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How Many Friends Do You Have?

How Many Friends Do You Have?

On being a Rebbe

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. (Photo: Neil Folberg)
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. (Photo: Neil Folberg)

The young man was suicidal. When he started being vocal about his feelings, telling anyone who would listen that his death was imminent, his fellow yeshivah students convinced him to inform the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, of his plans.

At a yechidut (private audience) with the Rebbe, he did just that. The Rebbe listened, and tears began to course down his cheeks. After a few minutes of just standing there and watching the Rebbe cry – the Rebbe didn't even manage to say a word – the young man ran out of the room, shaken to the core.

"Rebbe, what exactly do you do? And why are you admired by so many?"He told his friends that he no longer planned to end his life. He wanted to live. When asked what had happened in the Rebbe's room, he described the Rebbe's reaction to his words. And then he concluded:

"If I would have only known that there exists a person who cares about me so deeply, I would never have contemplated taking my life…"

"What is a rebbe?" is a question that has been asked a thousand times. But who better to ask than a rebbe himself?

That was precisely the thinking of one fellow who found himself seated across the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a private audience.

"Rebbe, what exactly do you do? And why are you admired by so many?"

"I try to be a good friend," the Rebbe replied.

Incredulous, the man blurted out, "A friend? That's all you do?!"

Unfazed, the Rebbe responded with a question of his own: "How many friends do you have?"

"I have many."

"Let me define a friend for you, and then tell me how many friends you have.

"A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself."

The Rebbe then asked with a smile, "Now, how many friends like that do you have?"

Simple yet profound.

And how strikingly reminiscent of the Midrash1 that tells us that upon Moses' birth his father chose to name him – of all names – Chaver, which means friend.

How fitting a name for Moses, our nation's first rebbe.

Becoming One

Rabbi Herbert Weiner, author of Nine-and-a-Half Mystics, once asked the Rebbe, "How do you assume responsibility for the advice you give people on all matters, business and medical included, especially when you know that your advice is often binding?"

The Rebbe replied, "When a person comes to me with a problem, this is how I try to help him. A man knows his own problem best, so one must try to unite with him and become batel, as disassociated as possible from one's own ego. Then, in concert with the other person, one tries to understand the principle of Divine Providence in his particular case."

It is said about Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, that after receiving people for yechidut, he would need a change of clothing, as the clothing he'd worn to yechidut would invariably be soaked with perspiration.

He once explained: "In the past hour, twenty people came to see me. To relate to each one's dilemma, I must divest myself of my own personality and circumstances and clothe myself in theirs. But they came to consult not with themselves but with me. So I must re-clothe myself in my own persona in order to advise them."

The intense mental and emotional experience of fully connecting with those who consulted him, to the point where he "lost" himself in them and their wellbeing, was grueling. Stepping into another person's shoes is an arduous task and can only be achieved through much labor and love.

How appropriate that the word used to describe the unique private audience experience with a rebbe is yechidut, which literally means to "become one."

The story is told that once Rabbi Shmuel's grandfather – the Mitteler Rebbe, the second Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe – abruptly stopped receiving visitors. In unprecedented fashion, he remained closeted in his room for a few days, apparently involved in a deep spiritual struggle. Later that week he emerged, and things returned to normal.

In a fascinating disclosure, the Mitteler Rebbe explained: "Whenever someone confers with me on spiritual matters, and in particular when one asks me for a path of penance, I endeavor to find their spiritual 'issue' or shortcoming, albeit on a more subtle level, in myself. In doing so, I am able to relate to the person's spiritual standing. Consequently, and being in 'his' position, so to speak, I can seek out the most appropriate spiritual remedy."

"In 'his' position, I can seek out the most appropriate spiritual remedy"He continued: "Earlier this week I was visited by an individual who sought a penitential path for a terrible sin he had committed. No matter how hard I tried, however, I could not find his transgression, however remotely, in myself. Thus, I wasn't able to help him. After grappling with this for the past few days, I was finally able to help him…"


Once, when Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (who later served as the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) and his brother, Rabbi Zalman Aharon, were children, they played a game of "Rebbe and Chassid." Shalom DovBer was close to five years of age at the time; his brother a year and four months older. So Zalman Aharon acted the role of rebbe and Shalom DovBer played the chassid.

