On the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit, his chassidim and admirers the world over will stop for a moment to reflect on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s enormous accomplishments — and then they’ll get back to work, energized by the Rebbe’s words, inspired by his example, motivated by his vision, even two decades later
Photos: Meir Haltovsky, COL, JEM
f there is an idea that runs through the maze of well-worn hallways at 788 Eastern Parkway, the offices adjoining one of the most iconic shuls in America, it might well be a quote from the man whose name and mission will forever be synonymous with the building. “When you use a moment productively, filling it with purpose, it lives on forever,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe would say.
Watch the videos, if you’re not old enough to remember, and study the way the Rebbe spurs on the spirited singing of his chassidim, waving his right arm in a gesture of enthusiasm and encouragement. “Sing on,” he seems to be saying, as he makes his way down the mysteriously created passageway, space where a moment earlier, there was a tightly packed mass of people. “Sing on.”
And so they do, trying — despite the crushing loss of their leader, father, and inspiration — to focus on the tasks at hand. And there are many tasks. These people, the army he left over, are undaunted, courageous, energetic. There is an entire world to engage, to light up. Here at Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, that’s what keeps them busy.
The building’s architecture doesn’t live up to its impressive name. The cracked tiles and sagging stairs leading up to upper floors seem more appropriate to a struggling business than to the nerve center of a global education and outreach enterprise.
My guide, the dynamic Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, is quick with a story.
The offices of the Rebbe, and his secretary, Rabbi Mordechai Hodakov, were relatively simple. Once, someone commented about the plain decor and furnishings at the center of operations and Rabbi Hodakov replied to the petitioner with a question.
“The Empire State Building is the most imposing building in the city. And where does this huge skyscraper get its heat from? The boiler room! Why then, isn’t the boiler room, with its tank and pipes, in the lobby, on the red carpet? Why is this crucial center hidden away, several layers below street level?
“But this is the fact; the boiler room doesn’t get the fancy furnishings, but it’s where the energy and fuel for the rest of the structure comes from. This,” Rabbi Hodakov would conclude “is the boiler room of Chabad.”
Our Father’s Holdings
n a modest second floor office, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky receives us with his trademark refinement and elegance.
On a side table sits a vintage Hebrew typewriter, a relic from the glory days, when the Boston-born rabbi would spend long hours in his Rebbe’s anteroom, a sentry hovering near the king. He penned correspondence for the Rebbe, handled administrative duties and, on nights when the Rebbe would receive visitors for yechidus, private discussions, Rabbi Krinsky would often remain there until dawn, waiting to drive the Rebbe home.
I open the conversation by asking about the signs dotting the neighborhood, referring to events and gatherings commemorating the upcoming 20th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Why now? There seems to be much more buildup to this milestone, in contrast to the 10th or 15th yahrtzeits. Does it represent a certain shift in direction?
Rabbi Krinsky thinks for just a moment before answering. “The source might be in Tanach, where we are told that a full 20 years after Shimshon Hagibbor’s passing, the Plishtim still feared him. There was still an effect. I think the underlying sentiment here is that 20 years after the Rebbe’s passing, the effect is here, we are still connected.”
The polished diplomat gives way to chassid as the tone shifts to a soft singsong. “In chassidus, there is a big eisek about the age of 20. There was a ma’amar that the Rebbe suggested we learn when we turned 20, a short shtickel in Likutei Torah [a collection of Torah commentary written by the Baal Hatanya], maybe half a page. The Gemara says that a ben esrim, a 20-year-old, has the maturity to be involved in his father’s business affairs. But isn’t the milestone for adulthood 13, according to the Torah? The Alter Rebbe explains the significance of the two stages according to Kabbalah and chassidus.
“What’s relevant to us now is that we, the Rebbe’s children, are at the point of 20 years. We have developed to the point of ‘lisa v’litein b’nischei aviv,’ we are ready to analyze and take stock of our father’s holdings.”
No Such Rambam
here is a stream of books, lectures, and forums devoted to the Rebbe and his impact timed to coincide with this milestone yahrtzeit. Rabbi Krinsky offers that the books are very nice, but no book can do justice to the Rebbe.
