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The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Modus Operandi

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I recently came across an article that caught my attention:

It's the open secret that nobody in government wants to talk about: That cherished presidential signature that's tucked away in a scrapbook or framed for all to see might never have passed under the president's hand.

For decades, presidents of both parties have let an autopen do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to scrawling their signatures…

"You want to preserve the president's semblance of reaching out and being connected," says Jack Shock, director of presidential letters and messages for former President Bill Clinton…

It's the open secret that nobody in government wants to talk about: That cherished presidential signature that's tucked away in a scrapbook or framed for all to see might never have passed under the president's hand. Here’s why this story intrigued me.

You see, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, received a fair amount of letters as well. While exact numbers are hard to come by, according to Ms. Susan Handelman, a professor at Bar Ilan University, “The Rebbe would receive—and personally read and answer—around four hundred letters a day. And probably equally as many telephone calls, with questions for him and requests for blessings, would come in each day from around the world.”

Purportedly, research done by the New York Postal Service in the ’80s found that the Rebbe received second to the most (non-commercial) mail in all of New York State!

And yet, the Rebbe made the time to answer each person personally.

So what’s the big deal, you’re thinking?

A kind rabbi who enjoyed answering mail…

Nice, but not mind-blowing.

Except that this rabbi also happened to be running one of the largest Jewish organizations in the world. And in his “free time” he managed to become one of the most prolific Jewish thinkers and writers of our century. Not only that, for decades, he spent three nights a week in conversation with people from all walks of life seeking his counsel. And at least once a week he learned Torah through the night, and on any given week he addressed his disciples for six to eight hours?

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Like, when did he sleep?

The Rebbe’s nocturnal schedule can be best summed up from a comment made by the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to a leading Chabad disciple, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky: “My son-in-law is never sleeping at 4:00 in the morning. He either hasn’t yet gone to sleep, or he’s already woken up.”

And here’s where the Presidential autopen comes in.

If the Rebbe would permit to have such letters “signed” by a rubber stamp, a universally accepted practice, it would certainly save the Rebbe considerable precious time. In the introduction to “The Letter and the Spirit,” a collection of letters of the Rebbe, Dr. Nissan Mindel, who served as one of the Rebbe’s secretaries, describes the process of the Rebbe’s written correspondence. In passing he mentions the following anecdote.

I once boldly suggested that there may be a way to save the Rebbe some time with regards to outgoing mail. I referred to so-called standard letters such as Rosh Hashanah [High Holiday] greetings, responses to requests for the Rebbe’s blessing on happy family events, such as Bar Mitzvah, marriage, birthdays, and others, all of which together, though not part of my job, could number several thousand in the course of a year.

Now, if the Rebbe would permit to have such letters “signed” by a rubber stamp, a universally accepted practice, it would certainly save the Rebbe considerable precious time.

With due acknowledgment of his secretary’s thoughtfulness, the Rebbe politely rejected the idea out of hand, adding an explanation which, presumably, should have occurred to me in the first place. I should have known that anything that smacked of “subterfuge” would be repugnant to the Rebbe. That goes without saying. The explanation the Rebbe gave me was simple: “How can I send prayerful wishes to a person in such an artificial manner, and how would anyone feel receiving from his Rebbe good wishes in a letter that is signed with a rubber stamp?” So that was the end of that.

Moving to note is that even after, at the age of 90, the Rebbe suffered a serious stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak, he communicated his desire to be shown the letters of greetings and congratulations that were sent his followers before they were signed by a secretary on his behalf.

What motivated the Rebbe in such poor health to burden himself so, we cannot know for certain. However, the Rebbe’s argument upon rejecting the use of an artificial signature leaves us with a pretty good idea.

Fully Engaged

This story is not an isolated snapshot of a great leader. I would venture to say that it captures the essence of the Rebbe’s charisma and his successful effort to change the landscape of world Jewry. This story about the Rebbe’s signature, then, is signature Rebbe.

The Rebbe believed to his core in the value of the individual. He never lost sight of each tree in the forest and would often quote the Talmudic teaching, “He who saves an individual is as if he saved an entire world.” Indeed, as his behavior consistently demonstrated, to the Rebbe, the Talmud’s “as if” was a figure of speech; in his eyes every individual was an entire world.

It’s no wonder that the sentiment most commonly articulated by those who visited the Rebbe was: “When standing before him, one felt like they were the only person in the world.”

To quote Diane Abrams, wife of former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams, “The Rebbe was always focused on the other person, his sensitivity to others heightened to an incredible degree. This was one of his great powers, his great strength. When standing before him, you felt that you were the only person in the world. He never made you feel that he was greater than you; he brought out the best in you.”

