, I told the Rebbe that I had questions to ask. The same story repeated itself as the year before.
"Among the questions that I asked, I included a question that I had asked the year before. I hadn't fully understood the answer. When the Rebbe got up to that question in his responses, he said, 'If you remember, you asked that question last year and I answered such-and such.' And he repeated what he told me the previous year."
R' Sobel was excited as he related this story. Not only the Rebbe's memory impressed him but the way the Rebbe answered him. The Rebbe didn't state that he had already answered the question; he mentioned it in a gentle way.
R' Sobel also has an interesting story about the date of his birthday:
"My birthday is on 20 Tammuz and when I went in for yechidus, and handed the Rebbe my pidyon nefesh, he asked me whether my birthday is on the 20th of the month or the 2nd. I said, the twentieth. The following year the Rebbe asked the same question and I gave the same answer. The third year, before going in for yechidus, I told one of the Chassidim who was there about this and he exclaimed, 'Don't you understand that the Rebbe is telling you something? Check your birth certificate again!' I wasn't such a Chassid to jump to conclusions because of the Rebbe's question.
"The third time the Rebbe asked me the same question and I, being a Litvak, dared to say, 'Why does the Rebbe ask me this every year? Are you trying to tell me something?' The Rebbe answered, 'No, it's just that the letter chaf is a half circle and you add something on the end and it looks like a beis.' I checked my birth certificate nonetheless but I found no mistake."
A Bracha for a Good Mark
"All the yeshiva high schools in the United States at that time had secular studies. Mine was no exception and the students had to pass their tests with a minimum of a 65. If you didn't pass, you had to repeat the entire course."
Ben Zion did not like secular studies and he avoided it as much as possible but he had no choice when it came to taking an important history test."I did not know the material at all," he said. He began studying. "Failing was terrible. If you failed, you had to put in many hours into another course and I figured this would entail much more bittul Torah and I didn't want that. I went to the Rebbe and asked him for a bracha so I would do well on the test and he gave me a bracha.
I asked him if he passed. "Sure," he said with a chuckle, "even though I really didn't know the material."
When the Rebbe Interrupted Me
At the age of 21, before he married, R' Sobel began sharing the Torah he had learned. He had a group of young bachurim who desired to make strides in their avodas Hashem, in their learning, conduct and middos tovos. He learned musar with them and was their spiritual mentor.
In a yechidus, he told the Rebbe about this and presented some questions concerning the behavior of the bachurim.
"As in every yechidus, I sat facing the Rebbe and the conversation took a long time. It was two in the morning. Outside the room was a long line of waiting people. After a number of minutes, the bell rang to indicate my time was up. I ignored it.
"After three quarters of an hour, the secretary Rabbi Binyamin Klein opened the door, looked in, and waited for the Rebbe to finish talking and for me to speak. Then he came in and told me, 'You are sitting here for three quarters of an hour already and there are many people waiting outside.' I didn't know what to say and I remained silent. The Rebbe waved his hand and said, 'Soon, soon.' R' Klein left the room and the Rebbe continued speaking for another three quarters of an hour."
R' Sobel will never forget this z'chus, of sitting with the Rebbe in yechidus for an hour and a half. When I asked him what instructions the Rebbe gave him, he waved me off and continued to direct the conversation towards the topics he wished to discuss. However, he gave me a glimpse of one topic out of many that had been raised.
Generally, the Litvishe yeshiva bachurim at that time in America went to college to prepare them to make a living. Even "good" bachurim left yeshiva at some point and got a degree. The norm at the time was even for the sons and sons-in-law of American g'dolim to go to college.
"I was the talmid of Rabbi Zeidel Epstein who lived in Crown Heights (he was later the mashgiach ruchni in Yeshivas Torah Ohr). He was the only one who spoke against college when he addressed the talmidim in yeshiva but even he wasn't completely against it and he maintained that someone who simply had to study a profession should go to college. The problem was that each bachur was sure he fit that category.
"When a group of bachurim formed around me, I knew I had to be a role model and I decided that I would not attend college. I consulted with R' Epstein and he affirmed that I should continue learning in yeshiva. In order to appreciate the courage this took, I'll tell you that out of the entire student body, there were only two bachurim who did not go to college, me and one other bachur.
