My family’s connection with the Rebbetzin* goes back 50 years when my father became seriously ill.
All that the doctors could offer him was a new and controversial operation in Paris. Through their connection with Lubavitch in London, my parents turned to the Rebbe and came for a Yechidut – a private audience. To this day, no one knows exactly what the Rebbe said to my father; but on the strength of the brochot and encouragement given on that occasion, and without any surgical intervention, my father made a miraculous recovery.
Filled with feelings of gratitude, my father returned six months later to thank the Rebbe in person. (In spite of the fact that transatlantic travel 50 years ago was a much bigger deal than today.)
This came to the notice of the Rebbetzin, who sent a message that, ‘if they could spare the time, she would very much like to meet my parents when they next come to New York.’ Not knowing what an intensely private person she was, they had no idea how unusual it was to receive such an invitation.
When in fact they did visit her a year later, the Rebbetzin claimed that she had been ‘intrigued’ to meet them having been so touched that someone cared enough to come back for a second visit purely for the purpose of expressing thanks to the Rebbe.
Often when we pass through troubled times and receive help, but once the crisis is over all we want to do is to forget the whole unpleasant episode, and this very often includes the people who have helped us. Memories can be most painful and so the ideal of gratitude and expressing thanks often goes by the wayside.
My father’s one simple action, therefore, set in motion a deep and loving friendship between the Rebbetzin and our family that continues to permeate and enrich our lives.
I was 14 years old when my parents brought me to New York for Purim. Naturally I had heard so much about the Rebbetzin, and I was really excited to meet her. I shall never forget my first impression of a truly regal individual, immaculately groomed, wearing a black Chanel type suit and exquisite coral and gold jewelry.
She graciously led us to a beautifully set table in the center of which stood the most magnificent cake in the shape of the walls of Yerushalayim. Very proudly, she informed us that N’shei Chabad had presented this cake as shallach monot. The Rebbetzin never missed an opportunity to speak with fondness and great admiration of ‘our ladies’.
….She slowly and skillfully asked me about my life; what were my favorite subjects in school, what were my hobbies and so on. She seemed so genuinely interested in all the facets of my life that I immediately felt at ease. Indeed, one of her most outstanding characteristics, something that she shared with the Rebbe, was her ability to relate to whomever she was with at the time, no matter their age or circumstances.
Not having previously been a very keen student, I found myself for the first time, motivated to impress someone. I came away from this meeting having gained a new aim in life – to give the Rebbetzin nachat.
I started writing to her regularly, keeping her in touch with everything that I was doing. And even though I did not see her again for another six years when I came back to New York with my husband, the Rebbetzin became a major figure in my life.
After we were married, and as the children were born she would often play an active and pivotal role in our everyday existence. In addition to writing, I was telephoning her at least once a week. Over the years, the Rebbetzin took the place of the grandmothers I did not know. I came to regard her as such, something of which she was very much aware. And which, I believe, gave her very much pleasure.
Although she was a woman in her seventies and eighties when I knew her, I would value her practical advice on just about everything – from the children’s education, to household matters, to fashion, as she was truly a woman of our times and very much of this world, sharing with the Rebbe the attribute of a ‘ladder standing on the earth, whose head reaches the heavens‘ – while her ideals and spirit were on a higher plane, her feet were planted firmly on the ground.
During my visits to New York…..she would shower us with love! Sending me home on a Thursday night with two Boston cream pies for Shabbat because she remembered that one of the children had liked it. And giving me six boxes of chocolates for my father’s 70th birthday because as she said, ‘we so want to be part of the celebration’. It was clear, that for the Rebbetzin, a relationship was not for what she could get out of it, but rather, what she could put into it.
It became more and more obvious as I got to know her better what a vital role the Rebbetzin played in the Rebbe’s life. The downstairs study of their home was full of newspapers and periodicals in several languages – Hebrew, English, Yiddish, German, French and Russian. It was the Rebbetzin who scoured these papers to bring to the Rebbe’s attention the latest news and world developments. In today’s terms, she was his ‘Goggle’ and much more!
The Rebbetzin would always refer to the Rebbe simply as ‘my husband’. She would always speak about ‘how WE do such and such, or WE like to do..’. And every time she spoke about the Rebbe, particularly in connection with his many innovative achievements, her eyes would light up and her face would glow with pride. This somehow seemed so natural and brought home to me the fact that theirs was a bond in the truest and most profound sense.
In January 1984, my relationship with the Rebbetzin was cemented and intensified further. Following injuries sustained in a fall, the Rebbetzin was in great pain and hardly seeing anyone. Over the years she had shown such constant concern for all of us that I wanted to do something, anything, to show my love for her. But what could I realistically do from such a distance?
Then I had an idea. I phoned and told her that I had no other reason to come to New York at that time, but I would come on my own if she would see me. There was an audible gasp on the other end of the line. She said, “You would come just for me?” I could hear her smiling!
I had imagined that I would stay for only an hour or so as she was weak, but to my surprise, lunch was served for us both and before I knew it, almost five hours had gone by. The next day followed much the same pattern.
Just a year before she passed away we were considering moving homes. My husband wrote a letter putting down the pros and cons and asking for the Rebbe’s advice. The Rebbe answered, “Kirztoin zugosoi shetichye shehi akeres habayis” – You should do as your wife wishes as she is the foundation of the home.
When I expressed my hesitation at making this critical decision for our family, the Rebbetzin responded with a cheerful, “Bravo, bravo! – if my husband says you can do it, then you CAN do it!”
This response given to me by the Rebbe and endorsed by the Rebbetzin, over a quarter of a century ago, has been a source of great encouragement on many occasions in my life over the years…. These words give me tremendous comfort and strength on a constant basis.
….The last time I was with the Rebbetzin was but a few days before she passed away. Although there was much happening at the time in London, and it was difficult for me to get away, I felt some sort of inexplicable sense of urgency that forced me to make the journey without delay. With hindsight I now see that visit as having been rather different from all the others in many ways. What stands out uppermost in my memory is the way in which I took my leave of her.
Since she had been unwell, I had always kissed her goodbye and she would remain seated. This time was different. It had started snowing and as I was getting into the car, I looked up. To my surprise, the Rebbetzin had come to the window. I shall never forget that scene, the snow falling gently, the Rebbetzin, a regal yet frail figure, framed in the window, waving goodbye. That picture stayed in my mind all the way home….
Shockingly, she passed away a short few days later on chof baiz shevat**.
To finish on a positive note as I know she would want:
While many of the Rebbe’s answers are given to an individual, they are often relevant to others too. The underlying message of that blessing is the Rebbe and Rebbetzin’s deep deep belief in the potential of each and every one of us to grow and develop, in our own unique and individual way, overcoming the various challenges we face.
May we continue to change the world for good, and hasten what we all pray for, the coming of Moshiach speedily!
Excerpted from the Kinus Hashluchos Banquet 5773-2013 by Louis Hager
To read the full amazing transcript of the talk, please go to www.TheRebbe.org/RebbetzinChayaMushka
*Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, zt’l, wife of the Rebbe 1901-1988
**After the Rebbetzin’s passing the Rebbe encouraged doing mitzvot in her memory and sharing the beauty of Torah and mitzvot with all Jewish people. This is the greatest tribute and honor which we can give to her. ‘Vehachai yiten el libo’ – and the living shall take to heart, is a reference to the above.