By Shabi Soffer
There have been two op-eds written on the topic of Hiskashrus after Gimmel Tammuz, and while I feel that both have some merit to their points, I think both are lacking in some essential areas, and therefore, I felt compelled to respond to both.
The original Op-Ed
In the first one, Cincinnati Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Gershon Avtzon writes that we cannot let students think that the Rebbe’s sichos were wishful thinking or be ashamed/embarrassed by anything said or published by the Rebbe. He spends the duration of his presentation explaining that we must instill a belief in the Rebbe and his words.
This begs the question, is there a better way to make someone question the validity of something than by constantly reminding them of how hard to believe it is? If the Rebbe is real to someone, why the need to push belief? The constant need to remind everyone that something is still valid and that we must continue believing says more about an educator’s lack of faith than the students’.
“This is how Chassidim acted in 5751-5754”, you write, saying that your greatest wish and pleasure as an educator is when students live life as was lived then.
Firstly, Moshiach did not come then, and on 28 Nissan of that year, the Rebbe shared his pain and frustration in the disingenuous cries of Ad Mosai from those just following his orders or being swept away by the general atmosphere, [and maybe, as mentioned in Ve’ata Tetzave, just like the Mesiras Nefesh of Russia that disappeared in America, when the environment did not force it out of people. The reason that fire that once burned needs rekindling today is because it was all based on the environment of the time, instead of through actual growth in realizing the depth and vision of the Rebbe’s words], therefore I find it rather dangerous to paint a picture of the past as if everything and everyone was perfect.
Moreover, how is the key to making anything relevant to someone accomplished through telling them to mimic and live in the past? Was the purpose of our existence, the goal of Matan Torah, 40+ years of the Rebbe’s tireless efforts, and 70+ years of the Rebbe’s leadership, all so that a bochur should feel like he’s living in the 1990s? These ideas are also what end up creating feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) that masquerades itself as a desire for Moshiach, which is just a wish to go back to the “perfect” past and get to experience everything their parents did.
We must remember that all the Sichos we look at after Gimmel Tammuz to remind and inspire us in our current situation were said by the Rebbe BEFORE Gimmel Tammuz when everyone could have heard and seen him daily! We have to stop thinking that galus started in 1994 and realize that the Rebbe desperately wanted and pleaded with us to live a certain way then and is still waiting on us for the same now. Our only “agenda” should be getting ourselves to that place by diving deeply into his Torah, not replicating an atmosphere of years gone by.
This leads me to my next point:
In Rabbi Avzton’s article, there’s a point made that children must be told clearly that they can still get answers from the Rebbe today, and he describes the shift he had seen in bochurim when they received their first answer through Igros Kodesh. My question is, when did receiving an answer become the metric for the validity or even the existence of a personal relationship?
As previously stated, this too sounds to me like another way of painting the past as perfect and idealistic, when the reality is that not everyone received answers from the Rebbe, especially in later years, and how many of those answers were simply the Rebbe notifying the recipient that he would bring their letter to the Ohel (the same place you can bring it to now) without any guidance or a clear answer to their letter?
As the Rebbe wrote to someone who was upset that they hadn’t received an answer, that:
A. If you’re asking for a bracha, you don’t need the notification that the Bracha was given.
B. If it’s for guidance or opinion, the Rebbe trusted that if the writer wrote to him, then he had enough trust in the Rebbe and his views to have been expected to look into the Rebbe’s available printed works, seeking the answers they’re looking for, even before receiving an official response.
And finally, C. Sometimes the lack of receiving an answer has nothing to do with a distance in the relationship, rather precisely the opposite, that when the Rebbe felt a closer connection to the writer, he did not feel the need to rush with a response because he knew and trusted the recipient could handle it. The Rebbe answered “outsiders” quicker because they needed the necessary attention.
Whatever happened to writing in about you and your current situation, simply for the sake of baring your soul to the Rebbe, unrelated to receiving a response of any kind?
The Rebbe would read every single word of every single letter. Every time one writes in, they connect themselves to their energy source, which builds an extremely strong bond between a Chosid and his Rebbe, knowing that there isn’t a single part of their being that isn’t known to their Rosh Benei Yisroel.
What I do find rather interesting is that while Rabbi Avzton continuously characterizes the bochurim who spend more time at the Ohel than at 770 as those that “ignore the Sichos about Moshiach” because they deem them too difficult to understand, I haven’t seen one word in his presentation regarding the countless Sichos clearly said for and about our current situation that speak of the necessity of having a Mashpia, during a time when one can not receive clear responses from the Rebbe [which, again was already said and began before Gimmel Tammuz]. Aside from the fact that these Sichos don’t mention or even allude to using Igros to play that role, but that’s for a different discussion.
