Upon the birth of Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1902, a telegram was sent to his home by the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, with extraordinary instructions to his parents on raising him, including for his mother to wash her hands ritually before nursing the future leader. Twenty years ago this week, this leading light of the Jewish people ascended to Heaven and left extraordinary instructions to the Jewish people on how to nurture the next generation of Jews.
I was a young reporter in 1992, dispatched to 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York, the headquarters of the Chabad movement (known among Chabad hassidim simply as “770”), to report on the growing messianism sweeping Chabad, and was granted extraordinary access to the Rebbe in what turned out to be his final days and hours before a stroke debilitated him at the graveside of his predecessor. His last fully conscious act involved reading the written supplications of Jews, including those of this writer, when the Angel of Death suddenly yet mercifully began a two-year ordeal to ease the Lubavitch movement into the idea that their beloved leader was not going to live forever.
Chabad messianism at the time, while widely ridiculed was also largely misunderstood. “In every generation there is a potential moshiach [messiah],” Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the Rebbe’s closest aide, told me at the time. “In our generation, the best candidate is the Rebbe.” While there were more messianic voices, the truth is that the Jewish people had witnessed a series of miracles in the rebirth of the Jewish people and the Jewish state after the Shoah and this was mirrored in the miraculous growth of Chabad worldwide during that same time.
What Lubavitchers knew but refused to acknowledge for two generations was that they were serving what would be the seventh and final Lubavitcher Rebbe; he ascended to the role at 51 and had no children. Most of the messianism was just the expression of Lubavitchers’ deepest wish that they would not be left without their Moses. If the Shoah was their – and our – Egypt, then the Rebbe was the beloved shepherd who would bring them – and all of us – to the Holy Land and redemption.
The massive exodus from the Soviet Union that immediately preceded the Rebbe’s stroke, which left him speechless, spoke clearer than any teaching that redemption might indeed be possible, which many felt might also mean that their aging leader might not leave them after all. Lubavitch had to “bring moshiach now” because they loved the Rebbe so deeply and couldn’t imagine their lives and the world without him. It was their only hope.
While childless, the Rebbe was a remarkable parent, and believed in the resiliency of his children, the Jewish people. He taught about love for the Jewish people regardless of practice and affiliation. He believed that education is the key to the survival of the Jewish people. And he showed by example how a small yet dedicated group can be transformative for the whole Jewish people. These lessons transcend Chabad and are there for the whole Jewish world to emulate and adapt.
I am not a Lubavitcher, but all of us who were fortunate to be touched by the Rebbe are his hassidim in one way or another. The day before his stroke and after five hours of the Rebbe standing at 770, to receive Jews and distribute blessings and dollars, I was invited to be perhaps the last person to receive a blessing from the Rebbe and to ask him a question. He received me with no fatigue, his blue eyes ablaze and his voice clear.
I did not ask him about solar energy, even though a decade earlier, during birkat hachama (a special blessing on the sun that is said every 28 years) he advocated solar power as the solution to the energy crisis. Nor did I challenge him on pluralism in Jewish life. And I did not think it would be polite to ask him if he thought he was going to be the last Rebbe or what he thought of the wave of messianism.
My question, the final question he ever answered, was simple: “Why do you think our generation merits redemption?” I asked, I think, in Hebrew.
And ever since, I have tried to be a worthy recipient of his final blessing and answer.
The Rebbe stood firmly and by example as a symbol of hope for Jews and for humanity. Twenty years after his passing, we must nurture sources of hope for Israel, the Jewish people and the world. And no matter how much we accomplish, the Rebbe peers down from Heaven and numerous billboards and pictures to ask us to redouble our efforts because Redemption is ever so close and dependent upon perhaps the next positive action we may take.
The writer serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based solar developer, and was the first private-sector candidate for Israel’s presidency. He was recently named for the fourth consecutive year to The Jerusalem Post’s list of “Most Influential Jews” and can be followed on Twitter @kaptainsunshine.