Chapter 6: To Be A Rebbe
A group of chassidim once came to R. Yisrael of
Ruzhin, complaining of a drought that was jeopardizing their crops
and their livestock. R. Yisrael led them through shaded paths in
the nearby forest until he came upon a particular tree. He motioned
to the chassidim to sit and said:
“When there was a drought in the time of
the Baal Shem Tov, he would bring his chassidim to this tree, sing
a melody, share a teaching, and rain would come.
“A generation later, when there was a drought,
my grandfather the Maggid of Mezritch would also bring his followers
to this tree. He would tell them this story of the Baal Shem Tov
and say, ‘Although I no longer remember the teaching, this
is the melody the Baal Shem would sing.’ And after he sang
the melody, rain came down.
“As for me,” R. Yisrael concluded,
“I know neither the melody nor the teaching. But I do know
the story. May relating the story bring rain.”
Reb Yisrael and his chassidim had barely emerged
from the forest before the first thunderbursts were heard.
Many of the stories in this book show the contemporary
dimension of the Rebbe’s leadership, how he is involved with
people and situations which the Rebbeim of previous generations
did not encounter. But it cannot be forgotten, that he is the heir
to the tradition of those previous Rebbeim; that he perpetuates
the uniqueness of the Rebbe-chassid relationship that existed in
previous generations. This is the focus of the present chapter.
One cloudy night during the first years after the
Rebbe assumed his position, a group of people stood outside of “770”
for Kiddush Levanah, the sanctification of the moon. These prayers
may be recited only when it is possible to see the moon clearly
during the first half of the Jewish month.1
And on this wintry night in Brooklyn, it was the
fourteenth night of the month and the Rebbe and a group of his chassidim
were watching a cloud-covered sky. As they were waiting, the Rebbe
began telling a story about a similar situation which occurred with
a Rebbe and his European chassidim almost two hundred years before.
Reb Meir of Premishlan and his followers, the Rebbe
related, had faced a similar situation. It was the last night in
which the moon could be sanctified, but it was covered with clouds.
Reb Meir turned to his followers. “How did the Jews recite
Kiddush Levanah prayers in the desert?” he asked. “Their
camp was covered by the Clouds of Glory.”
His followers sensed that his question was rhetorical
and remained silent.
Reb Meir soon continued. “Moshe Rabbeinu
took a handkerchief, waved it at the position in the sky where the
moon would be located, and the clouds parted.” And Reb Meir
took out his own handkerchief, waved it at the clouds, and they
too moved apart, revealing the full moon.
“Perhaps it can happen again,” the
Rebbe asked his own followers. “Can somebody here can do the
While the others remained silent, one elder chassid
boldly suggested that the Rebbe do it.
The Rebbe quietly went inside to his office. Seconds
later, the clouds parted to reveal the bright moon. As the Rebbe
emerged to recite the prayers, the chassidim whispered to each other
that the Rebbe must have waved a handkerchief at the clouds from
the solitude of his room.
The story continues forty years later, and thousands
of miles away, in the beautiful southern British sea resort of Bournemouth.
The Rebbe Shlita had announced a campaign to spread the practice
of Kiddush Levanah ,2 so the town’s shluchim, Rabbi and Mrs.
Alperovitz, decided to introduce this ritual by performing it during
a late-night boat cruise.
At first, interest in the cruise was small and
Rabbi Alperovitz thought of canceling the event. As they prepared
to do so, they received a message of encouragement from the Rebbe
Shlita. With dedication and enthusiasm, they increased their efforts.
On the night the cruise was scheduled, forty people came to the
harbor, despite forecasts of heavy clouds and thunderstorms.
The program was impressive and the storms held
back, but the sky remained covered with clouds and the Kiddush Levanah
prayers could not be recited. As the boat was about to head back
to the pier, Rabbi Alperovitz told the handkerchief story, and everyone
looked heavenward expectantly. Someone must have waved a handkerchief,
because the clouds began to part, revealing a beautiful, clear moon.
Rabbi Yehudah Liebush Heber and his family were
very close to the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin during World War II, when
the couple lived anonymously in Paris.
