By Rabbi Moshe Binyomin Perlstein – Dean of Yeshivas Ohr Eliyahu – Lubavitch Mesivta of Chicago
[Author’s disclaimer: In an essay of this size, one cannot possibly pay true tribute to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zy”a. For example, I cannot even attempt to delve into his greatness in Torah learning as expressed in the volumes of his teachings and writings, for doing so would require a much longer and in-depth article. Instead, I will focus on just a few points of the Rebbe’s trailblazing leadership that I find inspiring.]
Twenty-five years ago, on the morning of Gimmel Tammuz 5754, I arrived in Crown Heights to participate in the levaya of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l. Among the multitudes pressed together on Eastern Parkway, I bumped into an elderly Litvishe rosh yeshivah who I knew quite well. Unaware of any connection he had to the Rebbe, I asked him, “Why are you here?” His response, which I have repeated many times and remains indelibly etched in my mind, was: “You know I am not a Lubavitcher Chassid. However, the Rebbe stands out. His ‘playing field’ was the entire world. The Rebbe’s vision was global, and that’s why I am here.”
Indeed, although he was called the Rebbe of Lubavitch, he was truly a Rebbe to the entire world, caring deeply for every individual and connecting to each one on his or her own level and uplifting them.
Growing up in a heimishe family in Crown Heights, I was no stranger to the world of Chassidus and Rebbes. Despite the fact that the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke Yiddish with an accent different than ours and he dressed with a simple fedora, he was revered and beloved in our family. Before my older siblings got married, my parents took our family to receive his brachos. Although I was just a bar mitzvah boy, I remember my mother asking the Rebbe what my brother would do for parnasah, something that concerned her greatly. The Rebbe’s response was simple and clear: If Hashem can care for billions of human beings He can certainly arrange parnassah for one more couple. That had a great impact on me as a child and more importantly, it calmed my mother’s fears.
As a bachur I learned in Yeshivah Torah Vodaas, Brisk, and Lakewood. Throughout the time, I learned some Chabad chassidus and kept an eye on the happenings in “770.” But I was not by any measure a Chabad Chassid.
After I got married and entered the world of chinuch in Miami and then Chicago, I discovered the Torah teachings of the Rebbe. The Rebbe approach to Torah is unique and penetrating. At a farbrengen he would speak for hours, drawing from a vast array of sources, Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim, Acharonim, Halacha, Kabbalah and Chassidus.
His unique analysis of the words of Rambam, Rashi and other texts gave me a new perspective in learning Torah. The Rebbe’s solutions and explanations are out-of-the-box creative and elegant — and always meticulously sourced.
To me all this was something very special. I saw the Rebbe as a teacher, a mentor, a leader, and someone who can guide me through the worldly maze.
In time, I came to appreciate the Rebbe’s worldview, seeing every event and every situation through the prism of Torah. From the vast and broad corpus of learning he saw “Toras Chaim,” the practical applications of Torah to the outside world.
Furthermore, the world around us was not something to be feared and cowered from. To the contrary, it was something we have the power and responsibility to elevate and transform. Through Torah’s directives, even the darkest place and the most difficult situation could be transformed to good — and it urgently must be transformed.
In his own words (based on the pasuk and Midrash of Baasi L’gani): “The world isn’t a jungle; it is a beautiful garden. We just need to uncover the beauty [of G-dliness currently concealed therein].” We are revealing a beautiful place which may need some digging or dusting.
The World Is a Garden
This perception of the world did not begin when Lubavitch in Crown Heights had grown to a “movement” of hundreds and then thousands of Chassidim. Back in the ‘50s, when Jewish leaders were focused on rebuilding their own communities and the core of Lubavitch was tiny, the Rebbe already spoke of “changing the face” of Yiddishkeit around the world, to rebuild what had just been decimated in the churban and to go well beyond.
Where others saw destruction, the Rebbe saw potential.
Starting then, he sent out shluchim across the globe to serve Jewish needs. When there was no skype or even telephone connections, shluchim went to the remote areas of the world to bring Yiddishkeit to those places.
But it was not just his Chassidim or his Shluchim whom he enlisted to spread Yiddishkeit. The Rebbe sought to inspire every single individual to do everything they could to reach out and help other Jews.
