The Last Brigade

Friday, 24 August, 2018 - 6:15 pm

This week in 1897, in a small town called Lubavitch, a Yeshiva was established by the fifth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber (Rebbe Rashab). The Yeshiva would later be named Tomchei Temimim. It was unique and distinct from every other Yeshiva that existed until that point, in that it called for integrating the study of Chassidic thought into the general curriculum. For many generations Chassidus had been studied by thousands. But it had never been made a formal part of a Yeshiva curriculum. Doing so would formalize its place in the very mission statement of the Yeshiva.

What was the goal of this unique institution? The founder clarified that in a lengthy address to the students on Simchat Torah two year later. He cited a verse in Psalms 89: “Your enemies have disgraced, O L-rd, that they have disgraced the footsteps of Your anointed.” The Rebbe Rashab explained that as we get closer to the time of Redemption there were two frontiers left to conquer, represented by the two types of disgrace referenced in the Psalm, the enemies of G-d, and those who disgrace the footsteps of the anointed (Moshiach).

This talk was an allusion to the challenge that was just around the corner, the godlessness of the Communist revolution. In truth the winds of secularism were blowing quite strongly across the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Western European Jewry had almost entirely been transformed by secular modernity and it was starting to seep over the borders into Poland, Lithuania, Russian and Hungary. But the Bolsheviks and their Yevsektzia (Jewish sector) would take this fight up a notch or three. A group of well-fortified young Jews were going to be needed to confront this formidable challenge and ensure the survival of Torah Judaism. This was the first frontier that the Rebbe Rashab declared for which his army of Yeshiva students would battle.

Indeed, when nearly all other religious Jews either succumbed or fled, the lone group of defenders of the Torah and Hashem, were the young graduates of Tomchei Temimim. Under the leadership of the Rebbe Rashab’s successors, they would establish and maintain the network of underground Jewish institutions for 70 years.

This confrontation took on a different face when the battlefield moved to the free world. The strong desire of American Jews to fit in and assimilate, was as fierce a foe as the vicious stances of communism. But it was the same group of students and their next generation that took on the apathy and ignorance of the Jews of western civilization. They were inspired by the Rebbe to establish Chabad Houses in communities across the globe to uplift and illuminate the Jewish world.

The other challenge of living in freedom, was the lack of a sense of need for the time of Redemption. This is the second frontier. Chassidus shows how even a person who is living an inspired Jewish life, the glaring void of exile still looms large. While it may not come on the form of persecution or even assimilation, it is a gaping hole that can be filled on by G-dly revelation that is associated with Redemption.

119 years into the experiment, much progress has been made. The Rebbe Rashab’s prescience of challenges to come have been realized and confronted head-on. As we stand at the threshold of victory we are indeed grateful for his foresight and bold action that has brought us to where we are.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin


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