And side notes on the above:
What exactly is the issue with someone spending more time at the Ohel than at 770 when one sees it as the Rebbe himself explained it, that the Rebbe simply moved “a few blocks away” because they need and desire the feeling of being physically close to the Rebbe?
Why should my visit be relegated to Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yud Shevat? A chossid has the right to seek that closeness whenever they so desire. The Ohel was also the only other place the Rebbe himself could have been found, other than in 770.
And lastly, just because someone learns a Sicha and reads its implications differently than you do, does not mean in any way that they “ignore the Sichos,” but that’s for a different time, as well.
So this is my approach:
Do you remember the films “Hand in Hand” and “I’m a Chosid”? Anyone around my age probably remembers them vividly from childhood. They were two popular children’s videos that came out on VHS tapes only a few short years after Gimmel Tammuz. Someone recently pointed something out to me that I found extremely interesting.
There is not a single mention of Gimmel Tammuz in either of them. They are fully and solely about Hiskashrus and the children’s bond with the Rebbe.
What struck me about this is that when I began thinking about my own experiences, whether in camp, school, or younger yeshiva days, as well as seeing what is going on around me now, it became increasingly rare to see any Chassidisher content about the Rebbe that doesn’t mention that we are almost 30 years later, that most of us haven’t seen or heard the Rebbe, and how therefore we must cry and demand Moshiach so that everyday life as it was for our parents can resume.
As a child born and raised in a post-Gimmel Tammuz reality, let me say that if there’s one thing parents and educators DO NOT have to tell us to do, it is to desire to see the Rebbe and feel like we missed out. By definition, since we weren’t there, we are automatically prone to those feelings, and I feel them all the time.
But the only reason I do experience those feelings is because I appreciate what was going on and what was being said back then. After all, I sat, watched, and listened to literally thousands of hours of audio and video of the Rebbe, which triggered a deep understanding and internal recognition that this is all real and extremely powerful, that we are so blessed and fortunate that Hashem gave us such a Rebbe, and even more so, that the Rebbe gave us so much of and from himself in unimaginable ways, well beyond anything expected of a Nasi at any point in history, and all of this continues to inspire and set me on the journey of aligning myself with, and understanding and memorizing every one of his words and overall view on life.
If I did not have all of the above, what would it help to be reminded that I never saw the Rebbe? Nobody knows what I never saw better than I do.
To many people, being told that the good days are in the past and that one day soon they will be returning is not exactly a pleasant or attractive lifestyle to want to be living in, and the fact that some opt out of this shouldn’t be surprising in the slightest.
Because if the good days are in the past and we are simply waiting on the future, you are implying that the present is terrible or, at the very least, a waiting room back to the good old days, then all that we are left with is a hope that the young generation will be so sold and devoted to being hopeful in the future, that they’ll stick around.
But in truth, even when this approach does work, it’s still flawed.
The Rebbe’s Moshiach perspective was never to find life so pointlessly meaningless and boring that we desperately need someone to save us by making stuff happen around us so that we can have something to live for. Moshiach is the ESSENCE of reality, requiring you to find it in YOUR reality as you already know it. If you don’t see the current reality as vitally important and don’t see any value in being a part of it, how can you genuinely desire to reach its core?
The only agenda should be helping students realize that there is a G-d who created them and gifted them with the greatest gift imaginable, the Rebbe, who reveals to us what is going on and how we should be living today.
There is no need to sell the Rebbe’s relevancy to people and tell them how much they should be bothered that they have never seen him.
Firstly, because when one realizes what and who the Rebbe is, it is clear and straightforward that there isn’t even a possibility for anything more relevant.
And secondly, because I saw the Rebbe with my own eyes, and I continue to every time I watch videos of him. I feel glued to his beautifully holy face and everything he represents.
When watching the Farbrengens, the same ones that during which many who were there would be talking to each other or spacing out at the ceiling, I now watch 30 years later with locked eyes, skipping back every few seconds to take in and make sure I understand every word said, to think about over and over again to myself, and discuss over with friends. My ears heard the Rebbe as chazan, davening out loud in the most angelic and indescribably G-dly tune imaginable on Vov Tishrei.
And it’s because of this that I desire to see the Rebbe, not because I never have, but precisely because I have and I know what he gave us and expects of us, that I desire to get it done and experience this fully in the most physical way possible.
So in my opinion, the best way of dealing with Gimmel Tammuz is actually by not mentioning it. Not because it didn’t happen but because the children born after are the last ones that need to be reminded of it. We are all well aware of what we’re missing.
If someone has the Rebbe authentically through his Sichos and Mamorim, following the path and Shlichus he set out for us, then Gimmel Tammuz will already be felt naturally to an even greater degree. If someone does not feel that connection to the Rebbe now, you won’t be able to convince them to desire something their parents or educators once had.
