The Rebbe believed in us, more than we, sometimes, believe in ourselves. No, the Rebbe did not see “disabilities” in people; he saw their abilities and their real worth. He never focused on what we lacked physically; he focused on what we possessed spiritually. And he never spoke about what we cannot do; he spoke about what we can, and should, do.Rabbi Allouche
Tonight and tomorrow, Jews worldwide will be marking the twenty-sixth anniversary since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, one of the most influential Jewish leaders of all times.
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 came from a rare combination of exceptional wisdom, unconditional love, and sublime holiness. 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. His inspiring weltanschauung, his ever-shining model, and the unwavering faith that he had in each of us and in our ability to become God’s agents of goodness and change the world, continue to mold us and guide us every day. And his saintly teachings continue to rewire our brains and infuse meaning and purpose into our lives.
So, here is a humble attempt to provide a glimpse into three of the Rebbe’s ever-relevant ideas:
1. It’s Not About You. It’s About What You Were Called To Do
In 1988, Mr. Gordon Zaks, an American businessman, visited the Rebbe. As Mr. Zaks walked into the room, the Rebbe greeted him warmly, and exclaimed: “It’s been many years that I have not seen you….” The Rebbe then proceeded to remind Mr. Zaks of the conversation they had in their prior meeting about Jewish education.
Mr. Zaks, who was astonished that the Rebbe had remembered him and their conversation after so many years, declared: “Rebbe, you’re amazing! It’s been nineteen years since I last saw you, and you remember that!”
But, without skipping a beat, the Rebbe retorted: “And what will be the benefit for the community that I am amazing?”
In 1978, NASA Professor Velvl Greene, a world-renowned epidemiologist, asked the Rebbe if he could fulfill his profound desire to move to Israel. In a beautiful two-page letter, the Rebbe advised him to stay in America.
The Rebbe wrote to him: “It is surely unnecessary to emphasize to you again that the only reason for my opinion that you ought to continue in the USA is that American Jewry, and especially the younger generation, have a priority claim on your services to help permeate them with Yiddishkeit (Jewish values), especially after you have had such considerable Hatzlocho (success) in this area…”
The Rebbe’s message — as demonstrated in both of these exchanges, and in so many more — is profound. We may be “amazing.” We may also desire to move to a different place. But life is not about what we are and what we desire for ourselves. Rather, it is about what we are called to do, and what God, and our surroundings, desire from us.
This is the way the Rebbe lived his life – a life that knew not one day of vacation; a life that knew no sleep; a life that knew no taking. At every given moment, in every place, and with every person, the Rebbe sought to give of himself without end. If only, we could learn from his example, and give and give and give, without ever asking “what’s in it for me?”
2. Never Underestimate Your Real Worth
My dear mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, 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 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.”
Shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a delegation of “Disabled Veterans,” of the IDF, visited the Rebbe. In this extraordinary meeting, the Rebbe challenged these “disabled veterans”, who had been wounded during this devastating war, to see themselves not as “disabled,” but as “exceptional.”
With visible gentleness and love, the Rebbe explained to them: “If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that G‑d has given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails and to surpass the achievements of ordinary people. You are not “disabled” or “handicapped,” but exceptional and unique, as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not.”
As these stories, and so many others, reveal, the Rebbe believed in us, more than we, sometimes, believe in ourselves. No, the Rebbe did not see “disabilities” in people; he saw their abilities and their real worth. He never focused on what we lacked physically; he focused on what we possessed spiritually. And he never spoke about what we cannot do; he spoke about what we can, and should, do.
Imagine if we adopted the vision of the Rebbe, and saw our friends and neighbors, even the most “disabled” ones, as champions of the world who can achieve what seems to them as impossible. Imagine if we focused on the infinite potential in ourselves and in people. Would our world then not become a better and brighter place?
3. Every Challenge Is An Opportunity of Growth
In 1987, after prevailing over a deeply painful challenge, which also affected his disciples across the world, the Rebbe delivered an address with the following insight:
“When a person is confronted with a challenge, he must see the challenge as a Divine mission… Of course, G-d could have caused events to happen in a pain-free manner of obvious and revealed good. But G-d creates challenges so that their apparent descent can propel us to ascend even higher than ever before. Therefore, we must now do more, and realize our full potential.”
A youngster once asked the Rebbe why life is so difficult. “Why do I have to face so many difficulties and challenges?” he asked.
The Rebbe answered with a brilliant analogy. “Let me ask you a question,” he said to this young man. “Why are paintings so much more expensive then photographs? After all, paintings are full of inaccuracies, while photographs capture every detail perfectly!”
The young man remained silent. “I’ll tell you why,” the Rebbe said. “When an artist paints, his soul paints with him. You can almost sense his emotions and his challenges in every stroke of the brush. The camera, on the other hand, is cold, dry, and robotic.”
And the Rebbe continued: “G-d has many “cameras” in heaven. They are his angels. They never make mistakes, and their vision is perfect. But they are robotic. But we, human beings, are G-d’s portraits. Our freedom of choice, and the fluctuations and challenges that are part and parcel of our existence, create the beautiful portrait of our lives.”
The Rebbe lived these words. His life was replete with unfathomable challenges. In communist Russia, where he was raised, his own father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, was arrested and torture in Stalin’s infamous prisons, for his activities on behalf of Judaism. He was then sentenced to five years of exile in Central Asia, where he later passed away. The Rebbe then moved to Europe which saw the rise of the evil Nazi party and the extermination of millions of Jews. The Rebbe’s own brother, Dovber, was murdered by the Nazi machine. Miraculously, the Rebbe and his wife were able to escape to the United States in the summer of 1941, where he was faced with the daunting task of rebuilding Jewish life everywhere.
Yet, within the many moments of crisis, the Rebbe saw blooming buds of blessings. In every pain, he found gain. And from every suffering, he emerged with renewed vigor and joy. As he so poignantly quipped: “Imagine you could open your eyes and see only the good in every person, the positive in every circumstance, and the opportunity in every challenge.”
As we connect to the Rebbe and his everlasting teachings today, let us commit to making up for his physical absence, with his spiritual presence in our own lives.
In the Rebbe’s honor, may we fulfill what we were called to do. May we realize our true worth, and act upon it, at all times. And may we turn our every challenge into opportunities of growth, and increase our deeds of goodness, without reservation.