A story I heard this week from a wise aunt.
Before she married and moved out to be a Shlucha (personal emissary of the Rebbe), she was working in the offices of one of the Chabad schools in Crown Heights. During the summer the Rebbe would customarily deliver a talk to all the camps at the central Chabad Shul in Crown Heights. After that year’s talk, the Rebbe surprised everyone by distributing coins for all in attendance to subsequently give to charity.
A bit of background:
When something like this would happen, obviously we would donate the equivalent amount, if not more, to tzedakah, and keep the original coin or dollar bill. Most Chabad Chassidim my age have a stash of “Rebbe” dollars stored away with the rest of our most valuable possessions.
Whenever this happened, and especially in the later years, when this became a regular weekly event known as “Sunday dollars” — it would draw thousands of Jews and non-Jews from around the world who flocked there, eager for a moment of personal connection, an opportunity for a three second one-on-one with arguably one of the most influential Jewish leaders since Moses.
For those who have been blessed to experience this even once in their lifetime, you might remember wondering how one could be so thoroughly drawn upward, stepping unimaginably over a seemingly forbidden threshold, into what could only be the sublime world of Atzilut. What other leader in history dared to drag his followers to the heights that we were dragged?
You might remember feeling utterly lost in a spiritual landscape of the most breathtaking proportions, yet also filled simultaneously with a ringing sensation of finally being found as well.
You might remember wondering how it was that the Rebbe always managed to turn the tables.
You went to forget but came out remembering. You went searching to escape the existential fear of living meaninglessly, a distraction from how pointless it all seemed sometimes, expecting to be medicated, soothed by the vast kindness of his soul, yet always “disappointed” when he never failed to point you back in the direction of your own soul.
You went to try and discover a new way out, and he always helped you find another way back in.
Though we never saw it coming it was always more about the ways he lifted us out of our “wasteland,” past the places that blocked our light, re-calibrating us back into our “heartland” — the “land of our soul.
He always insisted on changing the conversation. “What you are looking for in me is not nearly as important as what you need to find in yourself.”
You might be able to imagine now the mixed feelings those of us who grew up in the Rebbe’s court had when we hesitated to go — unless we felt as if we really needed it, knowing that the Rebbe would not sit until the last person had left. For us though, at the time, it was almost as gratifying to know that we had each spared our beloved Rebbe some time standing on his feet.
Another reason for not going was entirely different. This mindset dated back to the very beginning of the Chassidic movement. The relationship between the Rebbe and Chosid was a serious matter. Before scheduling a personal Yechidus with the Rebbe, there was an expectation that one would prepare oneself properly beforehand so as to be in a more spiritually grounded place. We considered the “Sunday dollars” model to be the modern equivalent of Yechidus, and therefore would try not to go unless we had prepared ourselves appropriately.
The only other exception to this rule was when the Rebbe specifically requested certain people to come up. This particular day the Rebbe requested that all those who were involved with the summer camps should come up to receive a blessing and a coin for tzedakah.
My aunt had a dilemma. She really wanted to go, especially in those years, when it was uncommon for the Rebbe to do this. She didn’t really work in the camp but decided to go anyhow. She justified it in her mind by the fact that her office did in fact handle some administrative tasks for one of the camps.
As the line inched forward and she got closer to the Rebbe, she noticed her father, a venerable elderly Chassid standing close by where the Rebbe was standing. Suddenly her heart dropped. The pale stern look on his face said it all. It was a total mistake and she had no business being there. Still, it was too late to exit the line without the Rebbe noticing. She remembers being utterly mortified. In her mind she clearly remembers hearing her father’s voice in her head. She imagined him telling her the following in Yiddish. “ Mit dem bist du nisht mayneh” — The literal translation is quite harsh, “with this behavior you are not mine!” The expression is a rough way of saying, “ I educated you to know better.”
As all this is racing through her mind she walks by the Rebbe. He gives her a blessing and she moves past in a daze. Suddenly she is called back. The Rebbe wants to tell her something! She goes back and the Rebbe has a huge grin on his face, and he tells her these words, “Du bist dach mayneh ” — “You are mine as well!”
He was saying so much to her in that smile, in those four words.
He was reminding her that a child is always connected to a parent. He reminded her that a child and parent always belong to one another. He reminded a whole generation that they could remain in his line even when they were very much out of line everywhere else in life.
He gave people faith to remain in the line of life even when they might have already waited there for what seemed like a lifetime, fruitlessly searching for meaning, love, and hope — for a sun to shine even once into the night and darkness.
As a parent, I represent what the Rebbe stood for to my children. They have lived with that their entire life. I always wonder if I have done a good enough job articulating that. I hope they will always be as proud of themselves as I am of each of them, proud to have grown up always giving far more then getting. I believe their firsthand knowledge, that giving is always better then taking will stand them in good stead in whatever paths they choose. As a Chossid and a Shliach, I am also responsible to represent the Rebbe and his vision to the community that he entrusted me to establish. Often I catch myself struggling, wondering whether I’m doing enough, or doing it right, or making enough of an impact. In a moment of self doubt, I might also catch myself hearing the Rebbe’s voice — “mit dem bist du nisht mayneh” — perhaps I don’t belong in this line either?
These days, when thousands across the globe mark the Yahrtzeit/passing of the Rebbe, are good days for reflection. You don’t even have to be a Chassid to dip into the powerful energy field of the collective prayers of his followers, and those that simply adored and admired him.
They are good days to ask existential questions that are hard to ask. “Mit vas bist du mayneh?” What do we belong to? What owns us?
Is it our joy or our pain? Our hope or our despair? Our faith or our cynicism? Our wisdom or our foolishness? Our love or our anger? Do we still continue to fight the “good fight,” focusing on the possibilities in the present moment, or have we surrendered, finally yielding to a haunted past and an unknown future?
Thankfully, most of the time I imagine the Rebbe grinning proudly at me, reminding me softly that despite whatever it is that owns me that might be wrong, there is always so much more that owns me that is right. His is a voice that gently reminds me that there is a place of soulfulness in me where I can always go to hear — “Du bist dach mayneh…” You will always be mine.
I hope you too can learn to hear the reassuring voice of your inner soul, your highest most authentic self, I hope you can learn to trust its call as it beckons to you, reassuring you that it will all be okay in the end and that its time to restore your hidden love for yourself, awakening you to the brightness of the sun that can rise over the horizon of your innate goodness. A voice that empowers you to become the person that you always wanted to be. The person that you were Bashert/destined to be.
This voice is a strong reminder of the inherent joy of belonging. To a family. To a community. To an idea. To anything or anyone that holds you tightly, reminding you who you are and why you are here. A voice that reminds you that the familiar places, sounds, and scents where you feel safe and held are the precise foundational places that one can always return to, once again drawing from there the redemptive power to receive and give love, generously and freely. A voice that inspires you to come back home, and reconnect!