To Be The Rebbe's Emissary

From Argentina: Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt


To Be The Rebbe's Emissary

by Baila Olidort

February 4, 2020

shli∙ach [shlee-akh]

noun

pl –shlu∙chim\

1. emissary

2. representative

Related forms

shlichut or shlichus noun 

1. the mission carried out by the shliach

 

fem –shlu∙cha  pl –shluchot

 

Tonight begins the Jewish calendar date of 10 Shvat, the 70th year since the unfolding of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vision. On that date (January 28) in 1950, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, sixth in the dynasty of Chabad Rebbes, passed. His son-in-law (and distant cousin--himself a direct descendant of the third Chabad Rebbe), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, succeeded him. The Rebbe’s leadership would come to be defined primarily by his project of shlichut, in which he made every individual an emissary, a shliach. In the following interview, the Rebbe’s senior emissary to Argentina considers the burden and the privilege of the life of a shliach.

 

TO BE A SHLIACH [emissary]

Interview with Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt

 

The first shliach (emissary) we encounter in Jewish history appears in Genesis: Abraham sends his servant Eliezer on a mission to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer is worried, afraid that he may not be successful in fulfilling his mission, so Abraham reassures him: “G-d before whom I walk will send his angel with thee and prosper thy way . . .”

Chabad emissaries (shluchim) look to Eliezer as the paradigmatic shliach: receptive to his master’s bidding, dedicated and determined to act on his behalf, he saw himself as a conduit, empowered by Abraham to succeed, regardless of the difficulties along the way.

Chabad shluchim answer to an unusual calling in which the emissaries have so thoroughly integrated the Rebbe’s vision that it is now their own. In the ideal, they strive to be as Eliezer, clear of personal desires competing for their attention and distracting them from their mission. If the calling is lifelong, the work on their interior selves--as they strive to vacate their own ego and become open to the Rebbe’s influence and empowerment--is no less a lifelong aspiration.

Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt began his shlichut in 1987, building up Jewish life in Argentina, where there are today roughly some 200,000 Jews. Thanks to his no-excuses, let’s get the job done approach, Argentina’s Jewish population is served by 35 Chabad centers in 10 cities that have opened under his leadership. As well, nine Jewish day schools, a nationally acclaimed foster care program, three soup kitchens, among a host of educational and humanitarian programs to the tune of a $12 million annual budget, are making a measurable difference in the lives of Argentina’s Jews.

It is telling that among the 70 Chabad shluchim in Argentina, many have “returned” to their roots through Rabbi Grunblatt and his outreach activities. From him, they learn that not for the faint of heart is the commitment to a life of shlichut; that serving as the Rebbe’s representatives is a privilege that comes with demands and expectations that must be faithfully honored.

 

In a 2014 interview with me, Rabbi Grunblatt shared his ideas about serving as the Rebbe’s emissary, and the attitudes and rigors that inform him, intellectually and practically, as he continues to execute his mission.

You weren’t raised in a Chabad home yourself. How did you come to Chabad?

My parents were very religious; my father was from an Hungarian Chasidic family. I was a young student at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim run by Agudat Israel in Buenos Aires in the 1960s. This was not a Chabad school but we had a Rosh Yeshiva and a maggid shiur who was a Chabad emissary—Rabbi Berel Baumgarten, of blessed memory. 

So he taught you Chasidut?

Not directly.  He embodied a lebedike [lively], energetic yiddiskheit. I’d seen a lot of rabbis, but his yirat shomayim (fear of Heaven) was with a lebedikeit, [liveliness]; his davening had a different quality about it, the way he concentrated on his prayers—it made a tremendous impression on me and only years later, did I understand what it was that I saw.  He also had the kind of open home I’d never seen anywhere else. Everyone was truly welcome. I remember coming in once and hearing hard rock music blaring. It wasn’t him or his family that was playing this music, it was a kid who was welcomed to stay there. 

And then at some point you actually went to a Chabad yeshiva?

Yes. My mother wanted me to go to university after high school, but I really wanted to learn in yeshiva. So when I was about 15, Rabbi Baumgarten and an uncle of mine went looking for a suitable yeshiva for me in the United States. But in 1969 there was no yeshiva that was willing to take me at my age without big money, except for Chabad. It was the only yeshiva that accepted me unconditionally, without any tuition, which my parents could not afford. 

What did you discover intellectually, spiritually, when you came to study in Chabad?

There were two concepts of Chabad Chasidut that were utterly astonishing to me. The first was the idea that the Jew has a G-dly soul. I was 15 at the time, and I came from a religious home, but the idea that the Jew has a chelek eloka me’maal mamash, a vital part of the divine within him, that blew my mind. 

The other concept that had a huge impact on me was that idea that G-d recreates the world, ex nihilo, constantly. This was something I’d never heard before and completely captured my imagination.  

What is the minimum take-away for every student that attends one of the Chabad schools in your network?

We have various schools catering to different demographics, and we work differently with students who come from traditional homes, and those who come from non-observant homes. For all of them, we want the experience to be positive. Regardless of the school, we aim to impart a strong commitment to live a life of Torah and mitzvahs—obviously, each according to his/her circumstances. Secondly, we want to create a context of pride and happiness in their Jewish identity and Jewish engagement; we place a strong focus on ahavat Yisrael and a deep sense of responsibility towards others. 

Today there are so many organizations that are involved in Jewish outreach. What distinguishes the work of the Rebbe’s emissary?

As an emissary of the Rebbe, until you achieve the objective, your work isn’t over. If you haven’t helped the Jewish person in your circle, if they are not standing on their feet, if you didn’t get done what you need to get done, you didn’t finish. This is not a job; if you don’t have the product, you haven’t done it. Moreover, a Chabad shliach cannot allow himself to be limited by anything when it comes to achieving the objective. 

