Chassidic Unity to Bring Moshiach
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
When I first began coming regularly as a newbie to 770 Eastern Parkway, also known as Lubavitch World Headquarters, I found myself for all intents and purposes being completely ignored. Apparently, the outreach instincts of the locals didn't extend to someone of obviously religious appearance. Over time, a handful of individuals did reach out a friendly hand and I got to know a few people here and there, but for the first two years I was pretty much anonymous. At the time, I considered that a plus for a number of reasons, including the opportunity that it presented to observe and learn from others, something which the hubris of youth had long caused me to eschew.
As an observer on the scene, I also got to see the amazing spectrum of people that were drawn to the “four cubits” of the Rebbe, including many colorful characters. One such person who stood out from the crowd was a Chassid of formidable height and girth, who would make his presence known through his frequently loud (and I mean seriously loud) and abrasive comments. People who found themselves on the receiving end of his sometimes clever but always withering attentions, would mostly slink off shamefacedly in search of cover.
Upon further research I discovered that the man was a genius, and even referred to as such by the Rebbe. Those of a more psychoanalytical bent attributed his less-than-sunny personality to the frustration of genius whose potential is not fully realized, utilized and appreciated. Though I had no way of knowing if that analysis was correct or not, and though I couldn't help but wince internally every time his distinctive voice raised itself above the din of 770, I couldn't help but feel a liking for the man from a distance.
It was in the winter of 1993, after a number of different people had been exhorting me for some time to begin sharing what I had learned and the insights that I had gleaned from the Rebbe's teachings, to audiences both inside and outside of Lubavitch, particularly on the topics of Moshiach and Geula which were very much the topics of the day, that I sent in a note to the Rebbe asking if I should do so. The main reason that I included for continuing to maintain a lower profile and focus on my own personal growth was the fact that I was a latecomer with serious Misnagdic ego issues, and who was I to open my mouth in the presence of those who had merited to bask in the Rebbe's presence for years and years.
The secretary (Rabbi BK) reported back to me that the Rebbe had nodded his head in the affirmative to the question whether I should begin looking for opportunities to speak in public, and he nodded again to the question as to whether it was appropriate for little old me to address Lubavitch audiences as well. As much as my guts were churning when I sent in the question, they really started doing flip-flops when I received the answer along with a bracha. The impact of the Rebbe's blessing was immediate and within a relatively brief time, I found myself very much in the public eye.
As my name and face became more public, I was approached by the aforementioned larger-than-life individual. We had a pleasant enough conversation about my background and antecedents, quickly falling into what I can only describe as “verbal shorthand” (sort of the informal language of the exceptionally bright), which he seemed to really enjoy. I remember walking away feeling really good that having come to this person's attention we had had a positive interaction, because the idea of being on his bad side filled me with dread. Oy vey, little did I know. From that point on, it could be in the mikva (unclad and nowhere to hide), it could be in 770 (with every eye turned my way), it could be on the street or in one of the local stores or eateries (out in public with an audience of men, women and children), I might suddenly hear my name being bellowed, “Hey, Homnick,” followed by a ringing stinging insult, putdown or criticism, at a sound level that guaranteed that every person present heard it loud and clear.
We continued to have the occasional mutually enjoyable conversation, and in the privacy of those conversations I let him know that my own verbal dueling skills were equal to the task, but when in public, I never responded in kind and even thanked him (jokingly?) on occasion for helping me make up for the lost years of being deprived of Chassidic “ego-crushing.” Over time, despite our age differences, differences in temperament, views and personality, we developed and maintained a fairly comfortable casual friendship.
One day, I happened to be standing in the hallway of 770, when a group of secularly raised Jewish teenagers walked in. The group seemed to be part of a tour, and I observed and listened in as the tour guide spoke to them. After addressing them, he left them standing in the hall presumably as he went to check out the situation inside, and they were just milling about looking a little lost and out of place. Suddenly, I saw my “friend” exit from the shul and noticing the group he immediately went over and began to talk to some of them. If I hadn't witnessed it with my own eyes, I would never believe it. I was moved to tears as I watched and listened, as his entire visage, demeanor, body language and verbal style, went through a complete transformation and all I could see was a Jew, a Chassid, overflowing with love, compassion and warmth for his fellow Jews. I felt that I could literally see the Ahavas Yisroel of the Rebbe shining through this person, and I would never look at him or any other Chassid of the Rebbe the same way again.
This eye-opening experience occupied my thoughts for a long time afterward. Yes, I had witnessed the intense power of the Ahavas Yisroel that the Rebbe implanted within his Chassidim, such that it could completely overtake and even momentarily transform a person whose personality (naturally or through force of habit) was strongly invested in projecting negativity and hostility. However, it was obvious that this was coming from Above as a divine revelation to the soul, awakening the innate unity between Jewish souls, and only in the context of reaching out to those with little or no background. Similarly, when it came to times of duress and hardship, one could see the amazing love and fellowship amongst Chassidim that transcended anything seen before in Jewish history.
However, it seemed that in order to access and harness that level of love and unity for one's fellow Chassidim on a regular basis, even in the face of strong differences and/or disagreements, this required much inner work, and even someone who was a paragon of love and concern for his not-yet-observant brethren, could turn into a snarling hateful antagonist when it came to internal debates and disputes. The troubling questions were, why is it that way? What could I do and what do I need to do on an individual level? What could be done and what needs to be done on a communal level?