“He was more than an inspirational leader and certainly more than an effective CEO. He was a huge masmid, and I don’t know if the authors got that. It’s central to who he was. I would sit here at night waiting to drive him home and hours would pass with the Rebbe sitting by his beloved seforim, in a world of his own. He would often ask me for one sefer or another. He was a mechadesh, he brought a new intensity to the study of Rashi on Chumash, revealing levels of depth in the landmark peirush.”
Rabbi Krinsky, a fixture in the Rebbe’s presence, shares a snippet of conversation he overheard when the Rebbe sat shivah for his mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson.
“Rabbi Soloveitchik had come to be menachem avel and they were discussing the din of aninus, when it ends. The Rebbe remarked that the Rambam holds that aninus ends with the kevurah.
“The Rav immediately replied, ‘Lubavitcher Rebbe, nisht doh aza a Rambam, there’s no such Rambam.’
“The Rebbe replied that while these words don’t appear in the Rambam’s classic work, Yad Hachazakah, they do appear in his peirush hamishnayos, in masechta Demai. The visitor was astounded.
“The next week, the Rebbe sent Rabbi Soloveitchik a copy of a different edition where the Rambam doesn’t appear, even in peirush hamishnayos, as if justifying the Rav’s position. Rabbi Soloveitchik was astonished at the Rebbe’s honesty, which matched his gaonus. He didn’t need to win the argument.”
I Felt Drawn
n fact, well before he joined the Rebbe’s secretariat, Rabbi Krinsky’ relationship with the Rebbe was that of a talmid.
Rabbi Krinsky was among the first students at the local Maimonides School, eventually transferring to public school in the late 1930s. Despite his academic success, his parents decided to send him to New York to learn.
“I was the youngest child and it wasn’t easy for them, but it gave me life.”
The Krinsky home in Boston had been a gathering place for visiting chassidim and shluchim, so Yehuda was acquainted with the personalities in the reborn chassidim. “I had often heard about Ramash, as the previous Rebbe’s son-in-law was referred to before he became Rebbe [an acronym for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson], and I knew he was highly regarded.”
Young Krinsky arrived on Erev Hoshana Rabbah, and that night, the New Englander saw the future Rebbe for the first time. “My brother pulled me over when everyone was reciting the tikkun and indicated a man standing near the seforim shelf. ‘That’s Ramash,’ my brother said. I saw him and I was taken. I felt drawn to him.”
On Simchas Torah, Ramash danced hakafos with the bochurim. “I managed to get near him in the circle. He put his hand on my shoulder, though, of course, I wouldn’t put my hand on his shoulder. I felt elevated in his presence.”
Throughout that winter, there were encounters.
“I would receive postcards from home and the Rebbe, who wasn’t comfortable with my privacy being violated by the postcards floating around the office, where everyone could read them, would immediately summon me.”
That winter, the yeshivah administration decided to end “in-Shabbosim” in yeshivah, sending the talmidim to spend Shabbos with families instead. Upper-class Crown Heights didn’t boast a large population of Lubavitcher chassidim at the time, and the bochurim were hosted by families in other parts of the city.
“My gracious hosts lived in Boro Park and I spent most Shabbosim with them. But on Shabbos Mevorchim, Ramash would farbreng — at the behest of his father-in-law — and I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
The young man from Boston would purchase challah and salami in nearby Brownsville (Crown Heights didn’t yet have its own bakery) and spend Shabbos in yeshivah, eating alone.
“There were just a few minyanim at these farbrengens, and the Rebbe would weave the names of the participants into his stories and Torah. It was very special.”
He Had a Plan for Us
n that pre-nesius era, the Rebbe’s role was very much like that of a rosh yeshivah. “He spoke with us in learning and was constantly demanding that we learn more. He would call in bochurim on their birthdays and, after receiving a report on their various sedorim, he would suggest a personal limud for each bochur, based on their techunas hanefesh. Something extracurricular, out of regular sedorim.”
“Once, before Shavuos, he requested written updates from each bochur of what they’d accomplished. The boys weren’t comfortable telling the Rebbe how much they’d done, they felt it was haughty, and there weren’t too many responses to his request.
“Late Shavuos night, he walked by where we were learning and we asked him to farbreng with us. ‘If I speak now, I won’t have what to say at the scheduled farbrengen, on Yom Tov afternoon,’ the Rebbe said. But in the end, he acquiesced.
