In honor of Yud Alef Nisan the Beis Moshiach Magazine is publishing a number of articles today, L’Chaim! A young Crown Heights boys’ “farbrengen with the Rebbe” experiences in the 1980s • By Mendy Chanin, Beis Moshiach • Full Article
I was lucky to be born in a home where the Rebbe and Chassidishkeit pervaded every aspect of my life. As far back as I can remember, I was always filled with an immeasurable excitement to go to farbrengens with the Rebbe. My passion for being present at farbrengens may have been childish, but it was innocent and sincere.
I must admit that at first, going to a farbrengen was not just for the spiritual experience of spending time with the Rebbe and Chassidim, my main motivation was the candies.
My father, you see, had prime real estate in 770. He stood in front of the table that touched the central bima, a greatly envied spot. From there he was able to watch the Rebbe as he said the haftorah, and hear every sacred word the Rebbe uttered. From early childhood, my father took me with him to daven in 770 every Shabbos. He would place me right across from him on the table touching the bima so that he could look after me. From my perch on the corner of the table, I could get a peek at the Rebbe’s face and hear the nuances in his voice as he recited the haftorah.
This dream spot ensured that when candies rained down at the aufrufs of all the chassanim it would fall straight into my lap. I would then sit contently throughout davening happily gorging on the sweets. Nothing, not even worries of the dentist, could disturb my blissful oneg Shabbos.
At the age of six, I was already too old to eat before kiddush. I continued to collect those candies but instead of eating them right away, I would fill up my pockets to the brim and when those were overflowing, I’d make use of my father’s even deeper pockets. The problem was, I couldn’t carry them home on Shabbos so my father suggested that I put my collected treasures in the locker that he had in the lobby of 770. On a week where there was no farbrengen (and therefore no kiddush in shul), I would lock my stash inside and watch my pile grow, eagerly awaiting a Shabbos Mevarchim or the next Yoma D’pagra, because then there would be a farbrengen and I would hear kiddush in shul. I could then eat the mountain of candies I had saved over the last few weeks. That’s how I developed a “sweet tooth” for farbrengens that has lasted me a lifetime.
As I grew up, my anticipation for farbrengens, particularly for weekday farbrengens, matured as well. Weekday farbrengens turned out to be an excellent source of profits for me. As soon as I learned how to write, my parents encouraged me to write “hanachos” of the Rebbe’s sichos. Equipped with a pencil and a wide-ruled notepad, I would listen attentively and record words or phrases that the Rebbe was saying, for the high salary of ten cents per line. (Of course, my handwriting grew larger by the day so that I could fill as many lines as possible.) I earned an average of three to five dollars at every farbrengen. It wasn’t important what I wrote, or if I understood what the Rebbe was saying, my parents’ goal was simply that I should learn to truly listen to the Rebbe’s words and familiarize myself with his way of speaking. This skill grew with me so that as I got older it was easier for me to understand what the Rebbe was saying. My parents derived immense nachas from their little son who sat with total concentration and filled notebooks with the Rebbe’s holy words.
In addition to my income from writing, farbrengens also had the additional benefit of school starting later the next day. The accepted standard was that school started 10 hours after a farbrengen ended the night before. If the farbrengen lasted until 1 AM, the yeshiva opened its doors at 11. The longer these weekday farbrengens lasted, the happier I was.
As I matured, I began to cherish the sweet melodies of the niggunim sung and the intense richness of the sichos taught for their own sake.
By the age of twelve, I had developed a particular appreciation for Rashi sichos. In the second or third portion of every Shabbos farbrengen, the Rebbe would pose questions from a selected Rashi of that week’s parsha. After a short pause for niggunim, he would answer the questions in the following sicha (or the one after that), weaving an elaborate tapestry of p’shat and Chassidus that always led to a deep and personal lesson for our avodas Hashem. These sichos became the base of the Rashi sichos in Likkutei Sichos that are printed today.
During the niggunim, my father would explain the context of the Rebbe’s question to me so that I could follow it more clearly, and again briefly clarified it for me after the Rebbe taught the answers. Sometimes, the Rebbe would reveal ahead of time which Rashi the sicha would be based on, and the Chassidim would scrutinize the Torah section with Rashi and mefarshim, trying to guess what the Rebbe might later discuss.
