INSIGHTS: Holy Sinners
The road to Heaven is paved with good intentions
PERSONAL INSIGHTS: THE REBBE
The Ache in my Heart
It was merely the expectation that I would see him again.
Or, to be more precise, that he would see me.
Their commander was not visible here, but his presence
somewhere in the building was well-sensed. No audible command
had been sounded, but all were poised for the moment it would
by Yanki Tauber
Lift up ... the offering-pans of these mortal sinners,
and beat them into sheets with which to plate the altar; for
they have been offered to G-d, and have become sanctified.
The sixteenth chapter of Numbers relates the story of Korachs
challenge to the authority of Moses and the priesthood of
Aaron. Korach, joined by 250 of the spiritual elite of Israel,
rebelled against the granting of the kehunahthe
privilege of serving G-d in the Holy Templeto Aaron
and his descendants. They, too, desired the opportunity for
such communion with G-d, and demanded of Moses that he admit
them into the kehunah.
Their spiritual mutiny ended in tragedy. To prove their worthiness
for the priesthood, these men made an offering of ketoret
(incense) to G-dthe holiest and most potent of divine
services, whose performance is strictly limited to kohanim
at specially appointed times in the sacred intimacy of the
Sanctuary. A fire issued forth from G-d and consumed
the two hundred and fifty offerers of the ketoret.
Yet G-d instructed that the copper pans in which they made
their forbidden offering should be hammered into a covering
for the altar. These pans have been sanctified, said G-d to
Moses; their very metal has been hallowed by an act which,
though sinful and severely punished, was motivated by a holy
desirea desire to come close to Me.
The copper plating of the altar holds an eternal lesson:
if such is the divine regard for a piece of inanimate metal,
certainly no human being is irredeemable. For no matter how
deleterious his deeds, they hide a desire and striving, intrinsic
to every creature of G-d, for the goodness and perfection
of the divine.
Based on the Rebbes words to a group of high school
students, circa 1955
The Ache in my Heart
by Jay Litvin
I am basically one of those flesh and blood sort
of people. While the Rebbes writings and teachings are
of great importance to me, while I continue to experience
the Rebbe as a very active, involved part of my life, still,
I miss the flesh and blood connection.
Perhaps I must apologize for not having risen to greater
spiritual heights. For if I had attained these heights, then
perhaps my spiritual connection with the Rebbe would suffice;
or perhaps I would have more internalized the truth that a
great tzaddik, once freed from his body, is freed as
well from the limitations of his body.
But, if I am to use this opportunity to write, I must use
it to be honest. And in honesty, in spite of my spiritual
connection to him, I miss the Rebbe. My heart aches to once
again have him as part of his and my flesh and blood relationship.
What was this relationship? Well, if I were to tell you how
few times I even saw the Rebbe you might wonder at my grief.
And knowing that I never spoke directly to him, your wonder
would be greater.
No, I was simply one of those people who went to a few farbrengens
(I never lived in Crown Heights), stood in line for dollars
once or twice, and sent letters when needed and received answers
when they were necessary. I was thirty-six years old when
I first saw the Rebbe some seventeen years ago.
But, you see, whenever I went to the Rebbe, or even when
I wrote him, I felt known by him. Seen by him. And I mean
these wordsknown and seenin their most profound
sense. I felt naked before him. And through him I saw myself
fully exposed. Stripped of illusion and self deceit.
Whether I was privileged to a momentary glance when he caught
my eye and nodded as I lifted my cup at a farbrengen
to say lchaim; whether, in a whoosh of excitement,
I passed before him to receive a dollar; or whether, in one
of those extraordinary times when he caught and held my eyes
for what seemed like an eternity but was in truth only five
or ten or fifteen seconds, I was stripped bare: known from
my most superficial, petty self to the depths of my being,
deeper than even I knew existed.
My conscious self cannot know, much less describe, what the
Rebbe placed within me during these encounters. The incomprehensible
ways he affected me; the life, inspiration, courage and commitment
with which I left these brief meetings changed my life more
than any human could ever expect a life to change.
But there was something else, something much simpler, more
easily comprehensible, more connected to the simple flesh
and blood existence of the Rebbe that had great power over
It was merely the expectation that I would see the Rebbe
again. Or, to be more precise, that he would see me.
I knew that I would, at some point in the future, stand fully
exposed before him, his eyes piercing through my best look
good to see who I really am.
And I wanted both he and I to feel proud at that moment.
And I didnt want to feel ashamed. And I knew that while
the Rebbe had the greatest compassion and understanding of
my very limited self, that still, he had great expectations
of me. That he saw my highest potential, and believed that
I could attain it. And though I knew that he would love me
in spite of what I did or didnt do to live up to his
expectations, I wanted him to love me for what I did do to
live up to his expectations.
