I have often heard people quip, “To a Chabadnik, there are only two kinds of Jews: Chabad and not yet Chabad.”
We’ll nab you on 5th Avenue to strap Tefillin. We’ll courier you handmade matzos before Pesach. We’ve set up shop on just about every college campus. We’ll reach out to the elderly, youth and those with special needs. Travel the world and you’re bound to find us- in 3500 centres, spread across 100 countries. But, it’s not one great big recruitment drive.
Of course, we’d love to swell the numbers at our Chabad Houses (who wouldn’t?). Our rabbis-in-training do often log how many Tefillin-takers they’ve had in a day. But, Chabad isn’t into membership and doesn’t see fellow Jews merely as potential converts.
If we’d decide to focus on enlistment, we’d have to shake up our modus operandi.
Take my college campus colleagues, for example. They’ll host you for free Shabbat dinners from freshman year until you graduate. They’ll be your teacher, therapist, tour operator, even matchmaker. Then you’ll qualify, settle elsewhere and possibly never see them again.
We have friends who live on tropical Islands in both the tropics and the Pacific. You bet that I’d love to play guest speaker on their turf, maybe annually. Palms and beaches are beautiful, but it’s not simple to cater to their hi-and-bye tourist “communities”.
The Chabadnik who offers you a curbside lulav shake or profers Shabbat candles in the mall, wants your mitzvah, not your email address.
Our Rebbe, who launched this worldwide phenomenon of Jewish outreach, did not build an operation focused on numbers. He built it around people. And he drilled into his agents how to view those people. Not as targets, or potentials, but as Jews just as sacred as themselves.
This Shabbos will commemorate twenty-five years since the Rebbe’s passing. Quite aptly, we’ll read the Torah portion of Korach this very Shabbos. Korach was an outspoken rebel. Some would call him a wicked “rasha“. Would Korach be alive today, most of our religious organisations would shun him. The Rebbe’s take on Korach is a revolutionary glimpse into how he saw people. His teachings on this episode offer a window into the maverick attitude of his Chassidim, who scour the world, trying to ignite Jewish souls.
The Zohar– Judaism’s key Kabbalistic tome- profiles three notable Biblical characters: Noah, Abraham and Moses. The Zohar is critical of Noah. He was happy to safeguard his family, as G-d had instructed him to, ahead of the Great Flood. He made no attempt to petition for the rest of humankind, which is seen as his deficiency.
Abraham, on the other hand, arm-wrestled G-d to try to save the rogue cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He was convinced that he’d find a handful of righteous citizens and that their merit would save the masses. When he could find no good people, Abraham was stymied.
Moses, by contrast, didn’t seek pious individuals to rescue a wayward majority. He wrangled on behalf of “bad” Jews, who worshipped a calf and rejected G-d’s Promised Land. He convinced G-d not to destroy those recalcitrant Jews. And the Zohar is impressed.
But, when the wealthy and privileged Korach challenges Moses, as we’ll read this week, he buckles. He might tolerate Korach, but he can’t defend his behaviour. Moses asks G-d to dispose of the rebels.
The Rebbe’s take on Korach is mind-blowing. Here’s a doomed man who goes down in history as the worst Jewish rabble-rouser ever. And the Rebbe says, “Yes, but you must pay attention to nuance. G-d chose to name a Torah portion after that man”. Think about that. You and I might never have a Torah essay named for us, let alone a portion of Scripture. Commentaty paints Korach as evil, yet the Rebbe focuses on the fact that his name is in lights in our holiest book.
On Korach Shabboses, the Rebbe would redefine Korach. Korach was an idealist. Korach wanted every Jew to access heightened spirituality. Korach wished to experience his spiritual essence. Korach yearned to live in a Messianic reality.
The Rebbe would paraphrase Rashi’s opening comment on the parsha, “this story is beautifully elucidated in the Midrash” into “this story urges us to elucidate the beauty of the Korachesque Jew”. If you find a Jew disagreeable, look deeper. When you peel away his objectionable sheath, you will find that a pure, dedicated Jew has always lived inside.
Korach was not “not yet Chabad” or “not yet religious” or “off the derech“. He was a fully-fledged Jew with a fully-functioning soul that he had forgotten how to access. If we encounter Korach-looking Jews, our job is clear the cobwebs and reignite the glow of their souls. We certainly should never label them as trouble and discard them.
I’d love to know what the Zohar would have said about the Rebbe.
The celebrated philanthropist, George Rohr once proudly reported to the Rebbe how 200 Jews with “no Jewish background” had attended Rosh Hashanah services that he had organised. The Rebbe was aghast. “Go tell those Jews that they are all children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah”, the Rebbe urged him. No Jew is without background. Or value.
To the Rebbe, there are no orphan Jews or lost Jews or unaffiliated Jews or bad Jews. There are Jews. Each has a soul. Each is inherently holy.
Thousands of people would visit the Rebbe weekly for his blessing and counsel. Hundreds of them have recorded their stories. You’d be fascinated to see how the Rebbe encouraged those people to grow within their respective Jewish affiliations. He encouraged Chassidim to retain their distinctive garb and dialect and Litvish Jews to build greater Torah centres. He spurred authors and artists to spread healthy values and nudged Israeli leaders to bolster Judaism. He taught businesspoeple to turn their offices into hubs of charity and their networks into tools to inspire fellow Jews. And he encouraged every Jew to become more actively Jewish. Not more Chabad, not more Jewish, more involved.
To the Rebbe, the Jew you were was good enough. You didn’t have to change your nusach or don a black fedora or sign up as a Chabadnik. He believed that any such demands would have implied that you were deficient- and that only Chabad could rescue you. To the Rebbe you were whole, you just needed to appreciate it. He pushed you to keep growing, not because you were lacking, but because you had so much more potential to unleash.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks captures it in a line, “You saw your reflection in the Rebbe’s eyes, and you were suddenly much bigger than you thought you were.”
And that’s what Chabadniks have been trained to do: Help ignite the soul-power in the next person- even if we never get to see that Jew again.
This Shabbos, we’ll read about Korach and we’ll think about the Rebbe. Hopefully, we’ll rethink our fellow Jews, strip them of those ubiquitous divise labels and recognize them as sparks of G-d, extensions of our own souls. That will take us one great step- we hope it will be the final step- to Moshiach.