The "chassid" complained of a deficiency in his personal spiritual service and "the Rebbe" advised him on how to correct it. To this the young Shalom DovBer said: "You're not a rebbe!"

"Why not?" asked Zalman Aharon.

"A rebbe," said the child, "would emit a sigh before replying."

A rebbe is the ultimate empathizer.

Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else; empathy is feeling bad with someone else. To be exact: "Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another's position and to experience all the sensations connected with it."

A teenage girl once wrote a letter of several pages to the Rebbe, in which she described her inner turmoil and anguish. The Rebbe responded to her letter and wrote, among other things, that he feels her pain.

She wrote back a letter and said, "Rebbe, I don't believe you. How can you feel my pain? You're not going through what I'm going through. What do you mean that you feel my pain?"

Within two hours the Rebbe answered. This was the gist of his response:

"When you will merit growing up and marrying, and will, G‑d willing, be blessed with a child, the nature of things is that during the child's first year, he or she will begins to teethe. The teething is painful and the child cries. And a mother feels that pain as if it were her own."

The Rebbe concluded: "This is how I feel your pain."

Moses' Empathy

He ventured outside the cushioned palace environment into the real worldAgain we refer to the first rebbe, Moses, whose empathy was legendary.

"It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens…"2

According to our sages,3 the day of Moses' fateful stroll was the day he was made responsible over Pharaoh's entire household.

After being doted upon and sheltered his entire life, on that day, for the first time, he ventured outside the cushioned palace environment he was accustomed to, into the real world, where injustice flourished and suffering was rampant.

On the words, "He went out to his brethren and saw their burdens" our sages comment: "He focused his eyes and heart to be distressed with them."

As he passed through the palace gates on that historic day, Moses made a conscious decision: he would not let his opulent lifestyle get in the way of him seeing and empathizing with the pain of those who were oppressed. Rather than turn a blind eye, he "focused his eyes and heart to be distressed" with them.

The results of that empathy would change the course of history.

A few years later, Moses' wife bore him a son, "...and he called him Gershom, for he said 'I was a stranger (ger) in a foreign land.'"4

I've often wondered about this strange name-choice. Wouldn't the fact that he felt like a stranger at one point of his life – "I was a stranger..." – be something he would have liked to forget? Why hold onto memories of an unpleasant past? I've been stuck in an elevator before, yet I can't say that I had the urge to call my firstborn "stuck-in-an-elevator"!

But that's precisely the point. Moses wanted to retain the sentiment of being a stranger. He wanted to remember what it felt like not to belong, or being made to feel that way by others. He never wanted to lose his ability to emphasize with the "stranger in a foreign land."

Educating Empathetic Children

He ended his tearful words, spoken from an ailing body and broken heart, with a requestThe year was 1944. The Holocaust was raging, with the Nazis bent on the complete destruction our people, G‑d forbid.

In Brooklyn, New York, at the Lubavitch headquarters located on 770 Eastern Parkway, an unusual meeting was taking place.

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, had asked his secretaries to gather the young yeshivah boys, as he wished to address them personally. They waited anxiously, unsure of what to expect.

The Rebbe, himself a victim of vicious anti-Semitism, gently began to tell the children a bit about what was happening to their brothers and sisters in Europe.

He ended his tearful words, spoken from an ailing body and broken heart, with a request. He asked the young boys to take upon themselves to refrain from indulging in extra treats that week, so as to identify, in small measure, with the pain of those who were suffering terribly.5

The following week, a repeat assembly took place, in which the Rebbe reiterated the same request, and then again the following week. Subsequently, however, such meetings were no longer necessary; by then the young boys had decided to continue with their resolutions on their own.

I heard this story from one of those children, who is today a great-grandfather. To this day, he said, he cannot bring himself to eat ice cream, the particular item he resolved to abstain from as a nine-year-old boy acting in solidarity with those who were being murdered.

