The juxtaposition of Yeshiva Week to the 10th of Shevat is rather ironic. For those unfamiliar, the 10th of Shevat is the anniversary of the passing of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, and the day, one year later, when he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
As it falls out in the heart of the winter months, it’s common for this date to coincide with Yeshiva Week. I recall a number of years ago observing this important day on the Chabad calendar on a Kosherica Cruise at a farbrengen with Rabbi Manis Friedman, Benny Friedman, Avraham Fried, 8th Day, and Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. While that was an unforgettable farbrengen upon the high seas, there is something about Yeshiva Week and the 10th of Shevat that just doesn’t fit together.
There are a number of characteristics that set the Lubavitcher Rebbe apart from all other Chassidic and Litvish gedolim. That very claim can be justified by the fact that the Rebbe was the address for correspondence not just from chassidim, Litvaks, Sephardim, affiliated and disenfranchised Jews, and even non-Jews, but Jewish leaders from all sects and communities, who regularly corresponded with the Rebbe in Torah matters and issues of great importance in the world of hashkafah and theology. However, the one feature that perhaps distinguishes the Rebbe from all Jewish leaders is that in 44 years at the helm of the Chabad Lubavitch movement he never took a day off.
A story is told that just two or three years into the Rebbe’s nesius, his secretariat felt that it would be important for the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin to take a vacation. All the details of the getaway were planned in advance: a house in Montauk for two weeks, a car, a driver, and all the important amenities were procured. The only thing that wasn’t secured was the Rebbe’s approval.
At that time, one of the mazkirim, as the secretariat were referred to in Hebrew, was Reb Eliyahu Quint who, unlike the rest of the team, did not originate from Chabad and was a student of the Alter of Slabodka. The other secretaries had nominated Rabbi Quint to inform the Rebbe of their plans to send him and the Rebbetzin away and secure his approval. The Rebbe listened intently to the details and replied that it was indeed an interesting offer, but nevertheless was not practical. He said: what’s going to happen if a chassan and kallah are seeking his blessing to tie the knot on their relationship; they will have to wait two weeks? And what will you do when someone is seeking his blessing for an emergency that simply cannot wait? You will tell them that the Rebbe is away for two weeks? Lastly, the Rebbe asked him how many pieces of mail arrive daily at 770. He said it was about 400 pieces that the Rebbe read and responded to, at times with the assistance of the mazkirim. Fourteen days multiplied by 400 pieces of mail is 5,600 pieces of mail to sort through when he would return. He said that doesn’t sound like a vacation, and he nixed the idea.
The Rebbe’s workload was staggering. We’ve all been introduced to workaholics and some of us may even fall into that category. It is unheard of for someone to go a year without taking a week or even a weekend off to catch their breath and recharge their batteries. There are people, even leaders, who work while they are away, on a smaller level with less intensity, but the Rebbe simply did not have the word vacation in his lexicon.
In the later years of the Rebbe’s leadership, the United States Postal Service recorded that 770 Eastern Parkway received the most mail, 700 parcels daily, outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC. One time, the Rebbe was at his home on President Street in Crown Heights and he walked out onto his back porch took a deep breath and remarked, “I’ve already fulfilled my vacation quota for this year.”
When we were kids, my sisters always had a week off but the boys’ yeshivas never had winter vacation. I was reminiscing earlier today with an acquaintance with whom I crossed paths while at dinner in Boca Raton, Florida, about the time my parents took us to Eretz Yisrael for Chanukah in observance of my grandfather’s first yahrzeit, which landed my brother, who was then in preschool, and me, in second grade, in a weeklong suspension. Imagine, we were off a couple of those days anyway for Chanukah and we went to Eretz HaKodesh in observance of our grandfather’s first yahrzeit, and the administration couldn’t find any room for clemency in the way they dealt with my brother and me. In case you’re wondering, the yeshiva is no longer around, although it has nothing to do with the fact that we were suspended for going to Israel. At least, I don’t think so.
Along these lines, we never know the reason why things happen. G-d is infinite and as Chazal state His thoughts are not on the realm of ours and His ways are incomparable with ours. But having been brought up through the yeshiva system the one thing that has been inculcated within us unmistakably is the importance of Torah study and its ability to protect Klal Yisrael. These last few days have tried the spirits of the Jewish people. An inordinate number of tragedies here, in Florida, and over Shabbos in Eretz Yisrael really put us all, as a community, on edge.
It brings to mind the situation in Israel, with the close of the summer zeman when yeshiva bochurim would traditionally take tiyulim across the state. Unfortunate tragedies would occur year in and year out, to the point that the roshei yeshiva had to regulate what could and could not be done during that period of time, due to the vulnerability with the dearth of learning taking place over the bein ha’zemanim.
Again, the Rebbe was a yachid b’doro in this sense, and there is a need for kids to recharge from their demanding yeshiva schedules, even if we were able to get by without it. What I am saying is that the presence of Torah learning clearly protects our people. When hundreds of thousands of children, tinokos shel beis rabban, are out of yeshiva and by and large not learning, there is no question that we as a nation are more vulnerable. I’m not going to suggest staggering the vacation times because I am completely aware of how much anxiety that causes both parents and school administrators. However, what I am saying is something on an entirely different realm and that is that we need to lose the term vacation from our vernacular. That doesn’t mean that you can’t travel to exotic locations and run away from the cold; rather that regardless of where we are at a given time we need to perceive ourselves in the midst of a mission which can never be interrupted. Vacation is a frame of mind which connotes vacating a certain space and seriousness which life demands. We need to maintain that seriousness wherever we are because that is why G-d brought us into this world.
The Rebbe viewed himself as a shliach of his father-in-law and predecessor, the Friediker Rebbe. There is a kabbalah from the Alter Rebbe that Mashiach will arrive in the dor ha’shvi’i, the seventh generation, which began with the nesius of the Rebbe on 10 Shevat 1951. The Rebbe abided carefully by the Torah’s precepts of messengers and held that a deviation from the mission that he was sent on would have dissolved or undone the entire mission altogether and he therefore never took a day off as long as his mission wasn’t fulfilled. The least we could do is to perceive ourselves as “at work” and “on duty” even while we are in a different locale, because until Mashiach arrives and the Shechinah is redeemed there is work that needs to be done. And if we don’t do it, who will?
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.