2016-06-30
From the age of nine I had visions of grandeur. Like so many boys at that age, I envisioned myself as President of the United States or some other world figure. I was going to be a leader and not just a follower. I saw myself barking orders and wielding vast power. But by the time of my Bar Mitzvah four years later, when I officially considered myself a Lubavitch disciple, I had completely reoriented not just my life, but my aspirations. I chose to become a Hasid, a follower of someone else. What could have encouraged me to abandon my aspirations of leadership and choose to forever remain an adherent and a devotee?

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.

I saw this quality most strikingly in the only private meeting I was ever privileged to have with him. When I was 13 I was already somewhat disillusioned with life. I spent most of my time at home watching television and most of my time at school flirting with the girls. My parents had had an acrimonious divorce, which told me in little whispers, "Why grow up if this is what there is to look forward to?" I had grown close to the Lubavitcher movement in Miami Beach through summer camp and my close friend, Shneur Zalman Fellig. One young Lubavitch student arranged for me to have a private audience with the Rebbe. Going in, I was cynical about this experience, too. As I entered the Rebbe's office, I was more interested in studying the bookshelves than I was at gazing at the face of the great tzaddik [righteous man]. He proceeded to read the long letter I had written about the dark moments of my parents' divorce and the negative effect it had upon me. When he finished reading, he lifted his deep blue eyes. Where before I had seen a look of authority, I now saw in his eyes a sea of infinite kindness.

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.

This man had joined Lubavitch in his late teens, but was consumed by personal problems and renounced his affiliation. He later became engaged to a non-Jewish woman. Most of his Lubavitch friends considered him a lost cause and gave up contact with him, but the Rebbe treated him differently. Once, in a throng of people, the Rebbe caught sight of this man. He put down his wine and held up his arms to welcome him with a smile that brought the man to tears. The Rebbe continued to correspond with the man. His actions proved that Jewishness is not contingent upon one's deeds. The Rebbe never denied us because of our faults. This embracing characteristic, this sense of acceptance and care, has inspired Lubavitchers the world over and allowed them to penetrate the most remote corners of the world, bringing thousands to respect and adore Judaism and its teachings of godliness and goodness.

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.

The Rebbe now is absent in a physical sense, but his spirit, and his belief in the invincibility of man in his pursuit of the world's perfection through messianic redemption, still challenge us. Since he so profoundly affected all of world Jewry, it falls to every one of us, each and every week of our lives, to honor his memory by doing at least one positive action which we might not have done otherwise. By doing so we will be demonstrating that, like any saintly individual who continues to inspire his or her disciples, he is still among us. As long as the Rebbe's ideas, principles, and vision continue to shape our lives, he still lives.

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.

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