A Light in Your Reflection

RebbeAre you a Soul Waiting To Be Released? A Chabad emissary brought an English professor from London to see the Rebbe. The professor sat very cold and silent. To break the ice, the Rebbe turned to him and asked, “tell me, when you look at me what do you see?” He was stunned, but remained quiet. Recognizing that the professor won’t say anything, the Rebbe continued, “I’ll tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a Divine soul waiting to be released.” Then he turned again to this professor and said to him, “so now what do you see when you look at me?’ the professor replied, “I see an observant Jew.” the Rebbe responded, “that’s not who I am.”

Rabbi Anchell Perl

I’ve been reading Gedalyah Nigal’s book The Hasidic Tales and there are a lot of intriguing lessons related in the stories of the Chasidim. I was both fascinated and frustrated by Rabbi Perl’s very brief rendition of his story. I asked him (via twitter) if there was a longer version, but if it exists, he’s not aware of it.

Who was the English professor? Why did the Chabad emissary bring him to meet with the Rebbe? What was supposed to happen? Was there any lasting result of the meeting or did it start and end just as we see in Rabbi Perl’s small story?

One does not just drop in on a Rebbe to shoot the breeze. A Rebbe is an exalted spiritual leader and it’s said that his prayers and other intercessions result in miracles. In Christianity, we know this about righteous people, too.

The prayer of a righteous person (tzadik) is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. –James 5:16-18

Only very important questions and problems are brought to the Rebbe and he often receives visitors late into the evening and even all through the night. I don’t think there is an analogous individual or relationship in modern Christianity. In Catholicism, the Pope is highly revered but there’s not the same “earthy” texture in an audience with the Pope as there is in a meeting with a Rebbe. At least, that’s my impression.

Last year, Susan Handelman, Professor of English at Bar Ilan University wrote a very heartwarming story about her experiences with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. You can read the entire content of her article by clicking A Professor’s Moving Recollection With The Rebbe. It’s stories like this one that illustrate one of the stark differences between Judaism and Christianity. In Christianity, it’s said that “God has no grandchildren”. This means that the children of a Christian aren’t automatically Christian, and therefore, they have no more innate attachment to Christ than a child of an atheist. Each individual establishes their own individual relationship with Jesus including, sometimes, no relationship at all. This is not the case with a Jew as Professor Handelman writes:

“I grew up in suburban Chicago in the 1950’s, a typical third-generation assimilated American. Like many of my generation I fled Sunday school and the temple to which my family belonged, and could see nothing true or compelling in what seemed to be the hollow rituals that most of the congregants hardly understood.

Being Jewish in that milieu was a vaguely uncomfortable and perplexing experience, but not any obstacle to full immersion in the non-Jewish culture which surrounded us and swept us along with it. What power took me out of the deep exile in which I lived — not just geographically, but intellectually, spiritually and emotionally?”

Being Jewish seems to be (obviously, I can’t describe this from personal experience) something that’s interwoven with your soul. Even rejecting every religious aspect of being Jewish isn’t enough to stop a person from being Jewish. God still holds the strings that bind your heart. You may walk away from the synagogue and the Torah, but you were chosen at Sinai beyond any ability to become “unchosen”.

In the late 1960’s, when many of my generation rebelled in extreme ways, the Rebbe understood us. He sensed that our restlessness came from a spiritual discontent. Instead of chastising us, he sent us his best Chasidim to found Chabad Houses — to teach us, to live with us, to love us.

I think that was what really lay behind the development under the Rebbe’s leadership of the extraordinary international network of Chabad institutions, from Hong Kong to Paris to Katmandu.

The Rebbe felt our pain, he intuited our yearning. And he saw us not just as products of late twentieth century America, but under the light of Jewish eternity. We were princes and prophets and sages; each Jew was royalty; each Jew was precious; each Jew was the emissary and reflection of G-d in the world.

My wife has become involved in our local Chabad and is friends with the Rabbi and his wife. My wife’s experience wasn’t like that of Professor Handelman, who was born and raised in a Jewish family and who grew up in a religious home. My wife didn’t even know her mother was Jewish until she (my wife) was in college. Although my wife became involved in the Reform synagogue before a Chabad House was established in our community, I think the Chabad served her in the same way it served Handelman.

Although Jews from other traditions don’t always meld very well with the Chabad, the Chabad serves an important purpose. They’re like a life-preserver thrown to the drowning, who in this case, are secular Jews, Jews who have lost their way, and those like my wife, who didn’t begin to explore being Jewish until adulthood.

Professor Handelman lived in the Chabad center in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn in the mid-1970s and experienced the presence of the Rebbe in a number of ways. She saw his compassion, dedication, and endurance as he continued to age and as he continued to serve, and it had a profound affect on her.

In the few years before he became ill, when in his nineties, he would stand in the alcove by his office every Sunday to speak for a few moments personally and face-to-face with anyone who wanted to see him, and give out dollars to each person to be given for charity.

