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Four Oaths

Four Oaths

A Tribute to the Lubavitcher Rebbe twenty years after his passing

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Art by Steven Hauben
Art by Steven Hauben

It was exactly twenty-five years ago today, June 4, 1989, (Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5749), when I approached a table outside of 770 Eastern Parkway and the Lubavitcher Rebbe was standing on the other side of the table. There were already about 3,000 people on line to meet the Rebbe and to receive a dollar from him to be given to tzedakah. He had started this practice a few years earlier when he stopped having extended private sessions with individuals. By this time, the Rebbe was over eighty years of age and those private sessions were too exhausting. Of course, what he was doing on that Sunday morning was quite exhausting in its own right. TheThere were about 3,000 people on line to meet the Rebbe Rebbe may have actually been awake for about forty-eight hours, because he didn't sleep on Friday nights and he didn't sleep on the night of Rosh Chodesh - in this case, Saturday night - so after forty-eight hours of being awake, he was prepared to stand on line for several hours and meet several thousand people!

Here is the substance of my conversation with the Rebbe according to an official transcript:

HL: I just saw what your shlichim, Rabbis Bisk and Chazan are doing in Italy. It is absolutely a Kiddush Hashem. Last night, my daughter Shira Yehudis got engaged.

The Rebbe: The mother's name?

HL: Alte Feiga. Shira is engaged to Yisroel Aryeh ben Dovid.

The Rebbe: Ben? (son of?)

HL: Chana Tzirel

The Rebbe gave me a dollar and said: "This should be for long life and good years. You know that the giving of the Torah is connected to the idea of the marriage of God with the Jewish people! (Shavuot was later that week.)

HL: Rebbe, one more thing: A lady in my congregation is very sick and nobody knows about it.

The Rebbe: You'll take a dollar for her; she should put it herself in a tzedakah pushke. One more dollar; that is for your work. And one more dollar for the Holy congregation.

HL: Thank you.

The Rebbe: Finally, a dollar in memory of the soul of your father. A gut chodesh and a gut Yom Tov. The shvere (father-in-law) used to say that Kaballat ha-Torah should come with joy and inner experience.

HL: Amen

The Rebbe: You will probably give a drasha?

HL: A few drashot!

The Rebbe: May the wedding be in happiness and blessing (some of the comments of the Rebbe in the above conversation have been translated by me from the Yiddish).

Who was this man? And what made him probably the most influential rabbi in modern history and perhaps in much more than modern history?

I would like to answer that question in three parts, gleaned from a reading of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's new biography of the Rebbe, a biography which I predict will become a best-seller and which everyone of us will want to read.

To frame my answer as to who the Rebbe was, let me begin by asking a question. Are we celebrating the holiday of Shavu'ot or Shevu'os?

The answer is: both

Shavu'ot means weeks and, of course, this holiday is the culmination of seven weeks of counting from the second day of Pesach. It doesn't even have a date in the Torah. It is simply counting forty-nine days, beginning with the day after the first day of Pesach, and then celebrating on the 50th day.

But it is also Shevu'os which means oaths (from the word Shevu'ah) because it is on this holiday that we celebrate the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai where they made a pledge - a shevu'ah - loudly and clearly: na'aseh v'nishma - we will do the mitzvot and then we will understand their significance.

I believe the Rebbe, of righteous memory, accepted upon himself four oaths which served as founding principles of his life.

Oath number one: Our sages say in Ethics of the Fathers: "Who is a hero? One who conquers his own inclination?" As Telushkin demonstrates, the Rebbe was by nature a private man who was interested primarily in scholarly pursuits. He didn't enjoy the limelight. By nature, he was not happy to be the center of attraction. He was much more of an inward, perhaps even introverted, person who craved time for learning and who seems to have also craved a devoted and decidedly private life with his wife, Chaya Mushka. As he once wrote, "I have no pleasure in communal activity."

After the death of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, of righteous memory, in 1950, Menachem Mendel, who would become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, tried valiantly to avoid accepting that position. He ultimately conquered himself - as a hero - and accepted upon himself theHe ultimately conquered himself responsibility of being the leader of Chabad. He became perhaps the most public and impactful personality in post-Biblical Jewish history through interacting with people, through sending shlichim all over the world, through leading Chasidim and through building a movement. He, quite literally, overcame his nature.

