Shortly after our arrival in Chicago some two decades ago, Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the Rebbe’s Shaliach in Illinois, asked me to be the guest speaker at Chicago’s Yud Tes Kislev Fabrengen. For my presentation I selected a Sicha, a discourse of the Rebbe zt’l defining his understanding of the nature of today’s galus, today’s exile. Based upon the phrase “…the great and awesome wilderness-of snake, fiery serpent and scorpion and thirst where there was no water.” (parshas Ekev, 8,15), the Rebbe sees each of these elements as an ever debilitating aspect of today’s exile. The Rebbe states, “this is comparable to the current exile, which precedes the final redemption.
This spiritual “desert” has the following properties; “Great”-a person’s spiritual decline begins when he thinks that the desert is great, i.e. that the secular world around him is large and powerful. “Awesome desert”-this leads him to think that the secular world is so overpowering that it leaves no room for Jewish values. “Snake”-the hot venom of the snake represents heat and enthusiasm in worldly matters. “Serpent”-this leads to a state where a person’s enthusiasm for the Torah and Mitzvos is totally “burned” away, alluded to by the Hebrew term for serpent. Saref, which literally means “burnt”. “Scorpion”-the cold poison of the scorpion alludes to a subsequent state of total coldness and apathy in spiritual matters. “And thirst where there was no water”-the person is ultimately so far removed that even when his soul thirsts for Judaism, he does not realize what he needs.”
In commenting upon the fervor by which some Hassidim approach Kiruv work, specifically assisting others in putting on t’phillin, I referred to them as “gun slingers.” For just as the wild west gun slinger who made a notch in his gun every time he killed an opponent, these well meaning Hassidim make a symbolic notch in their own retzuah, t’phillin strap, every time they convince another Jew to don t’phillin. I reminded them that this was never the intention of the Rebbe. Beguiled and overwhelmed by the very nature of the exile, the Jew who was willing to don the t’phillin, perhaps for the first time, was giving the Hassid the wonderful opportunity to share a mitzva with another Jew whose Nefesh, soul, was, as his own, an element of G-d Himself. Indeed the Hassid should thank his fellow Jew for the opportunity he provided him.
There were some rumblings in the audience when I concluded my remarks. However, I was delighted when Rebbitzen Ch. Hecht, o.b.m., the daughter of the Mashpiah of Lubavitch, HaRav Yisroel Jacobson, zt’l, my teacher, told me how much my remarks mirrored those of her own father.
This concept is clearly underscored by the well known story regarding the many hours the Rebbe would stand on Sundays giving dollars to thousands so that he might share in their fulfilling the mitzva of charity. When it became apparent the Rebbe was having pain in his leg, it was suggested to him that he should consider sitting during the never ending procession for dollars. His response was that he was unable to sit while he counted diamonds. Amongst the throngs that visited 770 Eastern Parkway on those memorable Sundays were Rabbis, scholars, political figures from Israel, observant Jews, non-observant Jews, Jewish activists, as well as skeptics far removed from Judaism who had come just to experience this unusual pilgrimage. Yet to the Rebbe each and everyone was a diamond. I firmly believe that the very phrase kiruv r’chokim, bringing close those who are estranged, would find disfavor in the Rebbe’s view of the Jewish world.
In considering the religious climate of Orthodoxy today we would do well to consider the Rebbe’s approach to his fellow Jew. For the Rebbe was the founder of the contemporary Kiruv movement demanding that his Hassidim reach beyond their own religious sphere to Jews everywhere bringing with them the love of Torah and the love one should have for his fellow Jew, diamonds one and all.
Sadly, it is common nowadays to divide folks who are observant into two major categories – FFB and Baal Teshuva – religious from birth and one who has returned. In truth, we are all baalei teshuva or more to the point, hopefully aspirants to the lofty station of baal teshuva. In our spiritual essence we are all equal, we are all imbued with a G-dly spirit that once nurtured and allowed to blossom through the observance of Torah values creates an individual who is a wonder to behold.
Especially now, in the aftermath of the Holy Day season, as we once again return to the reality of the world of exile which we must all endure until the arrival of Moshiach, let us embrace every single Jew as our equal, each, no matter his/her station in life, providing us with a unique opportunity to grow in our Yiddishkeit by sharing the beauty of a Torah life. May we all don the true mantel of baal teshuva not only during the High Holy Day season but every day seeking, in concert with our fellow Jews, to improve ourselves and the world around us.
Rabbi Lefkowitz was one of the early driving forces, under the direction of Rav Jacobson zt’l and Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, o.b.m. of Hadar Hatorah, the first baal teshuva Yeshiva founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.