Over the years, the Rebbe cited on numerous occasions the story told by the Rebbe Rayatz about the Tzemach Tzedek who stood strong against the government position during the famous gathering in Petersburg aimed at making determinations regarding Jewish education. Time and again, he was placed under arrest and threatened with the most dire of consequences and yet he wouldn't back down in the slightest. His words and actions were seen by some as outright treason against the Czarist regime, and they felt that his life was in real danger. One of the greats of the time, who was present at this gathering, asked the Tzemach Tzedek how he was allowed to put himself into mortal danger, adding that if he hadn't considered the consequences to himself, he should have at least thought of the Chassidim and other Jews. The Tzemach Tzedek gave a two-pronged response. Firstly, there were his sons, and secondly, “If the Chassidim will band together they will prevail until Moshiach comes.”
At a farbrengen on the eve of the 13th of Nisan, 5726/1966, one hundred years from the passing of the Tzemach Tzaddik, the Rebbe pointed out that at this time there are no sons and he concludes, “and this we will accomplish with the unity of the Chassidim – as the Tzemach Tzedek responded then – which cancels all the decrees and (negative) matters, and bursts through all the boundaries, and brings down the 'truth of G-d' all the way here 'into the world.'”
And yet, despite all we have seen and heard about the great unity amongst Chassidim of earlier generations, there have always been differences, some of which have led to overt religious warfare and even complete splits. How do these two extremes coexist within the same people, and how do we resolve the problem, especially as it is key in these final moments before complete redemption that we “cancel all the decrees...and burst through all the boundaries” so that we be reunited with the Rebbe, something we all passionately yearn for?
At the wedding reception for the Rebbe and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka on the 14th of Kislev 5689/1928, the Rebbe Rayatz gave out a gift to each of the invited guests (he also sent it to many others who could not attend). The gift was a photocopy of a note written by the Alter Rebbe in his own handwriting, along with a brief historical background of the note. This note was addressed to Reb Moshe Meisels, a Chassid of the Alter Rebbe who had publicly dressed down his fellow Chassid Reb Meir Rephael's, who held communal office in the city of Vilna, over how to deal with and respond to the pressures and attacks from the Misnagdim. Many of the young Torah giants amongst the Chassidim of the time felt that Reb Meir's approach was too conciliatory and in his naïve attempts to try to make peace he was not working hard enough to stand up to the opposition, and protect his fellow Chassidim from their vindictive behavior. At a public gathering where these issues were debated, Reb Moshe took their side against Reb Meir.
At the time, the Alter Rebbe sent a message to this group saying that they were absolutely right, but the mind has to rule the heart and this has to manifest in the form of good character and love for every Jew. Therefore they should back down and know that “in the end the honor of G-d will come, when the wellsprings will be spread forth, the wellspring of the House of G-d, that was revealed through our teacher the Baal Shem Tov, and the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.” It was following these events that the Alter Rebbe sent the note to Reb Moshe in which he writes that Reb Moshe should publicly ask forgiveness from Reb Meir.
He asks that he do so, “for my sake and for the sake of peace, because peace does not derive from quarrel ch”v, and especially from a dispute for the sake of Heaven, such that most miseries and adversities are a result of disputes for the sake of Heaven, may the Merciful One save us from it.” Time and again the Rebbe has taught us that anything related to the life of a Rebbe and every action taken by a Rebbe, especially as it relates to revealing Torah and Chassidus, has zero elements of coincidence and every detail is thought out and intentional with a message for us. Clearly, the Rebbe Rayatz was sending us, the generation of Chassidim of the Rebbe, at this most auspicious time which the Rebbe described as “the day that connected me to you and you to me,” a vital message.
THE UNITY DIVIDE
When someone is in a very close relationship, especially one that is the result of a deep and instinctual soul bond, the love and sense of connectedness tends to become something that is taken for granted and as such cools down, and over time becomes progressively less effusive, except at times when the connection is threatened or some distance is created in the relationship. In addition, when you truly love and care for someone, the idea that they are pursuing a course that is wrong and bad for them and others is simply intolerable. The father who is insane with grief and anguish over a bad choice that his son makes, hardly cares about all the other people's sons who make the same life mistake. So, when the love is cool and the feelings of upset are hot, it creates an environment in which people who love and care about each other get into more heated and impassioned altercations than those who don't.
The Rebbe of our generation has infused all those connected with him with a degree of love for his fellow Jew, beyond anything ever seen before, to the point that even the most simple have the capacity to emulate our forefather Avraham Avinu in building an open house in the spiritual desert, to shower love and kindness on every Jew, with complete self-sacrifice. The intensity of that love comes out more strongly when dealing with those we are connecting with across a distance, both spatial and spiritual, whereas with those close to us the love is more innate and less overt, more cool and less passionate, and that same intensity of passion is likely to express itself in the negative.
We need to make a concerted effort to see those close to us in the light of their finest qualities and their inherent goodness and G-dliness, or else we can end up becoming like those people who shower love and kindness on strangers, and generate hostility and divisiveness amongst those they are closest to. That is why we needed to be forewarned as far back as the original 14th of Kislev, the point of original connection with the Rebbe, to the dangers of “disputes for the sake of Heaven.” However, we also needed guidelines as to when, and regarding what, one should give in, especially when dealing with issues that affect following the Rebbe's instructions.
Even when it comes to matters that the Alter Rebbe himself testifies that you are right and the other person is wrong, one should give in for the sake of unity and Chassidic brotherhood, because as long as the wellsprings are being spread, the truth will out eventually. But when it comes to those trying to prevent the spreading of the wellsprings, who are actively working to hide the truth, although we must avoid confrontation at all costs, we don't back down. And ultimately it is not so much the innate unity that we merited to have infused within us from Above, but rather the unity that we bring out in ourselves by banding together for a common goal and purpose, despite our differences, as many and wide-ranging as they may be, that we will cancel all decrees and burst all boundaries and bring about the wedding celebration of Hashem and the Jewish people, with the coming of Moshiach, immediately, NOW!