Last Friday, the eleventh day of Nissan in the Jewish calendar, was the 111th anniversary of the birth of the Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
He inspires me a lot. I don’t think you need to be Jewish to be feel this way about him; I don’t think you even necessarily need to be religious – yet. His wisdom, energy, positivity, work-rate and love remain a shining example to anyone.
The Rebbe’s life story is intriguing. He was born in Ukraine, spent time in France and Germany, before transforming himself, somewhat reluctantly, from an electrical engineer into the most charismatic religious leader of modern times.
Based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he became the heart and soul of Chabad for 43 years; a mesmerising, talismanic force who revolutionised the organisation and touched the hearts of millions, mine included.
For a readable, concise and balanced account of his life, I recommend chapter four in Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army. Yet it is his words that will blow you away, so do read Tzvi Freeman’s lovingly-compiled book of the Rebbe’s wisdom, Bringing Heaven Down To Earth.
I like to randomly choose a page at the beginning of the week, and then reflect on the quote on that page throughout the week. If you read Freeman’s book, I hope it mesmerises you, too.
You may even find it blows your mind.
The Rebbe’s charisma and presence were legendary, you can see them in action in this archive of short videos. When I listen to friends who met him describe the experience, the magic of it all comes out in their words. I love how he encouraged people who were already doing good to do a bit more, to try a bit harder.
Like many great thinkers, he could turn things on their heads in the most beautiful way. For instance, as Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains in this speech, the Rebbe conjured a remarkable response to the horror of the Shoah. He decided: “If the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love.”
And love poured out of him, right until the end. When asked how, into his 80s, he found the strength to stand for hours and greet long lines of visitors, he answered that, as every human being is a precious jewel, how could he grow tired counting diamonds?
In one of his last major speeches, the Rebbe passed the torch on to his followers. “So I have done my part,” he told the Lubavitchers, “from this point on, you do whatever you can.”
He did more than his part. And that exhortation of his to his visitors keeps coming back to me: just keep trying a bit harder.