My inspiration was certainly not humility, a virtue that at the time was in too short a supply with me. But few join Lubavitch because of humility. It wasn't even a love for truth that moved me, although that did figure as well. Rather it was my sense of ambition that made me join Lubavitch. There can be no question in my mind that many others joined Lubavitch for the same reason. If you wanted to translate the eternal human dream of a perfect world into reality, only one man spoke of it seriously: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The Rebbe was a colossus, a giant among men. He appealed both to the pious as well as the powerful, people whose desire for success was as great as that of any Harvard Business School graduate. Instead of following other opportunities, these motivated men and women chose to follow the Rebbe. They understood that the Rebbe provided a framework within which to maximize their fullest potential, while simultaneously allowing others to benefit from it.
When I first saw the Rebbe, I was ten years old. What I remember most was the holes in his shoes. That the world's most famous rabbi and leader of hundreds of thousands could have holes in his shoes both surprised and delighted me. I realized that his position didn't go to his head--he could remain humble amidst awesome power and influence. He was utterly selfless and had the spiritual capacity to put himself in other people's predicaments and experience their pains and their joys.
He said to me, "You are currently embarking on your journey into adult life. You are too young to give up on yourself so soon, and you have many great things which you must accomplish." He then said words that I shall never forget: "I give you a blessing for your Bar Mitzvah, that you will grow to be a source of inspiration, joy, and nachas for your family, your school, and for the entire Jewish people." It was clear to me that it was of deep concern to him whether or not I did something with my life to aid humanity. Listening to him, I began to believe that I was capable of doing so, and that my life was not arbitrary. I came out of that office feeling that I had been put on this earth to achieve great things and that if I failed to do so there would be no excuses, for everything was in my power.
It was this capacity to look into the individual, assess the needs, and give comfort to each according to his own station that attracted so many to the Rebbe. In him, people sensed a safe haven, for he accepted each person as he was without judgment or condescension. He did not chide his followers for failing to conform to one mold, but rather accounted each man for his individual merits. I witnessed one of the most remarkable examples of this capacity when I went to visit the Rebbe with a friend who had left Lubavitch several years earlier.
The Rebbe sought to change the entire world as we know it. In his mitzvah campaign, he aimed to bring peace between all humankind, from husbands and wives, to two passers-by on the street. His campaign for the coming of the Messiah sought to conquer death itself. Indeed, he saw death as a potentially curable disease. While the armies of nations attempt to protect their citizens from the dangers of enemies and terrorists, the Rebbe sought to protect man from himself by counseling thousands out of depression and despondency and teaching them how to rebuild their lives. And while self-help guides are always encouraging people to lead good lives, the Rebbe taught them to begin with one good deed and never to deny the power of that simple action.
The Rebbe feared nothing, believing that man, like the eternal G-d in whose image he was created, could rise above any experience and ultimately forge his own destiny. In the Rebbe's world there were no obstacles and no impediments. If man wanted to get something done, it was in his power to simply do it in spite of the cynicism of experts who said it could not be achieved. The Rebbe believed that man had the complete capacity to rule and conquer his environment. When frightened Jews in South Africa wrote to him years ago expressing their wish to flee the country, he told them to stay. When the Lubavitch emissaries in Morocco proposed that it was no longer safe to remain, the Rebbe responded that they must do so. When many orthodox Yeshiva students fled Israel in the wake of the Gulf War, the Rebbe directed everybody to hold firm and stand as they were. Conventional thought always saw the hatred of a fanatic or the turbulence of government as being more powerful than the infinite soul possessed by every human. But the Rebbe taught man to be invincible.
At the Rebbe's funeral there were those who danced, saying it was forbidden to cry. The Rebbe was the Messiah, they said, and would be resurrected at any moment. What disturbed me about their conviction was that they denied the Rebbe his humanity. They refused to allow his death to disrupt their lives. This reaction would have us believe that if the Rebbe was not himself the Messiah, or did not himself bring the Messiah, then his life was in vain, as if he had accomplished nothing. That view is an abomination, for no Jew of the turbulent 20th century did more to advance the cause of the Jewish people than the Rebbe. He was our towering light, our beacon in despair. I hoped with my heart and soul that the Rebbe was the Messiah because I truly long for the perfection of society and civilization. But in the final analysis, the question of whether he was or not was never really important to me.I could not have been more impressed with him even if he was. This man changed my life, taught me about G-d as a living reality, and influenced me to go to Oxford with my newlywed wife when we were both barely in our twenties, to serve as Rabbi there for eleven years. He may not have been the world's Messiah. But he certainly was mine.
The fact that the Messiah did not come in the Rebbe's lifetime does not in any way diminish his phenomenal and unprecedented achievements on behalf of humanity. The fact that the Rebbe did not live to see the perfect world for which he endeavored so hard does not lessen the undeniable fact that he served to bring the world so much closer to redemption and perfection. In this sense, he played a most pivotal role in the messianic process, perhaps more than any who preceded him.
The fact that the Rebbe was human was his real greatness. He made godliness a tangible reality, and he helped bring G-d back down to earth.