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A Legacy of Sacrifice and Love

A Legacy of Sacrifice and Love

A Tribute to Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of Righteous Memory

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Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory (1901-1988)
Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory (1901-1988)

Having had the opportunity to visit with the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, Mr. Jules Lassner was deeply impressed by her warmth, hospitality, and the genuine interest she took in others.

One Sunday morning, as he passed by the Rebbe to receive a dollar for charity, he summoned up the courage to say, “After meeting your wife, I understand the expression, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman!’”

The Rebbe smiled from ear to ear.

Who was the Rebbetzin, who had the unique merit of being both the daughter and the wife of saintly and world-changing rebbes?

Precious little is known about her. Not due to lack of interest, but due to her fervent desire to remain unknown.

She would rather sit at home alone, away from the community and the little family she had leftRabbi Chesed Halberstam, a personal aide to the Rebbetzin, relates that one Rosh Hashanah he asked her why she preferred to hear the shofar blown at home, alone, rather than going to “770,” the central Lubavitch synagogue where her husband prayed together with his chassidim.

She responded, “I cannot bear the fuss people make of me when I appear in public.”

Others in her position might have sought out, or at least acquiesced to receiving, the honor and respect that comes with being the wife of a rebbe. Not she.

She would rather sit at home alone, away from the community and the little family she had left, than take advantage of her status as rebbetzin and have attention drawn to herself.1

Rabbi Shmuel Lew, from London, England, recounts a story that occurred when his teenage daughter was studying in a Lubavitch school in New York. The girl’s grandfather, Mr. Zalmon Jaffe, who had a warm relationship with the Rebbetzin, mentioned to the Rebbetzin that his granddaughter had no family in New York, which would be especially difficult for her come the winter, when a family wedding would be celebrated in London and she would not attend. The Rebbetzin told him not to worry. “I will maintain contact with her, G‑d willing.”

Weeks passed, but the girl didn’t hear from the Rebbetzin. Only later was it revealed that the Rebbetzin had called her school, asking to speak to Ms. Lew. The secretary, not knowing who was on the other end of the line, said, “Sorry, but it’s our school policy not to allow phone calls.” The Rebbetzin thanked her and hung up the phone, and eventually found a different way to contact the girl.

What's amazing is that the Rebbetzin did not identify herself to the secretary—which certainly would have produced immediate results and would have spared her future hassle and effort; that was simply not her way.

Indeed, when the Rebbetzin would place grocery orders with the local vendors, she would identify herself simply as “Mrs. Schneerson from President Street.”

Her name, her address, but not her rank.

How reminiscent of a beautiful Midrash about our nation’s first rebbetzin, Tziporah the wife of Moses.

“She didn’t behave in a superior and snobbish fashion, ‘in the ways of royalty,’ but behaved simply and with humility. It was for this reason that Moses married her.”2

A Paradigm of Selflessness

For several decades the Rebbe would, in addition to all of his other exhausting duties, receive people for private audiences a few nights a week.

Sometimes he would come home at three in the morning, sometimes five, and on occasion he would return when it was already light outside.

The Rebbetzin went to extraordinary measures to ensure that her husband would come home to a haven of peaceThe Rebbetzin once told Mrs. Hadassah Carlebach, a relative of the Rebbetzin and somewhat of a confidante, that she always waited up for the Rebbe. That her husband should come home to a dark house and a cold supper to be eaten alone was simply not an option.

According to Louise Hager, who also shared a close relationship with the Rebbetzin, the Rebbetzin went to extraordinary measures to ensure that her husband would come home to a haven of peace, tranquility, and support.

This came at tremendous personal sacrifice.

Mrs. Hager observes that though the Rebbetzin was brought up in a home similar to the one she later had—one where the man of the house (her father) was totally devoted to the wellbeing of the Jewish nation—still, while growing up in Europe, she had been blessed with a large family network and support group. Not so in America, where she didn’t have much family at all, nor any children to be occupied with. So it was at great personal cost that she “gave up” her husband so that the lives of others would be improved and so that an entire world could be bettered.3

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Here again we recall Tziporah. She, too, sacrificed much of her personal relationship with her husband so that he might serve the greater community. In fact, according to our sages, she wasn’t present in Egypt when Moses’ career took off and he was inaugurated as leader of the Israelites. She didn’t have the pleasure of standing at his side when he made his debut as a prophet.

