Walking Among the Ruins of Hitler’s Europe on the Day of the Rebbe’s Passing
Today, the third of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, marks the 23rd anniversary of the passing of my teacher, mentor and guiding light: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to us simply as “the Rebbe.”
Every year, this day takes its toll. I miss the Rebbe dearly, and yearn to hear his voice again. His was a voice that shone with confidence, sparkled with love and shimmered with its steadfast promise of hope.
To me, that promise of hope represented the central pillar of the Rebbe’s eternal message — that mankind, despite the horrors and confusions of this world, still had hope.
The Rebbe dedicated his life, and the lives of all those drawn into his mission, to perfecting the world and bringing about the Messianic age, where “men would beat their swords into plowshares and…no longer learn the art of war.” God’s light, the Rebbe promised, would soon shine so brightly that all the world’s moral failings and doleful defects would simply disappear amid its glow.
The Rebbe inherited the mantle of leadership just five years after the Holocaust and mankind’s greatest war. During the 44 years of his service, the world would experience up to eight more genocides and dozens of more wars. Five of those wars would be visited upon the state of Israel, and countless terrorist attacks would be perpetrated against its citizens. Jews also began to disappear through assimilation at record rates, as our millennia-old traditions began to fade away. On all fronts, it seemed, the Jewish people and their world were deteriorating, and hope seemed to loom ever more distant with every passing year.
The Rebbe, however, refused to see it that way. He found — in every event — another reason to believe that God would soon redeem the earth and perfect it for all of his children.
When the UN was founded, the Rebbe viewed it as the realization of Isaiah’s prophecies that nations would soon band together in pursuit of peace over power. When Israel faced increasingly dire threats, the Rebbe promised (presciently, indeed) that the Jewish state would see stunning victories. Why? Because God was slowly easing himself into the world, thereby forcing evil into decline. And when Israel actually achieved those victories, the Rebbe proclaimed that those victories were miracles, heralding our ascent into a better time.
Finally, if the Jewish people were becoming increasingly illiterate in their faith, the Rebbe saw only a responsibility — and opportunity — to bring them back to the fold with acts of loving kindness, thereby proving the deepest possible link that all men possessed with their creator. He viewed this link as so strong that it would serve as the ultimate testament to the fact that we had finally earned God’s promises of a perfect world. So deeply did the Rebbe believe that we would march together into the Messianic age — where “death will be swallowed forever” — that he refused to appoint a successor. In fact, the Rebbe hoped to such a point that he could not fathom failure. With the Rebbe, there was no Plan B.
The Rebbe, in short, refused to see the darkness, opting instead to focus on the inevitably-extant sunshine that belies all shadows. And, in so doing, the Rebbe lit up our world.
Today, I could really use that light.
I’m currently writing from Berlin, where I’ve come to see firsthand the sites where Hitler planned his Final Solution, and set it into monstrous motion.
I find even a passing thought about the Holocaust to be, on a certain level, paralyzing. As I wander the halls of a white mansion in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee where — just 75 years ago — German officials sipped champagne, smoked cigars and planned the mass extermination of six million of my Jewish brethren, the disintegration of hope seems complete. As I walk out of the elegant Berlin villa, the world has taken on a darker shade.
Today, I find that I must latch onto the Rebbe — and the hope that he represented — more than ever before.
The Holocaust, to me, does not just represent the brutality of the Nazis, but rather stands as a damning testament to the brokenness of our world. As children died of starvation in their mothers’ arms, as men were shot by firing squads in front of their families, as women and children were herded into the gas chambers — where was God? Where was his strident hand of justice, which promises to visit doom upon evil men? Where was his ringing voice of righteousness, which proclaims the sanctity of human life? Where was his warming caress of compassion, which promises us comfort in times of sorrow? God, and the hope that he represented in our world, seems to have dissipated along with the bodies of millions of innocent Jews into the clouds of smoke that plumed above the death camps that I have come to visit.
Today, too, my inclination toward cynicism drives forth on an abundance of fuel. On the world stage, crematoria are still churning out smoke in Syria, and hundreds of thousands there have been slaughtered at the hands of the butcher of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad. Iranian mullahs continue to call for the wholesale slaughter and destruction of my people. In Lebanon and Gaza, hundreds of thousands of rockets remain dug into position, poised to strike innocent Israeli families.
And on a domestic level, too, brokenness is everywhere. Families across America are failing; divorce is at an all time high. My fellow Americans feel increasingly fractured at their source, with millions now turning to opioids and other drugs in the hope that something might just serve to numb the pain. How can I, in this misery, still cling to hope?
And that’s when I remember the Rebbe.
When I was a boy, the Rebbe responded to a letter that I had written expressing the deep pain I had felt since my parents’ divorce. I gave him that letter in a private audience. The Rebbe blessed me. And rather than wallow in my own darkness, he demanded that I become a light to my family, my school, my people and the entire world instead. In his words, however, I found not just a blessing, but a mission — one defined by action over mulling, and confidence over despair.
And so, as I walk among the remains of the Nazi regime and the death camps that it built in its mad program of murder, I refuse to lose sight of my mission and its foremost objective: to act in whatever way I can to bring light into this jaded world.
It’s not a mission that I alone can complete. Nor do I believe that it’s a goal mankind can achieve as a whole. But God can. And as the Jewish sages instructed us, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to exempt yourself entirely.”
We need only to do what we can. God will do all the rest.
This year, let us all re-commit to the hope and action that defined the Rebbe’s legacy. Let us not be beaten down by the enormity of this task, but march forth astutely, with confidence in our power as people to inch toward a perfect world.
With people, families and entire nations so deeply mired in turmoil, there is simply no Plan B.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.