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The Believer

The Believer

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The following are excerpts from an account by Israeli activist, writer and former Knesset member, Geulah Cohen, of her meeting with the Rebbe. The original Hebrew version was published in the Israeli daily, Maariv, December 18, 1964.

I have been in the company of wise men, men of great learning and intelligence, men who were superior artists. But sitting opposite a true believer is quite a different matter. After having met a wise man you remain the same as before — you have become neither less of a fool nor more of a sage. The education of the man of learning hardly rubs off on you, nor does the artist endow you with any of his talents or inspiration. Not so with a believer. After having met him you are no longer the same. Though you may not have accepted his faith, you have nevertheless been embraced by it. For the true believer believes in you as well.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of Brooklyn, the spiritual leader of the World Chabad Movement, is both wise and learned, but above all he is a man of faith. And if faith be the art of truth, he is also an artist whose creation is the army of believers that he commands, the army of the Jewish faith, of the G‑d of Israel and the people of Israel.

What about the belief in the Land of Israel?

To ask the Rebbe this question I first had to get to him. Jewish legend says nothíng about how exactly the angels were received in audience by the L-rd, but had it wanted to it might well have taken its inspiration from the manner in which I managed to be received by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

First of all, as with every ordinary mortal, there is, of course, the secretary with fixed reception hours and a long waiting list, except that here the secretary does not ask you what you intend to discuss with his boss. That is a matter between you and the Rebbe himself. Here, even if you may sometimes have to wait for days on end, anybody and everybody is eventually admitted. And the reception hours are not in daytime, but at night — all the night through. The day is for learning, the night for talking.

"At 11 o'clock at night?" I repeated, when told by Rabbi Hodakov, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's secretary, that this was the time of my appointment, for I was sure I had not heard right.

"Tomorrow, at 11 p.m.," came the laconic reply over the line connecting me with the Rebbe's court in Brooklyn.

"And why not in the daytime?" When I posed this question to one of the Rebbe's followers, he looked at me as if I had come from the moon.

"During the day the Rebbe studies," came the answer, in a tone that left no room for further questions.

And indeed I found myself wondering whether this was not as it should be; whether at night the heavens and the hearts of men might not be more open, more disposed to listen; at night when the barriers are down and man is closer to the truth....

Perhaps the very fact that my thoughts were turning this way was already due to the incipient effect of the secret drug that begins to work on you, whether you want it or not, long before you actually meet the Rebbe; possibly from the moment that you decide you want to see him. However rationalistic you may be, all your skeptical questions begin to blush with shame...

The Rebbe's Court

I don't remember a single preface in any book I have read that I did not skip. But from the long preliminaries I had to go through until I actually met the Rebbe, I learned that there are some preambles one cannot do without for the simple reason that they already constitute the beginning of the story. What the Rebbe has to say may be important, but still more important, perhaps also for the Rebbe himself and the Chassidic lore of the Chabad school, is to whom, when and where he said what he did. The atmosphere around him is no less relevant than what he actually says. The "how" may matter no less and perhaps even more than the "what." The Rebbe starts off where his court begins. His parlor begins at the porch. His followers are no less part of his personality than, as the Chassidim believe, all human beings form part of G‑d. My interview therefore began the moment I entered the Rebbe's court and met his disciples.

The young men who crowded the premises, studying the Talmud, can hardly be referred to as students or disciples. Although they were sitting in front of an open book they did not look like people learning something they did not know before. They seemed more like people in a laboratory who are experimenting with the spirit and its manifestations just as others experiment with matter: combining and decomposing, designing and synthesizing. And all this is accompanied by their melodious humming. Much has been written about the Chassidic melodies, and much more will still be written about them. For they are tunes which have no end and no beginning. They seem to perpetuate the song which you sing so that someone else may continue it after you. Hearing that tune, it occurred to me that the Ten Commandments, the foundation of mankind, could never have been written and spoken according to a Chassidic melody. But it also occurred to me that mankind may not have been able to comply with this severe code had it not been for this softening melody....