Imagine the pride she might (rightfully) have felt, had she seen her husband stand up to the tyrant Pharaoh, initiate ten historic displays of divine power, and bring freedom to a band of battered slaves!

In fact, according to one opinion,4 she wasn’t even present at Sinai, to witness her husband’s most monumental achievement—when he was singled out to deliver G‑d’s word to man, forever changing the landscape of world history!

And the ultimate sacrifice this superwoman eventually made was accepting a separation from her saintly husband, so that he might attain a higher and unprecedented level of prophecy, one referred to in the Bible as “face-to-face” prophecy.

Without her sacrifices, where would we be today?

It was in her footsteps that the Rebbetzin walked, living a life devoted to others.

Not Just “Self-Less”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” the mother pleadedIt was a winter morning in 1966, at about 3:30 a.m. The Rebbe had already left his office for home—a somewhat early night; there had been no yechidut (private audiences) that night.

Just then a woman frantically phoned the Rebbe’s secretariat saying that her little baby had just fallen and was badly hurt and in critical condition. The doctors were arguing over which procedures to perform, and she desperately needed the Rebbe’s blessing and advice.

The Rebbe’s secretary apologetically explained that it would have to wait until the morning, and that he would consult with the Rebbe first thing after he arrived.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” the mother pleaded. “I need an answer now!”

The secretary decided to dial the Rebbe’s house. If someone would answer, he would apologize for calling so late. He dialed uneasily; the Rebbetzin answered.

“Ver ret?” (“Who is talking?”)

The secretary gave his name and immediately said, “I am sorry for calling so late,” and proceeded to apologize profusely. “It’s chutzpah to call at such a late hour, but there is a lady here in desperate need. She says it is a matter of life and death . . .”

“Why are you asking forgiveness?” the Rebbetzin exclaimed. “On the contrary, my husband and I were sent to this world to serve people in need twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. By your calling us, you are helping us fulfill our mission.”

As deeply moving as the Rebbetzin’s message of sacrifice was, what strikes me most is the unassuming delivery with which it was conveyed. For not only did she completely dedicate her life to others, she said “thank you” for the opportunity. In her mind and heart, it wasn’t she who was doing a favor; it was others who were helping her fulfill her mission!5

There are many people who sacrifice of themselves for others, but how many of them don’t feel righteous about it?

The Rebbetzin’s words weren’t just selfless—where “self” remains, just “less.” They reflected an utter abnegation of self.6

Leaving Space for Others

When it came to herself, she took no credit for living an altruistic lifeMrs. Leah Kahan, a relative of the Rebbetzin, once visited her at home. On the dining room table lay an array of hand-crafted items one might find at a fundraising function. The Rebbetzin turned to Mrs. Kahan, and in a voice filled with pride said, “Look at what the shluchim and shluchot [the Rebbe’s emissaries stationed around the world] sent me.” She continued to go on about how busy and strenuous their lives are, “yet, their busy schedules notwithstanding, they have time to think about me!

“And why me? Who am I?”

At this point, Mrs. Kahan, no longer able to accept the Rebbetzin’s self-effacement, interjected and said, “Rebbetzin, don’t you know what you mean to the shluchim?”

The Rebbetzin, with a hint of a smile but slightly displeased, responded, “Leah, you’re being a bit too harsh.” As if to say, “You are not giving enough consideration to their hardships and sacrifice, and what it means for them to take time off to think about me.”

Here we are presented with the other side of the picture.

When it came to herself, she took no credit for living an altruistic life; in fact, she thanked others for “helping” her live her life for them. But when it came to others and the sacrifices that they made, her voice would swell with pride as she pointed out their merits.

Last Will and Testament

Dr. Robert Feldman was one of the Rebbetzin’s doctors.

