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Not Alone: Reframing Adversity

Not Alone: Reframing Adversity

1977

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The deep bond between the Rebbe and all his chassidim was most obvious during the festive month of Tishrei. From the Holy Land, Europe and Australia, chassidim traveled en masse to experience the climactic days of awe and joy in the Rebbe’s presence. On the two days of Shemini Atzeres and Simchat Torah, when the Rebbe danced in the synagogue with the Torah scrolls, the joy rose to its ultimate crescendo.1

On the day before Shemini Atzeres the Rebbe customarily distributed honey cake to thousands of men, women and children who came to receive his blessing for a sweet new year. 1977 seemed no different. But the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, sensed that all was not well. She shared her concern with his secretariat, asking them to lighten his burden and not prolong the dancing that evening.2

In the middle of the dancing the Rebbe’s face turned suddenly pale and his gestures lost their vigor. He sat down, leaned back heavily in his chair and closed his eyes. Something was clearly wrong, and the chassidim quickly cleared the synagogue. His pulse was taken and he was offered a glass of water. But the Rebbe stoically indicated that the dancing should continue. It was later determined that he had suffered a major heart attack, but it did not prevent him from completing the last dance with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, while holding a Torah scroll. He had suffered a major heart attack, but it did not prevent him from completing the last dance with his brother-in-law.

In the face of the Rebbe’s fortitude and steadfast refusal to go to the hospital, the doctors attending him were unsure what to do. At about 5am they considered sedating and hospitalizing him against his will. But the Rebbetzin refused to allow it. In all the years she had known him, she said, “there was never an instant that he was not in total control of himself.” Then she turned to the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, “You know so many people. Can you not find a doctor for my husband?”3

Krinsky called Dr. Ira Weiss, a chicago-based cardiologist. Weiss called Dr. Louis Teichholz, asked him to rush to the Rebbe’s side, and immediately boarded a plane to New York. “On a scale of ten,” Weiss later said, the Rebbe “had the full ‘ten’ heart attack… it involved such extensive damage that in anyone’s normal medical experience one would worry about the possibility of survival.”4

Not once did the Rebbe complain about the physical pain he was suffering, but from the very outset he expressed anguish at the enforced separation from his chassidim. Every Simchat Torah the Rebbe would hold a Farbrengen, sharing Torah wisdom and inspiration, and rejoicing with his chassidim, and he didn’t want this year to be any different. But Weiss would not hear of it. “It’s clear as a bell,” he said, “that you can’t go out in this heart attack state to go out to have a farbrengen.” Instead he let the Rebbe broadcast a twenty minute farbrengen from his office in 770, following the festival’s conclusion.5

Strikingly, the Rebbe used this opportunity to frame the situation in a positive light. “For a certain reason,” the Rebbe began, “we speak after the festival’s conclusion, which allows us to use media to communicate what we say even in far away places - physically far, but obviously spiritually close, which is the main thing among Jews, being that their soul is primary and their body secondary… Thereby is formed a tie, a bond, a unity, among all those who hear this speech…” Though it seemed that circumstance had forced the Rebbe and the The Rebbe’s optimism did not leave room for complacency. Nor did it obscure the realities of the situation.chassidim apart, in truth, he asserted, they were now even more closely bound together.

Although with the conclusion of the festival period the chassidim would each be returning to their own communities, and to their personal vocations, the Rebbe emphasized that they would remain spiritually united through their joint commitment to the daily portions of Torah study he encouraged,6 and to the mitzvah campaigns that he had pioneered.7 As the allotted twenty minutes came to a close, the emotion in the Rebbe’s voice intensified, and he prayed that their actions would bring about the ultimate redemption and the ingathering of the exiles “with kindness and mercy, apparent and revealed good, very speedly.”8

This response to adversity was characteristic. The Rebbe’s optimism did not leave room for complacency. Nor did it obscure the realities of the situation. He firmly believed that G‑d does everything for the best. But until the messianic era that good will too often be hidden, and humanity is tasked to discover it. In aspects of human experience where others found only despair, the Rebbe sought out the positive dimension, and used positive language to emphasize it.9

On the first day of the month of Kislev (“Rosh Chodesh”), after just thirty eight days of convalescence, the Rebbe returned to public life. “In the subsequent fifteen years,” Weiss testified, “the Rebbe was in his full strength.” Until today, chassidim celebrate Rosh Chodesh Kislev as the day when they were united with their Rebbe “with kindness and mercy, apparent and revealed good.”10

“The path of chassidism… is the great G‑dly achievement that the rebbe is not alone and the chassidim are not alone.”11

Footnotes
1.
For descriptions of the month of Tishrei at the courts of successive Chabad rebbe’s see Mundshine, Otzer Minhagei Chabad Elul-Tishrei.
2.
Unless otherwise indicated the account here follows the diary and recollections of Rabbi Michoel Seligson, Yoman Tishrei-Kislev 5738.
3.
Krinsky’s account is viewable here.
4.
Testimony of Dr. Ira Weiss, viewable here.
5.
Mrs. Baila Olidort, Interview with Weiss, initially published at Lubavitch.com. A report of the Rebbe’s condition and the farbrengen broadcast, was also published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and is viewable here.
6.
See here.
7.
See here.
8.
For a partial transcript of this talk see Sichot Kodesh 5738, pages 157-159. The full audio recording is available here.
9.
As one of the doctors was using a syringe and needle to take a blood sample on the day following the heart attack, the Rebbe pointed out that it was not the needle that drew out the blood but the vacuum in the syringe. “A vacuum is not worthless. On the contrary, a vacuum has the power to draw with increased strength and is therefore a vessel for all matters of good and holiness.” He then instructed that since he would not be able to deliver a “sermon” this message should be repeated to the chassidim on his behalf. See Seligson, Ibid.
10.
A few weeks later the doctors allowed him to participate in a farbrengen, but used a remote monitoring system loaned by NASA to keep him under surveillance throughout. See the testimony of Weiss, here.
11.
Hayom Yom for the 22nd of Iyaar.
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.