Part 3: Rabbi Shmully Hecht, Senior Chabad Rabbi at Yale, describes his Shabbos Gimmel Tammuz 5779 at the Ohel. By Shmully Hecht, Senior Chabad Rabbi at Yale
For part 1, click here.
For part 2, click here.
By Shmully Hecht, Senior Chabad Rabbi at Yale
… Rabbi Wohlberg. Oy the holy Rabbi Wohlberg. Oholei Torah’s former Rosh Yeshiva, now of Manchester, has trained a generation of Talmudic Scholars to delve deeply into the intricacies of the Talmud and decipher its legal and moral complexities; and to do so unpretentiously. His unassuming persona always drew Yeshiva Bochur and College student alike. His words at the Ohel earlier in the day resonated deeply. His words, brief yet lasting, always do.
The Ohel on Gimel Tamuz was crowded and the numbers were unprecedented. As individuals, we are often challenged to find our distinct space and individual standing, both literally and conceptually. Yet as Lubavitchers we maintain a collective identity. In unison, we are challenged to fashion the distinct paths on which we all travel. We shape a particular genre and tune within the broader melody performed by many. No different than a single musician in a large orchestra. “Makom Haaron Einoi Min Hamidah,” Reb Moshe quipped with a half-smile on his face. ‘The Holy Ark required a perfect and precise measurement to attain its sacred status in the Temple. So did the Holy of Holies in which it was set. In fact, the Torah delineates their exact dimensions. Yet simultaneously the Talmud tells us, the ark took up no actual space in the Holy of Holies. ‘If you want to fit into this or any tight space Shmully, and actually situate yourself in totality, you must first dissipate into the ether.’
It dawned on me. The conundrum of the Aron challenges the mind to entertain two opposites coexisting. Space and non-space. This is a common theme discussed in Chasidus when describing various manifestations of G-d and his universe. The Archimedes principal explains that buoyancy makes things feel lighter in water, as a solid object displaces liquid of the equivalent size. The key word is feeling lighter, for the weight of the object doesn’t change in water. It only seems that way, as the water pushes the object upward. Newtonian Physics on the other hand discovered that actual weight is indeed relative to its environment. As the gravitational pull recedes, mass actually weighs less. In other words, weight is measured as mass, relative to the gravitational pull of its surroundings. For this reason, on the moon where there is less gravity then on Earth, an object will actually weigh one sixth of what it weighs on Earth. In outer space, a heavy object may even be weightless.
Reb Moshe was using the Meta Universe of the Holy of Holies analogy as a lesson in our practical lives. He was reminding me that only through absolute self-negation can one achieve our true place in the Universe. And it starts right here at the Ohel. The greatest minds and personalities in Chabad were always those most subservient to the Rebbe’s wishes and requests . It made them greater Chasidim, and greater men, for that matter. Precisely because the Ohel was packed was there room for everyone. Historians allege that Lyndon Johnson always lived in the shadows of JFK, and that it influenced the achievements of his entire Presidency.
As I stumbled out of the RV and crossed the street, I recalled bumping into Rabbi Mendy Uminer at Dawn on Shabos morning. He was heading to the mikvah at that exact spot. We were both lethargic. Mendy is the Shliach in Chestnut Hill, an upscale suburb of Boston. We had spent many years together with the Rebbe. “Shmully, look down the street and witness the amazing diversity of Jews represented here this Shabos,” he commented. “not to mention the intensity of the learning, the davening, and the achdus. It is truly exhilarating.” We embraced, spoke briefly about our children, our communities, and the love of the Rebbe. I even tried to marry off my son to his daughter right there. He wasn’t biting. Considering that early hour, he couldn’t have slept much. A Bostonian vagabond? No, a Chasidic weekend-groupie who disconnected the battery in his car and transformed it into his divan for the night. Chestnut Hill Shmesnut Hill, I thought… He made my blow-up mattress seem like the Taj Mahal.
And speaking of the masses that had attended, Levi Drimmer suggested a stopover at Rabbi Berel Shemtov before our departure from the Ohel. Reb Berel is a veteran soldier of the Rebbe and directs Chabad of Michigan, and the renowned yeshivas and camps of Detroit. At his home near the Ohel we met Rabbi Levi Shemtov, founder of the Friendship Circle. The revolutionary Chabad program now in 80 locations, pairs teenagers with Children and adolescents of special needs. Friendship circle has widened Chabad’s social services arm internationally, bringing thousands of families closer to G-d and Lubavitch. During our childhood in the 1980s Levi was always a star in Gan Yisroel. Brilliant, entertaining, funny and kind. To this very day I remember his knockouts to the outfield on the baseball field when the camp staff entertained the campers to a game, helping us get through the Fast days. Could anyone have predicted that any of us would now be responsible for creating an International Organization? Only in Lubavitch. We discussed the challenges of ultimately opening the next 80 centers. Levi was plotting more mosdos on this holy day. Rather Appropriate.
