Dr. David Weiss has achieved world renown for his work in cancer research. Although he came from an observant home, his involvement in American culture presented him with many challenges. His encounters with the chassidim and the philosophy of Lubavitch helped him overcome these hurdles.
Once while at yechidus with the Rebbe, he asked him if he could consider himself a chassid. "I am attracted to the chassidic way of life," he explained, "but can never see myself donning a black hat or chassidic garb. Does this disqualify me?"
The Rebbe responded, "When a Jew endeavors to take a step forward in the service of G-d and the love of his fellow man every day, I am happy to consider him my chassid." This is the thrust of this chapter: to share examples of how the Rebbe has personally encouraged people to advance in Jewish practice.
"I was one of the counselors who led Shabbos parties for Jewish children during the period before the Rebbe assumed leadership of the chassidic movement," relates Rabbi Moshe Lasker. "Each week, I would submit a report of the activities to "770".
"One Friday, as I submitted my report at "770", the Rebbe called me to his office. 'Are you busy?' he asked.
"I realized that he wanted to delegate a responsibility to me, so I immediately answered that I was not. The Rebbe then told me: 'Please take two candles and visit Mrs. ... in the hospital. Ask her to light them. If the hospital staff protests about the regulations, try to work it out. If the woman herself is hesitant, tell her that Rabbi Schneerson requested that she light Shabbos candles.'
"I hurried towards the subway to carry out my mission. I met the woman and gave her the message. She was indeed reluctant at first, but when I mentioned that the Rebbe had sent me, she readily agreed. I enlisted the cooperation of the non-Jewish nurse who promised to assist her and to move the candles to a safe place.
"I rushed home, arriving just ten minutes before Shabbos. Seconds after I walked through the door, the telephone rang. 'This is Schneerson speaking,' the voice on the line said. 'Has Moshe arrived home yet?'
"A few weeks later, while I was in "770", I felt a friendly tap on my shoulder from the Rebbe. "Yasher Koach for fulfilling the mission," he told me.
A young Lubavitch yeshivah student quickened his step down one of Manhattan's busy boulevards. It was Friday afternoon, and he still had some more rounds to make. He was on his way to one of his 'regulars' - a businessman whom he visited every Friday, sharing the messages of the Rebbe's mitzvah campaigns.
As he entered the store, he noticed a marked change in the interior.
"Don't ask!" the businessman greeted him with a strained look on his face. "My place has been flooded. I lost a great deal of merchandise. I've written a letter to the Rebbe requesting a blessing for a successful turn of fortune. Would you please deliver it for me?"
The yeshivah student assured the businessman that he would do so. As soon as an answer came, he hurried to notify his friend in Manhattan. "The Rebbe has instructed you to be meticulous in keeping Shabbos and Yom-Tov (festivals)" he told him.
The businessman was visibly agitated. "What does that mean?" he retorted indignantly. "I do observe Shabbos and the holidays."
The student decided to inform the Rebbe of the man's response. The Rebbe answered tersely: "The onset of Shabbos and Yom-Tov."
That Friday, the student brought news of the Rebbe's second answer to the businessman. Trying to help him put the Rebbe's directive into practice, he inquired about the man's routine on Friday nights.
"Well, obviously, I say Kiddush and sit down to a Shabbos meal."
Suddenly, a thought came to the student's mind. "When do you close your business on Fridays?" he asked.
"Oh, about seven or eight," the man replied naively. During the ensuing conversation, the businessman learned for the first time about the correct time for the onset of Shabbos and holidays.
"I had studied in a yeshivah for many years, but had not been exposed to Chassidus," related a young man in Eretz Yisrael. "As I began to question my purpose in life and to search for deeper meaning, I met some Lubavitcher chassidim, and was very impressed by the depth, meaning, and joy of their way of life. I began to study Chassidus and spend more time within the chassidic community.
"Although I felt a strong attraction, many elements of the chassidic way of life differed from those of my family and of my yeshivah. I decided to ask the Rebbe about my concerns and apprehensions.
"A few weeks later, the Rebbe sent me a detailed answer to all of my questions. I felt satisfied and no longer hesitated about my involvement with Chassidus. The Rebbe also added a puzzling postscript: 'There is no need to ask why Chassidus was not revealed in previous generations,' and proceeded to explain this concept in full. This issue had not bothered me at all, and I had mentioned nothing to this effect in my letter.