In our lifetime, we have seen another Jewish hero conquer herself in a similar fashion. Avital Sharansky was, by nature, a retiring and somewhat introverted person. She had no public persona whatsoever until her husband, Anatoly Sharansky, was imprisoned in the Gulag. She then overcame her nature and went out on a public campaign, meeting with presidents and kings, queens and princes, government officials and community leaders, in order to gain her husband's freedom. And when Sharansky emerged from the Gulag and came to freedom in February of 1986 and walked across that memorable bridge between East Berlin and West Berlin to meet his wife whom he had not seen since 1974, Avital, almost immediately, returned to her natural personality as a private, modest wife and soon to be mother and now grandmother.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a similar hero, when, in 1951, he became the leader of Chabad, a small movement which was headquartered in one neighborhood of one borough in New York City and was not well-known beyond it.

This man, who was by nature a private, inward looking, pious, learned Jew, turned Chabad during his four decades of leadership into the most dynamic and geographically diverse religious movement in Jewish history by heroically conquering himself. He established a world-wide movement that, although leaderless since his death, bases itself on principles of leadership that he set in motion so that in the twenty years since his passing the movement has more than doubled in size. Who is a hero? He who conquers himself. That was his first shevu'ah - oath.

His second shevu'ah was outreach. From the first moments of his leadership, he reached out to the community to serve every Jew no matter how far away he or she might be geographically or spiritually. He based himself on a very simple principle: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This was the whole Torah according to Hillel in the Talmud; the rest was commentary which must be studied. A century after Hillel, Rabbi Akiba taught: "'Love your neighbor as yourself'": this is the great principle of the Torah."

He reached out to the community to serve every Jew

This was the Lubavitcher's Rebbe's foundational principle. U'faratzta - as God promised Jacob, he would spread out to the west and east, to the north and to the south. He wanted to reach everybody: the religious and the non-religious, the chasidim and the secularists. Actually, he considered every Jew to have a potential spark of Judaism in his or her soul and all that was needed was to ignite it.

Many of you are familiar with the story of how George Rohr held his first Beginners Service on Rosh Hashanah in KJ twenty-four years ago and excitedly told the Rebbe shortly thereafter what he had done: "The Rebbe will be pleased to know that we had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services who came to us with no Jewish background". The Rebbe did not react. George, thinking that the Rebbe had not heard what he had said, repeated his words, this time in a louder voice. "We had 180 people for Rosh Hashanah services with no Jewish background." The Rebbe gently challenged him for his choice of words: "No Jewish background? Tell them that they have the background of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." (Rebbe, pp. 11-12)

Because of this, the Rebbe sent his shlichim all over the world, including to places where they would have very few - and sometimes no - peers and where their children's friends would come from homes that did not keep kosher and in which their children could not eat. The Rebbe was not afraid that the shlichim or their children might be influenced in the wrong way. He wanted to take Judaism into the world, without being stymied by the fear that contact with non-observant Jews or with non-Jews, would diminish the observance of his emissaries or lessen their religious convictions. The prevalent attitude in the most traditional Jewish circles, writes Telushkin, is to avoid, to the extent possible, the outside world and the Jews who inhabit it. The Rebbe rejected this attitude. He launched a campaign for the first time in Jewish history to reach every Jew and every Jewish community in the world. The Rebbe invented outreach. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has expressed it, "If the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, the Rebbe wished to search out every Jew in love." "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This was his foundational principle, his second oath, on which the Chabad movement rests.

There is a third oath; not only to conquer his own inclination, and not only to reach out to the secular world, but also to reach in to the world of the more observant and to touch hundreds of thousands of individuals personally. That was the reason for the hours upon hours that he spent with individuals in the first thirty years or so of his leadership and that is the reason that he continued to do it in a different way by standing outside 770 Eastern Parkway, looking people in the eye and touching them personally in ways that impacted upon their lives. He loved the individual Jew and wanted to express that love individually to every Jew with whom he came in contact.

