Rabbi YY Jacobson retraces the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s lasting impact
Photos: JEM, Family archives
wenty-five years after the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s passing on 3 Tammuz, 1994, I can still hear his wise, holy words — how he ignited the Divine spark in every Jew, viewing each of us as an ambassador of infinite love, light, hope, and truth. When you walked away from an encounter with the Rebbe, you forever cast away your sense of inner mediocrity
I was four years old when I entered the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s room, before the bar mitzvah of my older brother Boruch. The Rebbe asked me if I could share a story with him — “A story about Adam, Avraham, or Noach.” I was a shy boy, and I remained silent. He asked me a few times; when I didn’t respond, the Rebbe smiled and continued to converse with my parents.
My brother still jokes with me: “You left that room, and haven’t stopped telling stories since…” Then he adds: “Maybe it’s because you were silent in that room, that you know how to tell a story…”
Twenty-five years later, I still miss the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In my mind’s eye, I can see him walking home late Friday night, one hand in his coat pocket, to eat the Shabbos meal with his wife. The Rebbe walked alone — there were no gabbaim, and no entourage. He would greet every person, Jew and African American, cordially.
During the 60 years of their marriage, from 1928 to 1988, he ate most Shabbos meals exclusively with his wife, in the privacy of their own home. In a home devoid of children, perhaps this was the personal space he carved out for his life’s partner who gave up her husband for the Jewish people.
I miss davening a Minchah with the Rebbe. To see his ernstkeit — the sincerity and yiras Shamayim when he davened — was enough to know forever that G-d is real. He barely swayed, nor did he maneuver his hands. He stood in one place, almost not moving a limb. But he was all deveikus. There was something about his face that still makes me cry: You can see in it all the pain and all the joy of the Jewish People.
The Rebbe would sit by chazaras hashatz on a bench (used moments earlier by the yeshivah boys learning), facing the crowd, with his hand on his forehead, pointing in the siddur, following the chazzan word by word.
And then for a few days, the Rebbe did not place his hand on his forehead. It was strange. Why would he change his custom of 40 years? A sensitive eye in the shul noticed that during the Minchah services of those days, there was a guest from Eretz Yisrael, someone whose body and face were badly deformed. He was also blind. It was hard to look at the person. It became clear that the Rebbe didn’t want anyone to think he was trying to avoid gazing at the disfigured individual.
I miss the Rebbe’s Shabbos and Yom Tov farbrengens.
How to describe a five-hour farbrengen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe? For some moments, you felt you were in the company of the Baal Shem Tov — as the Rebbe sang, danced, and spoke of the purity of every Jewish soul. But then, as he dedicated an hour to delve into a “chatzi shiur” or a Rambam in Pesulei Hamukdashin, you felt you were in the chamber of a world-class rosh yeshivah. And then he became the classic Chabad Rebbe, as he closed his eyes and presented a ma’amar of the Baal HaTanya on the secrets of Atzilus and the Sefiros. You thought you were done, when he would begin a siyum on Horayos, Bechoros, or Eiruvin, and you felt you were in the mechitzah of one of the great minds of the generation. As you could barely hold your breath, he shifted to his brilliant derech in analyzing a Rashi on the parshah.
In between the talks, the singing was electrifying. He made sure to greet every one of the thousand people present with a personal l’chayim, often signaling a special gesture toward an individual sitting in the audience, and you knew that this Jew needed some chizuk.
The song finished, and the Rebbe would present a deep explanation on a particular concept in hashkafah, halachah, or aggadah, and you observed the Rebbe’s unique approach to synthesize all streams of Torah into an integrated whole, where halachah, lomdus, machshavah, chassidus, science, psychology, and emotional healing all meshed into one whole. Then he would begin to discuss the contemporary situation of the Jewish world, and I knew he had his finger on the pulse of G-d’s People. Then, as the crown began to sing the Alter Rebbe’s niggun, his face changed. Suddenly I felt I was in the presence of a tzaddik, one of those rare souls planted from another world into ours, to remind us that heaven and earth are really one.
He finished the fabrengen, the clock showed two a.m., and I stood there, silently, numb from ecstasy. My heartstrings were on fire, as I thanked Hashem for sending such a soul into the world.
Rabbi Jacobson as a young boy, escorted to the Rebbe by his father Reb Gershon Jacobson. Twice, that shy little boy didn’t answer the Rebbe’s question
Who was the Lubavitcher Rebbe? What was he all about? Why did he inspire such loyalty? Why, a quarter of a century after his passing, has his influence not ceased?
I am not sure.
Was it his mastery of Torah? The Rebbe knew every Rashi and Rashba in Shas, but also every line of the Arizal and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Zohar. Was it his global vision — how he taught people to take responsibility for the entire Jewish world?
