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Birth and Upbringing: Childlike Vision

Birth and Upbringing: Childlike Vision

1902

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The Rebbe photographed as a young child, Nissan 1904. Courtesy of JEM.
The Rebbe photographed as a young child, Nissan 1904. Courtesy of JEM.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was born on Friday, April 18, 1902 (Nissan 11 on the Hebrew calendar) in the Ukrainian town of Nikolayev.1 His father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, was a scholar steeped in both Talmudic and Kabbalistic learning.2 His mother, Rebbetzin Chana, was an astute and aristocratic woman and the daughter of the city’s rabbi.3

Socially and politically these were turbulent times, and the Jews were subject to persecution and pogroms. Rebbetzin Chana later recalled her young son’s presence of mind during the Nikolayev pogrom of 1905: “My children and I, together with other mothers and children, hid in a pharmacy. As is normal during chaotic times, the children cried a lot. The pharmacist was fearful that the noise would expose him for sheltering Jews, placing his own life in danger. My then three-year-old son walked around the room and quieted all the children. This was a remarkable scene. We could not talk because voices could be heard outside, so he silently motioned to them and gestured with his hands to keep quiet, calming each child in a different manner.”4

“A quiet child, with a high forehead, a serious face, and luminous bright eyes... interested in everything.”

In 1909, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was appointed as the chassidic rabbi of Yekatrinislav (present day Dnepropetrovsk), a large urban center whose Jewish community was tens of thousands strong. Though he was officially the chassidic rabbi, he earned the respect of the city’s other rabbis and was universally respected among Jews of all stripes, including those who initially opposed his appointment. The welcoming grace that the Rebbe characteristically extended to people from all walks of life reflects the formative influence of his father’s leadership.5 Later, during the Soviet period, when the other rabbis had either passed away or left the country, R. Levi Yitzchak remained as the sole rabbi of Yekatrinislav.6

Among the Rebbe’s school mates in Yekatrinislav was his cousin, Avraham Shlonsky. Avraham’s younger sister, Verdina, later described the atmosphere in the Schneerson home as distinctly regal. The Rabbi and his wife were “like a king and queen - so beautiful, esthetic, musical and pure...” She was “beautiful, elegant and sociable,” he was “majestic and handsome,” and their children too were “all beautiful and pure.” According to both Shlonsky siblings, the doors and windows of the Schneerson home were wide open to the world, and yet it remained a bastion of chassidic piety. Verdina remembered the oldest boy in particular as “a quiet child, with a high forehead, a serious face, and luminous bright eyes... interested in everything.” 7

This child would grow up to become the Rebbe, a leader who saw in the bright eyes of every child the potential to change the entire world for good. Children, the Rebbe observed, have a strong sense of themselves as the center of the universe. They are convinced that everything and everyone, including their own parents, exists only to serve them. Self-centeredness often has negative implications. But the Rebbe emphasized its positive essence: the sense that every individual plays an absolutely central role in the purpose of creation. The purpose of education, the Rebbe taught, is to direct this innate conviction toward its proper expression. Nothing is without significance. Everything has a real, even cosmic effect. As grounds for absolute responsibility, rather than absolute entitlement, the self-centered vision of a child is something for every adult to emulate.8 As the sages taught, “Every person is obligated to say: For my sake was the world created.”9

As grounds for absolute responsibility, rather than absolute entitlement, the self-centered vision of a child is something for every adult to emulate.

From the very start of his leadership the Rebbe insisted that the future of the Jewish people lay in the hearts and minds of children and youth, and also highlighted many other areas in which children excel.10 Many of his initiatives were specifically directed at children, inspiring them as individuals and empowering them to inspire both their peers and their elders. In 1980 the Rebbe encouraged the establishment Tzivos Hashem - “The Army of Hashem,” a children’s organization with a mission to bring redemption to the world.11 Several times a year he addressed special children's rallies. With utter seriousness he spoke to them in their language, expressing his regard for them as full-fledged participants in the great scheme of human life.12

The persecutions that the Rebbe experienced in his own childhood did not crush his sense of self, but informed his determination to forge an incalculably better tomorrow. “From the day I went to school, and even earlier than that,” he later wrote, “a vision of the future redemption began to form in my imagination - the redemption of the Jewish people from their final exile; a redemption through which all the torments of the exile, the persecutions and the massacres, would be understood…” Ultimate redemption, the Rebbe concluded, will liberate us from the constraints of human perception through the disclosure of inconceivable good.13

Footnotes
1.
The Rebbe’s birth date was registered in the Jewish communal records of the city. For a facsimile see Rapoport, The Afterlife of Scholarship, figure 5. See also Ibid., note 50.
2.
For more about the life of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak see here.
3.
For more about the life of Rebbetzin Chana see here.
5.
In her memoirs Rebbetzin Chana recalls many episodes illustrating the respect Rabbi Levi Yitzchak earned despite the frictious communal politics he often contended with.
6.
See Yaakov Goldbourt and Zvi Harkavi, Sefer Yeḳaṭerinoslav-Dnepropeṭrovsk (Irgun yotsʼe Yeḳaṭerinoslav-Dnepropeṭrovsḳ be-Yiśraʼel, Jerusalem 1972), pages 37 and 115.
7.
From an article published in the Israeli Newspaper Maariv, March 25th 1977. For Avraham Shlonsky’s memories of life in Yekatrinoslav, see Sefer Yeḳaṭerinoslav-Dnepropeṭrovsk, pages 84-85.
8.
Hitvaduyot 5750 Vol. 2, appendix to the talk of Shabbat parshat Vayechi, page 139.
9.
Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5.
10.
See for example the talk delivered on the 18th of Elul 1951, Torat Menachem Vol. 3, page 303-304
11.
A video of the Rebbe’s original address encouraging this initiative is viewable here.
12.
For more videos of the Rebbe speaking to children and attending children’s rallys see here.
13.
Igrot Vol. 12, page 414. Letter written on the Rebbe’s 1966 birthday to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, then president of Israel.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.