This coming Sunday, Jews worldwide will be marking the 27th anniversary since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — of righteous memory, one of history’s most influential Jewish leaders.
Personally, I miss the Rebbe terribly. I miss his penetrating gaze that set my soul ablaze. I miss his all-embracing smile that filled my being with warmth. I miss his unconditional love that made the small child that I was, feel like a giant of mankind. And I miss his words of advice that became a GPS for my life, and countless others. Sometimes I wonder how different our world would be today if the Rebbe was still physically with us.
But the Rebbe — his spiritual presence and his world-embracing influence — lives on.
And so, here is a humble attempt to provide a glimpse into seven of the Rebbe’s saintly teachings that changed our world:
1. “Don’t see bodies and their limits. See souls and their infinite potential.”
“Share with me a story from your High-school Yeshiva,” I asked my eldest son the other day. The story he chose to tell was about a moving interaction between his teacher and the Rebbe.
When his teacher was a young boy, he had a terrible habit. Whenever he was presented with food, he would eat uncontrollably. And so, he consulted with the Rebbe.
When he shared his behavior with the saintly Rebbe, the Rebbe said to him: “One day, you will become a great Rabbi, so allow me to ask you: Is this behavior befitting to a great Rabbi?” At that moment, he ceased seeing himself as a boy with a behavioral problem. Rather, he began seeing himself as a boy with a great soul, whose current behaviors were unbecoming to the “great rabbi” he was going to become. And his terrible habit stopped immediately.
This was the Rebbe’s view of every person. He did not see human beings and what they seem to be; he saw spiritual beings and what they could and should become. Ah, if only, we too could see our children, and all people, even during their lowest hours, as giants of mankind.
2. “Sometimes, the best way to deal with your negative emotions is not to deal with them at all. Instead, focus on actions of kindness.”
A woman once sought the advice of the Rebbe, about canceling her wedding. She had a “bad temper” and she was afraid that this would ruin her marriage.
After listening to her attentively, the Rebbe responded: “Don’t call off your wedding. G-d will bless you with many children and these children will teach you patience. Meanwhile, do volunteer work — preferably in a hospital with children – and you will find your patience growing.”
Similarly, the Rebbe once wrote to a man who was complaining about his inability to shake off his melancholy that, “it seems that the principal cause of your situation is that you ruminate about your situation constantly. The more you take your mind off of it — the better it will become, and the medical avenues you are trying will be more successful. In order to make this easier, you should keep busy with something completely different, no matter what it is. If you take your mind off of it completely — within a short time you will be healed.”
Perhaps, this is why the Rebbe so often repeated the words of our Jewish sages that “the deed is what counts most.” For, at the end of the day, we may experience all sorts of moods, but a smile, a helping hand, a generous act can mold us and our lives infinitely more than the emotions of our hearts.
3. “Humanity is One.”
Shortly after the infamous “crown-heights riots” of 1990, the then-mayor of New York, David Dinkins, visited the late Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask for a blessing for peace “between the two groups — the Jews and the blacks — in their neighborhood.”
The Rebbe’s response was stirring: “Not two people and two sides, but one people on one side.”
Nowadays, when social tensions are high and humanity is split into so-called “sides”, the Rebbe’s words ring loudly. Let us recall that, intrinsically, we are all united by the image of God with which every human being was created. We can be externally different, but as the Rebbe taught, internally, we are “one people, on one side.”
4. “If you are connected Above, you won’t fall down!”
When the Rebbe was just three years old, his mother found him playing a game with his friends. They were each trying to climb a tree to its highest peak.
All the other children tried to climb high to no avail, but her son had succeeded in just a few minutes. So she asked him, “How did you manage to climb to the peak of that tree so quickly?” The young Rebbe-to-be responded poignantly: “My friends looked down, so they became afraid of falling, but I looked up so I was never afraid!”
Throughout the Rebbe’s leadership, this idea was a common theme.