“At the beginning of the war,” related
Rabbi Heber, “I was deliberating whether to stay in Paris
or to try to immigrate to the States. This was before the Nazi invasion
of Paris, and no one could predict how devastating the future would
be. I was financially secure in Paris and concerned about the uncertainty
and difficulty of immigration.”
The Rebbe suggested that I consult with his father-in-law,
the Previous Rebbe, who was living in Poland.
“I was very surprised by this advice. Contact
with Warsaw was virtually impossible by phone or mail. “Send
a telegram,” the Rebbe suggested. This also seemed futile,
because telegrams were not being delivered either.
“ ‘You have no idea,’ the Rebbe
said, ‘what a Rebbe is. The letter and the telegram need not
be delivered in order for the Rebbe to know the question. And the
Rebbe’s response need not arrive in order for you to receive
“I promptly sat down to phrase my question
and proceeded to the Western Union office. ‘Sorry, there is
absolutely no possibility of telegraphing Poland,’ said the
clerk. ‘All the lines are down.’ I did not really expect
otherwise, but I had done what I could.
“The next morning I awoke with a sudden clarity.
Despite my previous hesitations, I suddenly felt very adamant about
leaving Paris and immigrating to the States.”
Rabbi Heber arrived in the States in 1940, a few
months before the Rebbe. His family maintained a close relationship
with the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin for many years to follow.
The Rebbe was conducting his Pesach seder. When
it was time to eat the afikoman, the Rebbe inquired about a group
of yeshivah students who had been sent to serve as shluchim to promote
the growth of the Lubavitch Yeshivah in Melbourne, Australia. The
students had returned to New York for the holiday.
The Rebbe was informed that the young men were
staying at “770”, and they were quickly summoned. The
Rebbe handed each of the shluchim a piece of the afikoman. “It
is written,” the Rebbe said, “that one must give each
member of his household a piece of the afikoman. The shluchim are
members of my household. In truth, all the yeshivah students are
my children. Still, the shluchim command special attention.”
Although today’s generation has grown accustomed
to overseas travel, it was much less convenient and affordable during
the first years of the Rebbe’s leadership. Nevertheless, one
of the shluchim from Europe arranged a trip to “770”
in order to celebrate Yud-Beis Tammuz, the anniversary of the Previous
Rebbe’s release from prison, and to participate in the Rebbe’s
Yud-Beis Tammuz comes out during the summer camping
season. Shortly before the farbrengen, the shaliach was contacted
by the staff of the Lubavitch camp in upstate New York. “Please
spend the night of Yud-Beis Tammuz with our campers,” he was
asked. “We have not been able to find anyone else who could
be as capable of sharing the inspiration of this important date
with the children.”
The shaliach had always given priority to other
peoples’ needs, so he spent the night of Yud-Beis Tammuz with
a group of campers, even though he had prepared to celebrate the
chassidic holiday with the Rebbe.
A few days later, the Rebbe announced an unexpected
farbrengen at “770”. This was extremely uncommon in
those years, and many wondered what was behind this unanticipated
event. During the farbrengen, the Rebbe resolved their questions.
“There is a shaliach who traveled here from afar,” he
explained, “and yet willingly forfeited his opportunity to
spend Yud-Beis Tammuz at “770”, so that he could hold
a farbrengen with a group of campers. Now we are making it up to
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak
Schneersohn, initiated the custom of dispatching groups of chassidim
to shuls in various Jewish communities throughout New York City
on the holidays. Despite the distance it often involves hours of
walking in each direction the chassidim joyfully make the journey,
sharing the spirit of the holiday and bringing a message from the
Rebbe to the congregants whom they meet.
The scholar, Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, a Rabbi in
a shul in East New York, greatly appreciated the visit by the chassidim.
Shortly after the holiday one year, he was privileged to meet the
Rebbe privately at yechidus, and he used the opportunity to thank
him for sending the chassidim.
The Rebbe acknowledged his thanks saying, “Yes,
it entails a measure of self-sacrifice on their part.”
“Indeed,” stated Rabbi Telushkin. “Hours
of walking back and forth requires much self-sacrifice.”
