As I returned to Oxford, England, from the funeral of the Lubavitcher Rebbe 27 years ago, I penned a tribute to my teacher and mentor’s life on the plane. I called it “The Colossus and Me” and published it the next day.
It discussed my relationship with the Rebbe, how he had inspired me to become a rabbi, how he had sent me to Sydney and then to Oxford, and how he had rescued the Jewish religion from terminal global decline.
In the same way that without Theodor Herzl there would not be a State of Israel as we know it, without the Rebbe there would not be a global Jewish community as we know it. Judaism would have been reduced to pockets in a few international cities like New York and Los Angeles and, of course, Israel. The rest would almost certainly have disappeared.
I published the column three days after the Rebbe died. It went viral in publications around the world. Till today people in Chabad stop me and comment on it.
That was 27 years ago. But referring to the Rebbe even then as a colossus did not do justice to his legacy. Little did I know that just over a quarter of a century later, his influence would burst like a supernova. In 3,300 years of the Jewish faith, we have never seen anything like it.
On Saturday night I took my family to the Rebbe’s grave for prayers on his yahrzeit. We went at 1 a.m. to avoid the long lines. Fuggetaboutit. We waited more than an hour in a line that was longer than the worst TSA nightmare in any airport, and this even though it was a moving line that did not stop. Perhaps ten thousand men and women were there at that ungodly hour. I’m guessing that another 50,000 would have visited over the next 24 hours.
Few modern religious leaders on earth – of any faith – can command that kind of following. This, of course, is besides the thousands of Chabad Houses and Jewish institutions in hundreds of cities the world over that have sprouted in the Rebbe’s name and due to his influence. Chabad has now become the de facto face of Judaism worldwide.
How can a man continue to electrify the world from beyond the grave? How can he continue to inspire young men and women, newly married, to leave their families and all that they know to travel across the world and live forever in a foreign land in order to cater to the needs of complete strangers?
I have been fortunate in my life to meet personalities in positions of authority. I have seen that few, if any, are immune to just small hints of corruption. Friends of mine who have made a lot of money change, even just a little. They become more conceited, more arrogant, more self-satisfied. Those who become politically powerful change even more. Yes, they have time for the little people – that is, if they still need those little people for votes.
The Rebbe could not have been more different. In the 27 years since his death, I have gone over in my mind countless times every aspect of his life as I knew it. I was fortunate to have had a personal relationship with him, and he took a serious interest in my work as his emissary at the University of Oxford, partial as he was to great academic centers of learning. In everything I have thought through, I cannot identify an area of corruption, not even to a minute degree.
Don’t get me wrong. The Rebbe was a human being, not an angel. He was of flesh and blood and not merely spirit. He lived, he led, and he died.
But he was absolutely incorruptible. Countless critics of Chabad have poured over every last detail of his life, and they have found the same. A man without a hint of scandal and with no identifiable self-interest. He wanted the Jewish people to flourish with their faith, Israel to be strong, and humanity to rededicate itself to acts of loving-kindness.
Who has ever heard of a world-renowned spiritual authority who lived the last decade of his life in a tiny office; who never took a single vacation, or a single day off, in the 40-odd years he headed the world’s largest Jewish spiritual movement; who stood on his feet every Sunday to meet thousands of common-folk and give them a personal blessing; and died with almost no money or estate to speak of? How was it possible that a man with that level of power and influence could have emerged without having changed in the slightest or benefited personally from his position?
IN THIS lies the secret to the inspiration he continues to provide to the world Chabad movement.
Each of us is born a believer. If you tell a child that the moon is made of green cheese, he will believe you. Only that when he later discovers that it is not true, he will doubt your next statement. As we mature we become cynical because we discover the world’s imperfections and human corruptibility. We cease believing in politicians, convinced as we are that for the most part they put their personal interests before the public interest. We doubt even our parents and those who love us most, because we discover they, too, are imperfect and made mistakes in how they raised us. But all along, deep down, we still want to believe.
And when you’re fortunate enough to find a personality who doesn’t let you down, who remains a pillar of righteousness and is above any consideration of personal interest, you latch on to that personality and you march in his footsteps.
This was the Rebbe’s greatest achievement. He took a people decimated by the Holocaust and caused them to believe in God’s providence and human goodness again.
The growth of Chabad is due to many factors. Chabad inculcates an entrepreneurial spirit in its youth that makes them bold risk-takers who are far less susceptible to the fear of failure than the general population. They marry young with little thought as to how they will support families, and they build institutions the world over without the knowledge of how they will fund their activities.
They have faith in their faith. They believe that hard work will itself provide blessing and solutions. From Chabad they also receive a deep-seated Jewish pride that allows them to go to secular communities without being ashamed of their lifestyle or appearance.
But more than anything else, what accounts for the growth of Chabad is the Rebbe’s righteous example that is before them at all times. When you have a leader who exemplified true selflessness, your altruism increases exponentially.