I’ve written several books over the years, but in 2014, I wrote one about the Rebbe. In my research, I spent almost five years with the Rebbe by immersing myself in his writings, and in the stories that hundreds of people who had interacted and lived with the Rebbe told about him.
Click here for full-color print version
Over that time, the Rebbe started to have a great impact on my own life as well, in that I have become a profoundly different person as a result of studying the Rebbe’s teachings.
But my connection with the Rebbe goes back before then.
I grew up in what’s now known as the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush; my father and grandfather were both ardent Zionists, and they wanted my sister and I to go to a Hebrew-speaking school. They also both had strong ties to the Previous Rebbe, as well as the Rebbe: My grandfather, Rabbi Nissan Telushkin, was already a Chabadnik back in the Soviet Union, before he got out with his family in 1923. Later, my father Shlomo Telushkin had the honor of being the accountant of both the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe.
My father’s career as Chabad’s accountant started from the very beginning, right after the Previous Rebbe arrived in the United States in 1940. He derived a lot of pleasure from his career as an accountant, not because he made a tremendous amount of money, but because he worked for organizations he felt passionately attached to. As he got older, however, he started to cut back and give up his other accounts. The only accounts he always kept were those of the Rebbe and Chabad organizations.
This meant that my father had unusual access to the Rebbe on one day a year. There were people who would have a private audience with the Rebbe on their birthday, but my father always got a yechidus before the 15th of April, on the day the Rebbe signed his tax returns. It was normally a brief meeting, but he would always get a blessing from the Rebbe at that time, and the Rebbe would ask him if he had any personal issues he wished to discuss.
I myself only had one yechidus with the Rebbe, together with my father and grandfather. It was in the winter of 1968. My grandfather was getting ready to make a trip to Israel, and I was also preparing to go the following year, to spend what would have been my junior year at college learning at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. I think it was the first time in my life I wore a formal hat, having grown up just wearing a kippah.
It was the year after the Six Day War, so the Rebbe spoke about various issues related to Israel’s decisions in the war and its aftermath, as well as discussing my grandfather’s impending visit to Eretz Yisrael.
From accounts of other people’s audiences with the Rebbe, I know that he was quite a linguist and could speak in pretty much whatever language they wanted, but since this meeting was primarily for my grandfather, the meeting was in Yiddish, and my father had to whisper to me in English what the Rebbe was saying, just to give me an idea of what was going on. Having always conversed with my grandfather in Hebrew, this was genuinely the first time in my life I really regretted not knowing Yiddish.
At the very end, the Rebbe spoke to me a little in Hebrew. He asked where I was going to study, and then he gave me a blessing that my learning should go well.
Almost twenty years later, in June 1986, I was living in Israel when I got a phone call from my mother, telling me that my father had suffered a stroke. I immediately flew over and learned that, not wanting to make me even more nervous, my mother had somewhat underplayed how serious it was. My father was really hovering between life and death, and he wasn’t even conscious for the first several days.
Every day, we would get two phone calls from the Rebbe’s office, usually from Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky: “The Rebbe wants to know how your father is,” he would say, and I would give him a report.
Maybe two days after my arrival, my father came out of his unconscious state, although he was still a little befuddled. He was eighty years old at the time, and had always been in good health. He had still been doing some accounting work, and had great pleasure giving a weekly class on the Talmud every Shabbat. But now it was like he had run full speed into a brick wall, and it was very sad: All of a sudden, he could no longer do his work, and with his mind often confused, he couldn’t really learn in any systematic way.
Perhaps five days after he’d come out of the coma, I took a call from Rabbi Krinsky.
“The Rebbe has an accounting question for your father,” he said.
“Rabbi Krinsky,” I protested, “you know how sick my father is.”
“Of course, of course, the Rebbe knows that,” he assured me. “We had an administrative meeting today, in which an accounting issue came up, and the Rebbe said, ‘Ask Shlomo.’
“I mentioned your father’s illness, but the Rebbe just said, ‘I know, ask Shlomo.’”
So at that point, I took the question very seriously, wrote it down exactly as it was posed, and presented it to my father. He looked up at me and said to do this, that, and the other, and immediately, I knew that the question had made my father feel much better.
It was then that it dawned on me: There was the Rebbe, sitting in his office in Brooklyn with tremendous responsibilities, with all the burdens of world Jewry on his shoulders, along with those of so many individuals. But one of the things he was thinking about was my father’s situation, as he lay there in a hospital bed, feeling fairly useless, feeling as though his life might as well have come to an end. And so, he came up with a question that my father was able to answer. For the life of me, I can’t remember what the questions was, but it was probably simple enough; not ridiculously simple, but something he figured my father would still be able to answer. And, in answering it, my father was reminded that he still had value, that he was still active and important.
In fact, doing my own research, I’ve repeatedly found that among the most striking features of the Rebbe is the way in which he always remained focused on the individual. The Rebbe was one of those most unusual sorts of leaders, a man whose influence was very great during his lifetime, and has actually grown after his passing. But it was this story in particular – although certainly not this story alone – that explains why I wanted to spend five years writing a book about the Rebbe.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of nearly twenty books about Judaism as well as a lecturer and community leader. He was interviewed in February of 2011 and May of 2014.