The immortal quote of Rabbi Akiva is the cornerstone of Chabad philosophy. Into the Rebbe’s office walked Jews of every stripe, from the insular ultra-Orthodox to the ignorant secular, to meet with the Rebbe and receive his tireless attention.
The Avner Institute presents the following audience with Yosef, a Sorbonne professor and returnee to Judaism, which displays the Rebbe’s heartfelt concerns not only toward the newly observant but toward all members of the “Jewish nation.” Special thanks to Rabbi Yosef Gurevitch for his reminiscence of the encounter.
Rabbi Gurevitch relates:
Yosef waited outside the office alone, an island of Western attire amid a sea of long black coats. The bearded men who swirled around him, running errands for 770 or preparing for prayers, were still a novelty in his new life – a life he had forged, still hesitantly, after years of wandering. He guessed that quite a few were rabbis or Torah scholars. Although even in his secular days he had shown rabbis proper respect, he had kept a distance. To him rabbis were a separate species.
But this rabbi was different. Famous, in fact, the world over. That’s what the follower said, the emissary in Yosef’s native France who urged Yosef to cross the Atlantic. Maybe it was the singing and dancing at the emissary’s little Chabad synagogue, the relaxed atmosphere inside the sanctuary. Or maybe it was holiness surrounding the Shabbos meal that had first attracted Yosef to the beauty of Judaism. But he came back again, then again, until he had become one of that congregation’s permanent members.
While at the center, later the yeshiva, Yosef had become intrigued by the writings of this rabbi. And now Yosef was lucky, the emissary said, to get to meet such a famous rabbi face to face.
As he waited outside, he mentally rehearsed the questions, pondering their potential interpretation. He looked up and caught the motioning hand of the Rebbe’s secretary to summon him inside.
He entered the office shyly, standing before a desk behind which was a massive bookcase. He expected somewhat a more severe environment, but instead was put at ease by the kindly visage peering at him from behind the oaken desk.
“Bonsoir,” said Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. “What can I do for you?”
Yosef was startled to hear the Rebbe address him in French, rather than Yiddish. Don’t all these rabbis speak only Yiddish? But then he remembered the emissary’s saying that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had lived in Paris before the war and even studied at the Sorbonne.
Yosef sat down. He gazed at the walls, surprised to find them bare. “I am accustomed to visiting Lubavitcher homes,” he mumbled in French, “and in all of them I have seen pictures of you on the wall. Is displaying a picture of the Rebbe a Lubavitcher custom?”
“If a large picture bothers you, then a small one is fine,” the Rebbe replied in the same language. “But if even a small picture bothers you, then don’t bother putting up any at all.”
Yosef, impressed by the Rebbe’s modesty, sensed nevertheless a power which derived from a source far higher than human photography. Feeling more at ease, he described to the Rebbe his exploration of the tradition, which exposed him to the amazing diversity of Jewish practice.
“I have visited many different Jewish communities,” he continued, “and I have found that each one has a particular mitzvah or custom on which they place a stronger emphasis than on others. This had me wondering: what mitzvah should I personally choose and take extra measures to fulfill?”
“You do not have to search and discern which mitzvah is more important,” the Rebbe quickly answered. “Instead, you must fulfill all the mitzvoth without any exception.”
Yosef nodded, then continued describing his travels through Jewish life. “In the many communities I have visited, I have found that often one community might be jealous of another.”
At this point the Rebbe fixed his gaze at the visitor. “There is nothing wrong with one community’s observation of another—as long as the purpose is to emulate the other’s growth and development, and to apply and integrate the other’s benefits. But to regard another community with jealousy is absolutely forbidden.”
“I have a feeling sometimes that the love of your Chassidim towards you in Paris is . . . a bit exaggerated?” Yosef ventured.
The Rebbe shrugged. “Nu, what can I do? I myself love every single Jew.” He chuckled. “Now, perhaps that you might call exaggerated.”
“How does the Rebbe know how to answer every Jew who asks him a question?” Yosef pressed. “Some of these people the Rebbe had never met before. Where does the Rebbe get his understanding?”
The Rebbe leaned forward. “In every human being’s life, not everything goes so smoothly. Life has its ups and downs, and problems arise. So what does a healthy person do? He will go to a friend, someone he feels will know what is best for him and want to see him improve. He will share his problems with this friend or person, and then, based on the advice given to him, he will, it is hoped, improve himself from there.”
The Rebbe continued sternly, “It is written: VeAhavta leReacha kamocha – love every Jew as yourself. You must love every member of the nation of Israel with unconditional love.”
There was the proverbial dramatic pause, for further emphasis. Then the Rebbe smiled.
“I hope you consider me as a member of the Jewish nation. Therefore, I love every single Jew with the greatest love in the world. So when a Jew asks me a question, knowing how much I love and care for him, I know what to answer.”