Chapter 5: With Sensitivity,
Purpose, and Vitality
It is related that the Maggid of Mezritch once
looked at an earthenware vessel and then told his disciples that
it had been made by a man who was blind in his left eye. The disciples
checked and verified that indeed the potter was only able to see
with his right eye.
Were the Maggid’s statements an expression
of ruach hakodesh (Divinely-inspired intuition)?
No. As the Maggid pointed out, the shape of the
vessel testified to the characteristics of the person who fashioned
it. Still none of the disciples were able to make such a distinction.
Apparently, the Maggid’s ruach hakodesh had sensitized his
ordinary powers of perception, making it possible for them to ascertain
distinctions to which most ordinary people would be oblivious.
Similar concepts apply with regard to the unique
dimensions of the Rebbe’s personality. As reflected in many
of the stories in this book, the Rebbe’s conduct shows spiritual
qualities which most men have not developed. But at least as significant
are those stories which show how the Rebbe’s spiritual attainments
have shaped those dimensions of his character which are shared by
others and which enable him to reflect a unique measure of sensitivity,
purpose, and energy.
A young Russian immigrant who had migrated to in
America in 1955, entangled himself unknowingly with the law. Unfamiliar
with postal regulations, he violated several postal rules and was
subpoenaed to appear in court. The immigrant wrote the Rebbe of
his predicament and requested his counsel. The Rebbe advised him
on the issue, then added:
“Integrity in such matters is well known
among Lubavitcher chassidim. When the Tzemach Tzedek would send
a letter by messenger, he would simultaneously compensate the postal
authority for the loss in postal charges, paying the appropriate
postage to the local post-office. His chassidim have always aspired
to emulate his example.”
At a chassidic farbrengen , Rabbi Leibel Groner,
the Rebbe’s private secretary, once told the following story:
After receiving an assignment from the Rebbe, one chassid felt overwhelmed;
what the Rebbe was asking of him seemed to be beyond his capabilities.
The Rebbe noticed his hesitation and remarked softly:
“My expectations of myself are ten times beyond my capacity.”
In a similar vein, Rabbi David Hollander tells
of a brief encounter with the Rebbe when he came to receive the
lekach (honey cake) which the Rebbe customarily distributes on Erev
“May you be blessed with success both as
a Rabbi and as a private citizen,” the Rebbe told him.
“I had been contemplating leaving the rabbinate,”
related Rabbi Hollander, who had devoted scores of tireless and
active years to public service. “And so, when the Rebbe mentioned
‘private citizen’, I immediately informed him of my
“Heaven forbid!’ the Rebbe replied.
‘Look at me, I am constantly undertaking additional responsibilities.
What room is there to consider a leave or vacation?’ ”
Once, the chassidim indeed suggested to the Rebbe
that he take a brief respite from his non-stop schedule and go away
for a short vacation. As a spokesman, they chose the elder chassid,
Reb Nissan Nemanov. Reb Nissan summoned up all of his powers of
persuasion, but to no avail. He tried to explain that all the previous
Rebbeim had gone on vacation from time to time. “Why,”
he concluded, “shouldn’t the Rebbe do so as well?”
The Rebbe smiled and replied, “When the chassidim
sat and studied, the Rebbeim could go on vacation. Today, it’s
the chassidim who go on vacation, so the Rebbe must stay and study.”
The Rebbe constantly encourages the publishing
of sacred Jewish texts, particularly those of previous Lubavitcher
Rebbeim. And with a revolutionary thrust in the Torah world, he
has urged the compilation of detailed indexes for the numerous texts
In the winter of 1980, the Rebbe requested that
a comprehensive index be compiled for all the texts authored by
the founder of Lubavitch-Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. The
challenge of preparing the index was increased by the Rebbe’s
deadline: the project was to be completed within two weeks so that
it could be published for the upcoming chassidic holiday of Yud-Tes
Kislev, the anniversary of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s release from
a Czarist prison.
“We worked around the clock,” recalls
Rabbi Menashe Perman, who was involved in the project. “In
addition to our desire to meet the Rebbe’s deadline, we were
continuously inspired by the fact that the Rebbe himself edited
the material meticulously every day, verifying every entry, and
making additions and corrections.
“When the work was completed, the Rebbe instructed
us to include in the book a list of the people who had worked on
the project. We compiled a list and handed it in to the Rebbe, who
casually added his own name.
“When type-setting this page, we placed the
Rebbe’s name at the top of the page. However, the Rebbe insisted
that his name be included in alphabetical order, together with the
others. The list of contributing editors to this index is arranged
according to first names. In the middle of all the others, you can
find a familiar name which begins with the Hebrew letter Mem.”
When the Rebbe was a child, before his father was
appointed rav in Yekatrinoslav, his family lived in Nikolayev. Once
a pogrom broke out. Fearful of the danger, the Jews concealed themselves
until the peril passed. His mother took him and his brothers to
a shelter, where they joined many other women and children.