Those who were not leaning over their books were standing about and talking among themselves. Perhaps they were talking about everyday things, but the expression on their faces was enough to indicate that they were like frontline soldiers exchanging a few whispered words before going into action. The commander might have been invisible, but his presence made itself felt through and through. No orders were being issued, but they might be at any moment; and everybody was ready to listen and obey.

The Rebbe's Peace Corps

I, too, was waiting, for my orders to go in to the Rebbe. The time was a quarter past eleven, half past eleven ... when will it be my turn to be called in? I was just about to ask one of the young men in the court office when a well-dressed young woman came in, with a patter of high heels, her blonde hair streaming out beneath her kerchief. Before I could see her face I could hear her half-choking voice: "Have you got an answer yet?" Instead of answering her the young man she had addressed went over to a pile of letters, pulled out the one she had written, and told her that the Rebbe's answer was right in there. The woman snatched it away, opened it and read it on the spot. For a moment her eyes froze over. There might have been tears as well of joy or of sorrow, who can tell? Leaving without a goodbye, she was back again as soon as she had gone.

"I have another question. May I ask the Rebbe another question?"

"Of course," she is told. "At any time and about anything you may wish."

Her face lights up with happiness.

"Poor woman," says the man to me after she has left. "All her life she's been going to psychiatrists, and they didn't help her at all. How could they help her if all they have is knowledge and no faith? They don't love her; they love only their books. How can one help without love?" I became curious about this young man.

He was about twenty-five, and it transpired that he had only recently returned from a trip to Australia undertaken on the Rebbe's behalf. What am I doing here? What do you mean? I have a wife and a family but one day the Rebbe told me to go on a trip and I asked no questions about where and why. Nobody questions the Rebbe. His every word is an order. He doesn't say things that might have remained unsaid or could have been said otherwise. So I took my family and went. What did I do in Australia? Whatever I was told. There are people being sent round the world to distribute food and money among the Jews, but what the Jews really need is spiritual food, a bit of love, of Yidishkeit. The Rebbe's orders were for me to go and give them love, to encourage them, to bring a little Jewishness into their souls. There is social assistance and there is First Aid for physical ailments, but we are concerned with First Aid for spiritual ills. Of course we are concerned with people's physical well-being, too. Have you heard about the 'Maccabees' who organized the defense of the Brooklyn Jews during the riots? The man who organized them, Rabbi Shraga, is one of ours.... It was a great honor for me to have been sent on a mission by the Rebbe but I am only one of many hundreds and thousands. We have a whole army here, our Peace Corps. This is our headquarters. From here the Rebbe dispatches his soldiers to the various fronts. Wherever there is a single Jew there is a front for us to fight on, with the Holy Scriptures in our hands and the love of Israel in our hearts. These are our weapons. If there is some Jewish corner in the world that is inaccessible by car, we go there on donkeys. There is nothing that can stop us. All we have in mind is that the Rebbe's orders should be carried out to the full, that we should be able to come back and report to him: 'Mission accomplished.'"

But the Peace Corps, as I am informed by the office manager, is only one of the many ramifications of the Lubavitcher Court.

The Sun Never Sets Over the Lubavitch Empire

"People used to say that the sun never sets over the British Empire, but it is already going down. Not so with the Lubavitch Empire. We are growing stronger from day to day," he said. "Have you heard about our publishing house? It is the biggest publisher of Jewish writings in the world, issuing books in over ten languages. We also have hundreds of yeshivos with some 30,000 students. Do you know our village in Israel? There'll be many more such communities. Once a week we publish an information bulletin, circulated by the ITA News Agency.

"Who are the people who come to see the Rebbe? Well, who doesn't? Chassidim and Misnagdim, men and women, tradesmen and scholars, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, leaders and statesmen; including the present President of Israel — did you know he was one of ours? As for his correspondence — again, with whom doesn't he correspond? Even with Ben Gurion. What about? That is the Rebbe's own affair. Nobody opens the letters that are addressed to him. He himself opens them all, and answers them, too.

