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The Rebbe Rayatz: Priorities

The Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, was the sixth Chabad Rebbe. Born to his father, the fifth Rebbe of Chabad, the Rebbe Rashab, in 5640 (1880), the Rebbe Rayatz worked tirelessly to keep Judaism alive in the Soviet Union and was jailed for his heroic efforts. Forced to leave Russia, he continued to conduct the struggle from Latvia, and then from the Warsaw Ghetto, eventually escaping the Holocaust to the United States. By the time of his passing in New York on the 10th of Shevat 5710 (1950) he had laid the foundation for the global renaissance of Chasidic Jewish life in the US and throughout the world.

 When Rebbetzin Rivkah, the mother of the Rebbe Rashab (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe) passed away on Friday, the tenth of Shevat 5674 (1914), the Rebbe Rashab was away from his home in Lubavitch. There was no way for him to make it home before Shabbat in time for his mother’s funeral. Hence, the Rebbe Rashab’s son, the Rebbe Rayatz (who was to be the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe) took care of all the arrangements for his grandmother’s funeral.

The Rebbe Rayatz faced many considerations regarding a respectful burial place for the Rebbetzin Rivkah. In the town of Lubavitch, there is a special ohel (structure built around the burial place of prominent people) for the wives of the Rebbes of Chabad. Rebbetzin Sterna, the wife of the Alter Rebbe is buried there, as are Rebbetzin Shayna, the wife of the Mittler Rebbe, Rebbetzin Chayah Musya, wife of the Tzemach Tzedek; the first wife of the Rebbe Moharash, the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe was also laid to rest there. Because the first wife of the Rebbe Moharash was in the ohel, the Rebbe Rayatz did not want his grandmother, who was the Rebbe Maharash’s second wife, to be buried there. He decided that the most important place to bury her would be next to the genizah (the burial place for holy books) that was behind the wall of the ohel shared by the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Moharash. Between the graves and the genizah there was a small place for a grave, and that is where the grave was dug for Rebbetzin Rivkah, opposite her husband’s grave.

The Rebbe Rayatz also planned the precise order of the funeral procession: First came the young students of the Talmud Torah and the shiur, followed by the older Torah students who were already learning in the study hall. Then came the head and rabbis of the yeshivah, and then the residents of Lubavitch. The Rebbe Rayatz himself was at the end of the procession. The Rebbe Rayatz gave instructions that during the entire funeral, from the time that they left the house until the end of the burial, all present would recite two verses: “And your righteousness shall walk before you”[1] and “Righteousness will walk before him.”[2] The Rebbe Rayatz was noted to have said, “the crown of the family is gone.” May Rebbetzin Rivkah’s merits protect us. She was a truly great woman.

After Shabbat, the Rebbe Rayatz traveled to his father to relate all the details of what had transpired from the day that Rebbetzin Rivkah had fallen ill until she was laid to rest. The Rebbe Rashab’s first question was where they had buried his mother. When his son related his decision to bury her between the wall of the ohel and the genizah, he was very pleased that his son had fulfilled his will, even though he had not expressed it to him.

(Reshimot Devarim, Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik, p. 345)

There are many details to contemplate in this story: From the deep care and thought that the Rebbe Rayatz devotes to the honor of his grandmother, to the date of her passing, which is the same date that the Rebbe Rayatz himself passed away on years later. (This highlights the very essential connection between them). We also note the rare ability of the Rebbe Rayatz to perceive his father’s wishes without being told. We will, however, focus on a different point that illustrates an essential characteristic of the Rebbe Rayatz and tzaddikim in general.

In the HaYom Yom (an anthology of short teachings of the Rebbe Rayatz presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as a daily reading) we find that all the Rebbes—beginning with the Ba’al Shem Tov—were very orderly. It seems that of all of them, the Rebbe Rayatz, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, was the most orderly of all. The order of the funeral procession, who should walk first and who would follow, was especially important to the Rebbe Rayatz. Why?

Order in general, and particularly prioritization, are characteristic of the sefirah of foundation) in the soul. Foundation, which focuses and expresses the powers of all the sefirot before it, can be likened to a funnel with marbles, which the foundation releases one by one. Only when prioritization works properly will the soul express itself in a manner that reflects its true inner dimension. When a person engages in improper sexual activity (the blemish of the covenant) he loses his ability to properly prioritize the matters in his life. He will not always notice this, but that does not make it any less of an issue.

Proper prioritization is the sixth of seven conditions for successful education, as described by the Rebbe Rayatz in his essay “The Rules of Education and Guidance.” The Rebbe Rayatz was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, thus corresponding to the attribute of foundation, which is the sixth of the seven emotive attributes. In addition, the Rebbe Rayatz chose to place proper prioritization as the sixth rule, alluding to its connection to foundation.

The example that the Rebbe Rayatz brings is of a student who suffers from two negative traits: Lying and anger. In his treatise on education and guidance, he emphasizes that if the educator attempts to treat both problems at once, it will place too much pressure on the student and it will do more harm than good. Hence, it is necessary to identify which characteristic should be treated first—which character flaw is more critical. The Rebbe Rayatz determines that anger is more harmful, both physically and emotionally, than lying and following the principle that, “danger is more severe than a prohibition”[3] (חֲמִירָא סַכַּנְתָּא מֵאִסּוּרָא) dictates that treating anger should be prioritized.

Interestingly, the Rebbe Rayatz put himself at the end of the funeral procession. We can say that this is in keeping with the adage of the sages that “The last of the last is the most beloved”[4] (אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב). This is also reflected in the order of the other groups. Perhaps the Rebbe Rayatz chose the role of “bringing up the rear” which is known in Chasidut to be a lofty place. The connection to foundation is also a possible explanation for the Rebbe’s place at the end of the line: In a narrow vessel that depicts foundation, what goes in first comes out last.[5] The Rebbe, who was the most important person there and who spiritually “entered first” was the last to go out in his grandmother’s funeral procession.

[1] Isaiah 58:8.

[2] Psalms 85:14.

[3]. Chullin 10a.

[4]. Rashi on Genesis 33:2.

[5]. See Rashi on Genesis 25:26: “Jacob was created from the first drop and Esau from the second, as we learn from a narrow vessel….”

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