“The Rebbe spoke about the imperative to keep growing in learning, and then stopped and looked at us pointedly. ‘Not like those chachamim who didn’t listen to me, who thought that it wasn’t a good idea to write written reports.’ We got the point. He had a plan for us, and he intended to see it through.”
“On 24 Teves, the Alter Rebbe’s yahrtzeit, the Rebbe was making a siyum on masechta Niddah — he made lots of siyumim over the course of the year. It was a lomdishe hadran, and some of us were lost, but there was a fellow there who kept interjecting with questions. At one point, he made a statement and the Rebbe looked at him. ‘You’re a Hungarian,’ the Rebbe said, smiling. ‘You should know that the Chasam Sofer says not like you.’ ”
We Keep Going
hen the Rebbe assumed the nesius, accepting the mantle of leadership, Rabbi Krinsky became a chassid, but he never stopped being a talmid.
“His words, his gestures, his nuances… they all formed who I am. They guide me still.”
How does Rabbi Krinsky remember his Rebbe?
A poignant memory reaches back to 1950, when the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, was sitting shivah for her father, the previous Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak — known as the Friediker Rebbe.
“Ill never forget, during the shivah, a group of journalism students came to 770. They met the Rebbe and asked him to describe the essence of his father-in-law.
“The Rebbe thought for a moment and told them, ‘My father-in-law was someone who could soar the loftiest heights, but never lose sight of the person before him, able to straddle different dimensions.’
“That was the Rebbe. Removed as he was, he was ever-aware of the needs of others.”
Rabbi Krinsky, who serves as chairman of two of the central boards within the chassidus and is secretary of all three, is one of several chassidim working hard to keep the organizations and causes that were close to the Rebbe’s heart vibrant and effective.
“We keep going. That’s what he taught us. Someone charged with a major project once told the Rebbe that he was exhausted. The Rebbe, who rarely spoke about himself, said, ‘Iz voss? I’m also tired.’ ”
The Rebbe’s Tomorrow
he Rebbe would frequently visit the burial place of his own father-in-law, the previous Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchak, bringing with him the collective concerns and hopes of his many petitioners. Rabbi Krinsky was often his sole companion on these trips, the Rebbe’s only forays outside of Crown Heights.
In a conversation with this magazine several years ago, Rabbi Krinsky recalled his final conversation with the Rebbe, while driving him to the Ohel. While standing in prayer at the gravesite that day, March 2, 1992, the Rebbe suffered a stroke. He would never speak again. His words to his devoted secretary that day were thus understood as a tzavah, his directive for the future.
At the time of the first article, Rabbi Krinsky wasn’t prepared to divulge the substance of their conversation. Today, with the perspective of hindsight, the senior statesman of Chabad sighs.
“The Rebbe spoke about the shluchim and he spoke with more energy than usual. He was discussing the future of his shluchim and shluchos and in a sense, he was preparing us to keep going, to engage the world with Yiddishkeit.”
“These are the Rebbe’s ‘nechasim,’ his holdings, and that’s what keeps us busy.
“I’ll tell you a story.”
Just before the Rebbe’s 90th birthday, the New York Times was preparing a cover story in his honor. The writer accompanied Rabbi Krinsky to the weekly distribution of dollar bills, when the Rebbe would stand on his feet for hours and connect with all sorts of Jews, from all sorts of backgrounds. The journalist asked the Rebbe what the significance of the number 90 was.
“The Rebbe didn’t hesitate. The Rebbe explained that the numerical equivalent of 90 equals the letter tzaddik, which corresponds to the term for a righteous man. ‘We keep trying,’ the Rebbe said, smiling. ‘What was good enough yesterday isn’t good enough for today, and today is meant to prepare for a better tomorrow.’ ”
It’s a phrase that Rabbi Krinsky sees as definitive of the Rebbe’s worldview.
“Do you understand? This is the Rebbe’s tomorrow. We’re in it. And he was preparing it.
“There were those who counted Chabad out after Gimmel Tammuz, but we never doubted. There was too much to do. You have to speak to Rabbi Kotlarsky,” Rabbi Krinsky waves toward the office of his colleague, “he knows the statistics and numbers better than I, but we’re sending out so many shluchim each year, an entire generation of soldiers who never even saw their general. It defies explanation.”