The Rebbe smiled. “There’s a greater
dimension of self-sacrifice: the readiness to extend oneself and
reach out to others with the full knowledge that, at the very same
time, a farbrengen is taking place at “770”. To give
up this opportunity and go to a different shul is a much greater
Very often the Rebbe’s blessing to an individual
or a group concludes with the phrase: Azkir al hatziyun “I
will mention this at the gravesite.” Indeed, many times that
phrase constitutes the entire reply.
The term tziyon refers to the grave of the Previous
Rebbe Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn which is located in a Jewish
cemetery in Queens, New York. The Rebbe frequently prays at the
Previous Rebbe’s gravesite. There he reads the multitude of
letters that are sent to him from all over the world.
Many who have received this reply, unaware of the
full implications of this phrase, may have desired “a more
substantial blessing.” Such was the case when Reb Shneur Zalman
Duchman wrote to the Rebbe, asking for a blessing for a childless
couple whom he knew. The Rebbe replied Azkir al hatziyun. Unsatisfied
with this answer, Reb Shneur Zalman wrote a second note, asking
the Rebbe to promise the couple a child. The reply was the same:
Azkir al hatziyun.
Time passed. One day, just as the Rebbe was leaving
his house, Reb Shneur Zalman was walking down President St. The
Rebbe signaled to Reb Shneur Zalman to approach him.
“Have you heard that a son was born to the
couple for whom you requested a blessing?” the Rebbe asked.
“Nu, evidently Azkir al hatziyun has something to it.”
We might gain some insight into the events which
transpire while the Rebbe visits the Previous Rebbe’s gravesite
from an interchange between Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary , the Rebbe’s
brother-in-law, and Reb Azriel Zelig Slonim. Commonly known as the
Rashag, Rabbi Gurary was an outstanding example of a chassid whose
heart and soul were devoted to the Rebbe.
“As you know, Reb Zelig,” explained
the Rashag. “When my father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, passed
away, we were all heartbroken and confused. One day, I was deliberating
unsuccessfully over a very important issue. I decided to consult
my brother-in-law (the Rebbe Shlita).
“He weighed the matter carefully, and then
said: ‘I would not like to take personal responsibility for
such an important issue. I will visit the gravesite later today,
and I will discuss it with our father-in-law. Then I will give you
an answer.’ Upon his return, he presented me with an excellent
“Now listen here, Reb Zelig,” concluded
the Rashag. “My brother-in-law is not one who exaggerates.
If he said that he would discuss the matter with the Previous Rebbe
at his gravesite, then that is exactly what transpired. I know that
I am not capable of this. Since he can do so I am his devoted chassid.”
During the early years of the Rebbe’s leadership,
his minyan was graced by the presence of an illustrious personality,
the revered Rebbe of Tomishpol-Koidenov, , who stood at the forefront
of chassidic Rebbeim in America until his passing at the age of
Once, the Rebbe Shlita returned late from praying
at the ohel, the Previous Lubavitch Rebbe’s gravesite. As
he entered the shul for the afternoon service, he glanced at the
Rebbe of Tomishpol and said: “A bit late?”
The Rebbe of Tomishpol replied: “There can
be no more appropriate time for prayer than when the Rebbe davens.”
“I would like to share a personal experience
with people who are disappointed at not having received answers
to their letters to the Rebbe,” relates a chassid. “I
was accustomed to receiving answers to every letter which I sent
the Rebbe. Then, almost abruptly, the replies stopped. As time passed,
I decided to stop writing. If the Rebbe would not answer me, I saw
no point in sending him letters.
Soon afterwards, I found a letter from “770”
in my mailbox. I was amazed to find it handwritten by the Rebbe
himself. It read: ‘I am sorry that you misinterpreted the
reasons for my lack of correspondence.’ The Rebbe proceeded
to explain that he had not responded, because of the heavy demands
on his time.”
1. More particularly, it is customary to sanctify the moon from
the seventh night of the month onward.
2. See the essay entitled “The Sanctification of the Moon,”
in Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, N.Y., 1992), p. 97.