This Thursday, 3 Tammuz, is the 29th yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. One of the most brilliant minds of the last century, the Rebbe authored numerous scholarly volumes, and is distinguished for his remarkable commentaries on the Talmud, Maimonides’ magnum opus on Jewish law, and the classic biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi).
The Rebbe conducted endless correspondences with people of all stripes, Jews and non-Jews. Piles of letters arrived at his desk daily; he studied each, personally responding to most. His letters were as reassuring as they were instructional. The Rebbe would often, in a mere line or two, reach to the heart of the matter and direct the individual on a sure path.
Central to the Rebbe’s approach was that every person could and should make his or her own decision. The Rebbe would encourage people to recognize their own capabilities. Regarding medical issues, he would direct the person to a specialist in that field. To rabbinical queries, the Rebbe would instruct people to contact a local rabbi or rabbinical expert.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, a psychologist and currently the executive vice president emeritus of the OU, stated, “I personally benefited from the Rebbe’s advice in a life-changing telephone conversation I had with him more than forty years ago. Thousands of others have benefited similarly.”
Rabbi Dr. Weinreb summarized various ideas that were frequently found in the Rebbe’s letters to thousands of people:
- It is important to have clear and achievable goals in life.
- When those goals are reached, you need to set new goals and never be complacent.
- Study, joy and a focus on helping others are antidotes to depression.
- Cultivate as many friendships as possible, by giving spiritually or materially to another person.
- Persist in the face of failure. Failure is seldom total and never final; it is usually a step toward reaching the next level of achievement.
- Never compromise religious principles; such compromise is ineffective.
- You have a distinct role to play; G-d and your fellow rely on you to accomplish it. No one else can do what you are uniquely created to do.
In honor of the Rebbe’s 29th anniversary of passing are selected stories from Advice for Life: Daily Life:
It’s Not All About You
Marc Wilson was facing a dark period in his life after the collapse of his second marriage and the disintegration of his rabbinical career. Shortly after, he headed to New York, where he met the Rebbe and discussed his plans to devote more time to writing.
The Rebbe advised, “Sometimes a devoted layperson can do incalculably more good than a rabbi.”
The Rebbe added, “They say that you were once a student of Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik. I am making a gift to charity in the hope that you make peace with him.” Rabbi Soloveitchik had been Marc’s teacher at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, Illinois, and the two had a rocky relationship.
For Marc, the Rebbe’s words had a deep impact.
Over the years, Marc’s depression deepened, and eventually he was spending most of his day watching television from bed. Life, he felt, left him no options. He would pen articles about his dark life. Marc surmised, “There are plenty of depressed people who like reading stories about depressed people.”
On his next visit to Crown Heights, the Rebbe instructed Marc, “You should teach.”
“The Rebbe obviously understood,” said Marc, “that to heal from depression, I needed to start giving to others.”
However, the following year likewise passed in a depressive blur in which Marc did not heed the Rebbe’s counsel. Again he found himself at the Rebbe’s door.
The Rebbe then suggested: “You should teach. Anything, perhaps Talmud, even if it is only to one or two people in your living room.”
Soon afterwards Marc began to lead a class in Talmud, and his life was altered forever.
When Things are in Turmoil
The young, quiet Bostonian, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, kept to himself through the duration of his studies at the Lubavitch Yeshivah. He was the son of immigrants who created a large, thriving and observant home during a time when Jewish practice was in decline in the United States.
A short while before Rabbi Krinsky’s marriage, the Rebbe’s assistant, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, asked him what he planned to do for a living. The young man responded that he still had no concrete plans. Rabbi Hodakov then asked the 23-year-old groom if he wanted to join the Rebbe’s secretariat. Rabbi Krinsky was astonished at the request and enthusiastically responded in the affirmative.
During his first week of employment, the Rebbe called Rabbi Krinsky into his office. When he entered, he found the Rebbe correcting a letter draft. The Rebbe had made numerous corrections and asked Rabbi Krinsky to retype the letter. The task was daunting; the letter was replete with changes between and atop the lines, with arrows in every direction pointing to further changes.
