By Rabbi Shimon Posner – Director of Chabad of Rancho Mirage in California
Preparing for Yud Shvat, both for myself and to share with others, I was struck by something I had not noticed before. It wasn’t that the words of the Rebbe from Yud Shvat were different, but it was the tone: I now noticed something that until now had somehow totally passed me by.
Some personal background: two years ago, my granddaughter Chana Kesselman was diagnosed with a disease for which there is no known treatment, a year ago she passed away, a few weeks ago Kaddish was finished and a few days ago was her yahrzeit.
The year following the diagnosis was a frantic rush to discover the unknown: getting researchers across the globe to communicate with each other and to consider probabilities that had not yet been tried. Towards the end of that year, once futility was inarguably achieved, I was able to glean guidance from the Rebbe (thanks to the JEM interviews) on when and how to deal with “preparing for the worst” as the Rebbe gently put it to someone.
A year ago, when my 7-year-old granddaughter passed away, there was bottomless pain balanced with stultifying numbness.
Last week, for the yahrzeit, I was in my granddaughter’s hometown. Her parents Musie and Rabbi Leibel Kesselman had commissioned a Sefer Torah in her honor and the Siyum was on her yahrzeit.
The celebration culminated in their new Chabad House that they had closed on the week before: one of those neighborhood bank buildings with hundreds of safes in all shapes and sizes. Thanks to my children and the efforts of all who helped them, I felt something lift off of me. And I felt a forward movement: an impulse that beckons — and intimidates.
This week, as I listened to the recordings of the Rebbe publicly weeping on Yud Shvat and providing the guideline to move forward, it made emotional sense to me. Emotional sense is what we call da’as. You can know something, and you can know something. (A pulmonologist can know that smoking is not good for you but he continues smoking, until he finally knows that smoking is not good for you and he quits smoking.) When you and the data are in alignment, when everything fits together, you feel whole; filled. And these Yud Shvat words of the Rebbe filled me as they never had before.
I noticed three elements to the Rebbe’s mandate: the first part, delivered before the Ma’amar, introduces a Mission Statement of what Chabad is. The second part, the Ma’amar, clarifies what we need to achieve and the third part delineates what are and what are not the parameters of a Rebbe, what defines the Rebbe’s relationship with a chosid and a chosid with the Rebbe.
To paraphrase the Mission Statement: when in Rome do as the Romans, and America expects mission statements and expects them to be bold and innovative. So, here’s the statement: there are three loves, the love of Hashem, the love of Torah and the love of the Jewish people — and these three loves are essentially one thing. And to love one means that you love all. And if the love for one is lacking (seemingly at the expense of another) then be aware that all the loves need attention.
In the Ma’amer – which beyond the thoughts conveyed therein, the very fact the Rebbe said a Ma’amer had profound emotional meaning for those who had gathered – the Rebbe told us to balance the world.
There is logic and there is human behavior – which if you’ve been following yourself around lately you’ve noticed that your behavior is hardly logical. We see the logical course in front of us but we veer towards the comfortable or the enticing. There’re always plenty of fresh vegetables left at the end of a good buffet dinner.
But if we have a propensity to veer to the illogical, then why not veer to the inspired illogical? Kind beyond logic, giving beyond logic, forgiving beyond logic, sacred beyond logic, joyful! uplifted! ecstatic! sacred! — all beyond logic!
If G-d hides in our self-perception, then defy convention, defy the comfortable and give breathing space to something beyond ourselves. That changes our perspective of everything. That changes everything. That is why all of creation is invested in our capacity to be kind and sacred beyond “it makes sense.”
The Rebbe continues with the third element, defining the role of Rebbe. Don’t expect me to do the work for you. You cannot nominate me to do all that needs to be done while you get involved in other things. Not suggesting other things that are forbidden, but rather things that are permitted and comfortable, that you want to have “a good time” (these words the Rebbe said in English) and to take it easy. But each person must be bothered, agitated and propelled to action.
The Rebbe used a Yiddish axiom, nem nisht kein feigel in busom arein. I’ve asked dozens of friends and Chasidim and even reached out to a delightful researcher at YIVO. No one knows the origin of the term but I suspect it is rich in wry, Jewish humor. Some of the possibilities offered to me were delightful but alas, unverifiable. The best anyone can tell me was ‘don’t build yourself castles in the clouds’.
I will help you, said the Rebbe, but you will have the hard work of changing the way we see things. The Rebbe was not bashful at telling people to push themselves. A Rabbi Zev Segal, certainly not a self-described chosid, upon completing a task for the Rebbe in a far-off third world country, said testily ‘Rebbe, this job you gave me, was not easy’.” The Rebbe answered, “and when did G-d offer you a contract for an easy life?”
This is legacy. Taking the broken heart and recognizing that what breaks your heart has the power to fill your heart as nothing else can. Acknowledge your broken heart and mourn your loss. (In the last year, I had no questions like ‘why the innocent suffer’ because I knew that there are answers and I didn’t want answers. I wanted the pain to go away. I still want the pain to go away.)
As the Tanya recently told me, sometimes you can have both the head knowledge and the know-how to take the right steps but lack the emotion or passion to connect them both together. And that’s ok and that’s temporary; sometimes all there is is an empty heart.
A broken heart does not heal, it functions. It can laugh again and love again but the void is always there. It is big and it is empty. But somehow, as the Yiddish saying goes, there is nothing more full than a broken heart.
The Rebbe deeply loved the Freirdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe desperately wanted that Moshiach should be here. And my understanding is that the Rebbe was brokenhearted about the dearth of both. And in that shattering, that loss, a legacy was born that changed the Jewish world and rendered it unrecognizable from what was to what it became. I am constantly and consistently amazed at the breadth, depth, length and scope of how the Rebbe changed the world.
And now I appreciate that legacy, that forward movement, that mandate for change, that joy and pain that together released energy that wasn’t there before, and I am overwhelmed at how fortunate I am to have a Rebbe.
I see my darling little granddaughter with those bright, blue eyes that bespeak a maturity that belies her years. I hear her voice. That voice. I hear her giggle. Through my tears I see her tilt her head just so and I see those pearl-perfect little teeth as she looks up. She is smiling.