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Discovering the Rebbe

A Lesson in Positive (Writing)

June 29, 2009 8:30 AM

Recently, in preparation for a lecture I gave at a Chabad.org editorial conference, I did research on the Rebbe's approach to writing. I recalled seeing a very telling response from the Rebbe on the importance of always writing using positive terminology. It took a while to dig up the response, but it was well worth the time and effort.

We have all been drilled: always speak positively when rebuking, always request things in a positive way, don't say no so many times to your kids, etc.

Does this rule, however, apply even when discussing a theoretical subject? When you are not necessarily addressing another or asking someone to do something?

It is clear from the Rebbe's editing patterns that talking and writing positively are always an imperative. Apparently because positive writing has a beneficial influence on the reader's thought process.

This particular response – actually an edit – that I unearthed was penned by the Rebbe on the margins of a letter drafted by one of the Rebbe's secretaries (based on the Rebbe's dictation) for a dinner that was to take place on the day after Passover. The Rebbe writes on the draft: "!!!סגנון דהיפך הטוב הוא" "the wording is the opposite of good!!!"*

Here is the text the Rebbe was referring to:

Had the Jewish children in Egypt not received a Jewish education … there would be no one to liberate…

The Rebbe wrote in Hebrew how the text should be corrected—and this is the way it was translated and appeared in the final version:

…it is only because the Jewish children in Egypt received the proper Jewish education… our whole Jewish people… was liberated from Egyptian slavery…

Here is a copy of the Rebbe's comments on the letter:



Click here to read the entire letter.

___

*Note that the Rebbe wrote "the opposite of good"—another hallmark of the Rebbe's, never to say or write the word commonly used to connote "the opposite of good."

A Presidential Visit? Shazar Visits the Rebbe

June 25, 2009 5:30 AM

As of twelve years ago, Jerry Dantzic was on my radar. I had first seen his name in 1997 on the back of a picture of the Rebbe, of righteous memory, together with former President of Israel Zalman Shazar in 1973. I immediately jotted down the information from the back of the picture and later called the number, which turned out to be his office. I was told that Jerry was sick in bed and his caretaker gave me his son Grayson's number, who, she told me, ran the Jerry Dantzic Archive.

The photo on whose back I had first seen Dantzic's name in 1997. © 2009 JERRY DANTZIC ARCHIVES, All Rights Reserved
The photo on whose back I had first seen Dantzic's name in 1997. © 2009 JERRY DANTZIC ARCHIVES, All Rights Reserved

A short while later I bumped into Grayson at a gallery displaying his father's pictures at the Chassidic Art Institute run by Zev Markowitz. I came to know a gem of a person, kind and understanding, with whom I have since spent many precious hours.

Grayson brought me to his father and I subsequently wrote an article for a Hebrew magazine about his pictures. At that time I also met Grayson's mother, Cynthia, who is a photographer in her own right and an exceptional artist too.

Jerry and Grayson Dantzic (reproduction of a photo by Cynthia Dantzic)
Jerry and Grayson Dantzic (reproduction of a photo by Cynthia Dantzic)
In 2006 Jerry died, but, in Grayson's words, "Jerry is still alive via his photographs."

The pictures Jerry photographed of the Rebbe and Shazar convey the deep love that existed between the two. But the story behind the photos made an even greater impression on me. For the pictures seem to portray a meeting between the Rebbe and a President of Israel who was received with the greatest respect and honor. Yet just a few days earlier, when he arrived in Houston, only a few came to greet him at the airport. No reception, no huge gathering and no great honor. Why? Because Shazar was in fact not the sitting president of Israel.

Taking leave from office, especially from such a prestigious office, could be very painful; no more power, no more connections, the spotlight is removed and everyone who once needed you now forgets that you even exist.

That was not the case with the Rebbe. In fact, many mistakenly describe the meeting as having occurred between "the Rebbe and the Israeli President." (See here, where Jewish Educational Media dubs it the "Visit by the President of Israel.") I understand the reason behind the confusion—it certainly looks like a presidential call and that is the way the Rebbe made it feel: The President of Israel is coming.

This made a great impression on Shazar: "True friends," said Shazar afterwards in an interview with the media, "still come to speak and confer with me..."

Click here to read an overview of the visit, accompanied by photos of the event captured by the lens of Jerry Dantzic's camera.

Waiting for the Waiters to Join the Meal

June 23, 2009 12:15 PM

"In 1963, I won a raffle to travel from Israel to New York to spend the High Holidays with the Rebbe in 770 [address of and shorthand for Lubavitch World Headquarters]," says Rabbi Yekutiel Green. Thus, as the representative of the Israeli community, Rabbi Green was one of ten people invited to eat the holiday meal of Simchat Torah with the Rebbe.

