There have been many great Jewish leaders in history. Some left a permanent mark on the Jewish mind by their contributions to Torah and the poetry and prose of the Jewish soul. Some created new communities, others revived flagging ones; some shaped the entire tenor of a region. But it would be hard to name an individual who, in his lifetime, transformed virtually every Jewish community in the world as well as created communities in places where none existed before. That is a measure of the achievement of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was not just a great leader—he was a unique one.
I have told the story of my first encounter with the Rebbe many times, and I mention it only briefly here simply as a reminder of how vast his impact was, and how early it was recognized. In 1968 I was a second-year undergraduate at Cambridge, studying philosophy at a time when being a philosopher with religious faith seemed, at least in Britain, almost a contradiction in terms. So that summer I traveled to America to see if I could meet the leading rabbis and Jewish intellectuals and hear from them how they wrestled with some of the problems I had encountered. What fascinated me from the outset was how many of those I met mentioned the Rebbe. Already then, he had assumed almost a legendary stature. It didn’t matter where I went or whom I spoke to, somehow his name would come up in the conversation and it would be spoken of in awe, whether the person I was speaking to was Chassidic or not, Orthodox or not. People seemed to know that there was something special about this man that transcended the normal parameters of religious leadership.
I soon found out what it was, when I had the chance to meet the Rebbe in the course of that visit. He was the only person among the dozens I encountered who performed a role reversal in the course of our conversation. Within minutes I discovered that it was not me who was interviewing the Rebbe, but the Rebbe who was interviewing me. He wanted to know about the state of Jewish life in Cambridge, how many Jewish students there were, how many were engaged with Jewish life and what I was doing to increase their number.
This was wholly unexpected and life-changing. Here was one of the leaders of the Jewish world taking time—considerable time—to listen to an unknown undergraduate student from thousands of miles away and speak to him as if he mattered, as if he could make a difference. He was, powerfully and passionately, urging me to get involved. Years later, looking back on that encounter, I summed it up by saying that good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he was a source of leadership in others.
Time and again I heard similar stories from or about others. There was the philosophy professor who told me that as a young man, he had been drawn to Chabad. He had come to study at 770 Eastern Parkway and wanted to stay there for the rest of his life. After a few years, though, he was summoned to the Rebbe, who told him that the time had come to renew his philosophical studies, to get a doctorate and become a professor, to which end he should go to the most prestigious graduate school at that time: Harvard. How many rashei yeshivah today would tell one of their best students to go back to university and find a permanent place in academic life? Few, I would imagine. But because of the Rebbe, this man was able to influence generations of Jewish students.
Then there was the leader of Chabad in a country where there was a sizeable Lubavitch presence. He was in his mid-forties and struck me as rather young to be in charge of so large an organization. I asked him how long he had been in that position. He replied, “twenty-five years.” I knew many people who spoke about the need to encourage young Jewish leadership. The Rebbe did not speak about it; he just did it. He took young people, gave them huge responsibilities and guided them as they grew. That took vision and courage. It also took faith. From the Rebbe, I learned how faith in God helps you have faith in people, challenging them to become greater than they might otherwise have become. Believing in them, he helped them believe in themselves.
Another story I came across only indirectly concerned a man I never met but greatly admired, the late Dr. Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz where he helped many people recover the will to live. When the war was over, he founded a new school of psychotherapy—he called it Logotherapy—based in what he called “man’s will to meaning.” I found his work deeply spiritual and deeply Jewish. But Dr. Frankl himself wrote little about his Jewish identity and I suspected that he had little connection with organized Jewish life.
A follower of Chabad read one of my books in which I had written about Dr. Frankl, and told me a fascinating story. Evidently the Rebbe knew about his work, and in the 1950s when a woman came to the Rebbe and mentioned she was about to visit Vienna, he asked her to deliver a message to Dr. Frankl. The message was simple and brief: “Remain strong. Continue your work with complete resolve. Don’t give up. Ultimately you will prevail.” She delivered the message.
Many years later the Chabad shaliach in Vienna heard this story from the woman herself who told him that when she visited Dr. Frankl she found him on the brink of leaving Vienna for Australia. His work was out of step with Freudian psychoanalysis, then the dominant school in Vienna, and he found himself isolated and shunned. He had decided to leave and begin again far away when the message from the Rebbe arrived. He was amazed. How did the Rebbe know about his situation? Why did he care? What relationship did the Rebbe have to psychotherapy? And why was he interested in a Jew who had married out and had no connection with the Jewish community?
The intervention had its desired effect: Dr. Frankl stayed. In 1959, his book Man’s Search for Meaning was published and became a massive best-seller. He himself became famous and eventually his approach helped change the direction of psychotherapy. When his biography was published, something startling emerged: every day he prayed and put on tefillin. Telling this story, the shaliach adds, “I’ve often wondered why the Rebbe took an interest in the success of Viktor Frankl, a secular and intermarried Jew, and sought him out to offer encouragement and support.” But that was the Rebbe. His field of vision was vast and he knew that every Jew has his or her part to play in the drama of redemption that is the Jewish task on Earth.