There is a breathtaking story in this book about Diane and Bob Abrams (pp. 197-198).

Diane Abrams recalls: "We would go regularly to 770 Eastern Parkway for special occasions such as for the receiving of a piece of honey cake (lekach) on Hoshana Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot). On this holiday, there would be lines around the block with people from all over the world waiting patiently for the Rebbe to hand them a piece of cake as he stood in his sukkah. Our first child, Rachel, was ten years old at the time and we (my husband, Robert, was then serving as New York State's attorney general) desperately were hoping for another child. We had even gone to an expert doctor who said that I had less than a 5 percent chance to have another child due to my age, which was forty-eight at the time. However, we told no one about our hopes and prayers. To our great shock and surprise, when the Rebbe handed us the lekach that day, he said out of the blue: "I give you a bracha for an addition to your family within the next year." We were stunned, amazed. I kept this bracha very much in mind after that meeting, and, approximately six weeks later, I found out that I was pregnant with my second child. Great was our happiness. . . We named her Binyamina for Bob's father, and she is known as Becky.

"When we came back the next year on Hoshana Rabbah, we brought Becky with us. As soon as the Rebbe saw me holding the baby in my arms, he smiled and said, "I see you have brought the addition to the family with you." We have always wondered. How did he remember the precise words of the previous year after having seen thousands and thousands of people? That is still a mystery.

"When we thanked him for his blessing, he said to us, 'Don't thank me.' And then he pointed up to the heavens.

We found out that Becky became known in Crown Heights as 'the Rebbe's baby.'"

It was through encounters like this one with Diane and Bob and through encouraging his followers to touch the lives of the committed, to reach in to their souls and inspire them to do more mitzvoth, that the Rebbe fulfilled his third oath.

There was a fourth oath: it was the oath of optimism and faith. It is best expressed in a quotation from the Talmud which anticipates a question which each of us will be asked when we come before God after our life ends. We will be asked: "Did you expect salvation?"

The Rebbe was one who expected salvation and he inspired his followers to do no less. He always urged them to anticipate the good that is possible and to work for that good.

Think about what hasEveryone expected the Lubavitcher movement to fall apart happened since the Rebbe's traumatic death on the third day ofTamuz, 1994, twenty years ago. Everyone expected the Lubavitcher movement to fall apart. In fact, however, it is almost as if the Rebbe's spirit, after his passing, has reinvigorated the movement and given it a shot in the arm. Where does that inspiration come from? I believe it stems from the Rebbe's uncompromising optimism and incorrigible faith.

That optimism and faith was never more poignantly or powerfully revealed than in the Rebbe's response to a horrific event that took place in 1956, when Arab terrorists attacked K'far Chabad in Israel, murdered five students and a teacher and wounded ten other students.

The people in the town, most of whom had lost close family members to Nazi or Soviet violence and who were finally restarting their lives, were in shock, as was a good part of Israel in general. They wrote to the Rebbe and asked for advice on what they should do. He sent a telegram of condolence to K'far Chabad saying: "B'hemshech ha-binyan tenuchamu - by your continued building you will be comforted".

It seems to me that the Rebbe was rejecting any kind of theological explanation for this horrific act. He didn't want to explain why it happened nor did he want to simply offer words of comfort. He told the people in K'far Chabad to continue the task of building the land of Israel, in general, and their k'far in particular, and he promised them that through building would come comfort. They had to build because that would reflect optimism and faith. That would be a fulfillment of the Rebbe's fourth oath, his positive response to the question: "Did you expect salvation?"

In retrospect, it is that faith and optimism that has pulsated within the Chabad movement and inspired it since the Rebbe's death. The number of shlichim has tripled in size in the last twenty years to some four thousand couples in over one thousand communities all over the world. There are now Chabad houses in forty-eight American states and in some eighty countries around the world.

This was the legacy of a man who, by nature, wanted to live his life privately, as a scholar and as a family man, but who instead conquered himself and in the process inspired a world.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and the principal of the Ramaz School.
Steven Hauben was raised in the Bronx, and studied drawing, painting, and sculpture at the Art Students League of NY. He now lives with his family on Long Island.
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