After the Rebbe’s mother passed away, in 1964, the Rebbe introduced something new: Every time he would hold a farbrengen on Shabbat, he would select a gloss from Rashi, the classic eleventh-century Torah commentator, on the Torah reading of the week. He would ask detailed questions on it, and then give his answer, which was always brilliant yet simultaneously simple enough for a child to understand.
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In the ‘80s, however, the Rebbe requested that we present the questions on Rashi instead of him. “I want to address questions that others have brought up,” he told the chasidim.
Several yeshivot used to publish a weekly journal in which people wrote ideas or questions on a variety of Torah subjects – and many continue to do so today. And so, whereas the Rebbe would usually ask his own questions on Rashi, he said that people should now publish their questions in these journals, and he would choose one or more of those questions to address.
We also saw how the Rebbe took pleasure when we would analyze his own teachings carefully, publishing questions or explanations in the journals on things he had said. Sometimes, the Rebbe would even rebuke us when an obvious question on something he had said wasn’t noticed – “why didn’t anyone ask this?” he would demand.
On occasion, I would write questions on the weekly Torah reading directly to the Rebbe. In one letter to the Rebbe from the spring of 1983, I asked a question on something he had recently taught.
Commenting on the verse in the first parshah, Bereishit, “And the snake was more cunning than all the beasts of the field,” the Rebbe had wondered why it only says that the snake was smarter than the “beasts” – what about the fish or the birds? The answer, said the Rebbe, was that it was self-understood: If the snake is smarter than any other land animal, this would imply it is also smarter than other, lesser creatures.
To this, I asked a simple question: Why would fish or birds be considered any less than land animals? As evidence for the superiority of fish, I cited something the Rebbe himself had said. In another published talk, the Rebbe once explained that the reason animals like cows or sheep need to be ritually slaughtered in order to become kosher, while fish do not, is because land animals are lower than fish! Since fish live continuously submerged in water, representing a closer connection with the source of life, they aren’t in need of the spiritual elevation that the practice of shechitah accomplishes.
In reply, the Rebbe clarified: Fish are considered higher than land animals spiritually. But the fact that they are less physical, in a sense, does not mean they are more cognitively advanced; it has nothing to do with being smarter than other animals.
A few years after that, I wrote up a question on Rashi’s commentary on parshat Lech Lecha. When Abraham went to war in order to rescue his nephew Lot, the Torah says that 318 people went along. However, Rashi explains that Abraham really only went with his servant Eliezer, and that 318 is a reference to the numerical value of Eliezer’s name. Why, I asked the Rebbe, does Rashi depart from the simple meaning of the text?
“As I’ve mentioned many times,” the Rebbe wrote back, “you should send this to one of the journals.”
I did, and the Rebbe dealt with the question publicly at a farbrengen in 1987. In the context of a discussion on several other verses, he explained that Rashi does not mean that only Eliezer accompanied Abraham, but that Eliezer gets the credit for the victory as the others who joined them were merely in support roles. This is what made the event so miraculous, and this is why the Torah describes it in greater detail than any other battle.
Then there was a time I asked a question on someone else’s behalf. I used to teach the first grade of the Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway, and before Passover of 1981, we were learning about the Four Questions asked on the Seder night.
The first of those questions is about dipping the vegetable into saltwater and the maror into charoset: “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all nights we need not dip even once, but on this night we do so twice?”
As I taught this to my class, a boy by the name of Menachem Rosenblatt raised his hand. “But we do dip on other nights,” he asked. “On Rosh Hashanah we dip the apple in honey!”
“Wow, that’s a good question!” I told him. It was such a good question that I decided to write it up and submit it to the journal published by the yeshivah on Ocean Parkway:
I learned the 4 Questions of the Haggadah, and the first one is, “On all other nights we do not dip even once…”
I don’t understand this: Don’t we dip an apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah?
Menachem Mendel Rosenblatt
Tomchei Temimim Ocean Parkway
The editors published the question and in a footnote they noted that the Rebbe had once been asked this same question by “a little girl.” On that occasion, they said, the Rebbe had explained that while dipping apples in honey is an auspicious custom, it is not obligatory; likewise, one is supposed to eat bread with salt, but dipping it into the salt is only a custom. On the Seder night, however, dipping is mandatory.
But then, a few weeks later, the Rebbe himself addressed the subject at a farbrengen. “There is something that was recently published in one of the journals that should be addressed,” he began, and he went on to cite the question as well as the editors’ response.
Not content with this answer, however, the Rebbe explained that this was not the core reason – he had only said it at the time since he was talking to a young child. He went on to offer a more substantial explanation about the Halachic difference between dipping in liquid, as is done with salt-water and the wine-infused charoset at the Seder, versus dipping in honey. The fact that this in-depth talk was prompted by a question asked by one of my students made a big impression on me, showing just how much interest the Rebbe took in the concerns and questions of every Jew, even a first-grader.
Since 1970, Rabbi Chaim Levi Goldstein has worked as a teacher for young children in Brooklyn, New York. In recent years, he made chinuchtime.com, a website with stories and educational resources. He was interviewed in the My Encounter studio in November 2021.