It's sad but true that religion kicks in spectacularly well when we are desperate. This week, some financial challenges that I am going through began to get the better of me and I decided to pay a trip to the graveside of my mentor, the late Rabbi of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who is buried in Queens. Now, don't get me wrong, I may sport a beard and some other traditional trappings, but the idea of going to gravesides and asking the spirit of saintly rabbis to intercede on high still irks me out. Let's just say it's not the Judaism I grew up with. So I tend to only do it when I am desperate.
I'm standing there last Monday night in a moment of intimate soul-to-soul connection with my rabbi's parted spirit, and as my outer facade finally starts to lift, unleashing that ball of repressed emotion which lurks beneath, the darkness of the night is abruptly pierced by bright lights in my face. No, it's not some sort of revelation from above, but a full television crew from Israel's Arutz Sheva.
As it turns out, someone else is also desperate: Bibi Netanyahu. Stirrings in the UN have convinced Bibi, who was close with the Rabbi Schneerson during his lifetime and consulted with him regularly, that it's time for another trip to the graveside. And if you can't go yourself, you send a representative, in this case Knesset Member Danny Danon, who comes and stands right next to me.
What's kind of interesting is that Israel itself has no shortage of gravesides of deceased saints. Besides the Cave of Machpela, which reputedly houses the graves of the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, there are countless graves of Prophets, Talmudic Sages, Kabbalists and virtually any holy figure that made it onto Wikipedia. Yet the Prime Minister of Israel sends his representative to a Brooklyn rabbi buried on Queens to beseech on high for him.
What stirs me the most every time I visit the Rabbi's grave is the huge pile -- it's virtually a mountain -- of torn up letters which completely covers the floor of the mausoleum. The protocol when you do rabbi-grave-visiting is to write a letter to the deceased spirit, asking him to speak to the Almighty on your behalf, and you read the letter by the graveside before tearing it up and leaving it there. You'd be surprised how many otherwise normal, and often secular, people do this. Oh the power of desperation! The result is, literally, a mountain of human pain: battered souls squeezed and pulverized into shreds of paper. These intimate letters were written with the conviction that no mortal would ever read them, and as you lean over the 3-foot wall surrounding the grave, to catch a few incoherent fragments from the torn pages, you can sense how many broken hearts have chosen to share their sorrows in this sacred space.
Why do so many flock to this rabbi in particular?
I think it is because he had a level of insight (and sometimes foresight) which, even 17 years after his passing, still proves valuable to people's lives and, I believe, is valuable to America.
I am reminded of this as I read an op-ed in the New York Times by a former national security adviser and CIA chief, entitled, "How to Weaken the Power of Foreign Oil."
"In all the recent discussion of 9/11," the authors note, "what seemed most striking is our seeming passivity and indifference toward the well from which our enemies draw their political strength and financial power: the strategic importance of oil, which provides the wherewithal for a generational war against us, as we mutter diplomatic niceties. ... The time has come to strip oil of its strategic status. We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in its aftermath, and to those whose fate still hangs in the balance."
Believe it or not, the Rebbe delivered this precise message in an impassioned speech some 30 years ago, on April 15, 1981. In a call to Washington to consider alternative forms of energy, such as solar power, to rid America of its dependency on foreign oil, he argued, "Once America is freed from its subservience, it can proceed with stronger influence, and there won't be the need for force. The mere knowledge of our independence will nullify the pressure."
While the national and international scene continues to change rapidly, I believe that in this, and so many other instances, the Rebbe was ahead of his times and alerted us to crucial policy issues of which analysts are only now realizing their importance.
There is a reason why men of repute continue to visit his grave. It is not merely for a spiritual or religious boost; they sense that his wisdom can help shape a better world for us to live in.