Rabbi Krinsky’s aristocratic features are colored by wonder. “I sometimes sit here, in my ivory tower, and I marvel at these young men and women…what makes them go, give up the easy life to stake it out in a literal desert, or figurative desert? The only rationale is the effect of the Rebbe, the koach he invested in his chassidim that drives us still.”
Just a Bureaucrat
I walk the worn hallway to the office of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. Officially titled vice-chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the chassidus’s educational arm, Rabbi Kotlarsky is the general of an army of thousands, and a great part of his life is spent on the road, circulating amongst them. He is between trips to San Diego, Krakow, London, and Philadelphia. And that’s just one week.
He complements Rabbi Krinsky perfectly. Where the first is immaculate and proper, and his English — a hint of New England twang still audible — impeccable, the second speaks in short sentences, with a slight air of impatience, as if unsure why I’m there in the first place. Anyone who’s seen him chair the annual Kinus Hashluchim banquet can attest to his charisma and eloquence, but interviews, it appears, are not his thing.
“I’m not the general. It’s all the Rebbe. I’m just a bureaucrat.”
A bureaucrat who grew up under the Rebbe’s loving gaze and was handpicked to do exactly what he’s doing. At the age of three years old, little Moshe Kotlarsky received his first siddur from the Rebbe.
He softens as he recalls a childhood moment.
“It was the early 1950s, I was about six, maybe seven years old. There were only a handful of children in Crown Heights back then, and we all wanted the zechus of doing something for him, connecting with him.
“We soon figured out that the best way to interact with him was to hold the door open for him, the large outer door of 770. This way he would look at you and say ‘yasher koach.’ But I had a better idea — if I would open the door after kiddush levanah, I would get a ‘yasher koach, a gutte voch, and a gutten chodesh’ all in one. It was a bargain.”
Displaying the ingenuity that would mark him later in life, little Moshe opened the door after Minchah and remained there, protecting it until after Maariv. He didn’t go out to kiddush levanah with the chassidim, opting instead to remain by the beis medrash entrance, holding the door wide open in anticipation of the Rebbe’s return.
“The Rebbe came back and looked at me. ‘Were you mekadesh levanah yet, or were you too busy holding the door?’ he asked gently. I admitted that I hadn’t yet recited the tefillah. The Rebbe instructed me to go get a siddur and say kiddush levanah, then I was to come to his room.
“I knocked at the door and he opened it, a broad smile on his face. ‘Yasher koach, a gutte voch, a gutten chodesh.’
“It’s a tremendous lesson in chinuch; he didn’t reprimand me, but lovingly and gently directed me.”
Moshe Kotlarsky grew up in that Crown Heights, mesmerized by his Rebbe and the renaissance around him.
“The love he exuded, particularly to us children, connected us to him. It was something special.”
One afternoon, the Rebbe was about to say a ma’amar and one of the bochurim hurried off to find a mikveh. Lubavitch had no mikveh of its own; the nearby Kerestirer mikveh was closed, so the bochur ran to Bobov. The Bobover Rebbe saw him and asked why he was toiveling at six o’clock in the afternoon.
“The Rebbe will be speaking and I want to be ready,” the young bochur replied.
The Bobover turned to his people. “Such chassidim I don’t yet have yet!” he exclaimed in awe.
Whereas in the 1950s and 60s the Rebbe had to convince young couples to go out on shlichus, by the time the Kotlarsky’s got married, it was already in vogue.
“We informed the Rebbe that we would go anywhere he wanted us, distance was no obstacle, language was no barrier.”
The Rebbe seemed to have other plans. The young couple didn’t receive a clear answer, and eventually, it became clear that, in a rare resolution, the Rebbe wanted Rabbi Kotlarsky on-site, at headquarters.
Rabbi Kotlarsky began to work for Machane Israel, the social services arm of Chabad, and Merkos, the organ responsible for outreach, on the cusp of the great explosion. Just a few years earlier, the Rebbe had pleaded for volunteers — suddenly, young men and women were lining up for postings.
Not Jobs, But Opportunities
abbi Kotlarsky fused organizational abilities, fund-raising skills, common sense, and a listening ear. He became a crucial resource, connecting the field operatives with headquarters.
“No,” he insists, “I didn’t show any skills, wasn’t remarkable in any way. There are only two words to explain how I merited it — matnas chinam.”
