Six Myths the Lubavitcher Rebbe Debunked
This Shabbat, Jews worldwide will be marking the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, one of the most influential Jewish leaders of all time.
Much ink has been spilled on the Rebbe and his unparalleled influence. While most leaders focus on their own constituents and following, the Rebbe was a leader of the world and all of humanity. And with his transcendent persona, the Rebbe successfully resuscitated a post-Holocaust generation by breathing into it new hope for a better future, and by arming it with a relentless mission to heal and rebuild our world with unconditional love.
But above all, the Rebbe changed the way we think and therefore act. Excuses that sought to stifle our growth were disproved. Social norms that aimed to turn us into creatures of habit were overturned. Preconceived notions that shackled our potential were removed. And myths that were thought of as truths were debunked.
Here is a sample of revolutionary lessons and ideas that the Rebbe gave our world:
1. No Such Thing as “Follower”
In 1964, Israeli thinker, activist, and former Knesset member Geulah Cohen had a private audience with the Rebbe that lasted over two hours. A few days later, she described this meeting as life-changing.
In her words, “I have been in the company of wise men of great learning and intelligence. … But sitting opposite a true believer is quite a different matter. After having met a wise man you remain the same as before — you have become neither less of a fool nor more of a sage. Not so with a believer. After having met him you are no longer the same. … For the true believer believes in you as well.”
Similarly, former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recently spoke about his life-altering meeting with the Rebbe during his years as a student at Cambridge. “Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation [at Cambridge], but to change it,” Lord Sacks revealed.
He concluded, “That was when I realized what I have said many times since: That the world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: That a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.”
2. No Such Thing As “Overworked”
My dear mentor, world-scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, once shared with me that in his last communication with the Rebbe, he asked the Rebbe whether he should be slowing down, as his plate was overflowingly full. At the time, Rabbi Steinsaltz was involved in three full time jobs: scholarly writing, outreach work in Russia, and a network of schools in Israel. The Rebbe’s reply to Rabbi Steinsaltz was typical: “Continue to do all these things and to do more things and work even harder.”
This was the Rebbe’s approach with every person he encountered. He was never satisfied with past deeds, as glorious as they may have been. Rather, he always challenged us to do more, to be more, each and every day. The Rebbe once said, “Every living thing must grow!”
Why? Because he believed in us and our infinite potential. And he knew that as much as we may have achieved yesterday, there is still so much more we can achieve today, and even more so tomorrow.
As Rabbi Steinsaltz observed, “The Rebbe wanted to change our very nature, from living as ordinary people with ordinary dealings to becoming extraordinary people, with extraordinary achievement.”
3. No Such Thing As “Stuck”
In the winter of 1967, a group of young ladies called the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask for a blessing. They were “stuck” at the Detroit Airport on a Friday afternoon, and their flight home to New York had been canceled.
They spoke briefly with the Rebbe’s secretary, and after putting them on hold for a short while, he returned with a reply from the Rebbe: “The Rebbe doesn’t understand the word ‘stuck.’”
They tried to explain to him what the term “stuck” means, but the secretary interrupted them, saying, “The Rebbe knows what ‘stuck’ means. But the Rebbe says that a person is never stuck.”
They understood the Rebbe’s wise advice, and they rose to the occasion. Shortly thereafter, they ran around the airport, smiling at strangers, lending their support, and igniting souls with the light of Judaism.
The Rebbe’s words taught this group, and us all, that there is no such thing as “stuck.” Indeed, every moment has a Divine call. Every place has a holy purpose. Every person has a vital role to play on the many stages of God’s world.
4. No Such Thing As “Disabled”
Shortly after the Yom Kippur war of 1973, a group of “Disabled Veterans” of the IDF visited the Rebbe. Joseph Cabiliv — a veteran whose legs were amputated after his jeep hit a Syrian mine on the Golan Heights — was privy to this special meeting with the Rebbe, in which the Rebbe challenged them to see themselves not as “disabled,” but as “exceptional.”
Here is how Joseph chronicled this encounter with the Rebbe:
“The Rebbe passed between us, resting his glance on each one of us. From that terrible day on which I had woken without my legs in the Rambam Hospital, I have seen all sorts of things in the eyes of those who looked at me: pain, pity, revulsion, anger. But this was the first time in all those years that I encountered true empathy. With that glance that scarcely lasted a second and the faint smile on his lips, the Rebbe conveyed to me that he is with me — utterly and exclusively with me.
