By Rabbi Akiva Wagner
The Alter Rebbe once remarked: “Der vos vet onhalten mein klamke, vet nisht shtarben ohn Tshuva” [whoever grasps my doorknob, is assured that he will not pass away from the world without first doing Teshuva].
Amongst Chassidim, there were various interpretations with regards to the deeper meaning and symbolism of “the Alter Rebbe’s doorknob”. One view was that this referred to davening in the nusach of the Alter Rebbe, according to them it was this practice that the Alter Rebbe associated with the wonderful assurance. A second suggestion by mashpi’im and elder Chassidim was that the expression “onhalten mein klamke” was actually a reference to studying Tanya the fundamental teachings of the Alter Rebbe.
However, Chassidim told the following story to illustrate the fact that, the above interpretations notwithstanding, “ein mikra yoitze midei pshutoi,” one cannot discount the literal interpretation:
There was an individual who lived in Liozna (in the city of the Alter Rebbe) who, unfortunately, had strayed from the path of Torah, and became extremely lax and liberal in his day-to-day life. Having spent much of his life amongst Chassidim, he was familiar with their ways and their sayings, and was aware of the above-mentioned promise of the Alter Rebbe.
Being a local, he had had opportunities to find himself in the home of the Alter Rebbe, and even grasped the doorknob of his door. Thus, he would go around, cynically boasting “You see, I have nothing to be worried about, I grasped the Alter Rebbe’s klamke, and I am assured not to die unrepentant”.
One day he was in shul, and he was called up to the Torah for an aliyah. He approached the bimah, and began to recite the brocho. Suddenly, he was overcome with an uncontrollable fit of weeping, and couldn’t continue. He stood there crying from the very depth of his tortured soul, while everyone watched in astonishment. And there, standing in front of the sefer Torah, in the midst of his weeping, his soul departed from his body. All those present clearly saw how he passed away in pure Teshuva!
Perhaps we can say that there are, in fact, three factors, three dimensions, to being associated with the Alter Rebbe. The first is in one’s mindset; to be able to be considered to be attached to the Alter Rebbe, one has to adapt his way of thinking, to change his mind set to that of chassidus. This is represented by learning Tanya, by understanding and internalizing the philosophy and ideology of the Alter Rebbe that is contained therein.
Yet, that alone is not enough, for to be a chosid one needs to change – not only his way of thinking, but also – his conduct, his way of acting. A chosid must also – in practice – follow the customs of the Alter Rebbe. These are represented by the nusach of the Alter Rebbe, – to daven in the way that was prescribed by him.
But, after all is said and done, we reside in this physical world, where the physical dimension needs to also (perhaps mostly) reckoned with. Hence, being associated with the Alter Rebbe also implies being in close proximity to him physically, literally. It means grasping his actual doorknob.
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This upcoming week, on the 15th of Elul, we mark (with chodorom …) the day of the establishment of Tomchei T’mimim. [The actual learning commenced on Chai Elul, and it’s known the vort of Chassidim that on 15 Elul the dining room was opened and they spent 3 days farbrenging to commemorate the great event]. Thus, we are now in the spirit of celebrating the holy Yeshiva of Tomchei T’mimim.
About Tomchei T’mimim, as well, it is said “der vos est di kasha fun Tomchei T’mimim vet nisht shtarben ohn Teshuva” [anyone who partakes of the food of Tomchei T’mimim is assured that he will not pass on from the world without first doing teshuva]. Although I haven’t heard so explicitly, possibly here, as well, the “kasha of Tomchei T’mimim” can be understood on 3 levels. Firstly – as we know that food symbolizes Torah – the experience of Tomchei T’mimim is felt in an intellectual level. Being a Tomim means acquiring a new mindset, a brand new outlook and way of thinking. It is learning in Yeshiva, internalizing the teachings, and acquiring the “hanachos” of a Tomim.
