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Rebbetzin Chana and the Three Mitzvahs of Her Name

Rebbetzin Chana and the Three Mitzvahs of Her Name

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This year marks the 50th yahrtzeit of the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, of righteous memory. Recently, Rebbetzin Chana’s personal diaries were discovered, in which she recounts in great detail and with vivid description her experiences in Russia. Her purpose in writing the memoirs was that the greatness of her righteous husband, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, be known, and indeed because of her writings we are privileged to get a closer glimpse of his greatness and the tremendous impact he had on thousands of Jews. But while her intentions were focused on her husband, her diaries inevitably reveal what a remarkable and righteous woman she was, a woman deserving of King Solomon’s praises of a “Woman of Valor.”

In Rebbetzin Chana’s personal diaries were discovered1907, when her husband became the rabbi of Yekatrinoslav, she became a leader in her own right. Her home became the center of all communal activities. With the outbreak of World War I, there was a massive influx of Jewish refugees who poured into their city. She took a pivotal role in organizing the immediate absorption and integration of these refugees, as well as procuring vital relief aid. (Her son who would later become the Rebbe recalled that although he was young at the time, his mother’s utter devotion, care and round-the-clock efforts in helping these Jews left an indelible impression on him for the rest of his life.)

She was extremely proud of her husband’s steadfastness and self-sacrifice in strengthening Judaism, and supported him wholeheartedly in every way she could, despite the high risks involved. She and her husband, as well as all their visitors and congregants, were under constant surveillance by the Russian authorities. Everyone knew they could be arrested at any given time just for associating with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.

Her most harrowing experience began March 28, 1939, at 3 AM. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was arrested by four agents of the NKVD, following his high-profile involvement in facilitating the production and distribution of kosher-for-Passover matzah, building a mikvah, and other Jewish activities. For months on end Rebbetzin Chana tried locating him, and met with all levels of government officials to try securing his freedom. She tried everything she could to get her husband kosher food and medical attention, even tracking down the relatives of personnel who worked in various prisons. Often, even after substantial bribes, she was lied to and sent on false leads.

After her husband had been imprisoned, tortured and interrogated for nearly a year, Rebbetzin Chana was informed that he had been tried in Moscow for his “criminal activity” and sentenced to five years of exile in the far-flung village of Ch’ili in Central Asia. There he would be completely isolated from other Jews. He was 61, and after his horrendous prison experiences his health was in such a dreadful state that he was nearly unrecognizable.

Rebbetzin Chana, then 59, could have stayed home and tried her best to get food sent to her husband. Instead she decided to go into exile to be with her husband and support him, no matter what that entailed. Upon arrival, she realized just how dismal the situation was. She arrived early spring, “when the ground turns into deep mud, making it difficult to walk in the street. But to obtain life’s most basic necessities, it was necessary to walk a long distance, although it was virtually impossible to get out of the quagmire. When you put your foot down, it became bogged down in the sticky morass, and you needed the strength of Samson for every step you took.” The moisture and warmer weather brought swarms of fleas, mosquitoes and other biting insects. Clothing would become covered in black dots within hours, soiled by the fleas. Rebbetzin Chana burned a type of fuel made from mud, dried-out grass and straw she had gathered, which didn’t provide light or fire, but a thick black smoke to keep the insects away. Often, the strong night winds blew that awful smoke in their faces.

Every season was extreme. Summer brought unbearable heat that forced everyone indoors for cover, and winters were beyond frigid. It wasn’t uncommon for people to freeze to death. Rebbetzin Chana gathered assorted types of “bricks” and fashioned a crude furnace to help keep warm.

Rebbetzin Chana and her husband moved to a few different shacks while in exile, each place with its own challenges. The shacks were made of clay, with muddy floors, and were often darkened by swarms of mosquitoes. They were damp, moist and small, often without dividing doors between the rooms, offering no privacy. Bigger shacks with the luxury of a wooden floor meant more people with whom to share the space. In one place, they had only roach-infested cots to sleep on.

