There are certain people that I wish I had met personally. It frustrates me to no end that I was born and raised mere blocks away from 770 Eastern Parkway, but did not have the presence of mind or the awareness–and hence, not the desire–to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. It’s as if I had entered the proverbial room just after he’d left it. It amazes me to think that I was born in Methodist Hospital on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, swung my Louisville Slugger for the Saint Francis Xavier little league in Prospect Park, and spent hours in the candy store on Ninth Street in front of a Pac Man machine, while a few steps away, someone was changing the world.
Last night, as the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit swept in, I pulled the Sefer Tanya off the shelf and flipped it open to the place where I had left off a while ago.
On that page, the Alter Rebbe gave a deep explanation of the verse, כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ “for this thing (the Torah) is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Incidentally, this is the key verse upon which the first section of Tanya is based, and serves as the source for the three-tier model of thought, speech and action–three main areas where a person’s spiritual work lies.
There, the Alter Rebbe quoted the Zohar in explaining that “to do it” refers to the “fuel” that keeps the flame of G-d burning on one’s head, the holy fire of the soul. What is this fuel? Ma’asim tovim, good deeds and actions. This is the purpose and mission for which the pure and perfect soul’s descent into the corporeal realm, which is fraught with so much darkness, is justified: so that goodness will be wrought in the physical world.
Upon reflection, I don’t know what could sum up the essence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe more accurately. The Rebbe lived this teaching so concretely, always placing the emphasis on the doing. Even though Chabad has an enormous proprietary system of mikvaos, yeshivos, seminaries, batei din, and hechsherim–all of the things required to sustain a worldwide community of Lubavitcher Chassidim, this was not enough for the Rebbe. The Rebbe could not be satisfied with a following of chassidim observing the mitzvos while the rest of the Jewish people languished and atrophied spiritually. He sent his people everywhere to help their brethren “do it”: learn Hebrew, learn Torah, daven, put on tefillin, light Shabbos candles, give tzedakah–actualize the Torah in their lives, and hence, in the world.
But lest one think that this is merely the stupendous account of a successful kiruvmagnate–think again. The Rebbe’s efforts flowed forth from a deep and genuine sense of caring about other people, from a desire to transform this into a better and more meaningful world for all of its inhabitants (the Rebbe’s outreach efforts went beyond the Jewish people to non-Jews as well), and from an unquenchable thirst for closeness to G-d Himself. This is evident in the interactions he had with everyone with whom he came into contact. This genuineness and caring is such a rare and precious commodity, as hard to find as common decency and honesty in our own age.
Again, however, caring was not enough. Many of us spend time taking pride in the kol torah of our batei midrash and wondering what will be with our fellow Jews out there. The Rebbe built an army of caring soldiers committed to implementing his vision in every corner of the world–which is where you will find Lubavitcher sh’lichim(emissaries). Steven Covey, in his well-known self-development book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, writes in a section on pro-activity that one should focus on “be” and not “have”. The Rebbe went a step forward; he focused on “do”. His efforts continue to keep the holy flame of Jewish souls burning.
May his merits protect us.