When assuming his mantle of leadership in 1950, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who escaped war-torn Europe, confronted the inevitable problem the Jewish world in a post Holocaust-era was facing. Many despaired, believing the world was a dangerous place to live. The Rebbe maintained that the world we desire is inherently good. The ability to see beauty in the world, insisted the Rebbe, is the beginning of our moral sensibility. The only difference between those who look to build and those who seek destruction lies in the way they view the world. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.
The Rebbe also believed in the intrinsic value of every human being, who is “formed in the image of his Creator.” Thus, what one might typically perceive as character shortcomings, the Rebbe saw as opportunities to maximize potential. As he famously declared to one young man sharing a personal quandary: “That G-d has given you this particular challenge means He also gave you unique strengths with which to overcome it.”
It was precisely because of this deep-rooted belief in both the micro and macro dimensions of the world that the Rebbe broke radically with protocol. Unlike other Chasidic sects that assemble within their own enclave, the Rebbe dispersed his community sending out emissaries, a dozen or so at first, and then over the course of time, several thousand to literally every corner of the world. These emissaries may sometimes be deprived of basic Jewish necessities such as a Jewish school, a mikvah, and even essential kosher food products. But while the world might see this as deprivation, to a Chabad shliach and shlucha it is an opportunity.
Inculcated with the Rebbe’s mission statement of loving every Jew without conditions or qualifications, they persevere; over time a spiritually desolate desert is transformed into an oasis where Jews can feel at home. A Chabad House is built, a mikvah is built, a Jewish school or seminary is built — all in the name of love: love for G-d and love for His people. Therein lies the success. It’s not a job, but rather a labor of love; a passion and a way of life. Every Chabad representative strives for the ultimate, yet never feels that he or she has arrived. They have huge aspirations, yet remain humble and unassuming. They say, “I want to and can do it all.” Yet, no matter how much they will have done, they know that there is still more to do.
It behooves us all to consider where the Jewish world would be today without the Rebbe’s vision. Who would provide a Pesach Seder for 2,500 Israeli backpackers in Kathmandu? Where would Jewish women have access to a mikvah in Saigon? How would Israeli war orphans celebrate their b’nai mitzvah each year? What would have become of the near 3,000 children victimized by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster?
While shluchim are charged with their own special tasks, to the Rebbe, every individual is uniquely endowed with vast potential in order to make his or her own impact in his or her slice of the world. Everyone, the Rebbe often declared, shares in the mutual responsibility of transforming this world into the beautiful place it was always intended to be, thus enabling goodness to triumph over evil, freedom over oppression and spirit over matter.
Demographers were predicting the demise of Chabad following the Rebbe’s passing 22 years ago. Yet as we enter into a third decade, it has gone from strength to strength because the legacy of true leaders is eternal; their life continues to inspire everlastingly. A leader is great not because of his power, but because of his ability to empower others. Great leaders are like the best conductors — they reach beyond the notes to touch the magic in the players. True leaders don’t enforce, they inspire. Leaders lead, which implies a destination, someplace to be that isn’t here. They attract followers by flashing a light ahead. That was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, undeniably the one individual, more than any other, singularly responsible for stirring the conscience and spiritual awakening of the Jewish people in the post-Holocaust era. That continues to be his legacy and enduring impact on our world today.
Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet is the rabbi of London’s Mill Hill Synagogue. He will be speaking July 12 at Chabad of Western PA’s “An Evening of Inspiration” commemorating the 22nd anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.