One Friday afternoon, Dr. Feldman’s daughter Sarah visited the Rebbetzin together with her younger sister. At the time, Sarah was about to begin dating, and she utilized her time with the Rebbetzin to discuss this new and exciting stage in her life. The Rebbetzin advised her like a mother, providing her with direction and focus.

Approximately one year later, Sarah was about to get engaged to her future husband, Levi Shemtov. Her father arranged for her to visit with the Rebbetzin in order to share the good news. The meeting passed very pleasantly, and the Rebbetzin was clearly delighted.

That meeting took place a mere ten days before the Rebbetzin would pass away; unbeknownst to Sarah, the Rebbetzin was in terrible pain.

On the occasion of Sarah’s engagement, the Rebbetzin called to wish her well. Needless to say, the bride was elated.

The couple-to-be planned to visit the Rebbetzin together, but were told they’d have to wait until she felt better. Sadly, that meeting was not to be.

The night of the Rebbetzin’s passing, the 22nd of Shevat, 1988, Dr. Feldman accompanied the Rebbetzin in the ambulance to the hospital.

What was on the Rebbetzin’s mind was an hour or so before she passed away, you wonder?

The Rebbetzin, suffering terribly, did not ask Dr. Feldman, “How bad is it? Will there be a need for a procedure? What is my prognosis?”

With thoughts about the wellbeing of others, she returned her holy soul to its MakerInstead, with her last strength and not much time to live, she collected herself and asked cheerfully, “So, Doctor, how is the new couple-to-be? Are they happy?” As sirens blared outside, she didn’t stop to think about herself and her fate but continued to ask, “When is the wedding? Please tell me all about it . . .”

This is how she spent her last moments here on earth, fulfilling her mission “to serve people in need twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

With thoughts about the wellbeing of others, she returned her holy soul to its Maker.

But the story is not over.

Right after shiva, the seven-day mourning period for the Rebbetzin, the Rebbe sent for Dr. Feldman.

“Tell me, when is the engagement party?” he asked.

That wasn’t a simple question to answer. According to the original plan, the party was soon scheduled to take place, still within the first thirty days of the Rebbetzin’s passing, considered by Jewish law as a period of mourning, albeit to a lesser degree. However, to push off a happy occasion was no small matter either.

Before Dr. Feldman could answer, the Rebbe continued: “It should take place on the day it was originally scheduled for, and it should not be smaller than originally planned. In fact, it should be bigger!

“Furthermore,” the Rebbe continued—and here he departed from the guidelines he had set down regarding engagement parties, that they should take place at home and for small crowds, in order to keep expenses down—“it should not take place at home, but in a rented hall”—this was unheard of—“and there should be live music [!], and the main thing: much joy!”

The Rebbe’s tone then softened, and in a voice filled with emotion he said, “It should be done this way because this is how the Rebbetzin would have wanted it be . . . and this is what will make the Rebbetzin happy . . .”7

Apparently the Rebbetzin was keeping to her mission, fulfilled to perfection here on earth, even from her elevated place in heaven.

The Rebbe had ensured that her legacy would live on.

Footnotes
1.

Indeed, most chassidim did not even know what the Rebbetzin looked like (especially in the later years). Hence the following story I heard: After the Rebbe initiated his Candle-Lighting Campaign, with the aim of encouraging Jewish women of all backgrounds to light Shabbat candles, a group of Lubavitch students out campaigning approached a woman and asked her whether she lit Shabbat candles. Little did they know that they had approached the wife of the campaign’s initiator . . .

2.

Paraphrased from Midrash Hagadol, Numbers 12:1. Amazingly, to the best of my knowledge, this is the only explicit mention of a reason for any Biblical marriage!

3.

About the Rebbetzin it can perhaps be said, echoing the words of Rabbi Akiva to his thousands of students regarding his wife, “Your Torah and mine are all to her credit” (Talmud, Ketubot 63a).

4.

Ibn Ezra on Exodus 18:1.

5.

The Rebbetzin’s words recall the words of the Mishnah: “If you have studied a lot of Torah, don’t take credit—for that is the reason for which you were created” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:8).

6.

