Weekly Chasidic Story #710 (s5771-44 / 2 Tammuz 5771)
The Kiss and the Smile
To the Lubavitcher Rebbe, honoring Jewish traditions–including those not part of of Chabad tradition–was very important.
Connection: Seasonal — 17th yahrzeit
Kivi Bernhard relates [square-bracketed explanations are the editor’s]:
“It was 1982, and this was now my second Rosh Hashana that I would be traveling from South Africa as a teenageyeshiva student to spend with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Before I departed from Johannesburg, my father Rabbi Nachman Bernhard, [one of South Africa’s most important rabbis, a former guest-speaker at Ascent, and] who was a very close confidant of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, pulled me aside at the airport and shared the following with me: “There are many rabbis, rabbeim, teachers, sages and mentors the world over. But Kivi, a Rebbe is an entirely different thing altogether. As you go now to be at the Rebbe for the Yomim Tovim [High Holidays] you have the opportunity to observe what a Jew is in its essence. Watch the Rebbe intently and study the details. You will glean gems of Judaism.”
My father had given me a mission, not just an instruction, and I was now on my way. His words were almost prophetic, as the following small but profound encounter took place while I was privileged to be nearby the Rebbe.
There is a well known tradition amongst Jews to share honey cake with one another the days before Rosh Hashana to induce a sentiment of “sweetness” as we head into the days of judgment. The day before Rosh Hashana [and before Yom Kippur] the Rebbe would distribute lekach [honey cake] and a short blessing for success, to many hundreds of people for hours on end.
For me, as a visitor to Crown Heights (the Rebbe’s headquarters), Brooklyn, this was a major opportunity to have some “private time” with the Rebbe, and I made sure to be there early and assume my place in line. I found myself behind a very nice man who was clearly of Sefardi tradition. We spoke awhile and he shared with me that he was a Yemenite Jew living in Brooklyn who made an effort to see the Rebbe of Lubavitch whenever possible. We stood on line for about an hour before finding ourselves in the Rebbe’s chambers about to receive lekach and a blessing from him.
My new friend was now up and stood in front of the Rebbe. In keeping with his Sefardi tradition, he instinctively sought to take the Rebbe’s hand to kiss it (a well known practice among many Sefardi Jews when greeting a great Torah sage and personality). Suddenly however, my friend withdrew in response to verbal and some light physical pressure that was suddenly thrust on him from some of the young “organizers” that were “helping out” the Rebbe.
They felt they were doing the Rebbe a big favor by zealously discouraging anything that was not in keeping with the Chabad tradition. Even though there were many occasions where Sefardi leaders and Jews did in fact kiss the Rebbe’s hand, it was not a custom of Chabad and might be seen as inappropriate amongst the “passionate” followers of the Rebbe. The Rebbe was clearly frustrated by this misplaced display of “righteous fervor” and the following fascinating and penetrating lesson unfolded.
As this Sefardi man responded to the pressure and retracted his hands that had reached out to kiss the hand of the Rebbe (in an effort to simply behave like everyone else), the Rebbe engaged him with a penetrating look and said,“Nu?” The Rebbe himself then extended his right hand back to the man, who then took it and kissed it.
The Rebbe then smiled at him, while all around registered what the Rebbe had just taught us. It was not only about the Rebbe insuring that another human being should not be embarrassed, but it was a critical message to validate the importance and bona-fide of a minhag klal Yisroel (established custom of the Jewish people), even though not the personal custom of the Rebbe or Chabad.
Kivi Bernhard watching closely while awaiting his turn.
This is why you see the Rebbe looking at the gentleman so intently while kissing his hand. The Rebbe wanted him to practice his tradition as a Sefardi Jew and to do so with joy, with passion and with completeness.
A Jewish custom and tradition is a holy thing. Through this encounter I had, the Rebbe certainly taught me, at least, that as we love our fellow Jews and draw them near, we must respect other Jewish traditions and practices, clearly understanding that they are not to become subject to our own personal interpretation or cultural whim and wham.
My father was absolutely right: the essence of the Rebbe served to show us who we are as Jews, not just what to do as Jews.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from an email received from the Avner Institute <Rebbebook@Gmail.com>.
Connection: Seasonal – Seventeenth yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit and his prayers continue to protect us.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (11 Nissan 1902 – 3 Tammuz 1994), became the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad dynasty after his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, passed away in Brooklyn on 10 Shvat 1950. He is widely acknowledged as the greatest Jewish leader of the second half of the 20th century. Although a dominant scholar in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah and fluent in many languages and scientific subjects, the Rebbe is best known for his extraordinary love and concern for every Jew on the planet. His emissaries around the globe dedicated to strengthening Judaism number in the thousands. Hundreds of volumes of his teachings have been printed, as well as dozens of English renditions.
Rabbi Kivi Bernhard grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and today is based in Atlanta, Georgia, A passionate orthodox Jew, he has made that rare cross over into the eye of high profile corporate echelons across the globe, and does so with an extraordinary Jewish pride that has in fact become his signature. In 2010 was recognized by Meetings Magazine as a “top ten platform speakers in the USA.”
Kivi Bernhard now
…and especially for all Chabadnikim that read these stories:
Next week, with G-d’s help, will be a story about the Rebbe Rayatz that (after me) you will probably be the first Lubavitchers to ever hear it!
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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