The Rebbe pleaded with us to look heavenward, to partner with G-d, and make Him and His eternal values an integral part of our lives. For, the Rebbe knew that when we connected Above, we won’t fall down. When our eyes gaze upward, our hearts are filled with faith and reassurance. And when our hands reach out to hold the hands of our heavenly co-captain, we may just discover that He is continuously helping us navigate our lives in the best of directions, even when, from time to time, we may lose control.
5. “Every moment in life has a Divine call, and every place has a holy purpose.”
Some 50 years ago, a young student was about to embark on a long, multi-stop journey and he asked the Rebbe for a blessing.
The Rebbe responded with a relevant lesson:
“While in the desert for forty years, “the Jewish people were instructed to set up the tabernacle at every stop, even during their one-night encampments, because, in life, there’s no such thing as merely ‘passing through’ a place. Every moment in life — even the most challenging one — has a Divine call. Every place has a holy purpose. And every person has a vital role to play. And so, wherever you go, do a Mitzvah and in this way you will bring holiness to every place.”
Life, too, is a journey. And in this journey, many face challenges, physical or mental, temporary or permanent. But the Rebbe taught us that in every moment, buds of blessings are blooming. In every pain, much gain can be found. And it is up to us to heed the “Divine call in every moment,” and “bring holiness to every place.”
6. “Every living thing must grow!”
My beloved mentor Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz of blessed memory, once shared with me that in his last communication with the Rebbe, he asked the Rebbe whether he should be slowing down, as his plate was completely full. At the time, Rabbi Adin was involved in three full-time jobs: scholarly writing, outreach work in Russia, and a network of schools in Israel.
The Rebbe’s reply to Rabbi Adin was typical: “Continue to do all these things and to do more things and work even harder.”
This was the Rebbe’s approach with every person he encountered. He was never satisfied with past deeds, as glorious as they may have been. Rather, he always challenged us to do more, to be more, each and every day. As the Rebbe once quipped: “every living thing must grow!”
In the words of Rabbi Adin: The Rebbe wanted to change our very nature, from living as ordinary people with ordinary dealings to becoming extraordinary people, with extraordinary achievement.”
7. “The lonely cry of a child is as significant as the words of world-leaders.”
The year was 1983. A 4-year old child had just been diagnosed with a genetic disease, and the hearts of his parents were flooded with anguish. With tears in their eyes, they turned to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask for a blessing. The Rebbe’s response did not tarry: “I will pray for your son at the gravesite of my father in law,” was the Rebbe’s reply.
A few months elapsed, and the genetic disease of this young boy deteriorated. So his parents wrote back to the Rebbe asking for yet another blessing. The Rebbe — whose mailbox was inundated with approximately one thousand letters a day from people around the globe — took the time to respond to these anxious parents and he wrote back: “I already promised you: I will pray for your son at the gravesite of my father in law,” the Rebbe reassured them.
Sure enough, the four-year-old boy’s condition stabilized, and thank G-d, this boy today lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, happily married with ten children, and he leads a healthy life, without any medical hiccups.
You see, I know that child quite well. For that child is me.
What moves me most about my personal story, is not necessarily the Rebbe’s blessing of healing that was fulfilled. Rather, it is the fact that, although a few months had gone by, the Rebbe never forgot me. And with his second reply, he reassured my family that he had forgotten them either.
This personal story speaks to the unparalleled leadership of the Rebbe. He may have been a man of the world, whose advice was sought by presidents of nations and chairmen of corporations. He may have witnessed, and yes, felt, the pain and tears of thousands of people who confided in him their deepest secrets. But the Rebbe never forgot the lonely cry of a single child.
As we commemorate the passing of the Rebbe this coming Sunday, may we continue to learn from him and his teachings, and may we translate them into actions of goodness and kindness that will surely perpetuate his immeasurable legacy, and bring healing and redemption to our world. Amen.