"What do Jews ask about as a rule? About matters of religion and how to make a living; about their personal affairs and about politics. In short — about everything. There is no question he cannot answer. Where there is faith, one is able to answer every question. For him there are no important and unimportant questions. Every question calls for a true answer.... Excuse me a minute."

I hadn't heard the bell ringing, but the secretary jumped over to the phone and immediately left the room. Unwittingly I found myself adjusting the kerchief I had tied over my head in anticipation of my interview with the Rebbe. I was just in time, for the next moment the secretary was back to tell me, with the air of one presenting a most marvelous gift: "That's it now; come along with me."

He may have said some more, but I no longer heard him because I was too busy covering up for my sudden palpitations, telling myself not to be a fool, that there was no need to get excited, that this wasn't my first midnight appointment...

Midnight Appointment

When the door closed behind me and I remained alone with the Rebbe the time was twelve midnight, but the Rebbe rose from behind his desk to receive me with a smile that spelled noon rather than midnight.

If that is what you are interested in, you may see a handsome face with a kind and gracious expression, a black hat above and a gray beard below. Alternatively you may see nothing but a pair of eyes fixed upon you not in order to see but in order to discover and reveal. Then it won't be so pleasant for you if you have something to hide, if your intention was to deceive. You try to button yourself up anew, because you feel some of your buttons may have suddenly burst. Is it because the Rebbe really has magic eyes or is it because you have brought the magic along with you as a result of your nighttime experience and the purge administered by the Rebbe's disciples? But the question of cause and effect no longer matters. What matters is to try and remember why one has come in the first place. And so I start by introducing myself.

Except that it isn't necessary. He knows more about me than I might be able to tell him. He knows not only what I have done but what I ought to have done, not only what I am doing now but what I am not doing and should do. His disciples had told me that he reads the papers every day and took a lively interest in Israel, but it was a little frightening nevertheless.

"I understand that you are writing for the press now. Well, that's all right, but it isn't the main thing. The young generation, that is the main thing. One has to talk to youngsters, not write for them. Why aren't you talking to them? Why is nobody talking to them? They are waiting for someone to talk with but nobody does. They are being addressed in lofty speeches, but nobody talks to them, and then people are surprised that they remain indifferent."

The Rebbe does not speak with me in Yiddish but in Hebrew. His accent may not be the purest Sephardi, but his language is the language of the Bible. And however exciting his words, his voice remains level and calm.

"What the youth is waiting for is an order which must be given in the same voice and tone in which all the great commands were issued to the people of Israel. They may obey or they may not, but that is what they are waiting for. But there is no commander to issue that order. Where are they all? No salvation can come from those who walk in the beaten path, but only from those who break new ground. What has happened to all those who were once burning with the holy fire of a holy war that they are now dealing with such bagatelles as whether people should pay a little more or a little less income tax instead of thinking about the urgent concerns of the Jewish people as a whole? Where are those who at one time knew how to issue commands? I believe physics: that energy can never disappear. Forces that have once existed will exist forever. Therefore I believe in the everlasting force of the Jewish people. Whatever forces there may once have been in its youth still exist and need only be evoked. Once there were those who knew how to evoke them — where have they gone?

"Everybody is in a rut, following a course of dull mediocrity. And, as you know, there is nothing worse than conformity. To be carried away by the current is very much like dying. Creativity begins by swimming against the current. What is needed is someone to start swimming against the current. I am not preaching, G‑d forbid, revolt, only protest against the set pattern of conformity. If the present set-up has turned into a prison, one must find ways to break away from it. That does not mean breaking the law, but fighting against the law. Yet everybody, the entire Jewish nation, is conforming to the set pattern, and there is no one to lead the way out..."

The Rebbe's voice is filled with deep despair, but without pathos. "Have you ever calculated how many precious youth-hours are going to waste every day? The use of every such hour could work wonders. Instead of giving orders the leaders make speeches and the young people go to cafés and waste their precious irretrievable time. Do you remember them during the Sinai campaign, how they rose like one man because there was a commander whose orders were such as they had been waiting for, even if they did not know it beforehand? Just give them an order as was done during the Sinai campaign — never mind the particulars, all that matters is that it should ignite some spark as it did then — and you will see how all the latent forces will rise up again...

