Passing of Rebbetzin
On Wednesday, February 10, 1988 (Shevat 22, 1988)
the Rebbe’s wife of 59 years, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson,
passed away after a brief illness.
She had felt ill the night before and was brought
to the hospital, where she requested a glass of water. After reciting
the blessing “Blessed are You, G-d… by whose word all
things come into being”, she returned her soul to her Maker.
An erudite and wise woman, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka
carried the mantle of her exalted position in a most humble and
unpretentious fashion. Though she was the wife of a leader revered
by hundreds of thousands, almost nothing was known about her until
after her passing, when those who knew her felt that they could
tell of her life and personality without violating her jealously
In a farewell fit for a queen, a procession fifteen
thousand strong led by an official police motorcade accompanied
her to the Chabad cemetery in Queens, New York. There she was interred
near her father, the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.
On the very day of her burial, the Rebbe established
a charity fund in her name, which continues to this day to serve
a variety women’s social and educational purposes.
In the days and months following her passing, the
Rebbe spoke frequently on the theme, “And the living shall
take to heart”—how the passing of a person close to
oneself should prompt one to positive action, in the form of lessons
derived from that person’s life and deeds undertaken to perpetuate
his or her memory.
Childhood, marriage, work, religion, illness—things
that one thinks one knows exactly what they mean—were given
new meaning in the Rebbe’s teachings. He did the same with
the concepts of death and mourning.
The Rebbe noted that Torah law prescribes set periods
for mourning the passing of a close relative. A certain set of mourning
practices are mandated for the first day; other laws apply to the
first three days, seven days, month and year. But isn’t “mourning”
a feeling rather than an act? How, then, asked the Rebbe, can a
person be instructed to mourn? Or to reduce the intensity of his
mourning when a certain mandated "mourning period" ends?
Death, explained the Rebbe, is a phenomenon so
devastating to our sense of self that we cannot deal with it with
any of the ordinary tools of life. Only our submission to the supra-rational
law of G-d can empower us to contain our mourning and not allow
it to overwhelm our lives.
As for the concept of death itself, the Rebbe saw
death not as the end of life, but as the beginning of new, loftier
and a greater form of life. For the soul lives on. Indeed, when
the soul is freed from the limits of the physical condition, it
can express its spirituality and purity unobscured by the body.
Also: if we define life not merely as existence
but as progression and achievement, a person can live beyond the
point that the soul and body are parted. If those in the land of
the living are spurred by his passing to do positive, constructive
and G-dly deeds, than the death itself becomes a form of life.
Finally, a basic tenet of the Jewish faith is the
belief that, in the age of Moshiach, those who have died will be
restored to eternal life. Thus death is but a temporary hiatus before
a renewed, and far greater, phase of life. Indeed, the Talmud compares
death to sleep, implying that, like sleep, it is a "descent
for the sake of ascent" -- a time of foment and preparation
for a greater, more energized tomorrow.