Everyone has a roster of events that they look forward to year in and year out. Among that general list of events there is one that stands out among the rest. For me and 5,000 other Chabad loyalists and shluchim, that event is the annual Kinus Hashluchim. Every year, upwards of 5,000 men descend upon a cavernous warehouse of sorts for what has been billed the largest sit-down meal in the world.
This year, however, while the Kinus did go on, it had to be reimagined to accommodate the era of COVID-19. Although there are many in the travel industry who look forward to the Kinus as a result of the business it affords them, this year the Kinus happened on our computer screens in our own homes. So instead of having to make the trek in traffic to downtown Brooklyn, Manhattan, or New Jersey, and having to secure an extra appetizer for my neighbor who is running a few minutes late, all I had to do is log in with the unique password I was given upon registration and it was all there in front of me.
This has been the trajectory of all organizational dinners in the COVID era. Having to observe crowd control and social distance measures has caused dinner organizers to reach deeper into their creative acumen and figure out how to capitalize on what initially seemed to be a fundraising nightmare. What has emerged is a situation where instead of just producing an evening for 500 to 1,000 or, in this case, 5,000 or so, supporters who leave their regular donations, this has resulted in the world being their marketplace. Earlier this year, for instance, the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah annual dinner, which in the past has been graced by leaders of industry and heads of state, attracted upwards of 150,000 viewers to a digital event addressed by the president, his challenger Joe Biden, and other prestigious individuals with the ability of raising money from a global base. So while COVID-19 was thought to be an obstacle to productivity, it’s become another example of Jewish ingenuity, turning what seemed initially to be a real issue into a blessing in disguise.
The Kinus is scheduled every year to coincide with the beginning of Chodesh Kislev, often in the vicinity of the parashah of: “And you shall break out west, east, north, and south, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your children.” Concurrent with the Kinus Hashluchim every year is the Kinus of the Tze’irei Hashluchim, the sons of shluchim, who not only seek to follow in their parents’ footsteps but do so every day in their own inimitable way.
This year’s Kinus featured an address by Rabbi Mendel Cohen, a shliach from Ukraine who was severely stricken with COVID and thankfully recovered; a presentation by the son of the late Rabbi Benny Wolff of Hanover, Germany, who was presented with keys to the family’s very first Beis Chabad; and was capped off with an address by Mr. Nathan Lewin, a world-renowned lawyer who has been the head council in a number of landmark Chabad legal battles; and a keynote address by Chabad author and shliach to Belgravia in London, Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson.
Chabad is unique in the sense that in addition to the holidays that we as Jews celebrate universally, they possess dates throughout the calendar that are referred to as Chassidisher yomim tovim, each of which represent the penimiyus of the annual yomim tovim which dot our collective calendars. One of the most special days on the contemporary Chabad calendar that perhaps was a watershed moment in catapulting Chabad forward into the next generation was Hei Teives, which was the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Frierdiker Rebbe’s sefarim were property of the chassidim rather than the Rebbe as an individual.
At its core, the case between Barry Gourarie and the Rebbe was a struggle with regards to the rightful succession of our Rebbe from his father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. If Gourarie would have prevailed, G-d forbid, and won his claim to his inheritance, it potentially would have signaled an end to the hundreds-of-years-old Chassidic movement, which would have ended retroactively with the passing of the Frierdiker Rebbe. But when the judge ruled in favor of Chabad after a brilliant deposition of the Rebbetzin, who testified from her own house that her father, the Frierdiker Rebbe, and everything that he owned belonged to the movement of Chabad, it breathed new life into the movement, catapulting it forward to what today has become an unparalleled global force for goodness and light.
Another holiday, a universal holiday, which was so dear to the Rebbe, was Chanukah, the end of which precedes Hei Teives by just a couple of days. It is fair to suggest that the light of Chanukah and the victory of Hei Teives represent the light of the revealed Torah and the hidden aspect of Torah, respectively. It was these two holidays upon which Nathan Lewin was so instrumental in delivering winning legal arguments, returning the sefarim to the chassidim, and then enabling Chabad to reach Jews from far and wide with the light of the menorah that was erected in public places and whose festivities were televised year in and year out so people could participate from wherever they were in the world, both physically and spiritually.
This gives way, seamlessly, to the keynote address by Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, who brought out what is a unique theme that encapsulated just what shlichus is and punctuated this year’s Kinus, particularly with everyone having to tune in from afar.