New Haven’s Rabbi Moshe Hecht, who had a gift of gab, was planning to travel on vacation to Israel. When he asked the Rebbe for a brachah before his trip, the Rebbe said to him: “I understand that there is an old age home in Hungary with some elderly Jews, and kosher meals there are not an option. Can you travel to Israel via Hungary and use your oratory skills to persuade the boss to give the Jewish residents an option for kosher?”
Reb Moshe would quip, “It’s a bad idea to tell the Lubavitcher Rebbe you’re going on vacation…”
Was it, perhaps, his kedushah? Here was a man who fasted regularly for 90 years, slept three hours a night, spent much of his day and night learning, and never uttered a word of rechilus or lashon hara.
I still recall the Shabbos in the 1980s when Bob Dylan, one of the greatest icons of the hippie movement, attended a farbrengen. The Rebbe was notified earlier that he would be there, yet surprisingly, each time the Rebbe lifted his cup of wine to say l’chayim, he passed over him, as though Dylan wasn’t present. After Shabbos, the Rebbe was surprised to learn from one secretary that Dylan was present, as the Rebbe maintained that he didn’t notice him. One chassid picked up on the secret: Bob Dylan, whose original name is Shabsi Zisel Zimmerman, had at one point converted to Christianity, and never went to the mikveh after his return to his People. Could it be the Rebbe simply did not “see” him? That living in a halo of kedushah, the Rebbe’s eyes didn’t observe this person who willingly left the faith? And so they sent Dylan to the mikveh, and next Shabbos as Bob Dylan lifted his cup, the Rebbe immediately greeted him warmly.
Was it his encyclopedic knowledge of the secular sciences, which allowed him to present the truth of Torah to countless academics and confused Jewish students? Was it, perhaps, the fact that he answered every single letter written to him, giving counsel to millions of Jews and even non-Jews, from every stripe? Or was it his all-night meetings for decades with every conceivable type of Jew, from Menachem Begin to the Rebbe of Toldos Aharon; from a Columbia University professor of Greek philosophy to the first-ever black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm (whom he inspired at that meeting to create the food stamp program for hungry American families); from a Russian refugee to a broken Holocaust survivor?
Or maybe it was his good-natured simplicity and self-effacing humor? Once on Simchas Torah, a Russian chassid, who was a bit tipsy, told the Rebbe: “Besides all your other qualities, we are so lucky to have such a beautiful and handsome rebbe!” The next day this fellow sobered up and went over to apologize. The Rebbe responded: “Why are you apologizing? Such a compliment I haven’t received in decades…”
On Erev Yom Kippur, the Rebbe would stand at the door of his room and distribute honey cake with blessings for a sweet year to the chassidim. Once, among the thousands waiting in the fast-moving line, stood an elderly Jew named Zalman Teibel, escorted by a nurse who held him up. Reb Zalman was an old Russian chassid, almost 90, who had no children, suffered from Alzheimer’s, and was living in the Aishel Avraham nursing home in Williamsburg. The Rebbe knew him well — decades earlier he had brought to Chabad the famous song “Ana Avda” (from the tefillah preceding the Torah reading). But now, Reb Zalman didn’t recognize the Rebbe or anyone else. The Rebbe tried to connect with him, but to no avail. The Alzheimer’s had overtaken his conscious brain.
Suddenly, the Rebbe, standing at the door of his office, started to sing the song that Reb Zalman composed decades earlier — “Ana ana avda, avda d’Kudsha Berich Hu…” The Rebbe had a beautiful voice, a combination of sweetness and depth, and when he sang, your heart would melt. The entire line stopped, and thousands of people were left waiting, as the Rebbe sang the entire song to this old man. As the Rebbe was in middle of the song, Zalman Teibel suddenly awoke from his slumber. He recognized he was in the presence of his Rebbe — and broke out in the sweetest smile. They both gazed at each other with so much love, as the Rebbe showered him with blessings, and Reb Zalman, for a few moments, was uplifted from the abyss of Alzheimer’s to the Rebbe’s loving embrace.
I still recall that moment on Simchas Torah, when East Flatbush’s renowned Rabbi J.J. Hecht arrived at “770” in middle of the hakafos, after he finished dancing in his own shul. As the Rebbe saw him, the Rebbe threw him a kiss coupled with a colossal smile. I never saw the Rebbe perform such a gesture, certainly not in the presence of nine thousand people on Simchas Torah. I knew there was more to the story.