Is this a childlike relationship? Perhaps. Would it be better,
more mature for me to strive for my highest potential without
requiring outside approval? Perhaps. But as I
said, I am a simple, limited person of flesh and blood who
has not reached such great spiritual heights. So be it.
The expectation of meeting soul to soul with a person who
has reached heights so far greater than I can imagine, and
the knowledge that this meeting would reveal the gap between
who I was and who I could be, kept me straight. It helped
me be more honest with myself. It invigorated my potential
and forced it before my awareness, constantly. When I saw
the Rebbes capacity for love, it enlivened and expanded
my own capacity for love. When I encountered, directly, personally,
the Rebbes capacities, it enlivened the whole of my
And always, daily, I carried with me the anticipation of
our next meeting.
So, what do I do now?
I have much advice to give myself in answer to my own question,
as Im sure many of you who read this have much advice,
words of wisdom to share with me. Certainly there are countless,
perhaps even more profound ways, to maintain communication
with and receive inspiration from a tzaddik even when
we cannot see him, hear his voice, and experience his physical
But this does not ease the ache in my heart. Nor replace
my personal encounters and my very fervent expectation of
them. Nor have I found a way to replace that moment when I
stand revealed before one who can both see me for who I am
and love me at the same time.
As a man of flesh and blood, I find consolation neither in
my memories nor in the Rebbes writings.
I find it instead in the ache in my heart, the place I keep
the Rebbe. For each time I feel the ache I am reminded of
him for whom it aches. I am reminded of what he taught me:
That for every sickness there is a remedy, for every pain
a consolation, for every act of G-d there is a purpose, for
every lack there is a fulfillment, for whatever potential
the Rebbe sees in me, there is the possibility of its realization.
Will I find the strength, wisdom, courage, devotion and faith
during this most difficult time?
Sometimes I wonder. But then, in these moments, if I allow
myself to truly feel the ache in my heart, to enter fully
into the depths of this ache, a strange thing happens. I begin
to see myself once again standing before the Rebbe, bringing
before him my doubts and my fears, my lonliness and limitations.
And from the ache in my heart, in a soft and gentle voice,
I hear his answer, clearly..
Translators note: the following are translated excerpts
from an account by Israeli activist, writer and former Knesset
member Geulah Cohen of her meeting with the Rebbe. The original
Hebrew version was published in the Israeli daily, Maariv,
December 18, 1964.
Ive met wise people, Ive met scholars, Ive
met artists, but to meet a believer is an altogether different
experience. After meeting a wise person, you remain what you
were beforewise or stupid; after meeting a scholar,
you remain what you were before learned or a boor; after
meeting with an artist, you remain what you were beforeartist
or artisan. But when you take leave of a believer, you leave
his presence different than you entered it. For even if the
believers faith does not infect you, it affects you.
For the believer believes in you, too.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,
the spiritual leader of the international Chabad movement,
is a wise man, a learned man, but above all, he is a believer.
And if faith is the art of truth, hes also an artist.
A particularly creative artist. His creation: an entire army
of believers whose commander-in-chief he is. The faith army
of Israel, dedicated to the G-d of Israel and the people of
The Midrash does not anywhere describe how the supernal angels
are received in audience before the divine throne. But were
it to describe this, it might well take its cue from the manner
in which one is received by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Of course,
there is a secretary, a line, and reception hours, as with
every human being. Here, however, the secretary doesnt
ask what you wish to discuss with the Rebbeyour questions
to the Rebbe are between you and him. Here, though it might
be necessary to wait weeks or months for your turn, anyone
who so desires can be received by the Rebbe. And here, the
reception hours are not during the daytime, but at nightall
Eleven in the evening? I repeated in amazement
when Rabbi Chodakov, the Rebbes secretary, notified
me of the time of my appointment with the Rebbe.
Tomorrow night at eleven, came the clear reply
through the phone from the Rebbes Brooklyn headquarters.
Why not during the daytime? The chassid to whom
I addressed this query gave me a look as if I had asked the
most bizarre question in the world. During the day the
Rebbe studies, he stated with finality.
Instead of asking why the Rebbe doesnt study at night
and receive people during the day, I found myself thinking
that, perhaps, this is as it should be; that perhaps at night
the hearts speak more freely and the heavens are more open
When I read a book, I always skip the introduction. But the
long introduction that preceded the moment of my meeting with
the Rebbe taught me that there are introductions that should
not be skipped, for the simple reason that in them the story
really begins. The Rebbes chassidim are a part of his
personality, just as Chassidism believes that all of humanity
is part of G-ds personality. My audience with the Rebbe
began when I arrived at his headquarters and met his disciples.
