The young man was suicidal. When he started being vocal about his feelings, telling anyone who would listen that his death was imminent, his fellow yeshivah students convinced him to inform the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, of his plans.

At a yechidut (private audience) with the Rebbe, he did just that. The Rebbe listened, and tears began to course down his cheeks. After a few minutes of just standing there and watching the Rebbe cry – the Rebbe didn't even manage to say a word – the young man ran out of the room, shaken to the core.

"Rebbe, what exactly do you do? And why are you admired by so many?"He told his friends that he no longer planned to end his life. He wanted to live. When asked what had happened in the Rebbe's room, he described the Rebbe's reaction to his words. And then he concluded:

"If I would have only known that there exists a person who cares about me so deeply, I would never have contemplated taking my life…"

"What is a rebbe?" is a question that has been asked a thousand times. But who better to ask than a rebbe himself?

That was precisely the thinking of one fellow who found himself seated across the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a private audience.

"Rebbe, what exactly do you do? And why are you admired by so many?"

"I try to be a good friend," the Rebbe replied.

Incredulous, the man blurted out, "A friend? That's all you do?!"

Unfazed, the Rebbe responded with a question of his own: "How many friends do you have?"

"I have many."

"Let me define a friend for you, and then tell me how many friends you have.

"A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself."

The Rebbe then asked with a smile, "Now, how many friends like that do you have?"

Simple yet profound.

And how strikingly reminiscent of the Midrash1 that tells us that upon Moses' birth his father chose to name him – of all names – Chaver, which means friend.

How fitting a name for Moses, our nation's first rebbe.

Becoming One

Rabbi Herbert Weiner, author of Nine-and-a-Half Mystics, once asked the Rebbe, "How do you assume responsibility for the advice you give people on all matters, business and medical included, especially when you know that your advice is often binding?"

The Rebbe replied, "When a person comes to me with a problem, this is how I try to help him. A man knows his own problem best, so one must try to unite with him and become batel, as disassociated as possible from one's own ego. Then, in concert with the other person, one tries to understand the principle of Divine Providence in his particular case."

It is said about Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, that after receiving people for yechidut, he would need a change of clothing, as the clothing he'd worn to yechidut would invariably be soaked with perspiration.

He once explained: "In the past hour, twenty people came to see me. To relate to each one's dilemma, I must divest myself of my own personality and circumstances and clothe myself in theirs. But they came to consult not with themselves but with me. So I must re-clothe myself in my own persona in order to advise them."

The intense mental and emotional experience of fully connecting with those who consulted him, to the point where he "lost" himself in them and their wellbeing, was grueling. Stepping into another person's shoes is an arduous task and can only be achieved through much labor and love.

How appropriate that the word used to describe the unique private audience experience with a rebbe is yechidut, which literally means to "become one."

The story is told that once Rabbi Shmuel's grandfather – the Mitteler Rebbe, the second Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe – abruptly stopped receiving visitors. In unprecedented fashion, he remained closeted in his room for a few days, apparently involved in a deep spiritual struggle. Later that week he emerged, and things returned to normal.

In a fascinating disclosure, the Mitteler Rebbe explained: "Whenever someone confers with me on spiritual matters, and in particular when one asks me for a path of penance, I endeavor to find their spiritual 'issue' or shortcoming, albeit on a more subtle level, in myself. In doing so, I am able to relate to the person's spiritual standing. Consequently, and being in 'his' position, so to speak, I can seek out the most appropriate spiritual remedy."

"In 'his' position, I can seek out the most appropriate spiritual remedy"He continued: "Earlier this week I was visited by an individual who sought a penitential path for a terrible sin he had committed. No matter how hard I tried, however, I could not find his transgression, however remotely, in myself. Thus, I wasn't able to help him. After grappling with this for the past few days, I was finally able to help him…"


Once, when Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (who later served as the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) and his brother, Rabbi Zalman Aharon, were children, they played a game of "Rebbe and Chassid." Shalom DovBer was close to five years of age at the time; his brother a year and four months older. So Zalman Aharon acted the role of rebbe and Shalom DovBer played the chassid.

The "chassid" complained of a deficiency in his personal spiritual service and "the Rebbe" advised him on how to correct it. To this the young Shalom DovBer said: "You're not a rebbe!"