"Soon my interest in Chassidus became known in my yeshivah. One day, a Torah scholar whom I admired and respected asked me to have a talk with him. I knew that he wanted to discourage me from the new path which I had begun to explore.
"He presented many arguments against the study of Chassidus, and I countered all of them successfully. I realized that his objections stemmed from his lack of familiarity with the subject.
"He then unsheathed what he thought would be his most convincing argument. 'If Chassidus is so valuable, then why,' he asked, 'was its study not revealed to previous generations?'
"He was surprised at both the speed and the depth with which I answered his question."
One of the unique dimensions of yechidus, a private meeting with the Rebbe, is the Rebbe's ability to find an answer which satisfies the person asking the question. For example, although he had maintained an interest in Chabad activities for an extended time, one of the young men in contact with Rabbi Berl Shemtov, the shaliach in Detroit, would not agree to put on tefillin. "I am a thorough person," he explained, "and I don't feel ready to make a commitment which must be fulfilled every day without any possibility for a break."
Rabbi Shemtov convinced him to visit the Rebbe for a yechidus. When he emerged from the Rebbe's study, he told his friends that he had decided to put on tefillin every day. "But what about your hesitation to commit yourself on a daily basis?"
"The Rebbe resolved that for me," said the young man with a smile. "He told me that there was always one day a week - Shabbos - when I would not be required to perform this mitzvah."
Eliezer Steinman was a well-known Israeli authority on Chassidism. He wrote about various chassidic streams, including Lubavitch. Before writing about Lubavitch, Mr. Steinman contacted the chassidic writer, Rabbi Chanoch Glitzenstein of Jerusalem, for source material. Being an author himself, Rabbi Glitzenstein wondered whether a person who did not live a chassidic lifestyle would be able to communicate an authentic picture.
He consulted the Rebbe, who encouraged him to assist Mr. Steinman, despite his secular orientation. The Rebbe added that Rabbi Glitzenstein should refrain from making any comments about religious practice.
Rabbi Glitzenstein offered Mr. Steinman extensive help and direction. Although as a Lubavitch chassid committed to outreach, it was difficult to avoid any mention of religious practice, he was careful to follow the Rebbe's directive. In time, Mr. Steinman himself initiated a direct contact with the Rebbe and began to correspond with him.
Over the many months of contact with Rabbi Glitzenstein, the author and his wife began to seek his assistance in obtaining various religious items. Beginning with a request for a machzor from which they could pray during the High Holidays, the couple soon inquired about other religious necessities. At their own pace, the Steinmans made a turnover in their lifestyle, creating quite a sensation in the cultural circles of secular Israeli society.
Some time later, Mr. Steinman confided in Rabbi Glitzenstein. "You should know that throughout our relationship, I was expecting you to lecture me on religion. I had planned to reproach you for foisting your beliefs on others. But contrary to my expectations, you respected my tendency to make my own decisions, and did not mention my personal religious practice at all. That was more convincing to me than any lecture."
"This incident occurred in the early years of the Rebbe's leadership," relates Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon. "I became friendly with a family in Newark, New Jersey, where I was serving as a shaliach. The parents were anxious to see their older daughter happily married and settled, but she remained single.
"After becoming better acquainted, I told them about the power of the Rebbe's blessings. 'I come from the Ukraine,' the mother told me. 'I am familiar with Rebbeim and have sought their counsel in the past. I would actually like to visit this Rebbe of yours and receive a blessing for my daughter.'
"I arranged for a yechidus and traveled with the mother and an older son to Brooklyn. I waited for them outside while they entered the Rebbe's study. We met after the yechidus and the woman was very upset. 'What happened?' I asked.
" 'The Rebbe inquired about our source of income,' she explained, 'I told him that although we were financially secure and could easily retire, we still maintain our business for the sake of our unmarried daughter. We are concerned about her welfare and want to provide for her future.
"The Rebbe asked about Shabbos and I replied that the business was open on Shabbos.
" 'Why?' inquired the Rebbe. 'You've described your family's income as financially secure. Why then do you work on Shabbos?'
" 'I explained to the Rebbe that it was not for our sake that we kept the business open on Shabbos, but for our daughter's future. I then requested the Rebbe's blessing for a good match. I promised that as soon as she would marry and settle down, we would close the business on Shabbos.
" 'G-d wants it to be the other way around,' the Rebbe replied. 'First close the business on Shabbos. I assure you that afterwards your daughter will find a suitable match.'
