That the Rebbe was a titanic genius is known. That he could communicate in myriad languages is known.
That he maintained relationships and correspondences with leading lights in the intellectual, scientific, artistic, and political realms is known. Yet these and other well-known aspects of the Rebbe have little or nothing to do with the consummate affection of his Chassidim and, for that matter, everyone who came in contact with him.
One has to switch from the macro to the micro in order to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe’s way of being there for every Jew. Through private meetings, personal letters, the famous dollar distributions for charity, the Rebbe connected directly and profoundly with hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. And always with personal love and care.
A diary entry of one of the Lubavitch yeshiva students reports how he observed the Rebbe on a blistering hot July day in 1966 standing under the broiling sun for eight hours straight as he prayed for Jews in need at the gravesite of his father in law, the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson (at the Ohel in Queens, NY).This was hardly something unusual. Indeed, it was the Rebbe’s custom to frequent the resting place of his father in law, to intervene with G-d on behalf of the multitude of people seeking his blessings. He would bring with him bags full of letters and petitions he had received with pleas for Divine help.
As reflected in the diary, what is amazing is that the Rebbe did this in unbearable heat, standing for eight uninterrupted hours, and having not yet eaten anything that day. It was the Rebbe’s custom not to eat before visiting his father in law’s resting place.
While most people were in the mountains enjoying fresh air or in the comfort of air-conditioned rooms the Rebbe who never took a single day’s vacation was standing and praying for Jews in need.
Now this was on a Sunday. One might think that perhaps the Rebbe had rested the day before. Not so. Only two days earlier on Thursday night, the Rebbe lead a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) to commemorate the anniversary of the release of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe from Czarist prison. That celebration lasted until 3:00 am. On Friday morning, the Rebbe was already receiving visitors until ten minutes before Shabbat.
The next afternoon on Shabbat, the Rebbe again farbrenged for another four hours. And on Sunday morning he was at the resting place alone steeped in prayer with his bags of petitions and requests.
That is absolute love, far beyond just caring for another. It requires a rare degree of personal love to set aside one’s own needs and comfort in order to help the ones he loves.
As the Rebbe once responded to a troubled teenager, “I feel your pain like a mother that suffers along with her child while teething.” The Rebbe actually ached together with those seeking his help.
The Rebbe personally joined in people’s joyous occasions as well.Informed of an upcoming milestone, the birth of a child, a Bar–Bat Mitzvah, wedding, or other lifecycle event, the Rebbe would respond to each letter requesting his blessing regardless of who it was from. While the texts of these letters of blessing were standard, each one of the thousands of the life-cycle event letters would be personally signed by the Rebbe!
On many cases the Rebbe would then add a unique personal note.The following is shared by someone who received such a letter.
M. Vechtenheim from Kiryat Bialik, Israel, recalls his experience from the time when he was a 13 year old boy living on a kibbutz in Israel. At the time, the Rebbe was 75 years old, ten days after he had suffered a massive heart attack.
Among the many letters the Rebbe received while recuperating from that life-threatening heart attack, was this one in which the young boy describes himself as a secular boy living on a kibbutz in Israel who is about to turn thirteen. In his reply the Rebbe added a personal note included herein:
“Concerning what you wrote that you are from a secular family – most assuredly secularism is but a side effect, an ‘external garment’ which covers one’s true essence and substance. For surely every single one of your ancestors was a son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and a daughter of Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah), who was then followed by many generations of Jews who kept the Torah and the mitzvot. G-d gave man the choice regarding how to conduct himself, but no man has the power to change his true essence and substance.”
This to a secular Bar Mitzvah boy on a kibbutz in Israel – ten days after a massive coronary.
Fifteen years later, in 1991, when the Rebbe was 90, he led a gathering that lasted for hours where he received a seemingly endless train of people, men, women, and children, slowly making their way to him for a personal blessing, many of whom left notes and letters of petition for the Rebbe’s prayers, usually describing their needs, concerns and issues. These notes filled two large shopping bags. At the conclusion of the audience, to the dismay of his two helpless secretaries who could only watch the Rebbe bent over by this burden, the Rebbe departed carrying one bag in each hand. He insisted on carrying the petitions by himself not allowing anyone to help. These were personal messages and he alone would bear their pain.
These are but a few examples of thousands of similar episodes that tell of the Rebbe’s absolute love and personal care. And it is this love and affection that is reciprocated by all who came in contact with the Rebbe.
This is no doubt the love that can even now be felt and experienced through some 1,036 Chabad locations in the United States alone. It is the love shared by the thousands of Chabad emissaries whose life’s mission is to subordinate their own needs to those of a fellow Jew, regardless of who he or she is, without regard for their wealth, achievements, income, intellect, or degree of religious observance. And it is the secret to the success of Chabad.
Jewish people, indeed all people, crave and can discern what is genuine. But this is not enough. All people need love. The Rebbe set the standards for both. All we can do is strive to live up to them.
Adapted from Pesach Celebration Magazine by JJ Gross, a freelance writer. Published by Lubavitch of Wisconsin – Nissan 5781.