The Rebbe, Rabbi Kotlarsky continues, didn’t give jobs. “He gave opportunities. He was tireless. If you were successful, the reward was more work. You never stopped to think, ‘Oh, what’s my position now? Where will this lead me?’ There was no time for that, you just moved on to the next task.”
He shows me a paper, an early update telling the Rebbe how many bochurim had signed up to go spend their yeshivah vacation doing shlichus. “And maybe, in the course of the zeman, we will add a few more,” wrote Reb Moshe. It was quite the accomplishment, but Reb Moshe didn’t earn a pat on the back from the Rebbe.
“The Rebbe writes, V’kama v’kama? How many more can still go? B’simchah u’vtuv levav.”
Rabbi Kotlarsky doesn’t deny that he developed a good sense of the globe. “Yes, constant travel will do that, you go here, you go there, and you see what could be done.”
There were pleas from help from far-flung locales, tiny communities that knew the Lubavitcher Rebbe wouldn’t forget them. These letters were read and the cry they contained addressed.
Rabbi Kotlarsky shows a letter from a small town in Bolivia, an SOS from a group of Holocaust survivors. “They wanted to make sure someone would be there, to make sure that they would have levayos and burial like Yidden, to teach their children to say Kaddish.”
In the margins, there is the unmistakable handwriting, the energetic, assertive scripts, in which the Rebbe asks: Does Kotlarsky know about it? If he does, what’s he doing for them?
In conversation, the Rebbe continued, And if he doesn’t, how could there be a place in a country for which he is responsible that he doesn’t know about!
There was no threshold for acceptance, no red tape or bureaucratic requirements to merit help. If a Jew cried out, the Rebbe heard and responded.
You’re Here for Me
he Rebbe once instructed me to go to the Caribbean Island of Curacao.”
Those were the marching orders — no further details were given — so Rabbi Kotlarsky took his perpetually packed suitcase in hand and headed off to the airport.
When he arrived on the island, he asked a taxi driver to take him to the Jewish center, and after meeting a few locals, he stepped into the street. A fellow hurried over to him and said, “Why are you here?”
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me.”
The man’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Then you came for me.”
He told his story. He had been raised on the island unaware of his Jewishness, but before her death, his grandmother told him that he was to marry a Jewish woman.
She left him with another piece of advice. If ever he encountered any sort of problem, he was to contact the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn.
“I married a Jewish woman and we have a son and a daughter.”
The fellow explained that the local educational system was under control of the church, and prayer was part of the school day. When the Catholic children prayed, the Jewish children had been allowed to play ball.
But there was a new bishop who decided that every student must participate in the religious service, and at the beginning of this year, the headmaster forced his son to join. “My son refused to go to church, and the headmaster tried to prod him inside,” the man said. “My son resisted, and in the scuffle that ensued, the headmaster ended up on the floor.”
The man’s son was immediately suspended, and had nowhere to go to school.
“Last night, my grandmother appeared in a dream and reminded me about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it’s a miracle that you’re here!”
The chassid traveled back with the gentleman, who spent Purim in Crown Heights and enrolled his son at the Lubavitcher yeshivah.
The father was exhilarated by the experience, and when he returned to Curacao, he wrote a thank-you letter to the Rebbe. He expressed his gratitude and signed off, You touched the heart of a small Jew from a small island.
Rabbi Kotlarsky has a copy of the Hebrew, typewritten response, to which the Rebbe had added a hand-written annotation with instructions to his secretary, Rabbi Nissan Mindel, to translate into English.
Every Jew carries a piece of the Divine with him, as explained in Tanya, chapter 2… so there is no such thing as a small Jew, as you refer to yourself.
The Real Goal
he numbers of shluchim kept increasing and Rabbi Kotlarsky worked even harder for the troops.
But when I casually refer to the shluchim as “your shluchim,” I elicit a passionate response. “My shluchim? My shluchim? They aren’t mine. Anyone who thinks that a young man or woman would throw away comfort and convenience, that these children of a generation who never even saw the Rebbe would sacrifice everything, for Moshe Kotlarsky, needs a psychiatrist. It’s the Rebbe’s koach.”
That said, the shluchim are always on his heart.
“The shluchim are a family. Of course we fund many of the shluchim going to uncharted territories, and try our best to help them.”
