By Menachem Posner, Chabad.org
Photos: Itzik Roytman
Even as the sultry night throws a blanket over Brooklyn, the Crown Heights neighborhood is far from sleep.
Tuesday was a long day. It was the third of Tammuz, which marked the 20th anniversary of passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
The 24-hour anniversary, which had begun at nightfall on Monday night, was spent in Chassidic gatherings, introspection, studying the Rebbe’s voluminous Torah teachings, and of course, visiting the Ohel, the Rebbe’s resting place in Queens, N.Y.
An estimated 50,000 visitors had spent many hours under the baking sun, waiting for their brief turn within the stone walls of the Ohel.
Still, at 9:30 at night, the downward-sloping Brooklyn Avenue is alive with men in black hats trotting toward Campus Chomesh, where they would join the swelling crowds, singing, listening, remembering and inspiring.
I take my seat in the brightly lit hall at the table laden with light refreshments and cool drinks. To my right is a local businessman. While waiting for the proceedings to begin, he is chatting with a younger fellow, who is planning to open up what will be the second Chabad center in Harlem. Chances are that the prospective emissary’s memories of the Rebbe are scant at best, yet he is raising funds and eagerly awaiting the moment when he, his wife and their growing brood will move into an apartment of their own in Upper Manhattan, where they will devote their lives to the Rebbe’s ideal of bringing Judaism to every Jew, wherever he or she may be.
To my left is the dais, upon which many respected Chassidim are seated. Many of them are members of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
The first speaker, introduced by Rabbi Zeev Katz, is Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky, rabbi of Nachlat Har Chabad and secretary of the central Chabad rabbinical court in Israel. His talk focuses on the Rebbe’s call for each individual finding him or herself a mentor.
He is followed by Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, who repeated a story that the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, had shared on the third of Tammuz in 1941, just days after his son-in-law and eventual successor had arrived on the safe shores of America.
In 1907, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s father, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, was staying in Würzburg, Germany, and a group of Chassidim came to spend a Shabbat with the Rebbe. Among them were Reb Yosef Yuzik Horowitz, his son-in-law Reb Feivel Zalmanov and Reb Elimelech Stoptzer.
The Rebbe prayed for many hours that Shabbat morning, as was his manner. In the meantime, the Chassidim recited Kiddush and consumed a quantity of l’chaims [toasts]. Later, when the Rebbe had finished and they sat with him to the Shabbat meal, Reb Yosef Yuzik asked: “Rebbe, what is a Chassid?”
Replied the Rebbe: “A Chassid is a lamplighter. The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”
Asked Reb Yosef Yuzik: “What if the lamp is in a desert?”
“Then one must go and light it,” said the Rebbe. “And when one lights a lamp in a desert, the desolation of the desert becomes visible. The barren wilderness will then be ashamed before the burning lamp.”
Continued the Chassid: “What if the lamp is at sea?”
“Then one must undress, dive into the sea and go light the lamp.”
“And this is a Chassid?” Reb Yosef Yuzik asked.
For a long while the Rebbe thought. Then he said: “Yes, this is a Chassid.”
“But Rebbe, I do not see the lamps!”
Replied the Rebbe: “That is because you are not a lamplighter.”
“How does one become a lamplighter?”
“First, you must reject the evil within yourself. Start with yourself: cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and you will see the lamp within your fellow. When a person is himself coarse, G‑d forbid, he sees coarseness; when a person is himself refined, he sees the refinement in others.”
Reb Yosef Yuzik then asked: “Is one to grab the other by the throat?”
Replied the Rebbe: “By the throat, no; by the lapels, yes.”
‘Never Burn Out’
Pounding on the lectern, Rabbi Shemtov accentuates his point in rapid Yiddish, punctuated with quotes from Talmud and scripture. Reflecting on the flurry of interest in Lubavitch’s continued growth in the 20 years since the Rebbe’s passing, he cries: “The world is now saying, ‘I will turn aside and see the bush that is burning and not being subsumed.’ Now is the moment that we must take the spark of interest and fan it into a roaring fire that will never burn out!”
After Rabbi Shemtov comes Rabbi Nachum Goldshmid of Netanya, representing the shluchim of Israel, and Rabbi Simcha Backman, representing Chabad of the West Coast.
There will be many more speakers, each presenting his own unique perspective.
Long after midnight, the “official” program will come to an end, and the crowd of several thousand will break up into smaller groups, centering around elder Chassidim, who will share poignant memories, inspiration, stirring melodies and camaraderie long into the night.
But the day has been long, and I, for one, am ready for sleep.