The Rebbe’s Secret Code
In 1981, when Mrs. Shulamis Saxon was about to celebrate her bas mitzvah, she wrote the Lubavitcher Rebbe asking for his blessings. Not wishing to only “take” she wanted to give the Rebbe a brachah as well. Sensing that it was uncustomary and possibly unfitting, at the end of her letter she added the brachah in a code she had learned from her brother. She wished the Rebbe to be blessed with children even if that had not been decreed for him from the one above.
For many milestone events, including a Bat Mitzvah, the Rebbe sent standardized letters which he personally signed. When Shulamis received her letter, she thought it was the same as every other bas mitzvah girl’s letter. There were a few strange words at the bottom, but she assumed they were some kind of signature, until her brother showed her that the Rebbe had responded to her with the same code she had used.
In code, the Rebbe had written, “Thank you for the brachah”.
Gimmel Tammuz marks the 26th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. As a Lubavitcher Chassid, writing about the Rebbe presents an almost impossible challenge. The temptation is to speak of the grandiose ways the Rebbe transformed world Jewry, through his army of shluchim, his scholarship in every aspect of Torah learning, his influence in global political spheres, or the legendary miracles he performed.
But what speaks clearest to me are stories of the Rebbe’s everyday interactions with ordinary individuals; exchanges that provide a path even for me to emulate the Rebbe.
How is She Doing?
Mrs. Margalit Mogilevsky of Toronto was expecting her fourth child and was nervous. Although her previous pregnancies and births had been smooth and there were no specific reasons for concern, she was feeling extremely anxious that something was going to happen to the baby during delivery.
Margalit decided to request a brachah for a healthy child and an easy delivery from the Rebbe. She had recently read of someone who demanded a brachah from the Rebbe and she wanted to do the same. Worried that was inappropriate, she reached out to a close friend, Rebbetzin Chiena Zaltzman, who advised her not to make such a demand. “Surely the Rebbe will feel your worry,” she advised. Margalit sent the letter without the demand, but as the weeks went by without a response from the Rebbe, she regretted her decision.
When Margalit went into labor she came down with pneumonia. The baby boy was delivered in good health, but she needed to remain in hospital with him for an extra few days.
One of those mornings, after visiting his wife in the hospital, R’ Michoel Mogilevsky, a”h, came home to a ringing phone. “Is this the Mogilevsky family?” said a voice on the other end.
“The Rebbe asked me to call you to find out if Mrs. Mogilevsky had a baby, and to check how she is doing.”
“Yes, Thank G-d she gave birth to a baby boy. Both mother and baby are well.”
“Baruch Hashem, thank you,” and the line went dead.
Mr. Mogilevsky was frazzled. It didn’t make sense for the Rebbe’s office to call out of the blue. He called Rebbetzin Zaltzman to tell her what happened. “It can’t be,” she said. “Maybe someone else was calling to see if you would sponsor something in honor of the new baby?”
It was the days before caller ID and he couldn’t confirm who had called. So, R’ Michoel dialed 770 and spoke with Rabbi Leibel Groner, a”h, the Rebbe’s personal secretary. He introduced himself and said he thought someone may have called him earlier.
“Yes, that was me. The Rebbe instructed me to call you to find out how Mrs. Mogilevsky was doing.”
“Every time I recall this story,” Margalit told me. “I’m blown away by the enormity of it. The Rebbe had received thousands of letters and phone calls since I sent the letter. Yet he still thought of that one anxious mother in Toronto and checked in on her.”
“When did this happen?” I ask, just for the purposes of clarifying the story’s details.
“Levi just turned 32 in Adar,” she says.
Quickly doing the math, I ask her, “Are you sure?”
“That was just weeks after chof beis Shvat,” I say, referring to the day the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka passed away.
Fewer than two weeks after suffering his own personal crushing loss, the Rebbe would not forget about the worries and anxious demands of a Jewish mother.
I Mean You
Shortly before Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum celebrated his bar mitzvah, he received the Rebbe’s standardized mazel tov letter. Yossi was ecstatic; he received a personal letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself! That joy quickly dissipated when one of his friends received an identical letter for his bar mitzvah shortly after.
Weeks passed and it was time to celebrate his bar mitzvah with a trip to the Rebbe for “dollars”. Each Sunday, thousands lined up to receive a dollar bill and a blessing from the Rebbe. Most interactions lasted all of a second or two, with the Rebbe quickly wishing the recipient “brachah v’hatzlacha.” As Yossi took his dollar and was already being ushered away to keep the line moving, the Rebbe asked, “Did you receive my letter?”
The Rebbe’s schedule and actions were precise. The Rebbe walked into the minyan at exactly the appointed time, stood in exactly the same place and in exactly the same manner every day. During chazaras hashatz of Minchah every day, the Rebbe stood with one hand on his forehead covering most of his face. But one day, without explanation, the Rebbe stood without putting his hand on his forehead.
