Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Hecht had been the Chabad presence in New Haven, Connecticut, since 1941. The demands on him grew year by year, with a synagogue, a school, a yeshiva and many other responsibilities that required a staff several times that which he could afford.
In 1974, he wrote to the Rebbe complaining that in 33 years of work he felt he was back at the same place as when he started and that he simply could not continue.
He signed off the letter with a heart-rending plea that “the Rebbe should help and do all he can.”
The Rebbe responded—not with counsel, but with light:
I’ve already followed your advice. I’ve sent there Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Hecht. But it appears from your letter and from those preceding it that you still are not familiar with him and with the capabilities with which this person is endowed.
Whatever the case, you should get to know him now. Immediately, everything will change—your mood, your trust in G‑d, everyday happiness, etc., etc.
Who Is a Rebbe?
Rebbe means “my master” or “my teacher.” Whether you are a small child learning alef-bet, or an expert scholar sailing the seas of the Talmud, you call your teacher, “rebbe.”
There’s another meaning to the title rebbe, one especially associated with a rabbi they called the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov was a teacher who touched not only your mind and heart, but could reach into your essential being and guide you to find yourself there.
|Before you can understand “What is a Rebbe?” you must first ask “What am I?”
A rebbe then is a guide to your true self. Which means that before you can understand “What is a rebbe?” and “Who is a rebbe?” you must first ask “What am I” and “Who am I?”
Who Needs a Rebbe?
Imagine a rebbe as a ray of light. Light is not a thing for itself. Light is only light when it illuminates. Think of the space beyond our planet’s atmosphere; between the brilliant sun and the glowing earth is only darkness. For light to be light, you must provide something for it to enlighten.
If your major concern is getting from today to tomorrow, there is nothing to enlighten. If you consider yourself nothing more than a two-legged creature with an excess of neurons, Wikipedia and TED may be all you need.
But if you seek that which transcends physical sensation and satisfaction, if you feel a need to make sense of life, if you have ever asked yourself, “What am I doing here?” and you are looking for something deep inside yourself—then you need a rebbe to get you in touch with that inner self.
Context and Liberation
How does a rebbe do that? How could he show you something about you that you yourself could not discover?
Because as soon as you are connected to a rebbe, you are connected to a higher, wider context. A context in which you are no longer a lonely speck of dust in the vast, empty space, but a vital part of a greater whole. There, within that context, you discover where you are needed, what you are here to accomplish, and how you have the powers to fulfill that mission.
Context is everything. A sentence fallen out of a book can never make sense of itself without its story. Out of context, all meaning is distorted—often into its opposite. A precious ring in the snout of a boar, King Solomon the Wise tells us, just renders the beast yet more beastly. A swan out of context is an ugly duckling.
|Connecting to a rebbe connects you to the whole.
Life out of context is called exile. Without your context, it’s not just that your place is missing. Without knowing your place, you cannot find your center, the very core of who you are.
Connecting to a rebbe connects you to the whole. And within that whole, you are liberated from exile.
Nucleus and Bonding
A rebbe is capable of doing that because he himself stands at the nucleus of that context.
All beauty in our universe begins with a nucleus. For a crystal to form, whether it be a snowflake or a diamond, a tiny nucleus of molecules must first become the basic structure from which a marvelous symmetry may extend. The same with life—whether it be a single cell, an entire tree or a human being—all begins with a tiny seed carrying the information that will unfold to form the limbs and organs of a mature organism.
|All beauty and all life in our universe begins with a nucleus.
And we all form a single organism. Our bodies may be separate, but our souls are one. What makes them one? That they have a single nucleus. In that nucleus, all of us find our origin, and from it, we continue to be nurtured. Nurtured and bonded in a perfect union with one another and with the origin of all things. For that nucleus is the place where G‑d enters His universe. It is the place of a rebbe’s soul, and from there he invites you to join him.
We and G‑d
After all, what is a soul? It is G‑d breathing inside you; it is the divine presence invested within your physical body. It is what we call a neshamah—meaning a breath, as in the story of the creation of the first human being, “And G‑d blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” At every moment, G‑d breathes within us, and through that breath we are one with Him and He is one with us. In that breath, we are our Creator.
|G‑d is one, and so He is found in our oneness.