“The Rebbe then began to speak, after apologizing for his Ashkenazic-accented Hebrew. He spoke about our ‘disability,’ saying that he objected to the use of the term. ‘If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty,’ he told us, ‘this itself indicates that G-d has given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails and to surpass the achievements of ordinary people. You are not “disabled” or “handicapped,” but exceptional and unique, as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not.’
“‘I therefore suggest,’ he continued, adding with a smile ‘of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them — that you should no longer be called nechei Yisrael (“the disabled of Israel,” our designation in the Tsahal bureaucracy) but metzuyanei Yisrael (“the exceptional of Israel”).'”
Indeed, the Rebbe did not see “disabilities” in people. Rather, he chose to focus on their abilities. He never saw what we lacked physically. Instead, he saw what we possessed spiritually.
Imagine if we saw “disabled” people of all kinds as the Rebbe saw them. Imagine if we saw our friends and neighbors, even the most “disabled” ones, as champions of the world. Imagine if we saw our fellow beings, even at their lowest state, and during their lowest hours, as beacons of mankind. Would our world then not become a better and happier place?
5. No Such Thing As “Retirement”
Mrs. Chana Sharfstein, a noted author and educator, once visited the Rebbe in honor of her son’s 13th Bar Mitzvah birthday.
“We had discussed everything we planned to when the Rebbe surprised me by asking about my uncle, Rabbi Note Zuber of Roselle, New Jersey,” Mrs. Sharfstein recounted. She responded that “he was doing well, thank G-d, and he had just retired.” Upon hearing these words, the Rebbe shook his head and said, “Retired, what does that mean?”
The Rebbe rejected the notion that people ought to “retire” and stop working. We may explore other vocations and channel our talents and experience into different avenues. But we cannot retire from life and from our Divine purpose to continue to make a difference in our world, each in our own way.
This gem of wisdom perhaps also reveals the hidden ingredient behind the greatness of every giant of history: they never stopped growing. No matter the challenge. No matter the circumstance. No matter the age (the Rebbe once quipped: “I am not as old as I am on my passport!”) And this is what made them robustly alive, and truly great.
6. No Such Thing As “Passivity”
In 1974, the then Chief Rabbi of North Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, journeyed to New York to visit the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and seek his advice and blessing.
Over the course of their conversation, the Rebbe asked Rabbi Lau what was the mood “in the streets of Israel,” as people were just beginning to recover from the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur war in which close to 3,000 Israelis were killed and over 9,000 wounded.
Rabbi Lau responded that people are asking, “What will be?”
The Rebbe refused to hear these words. He grabbed Rabbi Lau’s arm and exclaimed, “Jews don’t ask: ‘What will be?’ Jews ask: ‘What are we going to do?'”
This was the Rebbe’s approach to all of life’s tribulations. Passivity was not in his vocabulary. Inaction was never a legitimate response. The question of “what will be” belongs to the passive and visionless being, roaming through life without a direction of purpose and meaning.
But the Rebbe believed in a different route. He asked not “what will be,” but “what are we going to do?” And with this question, he challenged Rabbi Lau, and us all, to become true leaders and difference-makers, who rise from the challenges of the past and the present to march forward and upward into the opportunities of the future with unending deeds of goodness and kindness.
Today, 25 years after the Rebbe’s passing, we are left with the Rebbe’s question of “what are we going to do?” ringing in our ears. For we each face challenges and moments of despair. But the Rebbe believed that actions are more powerful than sighs; that the acts of hope are mightier than feelings of despair; and that achievements that generate light are so much stronger than any type of darkness we may face.
Personally, I miss the Rebbe terribly.
I miss his penetrating gaze that set my soul ablaze. I miss his all-embracing smile that filled my being with warmth. I miss his unconditional love that made the small child that I was feel like a giant of mankind. And I miss his words of advice that came from a rare combination of exceptional wisdom and sublime holiness. Sometimes I wonder how different our world would be today if the Rebbe was still physically with us.
But we must make up for his physical absence with his spiritual presence in our own lives. And we ought to continue to learn from the Rebbe, his weltanschauung, and his ever-shining model, by becoming agents of goodness and ambassadors of healing in our broken world.
The Rebbe, as a leader par excellence, believed in each of us. It is now time we also believe in our deepest selves, and in our unique ability to change the world, and usher in a new era of lasting peace.
Rabbi Pinchas Allouche is the head rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he resides with his wife and nine children.