Prime Minister Begin bids farewell to the Rebbe, of righteous memory. Yehudah Avner is standing on the right of the Prime Minister. (Photo: Velvel Schildkraut (Michele) Studios/Kahn family)
Prime Minister Begin bids farewell to the Rebbe, of righteous memory. Yehudah Avner is standing on the right of the Prime Minister. (Photo: Velvel Schildkraut (Michele) Studios/Kahn family)

Prime Minister Begin readied himself for his next appointment, which was a meeting with another old friend – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. Rabbi Schneerson stood at the entrance of the Lubavitch movement headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, waiting to receive his guest. Amid a blaze of photoflashes the two men embraced. The Rebbe's face was beaming as they exchanged greetings. His was an angelic face, half-curtained by a square gray beard, and topped by the trademark black fedora. On him, it seemed to have the effect of a bastion protecting the mind from iniquitous invasions.

One reporter called out, "Mr. Begin, why have you come to see the Rebbe? Surely, you being the newly elected prime minister of Israel, he should be coming to see you?"

"Why, indeed?" the prime minister responded with grace, showing an easy rapport. "A good question." And then, with an air of deep reverence, "I have come to see the Rebbe because I am en route to Washington to meet President Carter for the first time. So, it is most natural for me to want to seek the blessings of this great sage of the Jewish people."

"How great is he?" asked another reporter.

One reporter called out, "Mr. Begin, why have you come to see the Rebbe?" "Rabbi Schneerson is one of the paramount Jewish personalities of our time. His status is unique among our people. So I am certain his blessings will strengthen me as I embark on a mission of acute importance for our future."

"Would the rabbi care to comment on that?" asked yet another.

"Only to reiterate my fullest blessings," said the Rebbe, in his heavily accented English. "And also to add that I accept the honor of the prime minister's visit to me not on my own account, but in recognition of the Lubavitch movement's dedicated work in spreading the love of G‑d and His Torah among our fellow Jews, wherever they may be."

The two men closeted themselves together for a good hour, at the end of which Mr. Begin informed Rabbi Schneerson that when we returned from Washington, I, his aide, would return to brief him on how the White House talks had fared.

After the White House talks, I returned to New York to call upon the Rebbe. There, at 770 Eastern Parkway, I found myself settled with the sage in his unadorned wood-paneled chamber, where he greeted me with a beaming smile. Dog-eared Talmudic tomes and other heavy, well-thumbed volumes lined his bookshelves, representing centuries of scholarship and disputation.

We spoke in Hebrew; the Rebbe's classic, mine modern. What lured me most as we talked were the Rebbe's eyes. They were wide apart, sheltering under a heavy brow, but fine eyebrows. Their hue was the azure of the deep sea, intense and compelling, although I knew that when the Rebbe's soul turned turbulent, they could dim to an ominous grey, like a leaden sky. They exuded wisdom, awareness, kindness, and good fellowship; they were the eyes of one who could see mystery in the obvious, poetry in the mundane, and large issues in small things; eyes that captivated believers in gladness, and joy, and sacrifice.

As he dissected my account, his air of authority seemed to deepen. It came of something beyond knowledge. It was in his state of being, something he possessed in his soul which I cannot possibly begin to explain, something given to him under the chestnut and maple trees of Brooklyn rather than under the poplars and pines of Jerusalem to which, mysteriously, he had never journeyed.

After the White House talks, I returned to New York to call upon the Rebbe. I never asked him why, because I felt that he dwelt on an entirely different plane – a profoundly mystical plane, one to which I, a mere diplomat, could never aspire. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a theologian, not a political Zionist. But if Zionism is an unconditional, passionate devotion to the Land of Israel and to its security and welfare, then Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a fanatical Zionist.

My presentation, his interrogation, and his further clarification took close to three hours. By the time we finished it was nearly two in the morning. I was utterly exhausted, but not the Rebbe. He was full of vim and vigor when he said, "After listening to what you have told me I wish to communicate the following message to Mr. Begin," and he began dictating in a voice that was soft but touched with fire:

Prime Minister Begin and Mr. Yehuda Avner review a map of Israel.
Prime Minister Begin and Mr. Yehuda Avner review a map of Israel.

