In 1943, the Rebbe published a calendar containing a pearl of Chassidic wisdom for each day of the year. Here is an excerpt from the entry for the 16th day of Iyar, an anecdote about the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, and one of his Chassidim:
“Once, when the Chosid Reb Elye Abeler came for an audience with the Rebbe, the Rebbe said to him: ‘Elye, I envy you!'”
The story continues and explains the Rebbe’s envy. This Reb Elye was in business and had a reputation for “mixing business and pleasure.” He shared Chassidic inspiration with the people he did business with, encouraging them to do Mitzvot and learn Torah.
This was the object of the Rebbe’s envy. He told Reb Elye that utilizing business dealings to give others a chance to engage in their Judaism brings G-d great joy, and that joy is repaid with sublime blessings from On High.
That’s the story.
This past Sunday was the 16th of Iyar and we read that entry Sunday morning. And then, later that day, we participated in the funeral of a 40-year-old father of seven children, ages 1-17, a beloved friend to many, many people, a trusted businessman – and a cousin of mine – who passed away quite suddenly Friday night from cardiac arrest three days before his son’s Bar Mitzvah celebration.
His name was Eli Baitelman. (He and I were named after our common great-grandfather.) For many years he had served as a Shliach to the Jewish community of Pacific Palisades, and more recently he had opened a general contracting business in Los Angeles.
I won’t try to write a eulogy about this incredible young man, nor to attempt to convey the un-conveyable shock and bewilderment his family is experiencing.
Those who knew him know that there was nobody like him. Long before he gained a legacy with his sudden passing, Eli was a legend.
He was a true friend. He was utterly reliable. He was honest to the bone. He was an amazingly hard worker. He thought clearly and felt even more clearly. He felt the pain of the outcast and the loner. He was generous to a fault. He was a straight-shooter and he could be a barrel of laughs.
Basically, he was the quintessential Baitelman – may the entire family live long and healthy years.
But when people who knew him and loved him read what the Rebbe had written in 1943 for the day that would become Eli’s day 80 years later, there was no doubt that the Rebbe had written it for him. “Elye, I envy you.”
Elye is an affectionate form of the name Eli, and the message describes Eli’s business practices to the tee.
When he left the rabbinate and entered the business world, he picked up right where he left off. He counseled and consoled people at work sites; in between meetings, he spoke to Jewish customers, employees and others about upcoming holidays and special days. He wrapped Tefillin with countless Jewish subcontractors, clients and site inspectors and taught them how to pray when they were done inspecting. (See the photo – the inspector is wearing Eli’s Kippah and Eli is wearing the Tefillin bag.)
Non-Jewish people were drawn to him too, for his honesty and his heart of gold. Several Los Angeles city inspectors showed up at the Shiva to express their sorrow.
His employees, mostly Spanish-speaking men, honest and hardworking like their boss, adored and admired him. They wept at his funeral and were the last to leave.
It is hard to know if he touched more lives as a rabbi or as a contractor.
And it was that spiritual success as a contractor that was the object of the Rebbe’s envy.
Turning a world of darkness and dishonesty into a glowing realm of holiness and kindness – that is Rebbe-level productivity.
Let’s pick up the baton and relieve some darkness ourselves. Let’s do our part to alleviate the pressure on Eli’s family by giving what we can to the crowdfunding campaign created by his friends and admirers.
Please give generously and may you be blessed for your kindness to those in need.
And the next time the opportunity arises, utilize your business to spread a little light, some Mitzvot and some Jewish spirit.
Remember Eli and use the connections created by work for a higher purpose.
If it was all about money, G-d could easily make the money rain down at our front doors every morning.
It is not all about money; it is all about the people we connect with and the good we can do for one another.
Work hard, work honest, and seek out the best for the people you work with. Try to see the good in everyone and try to feel people’s pain. Give generously to others, live joyously, and be a good Jew.
Be like Eli, and become the envy of Rebbes.
Good Shabbos and Shabbat Shalom. May we share only good news from now on!
Rabbi Eli Friedman
Chabad of Calabasas