“I have been in the company of wise men, men of great learning and intelligence, men who were superior artists. But sitting opposite a true believer is quite a different matter. After having met a wise man you remain the same as before — you have become neither less of a fool nor more of a sage. Not so with a believer. After having met him you are no longer the same. Though you may not have accepted his faith, you have nevertheless been embraced by it. For the true believer believes in you as well.”
These poignant words were written in 1964, by Israeli thinker and activist, Geulah Cohen as she sought to describe the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of blessed memory, whose 24th anniversary of passing falls tonight and tomorrow.
As Geulah Cohen and countless others, I too had the humbling privilege of meeting the Rebbe numerous times. Although I was a young child, I will never forget my every encounter with the Rebbe. Each time I saw him, his saintly eyes locked on to my eyes with a deep and penetrating gaze. And his fatherly smile emanated a unique glow of love and reassurance. Indeed, in his saintly presence, the world stood still, and all were transported to a sublime place above time and place.
Much ink has been spilled on the Rebbe, and on his transcendent persona, his unparalleled genius, his unconditional love, his timeless teachings, and yes, his unshakable belief in each and every one of us.
Yet, much like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, to encapsulate this giant of history into finite words, is a task that is impossible to achieve. Nonetheless, here are four life-perspectives from the Rebbe that will, hopefully, give us a sense of how the Rebbe viewed life and living, and help us catch a glimpse of his ever-shining light:
1. ON THE WAY WE VIEW OURSELVES AND OTHERS: Seeing Greatness In Everyone
“Tell me a story you recently heard in your High-school Yeshiva,” I asked my eldest son the other day.
The story he shared is deeply moving:
When his teacher was a young boy, he had a terrible habit. Whenever he was presented with food, he would eat without restraint, and his self-control and self-dignity were quickly replaced by greed and gluttony. He searched for remedies, alas, to no avail. Until he met the Rebbe.
When he described his behavior with the Rebbe, the Rebbe gave him a concise yet revolutionary advice: “One day, you will become a great Rabbi,” the Rebbe told him with an aura of unshakable confidence. “And so allow me to ask you: Does this behavior befit a great Rabbi?”
With those brief words, the Rebbe empowered him to change his behavior, once and for all. For, at that moment, my son’s teacher 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.
This was the greatness of the Rebbe. For the Rebbe did not see human beings with irregular behaviors. Rather, he saw Divine souls, with infinite potentials. He did not see homo sapiens and what they seem to be; he saw spiritual beings and what they could and should become.
Imagine if we were to see our loved ones in such a way. Imagine if we saw our children, even during their lowest hours, as giants of mankind. Imagine if we saw our spouses, even at moments of conflict, as royal beaus. Imagine if we saw our friends and neighbors, even the most irritating ones among them, as champions of the world. Would our world then not become a better and happier place?
2. ON OVERCOMING CHALLENGES AND ‘SITUATIONS’: We Are The Masters of Our Lives:
In an address to thousands of Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shared the story of his special encounter with the Rebbe. Here are his words:
“Many years ago, I came to the Rebbe’s residence in New York, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done. He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in? I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I replied: “In the situation in which I find myself…” The Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.” And Rabbi Sacks concluded: “That moment changed my life.”
Indeed, our situations in life do not define us. Rather, we define them. And in most cases, it is up to us to overcome our own “situations” and become the masters of our lives.
3. ON “FEELING GOOD”: The More You Do Good, The More You Will Feel Good
Recently, I stumbled upon a moving letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It was addressed to a person who was complaining about his inability to shake off his “bitterness” and his “melancholy.”
The Rebbe’s words are profound: “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 (a job, studies, and the like.) If you take your mind off of it completely – within a short time you will be healed.”
How resoundingly true: The more we “ruminate” about our flaws and focus our minds with feelings of guilt and unworthiness, the more bitter we will be. But the more we exit our bubble of self and keep ourselves and our minds ‘busy’ with good deeds, the happier we will become. Instead of waiting for feelings to automatically appear, we must act goodly. And instead of waiting for inspiration to magically appear, we ought to live a life that inspires others.
Or, as the Rebbe put it elsewhere: “if you wait until you find the meaning of life, will there be enough life left to live meaningfully?”
4. ON OUR LIFE’S ROLE AND PURPOSE: “Every Living Thing Must Grow!”
My dear mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, once told me that “the Rebbe believed in him, more than he believed in himself.” When I asked him to explain his statement, he shared with me that, in his last letter to the Rebbe, he asked the Rebbe whether he should be slowing down, as his plate was over-flowingly full. At the time, Rabbi Steinsaltz 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 Steinsaltz 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. Why? Because he believed in us, in our limitless soul, and in our infinite potential. And he knew that as much as we have achieved yesterday, there is still so much more we can achieve today, and even more so, tomorrow. As the Rebbe once told a Rabbi, who was contemplating retirement: “Every living thing must grow!”
As we commemorate the Rebbe’s passing this weekend, may we learn from the Rebbe’s shining model and from his eternal teachings.
In the Rebbe’s honor, may we continue to view ourselves as images of G-d, “put ourselves” in healthy and constructive situations, respond to our negative feelings with good actions, and fulfill our purpose by growing and actualizing our Divine purpose, today more than yesterday, yet much less than tomorrow.