At the festive meal following the fast of Yom Kippur, the Rebbe is sitting on the far right of the picture, his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, on the far left. The empty space at the head of the table is where Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, would sit during his lifetime. (Photo: Agudas Chasidei Chabad Library)
At the festive meal following the fast of Yom Kippur, the Rebbe is sitting on the far right of the picture, his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, on the far left. The empty space at the head of the table is where Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, would sit during his lifetime. (Photo: Agudas Chasidei Chabad Library)

The meal would take place in what had been the home of the Rebbe's father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. The apartment, on the second floor of Lubavitch World Headquarters, was kept the same way it had been while Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was alive and, out of holy deference, the table, too, was set up with a place setting for the previous Rebbe (see Talmud Ketubot 103a).

The Rebbe and his older brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, would also sit in the same places they did during their father-in-law's lifetime. During the meal, Rabbi Gurary would often ask the Rebbe scholarly questions, and the Rebbe would respond in a somewhat concise manner.

Many of the questions were suggested to Rabbi Gurary by Lubavitch scholars prior to the holiday. The questions were unique, about customs or intricate details of the holiday, and many of them had no natural place to be addressed other than at the holiday table. Sometimes the Rebbe would address the questions later, at large gatherings ("farbrengens") over the holiday.

(Two volumes of these conversations at the table have been published to date. Many of the conversations at that table were recorded only in the personal diaries of attendees and are still being discovered today.)

Only a small number of people could squeeze into the sixth Rebbe's apartment, and many of the guests were regulars (elderly chasidim who had no family or the like), so it was with great excitement that a yeshiva student would land the coveted job of waiter for a meal and thus be able to observe the proceedings. This honor would often be passed on from friend to friend. At the Rebbe's insistence, the yeshiva student, too, would join the meal.

"I sat at the end of the right side of the table," says Rabbi Green. He recalls sitting next to Rabbi Yehudah (Yudel) Shmotkin, an elderly Jew from Tel Aviv. "He was constantly reminding me to eat each course as quickly as possible."

This was because once the Rebbe stopped eating, everyone else would also put down their forks or spoons out of respect. But the Rebbe noticed this, and did not want anyone not to have a full portion of food. So, Rabbi Green explains, the Rebbe would eat very slowly so that everyone had time to finish eating.

Additionally, Green observes, "the Rebbe would not start eating until every last person had received their portion of food and the young waiter had sat down at the table to eat."

None of the guests, certainly not the waiter, would have been offended if the Rebbe had begun eating before them, nor would they have been bothered if they had not had their fill before the Rebbe finished eating. The food was secondary; it was a great honor to be present at the Rebbe's holiday meal and a delight to hear the Torah insights with which the Rebbe replied to the questions posed to him.

"These sensitive gestures by the Rebbe were very moving for me to observe," says Rabbi Green, "and, until today, I have implemented them at our meals at home."

A Week after the Rebbe's Heart Attack...

June 22, 2009 12:13 PM

The Rebbe took his correspondence very seriously, personally responding to most letters addressed to him, even those sent by young children. Even letters that were ostensibly standard form letters – such as the congratulatory letters the Rebbe would send to weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs – were each reviewed and personally signed by the Rebbe, and many times he would add notes, amend the title of the recipient, or the like.

Two doctors discuss the Rebbe's health situation in a makeshift doctor's office in Lubavitch World Headquarters (Photo: Levi Freidin courtesy of JEM)
Two doctors discuss the Rebbe's health situation in a makeshift doctor's office in Lubavitch World Headquarters (Photo: Levi Freidin courtesy of JEM)

I'd like to share a letter from the Rebbe written to a youngster who informed the Rebbe about his upcoming bar mitzvah. What is unique about this letter is that it was written a week after the Rebbe suffered a massive heart attack on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, 1977. For weeks following the heart attack, the Rebbe remained confined in his office-turned-hospital-room. It amazes me that, at this difficult time, the Rebbe took the time to address a small detail that the child wrote in his letter. Here is a free translation of the Rebbe's postscript to the standard bar mitzvah letter:

Regarding that which you write that "you stem from a secular family": certainly the "secular-ness" is an ancillary condition and an external "garment" that covers your essence and core. For every member of your family is the son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and the daughter of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) and, following them, tens of generations of followers of Torah and its precepts.

Only that G‑d gave Man choice with regards to his actions, however, he cannot whatsoever change the essence, the core and his truest nature.

Below is the letter in its original Hebrew.

ב"ה, בדר"ח מ"ח, תשל"ח

ברוקלין, נ.י.

האברך . . . שי'

שלום וברכה!

במענה על הודעתו ע"ד הכנסו בקרוב לגיל מצות,

הנה יה"ר מהשי"ת אשר מבן שלש עשרה למצות יגדל לבן חמש עשרה וכו' כפסק המשנה (אבות פרק ה')

ויוסיף התמדה ושקידה בלימודו בתורה בתורת הנגלה וכן בתורת החסידות ויהדר בקיום המצות. והשי"ת יצליחו להיות חסיד ירא שמים ולמדן.

