I sensed it for a while, but it took me many years to have the courage to say it so bluntly. It seems clear to me that the best way to explain what happened on Yud Shevat 5711 (1951) is to call it a day when every Jew became the leader of world Jewry. And when I say “every Jew,” I am talking about you. You are the leader of world Jewry. All of us. But also you.
I know I don’t know you, so how can I make such a claim about you? You probably weren’t born yet in 1951 either. So what am I talking about?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, “Most leaders create followers, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe created leaders.” I will go one step further and say that the Rebbe made rebbes.
On 10 Shevat 5711, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accepted the position of Rebbe, succeeding his father-in-law, who had passed away exactly one year earlier. For the handful of people in attendance, this was not a complete surprise. Many anticipated and hoped that the yahrzeit gathering would also become an inauguration of the new Rebbe.
What did come as a shock (for those who noticed it) were two points that the Rebbe made at that farbrengen. The first radical idea was to establish in no uncertain terms that the goal of his leadership would be to bring Moshiach. Yes, of course, the end goal of all Jewish leaders has always been Moshiach. But the Rebbe didn’t mean it in the far-off sense that our efforts would somehow contribute to bringing the final redemption a little bit closer and that it would eventually happen whenever it would happen. The Rebbe was clear in stating that it was our responsibility to finish the entire job and bring Moshiach in our times. As the Jewish world was collectively trying to figure out how to survive after the unfathomable losses suffered in the Holocaust, the Rebbe was speaking about the loftiest possible goal.
The second shocking idea—even more shocking in light of the first idea—was that the Rebbe would accept the leadership only if individuals would take personal responsibility and not rely on him to do their work for them. The Rebbe would help, but he would not, and could not, do anybody else’s job for them.
When considering these two ideas together, it emerges that on day number one of his leadership, the Rebbe outlined the most ambitious possible goal: for the universe to finally be perfected and that it was up to each individual to see to it that it happen.
Over the decades that followed, in keeping with these two ideas, the Rebbe led the implementation of a plan to literally reach every single Jew and bring redemption to the world. He did so by empowering individuals, both official emissaries known as shluchim and countless others. True to his inaugural address, the goal was to perfect the entire world; and the means to the goal was through individuals doing their part.
In the past, each individual Jew was something of a “private citizen.” Yes, everyone would take responsibility for their own life or family, and if they had strength left, maybe for the community. But only completely selfless and unique leaders would take the entire world’s weight on their shoulders. In each era, there would be a figure like that, what the Zohar calls the “extension of Moshe Rabenu in each generation.” Everyone else would just try to live their best life. Perfecting the universe wasn’t on anyone’s daily list of tasks.
But the Rebbe changed all that. These were the conditions of his leadership. No longer could we be satisfied with simply living our best life. We had to think of the perfection of the universe.
The Rebbe distributed dollar bills for Tzedakah on Sundays. As the Rebbe explained, the purpose of this was to deputize the recipient into a messenger, a “shaliach mitzvah.” In other words, the Rebbe used the encounter as an opportunity to empower the individual.
Among the tens of thousands of people who met the Rebbe at Sunday dollars was Gabriel Erem, an entrepreneur and philanthropist from Toronto and the publisher of Lifestyles Magazine, a magazine for executives. On 21 Adar 5752 (1992), Erem received a dollar and told the Rebbe that on the occasion of the Rebbe’s 90th birthday, Lifestyles was publishing an article in his honor. “What is your message to the world?” Erem asked the Rebbe.
“Ninety,” the Rebbe replied, “is the value of the Hebrew letter tzaddik. The meaning of the word ‘tzaddik’ is a truly righteous person, which directly indicates that it is in the power of every Jew to become a real tzaddik.”
The very next day, 22 Adar, the Rebbe suffered a stroke and would not speak publicly again. In many ways, the Rebbe’s words to Erem summarize the message he had been saying since the beginning. Erem wanted to focus on the Rebbe’s greatness, but the Rebbe turned it around and made it about the greatness of every Jew. The Rebbe took the idea of the tzadik and, instead of being an elite status of a singular individual, made it about you and me. So who is the tzadik? We are.
This is what I mean when I say that the Rebbe made rebbes. The word Rebbe in Hebrew is spelled reish beis yud, an acronym for rosh bnei yisrael, the head of the Jewish people. Every Jew is a rebbe, a global leader. Personal success and the perfection of all creation are one thing. When I think of what it means to be my personal best, it is inseparable from a vision of the world at its best. This was the deal the Rebbe made on Yud Shevat.