Going Against the Current


When the Rebbe began to send out Shluchim, there weren’t many volunteers. Only a select few were willing to swim against the current.

The Chabad Icon

In the early years of the Rebbe’s leadership, he began to speak about the concept of shlichus. The idea was that a young couple should leave the warm Chassidic community of their hometown and move to distant country, which may not have kosher food or a proper Jewish school for their children, with the goal of strengthening the Judaism in that location and bringing its youth closer to Judaism. 

Many people had a hard time digesting the idea. Many parents had just survived Hitler and Stalin and preferred to keep their children close to home. Young couples were afraid of the unknown. Moving to a faraway location, far from friends and family and without the communications of our day, was not to be taken lightly. 

Additionally, the new emissaries didn’t exactly know what they were supposed to do. It was unchartered territory. How exactly do you strengthen Judaism? How do you approach estranged Jews? It had never been done before. 

On top of everything else, shlichus meant that you would need to travel away from the Rebbe himself. Every Chassid’s dream is to be near the Rebbe as much as possible. Yet here, they were being asked to travel to a distant location, and not for a year or two, but for the rest of their lives. It goes without saying that there were not too many volunteers. 

In the summer of 1958, one newlywed couple was ready to make the jump. Not only were they ready to do it, they actually desperately wanted to do it. The location made no difference to them. They were ready to go wherever the Rebbe would send them. It was Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik and his wife, Bassie. The young man was a Russian born Yeshiva student who had immigrated to Israel and then arrived at 770 to study near the Rebbe. His wife had been raised in a Chabad family in Pittsburgh.

They had the privilege of the Rebbe officiating their wedding. And from the day of their wedding and onward, they wrote to the Rebbe every single day, asking to be sent on shlichus. Every day!

One day, Rabbi Garelik bumped into the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Hodakov, who told him that the Rebbe wanted to send him to Europe. Where in Europe, he asked. “What difference does it make?” replied Rabbi Hodakov. He explained to Rabbi Hodakov that he needed to prepare the proper documentation (he wasn’t an American citizen) so Rabbi Hodakov said, “Perhaps Italy.”

They immediately began preparations. They were soon informed by the Rebbe that they were being sent to Milan, where Rabbi Garelik would serve as a rabbi of the Ashkenazi community. The plan sounded out of the ordinary, to say the least. He spoke Russian and Yiddish, and she spoke Yiddish and English. Neither spoke Italian. They didn’t understand the language or the mentality, and they did not know a single person in the entire country. It seemed crazy, but they were totally unfazed. 

On the day of their trip to Italy, the Rebbe received them for a private audience. At the conclusion of the meeting, he handed them a Tanya, and said in a matter-of-fact tone, “On an airplane, you never know; there might be someone who needs a Tanya. If you find such a person, give it to him.” 

They went from that private audience directly to the airport. As soon as they got onto the plane, Rabbi Garelik began to search for a Jew to whom to give the Tanya. The time for takeoff approached and he was still walking through the airplane searching for his man. The stewardesses began to yell at him and it created a bit of a tumult, but he continued his search, even going through the first class. To his disappointment, he could not find a single Jew. 

Disappointed, he settled down in his seat. He and his wife felt that the very first step of their mission had already been a failure. The airplane took off, and as soon as the seatbelt light went off, a person approached them. “I see you are a Chabadnik,” the fellow said. “Do you by any chance have a Tanya?”

Rabbi Garelik was shocked. As he handed him the Tanya, he asked the fellow why he had been searching for one. 

“I’m not Chabad,” the Jew responded, “but I recently visited the Rebbe. I told him that I would be visiting France on business, and he replied that while I’m on the airplane with nothing to do, it would be worthwhile to study Torah, and specifically Tanya. I said that I did not own a Tanya, but the Rebbe replied, ‘Maybe someone on the plane will have one.’”

Rabbi Garelik would often repeat this story. He said that in retrospect, he shouldn’t have created a scene, running through the plane and trying to find a Jew. “I should have known,” he said, “that when the Rebbe gives you a mission, it will be carried out regardless.”