And in Reb Berel’s humble abode we encountered his daughter, Rebetzin Greenberg of Alaska. Despite the myth, her Chabad house is not in an igloo. The Rebetzin and her husband Reb Yoske have founded Chabad centers in a region of the world one wouldn’t imagine ever meeting Jews. Let’s be honest. When is the last time you were sitting at a sheva brochos next to a Jew from Alaska. When my friend, Yale Professor Mark Oppenheimer was writing a book about exotic bar mitzvahs, I expressed that it would only be comprehensive with an Alaskan tale. He actually came to the Ohel to meet the Greenbergs and transcribed it. I told the Rebetzin I would have to visit. Denali that is, and of course Chabad of Anchorage. When we asked Reb Berel to make sense of it all, he simply replied, “We must bring twenty million Jews to the Ohel.”
The clock neared four o’clock post meridian. I found Levi at the entrance to the Banquet tent and we immediately noticed the wisest man in California in row three. Should Dean Post have been the cleverest man in the State, Rabbi Ezra Schochet was definitely the wisest. I had studied Talmud under the tutelage of Rabbi Schochet and had taught Talmud to Dean Robert Post. I learned to never confuse smarts with wisdom.
As a yeshiva bochur, The Rosh as he is known, was the sensation of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim Toronto, Chofetz Chaim Baltimore, Ner Yisroel, and Beit Medrosh Gevoah of Lakewood. He was the prize student of Rav Aron Kotler OBM and learned with his son Rav Schneur Kotler. In Eretz Yisroel he was the wonder mind of Brisk and dialogued with the heads of Mir, Ponovitz, Chebin and Yeshivas Chevron. Having excelled in all the great halls of Talmudic Scholarship he rose to prominence as a Sar Hatorah in Lubavitch. He is among the elder Shluchim, Roshei Yeshivas and Chasidim of the Rebbe. Were the Rosh not a chosid, the Yeshiva world would have long ago crowned him a Gadol Hador.
On the subject of other factions within the Jewish world; I was relaying my account of Shabos Gimel Tamuz with my then chavrusa of 1993 in Los Angeles. We talked about the farbrengen with the Rosh. My brother in law Schneur Zalman Kaplan relayed that on this past Shabos a Jew that lives an hour and a half from Fort Lauderdale showed up in his shul. This Yid grew up in Satmar and left the fold decades ago. Unrecognizable. On the exterior that is. Having heard of Rabbi Kaplan’s Chabad house from another Satmar friend who has assimilated, he decided to attend this one time. Schneur Zalman described how this middle aged Jew visited shul for the first time in forty years. He came up to the Torah with his hands trembling, as he fetched a siddur to refresh himself of the language of the blessings. He grasped the Torah Scroll and cried out Borchi es hashem hamivoirach, in his childhood Hungarisha dialect. The words emanating from the core of his being. This yid had not been called up to the Torah for forty years and remarked on the irony of the fact that when he was young, Satmar fought with Lubavitch. “Loi Yidach memenu nidach,” said Rabbi Kaplan. No Jew will be left behind. Not even the Jews who once frequented Satmar, Mir or Brisk, only to deliberately abandon their parents’ home. They ultimately show up at our centers regularly, and the stories are literally endless.
It was here that the weekend culminated, and the confluence was formed. Mayim Rabim, plentiful waters join in unison, only to usher a greater force that exceeds the sum of its parts. Levi and I were a bit broken. I assume most of us were. Silently reflecting on the question, what happened to the Rebbe’s assurance of Moshiach’s imminent arrival? A year late, ok. A decade, perhaps. Jews are notoriously late. But what would the neo Misnagedim in Lakewood say if we returned after Shabos and the Golus survived us. I have been blessed to have met many great men. Both religious and otherwise. If there was one person that could resolve the community’s dilemma , it was Rabbi Schochet. The unspoken quandary was percolating in the minds of all. Those honest enough to admit it, and those in silence.
Levi grabbed me by the shirt and forced our way into the tightly assembled horde of spiritual nomads listening attentively to the Rosh. Lubavitch has few geniuses. No more or less than anywhere else. Lots of brilliant folk, but prodigies are rare. The Rosh was trapped as we jumped in headfirst. “All courtesy aside,” Levi remarked. ‘This is an urgent time. The meaning of life is on the line Shmully. No time for niceties.’
Can Waze simply be wrong? I always convey to my children that we can’t see advancing traffic because a three-dimensional frame of reference is incomplete. Waze can see around the globe because satellites and fellow wazers feed the system and extend its line of sight. Trust the computer. Traffic patterns are computed quite simply, assuming of course you have the data. The Rebbe could not be wrong.
“Rabbi Schochet,” I proclaimed, interjecting myself into his farbrengen. “The sun will set in a few hours and it seems like we will be returning next year. It’s time to call the bluff of all the greats. You must call for the resurrection or we are compelled to resign,” I continued. “Enough is enough. Time to crack the great deception.” It was sheer chutzpah and utter disrespect. My mother would have scolded me, and that is an understatement. Yet a farbrengen is a time for honesty and I proceeded. Everyone knows how much Rabbi Schochet loves his students and we were proud to be among his many.
