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The Rebbe and Rabin

The Rebbe and Rabin

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First encounter with Chabad: Israel Defence Force (IDF) chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, dances with Chabadniks at a Simchat Torah celebration. Photo: Milner Moshe/Israeli National Photo Library
First encounter with Chabad: Israel Defence Force (IDF) chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, dances with Chabadniks at a Simchat Torah celebration. Photo: Milner Moshe/Israeli National Photo Library

After retiring from army service in 1968, Yitzhak Rabin, new to politics at the age of forty, was appointed as the Israeli Ambassador to the United States.

Rabin was raised in a home where Jewish practice was foreign. His first encounter with Chabad was in 1966, when he was serving as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, had charged his disciples with the task of encouraging and bringing hope to the brave Israeli soldiers who were risking their lives securing Israel's borders and protecting its citizens. Rabin did not pay much attention to these strange looking men; he could only smile, though, when seeing them with their long white beards trudging through the muddy terrain, meeting soldier by soldier — encouraging them and bringing them the knowledge that G‑d is watching over His nation. It was all alien to him.

The President's Request

In March of 1972, Rabin received a special request from Israeli President Zalman Shazar to bring birthday greetings, on behalf of both the Israeli government and President Shazar personally, in honor of the Rebbe's 70th birthday. Shazar, one of the most beloved Israeli presidents, had a unique and intimate relationship with the Rebbe. Their relationship included many meetings and an extensive correspondence which started well before his presidency. In Israel, Shazar was known as the "Rebbe's Chasid."

Bashful around those whom he was unacquainted with, Rabin did not feel comfortable with the idea of meeting a rabbi he didn't know. In fact, this would be Rabin's first visit to a synagogue or meeting with any rabbi since he arrived in America four years earlier. It was with a measure of reluctance that he agreed to carry out Shazar's request.

Rabin was reserved as he approached "770" — Lubavitch World Headquarters; only uttering "Shalom" to Israeli consulate Michael Sheshar who arrived to accompany him. Sheshar was already acquainted with the Rebbe and knew what awaited Rabin. He had been a guest at 770 many times before and knew to expect an open arms welcome and possibly even a few hugs.

Rabin made sure to be punctual for his appointment with the Rebbe. When he arrived, however, the Rebbe was meeting with President Nixon's representative, the famed author and writer Herman Wouk. Rabin silently waited for his appointment in the Rebbe's secretariat's office.

The ice was finally broken when one of the many guests who had arrived to celebrate the Rebbe's birthday entered the room. Rabin arose and hugged him tightly as if he were his best of friends. "I came to celebrate the Rebbe's birthday," the tall and bearded Israeli responded when Rabin asked him what he was doing in New York. Those who observed this spectacle in wonderment later discovered that the mysterious visitor had been honored with the "Brave of Israel" badge following the Six Day War, and had become a dear friend of Rabin's.

The Audience

Ambassador Rabin was finally summoned into the Rebbe's office for his audience. During the forty-five minutes the conversation between the two covered many topics. Rabin, who after only a few minutes in the Rebbe's office felt comfortable and at ease, began telling the Rebbe his life story; how his father arrived in America in 1905 and afterwards traveled on to Israel, where Rabin was born in Jerusalem.

"It was a perfect Hebrew, but it was in an 'Ashkenazi' pronunciation, which took me time to get used to. Since I did not want to make any mistake in the understanding of what the Rebbe said, there were times when I requested that he repeat what he said," recalled Rabin regarding the language in which they communicated.

One of the topics discussed was Jewish education. "This is my main purpose," the Rebbe said. "To be active and to send all my disciples to work on Jewish education whenever and wherever it is possible." They also discussed a matter that was not yet public knowledge: the Rebbe's efforts to penetrate beyond the Iron Curtain; to reach, inspire and educate Jewish communities in various parts of the Soviet Union. The Rebbe and Rabin also discussed current events and the relationship between Israel and the United States.

Rabin told the Rebbe that as the Israeli ambassador he brings greetings to the Rebbe from the State of Israel in honor of his seventieth birthday.

The Rebbe: Do you not feel alone as the representative of the land of Israel among 120 countries and peoples that are represented in Washington?

Rabin: It is a great honor for me to represent the State of Israel in Washington even if I do feel lonely at times. More than half the countries represented in Washington do not recognize Israel, thereby removing the burden of being in contact with them. With the others, Israel has friendly relations. Israel is important to me, not what others say regarding Israel.

The Rebbe: However, the United States takes into consideration what other nations say.

Rabin: Not necessarily. And if yes, not too much. The Russian ambassador once told me, "you are a small country, but you are a proud country." Most countries are jealous of Israel.

The Rebbe: We have to realize the uniqueness of the Jewish nation.

With this the Rebbe began to explain the verse1 "A nation that will live in isolation":

"Is it by choice or by force that Israel dwells alone among other nations?" the Rebbe asked.

"It is both," the Rebbe explained. "Firstly it is a result of the Jewish people's own choice. The source of this phenomenon is their resolve to hold fast to the Torah, to the Jewish faith and tradition which has kept them unique for two thousand years. This has preserved their uniqueness despite the lack of a country of their own, while enduring persecutions and the phenomenon of the 'Wandering Jew' who was always on the move because of the inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms and, most of all, the Holocaust.

"On the other hand, the pressures from the outside also strengthened the core of Jewish belief and our loyalty to our traditions. And in instances where a Jew was embarrassed of his Judaism and tried to be what he is not, external forces forced his Judaism upon him. And this, too, prevented assimilation.