A Tribe of Chiefs

We live in difficult times. Ours is a suffering world, constantly bombarded by headlines screaming of natural and unnatural disasters. Our hearts are broken, then broken again.

It's so hard not to succumb to feelings of apathy, lethargy, and indifference, just in order to survive. After all, how much empathy can a heart endure?

Ours is a generation not of chassidim, but of rebbesOn top (or on bottom) of that, ours is a world desperately in need of friends, true friends.

People are lonely. They may conceal it, or distract themselves, but they are hurting inside. They want to love and be loved.

The time has come for each of us to unleash the Rebbe within us.


Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 166. See also Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 1:3.


Tanchuma Yashan, Vaeira 17.


The notion of refraining from pleasure at a time of popular suffering is rooted in the Bible. One example of this was the prohibition for Noah and his family to cohabit while in the ark, “since the world was steeped in pain” (Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 6:18). Another biblical example concerns Joseph, whose two children were born to him – as the verse makes a point of saying – “before famine struck.” The reason: because “marital relations are prohibited during a time of famine” (see Talmud, Taanit 11a).

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—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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Anonymous Portland, OR via November 18, 2012

Beautiful !
This is something that every person who wants to care more and learn more about the difference of sympathy versus empathy should read, but not just stop at reading. Do. Be empathetic. Sympathy is useful to, sometimes that is about all one can start with especially when it is with someone who is neither ever been even truly sympathetic to your own situation or to others in one's presence.
We definitely could use more true Rebbes understanding empathetic and truly caring people who truly act out the empathy and are not phony or just thinking about themselves and how they can benefit from whatever they hear or take advantage of the lonely, trusting person / people who need help and empathetic person/s in their lives. And the person who is taking advantage is in my book a criminal of the worst kind. He / she may need sympathy and empathy as well, but until they can repent they are a criminal. Reply

Anonymous via January 28, 2010

amazing article. inspiring. love the stories of the Rebbes. if only more people had real empathy... Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, MA January 26, 2010

the poetry of Sufi poets: Rumi, Hafiz etc. Hi, I am commenting on the beautiful Rumi poem, The Caretaker as quoted in this commentary.

I find that these ancient Sufi poets are right "there" in terms of their sensibilities, in perceiving that all is Divine, and in explicating this so beautifully and so constantly in their never-ending stream of poetry that is entirely about unity in its varied manifestations.

I like to RUMI nate on Rumi and feel deeply there's a reason his poetry is among the best selling poetry here in the United States.

thank you for including this on this site. Reply

Anonymous Bogota, Colombia January 26, 2010

DEEPLY SPIRITUAL Without words. Only a long and profound silence for reflection. Reply

Orli Winnetka, IL January 26, 2010

friendship=love If the love of one person can make our life worth living regardless the pain we have to endure, some times. How much more is knowing that HE, THE ONE loves us and we are an extension of HIM. Reply

Anonymous Cinti, OH January 26, 2010

friendship I am fortunate that I have good friends. To me a friend is not the same as an acquaintance. A friend really cares just as I care for him/her. I don't count friends by numbers but by quality. I also try to be a really good friend. Reply

Hinda Schryber jerusalem, israel January 26, 2010

brilliant article Thank you so mych for writing this, it is amazing, ia m going to send it to lots of people i know who will really benefit from it.
i totally agree with you - too many lonely people, too few friends. Reply

Miriam Orlando, Florida/usa January 25, 2010

Friends I've found myself selecting my friends, lately. It use ti be that every person that thought that I was a good friend for them, counted as a friend for me, but, not so.
I have been betrayed and hurt by so call friends and, so, I decided to stop and re-think who is realy my friend.
But, to be very fair, my God in heaven has not abandon me. Reply

steve ciric Northville, mi January 25, 2010

Anonymous, NY, NY From Rumispassion,

I love you.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. Reply

Rabbi Wineberg Brooklyn January 25, 2010

Great Article Great Article Reply

Anonymous NY, NY January 25, 2010

How many friends do you have? The suicidal boy may have felt better for a little bit, but later he will be suicidal. suicide is a result of a lot of unbareable pain and a listening ear will not help him deal with that pain any better in the long term. Trust me , I know.
How many friends do I have? none -and you?
ps: i think the last line should say "the time has come for each of us to become a friend Reply

Mendel January 25, 2010

Become a rebbe? I know the writer didn't mean it that way, but still it doesn't sound right.. i really enjoyed this article, and i think it brings out the message very very clearly. But i would, imho, re-write the last sentence, somewhat like this:

It is time for each of us to, become more sensitive, and unleash the Rebbe within us.. Thus becoming an extension of the Rebbe, for those around us.

