What was the feeling of yechidus with the Rebbe for the very first time? What was it like to stand in his room, the Holy of Holies, and commune on a spiritual level unmatched? The Avner Institute presents a powerful letter, adapted, that Rabbi Tuvia Zilberstrom wrote on Rosh Chodesh Adar 5735 (1975) to his parents describing his first private meeting with the Rebbe, the overwhelming emotions in just those few moments, and a mental transport to a completely different and higher realm.
“My Soul Thirsts for You”
Monday, Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar, 5735
To my Dear Family:
Finally, the day for which my soul had yearned and pined for arrived; the day that I was able to enter for yechidus, private encounter, into the Holy of Holies, the higher Gan Eden upon the earth.
Already half a year ago, it seemed to me that I was ready to go “within and within,” but Divine Providence willed otherwise. For days and weeks, I pleaded with Rabbi Leibel Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, to assign me a turn for yechidus, and he, doing his job devotedly, pushed me off, back and forth, to the point of outright refusal.
All of this caused a state of “nullification like dust” to my body and soul, to the point that I broke into bitter tears and retreated to my room near “770,” Chabad headquarters, for a long time to get back to myself. Perhaps that contributed to some degree the courage I worked up during the season of forgiveness to try my fortune again. And in fact, this time Rabbi Groner was benevolent: he gave me an appointment for yechidus, after the pressure of the guests for Tishrei would subside, in the month of Cheshvan, close to my birthday.
At a Loss
At last the long-awaited day drew close. However, the Rebbe’s sicha, discourse, recited only ten days previously, landed like a thunderbolt. In that sicha the Rebbe announced that the old system of going in for yechidus every year for one’s birthday would stop.
I was completely at a loss. Did these words apply to me as well? On the one hand, the yechidus was set in proximity to my birthday; on the other hand, this was my first yechidus and I had never gone in for one in my life. After much vacillation, and also upon the advice of my mentor, my mashpia, I came to the decision to continue my preparations and to go in as planned.
Once again, the following Shabbos, two days before the hoped-for time, there was an even sharper sicha.
The Rebbe spoke, “People are fooling the secretaries, telling them that it is an urgent yechidus, and when they come into my room, the topic is a birthday.”
He then screamed, “Aren’t my announcements sufficient? Are they interested in me discontinuing yechidus entirely?”
This time I was truly at a loss. Even the mashpia was uncertain, since after such a discourse, who would dare challenge the decision of the king? However, “my life in my petition” and my soul was yearning. Therefore, I decided to continue the regular preparations, and then to present all of my doubts before the Rebbe himself. As he commands, my soul abides: I would not enter with mara sh’chora — black bile, i.e., a depressive outlook — as the Rebbe had mentioned in his sicha, but “my soul thirsts for you.”
Visible & Revealed
On the appointed day, as is the practice of the yeshiva students, the t’mimim, I fasted, added in prayer and Torah study, and sent into the inner sanctum all of the questions and requests that were destined to be brought up that night in yechidus. In an addendum, I asked that the Rebbe be the one to decide if my entering for yechidus should be postponed.
Already before the afternoon prayer, Mincha, the Rebbe responded. On a portion of the letter he noted, “As per the advice of the administration of the yeshiva”; on another portion, “as per the advice of the mashpia”; and the part with the personal details he tore off and kept for himself. He added in a note to me that my not entering for yechidus and “acceptance of the judgment” should be in a way of visible and revealed good.
I waited for Mincha to encounter the Rebbe through eye contact, a special holy language of communication that on many occasions (when needed) I would employ (including the saying of “l’chaim” at farbrengens). Ah, how the Rebbe entered for Mincha, and even before Mincha turned his head in every direction and found me standing between two t’mimim, wondering and pleading.
And with that he restored my soul.
After the aforementioned handwritten responses, and after the eye-to-eye personal encounter, I decided to continue the fast until the evening as if it were a day that I went in for yechidus, but only “as if,” because I was truly awaiting the great day when I would actually be able to go in.
And so, on the day that was assigned for my friends, members of the k’vutza [group] year, I decided without any doubts: “If not now, when?”
I was aware that the yechidus was designated for the students of k’vutza who would be returning to the Holy Land, whereas I would be staying in 770. When asked about this detail, I answered that I was a member of this k’vutza and that my turn should not be lost, even though I would be staying in 770 (with the permission of the yeshiva administration).