"It is thus a combination of both choice and force which has kept us 'alone' amongst the nations. A combination of the positive and the negative.

"But the first and foremost factor always was the Jewish faith, our adherence to our religion and our willingness to die, if necessary, for the sanctifying of G‑d's name. Regardless of all the persecution, the Jewish people remain faithful to their religion and tradition, and succeeded in surviving as no people anywhere in the world have proved successful in doing. They have never lost their beliefs, their hope to return to Jerusalem, and the land of Israel."

"Correct," Rabin commented. "The nations do not understand why Israel is of concern to the American Jew. But we have concern for one another because we are a 'nation who lives in solitude.' However we should not be happy with our portion."

"The Jewish nation is different than all other nations," the Rebbe said. "And the American Jew also possesses this feeling. A person has to know that even though he is an individual, every individual is also part of a certain community — the Jewish community worldwide."

The Rebbe then began to explain the phrase, "Blessed is the one who is happy with his portion":

"What does this mean? If an individual is content with what he has, what force drives him to achieve more and do better? Is there an innate contradiction between the saying: "Blessed is the one who is happy with his portion," and the nature of the human being to improve in every aspect of his life?

"The answer is that one has to be happy with what he has in terms of physical wealth. However, for the purposes of self-betterment, doing better and improving, one should never be happy with what he has. Being happy with what you have at every stage, this should not prevent you from being better — a better human being, a better Jew, always moving in the right and positive direction.

"We always prayed every day to return to Israel. And in the end, the goal will be reached,"

With these words the Rebbe concluded the audience.

Thoughts on the Audience:

In Rabin's Own Words

"His eyes were the first impression that I remember. His eyes were a calm deep blue, they penetrated deep within the person. His eyes expressed what is going on in his heart and mind. From the whole conversation, this is what stayed with me from his appearance.

"I think that from a certain standpoint we came from totally different backgrounds. He, with all his scholarly understanding in the Torah and in the values of Judaism; I, as the offspring of the land of Israel, born to a non-religious home.

"For me this was a great experience, to hear how he perceived, not necessarily from the 'halachic' perspective — although his views were certainly based on his beliefs — the meaning of 'A nation that will live in isolation'; and how it obligates us in our behavior as Jews. It does not occur often that I should speak on these topics with someone, and surely not with a person on a level like the Rebbe.

"It was a kind of discussion that you don't have with political leaders. Normally, you deal with them on more practical issues. You would not discuss with any leader such subjects as I discussed with the Rebbe.

"You cannot draw any parallels between this meeting and meetings I had with other leaders, politicians or presidents. I did not discuss these subjects with President Bush or with Chancellor Kohl, or with anybody else that I had ever met. It is a different area of interest I would say, it is more philosophical, spiritual; related mainly to the core of the existence of the Jewish people.

"This was for me a start to get to know a new approach that I did not know before. And for sure, this is when an impressive personality presented itself to me and was presented in an impressive and convincing manner.

"Here he was, a spiritual leader who had a practical approach, especially when we discussed the importance of Jewish education. A person who on the one hand lives in the world of the Torah, but has practical sense and is in tune with the realities of life everywhere in the world, and has great sensitivity for the preserving of the Jewish people, the way that he believed it has to be preserved.

"I remember the meeting very, very vividly, because it was a special meeting; a special meeting in terms of the personality of the Rebbe, and the issues the way they were discussed and explained.

"I felt that I met a unique personality, no doubt an individual who serves as a leader for a tremendous number of Jewish people who admire him and obey every bit of word that he would say.

"I came out with a sense of elation and inspiration, a sense that I've met a great leader of the Jewish people."

A Check for Israel

Yitzhak Rabin returned to Israel in 1973 and that December was elected to the Israeli Parliament. After Golda Meir's government resigned, Rabin succeeded Mrs. Meir as Prime Minister of Israel on June 2, 1974.

During a Farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) in 1976, the Rebbe announced that he would be sending a group of twenty Chassidic families to Israel to "build up the land" — ten to Jerusalem and ten to Safed.

The Chassidim, hand picked by the Rebbe, received his blessing as they embarked on their journey. The Rebbe appointed Rabbi Mordechai Mentlik, dean of the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva, as his personal emissary to accompany them to Israel. Before departing, Rabbi Mentlik met with the Rebbe many times and received detailed instructions regarding their mission.

When the Chassidim arrived, they were received by large crowds with great enthusiasm. The next day, they met with President Efraim Katzir and Prime Minister Rabin. Rabin was taken aback when Rabbi Mentlik handed him a check for ten thousand dollars. "The Rebbe sent this to you," he said. "This is to be used at your discretion for the building of the Land of Israel." Rabin, overwhelmed by this gesture, merely shrugged his shoulders. Mentlik then added: "Do not forget what the Rebbe told you regarding 'A nation that will live in isolation...'"

Footnotes
Compiled by Dovid Zaklikowski from the archives of Jewish Educational Media (JEM), Rabbi Menachem Wolf, Rabbi Yitzchok Y. Holtzman, and Kol Yisrael radio for sharing the audio file of their interview with Mr. Rabin.
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Choni Davidowitz December 25, 2007

Shluchim Very inspiring.
I am sure that if the Rebbe were with us now he would send a hundred times the amount of Chassidim to Eretz Yisrael back then. Reply

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