This Shabbos is the tenth day of Shevat, known in the world of Chabad as Yud Shevat, the celebration of the day in 1951, when Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson became Rebbe.
On Yud Shevat in 1989, my husband and I went to see the Rebbe in Crown Heights. We had been learning on a weekly basis with Rabbi Yisroel and Blumi Rosenfeld, the Rebbe’s head emissaries in Pittsburgh (whose daughter Rivkee would marry our son Mordy but not until much later) but still, I barely knew what yud or Shevat were. And I certainly had no idea what a Rebbe was.
Where I grew up, nobody talked to the rabbi. Nobody listened to the rabbi. Then all of a sudden we encountered a super rabbi who everyone totally listened to, except for the people we were meeting who were “bothered” by the Rebbe and didn’t listen to him at all and were telling us that maybe we shouldn’t listen to him either.
And yet we went to see the Rebbe. Everything we were learning that made Torah life so attractive was because of the Rebbe’s teachers, so why not see the Rebbe himself? Some people may have been bothered by the Rebbe, but that Yud Shevat in 1989, there were thousands of people who apparently weren’t. I don’t remember much about passing before the Rebbe and being handed a dollar to give to tzedaka. I just remember thinking that it didn’t feel like such an extraordinary experience. I also remember thinking that that didn’t mean it wasn’t one.
But I was still a little bothered by the people who were bothered. So I asked Rabbi Rosenfeld what I should answer them.
His answer is one of the few Hebrew verses I have committed to memory. I can say it perfectly; it’s actually in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach. After the miraculous splitting of the sea, when the Jews saw how G-d had drowned the Egyptian army that was chasing them, “they believed in G-d and in Moshe, his servant.”
A leader who embodies and transmits Torah ideals is intrinsic to Torah itself. There can even be more than one; my leader doesn’t preclude your leader.
And once I learned that verse, I knew what to tell people who were bothered. I’m so glad I asked; after that, following my leader became so much easier.