Updated: Jan 28, 2019
Sixty-seven years ago this week, in January 1951, the Lubavitcher Rebbe officially took over the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. It was at a “farbrengen” marking the one year anniversary of the passing of his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe, after a year of resisting to officially take the position.
In his remarks at the event, the Rebbe implied why he was initially reluctant; he did not want people to rely on him for their productivity or for their spirituality. He explained that he expected every single member of the community to be active and play a role in rebuilding the Jewish world that had been so decimated in the recent Holocaust. The Rebbe also wanted each person to be responsible for his and her own spiritual growth rather than depend entirely on him (as was the norm in other Chassidic circles to that point).
He used a common Yiddish idiom, “Leigt zich nisht arain kein feigelach in buzem,” literally meaning, “Do not place birds in your bosom.”
Some research into the background of this phrase led me to an interesting anecdote in the history of aviation. For many years, before the invention of an airplane by the Wright Brothers, people attempted various methods to be able to fly. One such method was to put a bird—a natural aviator—in your shirt, and then to walk off a cliff, expecting to fly. The obvious absurdity of this experiment was clearly lost on these people, for if we are going to fly, it would require actual avionics, not just keeping a bird in our pocket.
With this reminder, the Rebbe set the standard for Chabad into the future. As part of his mission statement, he declared that while it’s important to have a spiritual leader for guidance, if you want to see progress, you need to go out and achieve it yourself. Don’t put birds in your pocket and expect to fly. Don’t expect the Rebbe to do everything for you; that’s not how it works.
The Rebbe’s ability to empower others was legendary. Thousands of his emissaries around the world carry out his charge through thick and thin. The Rebbe introduced us to a life of dedication to our fellow Jew; a life committed to enhancing Jewish life wherever it may be, as small or remote as it may be; and we would have it no other way. There is nothing more that a Chabad emissary wants than to make the Rebbe’s vision a reality.
And we accomplish that by creating our own wings and taking off.
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov
P.S. Click here for more about the Rebbe's "mission statement."
(A version of this column also appeared in The Times of Israel.)