Hadassah Carlebach once mentioned to the Rebbetzin how impressed she was that the Rebbe stands for hours and gives out dollars to be given for charity. The Rebbetzin simply responded, “Today, this is what the chassidim need, and so this is what my husband gives.”

7.

Subsequently, the families of the bride and groom received further directives from the Rebbe encouraging them to serve food on china, etc.!

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—Chabad.org, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Eric Frenkel January 31, 2016

What a wonderful woman she was. Reply

Ilana February 10, 2015

Thank you so much Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka So inspiring! Thank you Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka for everything! May your merit continue to protect us B"H. May we be fortunate to emulate your ways and may we fulfill the missions of our souls. Often I waited up for the return of my own husband, sometimes late at night from a trip abroad, recalling how the Rebbetzin waited for our Rebbe. Reply

Kayo Kaneko Tokyo February 2, 2013

Todah Todah for this very telling and moving article. Reply

a Shluchah in Shanghai. Shanghai , China. March 31, 2011

wow. now i know that really i can rely on chabad.org (and G-d, of course!). in like one or two hours i am going to have online school and today is the rebbetzin's birthday and i'm supposed to start the day off with a few stories about her. thank you. chabad.org! Reply

Shalom M Paltiel Port Washington, NY via chabadpw.org February 2, 2011

Thank you, one correction if I may Thank you for a great article. I was moved to tears by it. What a Rebitzin we have, indeed a mother to all of us and all of Israel.

One point i think needs to be corrected. While like Tziporah, the Rebitzin sacrificed much of her husband's time and attention for the benefit of others and the Jewish people, unlilke Tziporah, she remained very much married to our beloved Rebbe. In fact, their special marriage is a role model of what marriage should be like.

Unlike Tziporah, the Rebitzin stood proudly with the Rebbe, very involved, albeit behind the scenes, in all of his holy activities. The rebitzin was the Rebbe's confidant, best friend in the world, and true partner in his work.

Unlike Tziporah, there was no separation G-d forbid. In fact, when seperation did occur, upon her passing, the Rebbe's shattered heart was plainly visible.

This does not diminish her sacrifice, described so well in the article. Nor does this diminish the value of this wonderful article. Reply

Eric Sander Kingston North Hollywood, CA via chabadonwheels.com January 31, 2011

Strength A true woman of valor!!!

I am sure her Strength still, even now, protects & guides.

"The Righteous are more powerful after they've gone." The Talmud Reply

Gail Gittel Baila Potkin Los Angeles, CA. 90035 via chabadso.com January 30, 2011

A Magnificent Article I was so thrlled by the tribute to such a Beautiful, Amazing, Caring, Kindhearted, Special Woman. I try to live m y life in service to G-d, She is a role model for me. What A Fabulous Giving, Woman. Thank You so much for Postiing this Great Article, with much Admiration and and Respect. I was honored to meet with the Rebbe before his passing in 1991. He comforted me on the death of my dauhghter Chaya Feige OBM.
She just turned 33 years old. and he gave me a blessing and 2 dollars.

I feel so blessed to have been helped from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I am a Giving, Caring, Compassionate Woman. who is a special-ed teacher, I am devoted to save the lives of innocent children, and fight against senior abuse.... Reply

Anonymous toronto, canada January 27, 2011

if only if only we could all be like this. to see such evidence of a woman on this earth so in touch with her neshama, her soul, and her purpose here on this land. and to never for one second think of her physical or emotional needs or wellness. only of others. i cannot express how much i wish i could emulate her even a bit. and even more to see others emulate her as well... would change the world over. thank you for this article. was truly done well. a masterpiece. may you only continue to spread more torah and change more people's lives as i'm sure you have changed every persons life who has read this today on this auspicious day of the rebbetzin's yartzheit - anniversary of her passing. thank you. Reply

Shanti Sapphire, New South Wales January 27, 2011

The Rebbetzin- a true tzaddik As a Jewish woman without children of my own, I find it so inspiring that the Rebbetzin and the Rebbe did not sit around feeling sad for themselves - they, like Avraham and Sarah, 'made' thousands of souls.

