My father was a wanted man in the Soviet Union. In 1936, after years of narrowly evading arrest for the crime of promoting Jewish observance, he fled and arrived in Israel. He settled in Ramat Gan, where he helped found the “Sukkat Shalom” synagogue and served as its rabbi. When he passed in 1960, his will included a request that I be chosen as his successor. I was only eighteen and a half years old at the time, shortly after receiving rabbinic ordination from a few prominent Israeli rabbis, among them Rabbi Shlomo Zevin.
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About three months later, I received a letter from the Rebbe, in which he expressed his condolences and support to myself and the rest of my family. I also heard from others that the Rebbe would ask about our welfare during those years, showing particular concern for my younger unmarried sisters.
In that same letter, the Rebbe encouraged me to keep the Chabad traditions of our shul; most of the congregants at that time were not Chabad chassidim, and had asked to omit the recital of the Tachanun prayer from Mincha, the daily afternoon service, as per the Sefard prayer rite. In this context, the Rebbe spoke of the special quality of Mincha, which made it an especially opportune time for the recitation of the Tachanun.
Beyond the customs of our shul, the Rebbe also took a keen interest in my official election to succeed my father as the rabbi of his synagogue, and he even worked behind the scenes to help in that regard. In several letters to Rabbi Zevin from that period, the Rebbe urged him to exert “all of his influence, with the utmost energy and strength,” toward this end.
Just before Rosh Hashanah of that year, my appointment was made official. Despite the many pressing matters weighing on him, the Rebbe took time out of his schedule on the day before Rosh Hashanah to write to the legendary mayor of Ramat Gan, Mr. Avraham Krinitzi, to personally thank him for the decisive role he played in my appointment.
Avraham Krinitzi was a pioneering figure in Israel’s history, a personal friend of David Ben-Gurion, and a man of resolute and generous spirit. The first time we met, at an event in Ramat Gan, he remarked to me, “The Lubavitcher Rebbe – that’s a Rebbe!” He had just come back from a visit to New York, and was duly impressed, reporting that “the Rebbe knows Ramat Gan better than I do!” This, coming from a founder of the city, who served as its mayor for over forty years.
He also related that when he sat with the Rebbe, their conversation went on for a while, and at a certain point, he looked at the clock. The Rebbe noticed, and made it clear that he didn’t need to worry about the time. “Looking at the clock is my job,” he said.
The first time I came to the Rebbe was in 1966, and I had the privilege of having a personal audience with him. When I walked into his room, the Rebbe greeted me with a radiant smile: “Shalom Aleichem Reb Gedalya!”
He quickly moved on to the note I had submitted earlier. Still an excitable young man, I had mentioned all of my ambitious – but not so realistic – plans. Rather than negating or criticizing anything, the Rebbe took all of my ideas seriously, and he encouraged me to execute them to the extent I could.
However, knowing that a chasid must give himself over completely to his Rebbe, I had also written that I was “submitting myself” entirely to the Rebbe “in spirit and soul.” At this, the Rebbe made a dismissive gesture with his hand, suggesting that I was being somewhat presumptuous with such rarefied language. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya, one should not adopt a path unsuited to one’s spiritual stature.
As the audience began to draw to a close, I felt that I needed something more tangible, some guidance with regards to my own spiritual path. “What next?” I asked.
The Rebbe suddenly closed his eyes, his face reddened, and he began to talk with the unique intonation that he would use while delivering a chasidic discourse. Referring to a “beinoni” (one whose spiritual status is “in between” that of a sinner and a person who doesn’t even possess the desire to ever sin) the Rebbe asked: “If the Tanya writes that a beinoni is someone who never committed a sin in his life and will never sin – how can a regular person ever become a beinoni?” The moment he succumbs to a single sin, he is permanently disqualified from being someone who never sinned!
“However,” the Rebbe continued, answering his own question, “every moment, a new divine energy comes into the world, and that new energy is untouched by sin.” Therefore, by keeping one’s impulses in check from that point on, one becomes a beinoni, relative to that new energy.
Then he opened his eyes and added, “Slowly but surely, one must repay one’s debts,” by which he meant repaying one’s spiritual debts, by repenting for past actions. “This is especially so since you are a rabbi. You must know that the world is ours.”
As I understood, with this line the Rebbe was telling me that when we look around and see spiritual chaos and emptiness everywhere in the world, we should not be dismayed. The truth is that the forces of holiness are really in charge, and the forces of evil have already been broken and are on their way to being completely eradicated with the coming of Moshiach. The Rebbe actually saw reality this way, and one of his great achievements was enabling us to adopt the same attitude.
Years later, when I became embroiled in the campaign for traditional conversion in Israel, recalling those words gave me the strength to stand firm against those who would weaken the standards of Halacha. They were engraved deep in my heart then, and have always stayed with me.
Rabbi Gedalya Axelrot serves as rabbi to the Chabad community in Haifa, Israel, where he also used to serve on the rabbinical court. He was interviewed in May of 2015.