“Few contemporary religious leaders, certainly few contemporary Jewish religious leaders, have stimulated so much curiosity as the Rebbe of Lubavitch.He was a most unusual man: a quiet, self-effacing heir to an impeccable Hassidic pedigree. A maritime engineer educated at the Sorbonne. The master of a dozen languages. The childless father of a half-million disciples.
My own relationship with the Rebbe has been an elliptical orbit: sometimes nearer, sometimes farther, but somehow always magnetically drawn to the focal point. I will forever remain unapologetically prejudiced toward the Rebbe, not so much for his global influence as for my personal encounter with him less than three years before his passing.
I became momentarily privy to the Rebbe’s inner circle through my friendship with Rabbi Yossi Groner, the Lubavitch emissary to North Carolina, son of Rabbi Leib Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary.
My encounter with the Rebbe came just months after the demise of my second marriage and the disgraced undoing of my rabbinical career had plunged me into a black hole of depression and despondency.
Accompanied by Rabbi Groner junior and senior, my meeting with the Rebbe lasted a scant half-minute.
“Sometimes,” the Rebbe counseled me in Yiddish, “a devoted layperson can do incalculably more good than a rabbi.
“You should teach something, perhaps Talmud, even if it is to one or two people in your living room.
“They say,” the Rebbe went on, “that you were once a student of Reb Aharon Soloveichik,” invoking the name of the yeshivah teacher with whom I had had an acrimonious parting of the ways two decades earlier. How he knew, I do not know.
“I am making a gift to charity in the hope that you make peace with him.”
However inspired I might have been at the moment, a year passed, and I did not take action on the Rebbe’s counsel. It was, all told, a dismal, dark year, full of sickness and grief and self-recrimination. Traveling to New York, I again found myself a guest at the Groners’ Sabbath table.
“Have you been teaching?” Rabbi Groner prodded.
“Er, uh, it hasn’t been feasible. The situation . . .” I squirmed.
“The Rebbe said,” he admonished.
“But . . .”
“No buts. The Rebbe said!”
How could I do this? Where? When? I had not a clue. But the Rebbe said. Confused and disconcerted, at Sabbath’s end I retrieved the messages from my answering machine. As G‑d is my witness, there was the voice of a long-forgotten colleague, a rabbi in suburban Atlanta: “Marc, I’ve been thinking all Sabbath long. It’s a pity you’re back in town and not teaching. Would you consider teaching a class, say in Talmud, for my congregation?”
Let the cynics snicker. These are days of miracles and wonders. I mark the first moment of my gradual restoration to sanity and self-respect from that wondrous Sabbath in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I will forever attribute the first step of that restoration to one man who, with unfathomable intuition and faith in humanity, made a selfless, precise therapeutic intervention in my spirit, and demanded neither my soul nor my bankbook as recompense: Make peace with yourself. Put aside anger. Reconcile with your neighbor.
We must freely acknowledge that our presence has been blessed by one whose life was spent as the catalyst for so many countless acts of saving grace.
What of the reconciliation with my long-ago teacher? I must confess that I was not so quick to act on the Rebbe’s behest. Until, that is, I heard the news of the Rebbe’s passing, when you may be sure it was the very first action I took.
After all, “the Rebbe said!”
That was then. Now, let me tell you about my recent transcendent experience with the Rebbe: A few months ago, I spent a week in New York working on a project. By serendipity, my driver to the airport was a young Lubavitcher. At the sight of my yarmulke, he asked whether I had ever visited the Ohel of the Rebbe. I told him I had not, but if we had time, I would certainly like to pay my respects. Knowing that people flock to the Ohel to ask for the Rebbe’s intercession and remembering his life-saving advice for me 13 years earlier, it was the least I could do.
Arriving at the Ohel, my driver recommended that I write a pan, an acronym for pidyon nefesh, a “redemption of the soul,” to place on the Rebbe’s Ohel. What could it hurt, I thought. So, I prayed for universal peace and for the safety of my family.
Then, I asked for something out of the ordinary: Three years earlier, I had departed my congregation in Greenville under acrimonious circumstances. Many congregants were left angry and estranged. Little by little, some had forgiven me, and our relationships had slowly resumed. For others, the anger still burned.
But, the Goldbergs (name changed), with whom we were particularly close and whose friendship we cherished, stopped talking to us and refused all pleas of forgiveness — would not even answer calls, notes, e-mails, coming to the door or responding to mediators.
So, I prayed that there would be reconciliation with congregants who were still estranged and particularly for forgiveness from the Goldbergs. I dropped the shredded pan, as is the custom, on the Rebbe’s Ohel and noted that it was 6:00 pm, time to leave for the airport. Shortly thereafter, I called my wife Linda to tell her that the plane was departing on time.
“You’ll never guess who called,” Linda announced. “The Goldbergs.”
Astonished, I asked her if there had been any particular reason.
“No. An incredible surprise. They just wanted to say hello.”
“And do you remember about what time they called?””It must have been around 6:05.” I thought to myself, “How amazing! The Rebbe continues to guide and bless us. Thank you Rebbe!”
By Marc Wilson – slightly adapted from chabad.org and rebbe.org