"By maintaining your firm stand on Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel] in the White House you have given strength to the whole of the Jewish people. You have succeeded in safeguarding the integrity of Eretz Yisroel while avoiding a confrontation with the United States. That is true Jewish statesmanship: forthright, bold, without pretense or apology. Continue to be strong and of good courage."

Then to me:

"What do I mean when I say to Mr. Begin, 'Be strong and of good courage?' I mean that the Jewish people in the Land of Israel cannot live by physical power alone. For what is physical power? It is made up of four major components: One – weaponry: do you have the weaponry to assert your physical power? Two – will: do you have the will to employ your weaponry? Three – competence: do you have the competence to employ your weaponry effectively? And four – perception: does the enemy perceive that you have the weaponry, the will, and the competence to effectively employ your physical power so as to ensure your deterrent strength?"

And then, gently, "But even if you have all of these, Reb Yehuda, but you are bereft of the spirit of 'Mi hu ze Melech hakavod? Hashem izuz v'gibor, Hashem gibor milchama' [Who is the King of glory? The L‑rd strong and mighty, the L‑rd mighty in battle] then all your physical power is doomed to fail, for it has no Jewish moral compass to sustain it."

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a theologian, not a political Zionist. At this his usually benign features became grim, and his eyes dimmed to an ominous gray when he added, "For in every generation an Amalek rises up against us, but the Almighty ensures that every tyrant in every age who seeks our destruction is himself destroyed. Am Yisrael chai [the people of Israel lives on] only by virtue of hashgocho [divine protection]. Time and again, our brethren in the land of Israel have been threatened with destruction. Time and again they have floundered and stumbled and been bled. Yet time and again, b'siyata d'Shamaya [with the Almighty's help] they have weathered every storm, overcome every hurdle, withstood every test and, at the end of the day, emerged stronger than before. That is hashgocho."

Relaxing, he fixed me with those eyes, and with a surprisingly sweet smile, said, "Now tell me, Reb Yehuda, you visit us so often yet you are not a Lubavitcher. Why?"

Still trying to absorb what he had said, I sat back, stunned at the directness of the question. It was true. This, probably, was my fifth or sixth meeting with the Rebbe. Over the years I had become a sort of unofficial liaison between the various prime ministers I served and the Lubavitch court.

Swallowing thickly, I muttered, "Maybe it is because I have met so many people who ascribe to the Rebbe powers which the Rebbe does not ascribe to himself."

Even as I said this I realized I had presumed too much, and I could hear my voice trailing away as I spoke.

The Rebbe's brows knitted, and his deep blue eyes grayed again, into something between solemnity and sadness, and he said, "Yesh k'nireh anashim hazekukim l'kobayim" [There are evidently people who are in need of crutches]. The way he said it conveyed infinite compassion.

Then, as if tracking my thoughts, he raised his palm in a gesture of reassurance, and with an encouraging smile, said, "Reb Yehuda, let me tell you what I try to do. Imagine you're looking at a candle. What you are really seeing is a mere lump of wax with a thread down its middle. So when do the thread and wax become a candle? Or, in other words, when do they fulfill the purpose for which they were created? When you put a flame to the thread, then the wax and the thread become a candle."

Then his voice flowed into the rhythmic cadence of the Talmud scholar poring over his text, so that what he said next came out as a chant:

"The wax is the body and the wick is the soul. Bring the flame of Torah to the soul, then the body will fulfill the purpose for which it was created. And that, Reb Yehuda, is what I try to do – to ignite the soul of every Jew and Jewess with the fire of Torah, with the passion of our tradition, and with the sanctity of our heritage, so that each individual will fulfill the real purpose for which he or she was created."

A buzzer had been sounding periodically, indicating that others from around the world were awaiting their turns for an audience. When I rose to bid my farewells, the Rebbe escorted me to the door, and there I asked him, "Has the Rebbe lit my candle?"

"No," he said, clasping my hand. "I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle."

I all but trembled as I left his presence.

Excerpted, with permission, from the new book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Available on Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.