An article that appeared in The Argus (Melbourne, Australia), Tuesday, May 6, 1941.
By the spring of 1941 the Nazis dominated all of Western Europe. France had fallen, and Italy and Spain were fascist allies. Partially due to a treaty first ratified in 1373, Portugal yet remained neutral. Its capital was one of the few places in the world where you could take your pick of the international press. “Lisbon,” one foreign correspondent reported at the time, “is at the crossroads of the world’s most vital trade routes, and the last direct point of contact between the United States and warring Europe.” That last point of contact became a hub for shadowy espionage and diplomacy. It was also the last gateway through which Europe’s refugees could escape.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson had been living in Paris together with his wife, Chaya Mushka (or Moussia), when the Wehrmacht invaded France. They had left Berlin as Hitler came to power in 1933, and now they were forced to flee again. For several months they lived in Nice, but knowing that Vichy France would provide only a temporary refuge, they resolved to make their way—via Lisbon—to New York.
The impending voyage would take them not only to a different continent, but out of one era and into another.
Clinging to the westernmost edge of mainland Europe, Lisbon was the last stopping place on a journey that had begun far to the east. For Rabbi Menachem Mendel, it had begun in Yekaterinoslav, a large industrial city in Ukraine. For his wife it had begun in Lubavitch, a village in White Russia that had been the ancestral seat of the Chabad-Lubavitch chassidic dynasty since 1813. The impending voyage across the Atlantic would take them not only to a different continent, but out of one era and into another.
There are two artifacts that survive from Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s brief stay in the city. The first is a wooden trunk bearing Portuguese travel labels and marked with the name “Schneerson, Mendel” (see pictures below). The second is an entry in his private journal. After his passing in 1994, three binders were discovered in a drawer of his desk. They were crammed with entries tightly inscribed in Hebrew script, spanning the years between 1928 and 1950. These entries offered unprecedented insight into the inner world of the man who would later become famous as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of those entries is dated 16 Sivan , Lisbon. On the following day—Sivan 17 (June 12)—the Schneerson couple boarded the Serpa Pinto and sailed for America.
The Serpa Pinto prepares to embark from the port of Lisbon, September 1941.
Persecution and redemption often dwell on the two sides of a knife edge, and it is clear from Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s journal entry that this ironic juxtaposition was on his mind. Furthermore, while his personal rescue was now close at hand, he was yet preoccupied with the precarious future of the Jewish nation and all of humanity. In classic rabbinic style, his thoughts are framed as a dual interpretation of an enigmatic Talmudic passage:
“The Son of David will not come till a fish is sought for an invalid and cannot be found.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)
What did Rabbi Menachem Mendel see in this Talmudic passage that could reflect on his present situation?
The Son of David is a diminutive reference to the Messiah, who will be a descendent of the royal house of David, King of Israel. The diminutive reference is strange in itself, but even more strange is the contention that the coming of the Messiah is dependent on an invalid in search of an unfound fish. What did Rabbi Menachem Mendel see in this passage that could reflect on his present situation?
There’s another, related, statement just after that passage in the Talmud: “The Son of David will not come except in a generation that is entirely worthy or entirely unworthy.” Rabbi Menachem Mendel offers two explanations of the earlier passage, corresponding to these alternative scenarios. In the first, the redemption is well deserved due to the lofty station at which society has arrived; in the second, redemption is bestowed because the alternative is utter deterioration.
This brings us back to our invalid: The diminutive designation “Son of David” indicates that the redeemer is worthy of his messianic status only due to his lineage. Likewise, the generation to be redeemed is also deficient, suffering from the spiritual maladies of sin and moral degeneration.
A page from the Rebbe’s private journal, dated 16 Sivan , Lisbon.
At a time when the world was ailing, and the Holocaust was already underway, Rabbi Menachem Mendel confronted the paradoxical possibility of evil in the presence of G‑d. The cause of such spiritual illness, he wrote, is human forgetfulness. We can do evil only if we forget that we are in the presence of G‑d.
This is where the Talmudic fish comes in. Fish are a metaphor for the knowledge that we are ever submerged in the presence of G‑d. Just as a fish cannot live out of water, so the spiritual health of humanity can be preserved only if we are consciously aware of G‑d’s all-encompassing presence. It is at a moment that G‑d’s presence is utterly hidden—when no fish can be found for the invalid—that the redemption must arrive.
