Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn, Director of Chabad of Centrepointe in Ottawa and Canadian Federation of Chabad-Lubavitch, wrote the following article in the Canadian Jewish News:
I write this article in New York. It is the day after Gimmel Tammuz. The hebrew date marking 20 years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s passing. Yesterday, I stood on line together with tens of thousands of other Jews from all religious backgrounds and affiliations. In the sweltering New York City heat we waited for over four hours. We waited with anticipation for our moment to stand in front of the Rebbe’s gravesite. To reflect, to say a prayer, to ask for a personal blessing.
As I wait in the long line, I take a few moments to observe the expressions of those waiting along with me. Solemn, serious, intense. Most people utilize their time reading words of Psalms or studying from other sacred literature. There are those who with their long beards and black fedora hats would be immediately categorized as Chabadniks. Others, with their wide fur hats and long side curls, clearly belong to other Chassidic sects. There are still others who precariously try to balance the Kippah on their heads and would not be classified as religious. I couldn’t help but notice two African American women, clutching pictures of the Rebbe in their hands as they patiently waited along with everyone else. There is one thing that unites all of us. We are all admirers of the Rebbe. We have all been influenced by his leadership, some directly some indirectly.
My eleven year old son is standing next to me. He is getting restless. We have already been waiting on line for over two hours. It takes me back to a time when I was eleven years old. I was also standing in a long line stretching hours long. I too was restless. I was impatiently waiting for my moment with the Rebbe. I would walk by the Rebbe and receive a crisp dollar bill from the Rebbe’s hand. The Rebbe would stare at me with his penetrating eyes. His stare was so intense, it felt as if he was peering right into my soul. He would wish me a blessing for success.
In fact, the Rebbe would spend every Sunday greeting thousands of men, women and children. People would come from all backgrounds and affiliations. Jews and Non Jews would all come to receive a blessing and a crisp dollar bill relishing the opportunity to see the Rebbe face to face. Chief Rabbis, world leaders, senior politicians, the Hollywood elite and Jewish activists would all come seeking inspiration and direction. The impoverished, the heartbroken, widows and orphans would all come for their moment with the Rebbe. All would leave feeling motivated and more empowered to effectively realize their personal potential. To positively influence the lives of others. To selflessly contribute toward a better society.
The dollar was meant to be given to charity. It represented the Rebbe’s philosophy of life, when two people get together for whatever reason, it should always directly benefit a third individual.
I was lucky to have waited in those long lines many times. I received dollars, coins, honey cake, a shot glass of wine, and various different sacred books of Torah. Every time, I left feeling with the same overwhelming emotion. I was a little boy, but when I passed by the Rebbe I didn’t feel like a little boy. I felt like I was important, like I had distinct and consequential value. The Rebbe didn’t smile at me. I wasn’t a child. His serious eyes begged me to make a difference. His expression was loving yet demanding. I did not want to let him down. I vowed that I would make him proud.
I will never forget the first time I experienced the festival of Simchat Torah with the Rebbe. Hours before the Hakafot service, the traditional dancing with the Torah was to take place, my father brought me to the Rebbe’s synagogue. My father warned me that the crowd would be enormous and the pushing intense. Tens of thousands of guests would travel from across the globe to spend Simchat Torah in the Rebbe’s court. Despite my father’s warnings, I was completely unprepared for the chaotic scene that I was about to witness. It was literally a sea of humanity. Every inch of space was filled with people clamoring to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe dancing with the Torah scroll in his arms. Pyramids were constructed around the walls of the synagogue, like in a stadium, extending five or six rows high.
The climax of the evening was when the Rebbe would walk from the front of the synagogue clutching the Torah in his hand to the middle of the room where he would dance on a raised platform. The Rebbe would walk down a narrow clear path that was separated by two long tables.
My father and I had come early enough to secure a place on one of those tables. As the evening progressed, and the numbers of congregants continued to grow, my father tightly wrapped both his arms around me to make sure I do not slip out of his grip. The anticipation was mounting. In mere moments, The Rebbe would walk toward the middle of the room. The excitement was so real, so genuine. You could feel it. You could almost touch it.
The Rebbe turned around. He began to walk. The crowd surged, pushing forward, trying to get just a little closer to the Rebbe. I could feel my father losing his grip of me. His embrace weakened. I did my best to push myself backward into my father. It was useless, impossible, a futile exercise. I slipped off the table. Fear overcame me. I could see the Rebbe coming toward me. I had nowhere to go. Time stopped. It felt like an eternity. I started to cry.
Some very strong adult came to my rescue. He reached over lifted me in the air and threw me into the crowd. I landed in the arms of a nice man, who using his paternal instincts very quickly comforted me and positioned me so that I could watch the incredible scene unfold.
The Rebbe danced alone. He walked around to every side of the platform and danced ensuring that everyone in the room had a chance to capture the experience. It was truly Simchat Torah. The Rebbe exuded Simcha, happiness, joy. You were able to sense the Rebbe’s desperate desire to share his simcha with everyone in the room. To lift up everyone in the room.
It is what happened next that had the most impact on me, an eleven year old boy.
The Rebbe was walking back toward the front of the synagogue. Anyone who was in arms length of the Rebbe stretched out their arm to be able to touch and kiss the Torah. The Rebbe walked slowly. I wished I would have had the chance to kiss the Torah. It was impossible. I was just too far. I clumsily stretched out my arm. Suddenly, the Rebbe stopped. He noticed my outstretched arm. He looked me straight in the eye, with the same penetrating, loving stare I would receive when he handed me a dollar bill. He extended the Torah as far as he could, I stretched out my arm as far as I could. We met. I managed to kiss the Rebbe’s Sefer Torah.
The Rebbe didn’t treat me as a little boy. He didn’t just ignore my outstretched arm and longing face. After all, I was only a little kid. I would get over it. In the Rebbe’s eyes, I was not a young child, I played an integral, crucial part of G-d’s master plan. I had an important mission. I was no longer an eleven year boy who was filled with fear and anxiety over being separated from my father. I was now a confident young man ready to carry my weight.
This was my moment with the Rebbe. A moment that lasts forever.
I often think of my moment. It has carried me forward for the past twenty years. It was the inspiring factor that convinced me to join the Rebbe’s army of Shluchim. A group of over four thousand activists in over 81 countries determined to making the Rebbe’s dream a reality of bringing goodness, kindness, warmth and light to every corner of the globe. I have encountered many challenges in my over ten years of Shlichus and it has been my moment with the Rebbe that has helped me persevere.
I am finally standing in front of the Rebbe’s grave site. Through eyes brimming with tears, I read the Rebbe’s name etched in the tombstone. I feel the deep void. I long for the Rebbe’s physical presence, guidance and leadership. I close my eyes. I relive my moment. I reaffirm my pledge to dedicate my life to living with the ideas and ideals of the Rebbe.
I look down at my son. His face is shining. He is saying his chapter of Psalms. There are no tears in his eyes. This is his moment with the Rebbe.
I know that he is as determined as I am to fulfilling his mission. He no longer feels like he is an eleven year old kid. He feels proud, empowered, confident. He recognizes that he is a valuable component in the Rebbe’s vision.