If Paul Revere had been at Rockland Community College this past Sunday evening he surely would have bellowed, “The black-coats are here!” But contrary to the screams warning the colonials of the impending Redcoat invasion, the piety and positivity that the shluchim, in their traditional black kapotes, brought to Monsey, New York, on Sunday, November 4, was cause for celebration rather than concern.
The theme of this year’s kinus was based on a verse in Psalms, “ki gavar aleinu chasdo,” and was a testament to the great love, selflessness, and dedication the shluchim bestow upon their constituents with each encounter. In the words of 34-year-old Israeli-Georgian billionaire Yitzchak Mirilashvili, who headlined Sunday’s kinus, it is this dedication and self-sacrifice that money cannot buy. Mirilashvili’s awareness of the value of Chabad’s work has compelled him, through his charitable foundation, to contribute, without fanfare, in the tens of millions to Chabad causes around the globe.
While there is a lot that can be written about the kinus and the various presentations, I wanted to use this space to portray a fundamental understanding of shluchim and shlichus, but one that despite its basic nature will come across as unique. This angle is inspired by an astounding story in the form of a WhatsApp video that made its rounds earlier in the week.
With the tenth anniversary of the devastating attacks in Mumbai, India, which took the lives of six victims holed up that night in the Nariman House, including shluchim Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg, Hy’d, Rabbi Holtzberg’s sister and brother-in-law, Rikal and Mordechai Kaler, sat down to share a story that had happened around that time.
The story opens in the year 2005, a few years after Mordechai Kaler’s marriage to Rikal Holtzberg. Despite presuming that parenthood would follow shortly after their marriage, with the passage of time and the realization that they were not conceiving, the couple grew anxious. Despite doctors’ early assurances that the couple was healthy and that there was nothing standing in the way of becoming parents, it seemed that unexplained infertility was the grim prognosis. That was just devastating to the young couple looking forward to building a family together.
Through everything the Kalers were going through there were always two people who provided a shoulder to cry on and were a rock of support when they were about to throw in the towel — Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg.
Mordechai and Rikal were accustomed to calling their older siblings on shlichus in Mumbai prior to or following an occasion such as Yom Tov to check in on how things were going for them. One such occasion was Chai Elul in 2008, the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe. This day on the Chassidic calendar is traditionally marked with a farbrengen, so the siblings spent a few minutes reflecting on the holiday. In the course of the conversation, the Kalers informed the Holtzbergs that they planned to take a break from all the doctors and treatments due to the overwhelming nature of their situation. However, Rabbi Gabi contended that the couple needed to try harder and advised that they contact Bonei Olam, an organization known for assisting couples in navigating through the labyrinth of infertility. He blessed them that they would merit to see the birth of their first child within the year. With that, the call ended.
With a renewed sense of hope and encouragement, the couple contacted Bonei Olam and were assigned a caring, and compassionate doctor in Baltimore. The first couple rounds of testing were unsuccessful, and they decided to undergo a more invasive battery of tests as a means of getting to the core of the issue. The first day of the more invasive testing was November 26, 2008, which will be remembered in infamy as the day Pakistani terrorists attacked multiple locations throughout Mumbai, including the Chabad Nariman House. Mordechai recalls how they received a frantic call from a family member that something had happened in Mumbai and that Gabi and Rivky were inaccessible. They found themselves a couple of days later on an airplane to India and en route were informed that the more invasive tests were unsuccessful.
Once again, in a whirlwind of emotion with everything that had been transpiring in their lives, they informed the Bonei Olam case manager as soon as they returned from India that they needed to take a break and regain their strength and composure before re-embarking on this path toward parenthood. The case manager replied, “Gabi and Rivky brought you this far, and they certainly would not want you to stop on account of what happened to them.”
Mordechai said they knew the case manager was correct, and so they expended every last ounce of strength to attend the following appointment. Two weeks later they received a call from the doctor while driving somewhere, informing them that Rikal was pregnant. An unbelievable feeling of euphoria compelled Mordechai to pull over to the side of the road, where he began bawling uncontrollably. Just nine months later, on Chai Elul, a year to the day of Gabi’s blessing, they merited the birth of their eldest, Rivky. Nineteen months later their daughter Rosie was born, followed by Sarah Esther, Gabi, and Ari. All of them, aside from Rosie, were born the week of Chai Elul.
This story touched me deeply and caused me to think or perhaps rationalize what had occurred. We are used to hearing stories of tzaddikim blessing people in all sorts of situations and of those blessings materializing. My initial thought was that Gabi and Rivky were truly unique individuals. I recall seeing videos of them in the aftermath of the tragedy that portrayed the type of people we’re not used to hearing about, including the sacrifices they made by going off to India, such as Gabi having to slaughter more than 1,000 chickens a week to accommodate the stream of visitors who passed through his Chabad house regularly. And then it hit me: This is the life of a shliach.
What is a shliach? Many of us can recall learning the sugya of shlichus in Gittin or Kiddushin or other tractates, and for some reason the definition doesn’t leave the realm of academia and reach the realm of reality. But when the Rebbe built the worldwide system of shlichus, there is no doubt that the sugya of shlichus was firmly affixed in his mind. Of course, I am referring to the mechanism of shlucho shel adam kemoso, that one who is sent as a messenger is viewed as an extension of the person who sent him. There are additional nuances at play here that many of the commentators discuss at length, all of which are critical in understanding the true makeup of the messenger. But there is one important criterion in all of this that needs to be fulfilled for the messenger to be a manifestation of the one who sent him — he needs to remain faithful to the mission he was sent on. There is much more to this detail than it might seem.
Perhaps another story will convey this message. In 1937, while the Rebbe was studying in Paris, the Friediker Rebbe would send him on various communal missions. On this particular mission, he was to visit Rav Chaim Oizer of Grodzinsky in Vilna in order to co-sign a letter of great importance. When the Ramash, as he was referred to prior to becoming Rebbe, arrived, Reb Chaim Oizer was meeting with Reb Boruch Ber, so he sat in the beis midrash to wait until their meeting would be over. While he waited there, a few bachurim in the beis midrash noticed that he was a chassid and decided to harass him a little. They asked him pointed questions on various subjects throughout Shas and so on. But the Ramash, despite a number of provocations, refused to respond.
All the while, Reb Chaim Oizer was looking on from his office and then beckoned the Ramash to enter. The Ramash went inside and before anything else, he began answering all the questions that he had been asked while waiting for the rosh yeshiva. Reb Chaim Oizer asked the Ramash why he had refused to answer the bachurim who asked him these questions. The Ramash replied, “I didn’t come to hold debates with anybody. However, I noticed that the rosh yeshiva observed the questions, and I grew concerned that my failure to answer may have a negative impact on the mission given to me by my father-in-law; I therefore felt it was necessary to clear this up prior to presenting the reason I was sent here in the first place.”
If you’re involved in the sugya of shlichus and you are trying to conceive in your mind’s eye just what a shliach al pi Torah looks like, you have it right there. That is called unflinching dedication to a mission. With that in mind, I began to understand how Gabi could bless his sister and brother-in-law with a child, a berachah that was not only fulfilled once but a number of times.
These were some of the thoughts occupying my headspace as I sat among 4,000+ shluchim on Sunday night in Rockland Community College. Perhaps you’re wondering how Chabad continues to grow and break ground 24 years after the Rebbe’s passing. The answer is that with 4,800 representatives whose lives are unflinchingly dedicated to furthering the Rebbe’s vision of a perfected world, these 4,800 shluchim are in a sense 4,800 Rebbes who themselves should be able to see their blessings materialize as manifestations of the Rebbe who sent them.