The Rebbe guided Rabbi Krinsky how to decipher the letter: “Start from the beginning. Retype it word after word, line after line. In the end, you will see that everything works out okay.”
The young aide took this lesson to heart as a life lesson for finding clarity when things look confusing and disjointed.
Protecting the Vulnerable
As the procession of the casket of Rabbi Shlomo Horenstein, a relative of the Rebbe and a respected rabbinical figure, passed Lubavitch world headquarters, the Rebbe inquired about his elderly widow’s wellbeing. He was told she was feeling sickly. The Rebbe instructed her that she need not continue on to the cemetery.
Yet when Mrs. Horenstein still wanted to go, the Rebbe advised that she ask a rabbi. Rabbi Dovber Rivkin listened to the quandary, and responded that Mrs. Horenstein need not go to the burial. She, however, insisted that she wanted to go.
The Rebbe responded, “A rabbi just ruled according to Jewish law that you should not go.” Still resilient, she continued to protest, so the Rebbe said to her, “Perhaps you should travel only to the edge of the city, and then return home.”
The Rebbe followed the hearse partially by foot and then by car to the Manhattan home of Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman, leader of the Boyaner Chassidic dynasty, of whom Rabbi Horenstein had been a follower. There the Rebbe exited the car and waited for Rabbi Friedman to descend the stairs.
Rabbi Friedman was frail, and walked down the stairs slowly. There was a large crowd of mourners in attendance, and the Rebbe feared for the elderly leader’s safety. The Rebbe asked Rabbi Friedman’s aides if it is respectful in their circles to assist the elderly rabbi, and they responded in the affirmative. The Rebbe placed his hand under Rabbi’s Friedman’s arm and protected him from the crowd.
The two esteemed figures spoke briefly, and when they had walked some six feet, the Rebbe told the elderly rabbi that they had accompanied the hearse for the appropriate distance. They returned to Rabbi Friedman’s home, where the Rebbe wished him a sweet new year, and waited until Rabbi Friedman was safely inside before departing.
A Hospital is for Healing
During the Holocaust, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam was wounded by a stray bullet. He didn’t want to go to the clinic in the Nazi concentration camp, for fear of his life. Instead, he plucked a leaf from a tree and covered his wound. Three days later his wound healed, and he made a resolution that if he survived the war, he would build a hospital.
His criterion for his dream institution was that “the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a G‑d in this world. They would know that when they attend to the sickly, they are fulfilling one of the greatest commandments of Judaism.”
Rabbi Halberstam later became the leader of the Sanz-Klausenberg Chassidic dynasty. He kept his word, and in 1976 he initiated the building of the medical center Laniado Home for the Sick. The hospital was named after the brothers Alphonse and Yaakov Avraham Laniado, who donated a vast sum to the cause.
Seeking a blessing and a letter of approbation for the new hospital, Rabbi Halberstam sent a delegation to the Rebbe. There Rabbi Binyomin Wulliger, a diamond dealer and a confidant of Rabbi Halberstam, described the endeavor to the Rebbe. The Rebbe responded, “What is needed is financial assistance. A letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe will not pay the bills.”
The Rebbe then wrote a check with the accompanying instructions: “Make sure to cash the check. If you want to make a copy to show that I support the hospital, you may do so, as long as you make use of these funds.”
The hospital was also considering a nursing school, but Rabbi Halberstam was concerned it would attract students who would not adhere to the hospital’s religious ethos. The Rebbe responded, “You do not have to worry about who will attend. If the school creates the appropriate atmosphere, this will generate an attitude in the spirit you seek to craft.”
The Rebbe then explained that the hospital should be given a more popular name, such as Sanz. He added that the name of the hospital should have a positive connotation: “A sick person goes to the hospital for a cure. Why call the hospital a Home for the Sick? Call it a Home for Healing.”
The hospital’s name was changed to “Sanz Center for Health: Laniado Hospital.”