Natan was born in Vilna to Torah-observant parents and was educated in that city's well-known yeshivot. As a young man, however, Natan abandoned the practices and beliefs of Judaism in favor of secular Zionism. He became a leading Zionist activist, finally making his way to the Holy Land. There he joined "The Stern Gang," the most radical of the Zionist groups fighting for an independent Jewish state.
After the establishment of the state in 1948, as mundane politics replaced the ideological fervor of the pre-independence years, Natan became disillusioned with the cause for which he had fought with such vehemence. He turned fiercely anti-Zionist and pro-Arab. An eloquent writer, he regularly published articles defaming everything Jewish, and particularly the Jewish state and its policies.
Natan was on line for kos shel bracha that night because of his acquaintance with Gershon Ber Jacobson, editor of the New York-based Yiddish language newspaper, The Algemiener Journal.
Gershon Ber is a Lubavitcher chasid. His paper is certainly pro-Israel and supportive of Yiddishkeit; but Gershon Ber also believes in pluralistic journalism and freedom of expression. To the consternation of many of his readers, he invited the self-proclaimed atheist and anti-Zionist to write for the Algemeiner and published the venomously anti-Israel and anti-Jewish articles the writer sent in. When Gershon Ber suggested to Natan that he meet the Rebbe, the writer accepted the invitation.
As the two men approached the Rebbe, Gershon Ber introduced his guest. The Rebbe smiled broadly at Natan, and said, "I read your articles."
Natan's idea of a Chasidic Rebbe did not prepare him for a person who reads newspapers, much less articles such as his own. But what surprised him even more was what followed. "When G-d blesses someone with a talent such as yours," the Rebbe was now saying, "one must utilize it to the fullest. This is a Divine calling, and an immense responsibility. It is your G-d-given power and duty to make full use of your capacity to reach out to others and influence them with your writing."
Thinking that perhaps the Rebbe was mistaking him for someone else, Natan asked, "Does the Rebbe agree with what I write?" The Rebbe replied, "One need not agree with everything one reads. What is most important is that one uses one's G-d-given talents. When one does so, one will ultimately arrive at the truth."
Before the flattered writer could adjust to the unexpected turn the meeting was taking, the Rebbe's words struck a place in his heart he'd long thought to have been silenced forever. "Tell me," said the Rebbe in a gentle yet firm tone, "what is happening in regard to the observance of Torah and mitzvot?"
Not wanting to lie, nor wishing to offend the Rebbe with his atheism and anti-religiosity, Natan replied, "A Jew thinks."
"But in Yiddishkeit," countered the Rebbe, quoting the Talmudic maxim familiar to Natan from his yeshiva years, "it's most important to do. 'The primary thing is the deed.'"
Natan returned, "At least with me it's like in the story with the Berditchever." Natan was referring to the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's encounter with a Jew who was smoking on Shabbat. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, famous for his literal inability to see anything negative in a fellow Jew and his persistent advocacy on behalf of his people, said to the transgressor: "Surely you're not aware that today is the holy Shabbat." "No," said the man, "I'm perfectly aware that it's Shabbat today."
"Then perhaps you don't know that it's forbidden to smoke on Shabbat," said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. "No," said the man, "I know what the law says about smoking on Shabbat." Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lifted his eyes to heaven and cried, "Father in Heaven! How precious are your people, Israel. See how a Jew is incapable of telling a lie."
Natan was about to tell the Rebbe to which story he was referring. But before he could, the Rebbe rejoined, "The difference is that the Berditchiver said this in defense of another person, while you are saying it in defense of yourself..."
With that, the meeting came to a close. The Rebbe poured some wine into Natan's cup, blessed him, and turned to the next in line.
Several months later, Natan was diagnosed with terminal cancer, G-d forbid. Shortly before his death, he sent a sealed envelope to Gershon Ber, with a note stating that it contained an article that he wished to be published posthumously.
Gershon Ber complied, and following Natan's death the article was printed in the Algemeiner Journal. "My dear reader," Natan had written, "as you read this article I am standing before the heavenly court being judged for all the actions I took and the choices I made in the course of my life. No doubt, I will be severely judged for living a life totally antithetical to anything Jewish. In fact, I have severe doubts that I will even be allowed to speak in my defense. This is why I asked your editor to print this now, as I stand before the heavenly court, in the hope that what is being read and discussed at this moment on earth will attract the attention of the Supernal Judge. For I have one merit which I want to present to the court in the face of my failings and transgressions."
Then, Natan related his exchange with the Rebbe. "The Rebbe said to me," he concluded, "that I have a G-d-given talent and that it is my sacred duty to utilize it to influence others. This I did to the best of my ability, however misguidedly. This is the only merit I can claim; may it lighten the destiny of my soul..."
Gonzo just posted this story on his blog...personal reasons related....I read it and felt um I wanted to share it too :)
(twas written by Yanky Tauber for the L'chaim)