In honor of the 20th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, of blessed memory, I would like to share with my Boulder friends, a first person article I wrote for Chabad.org in 2011 about what I consider the greatest moment in my life, an extended audience with the Rebbe in my early twenties, almost fifty years ago. This experience expresses not only the Rebbe’s miraculous abilities but perhaps more importantly, his compassion and caring for the smallest needs of a young Jewish woman seeking advice, both personal and theological.
THE FIFTH QUESTION
Every so often, you have such an intense experience that you can’t let it go, that you can’t forget no matter how many years have passed. Perhaps you therefore create a situation where you continue looking for closure the rest of your life.
I had such an encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
I had seen the Rebbe several times before, but on that particular year, it was the first time I was going in alone. I had traveled from New England especially for the meeting. Of course, people come from all over the world, but as a young woman in my early twenties, having to wait from 7pm till after midnight, left me exhausted. I had some personal issues to inquire about and didn’t need to focus on them anymore. As I waited more or less patiently, sitting on the stairs outside the Rebbe’s office, I began to doze off. I found myself fantasizing and talking in my head. ‘If I had unlimited time with the Rebbe, what would I ask him? I was startled by some kind of commotion and, still in a daze, pulled out a scrap of paper and scribbled my dream like questions. Then I stuffed the paper into one of my pockets, and promptly forgot about it since I had to wait another couple of hours for my turn.
Finally, Rabbi Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary motioned me in. Still rather groggy, I stood in front of the Rebbe’s desk with my legs in their familiar wobble whenever I came into the Rebbe’s presence. I asked about my personal issues, which the Rebbe addressed for about 20 minutes. I then respectfully proceeded to walk out backwards, after hearing Rabbi Groner’s buzzing signal. At that point, the Rebbe spoke some Yiddish in a clear voice, and with an even clearer G-dly vision. ‘Host nit kein andere frages?’ ‘Don’t you have some other questions?’ In a split second, my dream state and my reality context collided. Like Joseph with Pharaoh’s dream, the Rebbe had reminded me what I myself had forgotten! I mumbled, ‘As a matter of fact, I do,’ and proceeded to pull out my crumpled scrap of paper!
One by one, as patiently as someone who had all the time in the world, the Rebbe replied to each of my five questions. Although Rabbi Groner came in several times to get me out, the Rebbe motioned him away, until he was able to reply to each one. I walked out in a trance after almost an hour, feeling like a celebrity, as the still waiting throngs made a pathway for me.
In my inexperience, I didn’t think to write down his answers right away, as most people do. Though I no longer recalled the q and a’s verbatim, I did remember some highlights of four of them. Here they are in brief, with my questions.
1- How do we know that the Torah is true? Aren’t there other religions that claim to be revealed from G-d? Rebbe’s response:
Those other claims come from one person or a few people; the giving of the Torah was in the presence of the entire nation of Israel — around 3 million men, women, and children. For example, look at the difference between historical personalities like George Washington, in contrast to mythical figures like Merlin the magician.”
2- If given a choice between doing something that is hard for a person or something that is compatible with one’s natural strengths, what should one choose?
In these pre-Moshiach times in particular, one should follow the Talmudic directive of ‘Chatof V’echol,’ Grab and eat.’ That is to say, one should seize any mitzvah opportunity that comes one’s way, whether it is easy or difficult.”
3- Why does it say at the end of the first chapter in Tanya that the kindness of nations is a sin? Aren’t there altruistic people among the non-Jews?
Certainly. However, if someone is not commanded to do something, any other reason is connected with one’s self gratification, even if it is only the reward of feeling good.”
4- Why are the laws of gender separation so strict in the Torah?
The potential power of male-female relationships is like atomic energy. When used in a positive and holy way, there is nothing more powerful and valuable in the world. But when used recklessly, and not in a sacred context, it can be the most destructive force in existence.
To my chagrin- I know I had a fifth question that the Rebbe responded to, but I cannot remember it. For almost fifty years I have tried to recall it, to no avail so far. But maybe that is as it should be. Perhaps it is like the fifth son that the Rebbe spoke about that doesn’t even come to the Seder, and that we have to go out and retrieve.
In a similar vein, I keep finding questions to ask, and seek out answers in the wisdom of the Torah and the sages. Perhaps my unremembered question is actually the impetus behind a lifetime of seeking G-d and trying to present Torah concepts and ideals to a questioning world.
Still someday, I hope to see the Rebbe again in person with the coming of Mashiach, and finally recall both my fifth question and the Rebbe’s answer.
The Rebbe often reminded us that righteous people are more with us when they leave the physical world than in their lifetime, especially on the anniversary of their departure. On this auspicious day, when 20 years ago the Rebbe moved on to a different plane of existence — as you can and should read in the three magnificent biographies that ‘happened’ (none of them were planned to be published exactly for this date!) to come out almost simultaneously – his influence on both the Jewish and non-Jewish world continues not only to exist but to grow and thrive. In fact, in Colorado alone, there are more than a dozen flourishing Chabad houses!
As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, the uniqueness of the Rebbe is that he created not followers, but leaders. He was happy with the smallest accomplishments of his followers, but he was never satisfied, because there is always more to do. In the words of a movie title from a few years ago, the greatest tribute that we can give to the Rebbe is to — PAY IT FORWARD — to pass on his inspiration and model of goodness and righteousness to everyone we encounter.