At a recent wedding I sat with a relative of Rabbi Sholom Klass, the late legendary editor of the Jewish Press. He shared with me that back in the ‘60s the Rebbe told R’ Sholom that when publishing he must think of the distant Jews, both those in distant places as well as those conceptually far from Yiddishkeit. Like everything, a newspaper was a tool through which Hashem’s will could be fulfilled, and it needed to be fully utilized for that purpose.
The Power of the Individual
In that vein, the Rebbe emphasized the power of each person and challenged each to become a leader in his and her own right. Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates how as an undergraduate Cambridge philosophy student, he met the Rebbe in 1968. The Rebbe took considerable time to listen to an unknown student from thousands of miles away and speak to him as if he mattered, as if he could make a significant difference. He was, powerfully and passionately, urging him to get involved.
“Years later,” he reflected, “looking back on that encounter, I summed it up by saying that good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he nurtured leadership from within others.
“From the Rebbe, I learned how faith in Hashem helps you have faith in people, challenging them to become greater than they might otherwise have become. Believing in them, he helped them believe in themselves.”
This belief extended to all individuals. From learned people to simple ones. From elderly to children. From the most observant to the least observant. From those who are totally independent to those with special needs. The infirm. The prisoner. Everyone.
The Rebbe spent many hours speaking just to children, just to women, just to disabled Israeli war veterans. The Sunday “dollar lines” were legendary. Deep in his 80s, he stood on his feet hours on end listening to people’s requests, giving brachos and advice and discussing Torah. How many countless nights were spent receiving people into his room for a private audience? Many a night began early and ended at 4-5 a.m. (Yet the next morning he was back in his study engrossed in the depth of Torah and his Avodas Hakodesh.)
He listened patiently to all with fatherly concern. In the presence of the Rebbe, you felt that you had his undivided attention. The feeling was that at that moment you were the only thing in the world that mattered to him.
Spending a few precious moments with the Rebbe was an experience of kedushah, taharah and emes.
The Power of the Individual Act
Not only did each individual matter greatly, so did even the seemingly smallest action.
One of the principles the Rebbe often repeated was from the Gemara in Kidushin, codified by the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah: “When one does one mitzvah, he tips the scale for himself and the whole world to the side of benefit, and he brings salvation and rescue to himself and the
world.” The Rebbe would underscore from this how each individual mitzvah act connects us to Hashem and brings endless good to the world..
One of the Rebbe’s countless applications of this concept was the now ubiquitous tefillin campaign, which began before the Six Day War and which brought countless thousands to full Torah observance.
I was sitting with a group of parents in Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon Chabad one Shabbos afternoon, and a parent shared his story.
As a young man swept up by the hippie movement, he was walking down Fairfax Ave. (the main Jewish thoroughfare in Los Angeles) one day and he was suddenly approached by a frail- looking rabbi with a long beard and very little knowledge of the English language. (He would later learn that the rabbi was the legendary chossid, Reb Shmuel Dovid Raichick.) The rabbi asked him, “You Jewish?” After the man replied affirmatively, before he knew it, his sleeve was rolled up and he was wearing tefillin. “The rest is history,” he concluded. “As you see, I have raised a beautiful yiddishe, chassidishe family.”
However, even if it would not lead to any tangible change, to the Rebbe the single act of putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbos candles or learning Torah, is of primary importance and worth all the effort to make it happen.
It is true that every journey begins with a single step, but the Rebbe also saw every step as a journey of its own.
The Power of Positive Speech and Thought
The power of an individual and his actions was similarly applied in the Rebbe’s teachings to the realms of speech and thought.
As the Rebbe understood and applied Chazal and the Chassidic masters, positive thinking is not just a coping mechanism, rather, it is the way through which an otherwise negative situation could actually be transformed into good. He regularly quoted the famous saying of his namesake, the Tzemach Tzedek, “Tracht gut vet zein gut,” “think good and it will be good.”
The Rebbe always accentuated the positive. In the dozens of volumes of his correspondence printed to date, one can track this approach to almost every life situation. If one finds himself in a hospital, he is there to help others to perform mitzvahs. When someone unloaded his or her problems, the Rebbe sometimes responded by stressing the good parts of his or her life mentioned in the person’s own letter.
