By Larry Gordon
It was early on in my Kaddish odyssey as we–the four of us–were in Crown Heights looking through things in my mother’s house, the place where we grew up, the house in which we stayed home from school when we pretended that we had sore throats, and so on.
It was getting late, so before heading back out to Long Island, I made a stop for Ma’ariv at 770 Eastern Parkway–Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters. It had been a while since I was in this building, maybe a year or perhaps even more. I stepped inside the belowground main shul where I had spent so many Shabbos mornings over more than two decades. I anticipated changes and prepared myself to not recognize the place.
So I walked inside through the old, worn swinging door, looking around, up and back. Straight ahead was where the Rebbe sat during those long Shabbos-afternoon and late-into-the-night farbrengens. Over to the left, in the corner, was the platform where the Rebbe either stood or sat during davening both on Shabbos and at the 10Â a.m. minyan during the week. Off to the right and up a bit was the beige-paneled platform or balcony that was built once the Rebbe took ill and could no longer speak but could be wheeled out to be seen as well as to see the assembled crowd of chassidim.
The third of Tammuz, Tuesday of next week, will be the 23rd yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l. That the Rebbe impacted and influenced the world to such an extent in his lifetime is not that much of a wonder. After all, he was a Rebbe, a tzaddik, a powerful personality with global reach, and more. The wonder that I’d like to ponder is the influence and effect that the Rebbe continues to have more than two decades after his passing.
The mechanism of the continued reach of the Rebbe all these years after his death is his emissaries planted in more than 90 countries around the world. Rabbi Chaim Shaul Bruk, a Chabad shliach in Bozeman, Montana, told the 5TJT the following when asked about the Rebbe’s continued impact on him: “I grew up in Crown Heights with the Rebbe and I miss him every day. Yet every morning when I sip my coffee surrounded by the Rocky Mountains’ beauty, I read the text of farbrengens and it gives me the enthusiastic push to get out there into the Wild West, to wrap another Jew with tefillin, bring another family a challah for Shabbos, and simply befriend another Jewish brother or sister. The Rebbe, like Moshe Rabbeinu, didn’t only teach his generation but he continues to inspire 23 years after his passing.”
As awesome as building the infrastructure for global shlichus was from the inside, it is extensively utilized by people the world over from the outside–but also, to an extent, taken for granted. One of the difficult-to-reconcile situations with the overall communities interfacing with worldwide Chabad is that out there in the world, travelers and businesspeople depend on them for kosher food, a minyan, and other guidance when needed. Once back home, however, it is not uncommon to hear the same people squirm and contort their faces when it comes to either moral or material support of the movement.
I sent an eâ€‘mail to about a dozen Chabad shluchim asking about the Rebbe’s impact on their lives all these years after his passing. Most responded, but one commented that I should try asking non-Chabad rabbis about their impressions of the Rebbe and his work and accomplishments. So I did that.
Rabbi Heshie Billet, of the Young Israel of Woodmere, responded, “The Rebbe was a great Torah scholar. He was wise and charismatic. The Rebbe touched Jews and non-Jews alike. He created a network of people all over the world. It was his followers who kept the flame of Yiddishkeit burning in the Soviet Union until the torch caught fire after the fall of the Communist government.”
Rabbi Leibel Rand, rosh yeshiva of Kollel Avreichim in Far Rockaway, and a man who attended many farbrengens at 770 Eastern Parkway back in the 1970s and ’80s, said, “As far as I can see, nothing has changed. The Rebbe’s impact and influence has remained both strong and a source of inspiration for many.”
Rabbi Shmuel Lichtenstein, a member of the kollel, said, “The Rebbe produced chassidim who, today, 23 years later, still are moser nefesh and continuing his mesorah despite being leaderless in a physical way.”
So while the Rebbe was all those things and accomplished a great deal more, it is the literature that has been produced about him this last decade or so that seems to find aspects of his life that have no limit in their ability to educate and inspire.
Those who studied and are still studying the Rebbe’s life continue to explore and find various aspects of his life and who he was, as well as how he accomplished what he did. One of the latest books on the Rebbe is The Early Years–a 600-page volume that analyzes and explores the first 27 years of the Rebbe’s life from the time he was born in 1902. This includes the period of his life as a young scholar, how he met his wife, Chaya Mushka, and when they married, the Rebbe’s life as a student, the route they took fleeing the Nazis, and finally their arrival in the U.S. in 1941.
The newer volume, My Story, recounts in their own words the experience of 41 very different people and their encounters with the Rebbe through yechidus or private meetings by people often seeking guidance or counseling on either personal or professional matters (see Page 23 of this week’s 5TJT for an excerpt). Often these meetings were held through the night and sometimes till after the sun would rise and it was light outside. The personal testimonies to the experience are real-life and riveting as well as inspiring.
