When a tzaddik dies, a part of his soul remains with the body, making his grave a holy place, said Rabbi Ephraim Simon as almost 50 people traveled with the Teaneck Chabad House last week to visit the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in honor of his yahrtzeit.
Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger addresses a crowd of hundreds gathered near the Lubavitcher rebbe’s grave in honor of his 13th yahrtzeit.
As the bus made its way to the cemetery in Queens, Simon told the visitors what to do when they arrived. Everybody would be able to write a letter to the rebbe, asking him to beseech mercy on his or her behalf from God. They would then carry the letters to the grave and read them quietly before tearing them in half and dropping the pieces by the gravestone.
"That place has a certain level of kedusha," holiness, Simon said. "When we pray at the gravesite of a tzaddik, the tzaddik intervenes and beseeches HaShem on our behalf. It’s a place to ask HaShem for all of our needs."
The trip was a combined effort of almost 40 Chabad houses from across the tri-state area and brought hundreds of people to the rebbe’s grave last Thursday, just days before his 13th yahrtzeit on Tuesday. Rabbi Yona Metzger, Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, spoke about his experiences with the rebbe and the importance of Chabad’s shluchim, the emissaries the organization sends to remote locations all over the planet.
He told the story of a king who was so inspired by the friendship and dedication between two men, one of whom had been sentenced to death, that he suspended the sentence and asked the two if he could be their friend. God acts in the same way, said Metzger, and the rebbe taught his chasidim to love their brothers all over the world.
"‘Let me be your friend,’" he said. "This was the rebbe. This was the education he gave every shaliach; the rebbe educated him to love [others] as himself."
Joe Leffel, who went on the bus trip with his wife, Judy, had been to the gravesite three times before but said this was the most impressive trip.
"I consider him truly one of the holiest men of the 20th century," said Leffel, who is not chasidic but has been going to Chabad for more than 12 years. The trip was "an exhilarating and inspired experience," he said.
Judy Leffel was awed by the diversity she saw in the gathering.
"There were so many different kinds of people there: sheitel-wearing women, women in pants, and everything in the middle," she said. "Black women, white women, Asian women, all different types of people coming together for the same thing.
"I felt like we were all one voice," she said. "It would be hard for HaShem to ignore us because we would be so loud."
Because of the response, Teaneck Chabad plans to organize another trip to the gravesite on its own, Simon said, possibly for this summer. Like Judy Leffel, Simon took note of the diversity at the gathering, especially among those from Teaneck.
"It was a real mix on the bus, people from every level of observance to every level of Chabad," he said. "A lot of regulars, people who are not regulars, and people I never met before."
Linda Storfer is not a regular at Teaneck Chabad but she’s not a stranger to Crown Heights. More than 25 years ago she had worked for UJA in New York, and one of her jobs was to bring prominent people to meet the rebbe.
"He was such a great man," she said. "Everyone who met him was so inspired by him."
Mendel Shemtov, president of the Jewish Community Council of Crown Heights at the time, was Storfer’s contact when she brought new visitors, and dubbed her "the ambassador to Crown Heights."
Last year, almost 30 years later, she was visiting her intensely observant son in Crown Heights when a chasid came up to her and said somebody — who turned out to be Shemtov — wanted to see her. Shortly after their brief reunion, Shemtov died. Storfer’s visit to the gravesite coincided not only with the rebbe’s yahrtzeit but also Shemtov’s first yahrtzeit.
"I was glad I went," she said. "It was very inspirational."
Inspiration was the goal, said Simon "The whole idea behind all of it is for each of us that were there to increase in our own Torah and mitzvahs in the rebbe’s honor," he said. "Everybody there did that."