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To Ignite the Soul

To Ignite the Soul

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Yitzhak Rabin was a straight-as-a-die agnostic, and shy to a fault. So, when on a spring day in 1972 he was kept waiting at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for his appointment with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he became fidgety.

He was distinctly uncomfortable among the multitude of bearded men bustling to and fro around him, all identically clad in black suits and fedoras, and all seemingly indifferent to the peeling paint, cracked linoleum, and indefinable odor of the Tudor-style edifice that housed the headquarters of the world Lubavitch movement.

Yitzhak Rabin was then Israel's ambassador to Washington, and his president, Zalman Shazar, had asked him to convey his greetings personally to the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson – on the occasion of the Rebbe's 70th birthday. So there Rabin sat, a blue and gold velvet bar-mitzva yarmulke perched precariously on his head, like an alien in a foreign land.

When he was finally ushered into the inner sanctum, the Rebbe's face beamed. It was an angelic face, half curtained by a square gray beard, and topped by the trademark black fedora, with the effect of a bastion that protected the mind from iniquitous invasions.


Waiting to meet the Rebbe: Yitzhack Rabin (seated, center), the then ambassador to the United States, waits for his meeting with the Rebbe at Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn. Seated on right is the Rebbe's secretary, Rabbi Hadokov. Standing (left to right): Rabbis Abraham Shemtov, Shlomo Cunin and Moshe Hecht, and the author, Yehuda Avner.

But what lured Rabin most were the eyes. They were wide apart, sheltered under heavy brows and arched over by fine eyebrows. Their hue was the azure of the deep sea, intense and compelling, exuding wisdom, awareness, kindness, and good fellowship. Yet, as I was later to learn, when the Rebbe's soul turned turbulent, they could dim into an ominous gray, like a leaden sky.

These were the eyes of one who could see mystery in the obvious, poetry in the mundane, and large issues in small things; eyes that enthralled believers until captivated in gladness, and joy, and sacrifice – all of which was wacky to the no-nonsense, secular diehard, Yitzhak Rabin.

He and the Rebbe spoke mainly of Washington affairs; but when the sage turned to things celestial, like Torah, eternity, and spiritual destiny, the ambassador's eyes glazed over. Dogmas of this sort were too inscrutable for this Palmach-bred, austere old soldier to whom reality was a physical phenomenon, not a metaphysical marvel.

Nonetheless, he was impressed. Exiting, he confided to me, "That man knows more about what's going on in Israel and the Middle East than most members of the Knesset."

President Shazar was pleased to hear of the encounter. As a youngster, Shazar had been nurtured in Lubavitch lore; and now, in the twilight of his life, he was elated to rediscover its enchantment, like some forgotten bead from a broken thread.

On his rare visits to New York he would abjure diplomatic protocol, choosing to call on the Rebbe in Brooklyn as a disciple, rather than solicit the Rebbe to call on him at the Waldorf as a head of state. This aroused the ire of members of the Israeli government and press, prompting an exasperated Shazar to exclaim one Purim eve en route to 770, while lolling in a limousine escorted by siren-shrieking NYPD outriders, "What do they want of me back home? I may be the president of Israel, but I'm also a simple hassid going to meet his rebbe. Who can object to that?"

SOME TIME later, on a balmy July day in 1977, Menachem Begin was similarly confronted. A bushy-haired reporter in a baggy suit asked him with Village Voice effrontery, "You are the newly elected prime minister of Israel, so why have you come to see Rabbi Schneerson? Surely, protocol requires he come to you."

This altercation took place on the steps of the Lubavitch headquarters, where the Rebbe was welcoming Mr. Begin amid a blaze of photo flashes. "Why, indeed?" the prime minister began with easy rapport. "A good question."

And then, with an air of deep reverence, "I have come here because I am en route to Washington to meet president Jimmy Carter for the first time. So it is most natural for me to want to seek the blessings of this great sage of the Jewish people. Rabbi Schneerson is one of the paramount Jewish personalities of our time. His status is unique among our people. So yes, certainly, his blessings will strengthen me as I embark on a mission of acute importance for our future."

"Would the rabbi care to comment on that?" asked the reporter.

