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5 Surprising Answers From the Rebbe

5 Surprising Answers From the Rebbe

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My story, a collection of personal stories about the Rebbe, was recently released by JEM (Jewish Educational Media). Reading the book is a fascinating journey into the many facets of the Rebbe’s activities and influence. Here, we have collected 5 pieces of advice that might surprise—or better yet, inspire—you.

(Purchase the book here.)

The Rebbe to the Young Woman: Which Mitzvah is Right for Me?

Which mitzvah should we choose to work on? Should we choose the one that feels more natural, or should we look for the ones that force us to work harder on ourselves?

Yehudis Fishman presented this question to the Rebbe, expecting to hear the value of self-refinement, or perhaps the actualization of potential. The Rebbe’s answer was very different.

Yehudis Fishman receives a dollar from the Rebbe decades after the meeting recalled in the book.
Yehudis Fishman receives a dollar from the Rebbe decades after the meeting recalled in the book.

The Rebbe quoted from the Talmudic phrase: Chatof ve’echol, translated as: “Grab and eat!”

“We are approaching the Messianic era,” the Rebbe said. “We simply have to seize any opportunity that comes our way to do a mitzvah, whether it’s easy or difficult.”

So does a mitzvah seem too hard, or perhaps it’s too easy for you? It doesn’t matter. If an opportunity comes your way—grab it!

The Rebbe to the Yeshivah Student: Imitate the Hippies

In the 60’s, Yosef Krupnik was a young yeshivah student who wanted to start growing a beard according to established Jewish custom but was hesitant since it was not accepted in his non-Chassidic community.

The Rebbe guided him to look toward an unexpected place: the hippies. He actually found that they are similar to our ancient fathers…

“The Jewish slaves in Egypt had sunk to the forty-ninth level of impurity, but because they retained their own language, their Hebrew names, and their distinctive way of dress, they didn’t sink all the way down to the fiftieth level” the Rebbe said, quoting Midrash and Kabbalah.

He then told Krupnik:

“What about the leaders of the Hippies – aren’t they all Jewish? Don’t they all have Jewish names? Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg and Mark Rudd Rudnitsky? And don’t they wear distinctive dress? When you see a Hippie walking down the street you know who he is because of the way he dresses, which is exactly how the Egyptians identified the Jews back then. And don’t the Hippies have their own special jargon? So if they didn’t change their language or their dress or their names, who is to say that they are any less meritorious to be redeemed than were the Jews of Egypt?”

(“Throughout this soliloquy,” Krupnik recalls, “the Rebbe had a big smile on his face, and he was even chuckling. He was having fun, but I was getting the point.”)

The Rebbe went on:

“If you asked people in 1930s about a Socialist, they were likely to say, ‘He must be a Jew.’ Or if you asked people in the 1940s about a Communist, they were likely to say, ‘He must be a Jew.’ So today, outside of New York, if you ask people about the Hippies, they are going to say, ‘This is another one of those diseases that the Jews have brought upon us.’ So who says that the Hippies are unworthy of imitation in this one thing – their beards?

Needless to say, Krupink has been sporting an unshorn beard ever since.

The Rebbe to the General: This Is How to Be a Good Jew

Yossi Ben Hanan was a general in the IDF when he decided to move on. He was planning to retire and seek a career in the private sector. The chief of staff, however, wanted him to stay and to become the commander of the armored corps.

So when he met the Rebbe, he decided to ask whether the time had come for him to leave the army.

Yossi Ben Hanan receives a dollar from the Rebbe.
Yossi Ben Hanan receives a dollar from the Rebbe.

Yossi relates:

“I remember his answer to this very day. In short, this is what he said:

"You should fulfill your obligation in defending the Land – by protecting the integrity of the Land of Israel, the integrity of the Nation of Israel and the integrity of the Torah.”

“I was quite shocked – it seemed that the Rebbe was telling me that I could fulfill my obligation as a Jew by defending Israel! In other words, I should stay in the IDF.

‘I said, “Rebbe, I hope G‑d will give me the strength to defend all three.”

He answered, “Strength, you already have. But when strength is locked in a box, it is the opposite of strength. I certainly need not explain this to a general.”

Yossi went back and serve in the IDF, fulfilling his obligation with much devotion and skill.

The Rebbe to the Artist: What Art Is Really About

It’s all about perspective. Mel Alexenberg, a world renowned artist, had a meeting with the Rebbe that changed how he viewed art.

“in Hebrew,” the Rebbe pointed out, “the words for ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’ are interchangeable; that is, the letters that spell chomer, meaning “matter,” also spell ruach, meaning “spirit” –all you have to do is drop the letter mem.

“What is the difference between the spiritual and material world? It’s a matter of perspective. If you look at the world one way, you see a material world. But if you make a switch in your head, if you change the quality of your perception, if you look at things in a new, fresh way, then the very same world becomes spiritual. The spiritual world and the material world are not two worlds. The quality of your relationship to the material world makes it spiritual.”

This meeting had very real implications for Mel.

“Because of this insight, a lot of my artwork—as a matter of fact almost all of it—begins with Hebrew words and Torah concepts. It might become high-tech stuff, but it starts there.”

The Rebbe to the Rabbi: Every Jew Is “Yours”

One rabbi was asked by the Rebbe to leave the comfort of the American Jewish community and immigrate to South Africa. The idea didn’t appeal to the rabbi because he was concerned about the Jewish education his children would receive there.

Rabbi Nachman Bernhard shared memories from that one meeting that taught him what the word “mine” really means.

“[After the Rebbe insisted on me going to South Africa], I protested, ‘I left Wichita—which was a lovely place and a lovely community—to come to New York because of my children’s’ Jewish education. How can I go off to South Africa where there is nothing for them? I do realize that the great Chatam Sofer was also very concerned about the education of his many children—he was worried he could not teach them properly, being so busy with community affairs. The Jewish leaders of his day told him that in the merit of his community work, his children would turn out fine. And indeed, he produced a dynasty of Torah scholars. I do realize that this story is often cited to community rabbis. But I am no Chatam Sofer!’

“‘No, every Jew has the same merit,’ the Rebbe responded. ‘What any Jew does for his community will come back to him in the betterment of his own children.’

“I was not ready to concede, so I quoted the verse from the Song of Songs, ‘You’re making me a guardian of the vineyards, but I haven’t looked after my own vineyard!’

“The Rebbe responded: but this is your own vineyard, the Jewish community! The Rebbe repeated it twice. ‘The Jewish community is your own vineyard.’”

Images and text courtesy of JEM’s new book “My Story”. Click here to order your copy today.

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