The myriad of important matters on his mind notwithstanding, when the Rebbe met with people he was completely there and fully present.

One expression of the Rebbe’s present-ness was articulated by the dean of a yeshiva of higher education who made an interesting observation about the Rebbe’s desk.

Whenever he visited the Rebbe for a private audience, the Rebbe’s desk was absolutely clear of clutter, save for a Book of Psalms. What impressed him most about this was not the Rebbe’s orderliness, but the message he was communicating to his visitors through this effort: “Nothing in the world matters more than you at this moment.”

The clear table suggested that the Rebbe had nothing on his agenda but the people he was seeing. He was never “in the middle of something,” even though he most certainly was.

Between the Lines

Not only did the Rebbe want nothing to get in the way of his connectivity to the people he saw and wrote to, but he also wanted nothing to cloud his writers’ connectivity to him.

To this end, and at the seemingly unwarranted expense of his time, the Rebbe would open every single letter addressed to him by hand.

When asked by his well-intentioned secretaries if he might agree to use an electronic letter-opener they bought in order to save him the time 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?”

On another occasion the Rebbe told a disciple who wrote a letter on behalf of a friend (paraphrased), “Better that your friend writes to me himself next time. When I read a letter I try to read in between the lines as well.”

The Rebbe took the art of listening to a new level, focusing not only on what was said, but also on what was left unsaid; he didn’t just process requests for help, he deliberately shared in the accompanying pain of those in need.

Sweating the Small Stuff

In distinction to the philosophy of many heads of state and creators of movements, the Rebbe believed that while building a movement or advancing the overall good of the state was important, it was not more important than the people it was created for. In a pre-Passover pastoral letter written by the Rebbe in 1964, he elaborates on this theme:

This message is of particular importance to leaders of groups and movements, and especially to those who occupy the position of spiritual leaders of their communities. All too often they are involved in “world problems,” in “tremendous issues,” while only occasionally, or even quite rarely, do we find a leader who stoops to engage in “small, ordinary” problems besetting the daily life, problems which directly concern his congregants.

The more prominent the leader, the more acutely is he “compelled” to address himself to all humanity. If he is particularly imaginative, he sees himself called upon to speak also to posterity. Should he be blessed with oratorical powers, he considers it his duty to arouse the “world conscience” with all the powers of his eloquence, which make headlines, so that he comes to be regarded as a leader of leaders and the voice of spokesmen, who envy his “public image” and seek to emulate him and even outdo him.

Responding to the leader, the follower is often carried away, and he joins the leader in offering wise counsel to various governments on matters of policy, and to all mankind—on matters of good conduct, so as to ensure the happiness of all future generations. After engaging in such lofty resolutions, it would hardly be “fitting” to sound the alarm on ordinary problems in daily life.

The Rebbe didn’t just preach these words; he lived and embodied them. I believe that it was this attitude, the Rebbe’s trademark personal approach to every person he interacted with, and, by extension and example, the individualistic approach of his emissaries worldwide—“responding to the leader, the follower is often carried away”—that best explains Chabad’s remarkable, continued, and even disproportionate, influence on the Jewish people and the world at large.

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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ruth housman marshfield hills, MA July 5, 2011

Wings! This is a beautiful piece about a man I did not know, but I am gathering flowers on this site, from his words and insights. And his actions, because insight without acts is not where "it's at", and he knew this, from what I am learning.

The paradox that engages us all is that we are truly ONE, and yet, we are separate. There is a deep mystical truth to this perception.

To save one life, is to save the world... so we must acknowledge, the world has been saved again and again, and yet again! And so we are each of us gifted the job of being saviors, for each other.

In doing acts of tikkun there is this paradox, because we are all of us parts of what is Divine, and so having a Divine conversation with each other.

Sometimes the perception of ONE, is so deep, so true it can get scary --that perception that ALL is G_D. Beauty is also about truth.

One has to live with boundaries but with a knowledge of separate within ONE. A paradox!

Clearly Rabbi Schneerson took a journey of soul! Reply

Esther Liba Krause Passaic July 5, 2011

The Rebbe This is a beautifully written piece which captures the Rebbe's persona perfectly. Even a late-comer like me (to Lubavitch customs and authentic Torah practice) attributes her unshakable resolve to the uprightness and integrity the Rebbe displayed in all his undertakings. This is why, even now, the Rebbe remains my spiritual mentor. Really, looking around the globe at our so-called "leaders," who else is in the Rebbe's category? Reply

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