It was Shabbat Parshat Ekev.
The Rebbe decided initially not to come down to Farbreng with the Chasidim that Shabbos. In the end, he changed his mind and did.
While I can only speculate as to why that was, and imagine that there might be some simple very worldly life reasons to cancel — they would still ring hollow to me because of the way I was used to seeing him. Though he was most certainly in my world, I never lost sight of how otherworldly he was, nor did the central role he played/plays in my life ever lessen my sense of the endless ways he loomed so much larger than life.
To the contrary, usually the closer we got the further we felt. Though he didn’t publicly share why he hesitated that week, he did share why he chose to come down and Farbreng in the end.
He began by explaining the difference between the portion that was read the week before, Va-eschanan, and the portion read that week itself Aykev. In Va-eschanan we read the first portion of the Shma and the Ve-ahavta. In Eikev the second portion of the Shemah — the Vahaya’eem Shamoah.
The difference between them is as follows. While the Shma deals with the love that the individual has for Hashem in the solitude of his private life, the Vehayah deals with the way that this love plays itself out in the choices we make in the real life scenarios of the public sphere.
Both of these portions mention the mitzvah of Tefillin, which, as he explains, is the ultimate Jewish symbol of transformation, in the way that we are commanded to take a coarse leather hide and fashion it into a ritual object to be used in prayerful devotion to God.
Still he points out, that central symbolism resonates far more powerfully when read in the second portion of the Shma. The notion of personal transformation, as well as the ideal of transforming the world around us for better, cannot happen with any real authenticity unless it is happening in the public places, right in the midst of the messiness of life that ensues as a result of our engagement with the other. Real personal growth comes only in the ways we lean right into the complex zones of life and address those challenging instances with dignity, humanity, and wisdom.
The Rebbe then essentially said, “How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to Farbreng about a portion that inspires us to be agents of change in our own lives and empowers us to be the catalyst for change in the world around us?!”
He inspired us that week to “come down” and engage into our lives even if we are reluctant to do so for whatever reason, and keep that Farbrengen going, by continuing to believe in our selves and our ability to transform the adversity of our lives, in our ability to shine a light into the darkness.
The question still remains though. What happens when we know what needs to be done, and are committed to doing our share, but feel plagued by existential loneliness ?
Sometimes I wonder about the Rebbe himself and the scope of what he undertook. I wonder if he ever said to himself “I cannot do this anymore, and whats the point any way. The world is so vast and the challenges so overwhelming, why even bother? I have to constantly deal with fellow Jewish leaders who don’t get my vision, and constantly criticize me,” I catch myself wondering about him saying to himself, “why should I even go down and Farbreng with this group, sometimes I wonder if THEY my own Chassidim even get me and what I am trying to achieve here in the first place, besides the fact that so many of them are not even here during the summer?
I catch myself and feel guilty for the thought. That’s when I realize how far off base I was.
Allow me to explain.
The entire book of Devarim deals with the very same terror of loneliness. The narrative deals with the saga of a people about to take on the challenges of going into Israel without the support of their beloved leader.
Beyond the fear lies an even greater issue. Even if they were to muster the courage to go it alone, do they even want to? Imagine the sadness of this people who together with Moses dream the same dream their whole life and then suddenly when the promised land is close enough for one to actually see it, Moses is out! Where does one go to find the strength to even want to continue alone?
This whole drama in the book of Devarim is framed by an annual secondary summer saga, the recalling of the destruction of the Temple on the Ninth of Av which always runs concurrent to the reading of Devarim.
These two heavy themes feed off of each other. The loss of Moses is also a destruction of sorts. How do we recover sufficiently from destruction in our lives and learn to dream about building Temples again?
The Jewish calendar is set up so that the Torah portion of Va-etchanan is always read right after Tisha B’av. The Haftorah that we read is a famous one and the first of what is known as the “Seven weeks of consolation.”
Its easy to see how the The first of the Seven consolation Haftorah readings is meant to console. the opening words are “Comfort ye Comfort ye my people.” The whole Shabbat is actually famously known as. “Shabbat Nachamu” The Shabbat that offers comfort.
The second Haftorah reading however, the one read together with the portion of Ekev leaves one wondering exactly where the consolation comes from, in a reading that begins with the words “Zion has left me” … tell me about it! I know that Zion has left me… that’s why I showed up in shul looking to be Nachamu Nachamued, looking to be hugged and told that its all gonna be okay. Instead, I have my loss rubbed back in my face again!
Here again the Rebbe offered a different approach to comfort, more along the lines of don’t constantly ask me to comfort you, because if I do, then I am not really helping you, I’m just enabling more self pity.
Yes, Zion has left the building. Now get out there and find him again and figure out new ways to bring him back. Firstly — find him in the way he hides in this very sadness itself, find him in the search for him itself, find him where he lies buried in the depths of your very own soul.
Here is what I’m getting at.
That Shabbos it seems that the Rebbe wanted his Chasidim to get a taste of what it might be like for him to suddenly not be there. The Rebbe might have been asking the Chasidim to rehearse how they would continue to be his Chasidim even after the sunset; When the Temple seemed destroyed and the air was thick with Loneliness. The Rebbe was telling us that we too have the innate soulfulness to rise up again and Farbreng, and celebrate our lives and that this inner strength is available to us precisely when Zion seems to have disappeared, when we need it the most.
I totally understand those that proclaim in their terror and denial, that “Yechi Hamelech,” the king lives. Its so much easier to read Nachamu Ami, than it is to read Vetomer Tzion. The Rebbe hears this and cries. How can they disappoint me when I need them now more than ever. If they would only see the irony of how the one who learns how to believe in oneself by chanting. “Yechi Hachosid” is the one who has truly tapped into the “Yechi Hamelech,” the lingering presence of his saintly soul.
The Rebbe who suffered terribly in later years from intense pain in his foot, still managed to drag himself in this world with his heel, his Ekev in such pain that it was sticking out of his shoe, something that was always painful for me to watch. Yet he stayed strongly attached to the ground of life even when it hurt. He came down to the Farbrengen in the end. He did it out of love. He did it because he felt that the greatest gift he could ever give us was an unshakable faith in our selves.
May we all find the strength to carry on what the last generation entrusted us with, with hard work and perseverance, with deep faith in the power that we each carry to put tefillin onto the whole world, by giving ourselves permission to let our deepest light shine into a world that eagerly awaits that very light.
May this hasten the great day when The righteous Moshiach himself will come down to the ultimate Farbrengen, into a world that knows no more sickness and no more war, no more sadness and no more pain, speedily in our days.
Much love and Shabbat Shalom