I was five years old and we lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. The year was 1976.
My father wouldn’t stand up for the photo of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l. It was a practice the local Chabad community had adopted. My father said it was idol worship; he was right.
But I was a disciple of the Rebbe.
Not in the way that the true Chabadniks were, okay? I didn’t go to one of their schools. and I wasn’t fully religious, even back then. Always I held a part of me in reserve. I’ve always felt, “What I do with religion is my choice; I will not be a robot.”
We lived in a townhouse apartment and my best friend lived across the way, in an identical brown brick structure that was nauseatingly bland.
I remember this friend with great joy. Her family was lovely. My mother was friends with her mother and my dad was friends with her dad. They were true disciples.
The thing about Chabad is they’re relentlessly positive. They keep Judaism authentically. They don’t push you to do what you don’t want to do. And they have a mystical explanation for everything.
Anyway. I still remember the gorgeous fliers from the Chabad youth organization, “Tzivos Hashem.” It’s hard to explain the meaning of this term without it sounding a lot like Jihad. But in fact it means “those commanded by God,” but which I take to mean something like “the army of God,” united in promoting observance of the Mitzvot.
The Rebbe taught me that serving God is, first and foremost, a war. As the truly observant Muslims say, this is not a war of weapons. But rather it is a spiritual war. Satan presents you with a vast array of temptations, from the subtle to the obscene. You are on this Earth to recognize what is happening and fight back.
Your sense of the spiritual reality of this world makes you more than a fighter with yourself. You must see the truth that lies beneath material things, and fight the devil there as well. Remembering that the devil is not apart from God, but is a servant of him as well, and has been empowered specifically to make learning hard for you.
If it isn’t a difficult lesson, you will not retain it.
The Rebbe taught me to smile. I remember going to Brooklyn on a Sunday, to Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, where he received so many people patiently.
The Rebbe gave out dollar bills. Can you imagine such a thing? In a world where charities take your money, he was giving you some.
The Rebbe handed me a dollar and he looked into my eyes, this piercing look, this look that makes me tremble even today and my eyes begin to water and tear.
For I remember how deeply sad I was, how despondent and aimless and cynical. The world seemed like a terrible and lonely place, even then, and I could not figure what to do with myself.
The Rebbe said, in Hebrew, “BeSever Panim Yafot,” which means, literally, “Have a Pleasant Facial Expression.”
Reading that it looks like a Chinese fortune cookie, sort of, but I understood what he meant.
You’ll get a lot further in life, fighting your spiritual war, if you present yourself in a way that is pleasing to other people.
It’s hard to believe this was almost thirty years ago, that I met the Rebbe. It feels like just yesterday.
Today is July 20, 2017. The ills of this world concern me again, very deeply, more so I think than ever.
It is tempting to fall into despair, depression, a constant worry — a sad face.
But every day I think of what the Rebbe said, and I feel his blessing upon me.
We must fight this earthly war, this spiritually based war, with confidence and positivity.
And definitely not hate — hate is not at all spiritual.
I do believe we can win this thing, together, as a single force of humanity. Not believers in my-religion-beats-yours. But simply the ones who see Him behind all things on this earth.
The Rebbe taught me to believe that all things are possible.
With fear of God, and positive action and prayer, we only need unite.
By Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author’s own. This post is hereby released to the public domain.