How could a 90-year-old man stand on his feet for hours and hours without taking a moment’s rest, or a drink? And how could he focus so intently and exclusively on each and every person who came through the line of thousands which stretched for blocks outside his office?

I heard that when urged to sit during these long sessions, he responded by asking: how could he sit when people were coming to him with their problems, needs, and pains?

I only have the written experiences of others to tell me about the Rebbe and his life and character, but part of what Professor Handelman is describing is something we don’t have a lot of in the larger American (or worldwide) landscape anymore: someone to look up to.

ReflectionWhen I was a child in the 1960s, we had heroes; people we looked up to and admired, people we thought were important. It didn’t matter that, in real life, they were just as human as the next person and had just as many flaws. They were our heroes, we looked up to them, and we wanted to be like them. They were sort of a goal we could shoot for in our own lives as we were growing up.

As time passed, society’s ability to collect and disseminate information got better and we started learning so much about our heroes (or those people who were supposed to be our heroes) that we could no longer admire them. They were flawed, they were involved in scandals, they had affairs, they lied.

We became disillusioned. No one in authority could be trusted. There were no more heroes and there probably never were.

Maybe.

I said to a friend once, “It is so paradoxical to find this great tzadik in the midst of all the violence and squalor and despair of this broken-down part of Brooklyn.” And my friend responded, “And where else do you think you would find him? Where else does he belong — the Plaza Hotel?”

The Rebbe refused to abandon Crown Heights when the neighborhood changed. It was consistent with his refusal to abandon any Jew, to leave anyone behind. And it was consistent with his refusal to give in to fear. It was also consistent with the principle of mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice for love of the Jewish people that he embodied and that he taught his followers.

And it was an affirmation of one of the great principles of Chasidic philosophy that “every descent is for the purpose of an ascent” . . . that from overcoming the darkness ultimately comes the greatest light.

As the Rebbe often said, we live in an era of “doubled and redoubled darkness” — that is, a darkness so deep we do not even know it is darkness any more. He was the light in that darkness, and he remains so even after his passing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson passed from this earth 17 years ago on the 3rd of Tammuz, which this year was from sundown July 4th to sundown July 5th. Although my wife is very involved in the Chabad, my experience with them is somewhat limited. What I do know about the local Chabad Rabbi is that he’s human. He makes mistakes (I don’t say this out of malice or slander, but only because I know it to be true). He’s not perfect. He’s not a “saint”, if I can use such a word in this context. He is serious, devout, and dedicated. He’s also young, so he may have to acquire more experiences as he progresses down the Chasidic path of the Rebbe.

I don’t know if the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a “saint” either, but from what I can tell, he touched a great many lives, not only with his learning and his wisdom, but with his compassion and his humanity. As people, we are supposed to be able to see God in other human beings. You probably know a Rabbi or a Pastor or a teacher or even a neighbor or co-worker who shines with a special light that can only come from a relationship with God. It’s like the light that shone from the face of Moses after he spent time with God on Sinai. It’s something amazing and special and being with such people brings us that much closer to heaven.

What we don’t see often enough though, is that kind of light shining back from our reflection in the mirror. This is the true value of the tzadik; not in what they teach or in how honored they are in life, but in how, through them, God changes us and brings us closer to Him because we’re imitating the tzadik.

Perhaps we do have this example in Christianity as well, but we have to go back to Judaism to find its source:

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. –1 Corinthians 4:14-17

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. –1 Corinthians 11:1

A disciple is a student who learns by imitating his or her Master. In the Chasidic tradition, the Chadisim (devoted ones) would imitate their Rebbe and so, in the modern Chabad movement, Chabad Rabbis strive to imitate Rabbi Schneerson. In Christianity, we strive to also imitate our Rebbe, but while the Lubavitcher Rebbe died 17 years ago, our Rebbe died nearly 2,000 years ago. The Chasidim believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah and will, in God’s proper timing, be resurrected to bring peace to the earth and to exalt Israel, as written in prophesy. We Christians also believe that our Rebbe is the Messiah and that he will, in God’s proper timing, return to us to bring peace to the earth and to exalt Israel, as written in prophesy.

Without having seen him, you love him. Without seeing him now, but trusting in him, you continue to be full of joy that is glorious beyond words. And you are receiving what your trust is aiming at, namely, your deliverance. –1 Peter 1:8-9

The Messiah walked among us as a man. He experienced human pain and suffering. He died and he’s alive again. We wait and we hope for his return in mercy and judgment. In the meantime, we look at our reflection in the mirror and search for the light of his face. We’re waiting for our soul to be released.

Keep speaking and acting like people who will be judged by a Torah which gives freedom. For judgment will be without mercy toward one who doesn’t show mercy; but mercy wins out over judgment. –James 2:12-13 (CJB)

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