This continued for days, baffling Chassidim, until they realized the Rebbe had begun doing this when a guest had come from Eretz Yisrael. He had a severely disfigured face, and many people had difficulty even looking at him. Clearly, the Rebbe did not want this man to be embarrassed and made sure he did not even appear to avert his gaze.
However, this guest was also blind. He wouldn’t have known the Rebbe was covering his face. Yet the Rebbe still made sure to keep his face uncovered to ensure no one could even think he had averted his eyes.
In 1985, Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipskar of the Aleph Institute, which serves Jewish prisoners, arranged a program whereby select prisoners would be allowed to leave prison for a Shabbos to study Jewish practices. A group of prisoners was brought to Crown Heights where they would join the Rebbe’s Shabbos afternoon farbrengen.
Before the farbrengen, the Rebbe suggested that the group not be seated together. With most of the crowd dressed as Chassidim, the Rebbe noted that if the group was at one table, people would ask who they were and where they came from. The group would then be identified as prisoners, which would be embarrassing. Instead, they were spread out inconspicuously throughout the crowd.
At the time of the Iranian Revolution, between 1978 and 1981, a Chabad rescue mission brought some 1800 Jewish children out of Iran under the Rebbe’s guidance. The Iranian children faced huge challenges, having been torn away from their parents without knowing when or if they’d ever see them again. The Rebbe took a strong personal interest, personally inspecting the schools and facilities that housed them.
Before Pesach, the Rebbe instructed the kitchen staff to cook rice for the children. Cooking kitniyos in a Chabad Ashkenazi kitchen was unheard of! But the Rebbe knew these children were accustomed to eating rice on Pesach, and especially under the circumstances, he wanted to make sure they were as comfortable as possible.
Standing for the Survivor
Mr. Sam Moss was a born in Munkatch and miraculously survived Auschwitz and Dachau. After the war he made his way to Sydney, Australia. Being angry at G-d, he began a new life without any connection to Judaism. Much to Sam’s chagrin, his son Meir became religious, and after high school enrolled in a Chabad yeshivah in Melbourne.
Realizing he was unable to dissuade his son from joining the yeshivah, Mr. Moss travelled to New York to meet with the Rebbe and hoped to convince the Rebbe to instruct his son to leave.
It wasn’t until many years after the meeting with the Rebbe that Meir heard from his father what had occurred.
When Sam walked into the Rebbe’s room, the Rebbe offered him a seat. Mr. Moss refused, saying “Back in Munkatch, we learned that you never sit in front of the Rebbe.” To which the Rebbe replied, “If you’re not going to sit, I’m not going to sit.”
So the Rebbe stood up behind his desk, and then at some point in time, he came around and stood next to Mr. Moss. He asked Sam many questions about the Munkatcher Rebbe and what it was like learning in his yeshivah. Then he asked him about the war – the ghetto, the camps, everything that happened to him.
Answering these questions, Sam broke down crying and the Rebbe put his arm around him.
The subject of Meir leaving yeshivah never even came up. When they were done talking, the Rebbe comforted him, saying, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright.”
Although Mr. Moss didn’t talk to Meir about what happened that night, he stopped trying to convince him to leave the yeshivah. Only years later did he tell his children about that meeting, when he told them, “When the audience was over, I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”
Where’s Your Letter?
In 1973, my mother in law, Mrs. Shani Katzman, entered the Rebbe’s room with her parents and two brothers for a private audience – a yechidus. Her father, Rabbi Eli Lipsker, a”h, placed notes from each family member on the Rebbe’s table. The Rebbe looked through them and noticed that there was no letter from the youngest boy, who was all of four years old.
“Where is your letter?” asked the Rebbe.
The young child stammered and shrugged.
The Rebbe asked him his name. “Mendy,” was the reply.
“You should never be embarrassed of a Jewish name,” said the Rebbe. “My name is also Menachem Mendel.”
Taking it to Heart
The Rebbe taught that a tzadik’s life work and mission are highlighted on his yahrtzeit, on those who apply lessons from his life to their own elicit Heavenly blessings.
Gimmel Tammuz is the perfect opportunity to emulate the Rebbe’s understanding and respect for the individual. To the Rebbe, even if you are only four years old, you matter, and your voice is important. Whether you are a Holocaust survivor, an Iranian refugee child, or an anxious Jewish mother, you deserve empathy and compassion. Even a seemingly standardized letter comes with a personal message and genuine concern.
Whether it is with a phone call, an arm around the shoulder, or just the knowledge of being heard and appreciated, we have the power to show every person in our lives the deepest of sensitivity in the simplest, yet profound ways.