By Rabbi Dovid Markel
65 years ago on the 10th of Shevat 5712 (February 6 1952) a leader ascended the throne of a dynasty that spanned centuries. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne of the British Commonwealth.
In the span of her leadership, she has seen the United Kingdom shrink from an empire where the sun never set, to more and more countries disassociating themselves with the commonwealth.
Exactly a year before, on the 10th of Shevat 5711 in a relatively small Brooklyn brownstone a different type of king ascended his throne.
The Talmud (Gittin 62a) states that “Rabbis are called kings,” and the 10th of Shevat 5711 marks the day that the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe took the helm of the Chabad-Chassidic dynasty.
Though the Rebbe addressed a packed house, realistically speaking there were not too many individuals that could have fit in the small synagogue in 770 where the Rebbe spoke.
While there were many people in America that had genealogical connection to chassidim, the number of card carrying American chassidim was relatively small after the devastation of Communism, the Holocaust, and general secularization in America.
While we have become accustomed to the amazing work of Chabad the world over, it is easy to forget how improbable, daunting and unrealistic his vision sounded to the 1950 American-Jewish ear.
Yet, what initially began as a trickle of Jews returning to their heritage is today felt as a crescendo of Jewish experience the world over.
Although he hardly left Brooklyn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe mobilized an army of followers, built an empire where the sun never sets, and made a deep mark on world Jewry whose reverberations will surely be felt for many years to come.
Indeed, the strength of his work is so powerful that the movement that he began, grows in leaps and bounds more than twenty years after his passing.
He did this without any force or official power, but through inspiring, beseeching, and motivating his followers – and indeed any visitor who was in his company – through private discussion and thousands of hours of public talk to volunteer their time and energy and dedicate their lives to the Jewish People.
With little more – in a practical sense – than his tongue and pen, he started a revolution of Jewish revival and implemented his vision of making the world into a Divine Garden – a place where G-d’s splendor and radiance should be tangibly felt.
What though was the secret of his leadership and the force behind his awesome drive of bettering the world?
While there are many theories, and much ink has been spilled on analyzing both Chabad and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I believe that a central aspect is brought out in his first discourse, which can essentially be read as the mission statement of his direction for Chabad and the world-Jewry.
If a person wishes to really understand another individual a good place to start is to know what brings the person to tears.
While this is true of any individual it is all the more true with the Lubavitcher Rebbe; an individual that was incredibly private about his personal life and though spoke for thousands upon thousands of hours, rarely spoke of himself.
Yet, one thing that invariably would bring him to tears was when he spoke of the pain of the Jewish people throughout their exile.
Indeed, throughout his first discourse there were numerous instances where he broke into tears, and was unable to speak due to his discussion of the bitterness of the exile.
The Rebbe’s pain was both for the macro and the micro – and indeed he viewed them as one and the same. He was incredibly distraught over the pain of the general corpus of the Jewish people, and the pain of the individual Jew – no matter who or where he might be.
In the preface of Reb Shimon Shkop’s Shaarei Yosher he beautifully describes the hallmark of leadership that I believe aptly describes the Rebbe.
He explains that leadership is essentially predicated on the different perceptions of the personal “I.”
“The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. Above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, includes the whole Jewish people in his “I”, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel.”
Indeed, the strength of the Rebbe’s leadership can be said to be a derivative of his awesome empathy – both for the Jewish People as a whole and each particular individual.
It was his empathy and compassion that galvanized his followers – and many more individuals that were not officially his chassidim – to move to the most far flung places and care for the spiritual and physical needs of their fellow Jew.
During the Rebbe’s lifetime the Jewish people knew that there was an address in Brooklyn where you could write letters to with your pain and hopes, visit on a Sunday to pour out your heart, and come to a gathering to be inspired – each Jew, no matter how “great” or “small” was given attention as if he was the Rebbe’s entire world, as indeed he was.
In the end of the Rebbe’s first discourse, he wept when ascribing the verse in Yeshayahu (53:4-5) to his father-in-law, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The verse states: “Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them…he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities.”
The characteristic of the ultimate Jewish leader, Moshiach is described in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) as a leper sitting in pain at the gates of Rome, untying and re-bandaging his gauzes.
Moshiach is in a constant state of pain, as he empathizes and feels the pain of the Jewish people and the Divine Presence and it is for this reason that “he bears our illness and carries our pain,” it is not his pain that he carries but ours.
The same is true with the archetype of all of Judaic leadership. It is not one of a leader that stands above his flock, but compassionately pities the misfortune of each and every individual, making their pains and needs his own.
This is expressed in Rashi (Bamidbar 21:21) concerning Moshe: ““Moshe is Israel, and Israel is Moshe,” says Rashi, “To teach you that the leader of the generation is like the entire generation, because the leader is everything.”
It is not that the leader has equal value to the generation, but more importantly that the chief indicator of Jewish leadership is an individual whose empathy extends to the entirety of the Jewish people – so that as beautifully described by R. Shimon Shkop, their “I” is his “I.”
If there is one thing that we can learn from his leadership, which is celebrated today, it is possibly the love, empathy and care that we should have for our fellows well-being – to truly care, with all of our being for the spiritual and physical happiness and welfare of our fellow and to be there for him or her in their moment of need and suffering.
When we accept upon our shoulders the mission that the Rebbe begged us to undertake of becoming Jewish leaders immersed in love of G-d, love of Torah and His people, we will surely bring about the reality that the Rebbe constantly envisioned and dreamed – nothing less than the messianic era, where the pain of the Jewish People will finally be alleviated and (Yeshayahu 25:8) ” the Lord G-d shall wipe the tears off every face.”