Rabbi Pesach Schmerling
Chabad of Far Rockaway
It was a cold winter day as we walked to daven Minchah with the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l at 770 Eastern Parkway. It was an ordinary Wednesday; the date was the 3rd of Shevat 5752. Minchah was at 3:15 and we thought that immediately after Minchah we would walk the few blocks back to the Beis Medrash of Yeshivas Oholei Torah on Troy Avenue for the afternoon Gemara Seder. After davening, the Rebbe turned around slightly toward the lectern at the wall, which was the sign that the lectern should be set up for the Rebbe to speak. This came as a surprise to us, as this was not a special date on the Chabad calendar, and also because the Rebbe would rarely speak after Minchah (after Maariv was more common).
Even more surprising were the words the Rebbe spoke to us:
The 3rd of Shevat begins the week of the 10th of Shevat, the Yahrzeit of the 6th Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson zt”l. In the later years of his life Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok suffered from health problems, including impaired speech, which hindered his ability to teach Chassidus. Therefore everyone should take on to learn from his Torah in a manner that it should fill that void caused by the health issues he suffered. Everyone should be like the ‘Aharon’ for ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’ – every Chassid should be the “Aharon your brother . . . should be for you a mouthpiece” to transmit the words of the Rebbe, the Moshe of the generation.
We couldn’t understand why now suddenly, 42 years after the passing of the Frierdiker Rebbe, we, the Chassidim, would be charged with filling that void.
Almost two months later the Rebbe suffered a stroke which impaired the Rebbe’s speech. During the last month leading up to the stroke the Rebbe spoke almost every single night after Maariv, which was highly unusual. We then also recalled what happened a few months earlier on Shmini Atzeres after Maariv. The Rebbe turned around to face the Chassidim and spoke for a few minutes. In that Sichah the Rebbe went through the Brochos for the year according to each letter of the Alef Beis (which was usually only done on Erev Yom Kippur): Shnas Orah, Shnas Brachah, Shnas Gilah . . . (a year of light, blessing, joy . . .). At the letter Pei the Rebbe said Shnas Peh (year of the mouth) instead of Shnas Pedus (year of redemption). We couldn’t understand what this was supposed to mean and it remained a mystery until the 27th of Adar I, when the Rebbe’s speech became impaired.
This winter will mark 24 years since those events transpired. The mission the Rebbe gave us on that day was to learn and spread the Rebbe’s Torah teachings. At the same time as a Chassid of the Rebbe I also feel compelled to share with others details about the Rebbe’s style, modus operandi etc., which many people don’t know and have a distorted perception based on erroneous information. This applies especially when there is a need to stand up for the honor of the Rebbe, to clear up any misconceptions about the Rebbe’s holy conduct.
I would like to share a few typical anecdotes, some of which I have witnessed myself, while the others are printed in the Toras Menachem series in which all the Rebbe’s public talks are compiled, or in the Rebbe’s Igros Kodesh series, the compilation of the Rebbe’s letters, and the like.
Once a certain individual had to bentch Gomel and he did so before the Kaddish at the end of Krias HaTorah. The Rebbe spoke at the Farbrengen later, that while traditionally the Rebbes of Chabad would not mix in to matters of Gabbaus in Shul, but this is a Halachic matter, and people might think that because this occurred in his presence he agrees with this. The Rebbe then went on to explain why this was wrong and he should have bentched Gomel after Kaddish.
While the Sefer Torah would be brought to the Bima the Rebbe would follow it with his gaze on it’s way from the Aron Kodesh to the Bima. One of the Gabboim standing on the raised platform Bima once took off the crown from the Sefer Torah as it came to the edge of the Bima, before it reached the table for layning. Later the Rebbe spoke about this and explained why this was incorrect, and that in the future they should wait till the Sefer Torah is at the table to remove the crown.
One of the elder Chassidim, whose place during davening was near the Rebbe’s place, was once called up for an aliya. As he got up and walked to the Bima, he closed his Chumash and placed his glasses on top of it. The Rebbe motioned quietly to a Bochur standing nearby to take the glasses off the Chumash.
The Rebbe would always receive the last aliya (shlishi during the week, reve’ee on rosh chodesh and chol hamoed, maftir on shabbos and yom tov), and therefore always stood at the bima during hagbah. Many times after gelila the magbiha would forget to turn the Sefer Torah around while holding the Sefer Torah in his seat. The Rebbe would motion to turn the Sefer Torah around.
A father and a child stood in the entrance hall of 770. The Rebbe walked by and told the father that the design on the child’s shirt looks like a cross and they should go home to change it for a different shirt.
Numerous times the Rebbe spoke out sharply against people looking at him during davening, when one is supposed to focus on the davening and “know before Whom you stand”. On one of those occasions the Rebbe said that the elder Chassidim should have been the ones to speak out against this behavior, but as they didn’t do this, he had no choice but to do this himself.
After the Rebbe suffered a heart attack on Shmini Atzeres 5738 (1977) the Rebbe held a Seudas Hodaah Farbrengen on Zos Chanukah. The Rebbe arranged this without prior public knowledge. He asked Rabbi JJ Hecht to organize everything secretly and that it should be publicized only shortly before the Farbrengen. The Rebbe told him that he should buy Challah as the Rebbe wanted to wash for a Seudah. Rabbi Hecht did as instructed. When the Rebbe approached his place, he saw that two Challos had been prepared. The Rebbe instructed that one Challah be removed to prevent an erroneous impression that there might be a need for Lechem Mishna at occasions other than Shabbos and Yom Tov.
Once during Chanukah a new Menorah was donated to the Shul in 770. While they lit the Menorah the Rebbe looked on and then called over one of the secretaries to go over and tell them to change the position of the Shamash, as it was too similar to the Menoras Hamikdash. The Shamash holder was later changed accordingly.
There were many times that Shluchim sent their brochures or flyers to the Rebbe, and the Rebbe would tell them to change them because there were either Halachic or Hashkafic issues with them. One example: A brochure about Purim was prepared and on it a comparison between Purim and Halloween (lehavdil) was made in the context of wearing costumes on Purim. The Rebbe requested all of these brochures to be destroyed.
There are many more examples like these. Anyone familiar with the Rebbes modus operandi is aware that the suggestion which was printed here last week, that the Rebbe “often did not publicly distance himself from many similar things” is incorrect. Certainly this is true when we are discussing something like the public Menorah lightings, which wasn’t a onetime occurrence. The Rebbe stood and watched live broadcasts of Menorah lightings with Brochos being recited in numerous cities around the world year after year after year. While it is true that the Rebbe never directly addressed the topic whether Brachos can be recited at these lightings (although he did compare them to the lightings in Shul!), it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that he did not consider them to be Brachos Levatala. The grave transgression of saying Hashem’s name in vain is much worse than any of the above examples, and the Rebbe would have surely corrected that if he would have held the opinion that it is forbidden to do so. To suggest that the Rebbe would witness this and ignore an issur d’oraissa being committed over and over again and not speak out against it is wrong and offensive.
As was already pointed out previously, while it is true that there are numerous gedolei haposkim who were of the opinion that berachos cannot be recited on such lightings, numerous other gedolei haposkim clearly allowed it, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe obviously also shared this latter view, and did not consider them to be chas v’shalom brachos levatalah.
Different communities in Klal Yisroel follow differing piskei halachah on countless matters, and each community respects the other. This is how it worked for about 2000 of years already. Ever since we don’t have a Sanhedrin anymore, there is no one halachic authority that the entire Klal Yisroel must follow. This is how it will remain until the coming of Mashiach when the Sanhedrin will be reinstated. May it be speedily in our days!