By Rabbi Yossi Lipsker
Chabad of The North Shore, Boston, MA
In reading one of the Rebbe’s post-holiday talks from 1968, addressing the Chasidim preparing to return home from abroad, after an uplifting holiday experience, you get a glimpse into a theological worldview that can only be summed up in one word.
The Rebbe was all love. Pure and unconditional love. As I’m reading I can sense how fully attuned he was to the gut wrenching pain of the Chasid who had saved for a year to purchase a ticket from France or Israel, placing everything back home on pause, in order to spend a week “soaking in holiness,” and who is now reluctantly “packing up,” and listening to the Rebbe one last time before departing.
The Rebbe would always invoke the famous commentary of Rashi on the portion of Pinchas, explaining the idea behind Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of the festival. Rashi quotes a Midrash narrated in the voice of G-d. “..all the seven days of the holiday were filled with offerings to the seventy nations of the world, but now I just want to just spend some time with my children, alone…one simple bull offering, a quiet dinner, just family..” In this Midrash the sages hear a guilt ridden voice of G-d, one we can all relate to as parents, agonizing over the impending separation from his beloved children, frantically trying to condense so much closeness into the narrow space of a day.
“You are leaving already and I barely even saw you, I didn’t even have five minutes to look you in the eye, to talk with you, to make sure you are ok before you leave again, and who knows when we’ll see each other next, or if we will ever see each other again?”
“Kasheh Alay Praydaschem!” (“your departure is difficult for me”).. this is a heartbreaking passage, and I always read it trying to imagine what an unbearable cosmic sadness might feel like.”
I wonder, what the Rebbe, in quoting this, might have been thinking of as well. Many of these Chasidim, were also his emissaries to far flung locales all over the globe, returning to places that were often hard to get to, especially then, communication was minimal, and kosher food was nowhere to be found. It was no secret that although this Rebbe did not have children — he considered His emissaries and their families his children.
I can imagine him playing with these words in his own mind, “Kasha Alay…” this is problematic for me .. I have a “Kahshe”(question) on all this. On top of barely seeing his “children” in all the madness of the holidays, was the ache, of the Shluchim returning back to the isolation that is part of living life on planet mission impossible.
This is where the Rebbe always managed to turn the tables, reminding us, that though living a life punctuated with occasional bouts of unbearable existential loneliness, might be a hefty price to pay, for all parties, the costs of answering this “long distance” calling, was well worth the reward that one gets to feel, in the occasional moments of genuine connectedness.
He pointed out that the pilgrimage of a Chasid to his Rebbe, is no different than the ancient pilgrimage to spend time in close proximity to the Holy Temple, and the Kohen Gadol Rebbe, during the Jewish festivals, as well as those who choose to spend the Chagim in Eretz Yisroel till today. All different versions of a journey we must occasionally embark on, in order to briefly “check back in” to the epicenter of our spiritual world.
He also lovingly reminded those Chasidim preparing to head back home, that this is where the real pilgrimage must actually begin. The climbing of the stairs leading up to the holy temple in Jerusalem, to stand in the presence of a viscerally felt display of sacredness, not unlike the spiritual bliss of a Chasid in the presence of his Rebbe, are all steps towards a taking, a receiving, one that is intended, not as an end in itself, but merely as a prelude to an even higher pilgrimage characterized entirely by the opposite, by a giving. A path that continues in the footsteps of Abraham, and his Lech Lecha pilgrimage; founded exclusively on a platform of sharing spiritual goodness and an overall preoccupation with the welfare of the “other” — the walk TOWARDS G-d that morphs into a walk FOR G-d.
Abraham ALREADY HAD his Tishrei, he already had his pilgrimage toward the G-dly truth that burned inside the depths of his center; and if you like, you can catch all those details in the Midrash. The Torah however, the five books of Moses, the Rebbe gently reminded his Chasidim that day, begins to paint the portrait of the first Jew, only at the beginning of his SECOND pilgrimage, when he begins to walk for G-d, with G-d, towards mankind!
This might help understand his insistence on the “Taluchah” walks. During the high point of spending the holidays with the Rebbe, he would encourage all of us, even those who already lived on Shlichus, to form groups together with our fellow Chasidim from Crown Heights, that would fan out to all the walkable areas of New York, visiting all the dying Shuls in the area, simply to bolster the spirits of fellow Jews who remained living in declining Jewish communities. Perhaps this was the Rebbes way of jump starting the transition between the two types of Pilgrimages.
He drove this point home in that Sichah, with a mystical teaching on the Hebrew letters of the month of Tishrei. This month, he taught, contains the letters Raysh and Shin in it, letters that spell Rosh. So the ENTIRE month contains the energy of Rosh and the aura of the Holidays. Though the beginning of the month which features Rosh Hashanah, may be like the well lit beginning of a tunnel, nevertheless, the end of the month, the dark side of Tishrei, the end that contains no holidays, is STILL Tishrei, the dark part of the tunnel is still connected to its bright beginning. Even though Havdalah was made, signaling the end of the holiday, and we have already left the Bais Hamikdosh, “Haray Adayin Nimshacheem Inyanay Hayom Tov….” we remain in that tunnel — the holiday follows us as we endeavor to house its spirit, constituting its human embodiment and continuity, deployments of miniature Mishkan like extensions of the stationary Bait Hamikdash, sharing its light wherever we end up, no matter how far.