Soon, the Rebbe started to encourage Chassidim to come up with their own questions on Rashis in that week’s Torah portion and send it to the Rebbe before Shabbos. Yeshivos printed weekly brochures containing all the best questions their bochurim had developed, which were given to the Rebbe before Shabbos. The Rebbe derived great pleasure from these questions, and sometimes chose a question posed by a bochur as the source for that week’s Rashi sicha.
I thought to myself: What could be more gratifying than finding a good question, a question that the Rebbe would choose to ask at a farbrengen? I imagined how proud I would make my parents and grandparents, how special I would feel, and so my heart was set on a new goal. It became my most profound ambition.
I knew I would have to work hard. After a long day in yeshiva, I closeted myself in my room and began. First I learned the entire parsha thoroughly, with all the Rashis. Then, I attempted to find a question on the specifics of Rashi’s language, answers, examples, dibur ha’maschil, or what Rashi seemed to omit in his answers. When I finally found a good enough question, I had to make sure that no other mefarshim had addressed that very same issue, because then it would not be an original question. I was young and inexperienced and didn’t even know which mefarshim to look up but my grandfather, R’ Itchke Gansburg, A”H, was so impressed with me, that he was willing to support my desire at any cost. He took me to a bookstore on Kingston Avenue and bought me a set of Chumash Bais Yehuda, a set of Mikraos Gedolos, and the sefer Maskil L’David to help me on my quest.
I recruited whoever I could to help me look through the new seforim that I got and I searched for hours, wracking my brains for the perfect and ultimate question. When I was finally satisfied that I had it, I copied it neatly onto a brand-new piece of paper. Then I had to find the older bochur in charge of printing the weekly pamphlet that went to the Rebbe. The bochur accepted my paper but told me that it would go through rigorous review before it would be included and may not even make it in.
Nevertheless, I left with my heart soaring high. In my mind’s eye, I could already see the inky black letters contrasting the white page, forming the contours of my name underneath my brilliant question. I could hear the echoes of “Yasher koachs!’’ from my friends and family, I could see my parents’ and grandparents’ beaming faces.
In a trance-like state, I picked up the newly printed booklet from the tables in 770 that Friday afternoon. With a pounding heart, I opened it and looked for my name. I wasn’t too disappointed when I didn’t see it on the first page; it must be further on. Feverishly, I flipped through the pages. Shneurs, Yosefs, Sholoms, Dov Bers, and other Menachem Mendels were there but my name was not.
My disappointment was indescribable, but I didn’t allow this to keep me down for long. Throughout the next week, I worked even harder, driving everyone in my family mad to learn with me and help me understand the mefarshim. I even drafted my mother to teach me obscure mefarshim that I couldn’t manage to learn on my own. I wracked my brains until I finally found a great question. I again painstakingly wrote out my question neatly and clearly and with bated breath, I awaited Friday afternoon. Again I was bitterly disappointed.
My grandfather encouraged me to continue. “If you don’t try”, he said, “you’ll never succeed”.
Week after week, I dedicated every extra moment to my mission until finally, my efforts were crowned with success. I found my name in the pamphlet with a sky blue cover, in clear black ink, just as I had pictured it.
Immediately my imagination jumped to the next level. I could hear the Rebbe’s voice clearly in my mind, starting the sicha with a question from the booklet— my question, the question that has my name, Menachem Mendel ben Shneur Zalman Yitzchak Yehoshua Chanin…
My fantasy came true in part. At that week’s farbrengen, the Rebbe did start the Rashi sicha by addressing a question from the booklet – it just wasn’t mine.
I suddenly felt that my hat and jacket were weighing me down. It was too difficult for me! I felt betrayed. Didn’t I deserve success after all the work I had put in? What about “Yogaiti umatzasi ta’amin”? Maybe I’m just unlucky, maybe I should just give up. How could I compete with all the bochurim older and wiser than me? How can I, with my youth and inexperience, come up with a question sophisticated enough for the Rebbe to address? After the sicha, the crowd burst into a joyous niggun, but I sat with my shoulders slouched next to my father and silently bit my lip.
Even though I felt devastated, my family didn’t let me give up. I continued pouring my heart and soul into the hunt for a question every week. Some weeks my question made it to print and some weeks it didn’t, but, the Rebbe never cited my words.