It was forbidden to purchase food; everything was government-regulated with ration cards and quotas, requiring long daily treks and endless lines. Throughout their years in exile, the Rebbetzin and her husband suffered severe hunger, at one point going without any bread for a month! Their health deteriorated, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak became extremely weak and frail.Everything was government regulated with ration cards and quotas

These were the conditions of exile. Yet Rebbetzin Chana was there to take care of her husband and keep up his spirits. It was due to her resourcefulness and determination that she was able to get food whenever possible and physically care for her husband, literally saving his life. She knew that more than bread for survival, he urgently needed materials to write down his copious thoughts of Torah and Kabbalah. She was determined to obtain such supplies. She taught herself how to make ink from various herbs and grasses, and presented her homemade ink to her overjoyed husband. He wrote along the margins of the few holy books and notebooks she had brought him.

When Passover neared, she spent days traveling to find a utensil for Passover, knowing Rabbi Levi Yitzhak would not eat otherwise. She successfully obtained a tin-plated pail made from new materials.

Once, to their surprise and joy, they received a package with white flour, and she set some aside to make two hamantashen for the holiday of Purim. Rebbetzin Chana expressed how important and meaningful it was for them to be able to observe even a minor custom. She exerted tremendous effort to enable herself and her husband to celebrate any and every observance.

The effects of World War II reached Ch’ili, and an influx of evacuees arrived in their region, including a large number of Jews. Rebbetzin Chana and her husband became the natural place everyone turned to for help, inspiration and guidance. Their very presence was a lighthouse of hope and an oasis of comfort for the Jews. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak put himself in grave danger, facilitating proper Jewish burials and religious services. Despite their infirmity, they mustered every ounce of strength to lead and assist the Jews with warmth, kindness and joy.

In 1944, after five years of terrible exile, they miraculously obtained Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s freedom and moved to the city of Alma Ata. There again, undeterred, with the last of his waning strength, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak continued his efforts to strengthen Judaism, with his wife’s full support. He spent his last weeks and final days surrounded by Jews who longed to be in his presence and who thirsted for his words of Torah. Rebbetzin Chana cared for him until the very end, taking great pride in the honor and love bestowed on her righteous husband.

After Rebbetzin Chana’s passing in 1964, the Rebbe commemorated his mother’s yahrtzeit with a farbrengen (chassidic gathering). At one of these farbrengens, the Rebbe mentioned that three of the mitzvah campaigns he had inaugurated corresponded to the three letters of the Rebbetzin’s name, Chana. The Rebbe explained that each letter of her name stood for one of the three special mitzvahs gifted and entrusted to women. The chet is for the mitzvah of challah, separating a portion of dough and dedicating it to G‑d. (Under the umbrella of this mitzvah is the observance of kosher.) The nun stands for niddah, the mitzvah of family purity. Lastly, the hei is for hadlakat neirot, the mitzvah of lighting candles in honor of Shabbat and holidays.

The Rebbe expounded on the meaning of these three mitzvahs in numerous chassidic discourses. The Rebbe also mentioned that the greatest thing a soul yearns for, even in the highest realms of heaven, is to serve G‑d specifically in this physical world. When we dedicate a session of Torah learning or do a mitzvah for the soul, we literally connect that soul with our deed and make it a partner with us in serving G‑d in this world.

It is therefore most fitting to dedicate the study of the following insights to Rebbetzin Chana, who dedicated her life to the continuation and vibrancy of Judaism.

Challah: Separating a Portion of Dough

When Friday would come around and there were no Shabbat candles, or when it was often necessary to queue up on line until quite late before Shabbat to receive “the bread of suffering” to use for the “double loaves of bread” (challah) . . . As I left home to go to the bread line, he would say to me emotionally, “G‑d has given us a fragrant spice called Shabbat—we need to prepare ourselves for the Shabbat!”

When the Jews entered the land of Israel, they were commanded to take a portion of their dough and give it to the kohen (priest), before being permitted to use the remainder of the dough to bake their bread. This separated portion was called challah and considered consecrated. Today, while in exile, we observe this mitzvah through separating a small portion of dough and burning it. Our weekly loaves of bread prepared for Shabbat are affectionately called “challah” for this mitzvah performed with the dough.