Rabbi Pesach Schmerling, Chabad shliach in Far Rockaway, capsulized his continually evolving relationship with the Rebbe: “I thank Hashem daily for having had the z’chus to be by the Rebbe, zt’l, for a number of years, first as a child and then as a yeshiva bachur, attending the farbrengens and learning Torah directly from his holy mouth. The experience of being in the physical presence of the Rebbe cannot be described in words, and is something I miss terribly. And still, in the 23 years since his passing, I have deepened my appreciation and understanding of the Rebbe, if one can say that. The Rebbe’s Torah is vast, both in quantity as well as in depth. In his Torah, I find the Rebbe today, and the more I discover and learn, the more I feel connected to him. Over the last two decades, many details about the Rebbe’s life and activities have come to light, and learning more about all of these also contributes to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Rebbe. All the above is what impacts my life on a daily basis, as the Rebbe continues to be my shining guide and role model in all areas of life.”
Then there is the matter of the Rebbe’s emphasis on the need for Klal Yisrael to make a deliberate effort to herald the arrival of Mashiach and the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people. Let me put it this way–the Rebbe did not see the coming of Mashiach as just a theoretical possibility, something that we need to believe in but not necessarily internalize.
While all believing Jews the world over hope and pray for the geulah and the coming of Mashiach, it is not a matter that is studied with any intensity, and in most yeshivas a matter that is not necessarily discussed. The Rebbe saw world events in the post-Holocaust era as indicative of the real possibility that the inevitable can occur in our lifetimes if only we would focus on the issue.
I believe that it was this effort that gave birth to the idea that the Rebbe himself would someday be designated by Hashem as Mashiach and that it was he who would be our long-dreamed-about and hoped-for ultimate redeemer. It was probably these ideas that crossed over another line where some followers believed that the Rebbe was the Messiah; not that he had alluded to that fact in some of his talks, but that when others would insist and even declare that he was Mashiach, the claim was that the denial or refutation was not sufficiently assertive.
These ideas crossed another red line which critics of Chabad talk about: the idea that on some level the Rebbe is still alive. Well, no, not that he didn’t die, but that in some way–that is either difficult or impossible to explain–he is still alive.
Rabbi Nachman Ross of Woodmere is a subscriber to some of these ideas. He’s a friend of mine and we are both presently saying Kaddish for our mothers. Rabbi Ross wears a yarmulke which is emblazoned with large letters “×™×—×™ ××“×•× × ×• ×ž×•×¨× ×• ×•×¨×‘× ×• ×ž×œ×š ×”×ž×©×™×— ×œ×¢×•×œ× ×•×¢×“”. That translates as “Long live our Master, our Teacher, and Rebbe, King Mashiach forever and ever.”
Granted those are loaded words and, possibly, according to Rabbi Ross, the most misunderstood words ever articulated. I asked Rabbi Ross if he acknowledges that the Rebbe passed away 23 years ago on the 3rd of Tammuz. “It’s a death, but I don’t relate to it as a death,” he explains. No, he does not hold the belief that the Rebbe is still walking around somewhere, as some critics insist is legion in Chabad. He says that the Rebbe often referred to his father-in-law, the Friediker Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, as the “nasi,” or leader, of the generation even after the previous Rebbe passed away. Nachman Ross says that he utilizes the same expression about the Rebbe.
“I try to function the way the Rebbe functioned,” he says, and adds: “The Rebbe can be in both worlds,” he explains, though not in the conventional fashion that we view life here on earth.
I’m trying to understand and relate to this, so I bring up our parents for whom we are both saying Kaddish. I say that it might be something like the way in which we view our parents. Even though they have passed on to the next world, somehow they are still very much a part of our lives. And Nachman immediately agrees and says that’s the way he feels about the Rebbe.
This essay on the Rebbe hardly scratches the surface, though it does touch on the salient points. I don’t need to say that there is apparently something unusual if not unique going on here. All one has to do is go out to Cambria Heights, Queens, where the Rebbe’s Ohel can be found in the Old Montefiore cemetery. Whether it is 3Â p.m. or 3Â a.m. there are always people there, praying, contemplating, and looking for insight and wisdom. It is nonstop, around the clock, and around the year. I’ve met people there who flew in from Los Angeles or Canada or other more distant parts of the world to daven, and then returned to the airport directly to fly home.
Let me just conclude with this. After Gimmel Tammuz, 23 years ago, the experts and the critics alike said that this was the beginning of the end for a movement that was energized by the Rebbe day and night. The organization with its worldwide affiliates would now shrink and dwindle with the influence about to wane. In the aftermath of the Rebbe’s passing, however, the movement flourished at higher levels. More families moved to different parts of the world, Chabad Houses grew and added staff, and schools and other affiliated institutions were opened as the demand for Torah and the word of Gâ€‘d expanded in the hinterlands.
The Rebbe passed away and lives on. It’s difficult to fathom, but what else is there to say?
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.