Weekly Chasidic Story #1020(s5777-39/ 3 Tamuz 5777)

Passionate Patience

"Seven and eight year old boys were also present at the farbrengen, squeezing and swaying in their positions on bleacher benches so that I feared for their safety."

Connection: Seasonal--23rd yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Passionate Patience


The farbrengen, an intimate gathering of master and disciples, which the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe used as the platform to deliver most of his teachings, has been eloquently depicted by a number of non-Chasidic visitors. In a 1964 memoir, American social critic and author Harvey Swados (1920-1972) describes his attendance at a "ceremonial of oratory, toasts, and singing," noting in particular the contrast between "two aspects of Rabbi Schneerson, the coolly analytical and the gaily earthy."

I had been prepared for a crowd, but not for this crushing mob of bearded males, many of them like myself in winter overcoats which they could not possibly raise their arms to remove, not for the little seven- and eight-year olds, their heads uniformly covered with faux leather hats with earflaps,* squeezed and swaying so that I feared for their safety.

Someone recognized me as an invited guest, and I was passed along through a side entrance, and so found myself wedged on a corner of the platform not six feet from the Rebbe, who was addressing the throng from a chair in which he was seated behind a long table covered with a white cloth, and flanked by two rows of the dignified, black-frocked elders of the Chasidic movement.

Looking at the congregants, I saw what the Rebbe must have seen: a most remarkable assemblage, and one which for my part I shall never forget.

Seated facing each other at three long tables, also covered with linen cloths on which stood an occasional bottle of Tokay kosher wine, a dish of cookies, a paper sack filled with cakes, were several hundred men, ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies. Some were in business suits, others in the elegant black dressing gown that a pious chasid wears for festive occasions, tied in the middle with a gartel, the sash that symbolizes the separation of man's higher mental and spiritual qualities from the inferior ones. Perhaps nine out of ten were bearded - not for convenience, or perhaps vanity, as I was myself, but in accordance with religious prescriptions - and for some moments I was lost in contemplation of the immense variety of thickets, red, brown, black, gray, some sparse, others extravagantly luxuriant, in which many of their wearers allowed their fingers to stray, thoughtfully and proudly.

But as I freed myself from contemplation of the panorama of beards over the white tables, I became aware of the younger men closely packed against either wall, standing on raised planks like bleachers, of the many hundreds wedged tightly together at the rear of the hall, among whom I too had been squashed, and of those in the balcony, which was concealed from the rest of us by tinted green glass - because, I realized, it was reserved for female congregants, some carrying little ones, their noses pressed against the glass. I became aware, too, of how these hundreds thronged together were attending, with a kind of passionate patience to the speech of the Rebbe, who was addressing them calmly and steadily in a fluent Yiddish, without rising or raising his voice.

Since I could not follow the complex line of his discourse, with its parables taken from traditional Chasidic tales and homely incidents, interwoven with abstruse philosophical theory, I was free to stare at all those around me - rabbis, merchants, scholars, small business men, students, workmen - who were listening with an intensity I had never encountered, whether in a classroom, at the public lectern, or at a religious or political rally.

Several teenage boys, their beards just starting to sprout, their eyes half-closed, trancelike, unseeing, swayed back and forth rapidly from the waist up, almost as if their torsos were propelled by some independent internal motor, in the contained ecstasy of their participation in the Rebbe's peroration.

Behind me, his hands clasped in his lap as he listened, quite motionless, sat a well-known mathematician from a Midwestern university. Just below me, a sturdy rough-hewn man hunched over the table in profound thought as if carved of wood, his shaggy brows and graying beard shaded by the peak of a Russian workman's cap of the kind that one sees in old photographs of Russian revolutionaries and litterateurs. Who could he be? I discovered later that he had been released only two weeks before from twenty years of captivity in Soviet prison camps (where he had gained extraordinary renown for selfless generosity), and that he had flown from London relatives directly to this farbrengen in order that he might listen to the Rebbe.

Meanwhile the Rebbe, having concluded his first address of the evening, moistened his lips with the wine glass, and accepted, with a smiling inclination of the head, toasts eagerly offered him by those about him. It was then that the singing began.

At first spontaneous, soon encouraged and "conducted" by the Rebbe, who swung his forearms gaily, rhythmically to the bear of the music from his seated position, the simple song rose to a pitch of unrestrained enthusiasm, with the chorus repeated ten, fifteen times, each time wilder and faster. A man would have had to be made of stone not to respond to this great release of joyous energy. I did not know the words, but I found myself singing along with all those who showed their teeth through their beards bobbing from side to side in time to the music, often hopping up and down as well.

Suddenly, at the slightest of signals from the Rebbe, everyone fell silent. Refreshed and restored, they reverted to their posture of rapt attentiveness while the Rebbe resumed speaking for another three quarters of an hour. Fascinated by this alternation of intense intellectual virtuosity and physical release through song (the Rebbe continued speaking, I was told later, until about three o'clock in the morning), I stayed until perhaps midnight.

Source: Excerpted from the 539 page biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Turning Judaism Outward by Rabbi Chaim Miller. The following is his citation:

Harvey Swados, "I Am Interviewed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe," Harvey Swados Papers, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, Box 20:222. For other impressions of a farbrengen see: Eli Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest (New York; Avon Books, 1966) pp. 187-199; Ellen Korkoft, Music in Lubavitcher Life (University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp.3-15; Bonnie Morris, Lubavitcher Women, pp. 58-60; Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of a Hasdic Family (Touchstone, 1985), pp. 121-5; Edward Hoffman, Despite All Odds: The Story of Lubavitch (Simon and Schuster, 1991), pp. 29-36; Weiner, Nine and a Half Mystics.

* In the original: "leather helmets (the kind that we called 'Lindy hats' when I was that age)"

Biographical note:
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe ?''?: [11 Nissan 5662 - 3 Tammuz 5754 (April 1902 - June 1994 C.E.)], became the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty after his father-in-law's passing on 10 Shvat 5710 (1950 C.E.). He is widely acknowledged as the greatest Jewish leader of the second half of the 20th century. Although a dominant scholar in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah and fluent in many languages and scientific subjects, the Rebbe is best known for his extraordinary love and concern for every Jew on the planet. His emissaries around the globe dedicated to strengthening Judaism number in the thousands. Hundreds of volumes of his teachings have been printed, as well as dozens of English renditions.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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