That year, Rabbi Hecht passed away. I thought that perhaps the Rebbe felt this was their last Simchas Torah together and he was bidding him farewell. But then Rabbi Hecht’s daughter told me that her father, while walking from East Flatbush to the hakafos, shared with her a dream he had hours earlier during his Yom Tov nap that very afternoon. In his dream he asked the Rebbe for permission to give him a kiss (something chassidim usually do not do), and indeed he went over to the Rebbe and gave him a gigantic kiss. Rabbi Hecht awoke from his dream and then went to shul for Minchah-Maariv. But that very night, as he entered “770” for hakafos, the Rebbe returned the kiss…
Little Yossi Jacobson with his father, Reb Gershon Jacobson, at a Lag B’Omer parade in 1976. “I knew the Rebbe had his finger on the pulse of G-d’s people
But it was the “doctrine of oneness” the Rebbe constantly taught that touched me most.
I’ll never forget the moment. It was in the middle of a Shabbos afternoon farbrengen in the early ’80s. In the middle of a long, complex explanation on a Rashi on the parshah, the Rebbe paused and searched the crowd. His eyes rested on a child. The Rebbe pointed his finger at the boy and asked him in Yiddish: “Fun vannet veist du az es iz doh a velt — how do you know that there is a world?”
Time stood still as the Rebbe’s eyes bore into the child. The shy boy did not answer the Rebbe’s question, but the Rebbe continued, answering his own question: “So the child answers, because the Torah says ‘Bereishis bara Elokim es haShamayim ve’es ha’aretz — In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.’ ” That’s how I know the universe exists.
That boy was me. For the second time in my life, I didn’t answer the Rebbe’s question. But I did listen to his answer.
This was the crux of his teachings: that the Divine is everywhere. There is no person, no moment, no experience, devoid of the all-pervasive oneness of the Ribbono shel Olam. There is no alien Jew, no alien community, no alien region on planet Earth, and no discovery in physics, where you can’t find the infinite Truth of Hashem.
Nor is there a situation that is irredeemable, an experience that is hopeless.
There was a young man suffering from compulsions toward a deviant lifestyle. In utter despair, he penned a heart-wrenching letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe responded with a three-page correspondence. One point startled me.
The Rebbe told this boy that he does not know why he must endure this profound challenge — it’s surely one of the mysteries of Divine providence. But then he added this: “Sometimes, a person possesses an incredible inner light that can change the world. There is no way for this person to discover that secret power within himself and call it his own, without being compelled to overcome a major life-challenge.”
Some might have looked at this young man and felt disdain; others might have felt empathy. But it was the Rebbe, the teacher of oneness, who saw his crisis as opportunity. There was no tragedy here, there was a catalyst for this person to touch infinity. He was not a victim of an unfortunate condition; he was a Divine ambassador sent to places most people are not sent to, because his potential was of a different magnitude.
Once, on the afternoon of Hoshana Rabbah, the Rebbe was handing out the traditional “lekach,” honey cake, in his succah, and people were lined up to receive a piece of cake and a blessing. Standing in line was a young fellow, dressed hippie-style, in sloppy jeans and sporting an unkempt bush of hair. Standing behind him was a distinguished rosh yeshivah, a sincere Satmar chassid.
As the unkempt fellow approached, the Rebbe asked him, “Where are you going to be for the Simchas Torah hakafos?”
The man answered, “I have no plans to be anywhere for hakafos.”
“It would be my great honor and privilege,” the Rebbe replied to this secular Jew, “if you would attend hakafos with me in the synagogue and we can dance together with so many other Jews.”
The fellow thanked the Rebbe for his invitation but remained noncommittal. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and walked away.
As the Satmar chassid approached the Rebbe, the Rebbe gave him a piece of lekach and then, out of the blue, said to him:
“Do you learn Yismach Moshe?”
Now, asking a Satmar chassid if he learns Yismach Moshe (authored by the founder of the Satmar dynasty, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel, Hungary) is like asking a Brisker if he learns the Griz, or asking a Chabadnik if he learns Tanya.
“Of course,” the rosh yeshivah answered.
“Do you remember the story the Yismach Moshe writes in his book Tefillah L’Moshe?”
The man did not remember. So the Rebbe shared with him the story, which the Yismach Moshe heard from his teacher, the holy Seer of Lublin.
Reb Itzikel of Drobitch, the father of Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov, the renowned disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was asked by Rashi: Why is there such a commotion On High about the greatness of your son? How did Reb Michel merit such praise?
Reb Itzikel replied that his son studies Torah day and night for the sake of Heaven. “But aren’t there others who do the same?” Rashi questioned. “There is something singular about the pleasure your son gives to Hashem. What is it?”
“My son fasts and deprives his body of worldly pleasures,” replied Reb Itzikel. But again, Rashi maintained there were others who did the same.