Bread is a staple food and represents our sustenance. Bread represents our sustenanceSetting aside a portion of the dough and dedicating it to G‑d is an affirmation that everything we have comes from G‑d. It is not “my strength and the power of my hands [that] have produced this wealth for me”; rather, “it is He who is giving [me] the strength to make wealth.”1 The fact that we must separate the challah before we can use the rest of the dough demonstrates that serving G‑d comes first and is the top priority in our lives. When we habituate ourselves to putting G‑d first, this perspective translates into us utilizing all our G‑d-given gifts in a meaningful and purposeful manner.

The separated portion called challah contains a message within its spelling. The word can be divided into two parts, chol-hei. Chol means “mundane,” and hei is the letter that represents G‑d’s name. Challah’s very name reminds us to serve G‑d in all our ways—even the mundane aspects of our lives should be infused with an awareness of G‑d.

There were different measurement requirements given for the separated portion, based on whether the individual was a private or commercial baker. The fact that Jewish law has nuanced measurements based on the individual teaches us that matters of faith and belief (represented by the challah) are a very personal and important quest. Just as the challah is a portion of a staple food, which is digested and becomes a part of the person, our faith and belief must be something that becomes integral to us. To accomplish this, we each have to learn about our faith, processing it until it is ours. And then we need to continue onward with our journey of faith, expanding our understanding further and further.

This mitzvah was given especially to women, because it is women who best demonstrate how the physical world can be incorporated and elevated in the service of G‑d. It is women who feed faith to their children from a young age and inculcate them with an understanding and appreciation for Judaism. It is women who teach their children, through example, how to spend their time and resources in service of G‑d. It is women who create the hands-on Jewish atmosphere of the home, buying or preparing kosher food, organizing the celebration of holidays, and in so many other ways. It is therefore women who perform the mitzvah of separating the challah portion, which demonstrates how G‑d is foremost in our consciousness and expressed in our everyday activities. The very act of eating, when done with kosher food and with the intent to use the energy to serve G‑d, is a most holy service.

Niddah: The Laws of Family Purity

“Of what crime has my husband been accused?” I asked.

“He built a ‘meeka’ (i.e., a mikvah) in the courtyard of the synagogue—this is what he is being accused of. The shammash (beadle) had divulged some information about him . . . under duress.”

Family purity is regarded as one of the most treasured mitzvahs, ranked in importance alongside circumcision and fasting on Yom Kippur. At the core of this mitzvah, a woman brings G‑d into her marriage and most personal experiences, expressing the idea that G‑d is a part of every aspect of our lives.

The laws of family purity address the spiritual state of impurity brought about by menstruation and the great spiritual elevation that results from immersing in a mikvah. While a woman is in this spiritually impure state, and for an additional seven days, until a woman emerges from a mikvah on the seventh night, a husband and wife are not permitted to be physically intimate, and they avoid physical contact with each other. Following the woman’s immersion in the mikvah, intimacy between husband and wife is considered a mitzvah, a most sacred and blessed union.

The laws of purity and impurity belong to a category of mitzvahs known as chukim, divine decrees, for which no reason is given. Chassidism discusses the symbolism of menstruation These are not physical concepts but completely spiritual ones, not logically comprehensible. Therefore, they are frequently misunderstood and associated with notions and myths foreign to Judaism. Chassidic thought enables us to understand the spiritual dimension, giving us an appreciation for the inner meaning and significance of the mitzvahs. It reveals the spiritual source and makeup of everything that exists in this physical world.

Chassidism discusses the symbolism of menstruation and why it renders a woman spiritually impure. Blood provides the body with the nutrients it needs, and is the body’s life-force. It gives the body its vitality, warmth and vigor. The color red represents passion and fervor. Similarly, blood represents our natural force of attraction and enjoyment for the physical and material. This natural drive is what propels us to engage and be successful in the world; in balance, it is healthy and beneficial. However, if unguided, this natural drive intensifies and becomes excessive and out of proportion, leading to one becoming consumed with materialism. Consequently, one would become insensitive and apathetic to spiritual matters. Menstruation occurs when there’s excess blood, more than is currently necessary, and so the healthy body expels it. Thus, the excess of (menstrual) blood manifests as spiritual impurity.