When Shmulik, my younger brother, approached me one day asking for a favor, I recognized it for the golden opportunity it was. His teacher, Rabbi Feitel Levin, had told his class that they too would be creating a booklet with questions and other divrei Torah to send to the Rebbe. Shmulik wanted to see his name in print more than anything. Helping him meant that my question would be published under his name. Additionally, his classes’ booklet wasn’t as grand as of the yeshiva gedola’s, but I determined that it would still be worth it. I decided that this would be the last chance I gave the Rebbe (k’vyachol) to choose my question, and if it wasn’t chosen, I would never try again.
Shmulik and I sat and pored over the Rashi and mefarshim. He was, perhaps, sharper than me, but I was older and more experienced. After countless hours of intense concentration, we succeeded in finding an astounding seven questions on Rashi, and every one of them was printed in the Kovetz Sha’alos U’biurim of the 8th-grade from Oholei Torah.
That Shabbos was Parshas Beshalach, י”א שבט תשמ”ח, שנת הקהל. The walls of 770 were packed with visitors from all over the world. The farbrengen began with an explanation about the special day, a new maamar on the words “באתי לגני” and a siyum of Maseches Shabbos.
Finally came the words I had waited forever to hear: “It is customary to explain a concept from a Rashi in this week’s Parsha,” the Rebbe began. “Ribono Shel Olam”, I prayed silently, “Please fulfill my heart’s desire”.
With bated breath, I listened to every word the Rebbe said.
“It was mentioned that in the first Rashi of this week’s parsha, Rashi explains the words ‘ויהי בשלח פרעה וגו’ ולא נחם’. Rashi defines the word ‘נחם’ to mean ‘lead.’ Rashi then provides two textual proofs of other times that נחם meant ‘lead.’ It was asked, why does Rashi need to provide two pesukim for proof? Shouldn’t one pasuk be enough?”
I was thunderstruck. That was OUR question! The Rebbe was addressing mine and Shmulik’s question! We succeeded! We did it! The Rebbe is talking to us! I was so delirious with joy that I could no longer concentrate on what was being said, but I was unable to break my gaze, staring at the Rebbe.
After the sicha, the Rebbe distributed mashke and led a rousing rendition of “והריקותי לכם ברכה”. I thought how appropriate the words were to my state of mind; “I shall fill you with abundant blessings.”
Usually, in the continuation of the sicha, the Rebbe would begin to answer the question previously presented. However, this time, the Rebbe resumed by asking another question:
“At the end of the parsha, the Yidden came to Moshe and complained, saying ‘תנו לנו מים’. Give us water. It was asked, why would they use the plural form ‘תנו’ if they were asking Moshe himself?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. This was a second question Shmulik and I had submitted! I could hardly contain myself and I felt like I would explode from pride and joy. What more could I ask for?
As the years went by, and I grew older and hopefully wiser, my love for farbrengens never waned. Starting with candies and money, then shifting to wanting acknowledgement and later a simple joy in learning a new Chassidishe spin on the pshat, farbrengens and Rashi sichos still hold a special place in my life. Even now, every Shabbos morning in Itchke’s Shtiebel I give a shiur on a sicha of that week to share my love for Rashi sichos to others.
Now, upon later reflection, I understand why the Rebbe had finally addressed my question publicly at the time he did. The Rebbe knew what I was going through. He followed me throughout my struggle, and he gave me time to battle with and overcome my challenges. Perhaps the Rebbe wanted to teach me that the main point was to increase the study of Torah, not for me to see my name in print and for the Rebbe to acknowledge my brilliance. Thus, only after I had given up on dreams of personal glory and went directly after the true goal, did the Rebbe use the questions we had submitted.
Every year, when Parshas Beshalach comes around, I marvel once again at the Rebbe’s care for a young boy who only recently turned Bar Mitzva. The Rebbe heard my silent plea and answered me directly. He didn’t simply give me what I thought I wanted, he taught me and reframed my vision of what I truly want.
I’ve learned that the Rebbe is always looking after us and is with us throughout our personal journeys. I know that when we are ready to hear, the Rebbe will give us the answers. More than anything, the Rebbe encouraged us to ask questions even if we don’t get our answers right away but to ask over and over without ever giving up. Therefore, I submit my question just as I did then:
Rebbe, עד מתי? How much longer must we wait until Moshiach is revealed before our eyes?
I await with bated breath to see the Rebbe answering my question as clearly as he did 32 years ago.
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