H ow did chief negotiator Uri Lubrani manage to close a deal with the Ethiopian dictator in order to airlift thousands of Jews to safety? Clever negotiations aside, there was one factor no one could have known about

Last week, with the passing of Uri Lubrani, Israel’s long-term diplomat and legendary man-behind-the-scenes, I was reminded of a remarkable, true story that I heard years ago from Rabbi Dovid Ordman when we both served as lecturers in Arachim. He heard it while working for Arachim in Australia from an Australian rabbi whose American relative was part of President George H.W. Bush’s inner circle.

On May 24 and 25, 1991, some 17,000 Ethiopian Jews were dramatically airlifted to Israel in military planes in a brilliant operation known as Operation Solomon, in order to save these survivors from the bloodbath that was raging in their country. The overt hero of the mission was Uri Lubrani, the emissary of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who performed his task in a most praiseworthy way. But there was an anonymous hero as well.

At that time, 27 years ago, Ethiopia was ruled by Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. American-backed rebel tribes were seeking to topple his regime, and the ensuing battles caused many Ethiopian Jews to flee to the capital city Addis Ababa for refuge. They set up a tent community on the outskirts of the city, but in time, the fighting reached the capital. The rebels were threatening to take over, and the refugees found themselves in the line of fire again. They relayed a cry for help to the government of Israel, and Israel sent Uri Lubrani, its former ambassador to Ethiopia, as a special emissary to conduct negotiations with the ruler. The dictator was no pushover, however, and demanded $180 million in exchange for allowing the Jews of his country to emigrate. In the end, he was bargained down to $30 million. Mengistu saw that his days as ruler were numbered, and he needed money to retire in exile.

But he made one further condition: He insisted that US President George H.W. Bush write him a letter requesting that he allow the Jews to emigrate. Complying with this demand was no simple matter: The US did not recognize Mengistu’s regime and had instigated the rebellion against him. A public request addressed to Mengistu was tantamount to recognizing his position as Ethiopia’s national leader, and it seemed like an impossible request. But Mengistu needed that backing to cement his position with regard to other Muslim states, as well as to undermine America’s support for the rebels in his own country. And in order to save thousands of Jewish lives, Israel needed to come to an agreement with the dictator.

Israel, therefore, acted as mediator, conveying Mengistu’s demand to the president in its own diplomatic terms. The request, in fact, was granted, and the rescue operation was launched.

So, who was the anonymous hero that made it happen?

Upon receiving Israel’s request, President Bush convened the National Security Council for an urgent meeting. On the one hand there was a humanitarian issue, with the lives of thousands of innocent people at stake. On the other hand, giving the appearance of recognizing Mengistu’s regime would cause confusion in the ranks of the rebel troops, who were relying on America’s aid. The US’s position as a global power was therefore also at stake.

The president’s advisors debated the question and took a vote. It was a tie — half the votes were in favor of writing to the dictator, and half were opposed.

But one member had not yet voted. All eyes were on him as the council awaited the deciding vote.

“Before I vote,” he said, “I have a story to tell you. About 40 years ago, a fire broke out in a second-floor apartment of a predominantly black New York neighborhood. The parents were out at the time, while three terrified children stood at the window screaming for help. A crowd of neighbors gathered in the street, but no one knew what to do other than wait for the firefighters, and no one was willing to enter the burning building and risk his own life — until one dark-skinned man, wrapped in a thick blanket soaked with water, broke into the apartment and managed to rescue the children.

“When the parents arrived home, they were beside themselves with shock and gratitude that their children were unharmed. They sought out the anonymous savior, showered him with blessings, and wanted to reward him for his heroism. But he refused to accept any remuneration. He explained that he was a newcomer to New York, from a Jewish tribe in Ethiopia, and what he’d done was simply a ‘mitzvah,’ as he called it. Some sort of act prescribed by his religion.”

The council member continued: “I was one of those three children. That Jewish man from Ethiopia saved my life. I don’t know what a ‘mitzvah’ is, exactly, but I’m going to do a ‘mitzvah’ now.” And he proceeded to vote “yes.”

And so Operation Solomon was launched, and 17,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to safety in Eretz Yisrael.

This amazing story illustrates a principle taught by Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his Michtav MeEliyahu. He writes that whenever a person undertakes to accomplish anything, he makes plans, but there are always some elements beyond his control. He then has a choice: Either he can hope and pray for siyata d’Shmaya, or he can assume that the success of his plans depends on luck. No one, not even master negotiator Uri Lubrani, could control the outcome of President Bush’s National Security Council vote. That was in the hands of the One Above, Who made sure everything was in place at that seminal moment when the future presidential advisor’s home went up in flames, and the anonymous hero from Ethiopia just happened to be on the scene. Albert Einstein was right when his deep contemplation of the universe prompted him to say, “Coincidence is G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.”

The story also highlights another operating principle in G-d’s running of the universe: No act of chesed is an isolated incident. Our every act contributes to an endless chain reaction that continues long after we have forgotten about it. One Ethiopian Jew saved three children in Harlem from death, and that act brought about the salvation, many years later, of thousands of his own endangered people. Perhaps that hero was no longer living when the miracle of Operation Solomon took place, and we can assume he had no idea of the future repercussions of his act.

But it would behoove us to contemplate the fact that everything we do makes a difference, often on levels that are beyond our perception. Like waves rippling endlessly from the impact of a stone on smooth water, the effects of our deeds exceed our comprehension. And sometimes, the far-reaching results of our choices become apparent even while we still inhabit This World.

It is the Creator’s Will that we do chesed, for Creation itself was an act of chesed, and as the Chofetz Chaim teaches, an abundance of chesed in the world can nullify the evil decrees that constantly pursue us.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 702)