Friday, July 14, 2006

The day the sun stood still

Sichat Yosef

Then spoke Joshua to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered up the Emori before the children of Israel: and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun stand still in Givon and moon in the valley of Ayalon.” And the sun stood still and the moon stayed until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies Joshua (10:13).

THE third day of the month of Tammuz may not appear to be significant to many – yet in the contemporary Chabad community gimmel Tammuz is a very important day. Since 1994, it has been widely commemorated as the yahrzeit of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.

However, its significance, both for Chabad and the rest of the Jewish world, did not commence a mere 12 years ago.

The Tanach tells us that on a previous occasion, time indeed stood still. According to rabbinic tradition, the incident referred to above from the Book of Joshua took place on Tammuz 3. For many of the late Rebbe’s Chassidim, time also stood still on Tammuz 3, 1994. “What would the future hold?” was the question on many lips.

Today, 12 years on, it is clear that no matter what the feeling across the movement on that fateful day, time has not stood still for Chabad. Hundreds of new mosdot – institutions bearing the name of the movement – have opened. Most have flourished and developed far beyond the wildest expectations of their founders. Chabad is to be found both in every city with a major Jewish community and, as travellers off the beaten track are well aware, in many corners of the world where no other Jewish presence exists.

And while the absence of leadership is an issue that cannot be swept under the carpet, the movement has not disintegrated, even though the split over Messianism needs urgent resolution in the interests of darkei shalom – and the future of the Rebbe’s legacy.

From an Australian perspective, the influence of Chabad cannot be downplayed. It is not just the multiplicity of schools, shuls and Chabad houses that come to mind, but the fact that there is no city in Australia where Chabad rabbis are not also at the helm of mainstream congregations.

Although some have criticised what they see as the apparent hold of Chabad over much of the Australian Orthodox community, one might step back for a moment and wonder aloud as to where congregational rabbis would be sourced if Chabad was not on the scene. Would the community have to move to the right or the left of the Orthodox pendulum? Would “modern Orthodoxy” be called in or would one try to fill the gap from the so-called “yeshivishe” world? Whatever the situation, no doubt our communities would look very different.

But on Tammuz 3 there is another aspect of Australian Jewish history with particular reference to Chabad on which to reflect.

Three years prior to the Rebbe’s passing, on gimmel Tammuz 1991, Chabad Australia was in mourning following the passing of its pioneer and stalwart, Reb Zalman Serebryanski. Having arrived in 1949 together with the Kluwgant, Althaus Gurewitz and Pliskin families, who were the cornerstone of the development of Chabad in Australia, Reb Zalman was instrumental in establishing the first yeshiva in Shepparton, followed in 1954 by the school now known as Yeshivah College, and then in 1966, the Yeshivah Gedolah.

No wonder, as Rabbi Laibl Wolf wrote in an obituary immediately following his passing, of all the Lubavitch pioneers, Reb Zalman “was the acknowledged educator par excellence. A visiting overseas educationalist once remarked that there was only one mechanech (torah educator) in Australia, Reb Zalman.”

But Reb Zalman too was totally devoted to the Rebbe, his teachings and his work. As Rabbi Wolf concluded in his obituary, “his only wish to the end was that he would live to witness the arrival of the Moshiach”.

May the inspiration of both of those leaders who had such an impact on our communities and whose passing we commemorate this week inspire us to lead more fully Jewish lives and engender the spirit of warmth and compassion that is the hallmark of our people, until the culmination of Jewish history with the fulfilment of that vision of which they both dreamed.

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