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Ambassador Yehuda Avner

Ambassador Yehuda Avner

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Avner.jpgLecture by Ambassador Yehuda Avner

The Rebbe, his moral vision as statesman and diplomat

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Before Idelve into that I would like to tell you how refreshing it is to be just one of two speakers at tonight's grand occasion. I say this because just a few weeks ago I was invited to address a Jewish dinner in London, and I was the fourteenth speaker. When the evening began there were perhaps three hundred people in the hall, but as speaker after speaker droned on and on the hall gradually began to empty, so that by the time the eighth speaker went to the microphone there must have been about seventy people left. By the twelfth speaker we were down to twenty. And when I rose to speak — which was well after midnight — there were precisely two people left. But I made my speech. And when I finished I stepped down and asked the first fellow why on earth had he stayed, and he answered, I'm your chief security officer. And when I asked the second fellow, he said, I'm the last speaker.

 

This past year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, OBM, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is an extraordinary chapter in the telling of this tale. It is an epic about the Jewish people's most extraordinary visionary in living memory — an immortal whose leadership sparked a torch of Jewish renewal across all continents — a man whose presence was so inspiringly strong it is sustained to this day in the devoted work of yourselves — the thousands of his disciples who dedicate your lives to the building of fortresses of Judaism, often in the most remote corners of our earth. Wherever Jews are - there we find you — the shluchim (emissaries) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

 

And though I am not a card carrying member of Lubavitch, I had the privilege to have been a sort of unofficial liaison between Rabbi Schneerson and the various prime ministers whom I served. And it is assuredly an interesting commentary on our political leadership that they sought, in one degree or another, to maintain some form of contact with this extraordinary luminary who lived under the chestnut and maple trees of Brooklyn rather than under the poplars and pines of Jerusalem to which, mysteriously, he never journeyed.

 

I never asked him why. I never asked him why because being a mere diplomatic practitioner I was intellectually humble enough to realize that he dwelt on an entirely different plane — a profoundly mystical plane — one to which I could never aspire. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a theologian, not a political Zionist. But if Zionism is an unconditional, passionate devotion to Israel and to its security and welfare, then Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a fanatical Zionist.

 

Few men did more than him to enrich the spirit of Israel in virtually every walk of life, be it in the spiritual succor of our Israel Defense Forces, in the spread of Yiddishkeit, or the establishment of educational facilities. 

 

The first Israeli leader I ever escorted to meet the Rebbe was Yitzhak Rabin when he was our ambassador in Washington in the late sixties - early seventies. One spring day in 1972, I persuaded him to call on the Rebbe in the name of our then President Zalman Shazar, to convey Israel's greetings on the occasion of the Rebbe's seventieth birthday. Off we went to 770 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, where we were kept waiting for so long that Rabin became fidgety. This straight-as-a-die agnostic was distinctively uncomfortable among the multitude of bearded men bustling to and fro around him, all identically clad in black suits and fedoras, and all seemingly indifferent to the pealing paint and the cracked linoleum of the Tudor-style edifice that houses the headquarters of the world Lubavitch movement. Sitting there with a red silk yarmulke perched precariously on his head, Yitzhak Rabin looked like an alien in a foreign land.  

 

When we were finally ushered into the inner sanctum the Rebbe’s face beamed a warm welcome. It was an angelic face, half curtained, so to speak, by a square gray beard, and topped by the trademark Lubavitch black fedora.

However, Rabin seemed unmoved. He displayed no interest when the Rebbe spoke to him of things celestial. But once the Rebbe began questioning him about certain of his strategic decisions during the Six Day War — Rabin, you will recall had been chief-of-staff — and then went on to talk I depth of Washington affairs, Rabin was amazed at his knowledge and insights.

 

What lured Rabin the most, so he told me afterwards, were the eyes. Ask anyone who ever met the Lubavitcher Rebbe and they will talk about the eyes. They were wide apart, arched over by fine eyebrows, their hue a deep blue, intense and compelling, and exuding wisdom, awareness, kindness, and good fellowship. Yet, as I was later to witness, when the Rebbe’s soul grew somber those eyes could dim into an ominous gray, like a leaden sky.

 

I got to know those eyes rather well over the years, and gradually came to understand that they saw things that the average person like me could never see. They were the eyes of one who could discern poetry in the mundane, mystery in the obvious, and large issues hidden in small things.

 

Said Yitzhak Rabin to me as we left, “I've just met an extraordinary leader of our people. That man knows more about what’s going on in Israel than most of the members of our Knesset."