Rabbi Kalmenson began with a story involving the shluchim of Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, run by Ofir and Yael and their family who had recently moved there on shlichus from their home in Eretz Yisrael. One night, as Racheli, the young daughter of Ofir and Yael, was being tucked into bed by her mother, her thin voice rang out, piercing through the still darkness.
“Eema,” she said.
“Ken, motek” (Yes, my dear), responded her mother in loving fashion.
“Matai chozrim ha’baita?” (When are we returning home?) she asked.
The three-word answer that her mother gave her then profoundly describes what shlichus is for thousands of men, women, and children who had left home on a mission.
She said, “Kan zeh ha’bayit” (Our home is right here).
“Oh,” softly responded the four-year-old Racheli. Not an “oh” of resignation of a young child whose conception of everything that is permanent and temporal in life had become immediately redefined, but the “oh” signaling a young child realizing for the very first time what it means to be home.
It was years later, when Rabbi Kalmenson and his wife were married with three of their own children, having recently taken up a post on shlichus not even a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, when he, too, was tucking his young child into bed long after he had forgotten about the story of Yael and her child from Cusco, that his generally impish son asked in earnest, “Tatty, when will be returning home?”
He became frozen in silence, trapped in a memory, transported to a cold Cusco evening and a conversation overheard, when he turned to him and said, “We are home, my sweetheart!”
This, said Rabbi Kalmenson, is the story of our lives and really our history. Our souls began on high in the warm, pure, and loving embrace of the Divine where it was sent into this world to achieve a mission of creating a home for G-d’s glory in the lowest realms. There in the dissonance of our upside-down world, where our conception of permanence and temporality has likewise been upended, the soul resists, only to at times forget its source. At times during its earthly stay it has a spiritual recall of what we might call “Deja ‘Jew’ moments,” when it suddenly remembers its essence and calls out to G-d in earnest, “When will we be returning home?” If you listen carefully during those moments you can hear G-d whisper, “We are home.”
All of chassidic literature can be characterized as an elucidation of these three words based on a midrashic aphorism that describes that of all the realms that G-d could have chosen as a home, he sought a dwelling place particularly in the lowest realm, which we occupy. This world is not merely a dressing room but the main stage upon which history plays itself out: kan zeh ha’bayit!
What is true of the greater world is true of our world. Perhaps more than any other period, the words “kan zeh ha’bayit” speaks to our reality more than any others, when so much of what we have rendered permanent in our lives has almost overnight become fleeting and temporal. How often have we caught ourselves over the last few months praying, wondering when our reality will revert back to what it was? We are pining for the feeling of being home when we are supposed to, despite what seems to be the height of tenuousness, transplant that hominess right here amidst all the seeming disorientation.
The Rebbe once advised a person who confided in him about restoring stability during a chaotic and unsettling period of his life. The Rebbe told him that regardless of how long a particular encampment was during the Jews’ sojourn in the desert, they erected and disassembled the tent of meeting, which teaches us that every encampment was significant and had to be treated as such.
Perhaps this is what Yaakov Avinu was trying to impart to us when he said after sleeping at Har HaMoriah: “G-d was present in this place and I had not known.” We often make an assessment of our lives and conclude that G-d just can’t be present, but, as our forefather Yaakov taught us, G-d is always present, even in the most unlikely circumstances.
This is the distinction between Avraham and his son Yitzchak. Avraham sought to connect people with G-d and had to travel in order to accomplish that. Yitzchak, as we know, was a sacrifice who was unable to leave Eretz Yisrael. Yitzchak was a well-digger by trade, which means that unlike Avraham who couldn’t unearth the inherent holiness within the people he came into contact with, Yitzchak was able to excavate to the core of people and reveal the inherent holiness within them.
This distinction between Avraham and Yitzchak existed in the lives of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid. The Besht was known to take frequent excursions and expand his discipleship in that manner whereas the Maggid, due to a foot ailment, was unable for much of his life to be mobile and therefore sat in his place and had everyone come to him.
So although Chabad is known to travel to the far-flung corners of this world to reunite Jews with G-d, Torah, and mitzvos, they perceive the weekend of the Kinus as a way to return to their base, to recharge and gather strength for the months that lie ahead. Having to celebrate the Kinus at home this year due to the coronavirus restrictions is in a sense an indication that home base is precisely where each shliach is respectively, and it is precisely there that each shliach could muster the strength to march on in his holy mission.
While I missed the crowds, the camaraderie, and, of course, the food, there was something sobering about this year’s Kinus that taught us, like Yitzchak Avinu, to access the natural spring of water deep within our essence and to create a home for G-d wherever it is that he ordained us to carry out that mission.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.