The mitzvah of family purity, which revolves around menstruation—symbolizing the process by which our body regulates our natural inclination toward materialism—is therefore entrusted to women, who are privileged with a greater role in serving G‑d through elevating the physical world.

The concept of impurity is most associated with death. A person becomes ritually impure when he or she comes in contact with death directly, or even remotely. Even being in the same building as a corpse or attending a funeral (which is a mitzvah!) makes a person spiritually impure. The Hebrew word for impurity, tum’ah, is related to the word atum, which means “blocked.”

One way of understanding the association with death and impurity is by considering what death represents. When a person is alive, it is apparent that there is a life-force, a soul, a part of G‑d that animates the person. It is easy to recognize in the living that there is a soul—G‑d’s presence can be sensed. However, when someone observes a corpse, there’s no obvious indication that leads a person to sense G‑d’s presence. Although everything in this world requires G‑d’s direct constant creative energies to exist, with a corpse G‑dliness is concealed.

To encounter death is to encounter a concealment of G‑d. There’s a blockage, some type of obstruction that interferes with the revelation of G‑d’s presence. When a woman menstruates, it indicates that a potential opportunity for life has been lost, a subtle whisper of death. So when a woman experiences the loss of blood from her uterus, associated with this loss of life, she enters a state of impurity—for she has encountered a concealment of G‑d.

What is the significance of going through this process of impurity to purity? What does it achieve? G‑d created the woman with this natural cycle, which can be compared to the cycle of the week. Six days of work are followed by Shabbat, the holy day of rest. On Shabbat one is spirituality elevated and more sensitive to the divine, yet once Shabbat concludes one returns to worldly engagement, a seemingly spiritual low. Each week, a person works toward Shabbat. The more effort put into preparing for the holy day, the more of a rewarding experience it becomes. Each Shabbat becomes a new opportunity for an even greater spiritual experience. Its effect spills over to the rest of the week, enabling us to elevate our most mundane work to a spiritual service of G‑d. As Chassidism teaches, “Every descent is for the purpose of a greater ascent.” The process of constant renewal affords us the means to reach deep and achieve even greater heights.

A woman is given the mitzvah of mikvah, which represents the epitome of transformation and self-actualization. She is given the gift of continuously heightened spiritual elevations, offering her expanded divine awareness that enables her to infuse every part of her life, her relationships and her home with divinity.

The purpose of mikvah is to achieve a profound spiritual elevation. When a person immerses, the whole body is submerged in water. Water is a symbol of life; no living thing can exist without water. When a woman immerses her whole body, she is connecting to the source of life, G‑d. With this awareness, she devotes everything she has to G‑d—mind, body and soul. As a baby emerges at birth from a sac of amniotic fluid, a woman emerges from the waters of the mikvah with a sense of renewal, a fresh No living thing can exist without waterbeginning to her divine service with a profound divine consciousness.

Her state of impurity symbolizes dealing with challenges resulting from the concealment of G‑d’s presence and our natural pull towards materialism. The mikvah experience aligns her perspective, heightens her awareness of G‑d, and strengthens her ability to channel her natural tendencies in the most productive and meaningful way. She is in an elevated spiritual state, and is then prepared for the mitzvah that follows, intimacy. Intimacy is not regarded as a human indulgence but as a most sacred union that generates souls. Intimacy enables human beings to mirror G‑d as creators, to express an aspect of infinity in this world. There’s no greater achievement man can accomplish than creating a human being!

Hadlakat Neirot: Lighting Shabbat and Holiday Candles

With a concerted effort, I tried to create a festive spirit, as befitting the approaching Yom Tov.

. . . We were reminded that we could be concerned with loftier concepts—not just with thinking about our daily bread, and drawing the pail of water from the well and hauling it through the mud . . .

One of the obvious things we observe about light is that its very presence is indicative of the presence of its source. If we see light, we know there must be a light bulb, a flame, the sun, or some other source from where the light emanates. Additionally, the presence of even a little light illuminates its surroundings to a much greater degree. Lighting a candle in a dark room brings enough clarity of vision to navigate safely within it. So too, performing the mitzvah of lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat and holidays immediately heightens our awareness of our source, G‑d, the creator of the world, who has given us Shabbat and holidays.

