The Nazi invasion of Poland in 5699 (1939) plunged the entire Jewish world into turmoil and disarray. Not only did six million lose their lives, but the entire face of the Jewish community changed. The shtetl
and the other insular Jewish communities of Eastern Europe disappeared and, most significantly, the way of thinking that had defined Jewish life for centuries became a thing of the past.
In particular, the Lubavitch movement was in the midst of a transition. Shortly after the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rayatz), left Russia in 5688 (1927), he settled in Poland. There he dedicated his efforts to founding yeshivos and schools. In this manner, he created a new Lubavitch center and energized Polish Jewry as a whole. And then came the Nazi invasion. Only a handful of his students remained.
Similarly, for the Rebbe as an individual, this was a period of metamorphosis. After his marriage to Rebbitzin Chayah Mushka, the Previous Rebbe's daughter, in 5689 (1928), he had led a private life, first settling in Berlin, and then, with the Nazis' ascent to power, moving to Paris. Although studying in university, his energies were primarily devoted to deepening his own Torah studies outside the spotlight of the chassidic community. As the Germans advanced toward France, all this came to an end.
Ultimately, from the ashes of the holocaust, fresh vibrancy arose. The Jewish community established new centers, primarily in America. Lubavitch, under the guidance of the Previous Rebbe, played a major role in inspiring these efforts. For his clarion call, "America is not different," spurred the establishment of Torah institutions that would reach out to Jews in all phases of American life. And to a large extent, the success of this endeavor was nurtured by the Rebbe who upon his arrival in the U.S. assumed a leadership role, heading the outreach efforts of the Lubavitcher movement under the Previous Rebbe's direction, and, eventually ascending to the leadership of the community in 5710 (1950).
Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that every process of radical transition has three phases: yesh, ayin, and yesh. We begin with an entity. There is a retraction to a state of void, and then a new entity emerges. Now, the state of void is not utter emptiness. Instead, it is a time when everything reverts to the essence. In an individual sense, as one form is being shed and another is still to be assumed, a person's inner core - a level above both yesh and ayin - comes out.
The Rebbe points to such a process in a letter he wrote to Dov Padover, one of the refugees with whom the Rebbe shared experiences in Vichy and Nice in these war-torn years.
When a person is uprooted from the setting to which he has become acclimated, in the time before he becomes accustomed to his new situation and responsibilities, he reveals patterns of behavior that reflect his inner nature without the ornaments and embellishments that society demands.
Very frequently, these patterns of behavior reveal the hidden good within this person, a good that perhaps he himself was not aware of because it was covered with a layer of conventional manners. He will be fortunate if he does not allow these patterns of behavior to become hidden again when he reaches a tranquil situation.
Such spiritual concepts apply - and to a much greater extent (qualitatively and quantitatively) - when a person is found in a situation which requires mesirus nefesh. For hidden and essential powers are revealed in such a situation and it becomes possible to change one's life from one extreme to the other.
In light of the above, the few details we have of the Rebbe's life during this epoch are telling. In a stable, ordered setting, a person sets goals for his Divine service and strives to achieve them, acting according to the dictates of reason and logic. In a time of crisis, his conduct stems from a source deeper than the mind. He acts in a particular manner, because this is who he is. He could not think of acting in any other way.
- (Back to text) The Rebbe's Igros Kodesh, Vol. II, Letter No. 175.