Question & Answer With Inside Man - Protecting The Rebbe
A Simple Jew asks:
Just as it is the chassid's job to be a bit brazen and make every effort to see his rebbe, it is gabbai's job to make sure the rebbe has an opportunity to eat, sleep, learn, and daven without being overwhelmed by the countless people who come to see him. What aspects of the gabbai's role do you think are not well appreciated by others? Having served in this inner sanctum, what insights did you gain from your close access to the rebbe?
Inside Man answers:
There was once a man who had the world's fastest boat. Since he liked people, he let anyone who asked take it for a spin – until one day he noticed that it was had taken quite a beating and needed a considerable amount of work. Unfortunately, he was forced to cease letting people use it all the time anymore, and instead, he only allowed it to be used with supervision at certain times, or else it would have broken down completely and would have needed replacement. Not surprising, people didn't like him so much anymore…
Ok, it's not a great mashul. However, the gabbai does have a tough job. For the record, even though I had a somewhat inside relationship with a Chassidic Rebbe, I wasn't (and would never be) a gabbai. Probably not that unlike many people in important positions, for better and for worse, a Rebbe becomes somewhat subservient to his gabboyim. Gabboyim also become easy targets for people's frustration; and even if the complaints are legitimate it's a little unfair. A gabbai is like anybody else: he's just trying to do his job, and even if makes mistakes or even abuses some power, where is it written that he is perfect? He's just a gabbai; a guy trying to do his job and make a living. Is anyone else so much better?
That said, a gabbai is a gatekeeper and has some real considerations to keep in mind. His primary concern should be to balance the well being of the rebbe vs the needs of the chassidim. It's a tough job, and an error on either side can be even disastrous. If the gabbi isn't concerned with the rebbe's health, who will be? At the same time if the gabbai isn't concerned that the needs of a chossid are being met, who will be? What happens is that both the rebbe and the chossid live their lives at the mercy of the gabboyim. And it's a risky business; it doesn't take much for power to get to our friend the gabbai's head. Soon he makes decisions for the rebbe, and there are numerous cases of gabboyim with sticky fingers, and wielders of power they had no right to. It's not always pretty.
There are exceptions to the rule, but historically, Rebbes tended to take gabboyim that were not the elite among the chassidim. In the old days it was said that this was because a rebbe didn't want his gabbai paying too much attention to the rebbe's avodos and hanhagos, and furthermore, a gabbai that was too in awe of his Rebbe wouldn't be able to perform his job well. In any case the mystic isn't well-suited for the job; it takes specific talents that aren't necessarily shared by the serious ovdei Hashem. On the other hand, one of the drawbacks to this is that if they aren't the finest of the Chassidim, it is more likely that they will have some undesirable traits. Zalmen Leib ganif is one of the famous olden day gabboyim that people love to joke about, but that's only one example of many. In the good old days, many gabboyim had a bad name – sometimes deserved, sometimes undeserved.
Today, things are a little different. Maybe because people have fewer or different demands on the rebbeim, or maybe because the role of a rebbe, the structure of the groups and society has all changed, so has the job of gabbai. And I'm sure there are differences from group to group, but generally speaking, he's a guy that's good at keeping secrets, good at getting his way, good at making things happen and has basic trust of both chossid and rebbe. Where I was, it was a more relaxed structure. Access wasn't a huge problem, and the gabboyim were good people and easy to get along with – but in a larger group it's harder to do. The size of the group, number of instructions, size of the budget and responsibilities can demand tougher gabboyim with more concerns, and this throws a monkey wrench into the works, as the rebbe looses the luxury of close personal relationships with the Chassidim. It's just a reality.
Sorry for rambling a little – I'll get to your question now: "Having served in this inner sanctum, what insights did you gain from your close access to the rebbe?"
I'm not sure where to go with this. I saw incredible Hashgocha and Siata Dishmaya constantly. It was very special and instructive to see how the rebbe lived on a regular basis. A rebbe who was raised in a rebbe's home and received the upbringing and chinuch influenced by his forbearers going back through generations to people like the Baal Shem Tov and the Chozeh is something worth witnessing at close quarters. Access to such people is always an enlightening experience.
At the same time, and it didn't really sink in right away, it was enlightening to see the human side. A Rebbe is often put on such a pedestal that it actually takes away from his humanity. By relating to him as person, I find that he is far more relevant. It's hard to extrapolate from one rebbe to many, but I do think that it's usually the case: He is a teacher, a seeker, a knowledgeable and a sensitive, caring man. He can get upset, he can be wrong, he can even do things that are beneath him. He's human. But he is a great human.