About 22 years ago in the United Kingdom I hosted Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach for a concert at the Oxford Union. After the musical festival where he electrified an otherwise stodgy, academic audience, he came to our home for dinner. I asked him why he had fallen out with the Chabad leadership when he had once been once of the Rebbe’s closest personal students. He told me a lot had to do with Woodstock. “Woodstock,” I asked incredulously, “why Woodstock?”
“Because I wanted the Rebbe to speak at Woodstock in 1969. The older Chassidim were opposed to it, thought it was a crazy idea.”
“And why did you want the Rebbe to speak at Woodstock,” I asked.
“Because they wanted him to be the Rebbe of Chabad. And I wanted him to be the Rebbe of the whole world.”
Today marks exactly nineteen years since the Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away and indeed the Rebbe today belongs no longer to Chabad exclusively but to the entire Jewish world.
I have been fortunate in my life to meet personalities in positions of authority. I have seen that few, if any, are immune to the vagaries of corruption. By this I mean that those who have made large sums of money, for example, change just a little bit. They develop a sense of their own self-importance. They expect, and receive, a level of deference, however small. Their circle of intimates changes as well. They are often surrounded by people of similar wealth and their previous friends often fall by the wayside.
Those who climb the political ladder and become powerful in politics have little time for the little people. They wish they had more but given the level of responsibility they carry and the fundraising they have to do they have to make a decision about those who warrant their time and those who don’t. I have personally witnessed many politicians change as they have climbed the pole of power.
The Rebbe could not have been more different. In the nearly two decades since his passing I have gone over in my mind countless times every aspect of his life as I knew it. I was fortunate to have had a personal relationship with the Rebbe and he took a serious interest in my work as his emissary at the University of Oxford, partial as he was to great academic centers of learning and the positive impact Judaism needed to make on students. In everything I have thought through I cannot identify an area of corruption, not event to the smallest degree.
Who has ever heard of a world-renowned spiritual authority, whose worldwide network had an annual budget in the billions, who lived the last decade of his life in his tiny office; who never took a single vacation or a single day off in the 40-odd years he headed the world’s largest Jewish organization; who stood on his feet every Sunday to meet thousands of common-folk and give them a personal blessing; and died with almost no money to speak of. How was it possible that a man with that level of power and influence could have emerged without having changed in the slightest or benefited personally from his position?
In this lies the secret to the inspiration he continues to provide to world Jewry, so many years after his passing.
Each of us is born a believer. If you tell a child that the moon is made of green cheese he will believe you. Only when he later discovers that it is not true does he doubt your next statement. As we mature we become cynical because we discover the world’s imperfections and human corruptibility. We cease believing in politicians, convinced as we are that for the most part they put their personal interests before the public interest. We doubt even our parents and those who love us most because we discover they too are imperfect and made mistakes in how they raised us. But all along, deep down, we still want to believe.
But then occasionally – rare and in the most fleeting of moments – you’re fortunate to discover a personality who lives by their ideals and principles to the very end, who remains a pillar of integrity and righteousness and is above any consideration of personal interest. And at those moments you latch on to that personality and you drink deeply of the wellsprings of inspiration they provide.
The growth of Chabad is due to many factors. Chabad inculcates an entrepreneurial spirit in its youth that makes them bold risk-takers who are far less susceptible to the fear of failure than the general population. They marry young with little thought as to how they will support families – confident as they are that serving God brings its own blessings – and they build institutions the world over without the knowledge of how they will fund their activities. They have faith in their faith. They believe that hard work will itself provide blessing and solutions. From Chabad they also receive a deep-seated Jewish pride that allows them to go to secular communities without shame of their lifestyle or appearance.
But more than anything else what accounts for the growth of Chabad is the Rebbe’s righteous example that is before them at all times. When you are fortunate enough to have a leader who exemplified true selflessness, your altruism increases exponentially.