So long as the hand of G‑d has not yet been forced . . . the burden of responsibility yet lies on the shoulders of humanity.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s second interpretation lays out the flip side of this vision. So long as the hand of G‑d has not yet been forced, and the redemption has not yet arrived, the burden of responsibility still lies on the shoulders of humanity. We can repair the world, so we must repair the world, ultimately bringing it to an era that is “entirely worthy” and ripe for redemption. In an era of human perfection, man will strive to lose all sense of ego, desiring to become utterly submerged within the divine self.
This scenario, too, may be metaphorically described as one in which “a fish is sought for an invalid and cannot be found.” However submerged a fish may be in water, it remains a separate entity, and doesn’t becomes synonymous with water. Similarly, the worthy invalid is “sick” with love for G‑d, desiring utter submergence but unable to cross the infinite divide separating man from G‑d. It is at such a moment—when man has climbed to the loftiest spiritual peak within human reach—that the ultimate redemption must arrive. Likewise, the redemption will be actualized by the paragon of selflessness, by a Messiah who has no autonomous identity, but is simply called “the Son of David.”
Detail: The Rebbe’s name handwritten on a label attached to the wooden trunk which accompanied him from Lisbon to New York.
In just a few paragraphs, the Rebbe fashioned an obscure Talmudic aphorism into a profound reflection touching on the paradoxical possibility of sin and evil in the presence of G‑d, and the ultimate destiny of humankind. Standing at the crossroads between Nazi-occupied Europe and the free world, he laid out a dual vision for the future of humanity. Either the evil being perpetrated would be the final straw to force the hand of G‑d, or the unyielding efforts of good men would yet persevere, raising the earth to its ultimate station.
Originally expressed in the context of personal service before G‑d, Rabbi Menachem Mendel rethinks these concepts in global terms.
These alternative interpretations were not developed in a vacuum. Their central elements are respectively based on two concepts that are fundamental to the system of chassidic thought formulated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first rebbe of Chabad. The notion that sin is possible only when the divine essence of your own identity is forgotten—notes Rabbi Menachem Mendel—is “explained at length in Sefer Shel Beinonim,” the first section of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Tanya. Likewise, the idea that even someone who reaches the loftiest level of divine service remains spiritually deficient is expressed by Rabbi Menachem Mendel using a phrase often repeated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman—“there is yet one who loves!” These concepts were originally expressed in the context of the personal service of the individual before G‑d. Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s unique contribution is to rethink them in global terms.
For the previous several years Rabbi Menachem Mendel had been auditing courses in science, philosophy and mathematics at Europe’s foremost universities (first Humboldt University of Berlin, and later the Sorbonne University of Paris). He had also qualified as an electrical engineer at the École Spéciale des Travaux Publics (ESTP) in Paris. Yet the many entries that fill his journals testify that all the while his mind was chiefly occupied with the mysteries of the Talmud and the ideas and ideals of Chabad chassidic thought. The far-flung citations—to biblical verses, Talmudic and Zoharic passages, and classical commentaries—used by Rabbi Menachem Mendel to buttress his novel interpretations and explanations are also telling. Furthermore, it is clear that many of the sources referred to—and often quoted verbatim—were not before him at the time of writing.
Eleven days after boarding the Serpa Pinto, the Schneerson couple disembarked at Pier 8, Stapleton, in Staten Island, New York.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel (second from right) watches as his father-in-law signs his U.S. citizenship papers, New York, March 17, 1949.
Four decades later, Rabbi Menachem Mendel delivered a public talk in which he explained that at every moment we face two very different visions of the future. On the one hand, we anticipate the imminent revelation of a new era of eternal good; on the other hand, we invest long-term commitment and energy into a more gradual transformational process, changing the world from the bottom up.
Now that his private journals have been published, we can see that this dual vision for global redemption had already been crystallized long before. At a time when G‑d’s presence was as difficult to perceive as ever in the history of the Jewish people, Rabbi Menachem Mendel expressed hope that the terrible concealment of G‑d’s presence within the world would directly anticipate the ultimate revelation. In the very same breath, he acknowledged that such a revelation might not come until humankind had overcome evil and transformed the world for good.
More than a decade into the 21st century, tens of thousands of the Rebbe’s disciples—in the United States and in countries across the globe—continue to live by the dual vision he brought with him from Europe.
The Rebbe and Rebbetzin Arrive in America