But that is not enough. Just as, with regards to learning Torah in general, we are taught “Kol ho’oimer ein li elo Torah, afilu Torah ein lo” [anyone who thinks they can make do with only studying did not even master the studying of Torah], because Torah knowledge must manifest itself into practice as well, so too with a Tomim, the hanachos of a Tomim need to be reflected in the minhogim, the practices of a Tomim. If you are – or were at one time – a bochur in this illustrious Yeshiva, then – in addition to the great zechus – this places a tremendous responsibility on you. Many conducts, that may be appropriate or acceptable for someone else, are not fitting for you. You have to always be consciously aware of what is the way a Tomim conducts himself – ‘what would a true Tomim do in this situation’ – and then act accordingly.
But, after all, ein inyon yoitzeh midei pshutoi. You can act like a Tomim, and even think like a Tomim, but ultimately, the great zechus of Tomchei T;mimim is acquired by being there, being a part of it literally and physically. You have to show up b’gashmiyus to seder according to the mundane clock, and be in the physical place and time designated. Then, and only then, are you a fitting vehicle for all of the kochos and brochos, that penetrate your being and help you change your actions and mindset.
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In the month of Elul, everyone is busy with their preparations for the upcoming Rosh Hashonoh. And Chassidim, in addition, are very preoccupied with preparations to travel the Rebbe for this day. As the vort of Chassidim, on the words of Chazal “Rebbi lo shonoh Chiyoh minayin”; – “az men iz nisht baim Rebbin oif Rosh Hashonoh, Chiyoh minayin, vu nemt men chayus oif a gantz yohr” [if one doesn’t spend Rosh Hashonoh by the Rebbe, from where will he draw life for the entire year].
What does it mean to “go to the Rebbe”? Especially today, in this era of helem vehester, when we can neither see nor hear the Rebbe?
Surely, part of ‘going to the Rebbe’ is a spiritual journey. It entails leaving behind our mundane concerns, our usual preoccupation with abundant narishkeiten, with the pursuit of the foolish and insignificant worldly pleasures, and slowly elevating ourselves to a higher plane. The first step towards that is altering our mindset. For, as long as our thoughts continue to be immersed in worldly falsehoods, we can’t possibly consider ourselves to be by the Rebbe.
[Once, during a farbrengen, the Rebbe was giving brochos to the Jews in Russia. The Rebbe said “L’chayim far di vos zennen nisht do” [L’chayim on behalf of those who are unable to be here (physically), i.e. the Jews trapped behind the iron curtain]. The Rebbe then paused, and continued with an additional brocho – “L’chayim far di vos meinen az zei zennen doh, ober zei zennen nisht doh” [L’chayim for those that believe themselves to be present here, but are in fact not here at all].].
And the way to change our mindset is to fill it with the Rebbe’s teachings. Learn an extra sicha; another maamar. Start another kvius in inyonei Moshiach u’geulah. Train your mind to view the world, the Golus, and the geulah in the way that the Rebbe trained us to.
In addition, undoubtedly, being ‘by the Rebbe’ entails ensuring that our conduct is the conduct that the Rebbe expects of us. This includes – besides extra diligence in following every directive of shulchan aruch in general – making sure we’re meticulous in Rambam, in chitas etc. And, obviously, being extremely careful not to ch”v be involved and acts that we are supposed to refrain from.
But, after all is said and done, ein inyan yoitzeh midei pshutoi. In addition to our spiritual preparations and our spiritual journey, Chassidim know that this is the time to pack our physical suitcases as well. Because being ‘by the Rebbe’ means also literally, to spend these holy days in those daled amos that are the physical daled amos of the Rebbe. Today too, despite the temporary darkness, Chassidim understand that this is the place where the Rebbe’s presence is (as the Rebbe indicated in numerous sichos), and it is between these walls where, if at all possible, we would like to find ourselves on the Yomim Nora’im.
The clock is ticking, un mir darfen zich areinchappen. We have to change our mindset, better our conduct, and embark on our journey – both physical and spiritual – to the Rebbe!
L’chaim! May we do our part to ensure the success of our journey to the Rebbe for Rosh Hashonoh, and may the Eibishter do His part, to ensure that we in fact find ourselves by the Rebbe, literally and physically and visibly, through the immediate revelation of Moshiach Tzidkeinu TUMYM!!!
Rabbi Akiva Wagner is the Rosh Yeshivah and dean of Yeshivas Lubavitch Toronto. He is known for his brilliant lectures and his passionate farbrengens. As a fiery example of what a chassid ought to be, he serves as a mentor for thousands.