"The mother concluded indignantly, 'Back in Ukraine, I would often consult Rebbeim. They always offered their blessings, and they never asked about our Torah conduct.'
"Mother and son returned to Newark and resumed their daily routine. Over ten years elapsed since that yechidus. The father passed away, the business remained open on Shabbos, and the daughter remained single.
"In the mid-sixties, sporadic demonstrations and riots erupted in cities throughout the country. Soon enough, the streets of Newark were also rampaged and violent mobs burned and looted many places of work. This family's business was among those which were ruined. At her advanced age, and after such an experience, the mother did not consider opening it again. Thus it remained closed the entire week, including Shabbos.
"A few months later, the daughter was introduced to a very nice, observant and learned man who also came from a wealthy family. Later I was invited to officiate at the wedding. Incidentally, although the bride was over forty at the time, the couple did have a child, who grew up to be a Torah scholar in Eretz Yisrael."
In the first years of the Rebbe's leadership, during the farbrengen of Purim 1953, the Rebbe told one of the participants to study Chassidus. The person voiced his hesitation; he had never been trained in this system of thought, nor did he understand how this study would contribute to his personal development.
The Rebbe replied with a rhetorical question: "When you board a train, do you fully comprehend its precise mechanical functioning?
"When a passenger sits in the coach, whether he understands how it works or not - the train crew will perform their task, and the train will transport its travelers to their desired destinations."
Yaakov, a taxi owner from Tel Aviv, was accustomed to driving others. Now, however, it was his creditors who were driving him - to desperation.
He thought the purchase of his own cab would increase his income, because it would save him from paying a monthly percentage for a company taxi. Instead, the purchase plunged him deeper into debt. He exhausted the resources that friends and family could give him, and the interest on bank loans was devouring a major source of his income. Furthermore, he was beginning to discover that it was costly to maintain his own taxi.
Yaakov needed an urgent thousand-dollar loan, but to whom could he turn? Finally, he thought of asking the other drivers in his company. It was embarrassing - they were not well-off themselves, but he had no other alternative; he needed money urgently.
He thought of Amnon, a decent, shomer-Shabbos taxi driver. Amnon was often taunted by the other drivers. "Ridiculous! Most of our income comes from Shabbos fares when there is limited bus service." They mocked Amnon's parked taxi. "Lease it to someone else over Shabbos, Amnon. At least make some commission."
Amnon refused. "No one is going to desecrate the Shabbos with my taxi!" he replied with quiet determination.
Yaakov was surprised when Amnon offered to lend him the entire sum. He hadn't expected him to agree so readily, and he certainly did not think that he would have had such a sum available. He had hoped for no more than part of the amount and for advice on whom to approach for the balance of the money.
But Amnon added, "Before I give you the money, I want you to hear me out," Amnon said.
Though he was in no mood for conversation, Yaakov had no choice but to listen. "Listen," began Amnon. "I experienced the same hassle you are going through when I first started out. I worked day and night, and I still couldn't get out of debt."
"Yes," Yaakov mumbled. "I remember."
Amnon continued, "You might also remember that my son became critically ill. My wife and I struggled during the weeks he was in and out of the hospital, but the doctors could not cure him. We even tried different kinds of natural remedies and healing charms, but nothing helped. One day, an observant neighbor with whom I had little contact stopped me in the hallway.
"Do you mind if I have a word with you?' he asked politely. 'I would like to give you some advice concerning your sick son.'
"I was inclined to shrug him off, but I was so emotionally spent that I listened wearily. 'A Rabbi in New York has helped many people in time of need,' he said. 'Let me give you his address. You have nothing to lose by requesting his blessing.'
"The name and address he gave me was that of Rabbi M. M. Schneerson at "770" Eastern Parkway. In reply to my letter, Rabbi Schneerson gave my son a blessing and directed me to incorporate Shabbos, kashrus, and tefillin into my life. It was a difficult transition, but let me tell you, my son recovered. And since we started keeping Shabbos, my income has been steady and sufficient. We have even managed to save some money."
Amnon took a deep breath. "The money that I will lend you comes from keeping Shabbos. I'd like you to try to keep Shabbos for a while as part of our loan agreement."
Yaakov needed the money and agreed to start observing Shabbos. As a result, many things in his life changed for the better. Within several months, he repaid the loan.
Yaakov was not the last person in the chain of Shabbos adherents which began with the Rebbe's directive to Amnon.
- (Back to text) The subject is discussed in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXX, p. 171ff. See sources cited there in footnote 22.