The second Op-Ed
And lastly, to address the response Op-ed written by community activist R’ Yaacov Behrman.
You instantly start your response by stating a “fact,” that we are living in a reality as Chassidim without a Rebbe ר״ל and that the Sichos do not address a post-Gimmel Tammuz situation.
While I do agree with some of your overall points about the dangers of imposing agendas that are based on personal feelings and not on the facts on the ground, I can not fully get behind your point when you consider one of the “facts on the ground” to be that we lack a Rebbe today.
You say that the only thing necessary for an educator now is to focus on teaching Torah and Chasidus, while instilling healthy behaviors in them.
Firstly, I’m sure you are aware that one the few places in Torah that the concept of Emunah is mentioned is actually “Vayaminu BaHashem UveMoshe Avdoi” living as a Jew and maintaining the simple intrinsic understanding of what it means to be one is directly synonymous with having and being connected to a Rebbe, the Shepherd of Faith. There is no such thing as Chasidus or Judaism as presented within its sacred texts without a Rebbe giving it to you.
Secondly, I ask, how can one properly teach Chassidus and the Rebbe’s Sichos in a relatable way if one genuinely believes that the Rebbe never addressed the most basic of our relatable issues, such as the reality of our current situation, [which is not true, both regarding the Sichos said after the Frierdiker Rebbe’s passing and even more clearly after 22 Shevat 5748]. Also, how do you plan on instilling healthy behavior in a child without the Chassidus and its way of life that you have just deemed totally irrelevant, considering its lack of clarity on life’s most fundamental issues?
And regarding your comments about Igros and stories of people’s experiences after visiting the Ohel, as I’ve stated earlier, I do agree that this idea should not in any way be the focus of chinuch or the pitch for relevant Hiskashrus. However, you fail to mention that, unlike Igros, there are many sources for bringing your questions to the Ohel after the physical passing of a Rebbe, and that the Rebbe will find a way to respond to the writer, one of which, by the way, just so happens to be the title of the book you mention.
But aside from that, again, as I’ve stated earlier, it is entirely untrue to say that everyone received answers back then. So too now, this in no way causes or represents a lack of the Rebbe’s presence and relevant influence in our current lives.
As you mentioned, you were a child during the 90s. Therefore, I’m sure you could recall a time when the Rebbe did not make public appearances nor gave any answers, in his room in 770 or in a Manhattan hospital due to his health after the stroke. Yet no one would ever consider the possibility that there wasn’t a Rebbe during that time, because of those things.
Saying otherwise is offensive to me and every other bochur who feels and lives with the Rebbe today, as well as the thousands of shluchim the world over who haven’t seen him in person either. Moreover, such a thought simply represents a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to be a Rebbe and what it means for a Chosid to have one.
The fact that the Rebbe spent so much time answering letters, giving dollars every single Sunday of every single week, handing kuntreisim to sleeping babies, attending children’s rallies and parades, and more, was nothing more than the Rebbe’s will and desire to do so, to connect with us and give us more and more opportunities to get involved in the important things in life. While the lack of those amazing experiences is certainly felt, those moments don’t define or limit what a Rebbe is and what our connection to him should be.
We can’t think exclusively about the benefits that came with what the Rebbe provided us with, and keep forgetting about the reason behind it all, that we should strive to live life on the path our Rebbeim set out for us by never letting go of the Rebbe as our guiding light.
In many ways, the Rebbe and all he represents live stronger and more evident now than ever before. While many back then spent their Yud Shevat standing for hours watching as the Rebbe handed out kuntreisim, a bocher on Yud Shevat, 22 Shevat or a day of similar significance, in 2023 can repeat to you, the sicha said before the distribution, what it says in the distributed kuntres (that many never even bothered removing from the plastic), AND are familiar with the entire video of the distribution as well, and not because they are there live in the exciting community-packed 770 as it was happening, but because they chose to sit alone and put themselves in that universe, for no other reason than the fact that it’s real and it’s important.
Parents and educators,
Ask yourself, what does the Rebbe, Torah, and Chasidus mean to you? What place does it all have in your mind and heart? Try to answer those questions to yourself, and retrace your steps back to whatever caused those formative “Aha” moments in your life.
When you find your answers, simply find a way to show and present the same things to your child or student. Let them see what you saw. Let them understand what you understood. They will reach that same “aha” moment of internal and eternal recognition on their own.
Trust that your child could reach an understanding and appreciation of the same Rebbe that you came to know and love so much, just as you did because they can see, hear and learn from the same things that grabbed you.
Nothing will be more effective than this, and every other necessary belief will fall into place without the need to find attractive ways to sell it, guaranteed.