Rebbes: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohnmain postsSpiritual Masters

The Lubavitcher Rebbe: The Soul Has No Color

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch was born on the 11th of Nisan 5662 (1902) to his father Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, a fifth-generation descendant from the Admur (Grand Rabbi) Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe. His mother was Rebbetzin Chanah, daughter of Rabbi Meir Shlomo Yanovsky. At the age of seven, the family moved to Ekaterinoslav, where his father was appointed as a rabbi. In Ekaterinoslav, he was privately tutored by Rabbi Shneur Zalman Vilenkin. Alongside his diligence and depth in both the revealed and the mystical dimensions of Torah, the Rebbe also excelled in mathematics. In 1923, he met his future father-in-law and mentor, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz, and on the 14th of Kislev 1928, he married the Rebbe Rayatz’s daughter, Rebbetzin Chayah Mushkah.

After his marriage, the Rebbe moved to Berlin, where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the university and received rabbinical ordination from the author of Seridei Eish. In 1933, he moved to Paris and studied engineering. In 1941, the Rebbe and Rebbetzin fled burning Europe. The Rebbe joined his father-in-law in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and began to lead Chabad institutions.

On the 10th of Shevat, 5710 (1950), the Rebbe Rayatz, passed away, and a year later, on the 10th of Shevat, 5711 (1951), Rabbi Menachem Mendel was crowned as the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. On the 22nd of Shevat, 5748 (1988), Rebbetzin Chayah Mushkah passed away, and the Rebbe referred to her passing as the end of an era and the preparation for a new era towards the coming of Mashiach. On the 27th of Adar 1, 5752 (1992), while praying at his father-in-law's grave, the Rebbe suffered a stroke and ceased speaking. This condition continued until Saturday night, the eve of the 3rd of Tammuz, 5754 (1994), the day when "the sun stopped in Giv’on and the moon in the Valley of Ayalon."

Once, a Jewish man came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s head emissary to Paris, crying bitterly, and told him that his daughter was about to marry a non-Jew. And not just any non-Jew, but a black man. He did not know what to do and came to the emissary in complete despair. The emissary was deeply moved by his story, and since he was preparing to travel to the Lubavitcher Rebbe at that time, he promised to mention his daughter before the Rebbe.

When the emissary’s turn came to enter for a private audience (yechidut) with the Rebbe, he specifically requested a blessing for the Jewish man, that his daughter would leave the non-Jew. The Rebbe listened attentively and gave a surprising response: “What is so terrible about that?” Before the emissary could recover from his surprise, the Rebbe continued, “Let him convert!”

The emissary, still shocked, protested, “But he is black!”

The Rebbe replied, “A soul has no color. So what if he is black?”

The emissary returned to France with the Rebbe’s response, and ultimately, the Rebbe’s guidance was fulfilled. The emissary himself attended the wedding. Contrary to the original plan, it was a traditional Jewish wedding. Over time, the former non-Jew became a rabbi himself.

In this story, the Rebbe orchestrated a surprising transformation. While in similar situations he would urge the separation of the couple, in this case, he facilitated their union through conversion. This brings to mind one of the significant episodes in the Torah: the incident involving Miriam and Aaron speaking against Moses “regarding the Cushite [black] woman he had married.”[1] In the simple meaning of the verse, Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite woman, implying that this was not appropriate in their eyes.

One can almost hear the shocked protest of the emissary: “But he is black!” Yet, the sages reveal the deeper secret, teaching us that the Cushite woman is none other than Tzipporah, Moses’s wife. The reason for Miriam and Aaron’s criticism is the exact opposite of what it seems: their complaint was about Moses separating from his wife because he was preserving his state of ritual purity through abstinence, so that he would be ready to receive prophecy at every moment. He did not separate from his wife because of her ethnicity.

And what is wrong with holiness and abstinence? In the writings of Rabbi Isaac of Homil, it is explained that Miriam and Aaron fully understood Moses’s greatness as a prophet and a righteous person. Their argument was that precisely Moses, the chosen one of humanity, “ought to bring the light of his holy soul into the realm of physical nature.” This is because at the level of the supernal unification (yichuda ila'ah)—the state of consciousness that Moses had attained and signifying the unity of the Divine and the mundane before the contraction of God’s infinite revelation—there is no inherent conflict between the physical and the spiritual. When Moses refuses to descend into reality and conduct marital relations with his wife, who is seemingly the most distant, it signifies a flaw in the perfection of his consciousness. In principle, argues Rebbe Isaac, the argument made by Miriam and Aaron was justified.

Therefore, Rabbi Isaac explains, initially, God was not angry with Miriam and Aaron. On the contrary, the phrase “And God heard,”[2] implies that God agreed with them. However, their attempt to impose this elevated level on Moses, whose spiritual standing was different, was misplaced and led to a severe reprimand from God. All this is retold at the end of parashat Beha’alotcha.

The true response to Miriam and Aaron’s argument comes at the beginning of the next Torah portion, parashat Shelach. God commands Moses to send spies to endear the Land of Israel and its fruits to the people. This positive engagement with the physical aspects of the Land was a significant move towards integrating spirituality with physicality. This mission was undermined by the sin of the spies. But this is not the end of the story.

Actually, Moses had separated from his wife based on God’s command.[3] However, the Mashiach—the soul of Moses in the body of David—will not need to separate from his wife. On the contrary, in his incarnation as the Mashiach, Moses/David’s primary wife will be Michal, the daughter of Saul, who is referred to as “the daughter of a Cushite.”[4]

This concept is indeed connected to the “Fourth Revolution” (the dissemination of Torah study to the nations). Bringing even the most distant individuals, who might appear deficient in the eyes of devout Jews, closer to God through conversion and spiritual elevation is indeed the mission of the Mashiach—the husband of Michal the daughter of a Cushite.

 [1]. Numbers 12:1.

[2]. Ibid. v. 2.

[3]. See Deuteronomy 5:27-28.

[4]. Eiruvin 96a. Rashi explains that she is described this way because her father, Saul, is referred to as “Kush the son of Yemini” (Psalms 7:1), see Mo’ed Katan 16b.

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