In light of the books that have recently been released on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life, it becomes all the more difficult to contribute to this topic and actually write something novel in commemoration of his 20th yahrzeit. This challenges those who want to memorialize him on this auspicious day to write something not just informative and inspiring, but words that will make a difference in the lives of those reading.
The Rebbe was a pragmatic individual. He was concerned that Jews continue to challenge themselves to become better Jews through learning more Torah and fulfilling more mitzvos. If I were to have the opportunity to send this article to the Rebbe before publication, I bet he would nix the entire piece as soon as he read of any miraculous or inspiring accounts of himself, because he was not interested in flattery. My challenge is to address an audience of people who have, for whatever reason, avoided identifying with the Rebbe or Chabad, to inspire dialogue about these seemingly uncomfortable issues, and to generate appreciation for an individual whose love for every Jew, and for the entire human race, was simply unprecedented.
Jewish Action magazine recently included a 20-page section in tribute to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson, ob’m. There was an article written by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, about the unparalleled leadership qualities that the Rebbe possessed. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, executive vice-president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, contributed an article on the genius of the Rebbe in every aspect of limud HaTorah and how the Rebbe’s contribution to Torah has impacted his life and the lives of many others. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff penned a piece about the unique relationship that his rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, enjoyed with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And finally, there was an article by Jack Wertheimer who marvels and attempts to explain how it is that 20 years after the Rebbe’s passing the movement continues to experience exponential growth in its worldwide corpus–which is certainly an outcome that no one in the greater Jewish community would have predicted when the Rebbe physically departed from us on June 12, 1994.
It’s remarkable that a movement that is so seemingly dependent on a Rebbe guiding it at every step of the way should continue to grow as it has even two decades after its leader’s demise. In his Jewish Action piece, Mr. Wertheimer attempted to explain this phenomenon in a this-worldly approach based on the Rebbe’s sense of empowerment and positive outlook and the chassid’s ability to carry these messages forward for an unending period of time. The problem with this approach is that it’s not entirely accurate. Secondly, it portrays a picture where Chabad chassidim hold their leaders in much higher regard than leaders of various other Orthodox factions, who look to replace their leaders the moment they move on to the next world. Now, while that last point may be true, I would be remiss not to point out the existence of an overriding principle that explains the flourishing of Chabad 20 years after the Rebbe’s physical passing.
Reb Chaim Brisker was famous for developing a much-nuanced approach to limud haTorah where he trained his students to break down any given topic into two basic modes of understanding. In yeshivish parlance this is known as the tzvei dinim, or the two modes of comprehension. Anyone who has become accustomed to this manner of learning should have no problem intellectually relating to two paradoxical realities simultaneously. I am asking you to apply this system of understanding to the Rebbe’s own life, or more than that, to the lives of tzaddikim in general.
A famous passage in Zohar explains the notion of any group flourishing after the physical passing of its leader, stating, “A tzaddik is more accessible in this world after his demise than before.” The problem with this is that people automatically explain away an uncomfortable passage in Zohar by saying, “We don’t know exactly what he means.”
There really is nothing mystical about this passage in Zohar that should make anyone feel uncomfortable. The Torah describes quite clearly the events surrounding Yaakov Avinu’s death and the manner in which he was embalmed, buried, and later exhumed and brought for burial in the Cave of Machpela. Yet, addressing this topic, the Gemara declares, “Our father Jacob has not died.” The Gemara resolves this conflict by saying, “Just as his children are alive, he remains alive.” The notion of granting eternal life to the tzaddik is true across the board. However, we, the disciples of the tzaddikim, have the ability to perpetuate the life of the tzaddik or to allow his memory, achievements, and impact to fade away so that a successor, who may or may not be qualified to lead in the same manner, can assume a leadership position for the sake of personal comfort or political correctness. If that is the case, then in essence we are mocking the eternity of our tzaddikim for the sake of our political correctness and personal comfort–but that does not necessarily represent the truth of the matter.
When the Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, was about to leave this world, he famously remarked, “I am going to heaven but I leave my soul with you.” The roshei teivos of the word Anochi represent Ana Nafshi Ksavis Yehavis, which relates that Gâ€‘d divested His very essence into the Torah that He gave us. Since Chazal say that tzaddikim are compared to their Creator, it follows then that our rebbeim have divested their very essence in the writings that they bequeathed to us. This too is what the Rebbe Rashab was imparting to his chassidim.
This would explain the instance where at a Shavuos farbrengen, the Rebbe taught lessons from the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid, and the Baal Hatanya all the way up until the Rebbe Rayatz, and with the mention of each name the Rebbe asked everyone in attendance to stand in honor of the tzaddik, who he said was present at the time. This, too, explains the Rebbe’s own unwillingness at first to accept the mantle of leadership with the passing of the friediker Rebbe. As the Rebbe wrote to Reb Yisrael Noach Bellinitzky shortly after the friediker Rebbe’s passing, “As for me, I trust that the friediker Rebbe will continue to lead me, and as far as the chassidim go, it’s the friediker Rebbe’s responsibility and not mine.”
A number of years ago, I attended a local breakfast function for a particular organization, when a neighbor of my parents engaged me in conversation about Chabad. A local rav stood off to the side eavesdropping ever so noticeably, and he then decided to join and offer his opinion. He launched into a tirade accusing the Rebbe of leaving an entire sect of people leaderless and with no direction with which to lead their lives as Chabad chassidim without him at the helm. I listened politely and tried to explain to him that the Rebbe touched upon every area of life in his hundreds of volumes of manuscripts, and it is based on those directives that the chassidim continue to live and lead. But as the Mishnah in Avos says, “Do not try to appease someone who is engulfed in rage”; therefore, my explanation probably fell on deaf ears.
In retrospect, however, it seems that he was really upset about his own inability to hold on to the teachings and perpetuate the life and influence of his teachers from a previous era. However, the message here, based on the words of the Zohar, is that, despite his physical demise, the Rebbe is more alive today than he was during his life–we just have to choose whether or not to embrace his leadership.
Applying the comprehensive system of Reb Chaim, from 1951 until 1994 we enjoyed the Rebbe’s electrifying smile, piercing eyes, and warm embrace. From 1994 onward, we were charged with the mission of transitioning to a more sublime sense of life, which Chabad has successfully expanded on. I invite you all to join. v
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