He said, "Only to reiterate my fullest blessings. And to add, I accept the honor of the prime minister's visit to me not on my own account but in recognition of the Lubavitch movement's dedicated work in spreading the love of God and His Torah among our fellow Jews, wherever they be."

The two men had been friends for years, and they closeted themselves for a good hour, at the end of which Mr. Begin informed Rabbi Schneerson that I would return to New York from Washington to brief him on the White House talks.

THUS IT was that five days later I found myself ensconced alone with the Rebbe in his wood-paneled chamber, its simple furnishings antique with time-worn distinction. Dog-eared Talmud tomes and other heavy, well-thumbed volumes lined his bookshelves, redolent of centuries of scholarship and disputations conducted by generations of swaying, chanting, thumb-stabbing, skull-capped learners, inhabiting an academic world in which students don't study and teachers don't teach. Everybody learns.

We spoke in Hebrew – the Rebbe's classic, mine modern. And as he dissected my Washington report, his air of authority deepened. It came of something beyond knowledge. It was in his state of being, something he possessed in his soul, something given to him under the chestnut and maple trees of Brooklyn rather than under the poplars and pines of Jerusalem – to which, mysteriously, he had never journeyed.

The presentation, interrogation, and clarification had taken close to three hours. It was now after two in the morning, and I was exhausted. The Rebbe, full of vim and vigor, asked me to communicate the following message to Mr. Begin: "By maintaining your firm stand on Eretz Yisroel in the White House, you have given strength to the whole of the Jewish people. You have succeeded in safeguarding the integrity of Eretz Yisroel while avoiding a confrontation with the United States. That is true Jewish statesmanship: forthright, bold, without pretense, or apology. Be strong and of good courage."

He dictated this in a voice that was soft but touched with fire.

And now relaxing, he made a tent of his slender fingers, fixed me with his eyes, and said with a surprisingly sweet smile, "How come you visit us so often and appear to be so close to us, yet you never became a Lubavitcher? Why?"

I sat back stunned at the directness of the question. It was true. This probably was my third or fourth meeting with the Rebbe. Over the years I had become a sort of unofficial liaison between various Israeli prime ministers and the Lubavitch court.

Swallowing thickly, I muttered, "Maybe it is because I have met so many people who ascribe to the Rebbe powers which the Rebbe does not ascribe to himself."

Even as I spoke, I realized I had presumed too much. I could hear my voice trailing away.

The Rebbe's brows knitted, and his deep blue eyes grayed into sadness. Softly, he said, "Yesh k'nireh anoshim hazekukim l'kobayim -- There are evidently people who need crutches."

A long and pregnant pause followed. Perhaps his secret threads of perception and communication were tracking my thoughts, for what he said next answered my unspoken question.

Raising his palm in a gesture of reassurance, and with an encouraging smile, he said, "Let me tell you what I try to do. Imagine you're looking at a candle. What you are really seeing is a mere lump of wax with a thread down its middle. So when do the thread and wax become a candle? Or, in other words, when do they fulfill the purpose for which they were created? When you put a flame to the thread, then the candle becomes a candle."

As he was speaking, a rhythmic cadence crept into his voice in the manner of a talmudist poring over his text, so that what he said next came out as a chant: "The wax is the body, and the wick the soul. Ignite the soul with the fire of Torah and a person will then fulfill the purpose for which he or she was created. And that is what I try to do – to ignite the soul of our people with the fire of Torah."

A buzzer had been sounding periodically, indicating that others were awaiting their audience. So I rose and took my leave, pausing at the door to ask, "My candle – has the Rebbe lit it?"

"No," he said, clasping my hand. "I have given you the match. Only you can light your candle."

Yehuda Avner served as an advisor and speechwriter to Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, and as Israel’s Ambassador to Australia and the United Kingdom.
From The Jerusalem Post
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Sheryl New Milford, CT April 18, 2010

Yehuda Avner's new book, which includes descriptions of his meetings with the Rebbe, is The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Reply

YH November 25, 2008

great speech I heard him speak at the Banquet. He was terrific. Great delivery. Was happy to find this article which was a portion of his speech. Reply

DL November 23, 2008

Impressive. Avner is some writer! Or speaker for that matter. Was so happy to be able to read this after hearing him talk. Reply