Ever since three books came out about the Rebbe last summer, much conversation and writing has been devoted to whether they provide a full enough picture of the Rebbe’s leadership. One conclusion seems to be universal and is not just that of Lubavitch reviewers. It is that even with all of the valuable life lessons and the picture of inspiring leadership that each of the books document, the true reason for the Rebbe’s success continues to defy logic.
Those who criticized the books miss the great effect that they have had on thousands of people. They are tremendous works that open the hearts and minds of those who were previously unaffiliated. These works shine a light of truth and fascinate those who had previously known little of the Rebbe, of his work and of his tremendous effect on the world (both upon the Jewish world, and on the world at large). At the same time, it is clear that they are only the beginnings of a small glimpse into his true leadership, not more. The authors themselves would readily admit as much. For to find the source of the greatness of a Torah leader who renewed a generation’s commitment to Hashem and to Torah during a time of unprecedented spiritual darkness, one must look into the Torah itself.
During the darkest times, Hashem sent Mordechai to shine a light and renew people’s faith. His battle wasn’t limited to the physical or even to nature. As a first step, he strengthened the Torah education of Jewish children and gathered the people to return to Hashem. The darkest part of the Egyptian exile caused Hashem to send Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) into the world. Were one to pin the successes of these leaders to some characteristic of theirs, no matter how lofty, one would miss the mark. No one set of attributes allowed Moshe to bring the 10 plagues upon the enemies of G-d and of his people, to receive the Torah or to miraculously lead a nation. No personal attribute would have allowed Mordechai to turn Haman’s plot upside down or to save the entire Jewish people through miraculous means. In our generation, the feat accomplished by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, his revival of Judaism at a time when the future of Torah Judaism seemed darker than we can even remember, is the hallmark of a leader that the Talmud describes as being one in a generation.
To acknowledge this, one needs only to clearly understand the situation that Judaism in North America faced prior to the early 1940s. Immigrants from the Old Country would arrive at the shores of America and throw their Teffilin (phylacteries) and sheitls (hair coverings) overboard. Some did so in sad resignation that “America was different.” Previously shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) parents would wake their children up for work on Sabbath mornings. They didn’t realize that they were throwing away G-d Almighty, as well as the best part of their own selves. They thought that they were looking out for the best interests of the next generation. It is only in retrospect that we understand how wrong they were.
Even in the frum (religious) world, adherence to Torah law, the foundation upon which Judaism is built, was abysmal and growing increasingly weaker. There were lax standards in kashrus (kosher laws) and many other aspects of Torah living. America was seen as a spiritual wasteland. The passion that the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe infused into Judaism changed everything.
Even the most G-d fearing parents who arrived from Europe had to fight off the tide of secularism, or at least indifference to Torah, among their chidren. There was the famed Rosh Yeshiva, R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, who took heroic efforts to increase observance among Jewish educational lay leaders, and who caused many individuals to regain their connection to Torah, but the tide that was threatening Judaism at its core could hardly be dented.
My own ancestry can prove this point. My great-grandfather R’ Yitzchok Meir Rumianek, came to Canada from Warsaw in the late 1910s, becoming one of the first shochtim (Biblically kosher slaughterers) in Montreal. In my youth, older people who remembered him told me of his strong passion for Judaism. Yet there was no infrastructure for his children. He remained steadfast in his devotion to Hashem throughout his life, yet of 8 children and now many hundreds of offspring, my brother and I make up two of only three descendents to have brought forward fully observant children. It was only after the Lubavitcher Rabbeim infused new life and vitality into Judaism that even the larger Yeshiva world was able to regain a solid footing.
When the Frierdiker (Previous) Rebbe arrived in America and declared “America iz nit anderish” (“America is no different”), the vitality behind that statement/rallying cry brought new life to Judaism. It was a statement that reawakened the slumbering American Jewish heart. A year later, the Rebbe arrived and put this energy into action like no one before him.
The Yeshiva world began to thrive soon after. Great roshei yeshiva (rabbinical leaders) had tried before and failed. The new life force that the Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe had injected into Judaism saved every denomination of Torah followers. Their pronouncements brought Torah Judaism back to life among thousands and infused passion into all of its adherents, most notably those in the yeshiva world who had precious little to do with Lubavitch. The root cause of the success of the Rebbe and of his father-in-law before him cannot be attributed to natural abilities. All of this points to the qualities that G-d Almighty gives to the Jewish leader of the generation, as the Talmud and other sources clearly point out.
Are Jewish leaders afforded such stature in Judaism? Can one leader truly change the world for good? The answer is derived clearly from the Talmud, first and foremost in Sanhedrin 8a, “there is one leader for a generation, and there are no two leaders for one generation.” Throughout the Gemara, we find numerous demonstrations of the miracles performed by the Sages of each generation. Indeed, the Roman Emperor Antoninus credited even the least of the Great Sages with the power to perform unheard of miracles. The source of their strength was their subservience and self-nullification to the Almighty. They gave their all toward what Hashem wanted, and as a result, became conduits for the Almighty’s greatest miracles and wonders.
In each miraculous instance relayed in Torah, it is not the greatness of the leader that is stressed, but rather that of the leader’s subservience to the Almighty. Indeed, when asked about the countless miracles that stemmed from his blessings, a few of which are documented in books such as “To Know and To Care,” the Rebbe once remarked that the power to bless can be replicated by anyone who follows in G-d Almighty’s ways.