"Why not?" asked Zalman Aharon.

"A rebbe," said the child, "would emit a sigh before replying."

A rebbe is the ultimate empathizer.

Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else; empathy is feeling bad with someone else. To be exact: "Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another's position and to experience all the sensations connected with it."

A teenage girl once wrote a letter of several pages to the Rebbe, in which she described her inner turmoil and anguish. The Rebbe responded to her letter and wrote, among other things, that he feels her pain.

She wrote back a letter and said, "Rebbe, I don't believe you. How can you feel my pain? You're not going through what I'm going through. What do you mean that you feel my pain?"

Within two hours the Rebbe answered. This was the gist of his response:

"When you will merit growing up and marrying, and will, G‑d willing, be blessed with a child, the nature of things is that during the child's first year, he or she will begins to teethe. The teething is painful and the child cries. And a mother feels that pain as if it were her own."

The Rebbe concluded: "This is how I feel your pain."

Moses' Empathy

He ventured outside the cushioned palace environment into the real worldAgain we refer to the first rebbe, Moses, whose empathy was legendary.

"It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens…"2

According to our sages,3 the day of Moses' fateful stroll was the day he was made responsible over Pharaoh's entire household.

After being doted upon and sheltered his entire life, on that day, for the first time, he ventured outside the cushioned palace environment he was accustomed to, into the real world, where injustice flourished and suffering was rampant.

On the words, "He went out to his brethren and saw their burdens" our sages comment: "He focused his eyes and heart to be distressed with them."

As he passed through the palace gates on that historic day, Moses made a conscious decision: he would not let his opulent lifestyle get in the way of him seeing and empathizing with the pain of those who were oppressed. Rather than turn a blind eye, he "focused his eyes and heart to be distressed" with them.

The results of that empathy would change the course of history.

A few years later, Moses' wife bore him a son, "...and he called him Gershom, for he said 'I was a stranger (ger) in a foreign land.'"4

I've often wondered about this strange name-choice. Wouldn't the fact that he felt like a stranger at one point of his life – "I was a stranger..." – be something he would have liked to forget? Why hold onto memories of an unpleasant past? I've been stuck in an elevator before, yet I can't say that I had the urge to call my firstborn "stuck-in-an-elevator"!

But that's precisely the point. Moses wanted to retain the sentiment of being a stranger. He wanted to remember what it felt like not to belong, or being made to feel that way by others. He never wanted to lose his ability to emphasize with the "stranger in a foreign land."

Educating Empathetic Children

He ended his tearful words, spoken from an ailing body and broken heart, with a requestThe year was 1944. The Holocaust was raging, with the Nazis bent on the complete destruction our people, G‑d forbid.

In Brooklyn, New York, at the Lubavitch headquarters located on 770 Eastern Parkway, an unusual meeting was taking place.

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, had asked his secretaries to gather the young yeshivah boys, as he wished to address them personally. They waited anxiously, unsure of what to expect.

The Rebbe, himself a victim of vicious anti-Semitism, gently began to tell the children a bit about what was happening to their brothers and sisters in Europe.

He ended his tearful words, spoken from an ailing body and broken heart, with a request. He asked the young boys to take upon themselves to refrain from indulging in extra treats that week, so as to identify, in small measure, with the pain of those who were suffering terribly.5

The following week, a repeat assembly took place, in which the Rebbe reiterated the same request, and then again the following week. Subsequently, however, such meetings were no longer necessary; by then the young boys had decided to continue with their resolutions on their own.

I heard this story from one of those children, who is today a great-grandfather. To this day, he said, he cannot bring himself to eat ice cream, the particular item he resolved to abstain from as a nine-year-old boy acting in solidarity with those who were being murdered.

A Tribe of Chiefs

We live in difficult times. Ours is a suffering world, constantly bombarded by headlines screaming of natural and unnatural disasters. Our hearts are broken, then broken again.

It's so hard not to succumb to feelings of apathy, lethargy, and indifference, just in order to survive. After all, how much empathy can a heart endure?

Ours is a generation not of chassidim, but of rebbesOn top (or on bottom) of that, ours is a world desperately in need of friends, true friends.

People are lonely. They may conceal it, or distract themselves, but they are hurting inside. They want to love and be loved.

The time has come for each of us to unleash the Rebbe within us.