By: Rabbi Dovid Markel
On the third day of the month of Tamuz the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is commemorated.
In order to truly appreciate the significance of this day, it is imperative to understand, at least briefly, what a Rebbe essentially is.
The passuk says, “Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell in them. “ The verse chooses to employ the word them rather than it. What this means is that the human being must become a dwelling place for the Almighty and be a complete expression of the G-dly.
A Rebbe epitomizes this quality. A Rebbe, like every Tzadik, is a person whose corporeal needs are secondary to his principal drive of illuminating the world with a G-dly light. As a person that is tremendously spiritually attuned, he is able to serve as a guide in leading others to live a life of holiness as well.
However, though the need for a spiritual guide to mentor us in our lives is fairly obvious, and though a Rebbe does serve in the capacity of an illuminating guide on the confusing journey of life—teaching us an individualized path to our service of HaShem—this is only an extension of the essence of the Rebbe’s persona. A Rebbe at his core is an individual who surpasses the realm of being a mere teacher.
A Good Friend
So, what is a Rebbe? This is a question that has been asked countless times. Who could better be asked this question than the Rebbe himself?
In one instance, the question was presented to the Rebbe by an individual who found himself seated at a private audience with him.
“Rebbe, what exactly do you do, and why are you admired by so many?” the man asked. “I try to be a good friend,” the Rebbe replied. Incredulous, the man blurted out, “A friend? That’s all you do?!” Unfazed, the Rebbe responded with a question of his own, “How many friends do you have?” “I have many,” the man answered. “Let me define a friend for you, and then tell me how many friends you have.” A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.” The Rebbe then asked with a smile, “Now, how many friends like that do you have?”
It was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s tremendous devotion to each and every Jew, and the colossal efforts that he spent for Jews across every demographic region, that truly exemplify what a Rebbe is. While concerning many other people we say that “they live for others,” by the Rebbe it was much more than that. His life and the lives of all of world Jewry were one and the same.
The Rebbe was “a good friend” to each and every Jew. He removed the loneliness that we often feel, and cared for each and every one of us with all his being.
Many people have expressed that when they met the Rebbe they didn’t feel as if they were meeting a stranger, but rather as meeting someone who deeply understood them. It was like experiencing the depth of one’s soul and getting a glimpse into the best self that they could be.
A young man who was having intense suicidal thoughts was once encouraged by his friends to meet with the Rebbe and inform him of his plans to end his life.
He agreed, and at a private audience with the Rebbe, he did just that. The Rebbe listened, and tears began to course down his cheeks. After a few minutes of just standing there and watching the Rebbe cry – the Rebbe didn’t even manage to say a word – the young man ran out of the room, shaken to the core.
He told his friends that he no longer planned to end his life. He wanted to live. When asked what had happened in the Rebbe’s room, he described the Rebbe’s reaction to his words.
He then concluded: “If I would have only known that there exists a person who cares about me so deeply, I would never have contemplated taking my life…”
A Faithful Shepherd
Though Chassidism definitely brought the idea of a Rebbe to the fore, it is not truly an innovation of Chassidism, and in fact has been an integral part of Judaism since time immemorial. The first Rebbe in our history was Moshe Rabbeinu—Moshe our Rebbe—who is referred to as “The Faithful Shepherd.”
The Medrash tells us that Moshe was chosen to lead the Jewish people because not only was he a career shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock but for the tremendous dedication in which he did so.
The Medrash tells the story of a time when one small goat ran away from the rest of the herd. Moshe chased after it and eventually followed the kid to a brook, where it paused to drink from its water. Realizing the reason for its flight, he exclaimed: “I did not know that you were running because you were thirsty. I see now [also] that you are tired.” He picked up the small goat and carried it back on his shoulders until he reached the rest of the flock.
HaShem saw this and declared: “If you have such mercy over physical sheep, then you will shepherd my sheep—Israel.”
This is what the core of leadership is. It is about caring not only for the herd, but more importantly, about the lone sheep that strays away from the herd. It is the awareness that the small goat did not stray out of malice, but rather, because its needs weren’t properly being met.
It is the individual care of picking up the sheep, carrying it on his shoulders and making sure it was taken care of. This trait was typified in Moshe and is a fundamental trait of any leader throughout Jewish history.
The Zohar tells us that in each and every generation there is a person whose soul is an extension of Moshe Rabbeinu. This individual is the leader of the generation and continues in Moshe’s mission of being a faithful shepherd for the Almighty’s flock. This is what a Rebbe is the continuation of the job that Moshe began.
