On Wed., March 30, my wife and I flew to New York. We are on the way to a wedding in Vancouver. My wife’s sister lives there, and her daughter is getting married.
To visit New York is always a very special occasion for Lubavitchers. World Lubavitch Headquarters is located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. It was here that I had my first audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 41 years ago. I was 19 years old at the time. Nine months earlier I had dropped out of Hebrew University to learn in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. I quickly fell in love with the yeshiva. I greatly enjoyed learning Torah, especially Chassidic teachings and Talmud. To enjoy learning? This in itself was a very special and happy feeling. Until then I had learned for 14 years, but not because I enjoyed it, but because I had to. When I was in school, I would usually only learn the bare minimum necessary to pass the tests.
Praying also became a beautiful experience. Until I went off to college my parents had taken me to shul every Shabbos morning, but I did very little actual praying. I was leading a secular life, which left little room for any spirituality. Now I was in yeshiva, and my life was more spiritual. We learned Torah for ten hours every day, and prayed three times a day. Even the material aspects of life, like eating and sleeping, also took on spirituality. We didn’t eat just for the pleasure of eating, but in order to have strength to learn Torah and do mitzvahs. Each prayer gave us another opportunity to come closer and communicate with Hashem, our Father. To come closer to Hashem is a wonderful feeling.
Another beautiful part of life in Lubavitch is the mitzvah to love your neighbor. The secular world had taught me to “Look out for number one (myself)” and to heck with everyone else. This philosophy is not very conducive to developing deep and lasting friendships. In Kfar Chabad they taught me that real happiness doesn’t come from money or material possessions. Real happiness comes from love, both to family members and neighbors and from helping others and doing good deeds. In yeshiva, for the first time in my life, I experienced true friendship. We were all friends.
Time flew. Rosh Hashanah was approaching. Chabad organized a charter round-trip flight from England to New York for those who wanted to spend the high holidays with the Rebbe, and I signed up. After Yom Kippur I flew to Indianapolis to spend a week with my family. I was in for a hard time. In Kfar Chabad and in the Lubavitcher neighborhood in Brooklyn, all of the men and boys over the age of 13 wear dark suits and black hats. In Indianapolis 40 years ago, I think that I was the only one dressed like that in the whole city.
In the yeshiva everyone was learning Torah and doing mitzvahs. This created an atmosphere of holiness. I was swimming with the current. Now I was alone. The secular current of Indianapolis was pulling me in the opposite direction. I tried to swim against this current, but soon this tired me out. Every day my enthusiasm became weaker and weaker. It took a great effort just to put on tefillin and pray three times a day. On Shabbos I started to say the morning prayers only one hour before sunset. I was sinking back into the secular world.
The next day I was scheduled to fly back to New York. I said to my father “Maybe I’ll stay in Indianapolis for another week.” He answered that I should go back to New York, to the Rebbe. “You have a charter flight, and you can’t change it.” I think Dad, of blessed memory, realized what was happening to me. He understood that if I stayed another week I would stay forever. I flew to New York and spent Simchas Torah by the Rebbe. We danced nonstop for 48 hours, and all of my enthusiasm for Torah came back.
A day or two after Simchas Torah, I had my first private audience with the Rebbe. In those days the Rebbe would receive visitors three times a week, from eight o’clock at night until five or six in the morning. I was instructed to keep in my pocket two pieces of paper and a pen. On one piece I wrote my name and my mother’s name and the blessings I requested. This I would give to the Rebbe. On the other piece of paper, I would write down what the Rebbe told me, as soon as I left his room.
The Rebbe’s secretary told me that my turn would be around one o’clock in the morning. When I came, there were about ten men in front of me, waiting in line next to the Rebbe’s office. They were a little nervous, and so was I. My turn came. I walked into the Rebbe’s office. It wasn’t a big room. All of the walls were covered completely with books of Torah. The Rebbe sat behind his desk. I put the first piece of paper on the desk. The Rebbe read it and gave me a blessing. My audience was over quickly, I didn’t want to use too much of the Rebbe’s time. As soon as I left the Rebbe’s room, I took out the second piece of paper to write down what the Rebbe had said. I couldn’t remember even one word.
What do I still remember from this audience? I remember a strange feeling in my chest, around my heart. Afterward I learned that when you have your first audience with the Rebbe, the Rebbe removes the covering from your heart. What does this mean? Deep in our heart is our neshamah, our G-dly soul. This soul is our essence and it is eternal. When we are born, it comes down into our body, and when we pass away, it goes back to heaven. Our soul wants to learn Torah and do mitzvahs in order to unite with Hashem, our Father.
Why don’t we always feel this desire? Because our soul is covered and concealed. During my first audience, the Rebbe removed one of those coverings. Since then it is easier for me to feel my soul, and live a life of Torah and mitzvos, not only in Kfar Chabad, but even in Indianapolis and Vancouver.
We wish all of you a kosher and happy Pesach. Pesach is the holiday of our redemption. In the month of Pesach our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt, and in the month of Pesach we will be redeemed from our present exile, hopefully this year. We want Moshiach now!
Rabbi Cohen lives in K’far Chabad, Israel. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org.