What I Held Back from the Rebbe

I sometimes wonder if other people see the color blue, or any color, the same way I do. And then I wonder how I would ever know. Why do I care? Because it boggles my mind how no two people are created exactly alike — right down to their perceptions. We perceive G-d according to who we are. And in the world of Lubavitch, our relationship with the Rebbe depends on who we are too. I didn’t like to admit this, but for most of my observant life, I felt like my connection to the Rebbe should have been deeper than it was.

I had my excuses, especially at the beginning. First, I grew up in an assimilated Jewish environment. Second, I had a visceral understanding that everything about the non-Jewish culture was patently treife: I recoiled at the notion of believing in a human who speaks on G-d’s behalf. When I asked Lubavitchers why the Rebbe’s picture hung everywhere, I was answered with the words of the Jewish people as they witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea: “va’yaminu b”Hashem u v’Moshe avdo,” they believed in G-d and in Moses, His servant. There it was, right in the book of Shemos: belief in a leader is inextricably connected to belief in G-d. Once I rebooted my soul to accept unequivocally that G-d created the world and G-d gave the Torah, it made sense that G-d would communicate with a mortal leader who could shepherd His “chosen people.” But still, no matter how much I understood the Rebbe’s essential function — today’s Moses who guides me in my divine service — I was slow to embrace the relationship fully.

I didn’t resist though. I was beyond delighted that I had a G-dly advocate who could help ensure my well-being, and that of my family. (When my husband and I had our one opportunity to actually speak to the Rebbe, I understood it as my moment to ask this righteous man for whatever I wanted. As I waited nervously in line, and my wish list grew, it occurred to me that I should ask the Rebbe to bring Moshiach — which is exactly what I did. The Rebbe smiled and answered that Moshiach is “ready to come tomorrow…or maybe the day after tomorrow” and that it’s up to us to bring him.)

For many years, I steadily increased in my intellectual connection to the Rebbe, mostly through learning his Chassidic teachings. I looked around in admiration at those whose hiskashrus, connection to the Rebbe, was deep and unquestioning. In the ideal, a Chassid follows a Rebbe like a soldier follows a general: with total dedication devoid of personal agenda, even to the point of self-sacrifice. I also tried to do what the Rebbe wanted as selflessly as I could, trying hard not to rely on excuses or compare myself to others.

But somehow, my feelings for the Rebbe remained secondary. I knew it was the Rebbe’s teachings that illuminated my spiritual path. I knew I was indebted to the Rebbe. I rationalized that my lack of emotion was okay, maybe even not my fault. The main thing was to try to do what the Rebbe wants. When people around me celebrated Chassidic events on the calendar–birthdays, weddings, yahrtzeits of the Rebbeim — I celebrated, too. I knew these were important days; momentous events in a Rebbe’s life have a cosmic effect on the world. But I also knew I didn’t feel these were important days. And I couldn’t make myself feel what I didn’t feel.

I felt something change within me this past year on the Rebbe’s birthday, the eleventh of Nissan, just before Pesach. As I listened to a farbrengen, a Chassidic gathering, in honor of the Rebbe’s birthday, my heart stirred as it never did before. The stirring may be small, but it’s a feeling of warmth that definitely wasn’t there before. I want to nurture it, too, even though I’m not sure quite how. I could hypothesize why this feeling took so long to arouse but the reasons aren’t important.

What matters now is that I use my greater connection to the Rebbe in my own divine service: As a Chossid, I want to do more than go in the Rebbe’s ways, I want to grow in the Rebbe’s ways. And a greater connection can grow a long way.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?