Why Do We Need a Rebbe?

Thursday, 18 January, 2024 - 1:15 pm

This Shabbat is the 10th of Shevat, the day that the Rebbe assumed the leadership of Chabad following the passing of his father-in-law and predecessor in 1950. There are many who acknowledge the Rebbe’s monumental influence on post-Holocaust Judaism and the Jewish nation. There are many who recognize the Rebbe’s vast contribution to Torah learning and literature. There are many who laud the Rebbe’s guidance and leadership qualities on both the individual and collective levels. There are many who are awed by the Rebbe’s saintliness and the “miracle stories.”

Yet some of these many people are uncomfortable with the notion of a Rebbe altogether. Why do we need a Tzadik at the center of our Jewish life? Why do we ask a Rebbe to pray on our behalf or to give us blessings? Why do we have to devote ourselves to the direction and guidance of another person? Doesn’t every Jew have a direct connection with Hashem? Why the need for, what appears to be, an “intermediary?” Yet Moses declares in Deuteronomy (5:5), “I stand between the L-rd and you.”     

The answer to this question has multiple dynamics. I would like to focus on one of them. There is no question that each of us has a direct connection with Hashem. This connection is experienced through prayer, mitzvot, Torah study, and what we call “service of G-d.” Furthermore, this connection is intrinsic to our very existence, because our souls are, as Tanya states, “a literal part of Hashem above.”

If we were just souls, there would be no further issues. The problem is that we have bodies. And, even worse, we have what Tanya calls an animal or natural soul, that is driven by self-orientation. Most of us spend a lifetime contending with this self-oriented side of being. Even when we manage to overcome that self-orientation just a bit, it comes back and bites us when we least expect it. This “self” is the biggest obstacle to constant “Dveykut” – connection to Hashem. Even as we pray, study, and do Mitzvot, our “self” gets in the way of truly experiencing this “Dveykut.”

A Rebbe, a Moses, is a person who is at the state where the sense of self is no longer in the way. As much as is humanly possible, he is completely transparent, allowing for the soul – “the literal part of Hashem above” – to be the dominant force in his existence. A Rebbe is our Neshama in Ultra HD. The Devykut of a Rebbe to Hashem is constant and unimpeded by the sense of self.

Now the Jewish people have a collective soul. By connecting to a Rebbe, this enables us to tap into our own individual Neshamas and experience a deeper Dveykut to Hashem at a “higher resolution.” So, Moses is not an intermediary in the sense that he stands between the people and Hashem to maintain distance. Rather he serves as a conduit for the people to experience their closeness in a more real way than they would without his facilitation.

I have just scratched the surface of a topic that deserves much more time and space to address, but I hope that it has whet your appetite to delve deeper.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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