"It would hardly matter if everything were as it should be in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. But it isn't. All the 'ideals' and all the 'panaceas' have failed and only very, very little has so far been accomplished. Never in the 3,500-year history of the Jewish nation was there a period without any prospects; sometimes the chances were used and at other times they were allowed to escape. But never in the whole history of the Jewish people has there been a period which offered as many opportunities as the present, and never has there been a period when so few were utilized."

The Torah Also Needs a Commander

Until I suddenly heard the sharp ringing of a bell I had not realized the vast silence that dwelt in this room. The ringing came from outside; from the office, presumably. I gathered that my time had run out. But it did not occur to me to get up, and I went on sitting there as if there had been no ringing. Despite the repeated exhortation of the bell, the sound of the Rebbe's voice assured me that this was not yet the end.

"Every day that goes by is a tremendous loss. What it takes ten years to do in the Diaspora can be done in ten days in the Land of Israel, provided one gets down to the latent spark. A fire can go out, but a spark never. Our youth are asleep without knowing it, and those who address it with speeches are surprised at their not hearing. Unless they hear their own words, they are not aroused.

"What exactly are the words of our youth? I cannot tell. The words will follow with the inner force of the imperative. They must come from deep inside. The main thing is the awakening, the pioneering spirit. Once the vanguard is there, the banner may follow. Now there are many banners, but what are they all worth without anybody to walk ahead of them and carry them? Take those boys in Israel who throw stones on people who desecrate the Sabbath — I believe they have the spirit, there is something they really care about. I am not suggesting that they should throw stones, G‑d forbid, but I feel that they care, that there is something burning inside them, and that is the main thing. Then I can try to convince them that they are using the wrong means, to divert their fire into the right channels...

"On the other hand the young people who are coming from the Land of Israel to study at foreign universities — they are not pioneers. What can they learn abroad that they cannot learn in the Holy Land? If a man leaves his home to go to the North Pole or climb a mountain at the risk of his life to satisfy his thirst for knowledge one may call him a pioneer. A young man who goes from Brooklyn to the Negev and risks his life on the border may be called a pioneer. But leaving Israel to study at a university in Brooklyn — that is mere hankering after comfort, not pioneering.

"Take our yeshivah students — they study, too. But in order to teach they go everywhere in the world where there are Jews, not to sit there in a yeshivah but to open new academies. They knock on every door. They find their way to non-religious kibbutzim in Israel and to assimilated homes in the Diaspora. The spirit of Judaism is the one ideal that has not failed like all the rest. Only the values of religion persist unscathed and unaltered. So far nothing has been found to replace them. And that is precisely why no compromise is possible in this respect. Everything may be done to facilitate its teaching, but nothing to facilitate its observance. Attempts to compromise will only alienate our youth rather than bring them closer to our religion. Israel's youth want no compromises. But here, too, no leader has been found, no commander who will issue the order, as in the Sinai campaign."

I Shall Come when the Messiah Arrives

It is getting close to two o'clock. The bell has stopped ringing. It has probably given up. But ringing in my own ears was the redoubled sound of my question:

"Why won't you come and give the order?"

"My place is where my words are likely to be obeyed. Here I am being listened to, but in the Land of Israel I won't be heard. There, our youth will follow only somebody who has sprung up from its own ranks and speaks its own language. The Messiah will be a man of flesh and blood, visible and tangible, a man whom others may follow. And he will come."

"He has been on his way for quite a while," I found myself saying.

"But he is very near and we must be prepared for him at any moment, because he may have come just one moment before."

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yonatan ben nachoom london, UK November 9, 2008

what a name ge'ulah! Reply

Dan toronto, canada April 12, 2008

i found this article very insightful, i respect the rebbe a lot and belive he is a very smart and a holy man. many people try to deny the existense of g-d and i found them extremely ignorant. i thank g-d for all hes done for me Reply

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