"One of the topics I discussed with the bachurim was my not going to college. In nearly every conversation I brought this up. I spoke about it firmly and boruch Hashem, I was very successful and the number of boys who did not go to college grew.
"One day, one of the bachurim in this group said to me, 'Rabbi Sobel, your talks are good and you are a good mashpia. We enjoy learning from you, but you are stuck on this topic of college and this is the reason you have only a small group of bachurim. If you didn't talk about college so much, many more bachurim would join and your influence regarding other topics, no less important, would grow.' He suggested that I speak about college once in a while but should otherwise talk about other subjects.
"I gave him my attention and responded honestly when I said I didn't know what to tell him. I had to consult someone. In that long yechidus that I told you about, I brought this subject up. I told the Rebbe what the bachur had said and noted that until now I had always spoken against going to college.
"Out of character, the Rebbe stopped me in the middle of a sentence and declared, 'And you should continue speaking this way and if possible, do so even more firmly.' The Rebbe added, 'Even if bachurim drop out of your group, they are leaving you and going to another rav and will get what they need from him. But there should be at least one person who speaks uncompromisingly against college. Continue doing what you've done until now.'"
The Power of Influence
As I said, R' Sobel is a talmid chacham and he has a broad knowledge of Shas and commentaries. My conversation with him was spiced with verses and sayings of Chazal and it is impossible not to get into a Torah discussion with him. When he quotes something, it's word for word, faithful to the source. He told me about a question in learning that he asked the Rebbe.
"In one of the yechiduyos I asked the Rebbe about a seeming contradiction between two Gemaras. In the tractate Beitza (16a) it says, 'All of a man's livelihood is designated for him between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur' (there are two versions of this), while in the tractate Nidda (69b and on) it says, 'The men of Alexandria asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya twelve things,' and one of the questions was, 'What should a person do to become rich? He said to them, he should do more business and deal honestly. They said, many have done so and it didn't help, but rather he should ask for mercy of the One who possesses the wealth as it says, 'The silver is Mine, the gold is Mine.'' So in one place it says that a person can take action to become wealthy and elsewhere it says that it is decreed what he will earn.
"The Rebbe listened and then gave a completely novel answer. Later on I saw Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner z"l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, with whom I was also close, and I told him that I had been to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and he said such and such. I asked him whether the answer was correct and he said it was a famous question and there are many answers and what the Rebbe said was also a correct answer."
When I asked R' Sobel what the answer was, he said, "The Rebbe explained that on Rosh HaShana it is decreed how much a person will have in the upcoming year but the decree does not specify how much parnasa he will have, how much nachas he will have, how good his health will be, etc. Rather, a person receives a quota of pleasure in this world and it is man's choice, through his actions, to influence whether this pleasure will be from health, parnasa, or some other source. In the tractate Nidda it explains that a person can effect changes within his general circumstance and if he wants to be wealthy he should do more business.
"I remember that in one yechidus I brought up the topic of undesirable thoughts and I asked the Rebbe's advice. The Rebbe explained that a person cannot control his mind so as not to think, since every moment a person lives and is alert, he is thinking, but a person can control what he thinks about. If an undesirable thought comes, he has the ability to replace it with a different thought of Torah or a holy thought."
The Rebbe Poured Four L'chaims
At that time, a weekly paper was published with a thought on the parsha in English. Every week, they would mail the paper to hundreds of people. At first, they put the paper into an envelope but later on they printed it in a way that it could be folded and mailed without an envelope. When it was mailed in an envelope, next to the address were the words in Hebrew, "When is he [Moshiach] coming – when your wellsprings spread outward." Of course people threw the envelope out right away.
"It bothered me that people threw out an envelope with these words on it. I felt it was problematic. One time, at the end of a yechidus, I took the envelope out of my pocket and showed it to the Rebbe and asked whether it was permissible to throw it out. The Rebbe said he had never seen it before.
"As an impudent Litvak I asked, 'Do Chassidim do things without asking the Rebbe?' The Rebbe didn't react; he just smiled.
"The Rebbe told me to go to the office and talk to them about it, 'And they will probably ask a rav mora horaa. The rav will probably tell them that since Hashem's name is not written on it, nor the name of a tzaddik, it is permitted. But you should go to them in any case and point it out, because anything that can be made a point of, should be pointed out.'
