Each year, four days before Passover, brings another major date on the Chabad-Lubavitch calendar: The 11th day of the month of Nissan, the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This year, the 11th of Nissan carries a special sense of occasion with it, as it marks 120 years since his birth, in the seaside town Nikolayev, then in the Russian Empire, today in war-torn Ukraine.
It was actually from the Rebbe himself that we learned of a special religious significance of birthdays that goes beyond cake and candles. Traditionally, the lives of great historical Jewish figures have always been commemorated on the anniversary of their departure from this world, not their entry into it. The date of one’s birth was typically marked without too much fuss or fanfare (unless it was a Bar Mitzvah), if it was noted at all. For example, the Yahrtzeit of the famous Maggid of Mezritch is well known, but his birthday is not.
But the Rebbe believed that birthdays deserved serious attention too. Citing sources and customs, the Rebbe spoke of birthdays as a time of tremendous spiritual power, not only for sages and saints, but for every single person. Speaking on the occasion of his wife’s birthday—not long after she had passed away—he encouraged using birthdays as a time for personal reflection, celebration, and new resolutions for the year ahead.
The Chasidim, of course, never needed to be told that the Rebbe’s own birthday was a day worth celebrating. Every year, when the 11th of Nissan came around, Chasidim, friends, and supporters of Lubavitch would take the opportunity to commemorate the Rebbe’s birthday in that time-honored way: with a present. Perhaps a recently published Torah content book, or a newly found rare manuscript. At one point in the ‘70s, there were so many gifts being presented to the Rebbe at the public farbrengens that we at the Rebbe’s secretariat were overwhelmed. From then on, we insisted that all presents be sent directly to the offices at headquarters. The Rebbe graciously received these gifts and the spirit in which they were given, and always expressed his gratitude, whether publicly or by letter.
There were a few times when the Rebbe actually suggested the kind of gift he would like. “Normally, you can’t impose conditions on a gift,” he conceded, “but after all, a gift is supposed to be something that the recipient will enjoy!” On the occasion of his 70th birthday, he proposed establishing 71 new institutions — which included new publications, schools, and Chabad Houses — over the course of his 71st year.
In that same spirit, Chasidim around the world have shown commendable initiative in achieving a similar goal for his 121st year, but larger by an order of magnitude: Shluchim and Chabad communities around the world are working towards launching a truly ambitious 1210 new institutions. At the recent International Shluchim Conference, plans were announced for 120 new pre-schools, day schools and Hebrew schools, 120 new couples heading out on shlichus, 120 new mikvahs, and more. Another impressive initiative is aiming to supply 120,000 Jewish people with Shmurah Matzah for the Seders.
These remarkable commitments capture the spirit of the Rebbe’s birthday perfectly, with so many taking the initiative, in such bold and creative ways, to add, to grow, and to expand upon his own life’s work. If you have a dream of your own, a project or a program you think can make a difference for your community, in honor of the Rebbe’s birthday, get in touch with Chabad: This year is the perfect time to launch.
But don’t be daunted by those numbers, or by the scale. A gift to the Rebbe doesn’t always have to be built of brick, and it certainly doesn’t have to break the bank. Sometimes, the most profound and gracious gifts are intangible.
At another public gathering, just a few weeks before his 70th birthday, the Rebbe let slip that the gifts he was most interested in were the ones that had something to do with the theme of this magnificent issue of Lubavitch International that you are reading: Torah study! Not only giving a donation to a Torah institution, but to actually study a bit more Torah than one would have otherwise. The point isn’t to just be a supporter of Torah education, he emphasized, but to study Torah oneself. Certainly, that is a gift that all of us are capable of giving.
In the merit of our Torah study, may G-d bring an end to suffering, and peace to all people.
Wishing you all a Chag HaPesach Kasher v’Someach.