What is a Rebbe?

What Is a Rebbe?

G-d’s initial choice was to rule creation with justice. It could not endure so He added mercy. One way that Divine mercy is delivered, Torah tells us, is through a heavenly gift called a Tzadik, or, The Rebbe. The 22nd yahrzeit of The Rebbe falls this year on Shabbat, July 9, 2016.

In the 1980s, a case was tried in Federal Court concerning the Previous Rebbe’s library. Chabad’s lead attorney struggled with the lofty concept of a Rebbe. No one gave him sufficient answers. Until, he asked the Rebbe himself.

Answering in a nine line, hand-written Hebrew memo (freely translated here), the Rebbe wrote, “With all the Rebbes of Chabad — the primary foundation is absolute negation of the physical (starting — with oneself). As a Rebbe, this remains his most intimate, critical and essential mission; to lead and inspire in Torah and mitzvot in general (starting with belief in G-d, adherence to the code of Jewish law etc.) and to teach them through living example (even if it involves actual self-sacrifice), clearly negating any action that could be misconstrued and understood as the opposite. After this – comes his life as an individual. But even that should never affect, at all, his primary responsibility of being exclusively the public’s servant.”

The Rebbe’s wife, daughter of the previous Rebbe, also addressed this question with the following; “My father belonged to his Chassidim….his only personal property were his tallis and tefillin.”

These words offer an authoritative peek into the world of a Rebbe. The Rebbe was totally human, yet he remained a baffling enigma.

Three best-selling biographies have attempted to describe the Rebbe’s lifetime. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, Time Magazine’s “Mind of a Century” and translator of the Talmud into Hebrew, was certainly fit for the task. His biography “My Rebbe” is a 246 in-depth study of the Rebbe’s life. Noted author, Joseph Telushkin dedicated five years of his life researching the Rebbe and assembling his 617 page biography, “Rebbe.” An equally exhaustive 500 plus pages by Rabbi Moshe Miller followed. One would think the task was complete.

In his review, New York Times Beliefs columnist Mark Oppenheimer expressed a feeling of frustration. “While the Rebbe’s life might have been a great gift to his Chassidim, it was unkind to biographers.” Clearly, there is so much more than that which was captured. “The Rebbe was in a whole other league of social continence,” he writes. “Nobody really saw the Rebbe’s true persona.”

Better licensed for such commentary, was the esteemed Rabbi JB Soloveitchik zt”l of Boston. His observations were not gleaned from reading books. His was a personal, life-long relationship. He once remarked to a Lubavitch rabbi, “You think that you know your Rebbe, you shall know that you do not begin to understand his greatness. He is, always was, and always will be a profoundly private individual.”

Rabbi Zalman Ruderman, an accomplished Israeli journalist and Torah scholar describes on page one of his new, 517 page “One in a Generation” Hebrew biography that he too has failed in this task. It did not deter him. In fact, this reality became the premise of his now sold-out, fourth biography on the Rebbe.

His is the perspective of the “Torah world.” His construct is a lifetime of Torah mastery that begins at an early age. As his first “exhibit,” he presents a meticulously hand written, intricate Torah correspondence pages long between the Rebbe and the Rogatchover Gaon. The Rogatchover’s mind was described as being equal to 100 Einsteins.The Rebbe wrote this letter to him, Ruderman reveals, at the age of 16. Later, it was the Rogatchover who gave the Rebbe semicha, rabbinical ordination.

The Rebbe was 17 when he met the Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak, Rabbi Yaakov Landau. Later, Rabbi Landau commented that, “The young lad knew the entire Talmud, all 60 volumes, with the commentaries of the earliest Sages.”

Such first-hand accounts by Torah giants of the last century fill the chapters detailing the Rebbe’s young adult life. Upon his formal ascension in 1950, the Rebbe began hours-long public Torah dissertations. In the ensuing 44 years, more than 11,000 hours of public Torah talks were delivered and today are published as “Sichos” in over 100 volumes encompassing every dimension of Torah.

There is a clear and transparent foundation to it all. “All of Torah is one. It is absolute. It is eternal. It is life.” The Rebbe was immovable. With this as his unforgiving reality he took control of a sinking and muddled ship, post Holocaust Jewry, and captained it to safe but unchartered new waters. It did not take long before the world began to recognize the new Rebbe in Brooklyn, NY; an uninterrupted connectedness to the inviolable, living, pure waters of Torah.

