An inquiry into the purpose of a farbrengen and the nature of leadership

Free translation from a talk of the Rebbe, Purim, 5743 (1983), (excerpt)

The very format of a farbrengen arouses a question: Why should hundreds of Jews including many who themselves are wise and understanding, assemble year after year to hear Torah from one individual?

The answer to this question can be understood on the basis of the following concept: A Nasi — leader of the Jewish people — must care for both the spiritual and material needs of the people. Moshe, our teacher, the first leader of the Jewish people provides a paradigm of this behavior. He gave the Jews the Torah, i.e. dealt with their spiritual needs, but also it was in his merit that the manna descended, i.e. he also tended to their material necessities. Furthermore, he brought down the manna almost an entire month before the giving of the Torah.

We see the same pattern followed by the Baal Shem Tov. First he involved himself in the material concerns of the Jewish people and only afterwards, did he tend to their spiritual needs. Thus, it can be understood that within the teachings of the Rebbeim can be found the answer to all matters which vex the Jewish people including the above question.

The question is answered in light of a story of the Alter Rebbe. Once during the first year as a Rebbe, a particularly large crowd of Chassidim came to celebrate a holiday together with the Alter Rebbe. When the Alter Rebbe saw the large crowd assembling, he sought to hide. Realizing the nature of the situation, his wife approached him and asked him to explain his behavior. He told her, “Why are they coming to me and asking me to teach them Torah?” She answered him: “They are merely coming to hear from you what you had the privilege of hearing from your teacher.” “If so,” answered the Alter Rebbe, “I will tell them more and more” and opened his window and began to recite Chassidus. Similarly, when composing the Tanya, on the title page, the Alter Rebbe emphasized that the work was not original, but, “a collection from sacred texts and sages.”

Not everyone in the community is able to give up his own pursuits, his own spiritual as well as material pursuits, in order to study Torah, “sacred texts,” and listen to other “scholars,” wading through the vast sea of Torah until he can find subjects that are appropriate for the community at large and present them in an easily accessible form. Hence, only one individual is chosen for that task.4 However, that individual must realize that since he is functioning on behalf of the entire community, hence, his level of understanding is due to them. Indeed, the Alter Rebbe explains in the Tanya, that when one Jew helps another understand a concept in the service of G‑d, it “illuminates the eyes of both,” granting an added degree of understanding to both the teacher and the student. Thus, the “receiver” gives and the “giver” receives; joining together as one.

Thus, we can see the unique quality of a farbrengen. When many Jews join together to encourage each other in the service of G‑d, each individual’s task is made easier. We see a reflection of this concept in the Talmud. Our Sages explained that two people working together can carry a greater burden than the combined sum of their individual efforts. Furthermore, the help and assistance one Jew will gain from his colleagues will not minimize his own opportunity for individual accomplishment.5 Though he will receive much from his colleagues, there remains much room for growth; for G‑d is unlimited and His service has no bounds.