Friday, April 9, 2010

A Professor's Moving Recollection With The Rebbe.

This Friday, March 26 -- 11 Nissan -- marks the 108th birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Avner Institute would like to present an inspiring essay written by Susan Handelman, Professor of English, Bar Ilan University, in which she recounts her visits to the Rebbe, whom she describes as “the light in that darkness.” She writes vividly of his foresight in outreach, his involvement in her work, and her gratitude to the leader who shaped many from her generation.

The Rebbe Archive would like to present a series of a newly released photo of the Rebbe from motzei Shabbos Mevarchim Shevat 5739/January 27, 1979, With Special thanks to Rabbi Lipa Brennan. We would like to thank Rabbi Leibel Roetter of Oak Park, Michigan, for the photos, which are being shared in memory of his daughter Pesha Leah Azoulay, who perished in a car accident.

With blessings for a Kosher and Happy Passover, may we celebrate next year in Jerusalem with the coming of Moshiach.


Professor Handelman relates:

"I grew up in suburban Chicago in the 1950's, a typical third-generation assimilated American. Like many of my generation I fled Sunday school and the temple to which my family belonged, and could see nothing true or compelling in what seemed to be the hollow rituals that most of the congregants hardly understood.

Being Jewish in that milieu was a vaguely uncomfortable and perplexing experience, but not any obstacle to full immersion in the non-Jewish culture which surrounded us and swept us along with it. What power took me out of the deep exile in which I lived -- not just geographically, but intellectually, spiritually and emotionally?

Of course, the Torah promises that ultimately each and every Jew will be returned from exile and redeemed. But it was the Lubavitcher Rebbe who could not wait placidly for that redemption, who reached out to every Jew wherever he or she was found, to the furthest corner of the globe.

Among other reasons this was -- I believe -- because the Rebbe felt the pain of every Jew and of the Jewish people in every second of exile. And because the Rebbe also saw the sparks of the Divine everywhere, waiting to be uncovered.

And so, eventually, the Rebbe reached me, and helped take me out of my exile too.

In the late 1960's, when many of my generation rebelled in extreme ways, the Rebbe understood us. He sensed that our restlessness came from a spiritual discontent. Instead of chastising us, he sent us his best Chasidim to found Chabad Houses -- to teach us, to live with us, to love us.

I think that was what really lay behind the development under the Rebbe's leadership of the extraordinary international network of Chabad institutions, from Hong Kong to Paris to Katmandu.

The Rebbe felt our pain, he intuited our yearning. And he saw us not just as products of late twentieth century America, but under the light of Jewish eternity. We were princes and prophets and sages; each Jew was royalty; each Jew was precious; each Jew was the emissary and reflection of G-d in the world.

I first encountered the Rebbe through his emissaries at the Chabad House at the State University of New York at Buffalo where I was attending graduate school. I then spent six months living in the Lubavitch center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in close proximity to the Rebbe.

By the time I came to Crown Heights, in 1976, private audiences with the Rebbe had become very restricted. When he had been younger, he would meet with people all through the night. In my time, he was in his late seventies and would meet with people "only" until midnight or one a.m.

I never had an extended private audience with him, but I had many small encounters and received answers to the letters I wrote, and comments about essays I published.

Everyone speaks about the Rebbe's eyes, the depth and penetration of his gaze. In his presence one felt immediately purer, truer, closer to G-d. One knew what mattered and what was important in life.

When my mother came to visit me in Brooklyn, perturbed about my affiliation with this group of Chasidim, I took her to the alcove by the Rebbe's office on the day she was to leave. People who were going on a trip would stand there, and as the Rebbe would emerge to pray the afternoon prayer with the yeshiva students, he would give blessings to the travelers. He turned, looked at my mother, and said softly in Yiddish, in his mellifluous voice: "Fohr gezunterheit -- travel safely."

All of a sudden my mother was crying, tears streaming down her face. "I don't know why . . . I don't know why I am crying," she said. "I'm not sad." Something in his glance and voice had penetrated the depths of her soul.

Another friend came with me to one of the Rebbe's special gatherings for women -- a secular, radical feminist. She passed closely by the Rebbe, and tears, too, came into her eyes, from some unknown depth. "He looks like what I imagine Moses must have looked like," she said.
When I first came to study in Crown Heights, I struggled very hard with the issues of Judaism and feminism. To work out these conflicts I wrote an article, "The Jewish Woman: Three Steps Behind?", and gave it to the editor of Di Yiddishe Heim--The Jewish Home, a modest Yiddish-English magazine for Lubavitcher women. Before the article was published, I had occasion to write to the Rebbe for a blessing for a sick uncle.

The Rebbe could receive -- and personally read and answer -- around 400 letters day. And probably equally as many telephone calls with questions and requests for blessings would come in each day from around the world. How, I wondered, did he find time and energy for all this, especially amidst all his other responsibilities?

The Rebbe's secretary phoned me back to read me the response the Rebbe had written on my letter. The Rebbe promised to say a special prayer for my uncle, and the Rebbe added the words, "I enjoyed your article in the forthcoming Yiddishe Heim."

I was surprised. How did the Rebbe know about an article which had not even been published? The editor told me that the Rebbe had such a deep desire to support the efforts of Lubavitcher women, that he personally took the time to read and make his own notes and corrections on all the manuscripts for this journal.

