What I Learned From the Rebbe
Countless articles and stories have been written about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory; about his life, his global impact, his teachings, and his concern for every single Jew. But more than anything else, if you knew the Rebbe, or are in any way connected to him, there will be something from the Rebbe’s life that you can apply to your own, especially in our collective mission to make the world a better place.
With that in mind, and in honor of the Rebbe’s upcoming yahrtzeit on the 3rd of Tammuz (June 27), here is some of what I’ve learned from the Rebbe and how I try to apply it to my life. To be sure, this is but a drop in the bucket of how the Rebbe impacted me, but for the sake of this column, I’ve limited it to three specific items.
Anyone that ever had a conversation with the Rebbe will attest that at that moment you felt that for him there was nothing else in the world but you. The Rebbe held you in his gaze and nothing else mattered to him. These conversations and interactions could have been as brief as several seconds or as long as a few hours.
I remember once receiving a dollar from the Rebbe (which he would distribute on occasion—with a blessing—in order for the recipient to later give to charity) and being the well-mannered child my parents raised me to be, I said “A dank” (thank you, in Yiddish). I was already being moved along by the Rebbe’s attendants, but as I was leaving he looked at me and responded, “Tzu gezunt” (lit: to health, a Yiddish expression for “you’re welcome”). It may seem like no big deal, but at that moment, I was ecstatic. Not only did the Rebbe give me a dollar, but he actually acknowledged me!
To the Rebbe every single person was important, and he made sure you knew it.
Someone was once given a task by the Rebbe, and he told the Rebbe that he will do his best to fulfill it, adding, “Im yirtze Hashem” (G-d willing). The Rebbe responded, “G-d wants it, but you need to want it too…”
The Rebbe was not one to slack off, and he expected no less from his followers. While nobody is perfect, the Rebbe demanded that we strive to always do just a bit more than before. Life is a steady climb to the top and you will only get there one step at a time, without giving up. Just being better than yesterday is already an accomplishment, but don’t stop there; there is always something more to be done.
The Rebbe did not believe in paradoxes. He felt that everything that G-d created in this world must be streamlined, even if on the surface things are meant to be opposites. This was evident in the way he fused the various elements of Torah in his teachings. But most importantly, while so many religious thinkers are of the opinion that in order to maintain their religious identity, communities must remain insular, the Rebbe believed that the way to change the world is to be involved in it.
You can’t escape progressiveness or modernism, but you can utilize them for appropriate goals. Chabad today is testament to the Rebbe’s foresight in this area. Whether it was technology or current fads, the Rebbe encouraged their use—granted within the limitations of halacha—for the greater good.
If G-d placed it in this world, there must be a way to put it to use.
As I said, this is but a snippet of how the Rebbe influenced me. I encourage you to read more about the Rebbe at www.therebbe.org, and to join us for a special Shabbat dinner with a guest speaker commemorating the yahrtzeit on Friday, June 30.
(A version of this column appeared in The Times of Israel)