"I knew that the Rebbe was particular about not paskening shailos and would send people to rabbanim. I took the envelope, folded it and put it back in my pocket and went out. Amazingly, whom did I see as soon as I left? Rabbi Shemtov, the man responsible for this publication. I went over to him and told him that I had just had yechidus and had spoken to the Rebbe about this and I repeated what the Rebbe said.
"R' Shemtov didn't respond; he just nodded. I don't know whether it was connected or not but a few weeks later the envelope no longer had those words on it."
What was the atmosphere like in yechidus?"
When I was in the Rebbe's room I felt very comfortable speaking to the Rebbe. He imparted a warm and close feeling and smiled a lot."
R' Sobel, as a young man, attended many of the big farbrengens such as those on Yud-Tes Kislev and Yud-Beis Tammuz. A Chassid in Crown Heights would call him at his yeshiva and let him know about an upcoming farbrengen.
"I once attended a farbrengen on Acharon shel Pesach. In Lubavitch they call it 'Moshiach's Seuda.' It was customary to say l'chaim to the Rebbe four times. I came from Queens to 770 and it was very late because I had left after Yom Tov was over. The farbrengen was almost over and I was unable to say l'chaim four times.
"After Havdala the Rebbe gave out 'kos shel bracha,' and I passed by with my cup. I told the Rebbe that I had not said l'chaim on four cups and the Rebbe asked me why. I don't remember exactly what I said but I saw he was dissatisfied. The Rebbe poured wine for me and I said l'chaim and he poured again and again and I said l'chaim, four times."
What did they think in yeshiva of your going to Lubavitch?
"The Menahel Ruchni of our yeshiva was a farbrente Misnaged (smiling) even if the Rebbe says that today there are no more Misnagdim. Someone once put a booklet of the Rebbe's sichos in Yiddish of which a significant part was devoted to Rashi's commentary, on his shtender. The menahel himself spent a lot of time on Chumash and Rashi and when he got this pamphlet he glanced at it and was immediately drawn in. Afterward, he came over to me and said, 'I didn't know that your Rebbe learns Chumash and Rashi so well...'"
A Response Within Half an Hour
When R' Sobel speaks about those days he does so nostalgically even though he does not think of himself as a Chassid, certainly not a Lubavitcher Chassid.
"I really miss the farbrengens. The Rebbe sat there for so many hours with the Chassidim and spoke and spoke, they sang and he spoke again. In other places I visited, there were divrei Torah at tishim but they were said briefly."
R' Sobel married at age 22 and for fifteen years they lived in Monsey and for two years in Boro Park. During this time he guided bachurim as he did previously.
In 5737 he and his family moved to Eretz Yisroel where he continued working with American bachurim who were learning in Eretz Yisroel.
In 5741 there was fear of a war breaking out. R' Sobel was in America fundraising for the yeshiva. Since there were no longer any private audiences with the Rebbe, he wrote eight questions on two pages. Among other things he asked whether, if war broke out, to send the bachurim back to America. He also asked about his wife who was expecting a baby at the time, whether to send her to America.
"I left the letter in the secretaries' office before mincha and went to the East Side. Within half an hour they called me with an answer: 'In my opinion your questions are not practical since there won't be a war. I will mention this at the gravesite.' Needless to say, the Rebbe was right.
"I remember that when the Rebbe spoke about the miracles Hashem did with Operation Entebbe, the Satmar camp was angry because they were unwilling to accept the fact that Hashem had helped the Israeli soldiers. I was in Philadelphia at the time and was close with Rabbi Elya Svei and Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky. R' Svei who knew that I visited Lubavitch told me his idea, that he and Rabbi Ruderman and Rabbi Kamenetzky, all leading Litvishe g'dolim in America, would go talk to the Rebbe.
"I asked what they would discuss and he said they would ask him to stop talking about the miracles of Entebbe and that he had said enough already. He asked me to speak to Rabbi Kamenetzky to see whether he agreed to go with them to the Rebbe.
"Before doing this I spoke to my rebbi, Rabbi Epstein who exclaimed, 'Where did we ever hear that you tell a leader of a k'hilla what to tell his Chassidim and what not to say? If the Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks he should say this, who are we to tell him what to do?'"