In acknowledging our lapses of vision, and the loving and patient way he regrounded us into a culture that values giving over taking, sending us off with food for thought on the journey back home, he was validating us as well, with all our flaws, pettiness, and frequent inability to see what he saw.
I truly believe that he internalized the loneliness and terror that we all felt at times, and still do, the high octane pressure of not just serving in a community, but creating it from scratch, and sustaining and nurturing it as well. A terror associated with believing in something alone. I know in my heart the pain he must have felt deep into the night knowing there was a Shliach somehwere that was in pain. It’s important for me to believe, that his hyper focus on the Neshama, the soulfulness of even the most estranged Jew on the planet, was equally applicable to the way he viewed his own emissaries.
Still, his sadness, the manifestation of his “Kashah Alay” was only in the empathetic “knowing” of the difficulties these brave couples were prepared to endure at his behest — never for one moment entertaining a theological or existential “Kashah Alay” with regards to the actual sustainability, or correctness of this approach altogether.
It was only as a result of the solidness of the Rebbes conviction that there even is a Worldwide Chabad movement today.
There was no pilot program for Chabad, and no Beta version or “prototype” of the role of the Shliach. We are now three generations into the world of Shluchim, and there are still hundreds of young couples eager to answer the call of the Rebbe. His unique message that resonated in the fifties, a voice that spoke unwaveringly, and with a commanding authority, is as refreshing today, more than two decades after his passing as ever. The Rebbe was Rebbe because he never wavered. He was the original big picture Tzaddik, who steadfastly imagined a movement, developing a unique theological platform utilizing a dazzling and daring array of Mystical and Talmudic vocabulary, language that constituted the very heart of this fledgling movement, as well as overseeing its actual development down to the most granular nuts and bolts of the movement.
His was a refreshing voice that stood out in a Jewish world starving for clarity, one that drew so many to marvel at his unmatched style of towering and bold leadership.
The Rebbe exuded a classiness that always took people by surprise, not expecting to encounter that type of worldliness and sophistication from the scion of a major Chasidic dynasty, a charm that proved irresistible to the thousands who flocked to him, to be in his presence, even for the briefest of encounters.
How do we continue to foster this magic today? I believe the Rebbe might have begun addressing this even then as well, with a powerful alternative reading of that same “Kasheh Alay Praydaschem” verse, in the course of that same talk.
Perhaps the Rebbe was not just thinking of the temporary separation in time, as he bade the Chasid pilgrims farewell, but also looking down the road, to the trauma of the “permanent” dimensional separation, after his passing. He, better than anyone, knew the loneliness stemming from the permanent loss of someone who plays that central a role in ones life. Though he was a Rebbe, he was also a Chasid, and it was very clear how profoundly saddened he was with the passing of his father in law, the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, The Rebbe of my Rebbe.
The existential “Praydaschem” loneliness that a Chasid feels in the absence of his Rebbe, is deep and real. I know first hand the pain of growing up with a Rebbe, whose soul was interwoven into the very center of the fabric of my own, and the huge gaping void left in the wake of his passing.
The Rebbes response is brilliant. He taught that the phrase “your separation” can be seen differently. In this reading he defines the “Praydashchem” as the separation between yourselves! In essence he was saying, that the key to the continuity of the movement lies in the degrees to which we succeed in fostering a healthy sense of community. He is pleading. “Kasha Alay, it would be unbearable for me to see the splintering of a community, to see it in its “Praydaschem” dysfunctionality.” The extent to which we can successfully navigate the social, communal component, determines the extent to which we can sense the spiritual presence of the Rebbe as well. The lengths that we go, to foster greater cohesion and negate “Praydah,” will serve to automatically, and simultaneously bridge the “Praydah” between the Rebbe and Chosid. Those precious moments of shared purpose, are one of the doorways we need to enter, in order to discover what the texture of a “Yechidus” experience of today might feel like.
When the seven days of consecrating the tabernacle had passed without the hoped for “fire from heaven” descending from above, instead of despairing, Moshe and Aaron assembled the community (Hakhel) and they stopped looking upward, instead they gazed out over the people and blessed them. Shouldn’t they have been desperately scanning the heavens one last time? No. I imagine them instead, addressing their beloved Am Yisroel, their family, with the following. “The notion that G-d, as a result of our sinning with the golden calf, might have “permanently” severed himself from us, and even this glorious Mishkan that we built for him, will not appease him enough to look past our horrible betrayal in order to move on in the relationship is terrifying, but let us at least be terrified together! At that very moment, the heavens parted and the fire of G-d descended!
Perhaps this was why the Rebbe insisted on the yearly gathering of the Shluchim from all four corners of the globe. This years Kinnus has already begun this week in Brooklyn. I plan to be there as well.
This idea is expressed beautifully in the lyrics of a song that the Chasidim would sing before they took leave of their Rebbe. “Tayere Breeder Mir Velin Zich Vaiter Zehn, Der Aibishter vet Gebben, Gezunt Un Lebben..” The song is powerful in the way the farewell between the Chasidim is at the center, without even mentioning a goodbye to the Rebbe!
I think it might be suggestive of the way, on a certain level, the very nature of the unique soul centered bond between a Rebbe and Chasid, precludes the possibility of true separation, hence they can never really depart from one another — however, the awareness of which, can only rise, from deep within the sacred space carved out of a connectedness, filling an emptiness hollowed out from the midst of a genuine sacred brotherhood.
That’s one of the places we can go to feel the fire once again.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker