Rabbi Shabsi Katz, rabbi of Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, and the Jewish chaplain for the Department of Prisons, maintained a relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, for many years. In December of 1978, a few days before Chanukah, he sat in a private audience with the Rebbe, who wished to know what was being done for the Jewish prisoners in South Africa. Rabbi Katz explained that conditions in South African prisons were much harsher than in the United States, although he had managed to exempt them from working on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. He even acquired kosher l’Pesach food certified by Pretoria’s rabbinate.
But the Rebbe just shook his head. “What about Chanukah? Can the inmates light Chanukah candles?” One must appreciate, the Rebbe said, how important it is for a person sitting alone in a cell to light a Chanukah menorah. One cannot fathom the warmth and hope this brings, and how it will uplift his spirits in such a dark environment. Rabbi Katz promised that when he returned to South Africa he would begin working on the project, so that next year the inmates could light Chanukah candles. The Rebbe, however, was not satisfied. “What about this Chanukah?” he asked urgently.
Rabbi Katz pointed out that Chanukah was just a few days away. Since he was in New York, he doubted it would be possible to do anything at this time. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe was not having it. He told the visiting rabbi that as soon as their meeting ended, he should use the telephones in the outside office to make any calls that were necessary to get the job done, and to ensure that the Jewish inmates in South Africa were permitted to light Chanukah candles.
Rabbi Katz reminded the Rebbe that in South Africa it was four o’clock in the morning; at that hour, he dared not wake the general in charge of correctional facilities. But again, the Rebbe did not accept Rabbi Katz’s reply, saying that on the contrary, when the general saw that the matter was so important that he was called from overseas in the middle of the night, he would be impressed and would appreciate the need for Jewish prisoners to light candles this year.
As soon as Rabbi Katz left the Rebbe’s office, one of the secretaries led him to a small side room across the hall. He showed him the phones and told him to make himself at home. Rabbi Katz stared at the phone for a few seconds, deciding who should be his first call. Then he picked up the receiver and dialed the number for his secretary in Pretoria to find the home number of General Sephton, the Dominee of the Dutch Reformed Church and Religious Director of Prisons. At the same time, he asked his secretary to call the general and tell him he would soon be receiving a call from overseas. And so, when he called General Sephton a few minutes later, the general was not upset, but instead inquired how he could help. Rabbi Katz explained that he had just completed a private meeting with one of the leaders of world Jewry, who had expressed concern about the Jewish inmates in South African prisons. The leader had explained how important it was for the prisoners to light Chanukah menorahs, and how this would bring them warmth, light, and hope.
General Sephton was moved. In spite of the fact that his office was due to close that day – it was December 24 – he said that if Rabbi Katz was calling at that time of night from overseas, he could understand how urgent the matter was, and that he would send a telex first thing in the morning to all the prison facilities in South Africa telling them to make it possible for all Jewish prisoners to light candles during this Chanukah holiday season.
The next morning, when the Rebbe came to Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Rabbi Katz was waiting for him. “Nu?” motioned the Rebbe. When he heard that the mission had been accomplished, the Rebbe gave him a broad smile and told Rabbi Katz that he wanted to see him after the Shacharis prayers. When he entered the Rebbe’s room after davening, the Rebbe told him that as he had done him a personal favor, he would like to do something in return.
Rabbi Katz was bewildered. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wanted to do something for him! He tried to explain that it was his privilege to serve the Rebbe and do his bidding, but the Rebbe did not accept this answer. So Rabbi Katz thought quickly, and asked for a Tanya (authored by the founder of Chabad, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi, zt”l) for his son, who would certainly appreciate it. The Rebbe smiled and told him that one would be in the outer office shortly. When he returned to pick it up, Rabbi Katz found a sefer Tanya waiting for him, plus a leather-bound deluxe Hebrew/English Tanya for his son. There was also a book called Challenge (a book on Chabad) for General Sephton in South Africa, and another book, Woman of Valor (an anthology of chasidic teachings on women) for the general’s wife.
When Rabbi Katz returned to South Africa, he called General Sephton. Before he could say anything, the general reassured him that he had sent the telexes the same day he had received the call from America, and that the Jewish prisoners had indeed kindled Chanukah candles that year. When Rabbi Katz told the general that the grand rabbi in New York had sent gifts for him, the general said he would be right over to pick them up.
Indeed, within an hour, the general was sitting in Rabbi Katz’s living room. Asked why he had hurried so, he replied that when a person sitting in New York thinks about somebody living on the other side of the globe – especially somebody imprisoned for wrongdoing – and seeks out someone to bring him light and warmth, he is a genuine leader. “And if such a leader sends something for me, I want it as soon as possible,” said the general.
Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at http://israelbookshoppublications.com. To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail Torahtavlin@yahoo.com.