I heard this story from Rabbi Yossi Lew of Chabad of Peachtree Georgia at the recent Chabad on Campus Conference.
At the time Rabbi Lew was part of the first group of Yeshiva students being sent by the Rebbe as “Talmidim HaShluchim” to enhance the Yeshiva and Torah Study in South Africa. There was some discussion back and forth if the Rebbe would speak to them privately before their departure, but in the end they did merit this private sendoff in the foyer/hallway outside the Rebbe’s study. The Rebbe blessed them and wished them success, and then gave each one an Australian Dollar.
Australian Dollar? They were going to South Africa! The Rebbe later explained that he did not have any Rands (currency of South Africa) available, but he did want to give them currency at least from that hemisphere (hence the Australian dollar).
That’s the first part of the story. There’s an important lessons here on how the Rebbe insisted that the Shlichus mission be to the place itself, with total investment and permanent settlement (though this type of Yeshiva Shlichus was only for a two-year stint), and he was eager to use the currency of that place or at least that hemisphere. Be there!
And now the second part of the story: The Rebbe is a hard person to get a physical present for (when we were yeshiva boys we did study campaigns as a “gift” to the Rebbe) but these boy felt that the Rebbe himself said he did not have Rands, so they made it their mission to collect various denominations of Rands to send to the Rebbe. For those who remember the Dollar lines, the Rebbe would give crisp fresh new bills, so they were on the lookout for the same in Rands, the newest and freshest and crispest they could find. After they collected a bunch they mailed it off to the Rebbe in Brooklyn.
Usually when they would recieve an answer from the Rebbe it would be mailed to their dorm building, because that was the return address on the letters they sent. But the response to this package did not come to their yeshiva dorm, instead it came to Rabbi Mendel Lipskier’s office, the regional director for Chabad Lubavitch in South Africa. Rabbi Lipsker called them in, and at first there was some question as to why this response came to Rabbi Lipsker’s office. But then it dawned on the Rabbi, these boys had sent South African Rands out of the country at a time when it was illegal to do so! They were all from abroad, and were unaware of this restriction, but Rabbi Lipskier was all to well aware of it, and realized the Rebbe sent the response to him to alert him about it.
A second lesson: Instead of admonishing the boys directly, which would take the wind out of their well-meaning and well-intentioned gift, the Rebbe sent them a thank-you note but in a way (by sending it via the main Chabad office) that they would get the message that this can not be done. Even when we have to be critical, there are nicer ways of going about it.