Twenty nine years have passed since our royal mother and queen was taken from us. Since the 22nd of Shvat, Shnas Tismach and Tisamach, when the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka left this world, much has been written about her. It is only a drop in the bucket, for the Rebbetzin was a very private person, and truly modest. In honor of Chof Bais Shvat, Shturem presents a sampling of stories about the Rebbetzin, for us to internalize and emulate, as the Rebbe said many times: "vehachai yitein el libo."
May we merit seeing very soon the culmination of the new tekufo that the Rebbe announced began with her histalkus, and the Rebbetzin will arise and we will bask in her glory, miyad mamosh.
Having had the opportunity to visit with the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin 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.
Rabbi Chesed Halberstam, a personal aide to the Rebbetzin, relates that one Rosh Hashanah he asked her why she preferred to hear the shofar blown at home, alone, rather than going to “770,” the central Lubavitch 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.1
Rabbi Shmuel Lew, from Manchester, 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, G‑d 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 beautiful Midrash about our nation’s first rebbetzin, Tziporah the wife of Moses.
“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.”2
A Paradigm of Selflessness
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
The Ultimate Sacrifice
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 Israelites. 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.
Not Just “Self-Less”
It was a winter morning in 5726, at about 3:30 a.m. The Rebbe had already left his office for home—a somewhat early night; there had been no yechidus (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’s chutzpah to 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!5
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.6
Leaving Space for Others
Mrs. Leah Kahan, a relative of the Rebbetzin, once visited her at home. On the dining room table lay an array of hand-crafted items one might find at a fundraising function. The Rebbetzin turned to Mrs. Kahan, and in a voice filled with pride said, “Look at what the shluchim and Shluchos [the Rebbe’s emissaries stationed around the world] sent me.” She continued to go on about how busy and strenuous their lives are, “yet, their busy schedules notwithstanding, they have time to think about me!
“And why me? Who am I?”
At this point, Mrs. Kahan, no longer able to accept the Rebbetzin’s self-effacement, interjected and said, “Rebbetzin, don’t you know what you mean to the Shluchim?”
The Rebbetzin, with a hint of a smile but slightly displeased, responded, “Leah, you’re being a bit too harsh.” As if to say, “You are not giving enough consideration to their hardships and sacrifice, and what it means for them to take time off to think about me.”
Here we are presented with the other side of the picture.
When it came to herself, she took no credit for living an altruistic life; in fact, she thanked others for “helping” her live her life for them. But when it came to others and the sacrifices that they made, her voice would swell with pride as she pointed out their merits.
Last Will and Testament
Dr. Robert Feldman was one of the Rebbetzin’s doctors.
One Friday afternoon, Dr. Feldman’s daughter Sarah visited the Rebbetzin together with her younger sister. At the time, Sarah was about to begin dating, and she utilized her time with the Rebbetzin to discuss this new and exciting stage in her life. The Rebbetzin advised her like a mother, providing her with direction and focus.
Approximately one year later, Sarah was about to get engaged to her future husband, Levi Shemtov. Her father arranged for her to visit with the Rebbetzin in order to share the good news. The meeting passed very pleasantly, and the Rebbetzin was clearly delighted.
That meeting took place a mere ten days before the Rebbetzin would pass away; unbeknownst to Sarah, the Rebbetzin was in terrible pain.
On the occasion of Sarah’s engagement, the Rebbetzin called to wish her well. Needless to say, the bride was elated.
The couple-to-be planned to visit the Rebbetzin together, but were told they’d have to wait until she felt better. Sadly, that meeting was not to be.
The night of the Rebbetzin’s passing, the 22nd of Shevat, 5748, Dr. Feldman accompanied the Rebbetzin in the ambulance to the hospital.
What was on the Rebbetzin’s mind was an hour or so before she passed away, you wonder?
The Rebbetzin, suffering terribly, did not ask Dr. Feldman, “How bad is it? Will there be a need for a procedure? What is my prognosis?”
Instead, with her last strength and not much time to live, she collected herself and asked cheerfully, “So, Doctor, how is the new couple-to-be? Are they happy?” As sirens blared outside, she didn’t stop to think about herself and her fate but continued to ask, “When is the wedding? Please tell me all about it . . .”
This is how she spent her last moments here on earth, fulfilling her mission “to serve people in need twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
With thoughts about the wellbeing of others, she returned her holy soul to its Maker.
But the story is not over.
Right after shiva, the seven-day mourning period for the Rebbetzin, the Rebbe sent for Dr. Feldman.
“Tell me, when is the engagement party?” he asked.
That wasn’t a simple question to answer. According to the original plan, the party was soon scheduled to take place, still within the first thirty days of the Rebbetzin’s passing, considered by Jewish law as a period of mourning, albeit to a lesser degree. However, to push off a happy occasion was no small matter either.
Before Dr. Feldman could answer, the Rebbe continued: “It should take place on the day it was originally scheduled for, and it should not be smaller than originally planned. In fact, it should be bigger!
“Furthermore,” the Rebbe continued—and here he departed from the guidelines he had set down regarding engagement parties, that they should take place at home and for small crowds, in order to keep expenses down—“it should not take place at home, but in a rented hall”—this was unheard of—“and there should be live music [!], and the main thing: much joy!”
The Rebbe’s tone then softened, and in a voice filled with emotion he said, “It should be done this way because this is how the Rebbetzin would have wanted it be . . . and this is what will make the Rebbetzin happy . . .”7
Apparently the Rebbetzin was keeping to her mission, fulfilled to perfection here on earth, even from her elevated place in heaven.
The Rebbe had ensured that her legacy would live on.