By Yochanan Gordon
This week we observed the tenth of Shevat, which is the day the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak, passed away and the same day, one year later, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, o’bm, ascended to the helm of Chabad leadership.
A lot has been written about the leadership qualities of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—his unprecedented love for every Jew, his foresight and the revolutionary impact that he had on the entire expanse of the globe, orchestrated from his quaint office in 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. I distinctly recall Shavuos night at Aish Kodesh, probably six years ago, in a full night of study dedicated to the Torah and leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, when Rabbi Moshe Weinberger said that there was no leader of the caliber of the Lubavitcher Rebbe since Dovid HaMelech. I thought it was a bold statement at the time, but judging by the impact that this one man had upon the entire world, and what Judaism would look like today in the absence of everything that he unleashed, it is a difficult assertion to challenge.
There is a feature to the Rebbe’s leadership that is unique to him. The Rebbe was the seventh leader in a line of Chabad Rebbes dating back to the Alter Rebbe, the founder and progenitor of the Chabad movement. As is well-known, Chabad is an acronym of chochmah, binah, and da’at, which represent the three upper intellectual faculties on the sefirotic map. The system of Chabad is distinctive in its approach towards serving G-d from many other Chassidic sects whose focus is not intellectual but more so emotional and with a greater reliance on the knowledge and avodah (service) of their Rebbe. The Chabad system of service does not discount the importance of passion and healthy emotion in serving G-d; however, it’s a system in which the emotions are activated by the deep, intensive knowledge of G-dliness itself that sets the emotions aflame and aids in the overall religious experience.
The main concern the Alter Rebbe foresaw, it seems, in establishing this system of service is that at a time when there would be no lasting inspiration to be found on the outside, an inability for people to find fire and inspiration within their own lives, and, in a sense, to lead themselves and their families, the perpetuity of the Jewish experience would be in great peril. The system of shlichus, which the Frierdiker Rebbe hatched and which grew exponentially during the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and more so in the 28 years since his passing, was a way in which each individual could summon the strength and fortitude of the Rebbe who sent them, and in turn appoint other shluchim using the foundational Talmudic concept of shliach oseh shliach, up until a hundred, a thousand messengers, and so on, all of whom would be attributed to the mission of the original sender.
The feature that set the Lubavitcher Rebbe apart from any other leaders before or after his time is the fact that he was the seventh, which corresponds to the faculty of sovereignty, malchus. The Zohar HaKadosh, in defining the middah of malchus, states, “Les lah m’garmeih klum”—it possesses nothing of its own. The money that a kingdom possesses comes from the taxes collected from the people in the areas under its rule. As such, with the passing of the Frierdiker Rebbe, and the pressure from Chassidim the world over for the Rebbe, then known by his acronym Ramash, to fill the vacant position, the Rebbe kept pushing back, telling many in correspondences that he has a Rebbe, the Frierdiker Rebbe, whom he insisted, even after his physical demise, was capable of leading Chabad chassidus forward.
Although the Rebbe did fill the vacant position just one year following Rayatz’s passing, in a sense he had looked upon the Frierdiker Rebbe as the one in charge throughout the years of his leadership, which is indicated by the way he would conclude many of his responses to petitions for prayers and blessings: “Azkir al ha’tziyun—I will mention the petitioner at the grave of my father-in-law.” It was this and his unassuming personal dress and demeanor that were all embodiments of the middah of malchus, which the Zohar defined as possessing nothing of its own.
In fact, if you take the time to listen to the Rebbe’s opening discourse, Basi LeGani, based on the maamar distributed one year earlier on that date, available online, you will get a sense of just how much the Rebbe tried to escape the limelight by stating that the number seven is only anything in relation to the existence of a first, which would be the Alter Rebbe. He repeatedly exhorted the chassidim during the initial farbrengen not to think that they could rely on the work and efforts of the Rebbe and live pressure-free and comfortable lifestyles. He said: “We will work together and I will certainly be there for you along the way,” saying as well, “I won’t be stingy in the area of assistance” but reinforcing that his leadership will require that every chassid put in his fair share of work. It almost seems as if the 44 years of the Rebbe’s tenure were all a preparation for what would come after the Rebbe’s own physical demise. Perhaps the greatest nuance that emerges in the way the Rebbe incorporated the Rebbe Rayatz in his own tenure at the helm of Chabad Lubavitch is the knowledge that we on our own level can tap into the righteousness of the previous Rebbe and use that strength to face down any challenge that presents itself during our lives.
In fact, earlier this week, I noticed an allusion to this idea in the Torah reading of this coming week.
The Torah tells us that as Moshe led the Jewish nation out of Egypt and into the desert, he fulfilled a promise to bring the remains of Yosef, interred in a mausoleum in Egypt, into the desert and ultimately with the Jewish people into the land of Israel, in Nablus, where he is currently interred.
The terminology of the verse is: “And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him.” However, in addition to meaning “bones,” the word “atzamos” can also be read “atzmus,” which means “essence.” What the verse is telling us on a more profound level is that the Moshe in our generation, the seventh in the line of Chabad Rebbes, corresponding to Moshe Rabbeinu, who was the seventh generation from Avraham Avinu, would fill his role at the head of Chabad through invoking the assistance of the atzmus Yosef, the essence of his predecessor, the Frierdiker Rebbe, in the fulfillment of an oath, a shevuah, which, in addition to meaning “oath” means seven, corresponding to our seventh generation, which will ultimately draw the glory back into this world with the coming of Mashiach.
Let us connect ourselves to these great tzaddikim through learning their Torah and perpetuating their lessons and finish the job that they sought to accomplish in delivering our people into the era of redemption.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.