A group of chassidim once came to R. Yisrael of Ruzhin, complaining of a drought that was jeopardizing their crops and their livestock. R. Yisrael led them through shaded paths in the nearby forest until he came upon a particular tree. He motioned to the chassidim to sit and said:
"When there was a drought in the time of the Baal Shem Tov, he would bring his chassidim to this tree, sing a melody, share a teaching, and rain would come.
"A generation later, when there was a drought, my grandfather the Maggid of Mezritch would also bring his followers to this tree. He would tell them this story of the Baal Shem Tov and say, 'Although I no longer remember the teaching, this is the melody the Baal Shem would sing.' And after he sang the melody, rain came down.
"As for me," R. Yisrael concluded, "I know neither the melody nor the teaching. But I do know the story. May relating the story bring rain."
Reb Yisrael and his chassidim had barely emerged from the forest before the first thunderbursts were heard.
* * *
Many of the stories in this book show the contemporary dimension of the Rebbe's leadership, how he is involved with people and situations which the Rebbeim of previous generations did not encounter. But it cannot be forgotten, that he is the heir to the tradition of those previous Rebbeim; that he perpetuates the uniqueness of the Rebbe-chassid relationship that existed in previous generations. This is the focus of the present chapter.
One cloudy night during the first years after the Rebbe assumed his position, a group of people stood outside of "770" for Kiddush Levanah, the sanctification of the moon. These prayers may be recited only when it is possible to see the moon clearly during the first half of the Jewish month.
And on this wintry night in Brooklyn, it was the fourteenth night of the month and the Rebbe and a group of his chassidim were watching a cloud-covered sky. As they were waiting, the Rebbe began telling a story about a similar situation which occurred with a Rebbe and his European chassidim almost two hundred years before.
Reb Meir of Premishlan and his followers, the Rebbe related, had faced a similar situation. It was the last night in which the moon could be sanctified, but it was covered with clouds. Reb Meir turned to his followers. "How did the Jews recite Kiddush Levanah prayers in the desert?" he asked. "Their camp was covered by the Clouds of Glory."
His followers sensed that his question was rhetorical and remained silent.
Reb Meir soon continued. "Moshe Rabbeinu took a handkerchief, waved it at the position in the sky where the moon would be located, and the clouds parted." And Reb Meir took out his own handkerchief, waved it at the clouds, and they too moved apart, revealing the full moon.
"Perhaps it can happen again," the Rebbe asked his own followers. "Can somebody here can do the same thing?"
While the others remained silent, one elder chassid boldly suggested that the Rebbe do it.
The Rebbe quietly went inside to his office. Seconds later, the clouds parted to reveal the bright moon. As the Rebbe emerged to recite the prayers, the chassidim whispered to each other that the Rebbe must have waved a handkerchief at the clouds from the solitude of his room.
The story continues forty years later, and thousands of miles away, in the beautiful southern British sea resort of Bournemouth. The Rebbe Shlita had announced a campaign to spread the practice of Kiddush Levanah, so the town's shluchim, Rabbi and Mrs. Alperovitz, decided to introduce this ritual by performing it during a late-night boat cruise.
At first, interest in the cruise was small and Rabbi Alperovitz thought of canceling the event. As they prepared to do so, they received a message of encouragement from the Rebbe Shlita. With dedication and enthusiasm, they increased their efforts. On the night the cruise was scheduled, forty people came to the harbor, despite forecasts of heavy clouds and thunderstorms.
The program was impressive and the storms held back, but the sky remained covered with clouds and the Kiddush Levanah prayers could not be recited. As the boat was about to head back to the pier, Rabbi Alperovitz told the handkerchief story, and everyone looked heavenward expectantly. Someone must have waved a handkerchief, because the clouds began to part, revealing a beautiful, clear moon.
Rabbi Yehudah Liebush Heber and his family were very close to the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin during World War II, when the couple lived anonymously in Paris.