G‑d is one, and so He is found in our oneness. Not as individuals, but as a whole; a singularity. Not as I, but as we. As a harmony of multifarious parts becoming one.
Which means that to find that oneness, that place inside you in which you are one with your G‑d, you must first connect your soul with other souls, which connect with yet more networks of souls, all forming a single cell around a single nucleus. That nucleus, in turn, is the nodal point at which G‑d’s breath enters. It is where all things become one.
In that nucleus, a rebbe stands, and from there he brings us together as one, to feel one another, to know us, to know ourselves, and to know our center, our core, the place where G‑d enters each of our souls. A rebbe connects us with our G‑d—and then gets out of the way.
Heads and Heads
Rebbe, they say, stands for rosh b’nei Yisrael. That means “A head of the Jewish People.”
Most of us think of a head as a control center. The head tells the heart, the lungs, the stomach, the fingers and toes what to do. Certainly, I am not interested in handing myself over to one who controls me. G‑d gave me my life to be me, not to be controlled by someone else.
But if you think of your own head, it is certainly not like that. That is, unless you are the philosopher who complained at the end of his days, “My whole problem, it turns out, is that I have no body, only a head.”
|A head, before it is a head, is first part of a body.
The head we are talking about here is not a philosopher’s head, or an artificial head. It is the head of an organism, a body. Which means that before it is a head, it is first a part of this body. And so, the head is not concerned with consuming all other body parts into the head’s agenda. The head is concerned with the heart being a healthy heart, the stomach being a healthy stomach, the fingers doing what fingers are supposed to do and the toes keeping well within their own domain as well. The head is concerned with each body part fulfilling its own agenda.
So too a rebbe is firstly a servant of his people.
Knowing Your Name
Jerry Levine was an anchorman for Miami’s Channel 10 News, and a good one. He had won an Emmy for producing programs encouraging Floridians to participate in regular medical examinations. But in 1989, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar asked him to work for his organization, Aleph, assisting Jewish prisoners and military personnel and their families.
Jerry was young and thought, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity to try something new and different. And I can always get back into the news business if it doesn’t work out.”
So, at Rabbi Lipskar’s suggestion, Jerry wrote to the Rebbe to ask his advice, providing many details about himself and his personal goals.
The Rebbe’s response? A fax arrived on Rabbi Lipskar’s desk: “Tell me all his names.”
Jerry thought he had told the Rebbe all his names: Yosef ben Hirsch Leib ha’Levi. But when he went to talk with his mother about it, she told him it was YosefMordechai ben Hirsch Leib ha’Levi.
So he wrote again, this time with his full name. The Rebbe responded, telling him to ask the advice of a good friend.
“What I got from that,” Jerry says, “is that this is a different sort of leader.”
Any other leader would have been concerned with “What can this person provide my organization? How can he get us better media exposure?”
The Rebbe’s concern, in Jerry’s words, was that a Jewish boy didn’t know his own name. How did he know that? How did he recognize something was missing?
Why shouldn’t he? As a brain knows what the stomach needs, so a rebbe knows a Jew better than the Jew knows his own self.
|That is the job of a rebbe—to help you find your name, your true self, and where you belong.
But it is not the knowing that is relevant here. It is the caring. That was the Rebbe’s first concern, because that is the job of a rebbe—to help you find your name, your true self, and where you belong.
Nothing For Yourself
Freddy Hager, came as a young man to see the Rebbe. He showed the Rebbe a picture of his grandfather, who had been a chassidic rebbe in Galicia.
The Rebbe asked him, “Do you know what it means to be a rebbe?” But Freddy didn’t respond. So the Rebbe answered.
“The Baal Shem Tov was the first rebbe. He would not go to sleep at night as long as he had anything of value left in his house. Whatever he had, he gave away to those who needed it.”
“That’s what it means to be a rebbe,” concluded the Rebbe. “Whatever you have, you have for others.”