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A Line of Dollars and Sense

A Line of Dollars and Sense

Changing the World One Person at a Time

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The Rebbe during the Sunday dollar distribution for charity. (Photo: Marc Asnin)
The Rebbe during the Sunday dollar distribution for charity. (Photo: Marc Asnin)

It was a beautiful sunny day as I recall. An early spring breeze licked eagerly at passersby like a hungry cat lapping up a bowl of milk. I flipped up the pressed collar of my finest holiday shirt to ward off the affectionate but persistent gust of nature.

My family had just arrived in Crown Heights, a leafy and brownstone section of Brooklyn, New York, home to the Lubavitcher community and Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

The scene that greeted us as my father attempted to find parking remains vivid in my mind.

A long, unkempt, and slow-moving line of people made its way through the doors of a magnificent, Collegiate Gothic-style synagogue housed at 770 Eastern Parkway. It was there that the Rebbe prayed and held court, and on Sunday mornings like these, spent late morning until early evening receiving visitors from all walks of life and faiths seeking to meet or greet him.

Did he need to be the one handing out coins to young children for charity on his way to prayers? To some he offered blessing, to others counsel, and to all his utmost attention, infectious warmth and humor. A hallmark of these brief yet lasting encounters was the accompanying dollar—to be given to charity—that he handed each person.

The line for “Sunday dollars” (as it was fondly called) was often hundreds strong, sometimes swelling to a thousand, and would snake its way back and around the nearest street corner, tightly hugging the low brick walls that bordered many of the expensive homes that lined Eastern Parkway.

To my nine-year-old eyes, this line of humanity appeared to somehow grow ever longer rather than shorter, miraculously replenishing itself constantly.

It is this unforgettable scene that has since come to mind whenever I read the Biblical passage describing Jethro’s monumental visit with the Israelites in the desert.1

I have no doubt that were Jethro to live in our time he’d have offered the Rebbe the same advice he gave Moses... I picture Jethro, too, being greeted by an assertive sun and less friendly desert wind whipping at his back as he rode into the glorious Hebrew camp. I envision him also encountering a long, unkempt, and slow-moving line winding its way through cactus and brush to the open flaps of Moses’ tent where he offered counsel and blessing to all of Israel “from morning until evening.”2

They were different people, no doubt, and he a different Rebbe, but I cannot help but think that the line was the same, stretching across the sands and lanes of time, from Sinai to Brooklyn, from Moses until the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

And I have long wondered about this line as well as others that would form on different occasions throughout the year. For example, upon the conclusion of the Jewish holidays of Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, the Rebbe would personally distribute to thousands of visitors a few drops of wine from the cup over which he made the blessing of the havdalah service.

And on the days preceding Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah he would hand out honey cake (called lekach) to a similar number of people. And the list goes on.

The Rebbe distributes wine.
The Rebbe distributes wine.

And in particular I have pondered the question asked by Jethro of Moses when he first encountered “the line”: “Why do you alone sit with all the people standing by you from morning to evening?”3

Jethro was saying:4 Why must you, a celebrated prophet and leader, be burdened with the petty needs and whims of the masses? Why must you, a man who changed history’s course—a visionary of (literally) Biblical proportions—lower yourself by spending your waking hours presiding over the trivial concerns of commoners?

Instead, Jethro suggested, “You shall appoint leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens…”5

I admit to having wondered the same regarding the Rebbe.

Did he need to be the one handing out coins to young children for charity on his way to prayers?

Did he need to meet hundreds of people for private audiences thrice weekly from 8pm until five or six the following morning?

Did he need to be the one addressing fidgeting children at youth rallies when there was an emcee who would anyways translate his words from Yiddish to English?

Could he not have assigned a representative to pour the “Cup of Blessing” into a thousand cups?

And what about the hundreds of letters he personally responded to daily; could he not have assigned his office staff the task of responding to the countless mundane questions he was asked?

Indeed, in response to his secretaries’ well-intentioned request that he use an electronic letter-opener they bought in order to save him the time he spent opening every letter himself, he said: “Can an electronic machine possibly detect the pain and tears that went into the writing and signing of these heartfelt letters?”

But why did he have to personally feel the person’s pain before answering their question? Would that in any way affect his answer?

These questions are significant as they amount to hundreds of thousands of precious hours belonging to a world Jewish leader who founded the largest existing Jewish organization and was one of the most prolific Jewish thinkers and writers of this century.

I have no doubt that were Jethro to live in our time he’d have offered the Lubavitcher Rebbe the same advice he gave Moses: “Appoint leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens!”

And yet…

The line to enter the gravesite of the Rebbe.
The line to enter the gravesite of the Rebbe.

If you drive by the Montifore Springfield Cemetery located in the Cambria Heights section of Queens you can still see “the line” form on various occasions throughout the year.

It no longer winds its way around low brick walls but around tall marble gravestones, through fewer leaves but more weeds, not in Brooklyn but in Queens, not in the Rebbe’s synagogue but at his resting place, where his guidance, inspiration and blessing is still sought by Jews and gentiles the world over.

To my now twenty-seven-year-old eyes, this line of humanity appears to keep growing with time rather than fading, a testament to its initiator, who was, and therefore continues to be, larger than life.

Footnotes
1.

Recounted in chapter 18 of Exodus.

2.

Ibid verse 14.

3.

Ibid.

4.

See Nachmonides ad loc.

5.

Ibid verse 21.

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.
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Michelle April 16, 2011

thankyou you share and remind us that we can,in the eyes of G-d and through His Grace and appointed People receive His undividied attention.

as always i am humbled. thank you for your share... especially today

G-d bless you in your continued service to others. amen Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel April 13, 2011

Beautiful comparison! I really enjoyed this article and the author's vivid descriptions of his experiences as a child waiting in line for the Rebbe.
I, too, have cherished memories of coming to Crown Heights as a child, and the impact of these encounters was profound.
I am happy to see these beautiful memories shared.
The comparison to Moshe Rabeinu makes history come alive for me!
Thank you! Reply

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