Again, thank you very much for a beautiful article! Reply

Tova Chicago January 25, 2010

Beautiful. Reply

Anonymous Arlington, VA January 25, 2010

Count your wealth in friends, not material things Three months after my 60th birthday, my husband, children, and sisters threw me a surprise party. Several of my grown nieces and nephews also attended the party. One nephew, whose father unfortunately made his childhood a hell on earth gave me a lovely gift and it wasn't the things: it was the card and what he wrote on it. He wrote of how he always felt welcome in my house (even when he ate an entire oven-stuffer roaster chicken!). He wrote about the beautiful singing voice I used to have. But mostly, he wrote about the kindness he felt I had shown him. That card brought tears to my eyes! And that was not the only God-given gift I received that day. My sisters pointed to a couple who were standing in the corner of the room. I couldn't for the life of me think of who they might be until the woman started to speak - this was my best friend from my childhood. We had been friends starting when I was 9 & she was 11.We both burst into tears that washed away the missing years of our lives. I Reply

Howard London, UK January 25, 2010

Excellent article Very interesting article, thank you. Reply

Anonymous Queens January 25, 2010


thank you. Reply

ruthhousman marshfield hills, MA January 25, 2010

The Magical Moon Foundation Dear Linda, I am sad to hear about your son and glad to hear your words, about my words. You might find something of hope (below) and there is an alchemy to the love in this.

There is a Foundation, just down the road from my house here in Marshfield, called The Magical Moon Foundation, begun by an artist, Donna Green. This is a magical place for children and their parents. The children, who have cancer, become Knights of the Magical Moon and they pick a mission of their own choice. There's a lot to this, and the alchemy of connection and the power and beauty that comes out of all this.

You might look this up on line: magical moon foundation. I am saying there is something wonderful going on here for these most beautiful children, and I am moved to tell you about this Foundation.
It brings smiles.

There are so many stories, and we all have them. Refuge is a sanctuary of hope and love, and we do it with each other, by holding each other tight. Reply

Linda Cincinatti, OH January 25, 2010

Friends My 11 year old son was diagnosed with cancer a month ago and has been in the hospital ever since. He's doing well, Thank G-d but I'm also so grateful for the friends I did not know we had. People with a loose connection thru school or scouts or work have sent cards, offered help, brought dinner, really poured out their love on us.:-)
I know that they are feeling our pain and holding their own healthy kids extra tight. Never again will I listen to anyone who decries the selfishness of ordinary American people . I will also tried to be a good friend.
P.S. Ruth, I have started to recognize and enjoy your comments :-) Reply

Ruth Housman Newton, MA January 25, 2010

yechidut This is a beautiful piece, about the power of empathy, of being at one with whoever comes to us, in friendship, in suffering... It's what we do when we go so often to the "movies" and we are so moved, and lose ourselves for the moment in the characters, perhaps in the dilemmas and stories that present.

I have always loved my patients, as a psychiatric social worker. I only had one, I had strived so hard to love, and couldn't, because he was such a narcissist. I tried.

The deep mystic perception is that we are all of us, ONE. In deepening ways we are connected to each other, through the stream that is creativity itself, through Creation and we are none of us "thread" bare.

I believe in the power of one, meaning every stone cast in that stream, into the water that is compassion, leads in an endless series of ripples towards helping others and we do not know how far it goes.

Metaphor so binds us to each other. There is "path" in empathy, the word. It's about LOVE. Beauty is truth! Reply

shel UK January 25, 2010

tears thank you for sharing this.

blessings and love x Reply