Having celebrated the bar mitzvah of our oldest son, Nison, last week I was intending to write my own personal spin on the traditional blessing made by the father of a bar mitzvah bachur, Baruch she’petarani mei’onsho shel zeh. It then occurred to me that the month of Tammuz is upon us and this issue will be distributed on the 3rd of Tammuz, observed by many the world over as the yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, whose life I have a chazakah of reflecting upon on this date.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk also memorializes the Rebbe in his column “Souls on Fire,” and Rabbi Tuvia Teldon has done so in his past “Back to Basics” columns. The two of them are shluchim in Montana and Long Island, respectively, dedicated to furthering the Rebbe’s vision for a perfected world. However, reflections on the Rebbe are personal, and therefore, regardless of how many different columns are dedicated to this subject, they will not be redundant.
There are a number of ways people try to honor the Rebbe’s memory. If the writer met the Rebbe personally, it is usually the lingering memory of that encounter that inspires the writer to convey his or her experience with the readers. For others, it might be a familial history with Chabad or a theme within the Rebbe’s Torah that they feel encapsulates his life and legacy. And for many, the Rebbe’s ability to bend the laws of nature, to deliver salvation to those desperately in need, as documented in countless stories, is what connects them to the Rebbe.
For me, in years past, I have addressed the Rebbe’s life, his Torah, and as recently as last year I retold my own personal encounter with the Rebbe, with a sequel to that about a month ago. This year, however, I decided I was going to discuss the Rebbe’s pragmatism as, above all, the Rebbe’s focus on individual acts of fundamental goodness and kindness was part of a pragmatic belief of his that through small, altruistic, and righteous acts we can perfect the world.
You may be wondering how it’s possible for the Rebbe to be a person who was capable of bending the laws of nature for people seeking yeshuos and at the same time be a pragmatist. The answer, as you will see, is that the key to the extraordinary is through a deep connection to the things in life that seem ordinary.
The Gemara says that the difference between someone who is branded a servant of G-d and someone who hasn’t achieved that status is that the “eved Hashem” reviewed his studies 101 times as opposed to the other, who reviewed 100 times. The key here, however, is that in order to reach 101 review sessions you need to traverse 90, 91, 92, and 93, all the way through to 101. The road to the supernatural is through the natural.
This message set in on a recent ride from our Cedarhurst home to Ellenville, New York, where we are spending the month in the absence of fully programmed summer camp options for the kids due to the coronavirus regulations. I normally have the convenience of walking to work every morning as I live around the corner from my office. Although anyone given that opportunity would grab it, for me it means so much more because my tolerance for sitting behind the wheel is extremely limited, and having to commute to work would present its own set of challenges. This is something that set in later in life, years after my yeshiva days in Waterbury, when I’d make the nearly two-hour drive to and from yeshiva on my own with ease, even in inclement weather, without losing myself to the anxiousness and unease that would plague me later in life.
I recently spent a Shabbos upstate, and I had to give over the wheel to my wife when the length of the ride began getting to me. However, this time around, just a few days ago, I had a flashback to the days when I could make those long rides without any challenge.
What changed? Anyone who knows me is aware of my penchant for the classic American soft drink, Coca Cola. The mystique surrounding this sugary, carbonated beverage was the secret ingredient that they refused to divulge. For me, however, it’s a drink I grew up on, and despite being more or less weaned off of it in my first years after marriage, it kind of became reinstated — not as a staple first, but more as a treat. But the Gemara says that the yetzer hara ingratiates itself to a person in stages, saying, “Today just do this small act,” and progressively getting him or her to transgress more severe prohibitions.
There are some people who need the caffeine rush. For me, it was never about that; it was just the taste of the drink, ice-cold, of course, with whatever it was that I was eating or snacking on that seemed to be the perfect combination. Because my health and weight for the most part remained static, it’s not something I considered removing from my diet. Lately it occurred to me that it’s possible I have been having a bad reaction to the caffeine and that if I want things to change, I’d better try cutting not just Coca Cola, but anything with caffeine, out of my diet. Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve drank Coca Cola and it was during my ride upstate, not having to surrender the wheel to my ready-and-able copilot, when the following thought came to me.
Oftentimes, people avoid changing themselves based on the erroneous thought that it requires huge commitments. The big picture that presents itself at the start of the journey discourages many from setting their lives straight, both physically and spiritually.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a pragmatist in the sense that he saw the eternal value in every minute detail or action. Over 50 years ago, on the brink of the Six Day War, he encouraged, as a protection for the Israeli soldiers, the mivtzah of tefillin, based on the Chazal: “And the nations of the world will see that the name of G-d is called upon you and they will fear you.” Critics at the time ridiculed that device as an empty religious practice since the ignorant Jews on whom the adherents of the Rebbe’s message were putting the tefillin, in many cases, did not know what the leather boxes represented or what was written in them. They railed at the Rebbe with proof after proof that what he sought to accomplish with one mitzvah or another would fall flat on its face. The Rebbe understood the divinity within each mitzvah that originated in the realm of the ein sof and remained undeterred in his quest to reunite each Jew in the world with Torah and mitzvos.
Similarly, it was an institution of the Rebbe’s that girls from the age of three begin lighting Shabbos candles alongside their mother. It was his mission to add light to an ever-darkening exile that drove this initiative forward.
It is told that there was a year in which the Baba Sali had predicted many of the wars in which Israel had to defend herself from hostile Arab neighbors; I believe it was 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, when another attack was brewing and the Baba Sali was visibly shaken and overwhelmed for months by what he saw on the horizon.
When the year passed and the war did not happen, he was asked about it, and he responded that he hadn’t known that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was going to initiate mivtzah neshek, which, in addition to meaning “weaponry,” is an acrostic of Neiros Shabbos Kodesh, which he said pushed the war north to Lebanon.
There is a philosophy in kiruv that says that it is better to explain Torah, mitzvos, and proofs of G-d’s existence to uneducated Jews as a prelude to embracing a life of observance. But the Rebbe saw things at their core, insisting that there is nothing more germane or natural than a Jew learning Torah or engaging in a mitzvah. Chabad’s success is embracing each Jew without judgment, encouraging one small act of goodness and kindness at a time.
It never dawned upon me that a years-long fear behind the wheel could be triggered by that small 12 ounces of pop; but just as one can at a time could cause a person to retreat in fear, one mitzvah at a time can unleash a spirit of liberation in the life of its adherents. As the old adage goes, “Slow and steady wins the race,” and as Chazal put it, “One who grabs more than he or she can handle won’t retain possession of it.”
There is something remarkable about this Gimmel Tammuz, more than in any previous year. Due to fear of an anticipated second wave, rabbanim are pleading with pilgrims the world over not to visit the Rebbe’s ohel this year as they have in the past. Traditionally, Gimmel Tammuz sees upwards of 150,000 petitioners at the Rebbe’s graveside in the days leading up to and over the yahrzeit, but this year it will have to be different.
The question I grappled with is why it’s this year from all of the years. What message is there in the number 26 and the fact that access to the ohel for people from out of town will need to be remote? The intention one bears in mind when reciting the name yud-hei-vav-hei is, “He was, is, and will be all at once.” And the Zohar states that a tzaddik, after his histalkus, could be accessed in all of the worlds more easily than during his lifetime. I believe that the juxtaposition of this reality on the 26th year is to drive home this message.
Let us reexamine the value in every small positive action and begin to transform our lives and, by extension, the entire world, one step at a time.