Rabbi Garelik was an icon in Chabad for the concept of shlichus. With his personal example, he taught countless Shluchim the definition of devotion to the Rebbe’s cause.

Last Shabbos, he passed away after more than sixty years in Italy.

Build a Temple

This week, we read Parshas Terumah. G-d commands Moses to erect a Tabernacle, a portable temple in the desert, and gives a long list of items that the People of Israel were to donate for the new structure — gold, silver, copper, and so on. In our day, we don’t have a physical Temple. The question therefore arises: How is this Torah portion relevant to our lives? 

According to Chassidism, which teaches us the inner dimension of Torah’s laws, every person is obligated to build a spiritual Temple within his heart. And for this sanctuary, we need gold, silver and copper. 

Gold, the Rebbe explained, represents our intellect. Our minds must serve as a home for G-dliness. We must use our mental powers to understand G-d’s will. 

Silver represents our emotions. In Hebrew, the word kesef has the same root as lichsof, to yearn. Our hearts should be full of yearning and love for G-d. Being Jewish with our intellect is not enough; it needs to fill our hearts as well. 

And copper represents action. It’s not enough to love G-d with your heart; it must be applied in our daily lives as well. 

The Torah mentioned several more materials that were necessary for the Temple. Among them is a wood called atzei shittim. Shittim was actually a location; at the end of the Torah portion of Balak, the Torah says that the Jewish people settled in Shittim and began to mingle with the daughters of the Moabites. This soon turned into a love fest with idol worship, which resulted in a mass plague. 

In the Maamer, Basi Ligani, he explained that the source of the word Shittim is shtus, foolishness. As the Talmud says, “A person does not sin unless a spirit of foolishness enters him.” Often, we see people that committed a certain sin but then regret it for the rest of their lives. The deed seems so unwise that we ask ourselves: what brought them to do it? But in truth, they also don’t know what brought them to it. They were momentarily overtaken by a powerful urge, an urge for money, honor or anything else, and that brought them to act foolishly. 

Therefore, G-d told the People of Israel to use shittim wood for the Tabernacle. As the Midrash explains, “They acted foolishly and angered me with the Golden calf; let the shittim wood atone for their foolishness.” (Tanchuma Terumah 10).

How exactly could shittim wood atone for sins of foolishness? The Rebbe explained in his discourse that a person could stray from the path of ‘normalcy’ in either direction. There is a form of foolishness that is below common sense, but there is also a form of foolishness that transcends common sense. It’s called “shtut dikedusha, holy foolishness.” Holiness could take on a crazy form. People might yell at you that it’s craziness, but it’s the right thing to do. 

The Rebbe cited a story from the Talmud about one of the great rabbis, Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzchak, who would dance before brides and juggle myrtle branches to add to the celebration. Another rabbi, Rabbi Zeira, felt that his dancing was undignified. “The old man is embarrassing us,” he said. A great rabbi should not behave like a common entertainer. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Zeira would hide in shame whenever this dancing occurred. 

But when Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzchak passed away, the people attending his funeral noticed a wall of fire dividing between them and the coffin. There were many righteous men in that generation, but this had never occurred before. 

When Rabbi Zeira saw the fire, he understood that Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzchak was being honored from heaven. “The old man’s craziness served him well.” It was specifically his undignified dancing that merited him this special honor from heaven. 

At some point in our lives, we all experience this concept of “holy foolishness.” Sometimes we take on a new mitzvah. You may, for example, decide to buy only kosher meat. You will immediately be accosted; your parents will ask, “What is this craziness?” Your partner will say, “What is going through you? Maybe you should see a psychologist.” Your friends will diagnose you with midlife crisis. You might hear it so many times that you’ll begin to think that something is actually wrong with you. 

But my dear friends, the nation of Israel survived to this day only in merit of holy craziness. Normal people don’t swim against the current. To be a Jew, you need to have some shittim in your blood.   

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