How to Do Mitzvot Like a Rebbe
[A letter received in the mid 80's by the editor of The Jewish Press,
I read with pleasure your article on Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneershon.
I had the great fortune to personally experience this remarkable rabbi's
dedication to helping Jews return to the observance of mitzvot.
Even today, many decades later and despite the anemia of old age,
I blush when I recall the chutzpa displayed by six of my friends
and I towards Rabbi Schneersohn, and how we were gently turned around.
It was in 1929, when several articles appeared in various Jewish
newspapers available in Philadelphia in those days about one Rabbi
Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. These articles quoted the Rebbe
at great length and in much detail. My friends and I read these articles
and wondered amongst ourselves whether the Rebbe was actually planning
to replace the Al-mighty. We discussed this with an official of our
synagogue, and he suggested that we visit the Rebbe and ask him what
he had in mind.
One of the articles had mentioned that he had been given the use
of a house on 33rd Street by Mrs. Faggen-Miller, a woman well known
for her charitable nature. Accordingly, late one Saturday evening
we all piled into the car and drove to the listed address. Our intention
was to confront the Rebbe and challenge him that we thought he was
trying to displace G-d.
As we climbed the steps to the front porch, we saw through the window
that the living room was crowded with men. We rang the doorbell and
a dignified, bearded man came to the door and inquired what we wanted.
One of us responded: "We'd like to speak to the Rebbe. We have
an important question to ask."
All this time the man was taking notes. We subsequently found out
that he was Rabbi Yehezkel Feigen, the Rebbe's personal secretary.
"About what?" he said: "The Rebbe must know the question
before he can see you."
"We'd like to know how he expects us to keep an old-fashioned
religion in a modern country." (We knew we couldn't tell this
man our originally intended question.)
"You'll have to wait," he said. "You see there is
quite a crowd before you. But come in."
We told him we'd wait on the porch as there wouldn't be room for
all of us in the packed living room. In a few minutes he returned
and said that the Rebbe would see us at once. He ushered us into the
house, through the crowded living room, and up the stairs. We wondered
why we had been admitted before all those people downstairs who had
been there before us.
the top of the stairs stood the Rabbi. He was handsome, and saintly
looking, with gleaming, bright eyes. He wore a large fur hat. His
hand was outstretched in greeting. I was surprised since I never knew
that Chassidic rebbes extended their hands in greeting.
"This is the happiest moment I've had in Philadelphia,"
he said as he started to arrange chairs around his desk. We tried
to help him, but he insisted that he wanted to do this task himself.
Once we were seated he took a long look at each one of us and then
began: "You look like very intelligent young men, and therefore
I must speak on your level. You are wondering about those people downstairs
who were here before you. Well, here are some of the problems for
which they are asking help.
"One man's daughter is seriously ill. What can I do? Nothing
more then he can do, provided he approaches G-d. He should be able
to ask for a complete recovery.
"Another has a lawsuit and wants me to pray that he will win.
I do not know who's right, but he can pray that the L-rd will give
"There is a man who wants to buy a business and wants me to
intercede to make sure it succeeds. If I could do that, I'd be a rich
"But if I could not answer your question, I'd have no right
to be a rabbi."
The Rebbe smiled and continued. "First, I must admit a great
secret, which I trust you will most likely keep. There are 613 mitzvot,
and while the Lubavitcher Rebbe tries to keep them all, he finds it
impossible to keep them all. So what does he do? Discard 613 mitzvot?
No, he keeps as many of them as humanly possible."
With these few words he removed the venom we had brought with us.
Then he asked us to try and keep as many mitzvot as we could.
If we kept as many as we could, then we'd be doing the same thing
as the Lubavitcher Rebbe!
Then he asked for our Jewish names and the names of our mothers.
We also offered our legal names and addresses but he said he had no
use for them. Several of the boys put their hands in their pockets,
but he stopped them with a gesture, thanked us, and said he had no
use for money; what he wanted was mitzvot.
He asked us whether we put on tefillin every day. Several
admitted they had given up. Whereupon he offered them tefillin
so they could fulfill the mitzva. All of us promised to try
to live up to his suggestions. He then blessed us individually and
shook hands with us again, and we left.
We stood on the porch for nearly two hours digesting the visit.
Everyone agrees to pray at least once a day. One said he would give
up his Saturday work as a dental technician and some months later
he even prevailed upon his employer to do the same.
One of us, Gabriel Lowenthal, of blessed memory, attached himself
to a synagogue and taught what he had learned from the Rebbe's philosophy
to many others. I have lost track of some of the boys, but I'm sure
that the ten minutes we spent with the Rebbe strengthened the spirit
of Judaism for all of us.
The depression and later World War II gave me little hope of ever
gaining more light from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. However, I found continued
inspiration from his son-in-law, the present Rebbe, to keep as many
of the 613 mitzvot as I can.
[From "Chassidic Gems", edited by Tuvia Litzman]
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (12 Tammuz 1880-10 Shvat 1950),
known as the Rebbe Rayatz, was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, from 1920
to 1950. He established a network of Jewish educational institutions
and Chassidim that was the single most significant factor for the
preservation of Judaism during the dread reign of the communist Soviets.
. In 1940 he moved to the USA, established Chabad world-wide headquarters
in Brooklyn and launched the global campaign to renew and spread Judaism
in all languages and in every corner of the world, the campaign continued
and expanded so remarkably successfully by his son-in-law and successor,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent
Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds
of published stories to his credit.