The infant child of the Gaon Ha’Rav Dov Yehuda Schochet, who had recently arrived in Toronto from Europe, was scalded by a huge kettle of boiling water. She suffered heavy burns on her entire body and her condition was nearly fatal. From the hospital, Rabbi Schochet called “770”.
The next day, the Schochets received a message from the Rebbe’s secretary. “The Rebbe has requested that you prepare a generous kiddush and seudas hoda’ah this Shabbos.” Despite the doctors’ grim prognosis, the baby recovered and is now a mother and grandmother of many.
The same applied also to the spoken word, as was evident in the Rebbe’s many hours of public talks. Based on the teaching of the Gemara (Pesachim 3a), he would avoid words like tamei, evil, darkness, death, etc., instead saying, “the opposite of tahor,” etc.
A group of representatives from a well-known Jewish outreach organization once visited the Rebbe and sought his blessing for their work in “kiruv rechokim” (lit., bringing close those who are far from Judaism).
“What do we know about who is close or far?,” challenged the Rebbe. “Only Hashem can judge these matters.” Besides, no one is ever truly far from Hashem. The Rebbe counseled them to call it “kiruv kerovim–bringing those who are close even closer.”
My uncle, R’ Yosef Binyamin Wulliger, was a close aide to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l. When the Klausenberger Rebbe was working on founding the now famous Laniado Hospital, my uncle and other askanim came to receive the Rebbe’s advice and brochah for the project. During the conversation the Rebbe asked, “Why is it called a beit cholim (literally, a ‘House of the Sick’)? It should be called a ‘House of Healing.’” Indeed it was subsequently called “Merkaz Refui” – “Healing Center”.
For all the Rebbe’s global focus, his overwhelmingly primary occupation was learning Torah. He quite literally never wasted a moment and his focus was Torah, in which he was constantly deeply immersed.
Even as a young boy, he was remembered as a masmid of the highest order. “I was witness to [the Rebbe’s] great diligence in Torah study,” recalled Yona Kesse, who was taken in by the Schneerson family during World War I. “Whenever I found him he was studying. He never studied sitting down—only standing… I remember that his entire being was Torah.”
The Rebbe had no personal interests and no time to himself. He never went on vacation. I personally heard from someone who assisted in the Rebbe’s home that he never witnessed the Rebbe relax.
He was a true eved Hashem who dedicated every waking moment (and he slept a few hours every night) to serving Hashem and Klal Yisrael. On that note, the Rebbe was the ultimate Shulchan Aruch Yid. His every action was carefully and modestly calibrated to conform to halachah and one could certainly write an entire sefer on halachah and minhag just by observing his conduct.
The Power of Emunah
It follows, then, that the Rebbe’s emunah was of similar “proportion.”
A story is told of a “secular” Israeli politician who visited the Rebbe (as did many). Upon leaving, he reflected with amazement, hu kol kach chacham, aval hu maamin kemo savta, “He is so wise, but he believes like a grandmother!”
As a tzaddik endowed with special powers from Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu and permeated with that “grandmother-like” emunah that Torah is Absolute Truth, the Rebbe approached the ‘global playing field’ with extraordinary broad shoulders.
As a child, I participated in the Rebbe’s famous Lag BaOmer parade of 5727 (1967), as Israel prepared for the Six Day War. I remember the Rebbe speaking with confidence and emunah. Noting that Chazal tell us that tefillin strikes fear into the hearts of our enemies, the Rebbe stated that putting on tefillin with as many Jews as possible would lead to a clear, unambiguous victory. As a child in his Bar Mitzvah year, I was struck by the stark contrast of the prevailing mood of the time, including inside the Torah community, which was fearing the worst.
Similarly, during the Gulf War, there was mass panic and parents of American yeshivah and seminary students wanted their children home. The Rebbe insisted that there was no need to be concerned. On the contrary, he encouraged people to visit Eretz Yisroel. He based it on the pasuk that states that Hashem’s eyes are constantly upon the Land, indicating that Israel is the safest place in the world.
I vividly recall the words said by R’ Ahron Soloveichick z”l, at the Rebbe’s shloshim in Chicago. “When I say ‘Rebbe’ stam, I mean the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He wasn’t a Rebbe only of his flock, he was a Rebbe to all people.”