I was going for broke. My head was gradually being squeezed to the table by the weight of the crowd, as I was sure my cranium was being crushed. I caught a glimpse of the Holy Rosh’s face as I squinted and caught his eye. The omnipotent Rosh in all his glory.
And then Aryeh Schottenstein reappeared. Levi Drimmer courteously elbowed two younger fellas over a bit to make room for Reb Aryeh. Aryeh remains a beloved disciple of the Rosh. This was not to be missed. It was raavah diraaven, the most auspicious time of the Shabbos day. As he squeezed his way in, Aryeh found himself sitting directly across Rabbi Schochet, eye to eye, head and mind locked with the Master. For most of us present at those final hours, the exact words are a bit lost, but the message has been etched in our souls. No greater evidence than the weekly Torah class Reb Aryeh organized this week in Levi’s office. From the tent at the Ohel to Corporate America. From the lips of the Rosh to the minds of every chosid. Even Miami will never be the same!
The Rosh’s response was rather harsh. The truth often is. Consequently, it often falls on deaf ears. We embrace lies because they are comfortable; in every facet of our lives. We often arrive at the truth at the closing argument and verdict of a trial, with the findings relayed by a surgeon, at the ruling at a divorce hearing, in the outcome of an election, and through the shattering words of a eulogy. Truth is also the turning point in every conflict, the resolution of every debate, the liberating inspiration of every social movement, and the climax of every revolution. As we cuddled together like the Jews at Mount Sinai, I caught a glimmer of the smile on Levi Drimmer’s face. Levi always wears a beaming grin on his panim. A joyous physiognomy. Period. He loves to share, loves to help and loves period. And like most homo sapiens, he too is searching. There was a reason he took the flight, dragged the mattress across the town, endured the night with not even a snooze, and convinced me to head to U-Haul and make the trip. We were about to collect on the immaterial contribution we had made in seeking improvement in our lives. As shuddering as it turned out to be, we wouldn’t depart without it.
For four hours Rabbi Schochet laid down the law. The vodka flowed at 20 minutes intervals, so I paraphrase as best as I can.
“Heeeeeecht…” the Rosh raged. ‘Who do you think you are, making demands of the Creator and testing 3700 years of our survival? Are you worthy of the resurrection and revelation of Mashiach? Why do you assume you are going to show up with petitions and mandates expecting wonders be performed? Enough of your petty frustrations! You have obstructed Justice! Yes, you have hindered the divine order! What have you done to effect change? Have you moved the needle one iota? Have you modified your behavior over the years? Have you for one moment ever gone out of your comfort zone in your service of the Creator? Have you even once done a favor for someone else, selflessly, anonymously, with altruistic love? Why do we assume that we are the heirs to the ultimate revelation of G-d’s infinite kindness when we have pressed the snooze button on the entire ordeal?’
The Rosh elaborated on Chapter 41 of Tanya, The Rebbe’s sichos of 1967, insights of the parshah dealing with the giving of the Torah, interspersed with snippets of bitush, harsh but loving discipline for all of us. He spoke of the importance of the basic daily Chitas and Rambam requirements, davening with kavanah, and ahavas Yisroel, as the melody of Shuvah Hashem Ad Mosai filled the air. The wind crackled through the opening of the tent as a tear-filled Rabbi Schochet reminded us that the revelation was about us. Yes US! Our devotion, Our dedication, Our commitment, Our actions, Our deeds, Our sacrifice, Our transformation, Our personal spiritual metamorphosis. It had nothing to do with G-d or the Rebbe. We were not victims of Golus, we were the culprits. No lifeguard was arriving any time soon. No Boat. No helicopter. Learn to swim really fast my friend. We were compelled to redeem ourselves. It was in our own very hands. ‘This was the final message of the Rebbe, as he proclaimed Ich gib das iber zu eich, I bestow it upon you the Chasidim to complete the sacred mission.’
And at that final hour, as the crowd quietly dispersed, The Holy Chosid Reb Ezra rose from his chair and with the sincerest expression on the face of humanity, he said, “and I speak of course to myself.”
We headed back to the Ohel where the masses were assembling. On the way to the Ohel I passed the grave of my late grandfather Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda Hecht, who was buried as he lived; at the Rebbe’s side. JJ Hecht as he was known, was often described as the Rebbe’s ben Yachid and best friend.
I reminisced how My zeide, with whom I lived for the final five years of his life, often reminded us that we were born on a mountain top. Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu Umah Naim Goiraleinu
Shabbos was over.
Two score and five years ago the sun set over the horizon and darkness descended upon the world. Entering this twilight of history, we were individually empowered to restore the everlasting flame of the universe. Each and every time we ignite a spark, our own, and that of others, we illuminate our nocturnal existence and propel the great luminary back over the perpetual landscape of time. Blessed are we, children and disciples of the Holy Rebbe of Lubavitch, eternally revered and loved by all.