The occasion of 10th yahrzeit (3 Tamuz—this year corresponding to Tuesday, June 22) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, has generated generous media coverage examining the vitality of Chabad-Lubavitch. It is newsworthy especially because the facts speak contrary to predictions of 10 years ago, by nearly all those commenting on the future—or the absence of any future—for Lubavitch after the Rebbe’s passing.
The reports speak of a lively momentum that drives Lubavitch today, keeps young couples motivated to seek appointments to new outposts, and daily enlarges the scope of Chabad activities, affirming the strength of the movement as a vital factor of Jewish life and continuity.
We point to this not in heady triumph, but rather from a place of quiet reverence. After ten years, the uncertain becomes clearer and instinctive responses give way to more thoughtful evaluations. The long vision of retrospect allows us to discern beyond the obviously astonishing and appreciate in more reasoned terms the striking success of Chabad-Lubavitch. Always, these reflections point toward the Rebbe, whose influence and inspiration are ever present.
In pondering the apparent paradoxes of the Rebbe, we recognized him as a mystic of the highest order engaged in the concerns of the mundane and the masses. We wondered at his ability to negotiate a peace between the extremes of heaven and earth, self and other, spirit and matter. We imagined the Rebbe’s work an unusual feat of shrinking the chasm that divides. But following the trajectory of his leadership and its reverberations ten years hence, these images fall short. The inconspicuous is often more revealing than the apparent, and the benefit of hindsight allows us to discern patterns in his life and work.
One of the most salient features of the Rebbe’s outreach program was the mitzvah campaign. The idea, to approach any Jew, no matter how uninvolved and unidentified he or she was, with the offer of a mitzvah, was launched in 1967 with the tefillin campaign, and then in 1970s with mezuzah, tzedaka, and Shabbos candles. Many more would follow, and the mitzvah mobiles would soon become ubiquitous fixtures on street corners in many a city, as would the yeshiva students who walked up to strangers with the question: Are you Jewish? It wouldn’t take long before the stranger found himself with the tefillin bound around his arm, reciting the Shema.
To his critics, this seemed a bizarre way of reaching out to Jews. They claimed it had no enduring impact. Better, they said, invite the unaffiliated to a lecture on G-d and faith, educate them of their mistaken views, and let the mitzvahs follow from that. Indeed, many of the Jewish organizations that would later proceed to emulate the outreach work of Lubavitch had the idea to improve on it. They would begin their efforts, which they referred to as kiruv rechokim, Hebrew for “drawing the far near,” with theological discussions before inviting one to do a mitzvah.
But the Rebbe resented the term. There is no such thing as a “far” Jew, he said. And we have no right to withhold a mitzvah from another. His method called to mind the Torah’s commandment (Deuteronomy) that says that if you see your friend’s lost belongings, you must return it to its owner. It is a straightforward mitzvah, but it is prefaced by the words, “If you see . . .” because you can only fulfill this mitzvah if you see the lost goods.
It took the eyes of the Rebbe to see a Jew where others did not see. And maybe that was why the Rebbe disagreed with those who wanted to wax philosophical before offering one the opportunity to do a mitzvah. For implicit in such an approach is that something new is being gifted to another, yet there was no such presumption in the Rebbe’s outreach. One does not need an elaborate introduction to what is essentially hers. Just tell her about the Shabbos candles, the Rebbe seemed to be saying, and she will recognize the mitzvah as her own.
The mitzvah in Deuteronomy continues to say that if you do not know who the owner is, take the property home and guard it until it is claimed. It is a minimum courtesy the Torah expects of us. But in our analogy, the Rebbe could not wait for the owner to come claim his lost possessions. Hence, Chabad’s Jewish Community Enrichment Program that invests more than half a million dollars every summer to search out Jews in places as unlikely as Antalya, Turkey, and Phergana, Uzebekistan, and restore to them their lost possessions.
The scope of Chabad-Lubavitch is wide, its activities are varied and comprehensive and gain strength from day to day. The man and the leadership that inspired this phenomenon are the object of much conjecture and will continue to yield an inexhaustible variety of insights, as varied and many-layered as was the experience of his presence. But ten years since his passing, we submit a sobering alternative to the dramatic speculations about the boldness of his vision: the Rebbe as a restorer of lost goods.
Maybe that helps to explain why when he gave, one received in dignity. Because in giving, the Rebbe validated the other. “Here, take this, it is yours,” was the message implicit in the Rebbe’s every restorative act. It was an act communicated in unaffected trust, ennobling and empowering in its simplicity.
During the last decade of his life, the Rebbe spent the better part of every Sunday greeting every one of thousands of individuals who came for a moment of personal contact with him. These Sundays were recorded on video, and are exquisitely illustrative of his focus on the individual.
Our destiny lies not in some grand, general idea, the Rebbe seemed always to suggest, but in the particular acts of repair that each of us can effect. Surely, this is the impetus for the projects developed by his shluchim and the high goals they set for themselves: every Jewish child reached, every yeshiva building built, each a work of restoration free to stand in its own merit.
Baila Olidort is Director of Communications at Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters, and editor-in-chief of lubavitch.com.