The moment the candles are lit, we have ushered in the holy day, and immediately our homes are aglow with the spirit and sense of Shabbat (or holiday). With that kindled flame, our homes don’t feel like they do the rest of the week; an entirely new atmosphere has set in. Every member of the household sees that the candles have been lit and knows Shabbat has arrived. It affects us completely. The activities and work we engaged in all week are out of sight and out of mind. We dress elegantly, pray, sing and eat specially prepared festive meals, enhanced with stimulating Torah teachings, inspirational stories and togetherness. It is our time of reflection and study, where we turn inward and appreciate our relationship with G‑d, recognizing G‑d’s complete involvement in every aspect of our lives and our dependence on Him. It is with this focus and perspective that we can properly navigate the rest of the week, maintaining that clarity of vision so that we sense G‑d’s presence and realize the divine providence in everything we encounter.

Women are entrusted with the awesome responsibility of making their homes like “mini-Temples,” doing their utmost to ensure that the next generation of Jews will be fortified with a rich appreciation of our heritage, a growing personal relationship with G‑d, and a passionate love for the Torah and mitzvahs. Since the home is most central to Judaism, where the majority of all observance takes place, and the primary realm of the woman, it is she who is honored with the mitzvah of lighting the candles, ushering into her home the holiness of Shabbat and holidays, whose illumination radiates to the rest of the week.

A mother begins transmitting Judaism to her children from infancy. She teaches her daughter to perform the mitzvah of candle-lighting from the age of three, when she can confidently recite the blessing and observe how she contributes by adding her own spiritual light. Thus, the mitzvah of lighting candles exemplifies the profound scope of divine awareness generated and actualized by a seemingly simple commandment.

These three mitzvahs especially given to women all present auspicious times for prayer. When lighting Shabbat and holiday candles, when separating the portion of dough, and when immersing in a mikvah, a woman uses these special opportunities to pray. The tremendous merit generated with the observance of these essential mitzvahs brings infinite blessings to the women who practice them.

All these mitzvahs encourage women to dig deep, expand their awareness and discover the powerful and essential bond they have with G‑d. These mitzvahs encourage women to dig deepWith this ever-growing awareness, they infuse their homes with their beliefs and faith, and raise a nation of Jews committed to serving G‑d. They have the Torah engraved within them, expressed in their passionate observance of mitzvahs and their tireless efforts to transform this world into a dwelling place for G‑d.

In the merit of the righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt, and it will be in the merit of the righteous women that we will be redeemed from this final exile. May we be inspired by Rebbetzin Chana to be meticulous in observing and internalizing the messages of these three essential mitzvahs, and thereby merit bringing the ultimate redemption.

This essay is also dedicated to my mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary, o.b.m., on the occasion of her ninth yahrtzeit. My mother taught us and so many women about these cherished mitzvahs. She observed them scrupulously, and lived their messages. Her commitment inspires us today.

Footnotes
Esther and her husband are Chabad emissaries in Chautauqua, N.Y., where they work with the Jewish community. Esther, an educator for more than a decade, also teaches young women at the Institute for Higher Jewish Learning. She is the proud mother of seven children.
Artwork by ClaudiaRavel.
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Nechama Brooklyn May 3, 2015

Great article! Very inspirational and chock full of interesting information. Loved the article! Reply

Rivky April 29, 2015

Inspirational and informative!
Loved the thorough analysis and uplifting message.Thank you for posting an exceptional essay! Reply

sara usa April 27, 2015

very well thought out and explained.
thank you for posting. Reply

Devorah April 27, 2015

Keep your articles coming! Beautiful piece. I enjoy reading your articles very much. They are easy to read, informative, interesting and always have a powerful message. I look forward every year to your annual essays! Yoshar koach! Reply

Sarah Highland Park April 26, 2015

Wow. ... remind me never to complain.... I'm truly humbled by rebbitzen chana. What a beautiful article! Reply