When the Rebbe spoke of playing chess or sewing buttons on Nittel, he was conveying an important message about how to live as productive people.
By Rabbi Shimon Hellinger for Anash.org
The practice of playing chess on the night of Nittel is well known and widespread in Lubavitch circles. It was the practice of the Rebbe Rashab and was encouraged by the Rebbe who explained that even when we cannot learn Torah, we should utilize our time for beneficial activities.
The Rebbe also mentioned other ways to wisely spend the evening, such as resewing one’s buttons to be right over left. (Sefer HaSichos 5750 p. 192).
I got thinking of the significance of this message when someone shared with me an advertisement inviting frum men to enjoy the night at the “largest indoor waterpark in North America” with “cholent, kishke and kugel!” The notice made sure to remind the men how much they “deserve it” and “how much the community needs a heimishe entertainment outlet.”
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. And I believe that the Rebbe’s message extends far beyond Nittel into the rest of the year.
You can tell a person by what they do in their spare time. As frum people, our schedule is governed by Shulchan Aruch and life’s responsibilities. But the question is what do we do when those are suspended?
The American mentality that the antidote to life’s pressures is fun was strongly contested by the Rebbe. The Rebbe firmly believed that purpose and productivity can bring satisfaction and meaning. From giving young children leadership roles to enabling retirees opportunities for influence, the Rebbe encouraged productive living.
That is not to say that downtime isn’t needed. We are after all physical, and bodies must rest and relax. But that’s just a temporary diversion. Feelings of satisfaction and meaning will last much longer and invigorate us far more.
Frum or chassidishe life isn’t just about fulfilling specific obligations, but about living an overall deeper and more wholesome life. We have plenty of distractions; what we need is more opportunities for connection and meaning.