There are thousands of such stories. I suspect that everyone who met the Rebbe has one or several to tell. I will mention just one. When I visited the Rebbe ten years after my first visit, we discussed many things—especially his concerns about the lack of serious rabbinic training in Europe in general and Britain specifically. Toward the end of the conversation, I mentioned that my wife, Elaine, was expecting our second child, and I asked for the Rebbe’s berachah. He asked whether we had any other children already. I replied, “Yes, a son.” In that case, said the Rebbe, your next child will be a daughter. He said this with not the slightest indication of doubt. It was less a blessing than a firm and confident assertion.
I returned home. Months passed and the birth drew near. My friends in Lubavitch told me to write to the Rebbe for a berachah. I told them the Rebbe had already given a berachah. Nonetheless, they insisted, write. I did. Days and weeks went by and I received no reply. Finally the moment came when Elaine told me to phone for an ambulance. We heard it pull up in front of the house, and then the door bell rang. I opened it, assuming it was the ambulance driver. To my surprise, it was the mailman with a letter. As Elaine entered the ambulance, I opened the envelope, and there it was: the Rebbe’s blessing. How it happened, I will never know; the mail never came at that time of the day. But stories about the Rebbe are like that. He was a man around whom miracles happened.
When, under the impact of that first encounter, I eventually decided to study for semichah, I wanted to demonstrate my gratitude to the person who had led me in this direction. So I devoted much of my spare time that year, 5734, to translating some of the Rebbe’s sichot into English. Eventually they were published as a book, Torah Studies. That was a transformative experience in itself. When you come to translate someone else’s words, you come to know their thoughts quite intimately.
I learned much about the Rebbe from those sichot. In particular, I began to see how one theme ran like a connecting thread through many of his speeches—the idea of yeridah letzorech aliyah, a descent for the sake of an ascent. He was constantly engaged in what a psychotherapist would call “reframing.” Yes, the Jewish people had undergone a monumental tragedy during the Holocaust; yes, Jewish life as he found it in America when he became the Rebbe was in a weakened state. Assimilation ran high. So did intermarriage rates. But the Rebbe, with his profound belief in Divine providence, was convinced that descent is the beginning of ascent, disconnection is a call to reconnection and tragedy itself the prelude to redemption. That is how the Rebbe rescued hope and rekindled a fire that seemed almost to have died.
One sichah in particular, though, had an electrifying effect on me. It was a talk he gave on the episode of the spies. How, he asked, could ten of these men have had so little faith that they came back and said, “We cannot go forward against those people . . . They are too strong for us!”? They had seen God’s miracles. They had witnessed the greatest empire of the ancient world brought to its knees. They had experienced the Splitting of the Red Sea. Of what were they afraid? Besides which, these were not ordinary men. The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize that they were people of stature, leaders, princes. Surely they should have known that they had nothing to fear.
The Rebbe’s answer was astonishing. He said that they were not afraid of defeat; they were afraid of victory. They knew they would win. But what would happen to the people then? Here, in the desert, they drank water from a rock, ate manna from Heaven and were surrounded by clouds of glory. They lived in close and continuous proximity to God. There, in the land, they would have battles to fight, a war to win, fields to plant, harvests to gather, an economy to run and a society to sustain. What would happen to their relationship with God? Why exchange a miracle-saturated life for the trials and tribulations of the real world of politics and economics?
They were, said the Rebbe, holy people, but they had made a holy mistake. God wants us to be in the world because only then can we bring the Divine presence down. God seeks, in the Chassidic phrase, dirah b’tachtonim, a dwelling place in the lower world. Our task is not to escape to Heaven but to bring Heaven down to Earth.
That one essay tells us what made the Rebbe different. At a time when so many other Jews whose homes were in the yeshivah and the Chassidic enclaves were turning inward, he turned outward and sent his shluchimacross the world to create thousands of “dwelling places in the lower world.” He knew that we all have a part to play in that process—from philosophy professors to psychotherapists, from politicians to poets—all the tens of thousands of people who sought him out and the hundreds of thousands his emissaries sought out. We are each a candle in the giant menorah that is the Jewish people. We are each a thread in the tallit, each, in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s phrase, a letter in the scroll of the living Torah that carries God’s word to us and to the world.
The sages expressed, and Maimonides codified, a remarkable idea: that we should each see our lives, our communities and the world as if they are equally poised between good and bad, as if our next act would tilt the balance, not only for us, but for the world. Can one person really change the world? Anyone who doubts this should study the life of the Rebbe and listen to the testimonies of those whose lives he changed. The Rebbe changed the world by teaching us that we could do so. He is no longer with us, but his message lives on more urgently than ever, summoning us to see the greatness he taught us we have.
This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2014.