I remember hearing the news early Sunday morning (Israeli Time) and rushing to the airport. I remember arriving at the cemetery hours after the funeral, in midst of the throng still pouring in, as it would through the night and the days and nights to follow, from all over the world.
We (my wife, my 20-month-old daughter and myself) came with the clothes on our back, thinking we'd be taking the return charter flight to Tel-Aviv that very night. We stayed seven days, most of which I spent holed up in an office at 770 Eastern Parkway working on a special issue of Week In Review, a weekly digest of the Rebbe's teachings which I edited at the time. I remember observing with growing amazement what was happening -- and what was not happening -- in the Chabad-Lubavitch community.
Just about everything imaginable was happening -- except for the natural, predictable thing which everyone expected to happen.
There was shock and incredulity. There was grief and agony. There was passionate disagreement and fervent expectation and many, many unanswered and unanswerable questions.
But there was not despair. There was not paralysis. Every one of the Rebbe's emissaries, disciples and followers was saying to him or herself, "what should I be doing now?" And doing it.
I remember thinking: The Rebbe, who has redefined virtually every aspect of life, has also redefined death.
Such was the Rebbe's way. He would, for example, consider the concept "work". With sure and lucid steps, drawing on the wisdom of Torah and the truth of everyday experience, he would show that work equals creativity, creativity equals human partnership with the Creator, and human partnership with the Creator is the raison d'être of human life.
This truth, of course, was stated thousands of years ago by the Scriptural verse, "Man is born to toil." But that statement, which had always struck us as a melancholy if inescapable fact of life, became, in the Rebbe's hands, the key to understanding what makes us tick and to achieving meaningfulness and fulfillment in our daily labors.
He did the same with "marriage," "love," "rain" and "rockets". He would take a natural phenomenon, a cultural curiosity, an everyday activity, and by the time he had finished analyzing and applying it, it was something altogether different. No -- it was the very same thing it always was, but in the clarity of his insight its essence was exposed, revealing how scant and shallow was our previous conception.
In one of his talks, the Rebbe quoted the Talmudic dictum that "Sleep is one sixtieth of death." Well, said the Rebbe, if sleep is a form of death, then death is a form of sleep. Sleep is not a termination or even an interruption of life -- it is a time of foment, the means by which body and soul recoup their energies for a fresh and refreshed onslaught upon the coming day. So is death. Death, said the Rebbe, is a "descent for the sake of ascent," a retraction of the arrow of life so that it can be impelled by the bow of vacuity with redoubled force.
How? When? Why? The unanswered questions remain unanswered. But we know what we need to do. And we're doing it. You can go see for yourself -- if you reside on planet earth, chances are that you are within driving distance of a Chabad-Lubavitch center.
The Rebbe has trained us well.