The Night of Empty Pockets

Harav Leibel Schapiro, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola Miami, recalls a unique farbrengen of the Rebbe in 1963, where the Rebbe issued a surprising request.

Rabbi Leibel Schapiro is the leader of Congregation Beis Menachem of Miami, Florida, as well as the local Chabad yeshivah. He was interviewed in January of 2021.

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The anniversary of the passing of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Chasidism, is on the 24th of Tevet each year. 1963, however, wasn’t just any year: Since it was the 150th anniversary of the passing, the Rebbe placed a great emphasis on that date for the entire year.

Actually, it all started months earlier. I was a young yeshivah student at the time, learning in Crown Heights. While the older students studied in 770, we learned in a building that was about a fifteen minute walk from 770, on Bedford Avenue.

On the 18th of Elul, the Alter Rebbe’s birthday, the Rebbe announced that there would be an unscheduled farbrengen — a chasidic gathering where he would speak publicly. This was quite unusual in those years, as most such gatherings were planned in advance.

We would never miss a farbrengen, and we certainly didn’t want to miss this one. So when we got the message about what was happening, we literally ran from Bedford to 770 and made it in six or seven minutes, and got to our places just a few minutes before it began.

With the 150th anniversary of the Alter Rebbe’s passing coming up on the 24th of Tevet, the Rebbe said that we have to start preparing for it now — on the Alter Rebbe’s birthday.

Since the Alter Rebbe’s most prominent books are the Tanya and his Code of Jewish Law, the Rebbe suggested that the chasidim divide up these two works, with everyone studying his share before the 24th of Tevet. Learning his teachings would be a way to strengthen our connection to the Alter Rebbe. In addition, he asked us all to donate some money towards printing more of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings.

The next day, a tzedakah box was put up in the lobby of 770 for a special fund, called Keren Shneur, which would be dedicated to publishing the Alter Rebbe’s books. Every time the Rebbe walked into the lobby of 770, he would throw in some coins or a dollar.

The Rebbe continued to speak about this theme in other gatherings after that, and an uplifting feeling began to come over the chasidim. Truly, you could feel that there was something special in the air.

Then came the 24th of Tevet.

The farbrengen in honor of the great day was called for Saturday night, at 10:25 PM. Why 10:25? The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of Chabad, recorded that his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, passed away at “approximately half past ten.”

As I watched the preparations for the special gathering, I noticed one thing that was quite strange. Usually, when the Rebbe led a farbrengen, there would be a plate of cake and a cup on his table, with a bottle of wine in a paper bag on the floor beside it. But this time, they didn’t put anything down. We got a sense that, without any physical food, this farbrengen was going to be a more spiritual experience.

Finally, at 10:25, or several moments before, the Rebbe walked in, looking pale, with a solemn look on his face. Usually he would start off the proceedings with a l’chaim, but that night, he just started to speak. After a few introductory remarks, the Rebbe instructed that we sing a special melody composed by the Alter Rebbe, and then he delivered a chasidic discourse, a ma’amar.

Whenever the Rebbe delivers a chasidic discourse you get a sense that he is communicating teachings from higher realms. But on this occasion, we felt the Rebbe was in a higher world the entire time. The way he was sitting, the way he behaved, and the way he looked… There was such a sense of spirituality, it felt like the Alter Rebbe was right there with us. It was an extraordinary experience, and we came away feeling very uplifted.

We assumed that was the end of it. The next evening, Sunday night, I went to bed as I normally would. At about midnight, I was awoken by a knock on my bedroom door. It was a close friend, with some news that couldn’t wait: The Rebbe was about to begin a farbrengen in a few minutes! It turned out that there was a benefit dinner for the Lubavitcher Yeshiva earlier that night and, so as not to interfere with it, the Rebbe waited for it to end before announcing anything. As soon as his brother-in-law Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, who was the head of the yeshivah, came back from the dinner, the Rebbe announced that he would be leading a farbrengen. We ran straight to 770.

The mood was completely different from the night before. Instead of being somber and serious, the Rebbe was now smiling and joyful.

On the first night, the Rebbe delivered a talk on the completion of the study of Tanya, and on the second night, he did the same for the Alter Rebbe’s Code of Law. Later on, he called for everybody to study an additional 150 hours of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings over the course of the next year and to give charity in multiples of 150. Actually, I remember that we each went around with a little booklet in our pocket that whole year, marking down every time we learned an extra half hour on top of our regular studies.

Then he added something that came as quite a shock.

By way of preface, the Rebbe related that before going to sleep at night, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chasidic movement, would give away any money he had to charity. Therefore, he suggested, it might be worthwhile doing something similar tonight. Nowadays, people have money stashed away in their various bank accounts and insurance policies, but perhaps we can give away any cash that we have to tzedakah, in order to print the Alter Rebbe’s holy writings. Then, to illustrate how G-d provides to those who give, the Rebbe told a story:

“Once,” he recounted, “the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov spent Shabbat with their master. For the melaveh malka meal after Shabbat, the Baal Shem Tov asked his students to go out and buy a lot of candles, so that their feast would be brightly lit.

“They were still dressed in their Shabbos clothes, so none of the students had any money on them. Nevertheless, out of faith in the Baal Shem Tov, they put their hands into their pockets and, miraculously, they found money there.” Maybe, said the Rebbe, the same thing will happen here, and people who empty their pockets will eventually find more than they had expected.

Since I wasn’t far away, I saw the Rebbe himself put his hands into all of his pockets to take out whatever he had, and then throw a few bills and some coins into a yellow manila envelope lying on his table.

We later heard that the Rebbe’s office was able to deposit quite a large sum at the bank the next morning. As it happened, a number of people were carrying a lot of cash on them, and they decided to give it all away that night. I’m sure that, as the Rebbe said, G-d repaid them many times over for donating to such a holy cause.

With that, the farbrengen finished, but its memory stands out in my mind. The spiritual atmosphere of those two nights left an impression that I have lived with for a long time.

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