I hesitate to refer to the young Talmud-studying men who
filled the place as students. Yes, each sat with
open book before him, but none of them looked like someone
who is learning something he did not already know. They looked
more like one who stands in a laboratory and manipulates spirit
and the letters of spirit as a scientist manipulates matter,
dissecting, deciphering, building structures and forging forms.
And all this with a melodious song. What has not already been
written on the Chassidic melody? What will not be yet written
of it? For it has neither beginning nor end. It sounds like
a continuation of your own melody, like a song that you are
singing for someone else to come and continue for you. At
that moment it occurred to me that the Ten Commandments ought
to have been said with a Chassidic melody...
Those students who were not engrossed in their studies but
stood around talkingperhaps of ordinary, everyday mattersnevertheless
wore the expression on the face of a front-line soldier, and
the hushed atmosphere was that of impending battle. Their
commander was not visible here, but his presence somewhere
in the building was well-sensed. No audible command had been
sounded, but all were poised for the moment it would be given...
I, too, am awaiting wordword that I am to enter the
Rebbes room. Its already eleven-fifteen, eleven-thirtywhen
will my turn come? Im about to ask one of the young
men in the office, when a fashionably dressed young woman,
heels clicking and a scream of blonde hair spilling out from
under her hat, enters the room. I hear her voice before I
can catch a glimpse of her face.
Is there an answer yet? she asks in choked, fervent
In lieu of a reply, the young man walks over to a mound of
letters, removes onethe letter that the woman had written
to the Rebbeand tells her that the answer is inside.
The woman grabs the letter from his hand, opens it, and reads.
Her eyes freeze for a moment, then fill with tearswhether
from joy or sorrow one cannot tell. Wordlessly, she leaves
Immediately she is back. If so, I have another question.
Can one ask the Rebbe again?
Of course, says the young chassid. Anytime,
Her face lights up with joy...
When the door closed behind me and I stood alone with the
Rebbe in the room, it was midnight. But the Rebbe rose behind
his desk to greet me with a midday smile.
If you will, before you is a handsome face, a black hat slanting
above it and a gray beard flowing beneath it, expressing grace
and benevolence. But if you will, a pair of eyes alone confront
you, gazing at you not to see but to reveal. In such case,
you feel quite uncomfortable if you have something to hide,
quite uncomfortable if you have thought of uttering an untruth.
You sense a need to do up all your buttons to the very last
onesomehow it feels as if they have all become undone.
Does the Rebbe really have such magical eyes, or have you
brought this magic in with you, the result of the night and
the impression made on you by his disciples? But nows
not the time to ponder questions of this sort. You came here
for a purpose, didnt you? So I begin to introduce myself.
But it turns out theres no needhe already knows
more about me than Ive intended to tell him. He tells
me not only what Ive done, but also what he thinks I
ought to do; not only what Im doing, but also what he
feels Im not doing...
I hear that youre now working as a journalist.
Nu, thats also good. Writing is very good, but
its not the main thing. The main thing is the youth.
To the youth one must speak, not write. Why dont you
speak to the youth? The youth is waiting to be spoken to,
and no one is doing it. They make speeches at thembut
they dont speak to them. And then they wonder why they
The youth, continued the Rebbe, is waiting
for a commanda command issued in the same voice that
all the great commands in Jewish history were issued. Where
are all the commanders? In the Knesset! What happened to all
the leaders who burned with a holy fire? What are those who
know how to command doing? Today theyre arguing about
whether to increase or reduce the income tax by a percentage
A basic law of physics is that no energy is ever lost.
What once was will always be. The youth of Israel has shown
its power in the past; this power still exists, and will return.
All that lacks is the force that will rouse it...
When I left the Rebbes room, it was past two in the
morning. Scarcely a second had gone by before the students
pounced upon me. What did the Rebbe say? they
wanted to know.
My acquaintances who had accompanied me on my midnight trip
to Brooklyn immediately wanted to know: So, what did
you think of the Rebbe?
Today, many weeks after my encounter with the Rebbe, I can
say only what I felt at the time. When I first entered his
presence, I thought: Here is a believer. As I
sat there listening to him speak, I reassessed: No,
a wise man. When I left his presence, I said to myself:
Yet a true believer.
. Recounted by Rabbi Zvi Meir Steinmetz, the teacher
who brought these students to their meeting with the Rebbe.
. Editors note: Beginning in 1980, the Rebbe
adopted the custom of distributing dollar bills for the
recipient to give to charity. In this way, the Rebbe combined
the opportunity to meet him with the opportunity to do a
mitzvah. Every Sunday, thousands of people would pass before
the Rebbe to receive a dollar and his blessing.