I recently posted a blog about the value and priority of living a focused life. I have admired focused lives for at least forty years. And in recently reading Joseph Telushkin’s study on the life and work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, I drank deeply from a remarkably focused life. Telushkin said that researching the book made a better man of him. Reading the book is doing the same for me.
To refer to the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe as a prominent rabbi is like referring to the Dalai Lama as a well-known Buddhist. It is to underestimate the stature of the man and to somehow ignore what was apparent to all others—his gravitas and the dimensions of his heart, soul and mind. Throughout Telushkin’s book, the Rebbe comes across as truly and completely a world-class leader such as is rarely seen on history’s stage. And the portrait seems an accurate one.
His intellectual acumen was legendary. His predecessor, Joseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, called the Frierdiker Rebbe, who hand picked him as a husband for his daughter, marveled how, at a young age, Menachem Mendel knew the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud by heart. This is comparable to having a photographic grasp of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Until a heart attack and stroke felled him in his 90’s, the Rebbe was known for giving complex lectures of an hour, or two or even three, without notes of any kind. Remarkable.
His prowess extended beyond his grasp of Jewish sources. He was also remarkable for his uncanny insight into people’s problems. Into his eighties he would meet two or three nights a week with anyone who chose to make an appointment. These appointments began at 8:00 p.m. and most often extended until 2:00 or even 3:00, and sometimes later. The appointments varied in length, and in these he was famous for giving people his undivided attention with piercing blue eyes, “reading their mail” by discerning what their real life issues were, and then giving advice of profound relevance, sensitivity and wisdom. He did this for world leaders, for common people, for the rich, the famous, and those who were neither.
Jonathan Sacks recently stepped down as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth (1 September 1991 – 1 September 2013). But before he ever thought of being a rabbi, when he was a philosophy student at Cambridge, he encountered some Lubavitcher Chasidim who suggested he might seek an audience with the Rebbe some time. Saks came to the United States to visit family members here, and managed in relative short order to finagle such an interview, termed a yechidus, with the Rebbe. Teluskin reports on this:
What first struck Sacks was the Rebbe's understated, nonaggressive manner. For a good while, the Rebbe listened and responded patiently to Sacks’s queries and concerns, always acting 'Like the most important person in the room was me.' But then, having taken his a measure of the young man, the Rebbe suddenly turned the conversation around. . . . 'Things are going wrong,” the Rebbe had said to him. “Are you willing to be one of those who helps to put them right?'
Reporting on this conversation years later, Sacks said this,
Now, I hadn’t come to become a Shliach [Chabad-Lubavitch emissary]. I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I did the English thing. You know, the English can construct sentences like nobody else, you know? They can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing, than anyone else on earth.
So I started the sentence, ‘In the situation in which I find myself...’ – and the Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, ‘Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.’
That moment changed my life.
I don’t know about you, but such brilliance and insight takes my breath away.
The Rebbe was a man who knew what his life was about. When a scientist wrote him, chagrined that he had not yet received an expected response from the Rebbe to a letter of his own, the Rebbe wrote back saying that his primary job is not responding to such letters, but to lead Jews back to Torah, mitzvot, and to God. It’s good to know what your life is about, and the Rebbe knew.
For more than fifty years, other than going to the gravesite of his father in law to pray, the Rebbe only left Brooklyn three times, to visit children at Lubavitch camps. He took no time off, did not travel, and lived the most public of lives, fully dedicated to the cause to which he called others to commit themselves.
After the death of his father in law, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, it was a year before Menachem Mendel could be persuaded to consider becoming the next Rebbe. At a meeting during this intervening time, he included these words.
One must go to a place where nothing is known of Godliness, nothing is known of Judaism, nothing is even knowing of the Hebrew alphabet, and while there, put one’s own self aside and ensure that the other calls out to God!
Which of us in the Messianic Jewish movement could not learn from such an example? Which of us could not stand to emulate a life so fully at the disposal of others? Which of us ought not to give our lives so that others might call out to God?
Surely not I. How about you?
Read this book. It will make you a better human being . . . and a better servant of God.
« On Living a Focused Life