Practical implication soon followed. “Torah is inextricably one with G-d and with Israel. The Love of G-d, Love of Torah and Love of Israel are not three distinct missions, they are one. Indeed it was this foremost, and relentless, reality that molded his every “agenda.” Even if it involved self- sacrifice, and it certainly did.

The single largest recipient of mail in New York City was the Rebbe. He insisted on opening each letter himself. His responses deemed fit to be publicized, after being pre-screened for privacy issues, were a fraction of the original number.  From those, only the years 1950-1976 have been published. These fill 30 volumes of “Igros Kodesh” a comprehensive encyclopedia of Jewish thought and inspiration covering every aspect of Jewish life.

Through the mid-80s, Yechidus, private audiences, were granted three evenings a week. These lasted through the night. Thousands of interviews have been recorded of those who merited such a meeting. The first-hand accounts of miracles emanating from these meetings are incredible. They are matched only by the life-altering, sage counsel that countless others received and have now recorded for posterity.

Ruderman goes where the others did not. He studiously calculates that until a paralyzing stroke robbed the Rebbe of the use of his right hand in 1992, this hand made over 1 million distributions. The institution of “Sunday dollars” is universally renowned. Less known are the dozens of public distributions of newly published, handwritten manuscripts, sometimes freshly retrieved from Russia. These Chassidic works were personally given by the Rebbe, to every man, woman and child who was astute enough to come and receive one.

The Rebbe “held court” each holiday, for many thousands. In and of itself exhausting, even for a man half his age, the Rebbe insisted that the holiday’s holy effect be brought into the new season. He accomplished this by washing for challah and beginning a fabrengen towards the end of each holiday. This “forced” the holiday to elongate itself and permeate the first hours of an otherwise mundane weekday. After hours of Torah, he would finally make Havdallah. Then, without a moment’s rest, he began to pour from his silver goblet into the plastic cups of upwards of ten thousand men and children. The Rebbe made it a point to make eye contact and bless each one with “L’Chaim V’Levrocha” — to life and to blessing.

Into his eighth and ninth decade, he stood like this for countless hours. He refused even a sip of water or a moment’s rest. Decades later, hundreds of thousands are still able to tenderly hold the original dollar, Torah booklet or coin they received, in person, from one whom Torah promises; “His words last forever.” They and their loved ones continue to be touched and inspired anew through this very day. It is hard to find a peer for this phenomenon, single-handedly accomplished by the Rebbe, in the annals of Jewish history.

To the eyewitness account of all, he accomplished the physically impossible. His energy was drawn from a higher source. It was clear that the “burning fire” of exile demanded his unstoppable, boundless energies. After-all, this was G-d’s promise of mercy to His world.

If you were to stand at the foot of a mountain and look up, its height soars high. As you pull away, a larger grandeur takes shape. In their respective times, there were certainly rarities to behold. Pieced together on these thousands of pages, one senses pulling back and further away. This gives way to a whole new realization of what has truly transpired. A height and greatness never before fully appreciated, but at least now being approached.

From year to year, the Rebbe’s vigor only increased. It is reasonable to suggest that these efforts have not stopped. If one needs living proof, ask the newly married couple who bought a one way ticket to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan or Phnom Penh, Cambodia to open the newest Chabad-Lubavitch centers. Or the Shluchim to Yerevan, Armenia and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and soon to be sent Shluchim to Mozambique. They, and the 5,000 couples like them, continue to grow in the realization that the Rebbe’s epic lifetime was invested, entirely, in us. And for this, they refuse to ever let him down.

The goal remains unchanged. The demand on high is for G-d to allow His mercy and goodness to be unrestrained and fully revealed. Our people and the entire world need it now more than ever. Until it happens, you can be absolutely certain that the Rebbe will not rest, nor may we.

About the Author
Ciment is Founding Rabbi of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Boynton Beis Menachem, a pioneering traditional Jewish presence in Central Palm Beach County, Florida established in 1994. Chabad's 5 acre, "Rae & Joseph Gann Campus for Living Judaism" serves hundreds of member families and services thousands of Jews from all walks of life.
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