Rabbi Kotlarsky is quick to deflect credit to his donors, particularly the Rohr family. German-born Reb Shmuel (Sami) Rohr settled in South America after the World War II, where he was an early supporter of Chabad. In time, the businessman would spawn many initiatives through the shluchim, and since his passing, his works are being maintained by his son, George, and son-in-law, Moshe Tabicinic.
“The Rohr family has a large share in the growth we’ve experienced.”
Though Rabbi Kotlarsky has raised considerable sums of money to help the shluchim, he doesn’t take the credit for this either.
“In fact, it was the Rebbe who taught me how to approach fund-raising.”
In the early 1970s, the burgeoning Chabad movement caught the attention of a major Jewish foundation. They met with Rabbi Kotlarsky, and the organization extended an offer for a $1 million-grant.
“They came to see us in action and were very impressed. I was ecstatic. A million dollars! Back then it was unimaginable. They okayed the grant and gave us a small list of conditions, one or two of which the Rebbe would not have been comfortable with. It wasn’t a violation of halachah or anything, just something that we weren’t used to. We walked away from the money because it would have violated our principles and got back to work.
“He explained to me that big money for devarim shebikedushah doesn’t come easy. He had never really expected it and wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t work out.”
The Rebbe gave him a major lesson in fund-raising that day. “He told me, ‘One has to undergo charishah, zeria, [plowing, planting], and the rest of the 39 Melachos before he merits ‘V’osafto es tvuasah, gathering in the harvest.’ It’s a lesson I never forgot.”
Running an operation like Chabad requires money, but Rabbi Kotlarsky, and the shluchim, haven’t lost sight of their real goal.
A number of years ago, Rabbi Kotlarsky met a wealthy Midwestern realtor, who offered to build a huge Chabad center in his region. Rabbi Kotlarsky shook his hand, and said ‘Thank you,’ very politely.
Someone else who was present later commented that Reb Moshe must have ice water running through his veins, because his reaction was so subdued.
“He didn’t understand that, pleased as I was with the generous gift, I was also disappointed, because earlier that week, I’d told the donor, ‘I don’t want big money from you yet, first I want you to start keeping Shabbos and putting on tefillin. Then, we can do business.’
“So the mega-donation was also somewhat of a letdown.”
For the Final Generation
ask Rabbi Kotlarsky how it’s possible that a generation that didn’t know the Rebbe is ready to travel to the ends of the world to fulfill his dream.
“Look,” he sighs, “the Rebbe is very much with us, even today. Of course, I don’t mean something like pulling out a chair for him when he’s no longer here or reaching for an imaginary dollar, but I mean in being connected to his teachings, his message. The Rebbe took Mashiach very seriously. Just as the Chofetz Chaim had a Kollel Kodashim, preparing Kohanim for their eventual role in the Beis Hamikdash, the Rebbe never stopped preparing us, trying to get the whole world ready for Mashiach. It was his most sacred mission, and it had nothing to do with slogans. It was real and to him, it meant the world. He invested us with a drive to continue, to do one more mitzvah, to learn Torah, to give tzedakah, to get others to care and until Mashiach is here, our job isn’t complete.
“You know what? I believe that this was the Rebbe’s plan. He was the most humble man, yet he allowed himself to videotaped, recorded, before it was accepted because he wanted the teachings, the hora’os, to remain l’dor acharon, to the final generation.”
Since the passing of the Rebbe, Rabbi Kotlarsky is forced to reach into his own memory bank, the moments and encounters baked into his heart. Which image of his Rebbe is seared onto his consciousness?
“On the second day of Shavuos 1958,” he speaks slowly, reliving the moment, “it was late afternoon. I walked by the Rebbe’s room and for some reason, his window was open. It was very hot, there was no air conditioning, and he was sitting ramrod straight in his chair, looking into a sefer. I wanted to look, but I was embarrassed, so I started walking up and down the sidewalk outside, peering in each time I passed by.
“He was wearing his kapoteh, with no hat. He moved to stand by the shtender and look into his gemara. The seforim kept piling up, each time I passed, and it was clear that he was totally absorbed, oblivious to his surroundings, to me, to all of it.”
