Dear Rebbe

 

By Yochanan Gordon

Since this is a book comprising the chronology of correspondence that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, ob’m, a chassidic rebbe, had with specific individuals, it would be appropriate to introduce it with a chassidic idea.

There are contrasting terms in chassidic parlance, whose distinction is important to identify, in explaining the uniqueness of this book. They are “giluyim” and “etzem.” A giluy is a revelation of G-dliness whereas etzem represents the core essence of G-d, as it is used in chassidic philosophy. When we talk about giluyim, we refer to attributes such as chochmah, binah, da’at — the intellectual attributes, or chagas nehi, which are a conjunction with the emotional attributes, or sefiros.

The important distinction when discussing giluy versus etzem is that, as the Zohar states, “The middos of G-d, or his attributes, as we have termed it above, do not represent G-d in his essence but merely are an emanation of G-dliness.” As such, they are divisible. Etzem, by contrast, the moment you grasp a part of it, you have it in its entirety. Additionally, giluy can be compared to a flash of inspiration which is fleeting, whereas etzem in its authenticity remains fresh and exciting and is not subject to the effect that the passage of time has on certain things.

This leads into an idea in the Mishnah which talks about the difference between a ma’ayan, which is a natural water source, to that of a rain-filled cistern, termed mayim mechazvin, a deceitful body of water, which has significant halachic ramifications. The Mishnah says that a body of water that dries up once in seven years is referred to as a deceitful water source, whereas a ma’ayan flows without end. It just seems that regardless of how many books or sefarim about the Rebbe containing the Rebbe’s scholarship, encounters, and correspondence with dignitaries or everyday men, women, and children see the light of day, the excitement and freshness of the content remains as if it were the only one. No detail ever seems redundant or description superfluous when discussing the impact of the Rebbe on a personal and global level.

Just when we thought it was impossible, author Dovid Zaklikowski found a niche despite the 30 volumes of Igros Kodesh that exist and scores of adaptations in varying forms that have been published over the last 25 years or so. He delivers a truly spellbinding, well-researched literary work chronicling the history of the Rebbe’s correspondence with a sculptor, Jacques Lipschitz, a world-renowned tenor, Jan Peerce, a Holocaust survivor, and successful businessman and benefactor Mr. David Chase, and world-famous Yiddishist Chaim Grade. But the influence of etzem runs much deeper than just in the agelessness of this material. If you had to break down, in a theme, much of this book, it would be the Rebbe’s ability to help mend the inner turmoil and perpetual tug-of-war that many of the subjects of this book lived with for much of their lives. This ability is only possible through an encounter with the etzem. Jacques Lipschitz, Jan Peerce, and Chaim Grade, despite coming from vastly different backgrounds, were all artists of sorts, world-renowned in their disciplines, and lived with an acute dichotomy between their heritage, hailing from devoutly religious backgrounds and dealing with success on the level that each of them achieved respectively.

Lipschitz was praised by the great artists of his time — the likes of Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. And although he convinced himself that his sculptures, which many across the Jewish world decried as bordering on idolatry, were a fulfillment of kol ma’asechah yehiyu l’Shem Shamayim, Lipschitz corresponded extensively with the Rebbe in regard to the permissibility of his work within the purview of halachah. Perhaps due to his religious background, Lipschitz lived with an acute sense of spirituality because of his lack of grounded-ness within the world of halachah, and strict adherence to Torah and mitzvos was misplaced. In his worldview, art was part-and-parcel of the human experience and an expression of one’s love of G-d unless it was created with expressly variant intentions. The issue of “do not create a molten image” did not enter his mind in the slightest to be an obstacle to the permissibility of his work.

The Rebbe, for his part, cautiously encouraged Lipschitz to continue his work but curiously never commented on any specific work. He would, however, urge Jacques Lipschitz to focus his artform on creating Jewish themed ideas. Perhaps the tensest exchange in the history of their correspondence was when Mr. Lipschitz was commissioned by showman Billy Rose to participate in a sculpture garden in the Jerusalem Museum. Lipschitz pledged to donate many of his existing works and to create new ones for the planned exhibit. Despite the Rebbe’s clear disapproval of this plan, Lipschitz went ahead with it anyway. While it is sad and unfortunate that people such as Jacques Lipschitz, who would take the Rebbe’s time to confide in him and even express loyalty to him yet betray his direction, it is one of the most distinctive aspects of the Rebbe’s leadership. Where many in the position that the Rebbe occupied would feel slighted by the expression of irreverence, the Rebbe remained focused on his goal of correcting Lipschitz’s perspective to see things within the realm of Torah.

While it’s unclear as to how dedicated Lipschitz grew in his observance towards the end of his life, an incident following Lipschitz’s demise with his widowed wife, Yulla, speaks volumes to the effect that the Rebbe’s influence had upon her. At a point when Lipschitz realized that his end was near, he recalled one of his unfinished pieces of art and had instructed his wife, as a last will and testament of sorts, how to finish it and what to do with it. After Lipschitz passed and his wife realized that a phoenix was meant to sit atop this last work of his, she made an appointment to see the Rebbe in order to find out if there are any Jewish origins to the phoenix, and if she should finish this work as he had asked. The Rebbe called Rabbi Krinsky in and asked him to bring a copy of the book Iyov. The Rebbe explained that the commentaries on the phrase “I shall multiply my days like the chol” describe a bird that lives for a thousand years and then renews itself and returns to its youth. Calmed by the Rebbe’s reassurance, Yulla committed to finishing her husband’s work.

When I reflect upon these encounters, their ongoing disagreements, and the Rebbe’s refusal to be discouraged by any of it, it brings to life the conclusion of the Beraisa d’Rebbi Yishmael that we say at the beginning of davening every morning: “And so, two verses which seem to contradict each other until a third verse comes to arbitrate between them.” The two verses here are represented by the dichotomy that was constantly at play—the disquietude within the creative soul of Jacques Lipschitz and his longing to do what he was doing as an expression of his dedication to G-d and Torah. Chassidus teaches us that the nature of the third verse that is able to arbitrate between the two contending verses is of an entirely different and more sublime nature. The third verse here is represented by the Rebbe who, instead of seeing the discord, was able to discover the oneness at the backdrop of it all. This message plays itself out particularly in the chapters on Jan Peerce and Chaim Grade as well, in its own unique way. But because I’m limited in space and since this is being published on Shavuos, I feel it is appropriate to tie it into the holiday of Matan Torah.

One of the more significant details of this yom tov is the fact that the Torah was given in the third month. We may think, at first glance, that it would be more appropriate for the Torah, which is an expression of the Oneness of G-d, to be given in the first month. Chassidus explains that there is something incomplete in the unity in a solitary unit and that is the absence of anything else to challenge the oneness. So then, you’d say, give the Torah in the second month. The problem, however, in the second month, is the constant strife and contention between the two opposing forces. The third month, however, reveals that oneness exists equally in heaven and upon the earth. This was the message that the Rebbe focused on throughout his 44 years at the helm of Chabad. Every letter, every sichah, ma’amar, and public and private gathering was dedicated to displaying the beauty within G-d’s world and its natural proclivity towards a life dedicated to Torah and mitzvos, and to creating a permanent dwelling for G-d in this world.

Dear Rebbe adds a never-before-seen element of the Rebbe’s leadership to the English-speaking audience. It was thoroughly researched and written in an engaging style. Those looking to increase their appreciation for the Rebbe and the impact of his dedication to the Jewish people need look no further than this book.

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