A Torah leader’s role is also to lift up the entire generation and to reveal the G-dly potential of the world at large. Moshe Rabbeinu, when told of the prophesying of Eldad and Medad, answered “would that all the nation of G-d,” have the same ability (Numbers 11:29). Likewise, the Rebbe’s central goal was always to inspire of every Jew to tap into their G-dly spark and their G-dly potential. And it should not go without mention that the Rebbe is the first Jewish leader since Abraham to actively spread G-d and G-dliness to Non-Jews. Every person, created in the Image of G-d, needed to reconnect with the Almighty.
It is also noteworthy that the Rebbe constantly stressed the obligation of every Jew to help bring the world in its entirety over to Hashem and to G-dliness (doing so is also the right and privilege of every Non-Jew who wishes to take part). The Rebbe acted as chief motivator. A brief history of Torah outreach movements in America, and the initial widespread opposition to the entire concept, documents as much. The second outreach movement to come along was founded decades after the Rebbe had already set his spiritual army into motion.
There are numerous miracle stories with the Rebbe. This is clear to all who know anything about him and is reinforced by personal encounters with people who received his blessings and who were miraculously saved from dread disease or the like, Heaven forfend. The ability of a righteous leader to effect miracles is also found in Talmud, which advises people to ask for their blessings in Bava Basra (116a).
There is hardly a Lubavitcher around who has not personally had miraculous help from the Rebbe, or at least heard first hand accounts of same from many individuals. But such miracles did not extend to only one community, or even solely to Jews. The Rebbe would make a point of helping anyone who would ask.
One account of this, as relayed by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, the leader of Ohr Tmimim Rabbinical College in Kfar Chabad, involves a police officer on the Rebbe’s detail and his wife being relieved of years of infertility. The child born from the Rebbe’s direct blessing is probably the only Irish boy in the world to be named Mendel (after the Rebbe, and also because the father wanted to teach his newborn son to always be vigilant against anti-Semitism).
The former President of Uruguay, Luis Alberto Lacalle, got out of his taxi in the middle of tight Brooklyn traffic, jogging to 770 Eastern Parkway so as not to miss the Rebbe’s blessing. At the time, he had not been favored to win the upcoming election. The Rebbe spoke with him about the 7 universal Laws of Noah which are the foundation of any person’s connection with G-d. Lacalle was receptive. In the end, he won by 7 points.
Judaism also believes in praying at the gravesites of the righteous. The Talmud in Taanis (16a) cites the reasoning behind this, partly because they can ask for mercy for the petitioners. In Sotah (34b) the Talmud relates how Calev (see Numbers, chapters 13-14) went to pray at the gravesite of our forefathers.
So too, many flock to the Rebbe’s Ohel (gravesite). Constant and ongoing miracles are being relayed. In the summer of 1994, no one believed that soon to be Governor George Pataki would win election. The candidate himself seemed resigned to defeat and likely viewed the gubernatorial nomination as a stepping stone to other things beyond the actual race. He visted the Ohel and stated that for the first time, he felt like he was going to win. His upset was the biggest shock of the 1994 election and he went on to be New York’s governor for 12 years.
As just one example of what I can personally attest to, my uncle, Paul Ostroff, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000 and was given weeks to live. An emergency operation was done to remove one lung and part of the other one. Before the operation, he put on tefillin and wrote a letter to the Rebbe which was placed at his gravesite, writing in a very heartfelt way of strengthening his connection to Judaism. He not only survived for over 13 more years defying all odds, but for many of those, he walked around like a man with 2 healthy lungs. He passed away at 75 from nothing related to any pulmonary issues.
The Rebbe’s power comes from his connection with Hashem and advocacy for Hashem’s Torah. As a leader, there was no issue that the Rebbe would not touch. It was only after people felt unaccountable to him that so-called “modern” anti-Torah ideas permeated the attitudes of the frum world. The Rebbe worked hard to set people straight and to show how what is currently popular is in fact often destructive, while doing so with respect and caring for the person who had fallen into such a philosophy. He did so by explaining the reasoning behind thousands of years of collective wisdom and pointing out the folly of ignoring the wisdom of the ages. There was no issue that the Rebbe would not touch. His written letters and outspoken leadership on all issues allow one to clearly separate truth from folly.
He was praised by President Reagan, who proclaimed his birthday to be “Education Day USA,” as well as by Margaret Thatcher. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1994, the first to receive this award in three and a half years, since it had been bestowed upon then Gen. Colin Powell in the aftermath of the highly successful first Gulf War. Yet these were side aspects of his leadership. Far more importantly, he revitalized all areas of Torah true Judaism and made it his life’s mission to turn the world into a dwelling place for G-d, starting with the hearts, minds and souls of each and every person.
The abilities of the Rebbe go far beyond miracles (which should also be viewed as side aspect of his accomplishments). When someone needs comfort, his words are the most comforting, because they are both true and get to the heart of the issue. The Rebbe’s words on bereavement, most noticeably this account (linked to here), should be shared with all who have known of mourning.
The Talmud shows how the abilities of the leader of the generation are neither his own, nor limited to the natural realm. The Rebbe did more than lead a generation, he changed it.