Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
The Rebbe's Ohel
I had the fortune of being in NYC the weekend of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's yahrzeit, so I visited the Ohel (the Rebbe's grave) at dusk on Sunday, as the day came to a close. There were still crowds at the grave itself, though the mikveh and the spacious staging area were sparsely populated enough that I was able to ignore the "exit only" sign and the instruction to spend no more than two minutes at the graveside.
Though ohel means "tent," the Ohel itself is like an inverse chuppah: closed on all sides but open to the heavens. Inside, there's a second inner wall about waist high that dozens of people leaned on as they said prayers over the graves themselves. (The Frierdiker Rebbe is in the same enclosure next to the Rebbe, while the Rebbe's wife is just outside—some people stopped at her grave to pray as well.)
I also had the fortune (or hashgachah) of running into an old Seattle friend as soon as I got there, who explained the etiquette and customs to me. The minhag is to immerse in the mikveh, then write a letter—a kvitl—to the Rebbe before entering the cemetery, and finally to light a candle as one comes to the grave. Anyone wearing leather shoes also takes them off before going into the Ohel.
What was remarkable to me was first the incredible quiet and stillness there (because I'm so used to Chabad Chasidim praying with voice and motion), and second, the fact that men and women were standing and praying without a mechitzah, shoulder to shoulder. I was also surprised that there was no hint of "meshikhist" (Messianic) fervor. Apparently (and quite logically), the Ohel is controlled by the faction that believes the Rebbe did die. (Much of what I'm writing here will be old news or no news to Chasidim. But some of us fryer (freier) menschen might be visiting the Rebbe too.)
I took a furtive photo (intentionally clipped and blurry to not intrude on anyone's privacy) to record this extraordinary sight. There's also a larger photo of the candles, and a small one of people writing their letters to the Rebbe.
How are the letters delivered? People stand over the ledge around the grave at a certain point in their prayers and read their letter. When they've finished they tear the letter up and toss it into the inner enclosure. There must have been tens of thousands of letters there—it's amazing how many fit into that small space. You can see them at the bottom of the first photo.
As a stop on the road to praying for my father's n'shamah, it was a place for me to draw in the comfort of the father figures of our spiritual world, and to come closer to der Abishter for a few holy moments.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006