“The farbrengen was scheduled for ten after eight in the evening. At eight after eight, he slowly stood up, closed the window, pulled down the shades and headed down to the shul. By the time I scrambled in and found my seat, he was already there. I looked on as the Rebbe spoke in Torah and chassidus until two o’clock in the morning, and then distributed kos shel brachah until 4:30 a.m. I saw by the Rebbe an actualization of the words of Chazal, ‘lo pasak pumei m’girsa,’ he was engaged in learning for hours on end. That’s a memory which is very precious to me.”
“After everything he achieved, the people he helped, his essence was that of a scholar, looking into a sefer. It never changed.”
Fulfilled Our Obligation
he Rebbe never took a break, Rabbi Kotlarsky recalls. He was too busy. “It was told that on the back porch of his home on President Street, there were two chairs. One afternoon, he arrived home and the Rebbetzin was sitting on one of the chairs. He sat down on the other, next to the Rebbetzin, and remained seated for about two minutes. Then he stood up and smiled. “Shoin yotzei geven datche, we have fulfilled our vacation obligations, oif gantz zummer, for the entire summer,” he said.
“Yet as weighty as the burden he carried was — this was a man with global reach and global problems — he never lost sight of the individual. I remember well the Succos of 1990, when my own father z”l was in the hospital, unwell. It was the last Succos before the Rebbe’s stroke and I joined the chassidim on the first morning, lining up to shake the Rebbe’s dalet minim. For the 30 years preceding, a respected chassid had overseen the process, handing off the dalet minim to the chassidim, but that last year, the Rebbe did it himself, like in the old days. He stood there for eight hours straight — he was 90 years old — handing his lulav and esrog to chassidim, listening to them say both brachos and reciting Amen, and after that he was finally ready to start davening Shacharis. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. I was already exhausted.
“The Rebbe walked up the stairs and turned around when he got to the top. He called me over and asked, ‘Voss hertz zich mit di Tatte, how’s your father?’ It amazed me, but much more than that, it moved me. I am just one person among thousands… he had his own rules, it defies nature to be able to do that.”
He stands up to conclude. “And that answers your other question — that’s how we go on. The growth of this movement after Gimmel Tammuz isn’t due to good marketing, slogans, or leadership, but due to the bond that the Rebbe created, a bond that can’t be broken.
“You see this?” He stops and points at a picture of the Rebbe on his desk, a beautiful little child with long hair. “This picture hung in the Chabad House in Mumbai. I was so close with the kedoshim, Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg. The massacre left a hole in my heart which will never be filled, until Mashiach comes. The family gave me this picture of the Rebbe, it still has blood on it from those terrible days.
“It’s one of my cherished possessions, this picture of the Rebbe, because really, it’s our story. It’s a bond forged in blood, not just the shluchim, but every Yid has an achrayus. If you’re apathetic, then everything is a question, nothing makes sense. But if you have ahavas Yisrael, if you really care, then there are no questions.”
One Last Book
oth rabbis, Krinsky and Kotlarsky, are too busy to speculate, too busy to engage in what-if’s and if-only’s. They forge on in the absence of their Rebbe, continuing to derive inspiration from so many memories, and from the vibrant present.
“By the Rebbe,” Rabbi Krinsky offers a farewell thought, “everything was significant, so it’s hard to say which part of his avodah was more important to him, but we did see something interesting. In his last years, he started to make an order in the massive piles of seforim that covered his desk, sending many of them to the library to be catalogued. He slowly, systematically, removed each of the many seforim, and at the end, there was only one set left, it was the Sefer Hashluchim, the complete resource of all the shluchim in the world, which included the names of their children and a list of their activities.”
As the Rebbe said in a sichah, discussing a passuk in Bereishis:
Yosef fell on Binyamin’s neck and cried, and Binyamin cried on his neck. (Bereishis 45:14)
Yosef cried for the two Batei Mikdash that would eventually be destroyed in the portion of Binyamin, and Binyamin wept for the Mishkan Shilo, which would be in Yosef’s portion, and ultimately be destroyed. (Rashi)
Why did the brothers cry for the temples which were to be destroyed in each other’s territories? Why did they not mourn their own losses as well?
Tears and sighs are appropriate for the suffering of another. For a person’s own problems, he needs to act. Grief is never as effective as action.
At the movement’s world headquarters, the yahrtzeit brings a moment to contemplate; they will sigh, perhaps even weep, but then they will drink a l’chayim and get back to work. For, as their Rebbe taught, a thousand tears aren’t as effective as one achievement. And so they continue to do.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 515)
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