"At the beginning of the war," related Rabbi Heber, "I was deliberating whether to stay in Paris or to try to immigrate to the States. This was before the Nazi invasion of Paris, and no one could predict how devastating the future would be. I was financially secure in Paris and concerned about the uncertainty and difficulty of immigration."
The Rebbe suggested that I consult with his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, who was living in Poland.
"I was very surprised by this advice. Contact with Warsaw was virtually impossible by phone or mail. "Send a telegram," the Rebbe suggested. This also seemed futile, because telegrams were not being delivered either.
" 'You have no idea,' the Rebbe said, 'what a Rebbe is. The letter and the telegram need not be delivered in order for the Rebbe to know the question. And the Rebbe's response need not arrive in order for you to receive your answer.'
"I promptly sat down to phrase my question and proceeded to the Western Union office. 'Sorry, there is absolutely no possibility of telegraphing Poland,' said the clerk. 'All the lines are down.' I did not really expect otherwise, but I had done what I could.
"The next morning I awoke with a sudden clarity. Despite my previous hesitations, I suddenly felt very adamant about leaving Paris and immigrating to the States."
Rabbi Heber arrived in the States in 1940, a few months before the Rebbe. His family maintained a close relationship with the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin for many years to follow.
The Rebbe was conducting his Pesach seder. When it was time to eat the afikoman, the Rebbe inquired about a group of yeshivah students who had been sent to serve as shluchim to promote the growth of the Lubavitch Yeshivah in Melbourne, Australia. The students had returned to New York for the holiday.
The Rebbe was informed that the young men were staying at "770", and they were quickly summoned. The Rebbe handed each of the shluchim a piece of the afikoman. "It is written," the Rebbe said, "that one must give each member of his household a piece of the afikoman. The shluchim are members of my household. In truth, all the yeshivah students are my children. Still, the shluchim command special attention."
Although today's generation has grown accustomed to overseas travel, it was much less convenient and affordable during the first years of the Rebbe's leadership. Nevertheless, one of the shluchim from Europe arranged a trip to "770" in order to celebrate Yud-Beis Tammuz, the anniversary of the Previous Rebbe's release from prison, and to participate in the Rebbe's farbrengen.
Yud-Beis Tammuz comes out during the summer camping season. Shortly before the farbrengen, the shaliach was contacted by the staff of the Lubavitch camp in upstate New York. "Please spend the night of Yud-Beis Tammuz with our campers," he was asked. "We have not been able to find anyone else who could be as capable of sharing the inspiration of this important date with the children."
The shaliach had always given priority to other peoples' needs, so he spent the night of Yud-Beis Tammuz with a group of campers, even though he had prepared to celebrate the chassidic holiday with the Rebbe.
A few days later, the Rebbe announced an unexpected farbrengen at "770". This was extremely uncommon in those years, and many wondered what was behind this unanticipated event. During the farbrengen, the Rebbe resolved their questions. "There is a shaliach who traveled here from afar," he explained, "and yet willingly forfeited his opportunity to spend Yud-Beis Tammuz at "770", so that he could hold a farbrengen with a group of campers. Now we are making it up to him."
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, initiated the custom of dispatching groups of chassidim to shuls in various Jewish communities throughout New York City on the holidays. Despite the distance - it often involves hours of walking in each direction - the chassidim joyfully make the journey, sharing the spirit of the holiday and bringing a message from the Rebbe to the congregants whom they meet.
The scholar, Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, a Rabbi in a shul in East New York, greatly appreciated the visit by the chassidim. Shortly after the holiday one year, he was privileged to meet the Rebbe privately at yechidus, and he used the opportunity to thank him for sending the chassidim.
The Rebbe acknowledged his thanks saying, "Yes, it entails a measure of self-sacrifice on their part."
"Indeed," stated Rabbi Telushkin. "Hours of walking back and forth requires much self-sacrifice."
