To the Rebbe, honoring Jewish traditions—including those not of Chabad origin–was very important. Rabbi Kivi Bernhard, now living in Atlanta, GA, had the merit, while a bochur, to witness the Rebbe’s tremendous respect for Jews of all backgrounds.
In the following photo, captured at just the right moment, he is standing and watching the Rebbe receive a visitor’s special greeting. “It was a very interesting exchange and a fascinating insight into the Rebbe and his appreciation of minhagei klal Yisroel (Jewish custom and practice).”
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Kivi Bernhard relates:
“It was 1982, and this was now my second Rosh Hashana that I would be traveling from South Africa to spend with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Before I departed from Johannesburg, my father Rabbi Nachman Bernhard (may he live and be well), a very close confidant of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, pulled me aside at the airport and shared the following with me: “There are many rabbis, rabbeim, teachers, sages and mentors the world over. But Kivi, a Rebbe is an entirely different thing altogether. As you go now to be at the Rebbe for the Yom Tov (High Holidays) you have the opportunity to observe what a Jew is in its essence. Watch the Rebbe intently and study the detail. You will glean gems of Judaism.”
My father had given me a mission, not just an instruction, and I was now on my way. His words were almost prophetic, as the following small but profound encounter took place while I was privileged to be nearby the Rebbe.
There is a well known tradition amongst Jews to share honey cake with one another the days before Rosh Hashana to induce a sentiment of “sweetness” as we head into the days of judgment. This was a converted practice of the Rebbe, and the day before Rosh Hashana he would distribute lekach [honey cake] and a short blessing for success, to hundreds of people for hours on end.
For me, as a visitor to Crown Heights (the Rebbe’s headquarters), this was a major opportunity to have some “private time” with the Rebbe, and I made sure to be there early and assume my place in line. I found myself behind a very nice man who was clearly of Sefardi tradition. We spoke awhile and he shared with me that he was a Yemenite Jew living in Brooklyn who made an effort to see the Rebbe of Lubavitch whenever possible. We stood on line for about an hour before finding ourselves in the Rebbe’s chambers about to receive lekach and a blessing from him.
My new friend was now up and stood in front of the Rebbe. In keeping with his Sefardi tradition, he instinctively sought to take the Rebbe’s hand to kiss it (a well known practice among many Sefardi Jews when greeting a great Torah sage and personality). Suddenly however, my friend withdrew in response to verbal and some light physical pressure that was suddenly thrust on him from some of the young “organizers” that were “helping out” the Rebbe.
They felt they were doing the Rebbe a big favor by zealously discouraging anything that was not in keeping with the Chabad tradition. Even though there were many occasions where Sefardi leaders and Jews did in fact kiss the Rebbe’s hand, it was not a custom of Chabad and might be seen as inappropriate amongst the “passionate” followers of the Rebbe. The Rebbe was clearly frustrated by this misplaced display of “righteous fervor” and the following fascinating and penetrating lesson unfolded.
As this Sfardi man responded to the pressure and retracted his hands that had reached out to kiss the hand of the Rebbe (in an effort to simply behave like everyone else), the Rebbe engaged him with a penetrating look and said, “Nu?” The Rebbe himself then extended his right hand back to the man, who then took it and kissed it.
The Rebbe then smiled at him, while all around registered what the Rebbe had just taught us. It was not only about the Rebbe insuring that another human being should not be embarrassed, but it was a critical message to validate the importance and bona-fide of a minhag klal Yisroel (established custom of the Jewish people) , even though not the personal custom of the Rebbe or Chabad.
This is why you see the Rebbe looking at the gentleman so intently while kissing his hand. The Rebbe wanted him to practice his tradition as a Sefardi Jew and to do so with joy, with passion and with completeness.
A Jewish custom and tradition is a holy thing. Through this encounter I had, the Rebbe certainly taught me, at least, that as we love our fellow Jews and draw them near, we must respect other Jewish traditions and practices, clearly understanding that they are not to become subject to our own personal interpretation or cultural whim and wham.
My father was of course right: the essence of the Rebbe served to show us who we are as Jews, not just what to do as Jews.