The Legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
On the 25th yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt”l
This Shabbat (3rd Tammuz 5779, in July 2019) is the 25th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was a man who inspired Rabbi Sacks and left a legacy that greatly impacted the Jewish world. Watch is a short video tribute where Rabbi Sacks talks about his encounters and relationship with the Rebbe, and why his teachings remain as relevant today as they ever were before.
I’m so sorry I can’t join you in person, on this remarkable gathering, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Gimmel Tammuz (3rd Tammuz), when the Rebbe was niftar but please accept this message as coming from the heart. Because like you, I’ve had my life changed by that extraordinary man whose influence today has grown, not diminished these past 25 years and lives in the incredible work of the thousands, tens of thousands of shlichim and shlichot throughout the world, and the hundreds and thousands, maybe even millions, who consider themselves the Rebbe’s disciples, and continue to live their life in the light of the values that he taught successive generations.
I personally think back to three moments in my life when my whole life was changed by the Rebbe thinking, reflecting, and telling me that I was being called to a more serious and higher purpose.
The first of those was in the summer of ’68, when I had my first yechidus with the Rebbe, when he challenged me to do something about the loss of Jewish students, Jewish commitments in Cambridge University. I had never even thought of a leadership role and there was the Rebbe urging me to undertake take one. It was reflecting on that encounter many years later that I formulated the proposition that good leaders create followers, but great leaders create leaders. That is exactly what the Rebbe did. He took people and turned them into leaders, in the most extraordinary way.
It was on that occasion in the course of a febrengen, when I went to say a lechaim with the Rebbe, (because I was just about to go back to London the next day), the Rebbe turned to me in surprise and said, “You’re going back?”
And I said, “Yes.”
And he said, “Why?”
I said, “I have to go back to University.”
And he said, “But the Cambridge term doesn’t begin until the second week in October. I think you should spend Rosh Hashanah here.”
(A most extraordinary thing. I think many people actually saw this exchange). And that is how I came to spend that Rosh Hashanah in 770, and heard the Rebbe blow shofar. Nobody who heard the Rebbe blow shofar will ever forget it, because it was quite unlike any other shofar-blowing I ever heard, before or since.
That was a massive change in my life, and of course I tried to do what the Rebbe asked me to do on that occasion. The next meeting was almost 10 years later, January ’78, when I had been told by people that I should give the Rebbe a list of options, (I wanted the Rebbe’s advice as to what career I should pursue. And they said, set it out one or two or three, and the Rebbe will tell you A or B or C.) And I set out the options. Should I be an economist? Should I be a lawyer? Or should I be an academic philosopher? And the Rebbe, when I finally came into study in 770, held out the list and said no to A, no to B and no to C. This was not in the script, I have to say. The Rebbe was prescriptive to the nth degree on that occasion. His instruction to me was that I had to train Rabbis, that I had myself to become a congregational Rabbi so that people could come and see how I did things, how I gave sermons and so on. And he even told me to change the subject of my PhD, to have something to do with the rabbinate. And he asked me to send him a copy when I had finally completed it.
Well, when I came back, I have to say it was quite an ordeal because what the Rebbe actually wanted was against the United Synagogue by-laws. You couldn’t be a Rabbi of the United Synagogue and have some employment elsewhere (in my case, in Jew’s College, training Rabbis.) And yet my own Rav, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, who would not, by anyone, I think, be thought of as a chassid or a chabadnik, as soon as he heard what the Rebbe had said, he said, “Okay since the Rebbe said it, it has to happen.” And he phoned up Chief Rabbi Jakobovits and told him that if it was against the United Synagogue by-laws, the United Synagogue would have to change the by-laws. Rabbi Jakobovits in good heart, hearing that this was from the Rebbe, did exactly that and said so to the President of the United Synagogue. And so the Rebbe caused the United Synagogue by-laws to be changed and that is how I came to be, eventually, head of Jews College and training the rabbinate for Anglo Jewry.
And finally, of course, in 1990, when I was faced with a question of whether or not to accept the invitation to become Chief Rabbi, and I set out the pros and cons and I asked the Rebbe, “Should I accept the offer, if it is made?” And the Rebbe without writing a single word, put in the typographical symbol for invert word order: “should I” became, “I should”. And that was his answer. If they offer you the position, take it. And then he gave me various instructions as to how I should conduct myself in that office. So at every significant moment in my adult life, the Rebbe was the directing influence and I think I very humbly feel blessed that we had such a man, at such a time.
