Twenty Years: Reflections on the Lubavitcher Rebbe

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by Yehudis Litvak

On Sunday night, June 29th, Kanner Hall was filled with men and women from various segments of the Los Angeles Jewish community who gathered to reflect on the legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz”l, twenty years after his passing. The event was organized by Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center, hosted by Congregation Shaarei Tefila, and sponsored by Alan and Lisa Stern, in memory of their parents. Rabbi Moshe Kesselman, of Congregation Shaarei Tefila, was the master of ceremonies. Throughout the program, Rabbi Dovid Lipson, pianist, a Rosh Kollel from Eretz Yisrael, and Mr. Ami Levy, violinist performed moving niggunim of the Rebbe.

The speakers at the event, most of them not affiliated with Chabad, highlighted different aspects of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s leadership and influence. They pointed out that the sprouts of the seeds he planted can be seen in every single aspect of individual and communal life.

Rabbi Avraham Lieberman, a historian and dean of YULA girls’ high school, spoke of the unparalleled vision and influence of the Rebbe. He reminisced about the radio programs in Yiddish he used to listen to as a young boy, and the Torah booklets distributed in every shul, both produced by the Rebbe. The little booklets soon turned into sichos on Rashi that created a revolution in the way Rashi was studied. Rabbi Lieberman marveled at the Rebbe’s ability to delve deeply into the well-known commentary, familiar even to young schoolchildren, and bring out the secrets that remained hidden in the previous one thousand years of extensive study of Rashi’s commentary. Rabbi Lieberman encouraged the audience to take advantage of many published books, in many different languages, of the Rebbe’s sichos on Rashi.

The next speaker, Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, dean of Yeshivas Yavneh, spoke about the Rebbe’s Torah scholarship, giving two examples of his brilliant chiddushim. He concluded by noting that the Rebbe encompassed every single derech within Judaism, whether it’s chassidus, halachic insights, or involvement in politics.

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Monica Lightstone Photography

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Torah scholar and professor of Loyola University, began with a disclaimer that ideologically and temperamentally, he stands as far away from chassidus as possible. At the same time, he considers the Rebbe’s leadership unique. Only the Rebbe was able to act as a general, dispatching troops everywhere in the world where something could be accomplished. Moreover, among the chareidi world, only the Rebbe was able to engage the outside world without bringing its tuma into his own world, and to give this ability to thousands of his chassidim. Rabbi Adlerstein pointed out that while other leaders tend to have their specialties, the Rebbe had a very broad range of interests and was involved in many areas that affected the Jewish people, and the world as a whole.

Israeli generals came to the Rebbe for guidance. The creation of the education department in the US government was largely his doing. The Rebbe’s interest in science allowed him to explain his views from a position of strength. His influence spread over to men and women on the street and gave koach to them as well. He strove to reach every single Jew, no matter how far that Jew was from Judaism. He viewed such a person not as an object of kiruv, but as a holy neshama, and loved them not for any particular accomplishment, nor any future accomplishment, but simply as a child of Hashem. Countless lives were enriched by the light and paternal warmth of the Rebbe.

Rabbi Moshe Bryski, a shaliach of the Rebbe, head of Chabad of Conejo Valley, spoke about the challenges the Rebbe faced at the beginning of his leadership. It was a difficult time in history, shortly after the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were lost and those who survived were still mourning the losses. The Rebbe took upon himself the task of lifting up this generation and embracing every single Jew in the world. With only a few broken orphans at his side, he began a revolution that was to change the world, one Jew at a time and one mitzvah at a time. The Rebbe was not interested in masses, but in the individual, in the heart and soul of every Jew.

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Rabbi Bryski remembered how, when he came back to New York for the first time after being sent as a shaliach to Conejo Valley, a non-Lubavitcher interrogated him about the religious life in Conejo Valley, which at the time was practically non-existent, and expressed disappointment that the Rebbe had sent him to such an unholy city. Now, thirty years later, Conejo Valley boasts a large Torah observant community, with seven shuls, many communal institutions, and thousands of people who come to learn Torah. Rabbi Bryski encouraged the audience to follow in the Rebbe’s directives to bring Yiddishkeit to every single Jew, to kindle every neshama, one at a time.

Rabbi Reuven Wolf, director of Maayon Yisroel, asked from where the Rebbe derived his inspiration and motivation. He explained that while we cannot fully comprehend the thoughts of tzaddikim, we can begin to understand the Rebbe’s source of energy by examining the beginning of his leadership. The Rebbe was the continuation of a golden chain of seven tzaddikim who were masters of the Torah and great communal leaders. The chain goes back to the Baal Shem Tov, whose core teaching was the unity of G-d. He summed up the total of all existence as nothing other than manifestation of Hashem, Who concealed Himself in this world to allow His creations to look for Him and peel away the layers of concealment until the world is filled with Divine knowledge. While the Baal Shem Tov delivered this truth into the neshama of every Jew, it wasn’t possible to understand this idea intellectually, until the Alter Rebbe brought this truth to be absorbed by intellect. With each next tzaddik these ideas became more graspable, until the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe brought them down to the next frontier – the realm of the physical. The Rebbe intended for this generation to break through the last concealment, until there is no place on earth where mitzvos are not done. Rabbi Wolf explained that Hashem’s oneness is expressed in every Chabad House. Mivtzoim, the Rebbe’s mitzvah campaigns, such as encouraging non-observant Jews to put on tefillin or light Shabbos candles, have touched thousands of Jews across the world and are also helping bring down the Shechina into the physical world. Rabbi Wolf encouraged the audience to do their part by revealing G-d wherever we find ourselves.

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The evening concluded with more beautiful music as the participants absorbed the inspiring words they had heard, which, as Rabbi Kesselman said, will hopefully help all of us become better Jews tomorrow than we are today.