Some of the terrified children began to cry loudly.
This was very dangerous, because their cries could lead the violent
rioters to their hiding place. While everyone else was paralyzed
with fright, the Rebbe who was less than five at the time, calmly
soothed the crying children one by one with a pat on the cheek,
a finger to the mouth, and so forth, until quiet was restored.
The Rebbe’s family once spent a summer in
Balaclava, by the shore of the Black Sea in Crimea. One day, the
vacationers heard that a young boy had gone out alone in a small
boat. The boat had capsized far from shore, and the child faced
Another boy swam out to the boat and rescued the
drowning child. Hurrying to the scene of the incident, the Rebbe’s
mother discovered that the “hero” was none other than
her nine-year-old son.
The Rebbe’s father was Rabbi of the city
and his house was a constant hub of activity, but the Rebbe usually
did not allow this to disrupt his schedule. He stayed in his room,
absorbed in the study of the Torah.
One of the few times that he became involved in
public affairs was at the age of twenty, when a typhus epidemic
caused many deaths in the city. He worked day and night to aid the
victims and to recruit others to help.
As a result, he contracted the dread disease himself.
His body burned with fever, and his lips moved incessantly. In his
delirium, he spoke about the spiritual realms of Atzilus and Asiyah
and the positive virtue generated in these spheres by Jewish devotion
in the physical world.
Rabbi Yochanan Gordon served as gabbai of the shul
in “770”, and was manager of a gemach (free loan fund)
which was established in the days of the Previous Rebbe, the Rayatz.
Every year, Rabbi Gordon presented a financial report of the gemach’s
income and expenses.1
In the winter of 1950, several weeks after the
Previous Rebbe passed away, Rabbi Gordon presented the report to
the Rebbe Shlita.
Rabbi Gordon was surprised at the Rebbe’s
response to his report: “Can this be considered a gemach prepared
to meet the needs of the Jewish community in New York?”
“We have a Rebbe with a broad vision who
will demand much from us,” Rabbi Gordon told his fellow chassidim.
And indeed, the Rebbe continued to make demands of Rabbi Gordon
and the gemach. For example, years later, in response to one of
Rabbi Gordon’s annual reports, the Rebbe asked why a gemach
that was created to lend money had so much cash in reserve.
Together with millions of others, the Rebbe and
his wife Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka were uprooted from their home during
World War II. Shortly after the Nazis rose to power, the Rebbe and
the Rebbetzin moved from Berlin, where they had been living for
several years, to Paris. They fled Paris in mid-1940 on one of the
last trains before the German invasion, and arrived at Vichy, which
served as a haven for fleeing Jews.
Vichy was under Italian rule, and the Italians
were less Anti-Semitic than their German allies. Nevertheless, it
was only relatively safe; life in any location in a Nazi Europe
was dangerous and insecure for Jews.
The local hotels did not open their doors willingly
to the helpless refugees. In order to enter a hotel, a guest had
to prove that he possessed at least one hundred dollars. This was
obviously way beyond the meager means of most refugees.
The Rebbe had a single one hundred dollar bill.
He ventured out to the streets seeking needy refugees. Handing over
the bill, he directed the refugee to the hotel at which he was staying.
After the refugee was admitted, he slipped the bill back to the
Rebbe unnoticed. The Rebbe returned to the streets with the ‘door-opening’
bill, seeking another ‘customer.’
Among the many difficult regulations placed upon
the citizens of a country at war was the demand to sell all privately-owned
gold to the government. One day, a desperate Jew knocked on the
Rebbe’s door. “Please help me. Selling my gold at tremendous
loss would totally ruin me and crush my family’s ability to
survive this terrible war. Please hide my gold in your apartment.”
The Rebbe readily agreed to help a fellow Jew. The golden nuggets
were hidden in a closet in the tiny apartment.
Soon afterwards, the Italians began searching the
refugees’ dwellings for gold. The Rebbetzin worried that holding
the man’s fortune might endanger their own lives, for illegal
possession of gold was a capital offense. “Perhaps we should
transfer the gold elsewhere,” she suggested anxiously. The
Rebbe was adamant. “No. A fellow-Jew entrusted us with his
entire fortune, and it is our duty to protect it.”
Meantime, desperate efforts were being made across
the ocean by the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn,
to facilitate the immigration of the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin to
After endless and urgent telephone calls, telegrams,
and hours of effort, the necessary papers and boat tickets were
obtained for the couple. They were scheduled to embark from Portugal
and made the trip there uneventfully. Shortly before boarding the
ship to America, the Rebbe received a telegram from his father-in-law.
“Do not journey on this ship,” was the short and astounding
Without as much as a blink of an eye, the Rebbe
canceled the reservations and waited for the next departure. Later,
it was discovered that the first ship had been sunk by German U-boats.
There were no survivors. The Rebbe and the Rebbetzin, by contrast,
arrived safely in New York on the 28th of Sivan, 5701 (1941).
