Reflections on the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Rebbe represents the all-too-rare ability to focus on others and motivate them to be the best neshama they can possibly be.

MENACHEM MENDEL SCHNEERSON, the beloved Lubavitcher Rebbe. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
MENACHEM MENDEL SCHNEERSON, the beloved Lubavitcher Rebbe.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When Susie and I married oh those many years ago – or was it just yesterday?! – we never imagined that our wedding date would become such an auspicious, global occasion, and that the third of Tamuz, which occurred this past week, would forever be memorialized as the yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Though I never had the merit of meeting the Rebbe, he was an important person in my life.
There are three rabbis, among many others, who particularly influenced me in my formative years, inspiring me not only to pursue a career in the rabbinate, but to also engage in kiruv, bringing others close to God and to Torah.
One of those rabbis was Rav Herzl Kaplan, of blessed memory, my primary teacher in Skokie Yeshiva, a brilliant, soft-spoken scholar with amazing insight into the secrets of the Torah and Talmud – as well as a rare sense of humor – who nurtured and trained “his boys” until we received our semicha (rabbinical ordination).
The other two sainted men were the rabbis of my synagogue, both of whom also served as the leaders of Chabad in my native Chicago. The first was Rabbi David Moshe Lieberman, who taught me for my bar mitzvah, insisting that I not only read the Torah and haftarah portion for that Shabbat, but that I also lead the prayers both Friday night and Shabbat, as well as deliver a pilpul, a complex halachic discourse, which he wrote for me. It was a daunting challenge for a 13-year-old, but he told me, “A person never knows just how much he can accomplish until he pushes himself to the limits.”
Lieberman left Chicago to return to his native Antwerp, where, now well in his nineties, he has served since 1981 as chief rabbi. On a visit to Belgium some years ago, I called him and asked to come see him for a blessing. “Of course, Stewie!” he exclaimed – remembering me immediately, though I hadn’t been in touch with him for 45 years! We spent an hour talking, and to this day I receive a thought on the weekly parasha from him every Friday.
He was succeeded in his role as synagogue leader by Rabbi Joshua Goodman, of blessed memory. Our neighborhood had changed, with most Jews moving away, and the once bustling synagogue was not much more than a minyan or two. Nevertheless, Goodman stayed on. “The Rebbe said we must never desert a Jewish community, no matter how small it may become, for in fact, these are the Jews who need us most,” he told me.
As I was then studying for semicha – and the youngest member of the shul – I became his right-hand man. When he was unable to make the hour walk to the synagogue from his home, I directed the services. And when he did come, I walked home with him, talking Torah and hearing about the Rebbe, after which I was treated to the rebbetzin’s legendary chopped liver – with gribenes.
It was Goodman who first inspired me to reach out to any and every Jew, particularly those who were distanced from Jewish life.
One Sukkot, he handed me a lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron) and a list of all the Jewish patients in our local hospital and said, “Make sure everyone says a blessing.” I was a bit nervous, I must admit, but he told me, “Remember, the strengths and gifts and knowledge which Hashem has blessed you with are tools not to glorify yourself, but to repair the world, one person at a time.”
THIS WAS the Rebbe’s credo, and it was among his most endearing qualities – a profound humility rarely found in men of genius. And the Rebbe was indeed a genius; in addition to his mastery of Torah and hassidic thought, he also studied at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris. In his philosophy class in Berlin – where both the celebrated Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner also studied – it was said that the Rebbe never took his head out of the Torah work he was studying, yet he scored the highest grade in the history of the university!
There are those rabbis who may have significant power – members of the Israeli rabbinate among them – but precious little influence. And then there are those with little or no power, yet who have tremendous influence.
The Rebbe held no governmental or communal office, yet he influenced and inspired millions worldwide through his discourses, writings and, most of all, towering presence.
The more than 5,000 Chabad shluchim/emissaries who serve from Argentina to Zanzibar have brought the Rebbe’s spirit to an entire planet (indeed, this is how we know there are no Jews on the moon – there is no Chabad House there!). They not only serve global Jewish tourism – if it ever returns! – by serving delicious, hard-to-find kosher food, they present a face of Judaism that is wise, warm and welcoming.
Most of all, the Rebbe represents the all too rare ability to focus on others and motivate them to be the best neshamot (souls) they can possibly be. If you were in the presence of the Rebbe, you felt like the two of you were the only people in the world at that moment. On Sundays in Crown Heights, the Rebbe would stand for hours, giving out “Rebbe dollars” to be forwarded to a good cause. When asked how he – then in his 80’s – could stand for eight to 10 hours greeting people and yet not be exhausted, the Rebbe merely replied, “When you are counting diamonds, you never get tired.”
Stories of the Rebbe’s insight into others and the accuracy of his advice are legendary. When Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was a student at Cambridge, he came to Los Angeles to visit family. Searching for direction, he decided to take a Greyhound bus for 72 hours to meet the Rebbe. After asking the Rebbe several probing, intellectual questions, the Rebbe said, “Now I will ask you some questions: How many Jews are at Cambridge? How many are involved in Jewish life? And what will you be doing to bring them in?” It was then and there that Sacks knew he would have to live a life of not only study but service.
The great writer and thinker Elie Wiesel would send copies of his manuscripts to the Rebbe to read and comment upon. In the years just after the Shoah, these works were understandably dark and depressing. The Rebbe would read them and write at the bottom of the last page just two words: “Get married.” And, sure enough, when Wiesel did marry, the tone and emotional tenor of his books became significantly more optimistic and hopeful.
As is well known, there has been a lot of noise since the Rebbe died in 1994 as to whether he was – or is! – the Messiah. On a visit to Goodman shortly after the Rebbe’s passing, he tearfully told me that this is a tragic error “on the part of a few misguided Chabadniks who emotionally cannot accept the death of their leader.” But I believe the best response to this issue is a message from the Torah portion read last week, and almost always read on the week of the Rebbe’s yahrzeit.
In the sidra (weekly Torah portion), we discuss the eternal purifying power of the mikveh (ritual bath). What is so unique to this ritual is that once the mikveh has sufficient rainwater in it and is declared kosher, all water, even tap water, that comes into contact with the mikveh waters then itself becomes pure.
So, too, any contact with the followers, the teachings or the messages of the Rebbe perpetuate his life well beyond the grave and grant him the well-deserved blessing of immortality.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.