One of the ways that we cope with loss is to try to ensure that the memory of our loved ones does not fade. We may seek to keep their memory alive by erecting monuments as tangible reminders of their legacy.

The Rebbe had a very particular view on how best to memorialize our loved ones, as is illustrated in this story:

The Rebbe was once asked for guidance by a family who were looking for an inscription for their deceased father’s headstone. The following is a free translation of the Rebbe’s response:

It is obvious that the inscription should be agreed upon by the offspring of the departed. It is beyond doubt that primarily they ought to contemplate the fact that the headstone is a “stone” with wording engraved upon it. However, the offspring of the departed stand as a “living” monument, and their daily deeds and behavior acts as a living inscription on a living monument. The wording of this kind of inscription depends only upon themselves. In the language of our Sages, “A son is the leg of the father.”1

On the fourth anniversary of his wife’s passing, the Rebbe shared a similar message: “Kaddish is once again recited on this day, and that elevates the soul…particularly [that of] a woman who merited that many Jewish girls carry her name and show a living example, living souls in living bodies, uninterrupted life, [girls that] are educated in her spirit and by her teachings and her example.”2

The Rebbe made a similar point regarding Machon Chana, an institution for higher learning for girls established in the name and memory of the Rebbe’s mother, Rebetzin Chana, of blessed memory.

On numerous occasions, the Rebbe made it clear that there was very special place in his heart for Machon Chana, the first institution he allowed to be named after his beloved mother.

For instance, the Rebbe once told Rabbi and Mrs. Itche Gansberg who were dorm parents at the time: “Thank you for raising my daughters.”

On a different occasion the Rebbe insisted that every one of the girls at Machon Chana be provided a Passover plate made of silver, rather than disposables, so that they feel like royalty as is befitting the “daughters” of his dear mother.

Indeed, the Rebbe made a point of visiting Machon Chana each year on Passover eve, before going home to conduct his own Seder, in order to wish the girls well. And one year as he approached the building which housed Machon Chana, the Rebbe said to its co-founder, Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, “Now I am going home.”

The Rebbe explained that since the girls follow in his mother’s footsteps, her presence is always found in Machon Chana.3

The Rebbe gave important life-affirming advice to the Polish-born rabbi, Yechezkel Besser, who made it his mission to preserve abandoned and vandalized Jewish cemeteries in his native country. When he met with Rebbetzin Besser, the Rebbe advised: “Tell your husband, he should also remember the chaim (‘the living’), not just the beit hachaim (‘the cemeteries’).” Rabbi Besser got the message and, as his biographer Warren Kozak relates in The Rabbi of 84th Street, he began to revitalize Jewish life in Poland, bringing kosher food to the country and organizing Torah classes.4

Likewise, when the Rebbe’s cousin, Yitzchak Schneerson, wrote to him in 1952, telling him of his involvement in Paris in the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, today called Memorial of the Shoah, to memorialize victims of the Holocaust, the Rebbe wrote back politely but forcefully, “Forgive me if my view is not in accordance with yours…. Now at a time when there are hundreds of thousands of living martyrs, not ‘unknown’ by any stretch, who live in abject need for physical bread, and many more in need of spiritual sustenance, the main impediment to meeting their needs is simply lack of funds. Therefore, whenever funds can be procured, this immediately creates a dilemma: Should the monies be used to erect a stone [memoriam] in a large square in Paris to remind passersby of the millions of Jews who died sanctifying G‑d’s Name, or should these monies sustain the living who are starving, either literally or figuratively, to hear the word of G‑d? The solution to your dilemma is, I believe, not in doubt.”5

It should be noted that the Rebbe’s life was deeply affected by the Holocaust and he had personally lost numerous family members during the war, including his brother Dov Ber, who was murdered by the Nazis, as were his sister-in-law and brother-in-law, Sheina and Menachem Mendel Horenstein, who were killed at the death camp of Treblinka. The Rebbe mentioned his personal losses in a postscript to a letter he wrote to a child of Holocaust survivors, who had written to him about his struggles with religious doubts:

“Needless to say, the above may be accepted intellectually…and one may perhaps say, ‘Well, it is easy for one who is not emotionally involved to give an “intellectual” explanation….’ So I ought, perhaps, to add that I, too, lost in the Holocaust very close and dear relatives such as a grandmother, brother, cousins, and others (may G‑d avenge their blood).”6

Throughout his talks and correspondence, the Rebbe continually encouraged people to take positive action to create a living legacy rather than a static one, even when the legacy proposed was a holy one.

He did the same when he experienced the loss of his own wife, at which point he repeatedly requested that his wife’s legacy be recognized through positive actions.

Indeed, although then Rebbe rarely ventured beyond his home and his office at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe personally visited the groundbreaking of the campus of a girls school that was named after her, campus ChoMeSh (acronym for Chaya Mushka Shneersohn).

The importance of commemorating his wife’s legacy through positive actions and initiatives became evident from the Rebbe’s words spoken after the shivah, when he tearfully thanked the thousands who had come to console him, saying:

“Each of those who consoled and blessed me should see blessings [in their own lives] literally with their own eyes…additional gratitude and blessings to those who initiated projects [in her honor]….”7

In response to a woman who wanted to commemorate a loved one and was unsure if she should commission a Torah scroll or an Ark for a synagogue, the Rebbe recommended a different kind of memorial8:

There is a third option, which has precedence over the other two, and that is to “adopt” a yeshiva student who is learning our eternal Torah, i.e., sponsor a student in the yeshiva, where he or she can learn our holy Torah.9

The Rebbe’s approach to honoring those who died was to do something to benefit the living—to create the kind of commemoration that would bring more goodness into the world, thus spiritually “nourishing” the souls of the departed as well.

On February 29, 1960, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake devastated the city of Agadir, Morocco, killing 12,000 people (about a third of the city’s population at the time), including some students of the local Chabad yeshiva. The Rebbe immediately dispatched a telegram to Rabbi Shaul Danan, the Chief Rabbi of Agadir, expressing solidarity:

Together with our dear Moroccan brethren, we bemoan the “fire that ravaged” the community of Agadir, and our heartfelt prayers are with you…. May G‑d bless you in your efforts of rebuilding with inner peace and magnanimity….

P.S. I have encouraged the Chabad community to increase their prayers and charity this Thursday, which is a fast day, in commemoration of the tragedy.10

At the Purim farbrengen the following week, the Rebbe spoke publicly about the disaster in Agadir. He talked about the idea that the restoration after destruction could be even more powerful than what was there prior to the destruction. He brought the example of the second tablets at Mount Sinai, which contained many additions and were “double in strength” in comparison to the first set. And he said:

Therefore, in the place of one [learning] center, there must be numerous ones, and in the place of one student there must be many more…! This growth will not only benefit the community and school but also the souls of the departed, who were sadly cut down in their prime, and who will derive gratification when the empty places on the yeshiva benches they left behind will once again be filled.11

It is only natural to want some tangible way to hold on to the memory of our departed loved ones. The Rebbe taught us that the best way to do this is not just by creating memorials of bricks and stone but by pursuing positive deeds that will benefit the departed souls, as well as create a tangible benefit for the living.