“In my eyes, the most amazing aspect of this
incident,” says one chassid, “is not the farsightedness
of the Previous Rebbe, but the Rebbe’s unquestioning acceptance
of the Previous Rebbe’s directive. He obtained the required
papers and tickets by a series of miracles. The Nazis were aware
of their identity, and there was no certainty of an additional departure.
Any delay could have jeopardized their possibility for escape. Yet,
as their lives hung in balance, the Rebbe followed his father-in-law’s
directive without a second thought.”
During the early morning hours on Simchas Torah,
an elderly chassid walked over to a group of young men who had taken
a brief recess from the continuous dancing in “770”.
“Tired, eh?” he commented with a smile.
There was no need for an answer; their red faces, limp hands, and
drenched clothes said it all.
“Let me tell about one Simchas Torah night
in the late 1940s right here in “770”, while the Previous
Rebbe was alive. The Rebbe Shlita we used to call him by his initials,
‘the RaMaSh’ was dancing all night, from 10 p.m. till
7 a.m., as he always did on Simchas Torah. None of us, not even
the most energetic, could keep up with him.
“At one point, one of the Previous Rebbe’s
household attendants came down to the shul. Although the Previous
Rebbe’s quarters were on the third floor of “770”,
he was worried that the noise of the singing and dancing might disturb
the Previous Rebbe’s rest.
“Someone approached the Rebbe Shlita and
whispered the attendant’s message into his ear. In response,
the Rebbe removed his shoes, and continued to dance barefoot all
night long, singing a melody softly and saying, ‘Sha…sha…sha,’
instead of the words.”
“The flight to Eretz Yisrael took many hours,”
reminisced Rabbi Shimon Goldman. “I needed to get up and stretch
my legs. As I walked down the aisle, a fellow passenger, who was
obviously an observant Jew, stopped me. ‘Excuse me, sir,’
he said. ‘You look familiar. Have we met before?’
“ ‘Have you ever lived in Crown Heights,’
I asked curiously.
“ ‘No,’ my companion replied.
“ ‘Do you have business dealings in
South Africa?’ I enquired. ‘My son runs the Chabad House
there.’ Again, my companion demurred.
“ ‘Do you live in Flatbush, New York?’
I continued. ‘I have a store in that neighborhood.’
“ ‘No, I live in Queens.’ He
pondered for a moment, and then a thought entered his mind. ‘Perhaps
you are a Lubavitcher?’ he inquired.
“ ‘Are you involved with Lubavitch
“It did not take long to put the pieces together.
I had participated in a board meeting in an effort to facilitate
government funding for Beis Rivkah, the Lubavitch school for girls.
My companion had attended the same meeting, as a consultant.
“ ‘I have a story to tell you,’
the man continued. ‘I am the vice-president of a well-known
college. Although my schedule is very demanding, I try my best to
devote some time to Jewish education. I have used my experience
with the local bureaucracy to assist Jewish institutions by preparing
the necessary applications for state and federal funding. Although
this process is long, tedious, and demands much effort, I consider
it my contribution to the future of Torah study.
“I have, thank G-d, met with success. I received
much satisfaction from seeing schools and institutions awarded necessary
funding. In recent months, however, I noticed a marked change in
governmental response to the applications I presented. My long hours
of paperwork went unrewarded, as one application after another was
turned down. I decided to investigate the reason.
“After a meticulous follow-through, I discovered
that the applications had not even reached the federal offices.
They were aborted at the state level by a Jewish clerk who deliberately
sought petty flaws in every application.
“I felt personally slighted and distressed.
Not only had many hours of labor been unproductive, but more significantly,
the schools had not received the funding.
“I often drive into Brooklyn to see the Rebbe
when he distributes charity on Sundays. One Sunday afternoon, I
arrived in Crown Heights, feeling very upset about the applications
that I had worked on.
“When my turn in line came, I briefly described
the situation to the Rebbe. I was so agitated about the matter that
I blurted out: ‘In the past, when a person stood in the way
of benefiting the Jewish people, our leaders would make sure that
they could interfere no longer. This is what I am asking regarding
that Jewish clerk….’
“The Rebbe listened patiently and then responded:
‘Even if one considers another person to be ninety percent
lacking in goodness and merit, one must nevertheless remember that
he still possesses ten percent of positive virtue.’ ”
An entry in a yeshivah student’s diary from
1952: “The Rebbe Shlita has instructed yeshivah students to
visit shuls in Crown Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods every
Shabbos and to share chassidic discourses with the congregants.
“I and the other participating students prepared
a weekly report of the shul visits. The Rebbe was pleased with the
report, but not completely satisfied. The bottom of the report had
the following response: ‘Next week’s report should be
twice as long.’
1. Rabbi Gordon would submit his report prior to the Shabbos when
we read the Torah portion of Mishpatim which includes the verse
(Exodus 22:24): “ And when you will lend money….”