His teachings remain incredibly powerful and very, very important. And I identify this in three ways. Number one, I asked myself for many years; how is it that the Rebbe developed this whole concept of outreach that had never existed ever before in Jewish life? The nearest example was the smuggler of Moses of Goosey, who did a Tefillah in Mezuzah campaign back in early mediaeval France, but I mean that’s not a real analogy and it’s the only precedent. So how was it that nobody had thought of doing outreach before until the Rebbe came along? And my hypothesis, which is no more than a hypothesis; was that the Rebbe was, with deep faith, trying to do what seems almost impossible to do. The only possible tikkun for this Shoah. If Hitler had tracked down every Jew in hate, he would search out every Jew in love. That was the only force for good equal to, and opposite to, the force for evil that was the Holocaust.
Now how enormously relevant that is today, as we see antisemitism return to the world, to Europe, to the world. Our fundamental response the Rebbe would be telling us right now, it’s not just to protest antisemitism, but to actively engage in Ahavat Yisrael. Actually to go out and tell Jews, you are loved, we are your family, we are not going to let you go. I think that is a very powerful message. We should have an Ahavat Yisrael campaign that is the equal and opposite to the force of antisemitism sweeping the world at this moment.
Number two. This of course determined his approach to me, but it determined his approach to everyone. The Rebbe believed so profoundly in hashgachah pratit, in Divine Providence, that he knew that each one of us has a role, a tachlit, a tafkid, a mission in this life. And that is why we have the gifts we have. And that is what we are here to do. In this, I always sensed a very strong connection between the Rebbe’s teaching and the teaching of one of the most influential of all figures in the 20th century, the psychotherapist, the survivor of Auschwitz, called Viktor Frankl.
Victor Frankl developed in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” a whole school of psychotherapy, telling people that we have to find our mission in life. We have to ask not “What do I want from life”, but “What does life want from me?” And as a result, I was very moved to discover that the Rebbe – I’m not sure the Rebbe ever met Viktor Frankl – but he did send Viktor Frankl a message in Vienna telling him not to despair. Somehow the Rebbe had gathered that Viktor Frankl was despairing of the fact that his whole approach to psychotherapy was not being accepted and was just about to leave Vienna and go to Australia. And it was the Rebbe’s encouragement that persuaded him to stay and continued his work. Viktor Frankl’s work is regarded as one of the most influential of all in the 20th century. And he had a secular equivalent of what the Rebbe was teaching us. We each have a mission in life and we have to fulfil that mission.
And thirdly, the Rebbe taught us something that I think no other Jew in our time, or for a very long time has sufficiently emphasised. There’s a difference between gashmius and ruchnius in this: That any material goods, the more you share, the less you have. Share a thousand pounds with 10 other people, you only have a tenth of what you began with. Share total power with nine other people, you have a tenth of the power you began with. The more you share, the less you have. But when it comes to ruchnius, to spiritual goods, to love, to knowledge, to influence: The more you share, the more you have.
The Rebbe understood that the real antidote to secular society is not segregating yourself behind ghetto walls and never having anything to do with the world or with other Jews who are less religious than you. He understood that the more you share your Judaism with others, the stronger your Judaism will be. I cannot tell you how important that is, and how little understood.
So those three messages of tikkun; of the love that is the antidote to hate; of each of us fulfilling our mission and our responsibility; and of understanding that the more we share our Judaism, the more Judaism we will have, those are messages that are still as necessary today as they ever were before. And when we do those, the spirit of the Rebbe lives on in us. There’s a remarkable Midrash in Shemot Rabbah which says that Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel were both equal Prophets.
“משֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן בְּכֹהֲנָיו וּשְׁמוּאֵל בְּקֹרְאֵי שְׁמוֹ”Shemot Rabbah 16:4
“Moshe v’Aharon b’chohanav uShmuel b’koray shmoh”
However, the Midrash says Moshe Rabbeinu and Shmuel had a different approach to the way they related to other people. Moshe Rabbeinu sat and expected people to come to him. Shmuel went out from town to town. He did a circuit, he went out to the people, he didn’t expect the people to come to him, he went out to them. The Midrash tells us that when HaKadosh Baruch Hu spoke Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe Rabbeinu had to go to God. God summoned Moshe to come to Him. But when it came to Shmuel, HaKadosh Baruch Hu went to Shmuel and stood by Shmuel’s side. HaKadosh Baruch Hu loved Shmuel because he engaged in outreach. I’m not sure that the Midrash is telling us that Shmuel was necessarily a greater Prophet than Moshe Rabbeinu, but it was telling us that going out, and reaching out, means that God reaches out to us, and holds us close.
May we live by the Rebbe’s teachings. May we, by our deeds, keep his spirit alive. And may we be grateful that we had the privilege of knowing one of the greatest leaders that Jewish people has ever known.