בברכה.

נ.ב. לכתבו אשר "מוצאו ממשפחה חילונית" – ודאי אשר "החילוניות" היא תופעת לוי ו"לבוש" חיצוני המכסה את העיקר והעצם הנמצא בו – שהרי כל אחד (ואחת) ממשפחתו שי' – בן אברהם יצחק ויעקב (ובת שרה רבקה רחל ולאה) ולאחריהם – עשיריות דורות שומרי תורה ומצות.

אלא שנתן השם הבחירה לאדם בנוגע להנהגתו, אבל אין כלל ביכולתו לשנות את העצם, העיקר והפנימיות שלו.

The Rebbe Responds to a Feminist

June 18, 2009 4:17 PM

A simple request was submitted to Chabad.org; the dialogue that ensued turned out to be a fascinating story.

Donna Halper is a feminist who for years has written extensively on feminist issues, including a book on women in radio broadcasting: Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting.

In 1977, Donna was working at WRVR-FM in New York City when she found out that she could not have children. She wondered about her role in Judaism and her function in Jewish life. Is it not every woman's raison d'etre to have kids? If so, what now is her mission as a childless woman?

She penned a letter to the Rebbe, of righteous memory, and the Rebbe responded with a lengthy letter.

At the request of Chabad.org, Donna took the time to pen the background of the letter and what it meant and means to her. Read A Feminists Quest for a Place in Jewish Life and then the Rebbe's letter: The Childless Woman's Role in Judaism.

Donna L. Halper spinning records for WNEU (photo courtesy of Donna L. Halper)
Donna L. Halper spinning records for WNEU (photo courtesy of Donna L. Halper)

A Funeral, Continuation, Teachings Live On

June 17, 2009 3:25 PM
A view from the balcony where I was standing as the Rebbe's casket is placed in the hearse on the way to the burial site in Cambria Heights.
A view from the balcony where I was standing as the Rebbe's casket is placed in the hearse on the way to the burial site in Cambria Heights.

Barely thirteen years old, standing on the newly built balcony outside Lubavitch World Headquarters under the ominously dark skies emitting an avalanche of rain upon those of us below, I watched as tens of thousands of men, women and children gathered on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue.

That morning, waking at five-thirty to join in the daily morning prayers, I was surprised to see that the streets of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn where I lived, usually abandoned at this early hour, were full. Sadness and dread were thick in the air. My heart guided me to 770 Eastern Parkway, the focus of attention of all the followers of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

The Rebbe had passed away.

I entered the foyer leading to the Rebbe's office, the foyer where many times I had received a blessing along with a crisp dollar from the Rebbe's hand to pass on to charity. Sitting on the staircase leading to the hallway, I reflected on my privileged personal experiences, from the Rebbe responding to me directly with "l'chaim" ("to life") when I raised my glass to him at age six to participating in children's parades of Jewish pride over which he presided.

Everyone has their unique experience with the Rebbe that fostered their view on who the Rebbe was. Photo: Marc Asnin
Everyone has their unique experience with the Rebbe that fostered their view on who the Rebbe was. Photo: Marc Asnin

But who was the Rebbe? I knew the little that I had experienced firsthand. But why were so many thrown into inconsolable mourning over the passing of a ninety-two year old sage? I needed to find out...

Years have passed since that fateful day. Since then I've read every book of the Rebbe's letters and studied many of his talks. I've also had the merit to be involved in publishing many of the Rebbe's teachings and directives.

On a personal level, I've been privileged to meet with many who were frequently in the Rebbe's presence. I've heard from them about their indelible memories, and some shared with me what the Rebbe meant to them. I've also spoken to hundreds of people from all backgrounds about their experiences with the Rebbe.

Every time I study one of the Rebbe's teachings, read another of his letters or hear someone reminisce about his or her experiences with the Rebbe, I learn something new about life, about who I am, about the world around me and how all these elements are to interact.

But I still cannot describe the Rebbe.

Yes, many have described to me their personal experiences with the Rebbe, but it is just the Rebbe through their eyes, their personal impression of the Rebbe.

Every encounter, every letter, every talk, reveals a new dimension.

Will I ever truly know the Rebbe? Will I ever be able to define this monumental leader? I doubt it. But I'm picking up as many pieces as I can.

Fifteen years after the Rebbe passed away, I would like to share with you some of these pieces that I've uncovered.

I'm glad to have you joining me on this journey.

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Many have struggled to describe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. A task so daunting due to the multifariousness of the Rebbe’s personality and achievements.

Rather than attempting to describe the Rebbe, this forum will share hitherto unknown tidbits of information about his life and teachings — information that was recorded in writing, audio and video.

Join us as we explore the Rebbe’s life and teachings. Manuscripts, letters, firsthand experiences and more.
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