In the book of Numbers (17:16-24) we read about the "Test of the Staffs" conducted when there were those who contested Aaron's appointment to the High Priesthood. G‑d instructed Moses to take a staff from each tribe, each inscribed with the name of the tribe's leader; Aaron's name was written on the Levite Tribe's staff. The staffs were placed overnight in the Holy of Holies. When they were removed the following morning, the entire nation beheld that Aaron's parched and lifeless staff had blossomed overnight and borne fruit, demonstrating that Aaron was G‑d's choice for High Priest.
The Torah makes it a point to mention that Aaron's was placed "amidst the staffs." The biblical commentator Rashi explains that Moses placed Aaron's staff in the middle of the pack, lest the people say that it blossomed only because he had placed it closest to the Ark and the Divine Presence. Apparently, the Jews of that generation, who had experienced G‑dliness firsthand on several occasions, understood a critical truth: merely being in the proximity of holiness can revive the dead, causing dried out sticks to blossom and yield fruit....
Being in the proximity of holiness can cause dried out sticks to blossom and yield fruitWhen Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) began expounding the teachings of Chabad Chassidism, he encountered intense opposition. Some opposed the actual teachings he was promulgating. Others respected the teachings so much that they were aghast at its mass proliferation amongst people who were not worthy of such lofty secrets of the Torah. The latter group included Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibush, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the chassidic movement), who was one of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's fiercest opponents.
At a certain point, Rabbi Schneur Zalman decided to travel to Mezhibush and debate the matter with Rabbi Baruch face-to-face. On his way, he met an elder chassid who attempted to dissuade him from continuing on his journey. "Do you know who you are going to debate?" the chassid said. "Rabbi Baruch is a blazing fire of holiness. Let me tell you an episode which I personally witnessed:
"The Baal Shem Tov was saying kiddush levanah (the monthly sanctification of the moon) and Rabbi Baruch, then a three year old child, was scampering about. The Baal Shem Tov took Baruch in his hands, pointed to the moon, and asked: 'My child, what do you see?'
"The small child responded, 'the levanah (moon), which is an acronym for lamed veit netivot hachachmah (the thirty-two paths of Divine Wisdom)!'
"Do you really want to debate such a spiritual giant?" the chassid concluded.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was not persuaded. "Had the Baal Shem Tov held a goat in his arms," he said, "the goat would have responded in similar fashion."
To be touched by holiness.
Much has been written about the Rebbe's phenomenal achievements and holiness; leaving very little for me to add. Which is a good thing, perhaps, because for me to attempt to size up the Rebbe and describe his greatness is somewhat comparable to a kindergartener writing a paper on nuclear physics.
How much more profound would be my words, if only I was still being touched by holiness?Nevertheless, the Rebbe attracted so many followers because aside for being a global leader, he also touched individual souls. There was the personal relationship the Rebbe shared with all those with whom he came in contact. Allow me to share with you what the Rebbe means to me.
The remarkable success of Chabad-Lubavitch has baffled many. Globally, it is the largest network of Jewish institutions, with outposts on every continent. Ordinary men and women, with no training, funding or preparation, move to faraway cities -- faraway in physical distance, and even further spiritually -- and successfully establish institutions and organizations which facilitate Jewish education and outreach. What is the secret of these men and women?
The skeptic might not accept the following very unscientific answer. But it is fact. In the Rebbe's presence, sticks blossom and yield fruit, and goats talk.
I can honestly say that all that I achieve, the fruits I yield and the words I speak, are all because of those few precious years when I was a stick in the Rebbe's room, a goat in his hands. My yeshiva years which I spent in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, basking in holiness and responding to its touch.
And not a day goes by when I don't ask myself the painful question: how much more fruit would I be producing, how much more profound would be my words, if only I was still being touched by holiness? How am I expected to have a positive impact on the world when I am not in the Rebbe's bosom?
But one thing is certain. We were given the mandate to change the world, to bring Moshiach; and with our own powers this objective is unachievable. We can only succeed if we remain in the presence of holiness.
If holiness doesn't touch us now, then we must reach out and touch it ourselves. We can continue living in the Rebbe's presence by studying his teachings and by following his instructions.
And with this strength we have the ability to change the world, one person at a time, one mitzvah at a time. The end goal is to bring Moshiach, when we will be touched by holiness. Again. For eternity.