By Rabbi Akiva Wagner
The following story was recently shared with me by Rabbi Choneh Perman, who heard it directly from the baal hamaaseh:
In Ellul of the year תשל”ח (5738), the Gerrer Rebbe (R’ Simcha Bunim Alter, the Lev Simcha) was in America, and had a yechidus with the Rebbe. During the yechidus a group of bochurim (one of whom was Rabbi Choneh Peman) were sitting downstairs in 770, when a Gerrer chosid – who had been part of the entourage of the Gerrer Rebbe – approached them. ‘I have for you fresh regards from your Rebbe’, he told them, and proceeded to relate the following:
“My name is Yitzchok Meir Alter, and I am here today accompanying my Rebbe, to whom I am related.
In 5717 I wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe with a question, and received a response. At the time the Rebbe inquired about the spelling of my last name, and why I used a ט instead of a ת (or vice versa, in the spelling of “Alter”).
[Note: Seemingly the letter being referred to is the one printed in Igros Kodesh chelek 15 page 345, of 23 Av 5717, although there is nothing in the printed letter there about the spelling of the last name].
“Today, in the course of the yechidus (with the Gerrer Rebbe), the Rebbe said that in honor of his guest (the Gerrer Rebbe), he will give “sholom” to all those present. Each one of us gave the Rebbe our hand, and stated our name and mother’s name.
“When my turn came, and I identified myself saying ‘Yitchak Meir ben . .’, the Rebbe continued to grasp my hand, and said with a smile: ‘Nu, so is Alter with a ט or a ת’!
“Imagine”, exclaimed the Gerrer chosid, “over 20 years have passed since I wrote the letter to the Rebbe, and in that time the Rebbe has received thousands and thousands of letters. And yet, as soon as I passed by, the Rebbe instantly continued the discussion where it had been left off as if we had been in the middle of a conversation”!
After a moment, however, the Gerrer chosid calmed down, and said (perhaps by way of disclaimer): “But don’t think it’s a moifes, (it’s just that) the Lubavitcher Rebbe has ‘a gitte kop’ (a good head)”.
I will not address whether it was a moifes or “merely” the Rebbe’s brilliance, because I’m sure the bochurim can fight that out with the Gerrer chosid. But the main point of the story is – not how the Rebbe knew, but rather – the fact that after 21 years the conversation of all those decades before was still important. For the Rebbe, he was still in the middle of that conversation, and it was the most natural thing to carry on where he had left it (there was an amazing story with R’ Pinchas Menachem Alter bringing out a similar idea, about a mikva in Brazil, that I’m quite sure that I shared in a past email).
As we get closer to the day of Gimmel Tamuz, every single chosid is focused on the date and its’ meaning to us. In whatever way it is expressed, all of us are unquestioning in our assertion that it’s been 20 years too long, that we need to see the Rebbe amongst us once again, and we are each determined to do whatever it takes to bring that about.
For months there have been mivtzahs and projects and programs. The world has been presented with 3 new books to familiarize it with the Rebbe, along with the ensuing critique. From cheder children to Yeshiva bochurim to grandparents, everyone has been diligently doing their part.
But, we have to make sure that we know how we’ll be greeting the Rebbe, and how we should expect him to be greeting us.
Because, it is reasonable to assume that The Rebbe will want to carry on the conversation where it has left off. 20 years may have passed in between, but the earlier conversations are still viable and demanding, and we will need to give an accounting about what has been done about them.
So the Rebbe may grasp our hands, and with a warm smile say: “Nu, so what’s happening with ahavas Yisroel? Just over 22 years ago, when we last met, at our last get-together (during the farbrengen of Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel 5752) the discussion was about ahavas Yisroel. You may have forgotten, but I still remember; I’m still in the middle of that conversation. How much have you progressed? What is being done about it?”
Or the Rebbe may prolong the warm handshake, and – while looking at us pointedly – say: “Nu, so what’s with saying brochos with more kavonoh, or with learning the weekly maamorim of Torah Ohr and Likutei Torah? What has been done and is being done about all the matters that we have spoken about 22 years ago? Those conversations are still viable and current!”
And most importantly, the Rebbe may greet us with fatherly love, but say to us: “Nu, what’s happening with getting yourself and the world ready for Moshiach? The last times that we met, 21 years ago, I strongly and repeatedly encouraged your involvement in Moshiach, to the point of ‘being crazy about Moshiach’. That conversation is ongoing, and more pressing than ever. What have you done and are you doing about it today?”
So, as we await our becoming reunited with the Rebbe, We have to be ready with our responses; – to keep the conversation going and alive.
Simply stated, know, and familiarize yourself with the things that the Rebbe spoke with us about, especially those last 2 years. And be ready to resume those conversations.
The Avner institute recently publicized the following story, as related by the chosid R’ Betzalel Schiff:
“Alexander Nikolayevich was well familiar with Chabadniks. He was, after all, KGB senior agent in charge of their persecution. I once came to him asking for records of Chabad heroes he had thrown into prison.
“With Israeli chutzpah, I walked in first and handed him a gift: four large photo albums of Chabad-Lubavitcher activity around the globe.
“The official leaned forward on his desk and furrowed his brow. “I was in your headquarters at Brooklyn, you know? And not just as a tourist. I had a mission. Without much difficulty I found it, even though you hid it in a basement.
“Why do you think Rabbi Schneerson has his synagogue in a basement?” he blurted, tightening his wrinkled eyes. “Rabbi Schneerson doesn’t have money?”
He continued, “I was inside that synagogue. It was very busy and crowded. But this is America, I wondered. Where are the plush chairs? Where are the fancy crystal chandeliers, the deep carpets? Nowhere! It is a basement, and it looks like a basement.
“I saw the Chassidim sitting on hard wooden benches and eating on wooden tables without even a tablecloth. And what did they eat? Tuna fish and break with vodka! [This must have been one of the fancier farbrengens. Tuna!]
“I thought – this is what you have to eat in America? Why? Why does Rabbi Schneerson have his followers live this way?
“It was then that I confirmed my suspicion of many years. It was then that I realized that which I should have always known.”
He leaned back and grinned, full of enlightenment. “You people are not just another religious sect! You are revolutionaries. You are partisans. All revolutions begin in a basement!” (see also related story in the alumni email of 18 Ellul 5768)
Today, the 28th day of Sivan, is when the Rebbe brought the revolution to the shores of America. Most importantly, our duty and holy mission is to keep the revolution alive.
Of course, this means changing the world around us, and the people with whom we come in contact. It means transforming the darkness of olam hazeh to a dwelling place for Hashem, and filling every corner of the world with His Holy presence. Undoubtedly, every Chabad House, every Lubavitch institution, every shliach and every event are a part of this active revolution.
But a revolution begins in the basement.
This means (perhaps) that we have to start by revolutionizing ourselves, and our own chatzi kadur hatachton. Transform your own inner darkness to a G-dly light, by filling every corner of your own being with the illumination of Torah and mitzvos. We need to internalize – into ourselves – all the things that the Rebbe taught us, and especially those last conversations. And then our inner revolution will spill over into the world around us, the people around us and the entire universe.
And this will bring about the ultimate revolution, of והי’ ה’ למלך על כל הארץ . . ה’ אחד ושמו אחד
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.