I subsequently wrote several articles for the journal, and as a favor, the editor gave me back my typescripts with the Rebbe's notes and corrections.

As an English professor who has taught college writing, I was amazed at the Rebbe's editing of my English. He not only deepened the Torah concepts, but he took out excess words and amended punctuation, spelling, and syntax with careful attention to each detail. I wish I could give the same attention to correcting my own students' papers as he did to my manuscripts.

The Rebbe was a great supporter of Jewish women and had a special relationship to them. He spoke often of the greatness of the Jewish women; he held special gatherings to address them; he advocated depth and breadth in their Torah study; he sent them on missions around the world; he initiated several campaigns to encourage Jewish women to perform the special mitzvoth pertaining to them. He created a stir in the Jewish world when he urged all women, even those who were not married, and all girls over the age of three, to light the Sabbath and Yom Tov candles.

As a woman engaged in intellectual and academic work, I received the greatest encouragement from the Rebbe -- blessings to continue my Ph.D. in English, advice about possible dissertation topics, and advice about how to negotiate the politics within the university (the Rebbe himself had attended the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin). I sensed that he wanted me to employ to the fullest all my intellectual capacities and all the secular knowledge I attained from my Ivy League education -- to elevate all this and use it in the service of Torah and Yiddishkeit.

From the Rebbe's personal example I learned that there was nothing in the world a Jew need fear; that every place and every action and every moment called for a Jew to bring G-dliness into the world; and that no obstacle would ultimately stand in the face of a Jew's will to do so; that to be a Jew was the highest calling, a privilege and immense responsibility.

Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1950s and '60s, we Jews had kept a low profile. From the Rebbe I learned not to be ashamed, not to be afraid – that the world, in fact, was yearning for the light of Torah.

In an article for Di Yiddishe Heim, which I based on one of the Rebbe's talks, I compared the thoughts found in secular philosophy and science to those of Torah. The Rebbe had discussed the ways in which secular forms of knowledge are all limited; yet these very limitations give a person a sense of satisfaction because he or she can grasp a body of secular knowledge -- "master a field." Torah, however, is unlimited and infinite, and I wrote the sentence, "Thus one can never contain Torah, master it." In editing this manuscript, the Rebbe amended the sentence to read, "Thus one can never contain all the content of even one dvar (sentence of) Torah, master it."

Yet, if there was a master of Torah in our generation, it was surely the Rebbe. I remember standing at farbrengens, the public gatherings the Rebbe would hold.

The large synagogue in Brooklyn would be packed with a thousand or more people. If it were a weekday, the Rebbe would start to speak at around 9 p.m. and often give several sichot (talks), each lasting about 40 minutes. Without a note, he would speak into the early hours of the morning, for five or more hours, citing liberally from memory the whole corpus of Jewish literature -- Bible, Midrash, Talmud, classic commentary, Kabbalah, Jewish law, Chasidic philosophy. He would discuss the needs of the Jewish people or the political situation in Israel, and in between talks, the Chasidim would sing and drink l'chaim.

When he spoke Torah, it was not just another lecture, a flow of words: there was something magnetic about the Rebbe's presence. Each talk was complex but beautifully structured and full of startling insights.

There are now about 40 volumes of these edited talks and scores more volumes of his letters. Yet indeed, in that emendation he made to my sentence, one also sees his great humility. "One can never contain the content of even a sentence of Torah." There was a regality and elegance about the Rebbe, and yet there was also his great humility.

In the few years before he became ill, when in his nineties, he would stand in the alcove by his office every Sunday to speak for a few moments personally and face-to-face with anyone who wanted to see him, and give out dollars to each person to be given for charity.

How could a 90-year-old man stand on his feet for hours and hours without talking a moment's rest, or a drink? And how could he focus so intently and exclusively on each and every person who came through the line of thousands which stretched for blocks outside his office?

I heard that when urged to sit during these long sessions, he responded by asking: how could he sit when people were coming to him with their problems, needs, and pains?

And despite the crush of the crowds, and the pressure of all his responsibilities, the Rebbe never seemed to be in a hurry. But he also never wasted a moment; every movement of his body was exact and yet fluid -- like a maestro conducting a symphony orchestra. There was a combination of intense energy and intense calm about him.

For me, watching and listening to the Rebbe at his public gatherings, time and space dissolved. I would catch myself and think -- "I am standing in the midst of some of the worst slums of New York City. How can it be that in the `heart of darkness' there is so much light?"

I said to a friend once, "It is so paradoxical to find this great tzadik in the midst of all the violence and squalor and despair of this broken-down part of Brooklyn." And my friend responded, "And where else do you think you would find him? Where else does he belong -- the Plaza Hotel?"

The Rebbe refused to abandon Crown Heights when the neighborhood changed. It was consistent with his refusal to abandon any Jew, to leave anyone behind. And it was consistent with his refusal to give in to fear. It was also consistent with the principle of mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice for love of the Jewish people that he embodied and that he taught his followers.

And it was an affirmation of one of the great principles of Chasidic philosophy that "every descent is for the purpose of an ascent" . . . that from overcoming the darkness ultimately comes the greatest light.

As the Rebbe often said, we live in an era of "doubled and redoubled darkness” -- that is, a darkness so deep we do not even know it is darkness any more. He was the light in that darkness, and he remains so even after his passing