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Having had the opportunity to visit with the ’s wife, Chaya Mushka, Mr. Jules Lassner was deeply impressed by her warmth, hospitality, and the genuine interest she took in others.
One Sunday morning, as he passed by the Rebbe to receive a dollar for charity, he summoned up the courage to say, “After meeting your wife, I understand the expression, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman!’”
The Rebbe smiled from ear to ear.
Who was the Rebbetzin, who had the unique merit of being both the daughter and the wife of saintly and world-changing rebbes?
Precious little is known about her. Not due to lack of interest, but due to her fervent desire to remain unknown.
RabbiHalberstam, a personal aide to the Rebbetzin, relates that one he asked her why she preferred to hear the blown at home, alone, rather than going to “ ,” the central synagogue where her husband prayed together with his chassidim.
She responded, “I cannot bear the fuss people make of me when I appear in public.”
Others in her position might have sought out, or at least acquiesced to receiving, the honor and respect that comes with being the wife of a rebbe. Not she.
She would rather sit at home alone, away from the community and the little family she had left, than take advantage of her status as rebbetzin and have attention drawn to herself.
RabbiLew, from London, England, recounts a story that occurred when his teenage daughter was studying in a Lubavitch school in New York. The girl’s grandfather, Mr. Zalmon Jaffe, who had a warm relationship with the Rebbetzin, mentioned to the Rebbetzin that his granddaughter had no family in New York, which would be especially difficult for her come the winter, when a family wedding would be celebrated in London and she would not attend. The Rebbetzin told him not to worry. “I will maintain contact with her, willing.”
Weeks passed, but the girl didn’t hear from the Rebbetzin. Only later was it revealed that the Rebbetzin had called her school, asking to speak to Ms. Lew. The secretary, not knowing who was on the other end of the line, said, “Sorry, but it’s our school policy not to allow phone calls.” The Rebbetzin thanked her and hung up the phone, and eventually found a different way to contact the girl.
What's amazing is that the Rebbetzin did not identify herself to the secretary—which certainly would have produced immediate results and would have spared her future hassle and effort; that was simply not her way.
Indeed, when the Rebbetzin would place grocery orders with the local vendors, she would identify herself simply as “Mrs. Schneerson from President Street.”
Her name, her address, but not her rank.
How reminiscent of a beautifulabout our nation’s first rebbetzin, Tziporah the wife of .
“She didn’t behave in a superior and snobbish fashion, ‘in the ways of royalty,’ but behaved simply and with humility. It was for this reason that Moses married her.”
For several decades the Rebbe would, in addition to all of his other exhausting duties, receive people for private audiences a few nights a week.
Sometimes he would come home at three in the morning, sometimes five, and on occasion he would return when it was already light outside.
The Rebbetzin once told Mrs. Hadassah Carlebach, a relative of the Rebbetzin and somewhat of a confidante, that she always waited up for the Rebbe. That her husband should come home to a dark house and a cold supper to be eaten alone was simply not an option.
According to Louise Hager, who also shared a close relationship with the Rebbetzin, the Rebbetzin went to extraordinary measures to ensure that her husband would come home to a haven of peace, tranquility, and support.
This came at tremendous personal sacrifice.
Mrs. Hager observes that though the Rebbetzin was brought up in a home similar to the one she later had—one where the man of the house (her father) was totally devoted to the wellbeing of the Jewish nation—still, while growing up in Europe, she had been blessed with a large family network and support group. Not so in America, where she didn’t have much family at all, nor any children to be occupied with. So it was at great personal cost that she “gave up” her husband so that the lives of others would be improved and so that an entire world could be bettered.3
Here again we recall Tziporah. She, too, sacrificed much of her personal relationship with her husband so that he might serve the greater community. In fact, according to our sages, she wasn’t present in Egypt when Moses’ career took off and he was inaugurated as leader of the. She didn’t have the pleasure of standing at his side when he made his debut as a prophet.
Imagine the pride she might (rightfully) have felt, had she seen her husband stand up to the tyrant Pharaoh, initiate ten historic displays of divine power, and bring freedom to a band of battered slaves!
In fact, according to one opinion,4 she wasn’t even present at Sinai, to witness her husband’s most monumental achievement—when he was singled out to deliver G‑d’s word to man, forever changing the landscape of world history!
And the ultimate sacrifice this superwoman eventually made was accepting a separation from her saintly husband, so that he might attain a higher and unprecedented level of prophecy, one referred to in the Bible as “face-to-face” prophecy.
Without her sacrifices, where would we be today?
It was in her footsteps that the Rebbetzin walked, living a life devoted to others.
It was a winter morning in 1966, at about 3:30 a.m. The Rebbe had already left his office for home—a somewhat early night; there had been no(private audiences) that night.
Just then a woman frantically phoned the Rebbe’s secretariat saying that her little baby had just fallen and was badly hurt and in critical condition. The doctors were arguing over which procedures to perform, and she desperately needed the Rebbe’s blessing and advice.
The Rebbe’s secretary apologetically explained that it would have to wait until the morning, and that he would consult with the Rebbe first thing after he arrived.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” the mother pleaded. “I need an answer now!”
The secretary decided to dial the Rebbe’s house. If someone would answer, he would apologize for calling so late. He dialed uneasily; the Rebbetzin answered.
“Ver ret?” (“Who is talking?”)
The secretary gave his name and immediately said, “I am sorry for calling so late,” and proceeded to apologize profusely. “It’sto call at such a late hour, but there is a lady here in desperate need. She says it is a matter of life and death . . .”
“Why are you asking forgiveness?” the Rebbetzin exclaimed. “On the contrary, my husband and I were sent to this world to serve people in need twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. By your calling us, you are helping us fulfill our mission.”
As deeply moving as the Rebbetzin’s message of sacrifice was, what strikes me most is the unassuming delivery with which it was conveyed. For not only did she completely dedicate her life to others, she said “thank you” for the opportunity. In her mind and heart, it wasn’t she who was doing a favor; it was others who were helping her fulfill her mission!
There are many people who sacrifice of themselves for others, but how many of them don’t feel righteous about it?
The Rebbetzin’s words weren’t just selfless—where “self” remains, just “less.” They reflected an utter abnegation of self.