“My son gives away huge sums of money to the poor.” Rashi was still unsatisfied. There are others who also distribute excessive tzedakah.
Finally, Reb Itzikel replied with three words from the prophet Malachi: “V’rabim heishiv mi’avon — My son, Reb Michel Zlotchover, has returned many from the path of sin to their Father in Heaven.”
When Rashi heard this response, he was finally satisfied.
The Satmar chassid was flabbergasted. The Rebbe understood that, coming from his insulated background, it was difficult for this chassid to appreciate why the Rebbe would display such closeness to a secular hippie. So the Rebbe shared with him this story from the founder of Satmar.
The rosh yeshivah responded to the Rebbe: “Ich hob git farshtanen.” (In other words, “I got it.”)
A postscript to the story. A friend shared with me that during the Rebbe’s electrifying hakafos, he encountered the young hippie dancing away with an old chassid. Apparently, he couldn’t resist the Rebbe’s invitation after all…
Together with the Rebbe at a funeral — Rabbi Jacobson is the bochur on the Rebbe’s left. “His words still guide me in moments of confusion”
There are two types of great people. Those who, when you come away from meeting them, have you under the spell of their magnitude; and those who, when you come away from them, have you under the spell of your own magnitude. They see in you not who you are, but who you can be. They don’t create followers, they create leaders.
The influence of such people changes you forever.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe looked at every person he came in contact with and saw the “echad” in them, their alignment with the Oneness of all reality, as he once said about the Pesach Seder: “Echad chacham, echad rasha, echad tam…” — in each type there is the “echad” you need to discover. In the Rebbe’s mind, you were far bigger than you could ever imagine: You were an ambassador of infinite love, light, hope, and truth. When you walked away from an encounter with him, you forever cast away your sense of inner mediocrity.
Today, so many years later, as I sit in my office facing young people who were betrayed and abused by adults in their lives they thought they could trust; these youths often feel their souls have been snuffed out of them and they are doomed. The words I heard from my Rebbe empower me to not even doubt for a moment that they can rebuild and rediscover their inner, unshattered core.
As I stand in front of massive crowds the world over, sometimes numbering in the thousands, I sometimes doubt myself and my own abilities, as many of us do. It is so easy to surrender to the gravity of our own inner demons and struggles. But then in my mind’s eye I can hear the Rebbe singing to a 90-year-old senile man “Ana avda d’Kudsha Berich Hu.” It empowers man, to redefine himself as an ambassador of truth, love, healing, and redemption. I am not a struggling genetic random mutation on the dust of one of the trillions of galaxies; I am not a victim to my shabby circumstances. I am, at every moment, a conduit for the Divine, and I, like you, can change the world.
I’m often asked to reach out to teenagers struggling emotionally. Conventional wisdom tells me to say, “I’m too busy.” I can back up the claim with solid evidence. But then I remember when I was a struggling teenager myself, walking on Eastern Parkway at three a.m. (the hour when many a teenager comes to life). At that quiet hour, not a single car passed by on that usually busy street. The world was asleep. But I could see the light in the Rebbe’s room flickering. I saw this night after night after night. I knew there was a Jew sitting in this room who could not sleep because Mashiach had not yet come, because there was still much brokenness in the world. There was a sense of urgency he implanted in all of us.
And when I remember, I immediately know the right thing to do.
It was Sunday, February 1, 1992. The Lubavitcher Rebbe stood for approximately six hours at his center in Brooklyn, distributing dollars, counsel, and blessings to thousands. I was one of many who went to receive a dollar from the Rebbe that Sunday, the last time he would distribute dollars for charity.
It was 5:55 p.m. Right in front of me, a father held his daughter, she seemed to be five or six years old, and the family was obviously secular. As the Rebbe gave her a blessing and a dollar to give to charity, the cute little girl looked him in the eyes and said, “Lubavitcher Rebbe, I love you!”
The Rebbe’s secretaries standing nearby were naturally taken aback, but the Rebbe’s face lit up, his heartwarming smile filled the room. I will never forget the moment: The Rebbe, 89 years old, exhausted from standing, listening and speaking for so many hours, was glowing.
The Rebbe said to her: “Thank you very much.” As the little girl was about to move on, the Rebbe gave her a second dollar and said, “This is for your love.”
Those were the last words I ever heard from my Rebbe.
Twenty-four hours later, while standing in prayer at the resting place of his father-in-law, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe known as the Rayatz, he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Two years later, he returned his soul to its Maker.
But two-and-a-half decades later I can, in my imagination, still hear the words resonating from his saintly mouth. They guide me at moments of confusion, and they help me find inner resources I didn’t know existed.
The love lives on.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 767)
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