 

A short while later, on a Purim eve, I escorted our president, Zalman Shazar, to meet the Rebbe. President Shazar had been born into the Hassidic Lubavitch enchantment and on his rare visits to New York he would abjure diplomatic protocol, choosing to call at 770 as the Rebbe's disciple rather than solicit the Rebbe to call on him at the Waldorf Astoria as a head of state. This greatly aroused the ire of our then prime minister, Golda Meir.

 

"What does Golda understand of these things?" Shazar grumbled as we drove to Brooklyn in a burnished limousine, escorted by NYPD outriders, sirens shrieking. "She wouldn't even know what a Lubavitcher Hassid looks like even if she saw one.”

 

Actually, that was not quite true. I heard her say so myself during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. On the third day of that most horrific war she toured the battle zone on the Golan Heights which the Syrian's had almost overrun. There, she addressed a group of soldiers waiting for their tanks to be replenished, and she asked them if anyone would like to ask her a question. One young fellow, unshaven, unkempt, his uniform caked with black dust from head to toe, and soiled from cordite, gunpowder, and oil, said in a voice husky with exhaustion, "Golda, my father was killed in the 1948 war and we won. My uncle was killed in the 1956 war and we won. My brother lost an arm in the 1967 war and we won. Last week I lost my best friend here in the battle for the Golan and we're winning. But is all our sacrifice worthwhile, Golda? What's the use of our sacrifice if we can't win the peace?"

 

Those were his very words. I have them down on tape.

 

Golda returned the young soldier a long and compassionate look, and she said, "I weep for your loss, just as I grieve for all our dead. And I must tell you in all honesty, were our sacrifices for ourselves alone, then perhaps you might be right; I'm not at all sure they are worthwhile. But if they are for the whole of the Jewish people, then I believe that any sacrifice is worthwhile."

 

And then she went on to tell those battle-weary troops the following tale:

 

She said, and I quote, "In 1948 I arrived in Moscow as Israel's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. The State of Israel was brand new. Stalinism was at its height. Jews as Jews had no rights whatsoever. On the contrary – practicing Jews were persecuted.

 

"The first Shabbat after I presented my credentials," she went on, "my embassy staff joined me for services at the Moscow Great Synagogue. It was practically empty. But the news of our arrival in Moscow spread quickly. How did it spread? Lubavitch Hassidim spread the word though their covert network. Throughout the darkest Stalinist days these Hassidim kept the spark alive. So when we went a second time the street in front of the shule (synagogue) was jam packed, as was the inside. Close to fifty thousand people were waiting for us. Without speeches, without parades, they were showing their love for Israel and the Jewish people, and I was their symbol. People surged around me, stretching out their hands, and crying, 'Gutt Shabbos Goldele/ 'Sholem aleychem Goldele/ 'Goldele,lebn zolstu/. And all I could say over and over again was, 'A dank eych vos ir zayt gebliben yidn. ('I thank you for having remained Jews.'). And that was when I knew for sure that our sacrifices are worthwhile."

 

In 1977 Menachem Begin was elected prime minister and he had a long-standing, close relationship with the Rebbe. Thus, on a balmy July day of that year he visited him at 770, to pay his respects and receive his blessing before continuing his journey to Washington, there to meet for the first time President Jimmy Carter. (In parenthesis I have to say that the Jimmy Carter of 1977 was not yet known as the perniciously prejudiced Jimmy Carter of 2008).

 

The Rebbe and the prime minister closeted themselves alone for a good hour, at the end of which it was decided I would return to New York after the White House talks to brief the Rebbe on how they had fared.

 

The Rebbe then escorted the premier to his front door where, amid a blaze of photo-flashes a hard-hitting reporter shouted out, “Mr. Begin, you are prime minister of Israel, so why do you come to see the rabbi? Surely, the rabbi should come to see you?”

 

"Why indeed?" said Begin with easy rapport. And then, in deep reverence, “I have come here because I am on my way to the White House to meet President Carter for the first time. So it is most natural for me to want to seek the blessings of this great sage of the Jewish people."

 

"How great is he?" asked another impudently.

 

"Rabbi Schneerson is one of the paramount Jewish personalities of our time," answered Begin. "His status is unique among our people. So yes, certainly, his blessing and counsel will strengthen me as I embark on a mission of acute importance for our Jewish future.” And off we drove to the airport for Washington and to the White House.

