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The Believer

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Translator’s note: the following are translated excerpts from an account by Israeli activist, writer and former Knesset member Geulah Cohen of her meeting with the Rebbe. The original Hebrew version was published in the Israeli daily, Maariv, December 18, 1964.

I’ve met wise people, I’ve met scholars, I’ve met artists, but to meet a believer is an altogether different experience. After meeting a wise person, you remain what you were before—wise or stupid; after meeting a scholar, you remain what you were before— learned or a boor; after meeting with an artist, you remain what you were before—artist or artisan. But when you take leave of a believer, you leave his presence different than you entered it. For even if the believer’s faith does not infect you, it affects you. For the believer believes in you, too.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the international Chabad movement, is a wise man, a learned man, but above all, he is a believer. And if faith is the art of truth, he’s also an artist. A particularly creative artist. His creation: an entire army of believers whose commander-in-chief he is. The faith army of Israel, dedicated to the G-d of Israel and the people of Israel.

***

The Midrash does not anywhere describe how the supernal angels are received in audience before the divine throne. But were it to describe this, it might well take its cue from the manner in which one is received by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Of course, there is a secretary, a line, and reception hours, as with every human being. Here, however, the secretary doesn’t ask what you wish to discuss with the Rebbe—your questions to the Rebbe are between you and him. Here, though it might be necessary to wait weeks or months for your turn, anyone who so desires can be received by the Rebbe. And here, the reception hours are not during the daytime, but at night—all night long.

“Eleven in the evening?” I repeated in amazement when Rabbi Chodakov, the Rebbe’s secretary, notified me of the time of my appointment with the Rebbe.

“Tomorrow night at eleven,” came the clear reply through the phone from the Rebbe’s Brooklyn headquarters.

“Why not during the daytime?” The chassid to whom I addressed this query gave me a look as if I had asked the most bizarre question in the world. “During the day the Rebbe studies,” he stated with finality.

Instead of asking why the Rebbe doesn’t study at night and receive people during the day, I found myself thinking that, perhaps, this is as it should be; that perhaps at night the hearts speak more freely and the heavens are more open to listen.

***

When I read a book, I always skip the introduction. But the long introduction that preceded the moment of my meeting with the Rebbe taught me that there are introductions that should not be skipped, for the simple reason that in them the story really begins. The Rebbe’s chassidim are a part of his personality, just as Chassidism believes that all of humanity is part of G-d’s personality. My audience with the Rebbe began when I arrived at his headquarters and met his disciples.

I hesitate to refer to the young Talmud-studying men who filled the place as “students.” Yes, each sat with open book before him, but none of them looked like someone who is learning something he did not already know. They looked more like one who stands in a laboratory and manipulates spirit and the letters of spirit as a scientist manipulates matter, dissecting, deciphering, building structures and forging forms. And all this with a melodious song. What has not already been written on the Chassidic melody? What will not be yet written of it? For it has neither beginning nor end. It sounds like a continuation of your own melody, like a song that you are singing for someone else to come and continue for you. At that moment it occurred to me that the Ten Commandments ought to have been said with a Chassidic melody…

Those students who were not engrossed in their studies but stood around talking—perhaps of ordinary, everyday matters—nevertheless wore the expression on the face of a front-line soldier, and the hushed atmosphere was that of impending battle. Their commander was not visible here, but his presence somewhere in the building was well-sensed. No audible command had been sounded, but all were poised for the moment it would be given…

***

I, too, am awaiting word—word that I am to enter the Rebbe’s room. It’s already eleven-fifteen, eleven-thirty—when will my turn come? I’m about to ask one of the young men in the office, when a fashionably dressed young woman, heels clicking and a scream of blonde hair spilling out from under her hat, enters the room. I hear her voice before I can catch a glimpse of her face.

“Is there an answer yet?” she asks in choked, fervent voice.

In lieu of a reply, the young man walks over to a mound of letters, removes one—the letter that the woman had written to the Rebbe—and tells her that the answer is inside. The woman grabs the letter from his hand, opens it, and reads. Her eyes freeze for a moment, then fill with tears—whether from joy or sorrow one cannot tell. Wordlessly, she leaves the room.

Immediately she is back. “If so, I have another question. Can one ask the Rebbe again?”

“Of course,” says the young chassid. “Anytime, anything.”

Her face lights up with joy…

***

When the door closed behind me and I stood alone with the Rebbe in the room, it was midnight. But the Rebbe rose behind his desk to greet me with a midday smile.

If you will, before you is a handsome face, a black hat slanting above it and a gray beard flowing beneath it, expressing grace and benevolence. But if you will, a pair of eyes alone confront you, gazing at you not to see but to reveal. In such case, you feel quite uncomfortable if you have something to hide, quite uncomfortable if you have thought of uttering an untruth. You sense a need to do up all your buttons to the very last one—somehow it feels as if they have all become undone. Does the Rebbe really have such magical eyes, or have you brought this magic in with you, the result of the night and the impression made on you by his disciples? But now’s not the time to ponder questions of this sort. You came here for a purpose, didn’t you? So I begin to introduce myself.

But it turns out there’s no need—he already knows more about me than I’ve intended to tell him. He tells me not only what I’ve done, but also what he thinks I ought to do; not only what I’m doing, but also what he feels I’m not doing…

“I hear that you’re now working as a journalist. Nu, that’s also good. Writing is very good, but it’s not the main thing. The main thing is the youth. To the youth one must speak, not write. Why don’t you speak to the youth? The youth is waiting to be spoken to, and no one is doing it. They make speeches at them—but they don’t speak to them. And then they wonder why they aren’t motivated.

“The youth,” continued the Rebbe, “is waiting for a command—a command issued in the same voice that all the great commands in Jewish history were issued. Where are all the commanders? In the Knesset! What happened to all the leaders who burned with a holy fire? What are those who know how to command doing? Today they’re arguing about whether to increase or reduce the income tax by a percentage point…

“A basic law of physics is that no energy is ever lost. What once was will always be. The youth of Israel has shown its power in the past; this power still exists, and will return. All that lacks is the force that will rouse it…”

***

When I left the Rebbe’s room, it was past two in the morning. Scarcely a second had gone by before the students pounced upon me. “What did the Rebbe say?” they wanted to know.

My acquaintances who had accompanied me on my midnight trip to Brooklyn immediately wanted to know: “So, what did you think of the Rebbe?”

Today, many weeks after my encounter with the Rebbe, I can say only what I felt at the time. When I first entered his presence, I thought: “Here is a believer.” As I sat there listening to him speak, I reassessed: “No, a wise man.” When I left his presence, I said to myself: “Yet a true believer.”

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