Today was the יום הילולא of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe (LR). I’m presently ensconced in three books describing him and will offer my thoughts on these when I have finished.
They are certainly impressive pieces of work, each in their own way. In a recent private email exchange I had with Rabbi Yossi Jacobson in reference to this post, I mentioned that one of the things that attracted me to the Rav, Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik ז’ל was the refreshing ease with which he was able to write about his personal feelings on various matters, some of which were the result of his private life and the emotional struggles surrounding these. Rabbi Jacobson, if I’m not misquoting him, was of the opinion that the LR also expressed his personal feelings. I felt that the LR wasn’t expressing his own private issues, but was always focussed on what the movement and it’s Chassidim needed to achieve.
The Rav, however was not, and never saw himself, or his task in life, as that of a Manhig Yisrael. In his own words he was a מלמד. Certainly that was a self-deprecating description of someone, often described by others as the למדן הדור. We should all aspire to be such a “מלמד”! In other words, the Rav dedicated his life to interacting with the challenging American reality and transmitted the Brisker method of Lomdus and Mesora that he had digested from his illustrious grandfather, R’ Chaim Brisker, father, R’ Moshe, and Uncle R’ Velvel, to a challenged generation for whom such sophisticated analysis of Torah, enmeshed in the vernacular of the day, was intellectually challenging and advanced in its conceptualism and oratory. The Rav ordained more Rabbonim than any other Rav in the history of Judaism (it would seem).
As time goes by, his greatness, like many who pass away, is amplified, and the fact that I “discovered” him relatively late in my life, is a source of sorrow. How I would have loved to have participated in a Shiur, or listened live to his majestic droshas.
Enter his famed University colleague from Berlin the LR. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I (partly) read the books about the LR, but I now have a fuller appreciation of the LR’s role and personality. In many ways, they were both became fully equipped educationally and culturally to interact with the needs of American Youth in a so-called modern society. They had both studied at University level, and were aware of the so-called European/Western Culture and thought. I do not think either of them saw that culture as some sort of enlightening factor, but it enabled them to interact at the highest levels using the modern vernacular and conceptualisation of our times, within the context of acutely high levels of grey matter.
דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם
found a new home among these giants.
Whilst I was not brought up with a deep understanding of the “Torah Im Maddah” approach or YU, I found it easier,unsurprisingly, to speak and digest that language. A more universalistic approach to different paths has always appealed to me.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, was an enigma. Here was this powerful genius with a photographic memory and acute ability to link and understand the seemingly disparate thoughts at his disposal, through the prism of the metaphysics of Chassidus, with brilliant insights and a paucity of notes. Yet, I guess I felt remote from him because there seemed to be no outward human frailty that he ever allowed to be shown, except when he was afflicted by that terrible stroke which ultimately led to his departure from our world and when his beloved wife passed away. Furthermore, while the elder Chassidim stressed the Chabad Chassidic approach, the younger Chassidim seemed more pre-occupied with his personage. To be sure, Chassidim would say “you must have a Yechidus”, “you have to immerse yourself in Chassidus to appreciate him” but that didn’t prick me into action. I never felt that I had anything meaningful to say or ask, and I wasn’t the type of tourist to invade an important Gadol’s time just because it was the done thing.
I have only been to the USA once, and I never went to 770. I simply didn’t know or comprehend what I might get out of it. These days, I’d be most apprehensive to go there given that it is controlled largely by the more radical Meshichist types, whose philosophy I do not consider to be Masoretic, but rather a backwards-pointing justification for an already concluded premise.
People will read what I have written and say, stop saying “I” … it’s not about you. One has to be בטל, somewhat constricted within their personal ego to appreciate what was being effected in a Yechidus. Perhaps I was too ego-driven or cock-sure of where I stood in life vis-a-vis my Avodas Hashem and perspective on Torah. I may have even been wrong. It is what it was, and remains that way.
After reading most of these books, I have discovered through the über romantic, carefully chosen words of Rav Steinsaltz, and the meticulously researched tome of Rabbi Telushkin (Chaim Miller is next), that I have a better appreciation of this extraordinary leader. I didn’t learn much from earlier books, including those of academics and more. I felt that they started their books with a (negative) premise, and then sought to prove this premise, and not undertake a clean, academic unadulterated look at the facts.
Now, a leader can only try and do his best to make sure that his Chassidim conduct themselves in the way which he approves and/or legislates. The LR was no different. At times his exasperation was palpable.
One can certainly find a bevy of Shluchim who are seemingly pre-programmed automatons lacking the very gift that the LR had—the ability to connect individually with the person talking to them. There isn’t and wasn’t a magic formula. It was an action/reaction experience. Some have this gift; many, I dare say, do not.
Even last Shabbos, when I spoke to stranger who was wearing a Yechi Yarmulke, and asked why he wore that outward advertisement, he accused me of hating him simply for asking. I suggested that concluding that I hated someone because I asked a question was shallow, and when I referred to the classical work of R’ Yechezkel Sofer on the topic (which he described as “garbage”) this represented a problem with his own eyes, and not mine.
After reading the books I felt real sadness for the LR. He was clearly a very reluctant leader initially, almost a recluse whose favourite times were with his wife, father in law, parents or his seforim. His personal life was zealously guarded from the masses or even to the few in constant contact. He was a truly selfless man who pushed himself to extraordinary limits. He did not compromise on an iota, and mission, as summarised by Rabbi Sacks, was to ignite the soul of every person who the Nazis had attempted to extinguish and towards whom society was threatening with their often depraved value systems. He was as singularly minded in his pursuit of re-igniting souls to hasten the redemption as anyone we have seen.
As such, I find myself asking the question: what would he have said about a “tribute night” in his memory. Based on what I’ve read, I posit that he would be embarrassed by the word “tribute” to describe such a night. He would not want anyone to focus on him per se. He appeared to vehemently dislike cultish worship. Rather, the essential task was all about the missions and initiatives that he worked tirelessly to introduce and strengthen, all with the aim of bringing the redemption quicker.
It’s a paradox. On the one hand he was reaching out, and yet at the same time, he was enigmatically private.
So, why do his Chassidim engage in tribute nights? Certainly there is the practice that one should remember and talk about the deceased on the day of their Yohr Tzeit. One fasts, and learns Mishnayos. I don’t know how many Chassidim today do that today. But, it is more than that. In the absence of a leader to actively direct a movement in 2014, I feel he would only approve of such a gathering if it was about people taking strength and renewal and redoubling their efforts to carry out (genuinely) the tasks and processes that he had inaugurated.
In that vein, I will agree that a tribute evening potentially can invigorate. At the same time, it can also fail to do so—if people concentrate on the person and not the task to be achieved.