On the aforementioned designated day – 25 Shevat 5735 – the 25th year of the Rebbe’s nesius, leadership, on Thursday, Parshas Mishpatim; after a day of preparations, additions in Torah study and prayer, an additional immersion in the mikvah, ritual bath, toward evening, and of course the “diminution of my fat and blood” on a day of fasting and Divine will, I entered for yechidus into the inner sanctum.
We were instructed on the protocol upon entering: three knocks on the door, kiss the mezuzah, be wearing a sash, gartel, and make the blessing of SheHechiyanu, “Who has given us life,” in a loud voice to which the Rebbe would answer “Amen.”
At close to ten p.m., I walked from the lower Paradise, Gan Eden HaTachton, to the upper Paradise, Gan Eden HaElyon, — the inner sanctum for yechidus. “He and the king alone, a different world . . . lofty, wondrous, luminous, aglow.”
The king was seated upon his throne, and as I entered and said the blessing, suddenly his holy voice reverberated, “Boruch hu u’varuch shmo, – Blessed be His Name.”
This came as a total shock, as I was not told to expect this in advance, and I already felt it slice through my “kidneys and heart.” After I handed the pidyon nefesh, letter of supplication, into his holy hand, the Rebbe raised his holy eyes and turned to my direction, conveying the feeling that there was nothing else in his world except the one standing before him.
He opened with a question – am I a Yiddish or Lashon HaKodesh, Hebrew, speaker, and I answered, “Yiddish.”
He then began to bless me: “May Hashem Yisborach fulfill all of the requests of your heart for good, and with much and outstanding success in all the matters mentioned. First and foremost, in the study of Torah, both in Nigleh [revealed] and Chassidus; may you add from strength to strength in the study of Torah and in the performance of mitzvoth with beautification and in avodas ha’t’filla, the service of prayer. And may we hear good tidings from all of those mentioned.
He continued, “May you serve as a living role model for the rest of the students, and may all matters of U’poratzta’ (said with a hard pei) not interfere with all that was mentioned. On the contrary, they should increase with an ongoing increase and light.”
He concluded, “May you be a G-dfearing Chassid and scholar, yerei Shamayim and lamdan, and may there always be good news all the days.”
Before the Master
I staggered backward in awe, banging into the book cabinet, until I found the door. When I had exited, still enveloped in the intense feelings, Rabbi Binyomin Klein, another secretary of the Rebbe, saw me somewhat “floating” and wished me “mazel tov.” In his characteristic mischievousness, he asked me, “When are you returning to Eretz Yisroel?”
The first question that the Rebbe asked me was not for naught. Even as I had written part of my letter in Yiddish, he still asked me about my spoken language, and the point seemed to me as follows:
When I began to learn in Tomchei T’mimim in Kfar Chabad, Israel, three years ago, I was asked to partner in study with students that didn’t speak Yiddish. A Yerushalmi boy like me, ever since he is weaned, learns all his days in Yiddish, Chumash, Mishna and Gemara, and since I had never explained words of Gemara in Ivrit, Modern Hebrew, I nearly declined to get involved with] such a chavrusa, study partner.
When I was sent by the yeshiva to teach Tanya in various distant yeshivas, which sometimes required six or more hours of travel, I was plagued by doubts. To what extent was devotion demanded to matters of “U’faratzta,” outreach, in order that they not interfere with learning and prayer?
Before writing the pidyon nefesh, with awe and trembling, I had sifted through every word. I debated as to whether to ask for a blessing for prayer. Would it be hubris on my part? In the end I decided to mention learning Nigleh and Chassidus only. However, one cannot “flee before the master;” therefore the Rebbe first responded to what I wrote in the letter, and then added his own blessing regarding prayer.
To Life and Blessing!
As far as the personal matter that I had asked about in connection with the yechidus that was supposed to have taken place in Cheshvan, I did not have the nerve to write again this time. However, at a later point in the year, a special sicha devoted to this topic was given, and when the Rebbe spoke intensely at the farbrengen, his eyes turned to me, and I lowered my gaze. When I raised them again, the Rebbe’s enflamed face was still turned toward me. Tears streamed from my eyes throughout the entire sicha.
At the conclusion of the sicha, I raised my hand with a cup for l’chaim, a toast. With a shining face and the look of a father who is compassionate, magnanimous, and bestowing of good, the Rebbe answered me: “L’chaim v’livracha, to life and blessing.”
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