 

When I called on the Rebbe, as arranged, we sat alone in his wood-paneled chamber whose furnishings were so timeworn they were monastic. We spoke in Hebrew - the Rebbe’s classic, mine modern. And as he dissected my Washington report, his air of authority seemed to deepen. It came of something beyond knowledge. It was in his state of being, something he possessed in his soul which I cannot possibly begin to explain.

My presentation and his interrogation took close to four hours, and it was now after two in the morning, and I was utterly exhausted. But not the Rebbe. He was full of vim and vigor.

 

He must have noticed my fatigue for he suddenly leaned forward, fixed me with his eyes, and said with a surprisingly sweet smile, “How come, Reb Yehuda, you visit us so often yet you are not a Lubavitcher. Why?”

 

It was true. This, probably, was my fifth or sixth encounter. I remember my taking a deep breath and daring to say, “Maybe it is because I have met so many people who ascribe to the Rebbe powers which the Rebbe does not ascribe to himself.”

 

His brows knitted, and his eyes grayed into something between solemnity and sadness. Softly, he said in Hebrew, “Yesh k’nireh anoshim hazekukim l’kobayim — there are evidently people who needs crutches.” By the way he said it, it was clear that he meant that out there in the world there are so many Jews who are looking for a meaning to their lives, are in need of spiritual support, who seek some sagacious advice, and possibly a helping hand — and he, the Rebbe, was there for them all.

 

And then, with an encouraging smile, he went on, “Let me tell you what I try to do. Imagine you’re looking at a candle. What you are really seeing is a mere lump of wax with a thread down its middle. So when do the thread and the wax becomes a candle?  Or, in other words, when do they fulfill the purpose for which they were created? When you put a flame to the thread, then the wax and the wick become a candle. And that, basically, is what I try to do – to encourage every Jew to fulfill the purpose for which he or she was created.

 

His voice then morphed into a rhythmic Talmudic chant as he went on to say: “The wax is the body, and the wick is the soul. Bring the flame of Torah to the soul, then the body will fulfill the purpose for which it was created. That is my mission - to ignite the soul of every Jew with the fire of Torah.”

 

And then we went back to talking about the strategic pros and cons of offering the Americans our Haifa port facilities as a base for their Sixth Fleet.

When I rose to bid farewell the Rebbe escorted me to the door, and there I asked him, “Has the Rebbe lit my candle?” “No,” he said. “I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle.”

 

There are times when I think back with deep nostalgia to those days when a prime minister of Israel would ask me to call on the Rebbe to mull over this or that issue of the day. I venture to say our present government could do with an injection of his wise counsel right now.

 

Let me end with a story. In March 1992 the Embassy of Israel in Buenos Aires was blown up by Arab terrorists. Many were killed, and among the missing was a young mother called Yael Michaeli. Amid the carnage and the havoc and the confusion of the wreckage, our own Mosad people could not find her. So her sister and brother-in-law in New York desperately phoned Rabbi Moshe Kotlarski to see if he could find Lubavitchers in Buenos Aires to find Yael Michaeli?

 

By this time it was well after midnight and Rabbi Kotlarski urgently contacted a number of Lubavitchers in Buenos Aires, among them a Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt. Rabbi Grunblatt did find Yael Michaeli in a hospital. She was alive but severely burnt. He immediately called back Rabbi Kotlarski to pass on the news to her family. Rabbi Grunblatt did not leave Yael Michaeli's bedside for a moment. He sat with her throughout the night saying Tehillim (Psalms). 

Friends – I understand Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt is with us tonight. Please stand up Rabbi Grunblatt.

 

Rabbi Grublatt, I am the father of Yael Michaeli. My daughter is fine, thank G‑d. She is living with her beautiful family in Israel.

 

 

 

I want to publicly thank you for the self sacrifice and kindness which you displayed on that night, long ago. What you did was the very quintessence of what Chabad emissaries do all the time. This is surely the Rebbe’s legacy.

 

It is a legacy of boundless self sacrifice and kindness infused with the teachings of the Torah and love for humanity. It is this synergy which has made Chabad – Lubavitch the greatest movement for the spread of Jewish life anywhere and at anytime. Day by day you are handing out matches to ignite Jewish souls the world over. This is what makes the Shluchim (emissaries) absolutely unique in the Jewish world.

 

And as for the rest of us, ours is the task, especially in these turbulent economic times, to guarantee that they will never lack the means to carry out and expand their sacred mission. We cannot afford to allow Chabad Lubavitch to suffer because of turbulent stock markets. It is far too precious an investment for that. Indeed the more they thrive the more we prosper.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

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