The Rebbe smiled. "There's a greater dimension of self-sacrifice: the readiness to extend oneself and reach out to others with the full knowledge that, at the very same time, a farbrengen is taking place at "770". To give up this opportunity and go to a different shul is a much greater self-sacrifice."
Very often the Rebbe's blessing to an individual or a group concludes with the phrase: Azkir al hatziyun - "I will mention this at the gravesite." Indeed, many times that phrase constitutes the entire reply.
The term tziyon refers to the grave of the Previous Rebbe - Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn - which is located in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, New York. The Rebbe frequently prays at the Previous Rebbe's gravesite. There he reads the multitude of letters that are sent to him from all over the world.
Many who have received this reply, unaware of the full implications of this phrase, may have desired "a more substantial blessing." Such was the case when Reb Shneur Zalman Duchman wrote to the Rebbe, asking for a blessing for a childless couple whom he knew. The Rebbe replied Azkir al hatziyun. Unsatisfied with this answer, Reb Shneur Zalman wrote a second note, asking the Rebbe to promise the couple a child. The reply was the same: Azkir al hatziyun.
Time passed. One day, just as the Rebbe was leaving his house, Reb Shneur Zalman was walking down President St. The Rebbe signaled to Reb Shneur Zalman to approach him.
"Have you heard that a son was born to the couple for whom you requested a blessing?" the Rebbe asked. "Nu, evidently Azkir al hatziyun has something to it."
* * *
We might gain some insight into the events which transpire while the Rebbe visits the Previous Rebbe's gravesite from an interchange between Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary vwwg, the Rebbe's brother-in-law, and Reb Azriel Zelig Slonim. Commonly known as the Rashag, Rabbi Gurary was an outstanding example of a chassid whose heart and soul were devoted to the Rebbe.
"As you know, Reb Zelig," explained the Rashag. "When my father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, passed away, we were all heartbroken and confused. One day, I was deliberating unsuccessfully over a very important issue. I decided to consult my brother-in-law (the Rebbe Shlita).
"He weighed the matter carefully, and then said: 'I would not like to take personal responsibility for such an important issue. I will visit the gravesite later today, and I will discuss it with our father-in-law. Then I will give you an answer.' Upon his return, he presented me with an excellent solution."
"Now listen here, Reb Zelig," concluded the Rashag. "My brother-in-law is not one who exaggerates. If he said that he would discuss the matter with the Previous Rebbe at his gravesite, then that is exactly what transpired. I know that I am not capable of this. Since he can do so - I am his devoted chassid."
During the early years of the Rebbe's leadership, his minyan was graced by the presence of an illustrious personality, the revered Rebbe of Tomishpol-Koidenov, kwwmz, who stood at the forefront of chassidic Rebbeim in America until his passing at the age of 108.
Once, the Rebbe Shlita returned late from praying at the ohel, the Previous Lubavitch Rebbe's gravesite. As he entered the shul for the afternoon service, he glanced at the Rebbe of Tomishpol and said: "A bit late?"
The Rebbe of Tomishpol replied: "There can be no more appropriate time for prayer than when the Rebbe davens."
"I would like to share a personal experience with people who are disappointed at not having received answers to their letters to the Rebbe," relates a chassid. "I was accustomed to receiving answers to every letter which I sent the Rebbe. Then, almost abruptly, the replies stopped. As time passed, I decided to stop writing. If the Rebbe would not answer me, I saw no point in sending him letters.
Soon afterwards, I found a letter from "770" in my mailbox. I was amazed to find it handwritten by the Rebbe himself. It read: 'I am sorry that you misinterpreted the reasons for my lack of correspondence.' The Rebbe proceeded to explain that he had not responded, because of the heavy demands on his time."
- (Back to text) More particularly, it is customary to sanctify the moon from the seventh night of the month onward.
- (Back to text) See the essay entitled "The Sanctification of the Moon," in Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, N.Y., 1992), p. 97.