A Tribute to the Yahrzeit of the Rebbe
Last Monday, I came to the Ohel, the burial place of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to put Tefillin. Our long-time friend, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Chabad envoy in Washington D.C., made an extraordinary effort to organize our visit and personally guided me through the ritual. He insisted that this was a great merit for him because I was a Karkefta de’lo manach tefillin, namely a first-timer. Indeed, in recent years it became clear to me that this major milestone of my Jewish journey could happen only in two places: at the Kotel or at the Ohel. The Kotel is obvious. Here is why at the Ohel.
This was a full-on surprise bar mitzvah, produced by my Eshet Chayil wife on the Hebrew date of my 50th birthday. After putting the Tefillin, we prayed Shacharit with a minyan of my closest friends, read the Torah in Parshat Shelach and had a Seudat Mitzvah. We then capped the event at the graveside of the Rebbe. It was one of the most inspiring and memorable days of my life.
Being Jewish is central to my identity, which is permanently evolving. I am not a religious person, and probably qualify as an agnostic. At age 13, I was rebellious, refused to become a bar mitzvah, and kept my distance from Judaism until my mid-30s, when I married into a religious family. But I have always been passionate about the Jewish people, and proud to belong to a society that is not only endowed with a mission to make the world a better place but also with a mode of operation for doing so.
In Israel, I had no dilemmas. Israel’s habitat is Hebrew in that all Jewish Israelis live according to the Jewish calendar, enjoy Shabbat as the day of rest and speak Hebrew. This allowed me to be passionately Jewish and religiously dispassionate. But since our family relocated to New York City, living a Jewish life requires intent, time and financial means. In the Diaspora, you have to actively want to be Jewish in order to stay Jewish.
Over time I realized that if Zionists have Herzl and the Kotel, Diaspora Jews have the Rebbe and the Ohel. The Rebbe has stood out in his ability to respond to the acute needs of Jewish life around the world with awe-inspiring vision and mind-boggling execution. His fundamental understanding was that if a Diaspora Jew faces a choice of all-or-nothing, then few will dive in but most will check out. But if the barrier to participation is lowered, then one simple step of ‘just’ putting Tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles or showing up in shul may lead to a life-long journey of affiliation and contribution. For me, these simple Jewish acts are more about peoplehood than about faith, and more about a shared legacy and shared destiny than about a shared prayer book.
Last week’s Parsha, Shelach, recounts the story of the twelve scouts, Meraglim, who were sent by Moshe to tour the Land of Israel before its conquest by the people of Israel. Ten of them saw impossibility and dystopia. Two of them had a vision of possibilities and utopia. Whereas Joshua and Caleb generated omnipotence, the other ten meraglim communicated impotence. The facts were the same. The framings were opposite.
This is such an appropriate Parsha to capture my thoughts and emotions about the Rebbe. In the aftermath of the Shoah and in the latter part of the twentieth century, most Jewish leaders saw inevitable contraction due to assimilation and intermarriage. But the Rebbe saw potential expansion through wining of hearts and minds. When they played Jewish defense, he played Jewish offense. When the most of the Jewish world emphasized ‘consolidation’ and centralized into Israel and fewer metropolitan areas around the world, the Rebbe’s vision embraced the smallest communities and even individuals. He challenged the Jewish world with the boldest possible visions: to bring Jewish life to every Jewish person in every corner of the earth. Same facts. Different framing.
As we all know, the Rebbe was a rabbi that built an army. His outlook and approach galvanized the attention, loyalty and utter commitment of thousands of people who took upon themselves to further his vision and mission. Of his emissaries, the Shluchim, he demanded absolute commitment to a life-long mission and to nothing less than full success. Who else does that? Leading by example, the Rebbe had legendary dedication to serving God, truth and his community.
In the Rebbe’s army, one plus one was much more than two. He had deep insight into the explosive potential of the spousal bond and made the Shlichut into a joint marital commitment. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks describes Avraham and Sarah as the first power couple, and argues that Avraham could not have served his mission without Sarah. Well, every Chabad Shaliach and Rebbetzin are a modern manifestation of that ancient insight. Some hold the Shluchim to be an army of rabbis. I see in them as an army of social entrepreneurs, who are often sent to build Jewish life from scratch in distant lands.
Most armies are top-down structures, but the Rebbe’s army is a flat network. His managerial insights were brilliant. They can only be fully appreciated with hindsight and with the wisdom of system thinking and network theory. He ‘standardized’ his movement by creating replicable ‘institutions’ like Shlichut, the Chabad House or the services they provide. Therefore, his movement could scale into a worldwide network. Remarkably, all Chabad outposts are similar but no two are identical, always adapting to local circumstances. And as the nodes of the Chabad network continue to expand, ‘network effects’ are unfolding: the bigger the movement the more people it serves and the more people it serves the bigger the movement. Astonishingly, the Chabad Movement has more than doubled itself after the Rebbe’s departure.
The surface of this earth may soon be too small for Chabad. And then what? I believe that the mission of the Rebbe and the institutions of a Shlichut or a Chabad House will be evolved to meet the challenges of the future. One Chabad Rabbi told me that Cabad can ‘go vertical’ and tackle some of the monumental challenges facing humanity like climate change or cancer treatment. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen, but if it happens, the Jewish People’s contribution to humanity will be immense and distinct. This will not be a departure from the vision of the Rebbe, but its natural evolution, because the Rebbe himself embodied a Jewish hybrid of humanism and particularism. He was an ultra-observant Jew, and at the same time a profound humanist who saw the light in every single human being.
I am often invited to share my perspective on the condition and direction of the Jewish People. I use these opportunities to challenge my audience, religious and non-religious, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, to take the broadest possible view of Jewish society and history. One of my favorite questions is: which army will outlast the other: the IDF or Chabad? Put otherwise, in five hundred years, which are you more likely to meet, a Chabad Emissary or an IDF Officer? It is obviously a theoretical question, but also one that acknowledges that, over time, some phenomena are more resilient than others. Well, the majority, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, secular or religious, will say Chabad. That is, of course, unless the Messiah comes before.
If you have read as far as this point, it is probably clear why I hold the Lubavitcher Rebbe to be one of the most important leaders in the history of the Jewish People. And this is why putting Tefillin at the Ohel was so meaningful to me. As a self-proclaimed Jewish agnostic and as an Israeli who now lives in the Diaspora, this was more a statement of peoplehood than of faith. I did not go to the Ohel for my prayer to be heard. I went there for my Jewish mind and soul to be expanded and inspired by the giantness of the Rebbe.