The Previous Rebbe: a short biography

Adapted from “Timeless Patterns” by Sichos In Engish

The Previous Rebbe in Poland, 1934. Photo:

Yud Shvat (the Tenth of Shvat) is the Previous Rebbe’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his passing. On the day of a tzaddik’s passing, “all his effort… for which he toiled throughout his life… becomes revealed and radiates downward… at the time of his passing.”Accordingly, Yud Shvat is an appropriate day to focus on the message of the Previous Rebbe’s life, for every year, these same spiritual qualities are revealed on this anniversary.

This revelation affects all of “his children, the work of his hands,” those who “will walk in his paths for eternity.” This is particularly true in regard to the yahrzeit of a nasi, a leader of the Jewish people. For a nasi is connected to every member of his generation; as Rashi states, “The nasi is the entire people.”

Continued in the Extended Article.

The divine service of every man, but particularly that of a tzaddik and nasi, is multifaceted. Nevertheless, in considering the Previous Rebbe’s divine service as a whole, there is one quality that stands out distinctly, and which enhances the nature of all his other contributions, namely, his unbounded mesirus nefesh (“self sacrifice”).

The Previous Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh was not limited to a particular situation or mode of expression. Despite the radically differing settings in which he lived and the varied nature of the obstacles with which he was confronted, he showed an unceasing commitment to the well-being of his fellow Jews, and to their connection with their Torah heritage.

Challenging the Iron Fist

His resolution and unbounded concern may be seen in his responses to three challenges that marked the three decades during which he served as leader of the Chabad chassidic movement. The Previous Rebbe assumed the mantle of leadership in 5680 (1920). At that time, the majority of the Chabad community – and the largest Jewish population worldwide – was located in the Soviet Union, exposed to the full brunt of the Communist effort to stamp out religious practice.

For the Previous Rebbe, every day presented a life-and-death struggle to maintain the observance of Torah throughout the country. He dispatched rabbis and shochtim to communities throughout the land, built mikvaos, and most important – and most fiercely opposed by the Communist regime – he established an extensive network of underground chadarim and yeshivos to educate Jewish youth. (This network continued to operate for decades, until the Glasnost allowed these schools to emerge into the light of day.)

The Previous Rebbe was arrested several times for “counter-revolutionary” activities. At one point, he was sentenced to death; only through international intervention and a series of miracles was the sentence averted. The most difficult part of the Rebbe’s situation, however, was the threat to his followers who joined him in risking their lives for these goals. Whenever one of his followers was exiled to Siberia for teaching young children, the Previous Rebbe had to shoulder the responsibility of sending a replacement with the full knowledge of the danger awaiting him.

In the Twilight Before the Night

The Rebbe Rayatz was forced to leave Russia in 5688 (1928). For the next few years, he established his base in Riga. Although he visited several Jewish communities throughout the world during this time, his energies were still primarily focused on Russia and the operation of the chassidic movement there.

In the summer of 5693 (1933), he settled in Poland. There, he was confronted by challenges of a different nature. Although there were no political obstacles to the spread of Jewish education or practice, the lack of resources presented difficulties which were compounded by the fact that the leaders of the local Jewish community did not understand his approach.

The Previous Rebbe did not allow these impediments to stand in the way of his efforts. With relentless energy, he established a chain of yeshivos and chadarim that enabled thousands of youth to devote themselves to the study of Torah. These activities continued until they were halted by the Nazi invasion. Together with thousands of other Jews, the Previous Rebbe spent the High Holidays of 5700 (1939) in bomb shelters in Warsaw. Shortly thereafter, on the last passenger ship to leave, he set out for the United States.

“America is No Different”

Immediately upon his arrival, he announced that he had come not for his personal benefit, but to prove that “America is no different.” The spiritual vitality that had nurtured Jewish life in Eastern Europe could be transplanted to the American continent. Though its manner of expression might change, the traditional devotion to the Torah’s teachings and the observance of the mitzvos would not.

Physically broken by the ravages of ill-health and Soviet interrogators, the Previous Rebbe could have retired to a more private life, leading his own small group of followers. Instead, he revolutionized American Judaism. Every single area of American Jewish life – day schools, kashrus, Jewish publishing, yeshivah study, and the beginnings of the baal teshuvah movement – was radically influenced by his activities.

His ability to practice mesirus nefesh in these three very different situations indicates that this quality was of his essence. Himself the epitome of mesirus nefesh, he was able to inspire others likewise.

Continually Advancing – and with Joy

The very name Yosef Yitzchak speaks volumes about the Rebbe Rayatz.

In Hebrew, Yosef means “increase”. The Previous Rebbe’s mesirus nefesh constantly impelled him to further commitment and increased activity. Moreover, the name Yosef was first given in the verse, “May G-d add on (yosef) to me another son (ben acher).” Implicit in this verse is the ability of Yosef to transform a person who has hitherto been acher (“another” – estranged from his Jewish roots) into the closeness of ben (“a son”). This ability was exemplified by the Previous Rebbe, who inspired countless Jews to return to Jewish practice.

The name Yitzchak was first given in the verse, “Whoever hears will laugh (yitzchak) with me.” Joy should be radiated to the point that “whoever hears,” even someone who does not consciously intend to hear, “will laugh with me.”

In keeping with this verse, the Previous Rebbe possessed a unique ability to impart happiness to others. Even when he was physically broken, the atmosphere around him was never one of despair. Quite the contrary, he radiated joy.

Both these names share a connection to the Redemption. The name Yosef is associated with the verse, “G-d will again (yosif) extend His hand… to take possession of the remnant of His people.” The joy inspired by the name Yitzchak anticipates the overwhelming joy our people will experience at the Redemption, as it is written, “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter.” May this take place in the immediate future.

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