Whenever I feel that my life has no purpose without children, I think of these astonishing people, and I see that other life missions are equally, if not more, great.

Thank you G-d for Your chesed in sending these two tzaddikim to the world to be such brilliant lights for us. Reply

Anonymous January 27, 2011

A Legacy of Sacrifice How blessed we are to have the holy Rebbitzin as our mother! Just reading these stories about her life moves me so. Thank you! Reply

Syed January 27, 2011

Inspiring! Her life is really inspiring! Reply

Anonymous LA, Israeli via chabadsola.com January 25, 2011

posted Thank you for a warm and delightful history of the rebbetzin. Reply

Anonymous Great Neck, NY January 25, 2011

Thank you! An inspiring story about an inspirational woman. Does the heart good to read about someone who lived life so joyously in the service of others. I look forward to reading more about this wonderful woman. Reply

Anonymous Briarcliff Manor, NY,USA January 25, 2011

So touching and inspiring! I believe G-d guided me to read this magnificent article. Last week end, my aunt took my kids on Sunday for a couple of hours and I really was looking to spend time with my husband who is a very busy Doctor. Well, that Sunday, he was preoccupied with a lot of thing and later had plans with my children. So, we never spent a minute together and yes, I was very sad bc we have very little opportunities, I also felt resentful but I got busy with my own things and the day went by. Needless to say that today, as I read this so beautifully written article, I feel very small and at the same time, I realize and contemplate the positive points on that day when all I felt was loneliness. I contemplate how responsible my husband is finding some time to work on taxes and running to the gym so that he has some energy for his coming week and choosing to spend some time with his precious children that he sees so little. So, Dear Rebbetzin and writer, thank you for opening my eyes to peace and giving... Reply

Anonymous New York, NY/USA January 25, 2011

A treasured occurrence of a link to The Rebbetzin About eight years ago, I attended a birthday party for the great aunt of my daughter-in-law's (Russian) mother, who became 103 years old! When this older woman, who was lucid, entered the room, she was introduced to the women who attended her party. When she saw me, however, she did not wait for an introduction. She literally ran towards me with outstretched arms, and when she reached me, she cupped my chin into her hands and called me excitedly, "Chaya Mushka!" While I tried to say that I was not whom she thought I was, she kissed me on the cheek. We sat down together, and with the crowd of curious women around us, she explained what happened. She said that upon seeing my face, I "had reminded her of Chaya Mushka when they were friends as young girls of 12 years old growing up in Russia." She remembered Chaya Mushka in the playground and how she enjoyed being with her. For a few moments, this memory flashed before her when she saw me! I felt truly uplifted over what she said. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, New York January 24, 2011

She gave her all for our sake She gave her all for our sake. Now there is hardly any sacrifice we make today that will be enough appreciation to G-d for such a blessed wonderful gift to humanity.

This story should encourage us to follow in her footsteps to the best of our abilities, by living a life of humility, selflessness, loving, caring sharing etc.

Thank you very much for sharing this story with us. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn January 24, 2011

As I read through these stories which are only glimpes into the Rebbetzin's life many times tears came to my eyes; to even think of such a women of valour she was. An inspiration fo each of us We often get lost in our daily lives over such mundane matters of this world, because we loose sight of all the meta-phyiscal ramifications of our deeds towards one another. How much more so in terms what truely matters; if one could possibly emulate only a fraction of what Rebbitzin of blessed memory felt towards every Jew. Reply

Anonymous Phoenix, AZ via chabadaz.com January 23, 2011

beautiful This story of the Rebbetzin, of blessed memory, is very inspiring. I had not read a story about her, she was truly an amazing and selfless person. I definitly want to follow in her footsteps and be at least a fraction of what she was. Reply

GF May 31, 2010

Thank You! I and my family love Rebbetzin stories and the comparison to Tzipporah is also very insightful! Reply

Anonymous Peoria, Illinoise March 11, 2010

That was so Beautiful! This article is very well written and makes me feel as if I really am the rebbetzin's daughter. I was not living when the rebbetzin was but I really enjoy reading articles about her. Thank you for writing this! Reply