There’s an expression—in Spanish it’s a three-world phrase, in English it’s two words, that I tell people who work with me: “No excuses”—don’t come to me with excuses. There are obstacles? Climb over them. 

How did the Rebbe differ from his predecessors in his approach to the mission?  

The Rebbe continued what the Rebbes before him started, but as the seventh Rebbe, he brought it to its culmination and that’s where we see a difference. Earlier Rebbes focused on strengthening Judaism and building Jewish communities, and on the study and prayer of the individual, but the Rebbe wanted us to uncover G-dliness in every mundane aspect of our lives and in every interaction we have with another human being.

The end goal for him was that we bring Moshiach, and that meant we would have to elevate our reality at even its lowest levels. This was the idea of going out to the streets to find individuals one by one to give them the opportunity to do a mitzvah without any precondition. This was unique to the Rebbe, and was the result of his focus on the idea of drawing down the Shechina from the highest realms into the lowest worlds-- b’tachtonim.

Also, he challenged us to get past the obstacles that generally limit how much we can achieve. I think the Rebbe empowered us a lot more than previous Rebbes did. There were great Chasidim and community activists in previous generations, but they didn’t have the same input from their Rebbes as we had. Shluchim today are achieving the kinds of things that are, unquestionably, beyond our personal capacity—there’s an energy that allows us to transcend our limitations and it comes from the Rebbe. 

It’s been said that in his vision for the mission of Chabad and his shluchim to seek out every Jew and draw him and her back to their roots, the Rebbe may have sacrificed the rich contemplative, intellectual tradition of Chabad in which Chasidim traditionally spent many hours steeped in prayer, meditation and study. 

Yes, there’s no question that we are making a sacrifice. But there’s also no question that the Rebbe insisted that on the micro-dimension--that every shliach, not to mention every Chasid, dedicate time every day to his own personal avoda [divine service] through prayer and to his own consistent study of Chasidut. I am sure that every shliach can take one-to-2 hours a day for his own avodah, to learn and davven.

Furthermore, it is my responsibility as a shliach to see to it that the people I have a relationship with study Chasidut before davening. We were taught that with each passing day, we must climb one step higher, and the same is true for our people. I tell my community members: ‘”You’ve taken one step up and now you have a broader vision, but this is good for today. Tomorrow you’ve got to go up another step.” Not everyone moves at the same speed, but everyone has to keep moving. 

If the work of a Chabad shliach is to seek out Jews and teach them to do mitzvahs, why spend so much time studying complex theological concepts and parsing esoteric Chasidic texts?

If you don’t know the value of a mitzvah according to Chasidut Chabad, then spending hours seeking a Jew out on the street to give him the opportunity of the mitzvah of tefillin would be unsustainable. When you understand what is achieved by a mitzvah, how a neshama is bound to the infinite, to the En Sof, only then do you appreciate that there’s no price, no time, no investment that is too much for this effort. 

There’s no way you can put the kind of effort that we put into this—sometimes hours and hours to find a solitary Jew for a mitzvah of a few minutes—if you don’t have the appreciation intellectually and spiritually, of its value. It just makes no sense if you don’t understand that. And you cannot have this kind of appreciation if you are not a serious student of Chabad Chasidut.

You’ve had notable success in Argentina, and among other things, people say that you are a very good fundraiser. But you are also a scholar, so I imagine that there are probably other aspects to your mission that are more spiritually rewarding to you than raising funds.

I don’t ask for money. I make friends. And by that I mean people who see the value of the Rebbe’s ideas and want to take these ideas and advance them. You don’t build a strong institution because you have a lot of money; you build a solid institution because you have a lot of friends who believe in it. Then they—the people—build your institution. So, as the Rebbe once said, fundraising is a means to draw people in. This is rewarding, and this is healthy. And incidentally, they open their doors to me not because I’m asking for money but because I’m offering them yiddishkeit. 

People are really hungry for spiritual nourishment. I find that this is more apparent today than it was years ago; people—well-to-do people—are hungry for something meaningful. This morning I was sitting with a group of prosperous businessmen who were happy, really happy, to spend their morning studying a mishna in Pirkei Avot. The knowledge of life that you have in the study of Torah, and the depth that Chasidut Chabad brings to it—it is simply enlightening. 

Today there are young shluchim who have never seen the Rebbe. Do you notice a difference between them and the shluchim of an earlier generation who spent time in the Rebbe’s presence?

I see many young shluchim who bring real dedication and devotion to their shlichus and this is really impressive. But I believe it is important and beneficial for shluchim who did not have the benefit of growing up with the Rebbe,  to apprentice with shluchim who did. If you didn’t get the taste of mesirut nefesh, selfless dedication for the Rebbe’s shlichut, it would be difficult to be devoted in the same way as those of us who grew up near the Rebbe and were personally guided by him in our shlichut. 

You set out on your shlichut in 1978 with the Rebbe’s guidance, and over the years you communicated with the Rebbe and got responses from him to many of your questions. How have you compensated for that during these past twenty years?

From a practical point of view, there are situations that are difficult to resolve without the clarity the Rebbe gave me. But after all is said and done, and we have been through a lot of very hard times, I feel the Rebbe’s continued guidance in my shlichus. And his blessings continue to impact us. Again and again, I am surprised by unexpected opportunities that open up—opportunities that seemed impossible, and whenever that happens, I feel the Rebbe is looking out for us, his shluchim. 

What are your long term goals for Jewish life in Argentina?

Obviously, I want to help Jews have a better life here, spiritually and materially. But I’m not doing any of this to make it comfortable for us to stay here. I’m in this to help bring an end to the galut (exile). 

 

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