As Moshe was able to care for each and every sheep in his flock, so too it is the job of a Rebbe to care for each and every member of the Jewish people. His soul is not merely his own, but is the deepest expression of all the souls of his generation. He does not just care for them as separate entities from him, but he is one with them.
Naturally, a person cares primarily for oneself, and their needs are paramount above all others. Generally, a person’s empathy works in concentric circles, with oneself at the center. The closer another person is to one’s own circle, the more one will have understanding and compassion towards him. First a person cares for their immediate family, then with their extended family, next their community etc.
However, a Rebbe’s “I” extends to the entirety of the Jewish people. He relates to their struggles and needs as he relates to his own. The individual’s plight on the other side of the world is his own plight and his own pain. He is them and feels them as he does his own. For this reason, a Rebbe cares for the Jewish people no matter who they are and where they may be.
This thought is expressed by Rashi, the foremost Torah commentator, in his question on a seeming inconsistency in the story of the Jews travels in the desert. In one place the Torah mentions that Moshe sent messengers to the kings of the nearby lands, and in another place the verse says that the Jewish people sent the messengers. Which was it—did Moshe send them or did the Jewish people send them?
He answers this anomaly by explaining that the Jewish people’s sending and Moshe’s sending are the same, because they are one entity. In his words: “Moshe is Israel and Israel is Moshe. [This is] to tell you that a generation’s leader is the entire generation; for the leader is everything.”
A Shepherd of Faith
The word “Rebbe” in Hebrew is an acronym for the words Rosh B’nei Yisroel – meaning, the head of the Jewish people.
In Tanya it is explained that this is not merely poetic license, but it aptly describes the work that a Rebbe is charged with. “Within each generation there are those who are in the category of ‘head’ and ‘brain’ in comparison with those of the masses…”
A head feels the needs of the rest of the body and responds accordingly. It directs the body and leads it in its life as well. So too, the Rebbe. Not only does he care for their spiritual and physical needs, but leads them in their mission of turning this world into a G-dly place.
The Rebbe not only exemplified the life of a person totally self-effaced before G-d, but also devoted himself to leading others to serve G-d in the most exalted manner themselves. It can be said that not only is he a faithful shepherd, but a shepherd of faith. Nurturing them and strengthening their connection with G-d.
Once, when a group of college students asked the Rebbe to define who a Rebbe was, he responded with a more esoteric answer than that which we mentioned above.
The Rebbe explained that the connection between Rebbe and Chassid is the deepest of connections and that their very souls are intertwined.
“A Rebbe is one whose soul also includes the souls of his Chassidim…It is through this connection that the Chassid receives his material and spiritual vitality and needs.” The Rebbe likened the process to the connection between a power plant and a light bulb. We are the light bulb and the Rebbe, the power plant. Just as the energy of the light bulb is derived from the power plant, in the same manner, the Rebbe delivers the necessary spiritual vitality that we all need to serve G-d’s and fulfill His commandments. Not only does the Rebbe draw down spiritual energy to the Chassid, but he draws down the physical vitality as well.”
Based on this we can understand a puzzling statement in Ethics of the Fathers: “One’s fear of his Rebbe should be equivalent to the fear of Heaven.” But why? The reason for this is because it is ultimately one’s Rebbe who connects him with HaShem.
According to the above, Tanya explains a curious statement in the Talmud: The Talmud says that one who cleaves to a Talmid Chacham is deemed by Torah to have actually attached himself to the Shechina. Explains the Tanya, this is because the Tzadikim of the generation are likened to a head. Just as a head gives life force to the rest of the body, so too does a Rebbe give a G-dly vitality to his generation. It is through him that the generation connects to G-d.
A Chassid is able to completely give himself over to his Rebbe because his Rebbe has no personal identity of his own. He is only an expression of Torah and of G-dliness. A Rebbe is not an intermediary to connect HaShem, it is the Rebbe’s lack of ego and self that makes him the conduit for G-dliness. While without a Rebbe one can connect to HaShem, it is also self-understood that with a Rebbe that connection is deeper and more directed.
Just as Moshe “was standing between HaShem and you,” so does a Rebbe stand as a conduit and channel between G-d. Just as Moshe served to connect the Jewish people and G-d, so does each Rebbe serve this purpose. When a person cleaves to a Rebbe and follows his directives, it is an assured method in connecting with G-d.
The Rebbe’s mission was to strengthen Jews and Judaism and he did this through the unbridled love that he had for each of us. He sent out his emissaries to the most far flung places on the globe, tasked with the mission of transforming the world into a G-dly place and bringing the beauty of Judaism to each and every Jew.
A Tzadik’s effects on this world transcends the limitations of a body. We are sure that the Rebbe continues to advocate for the Jewish people—even though we don’t see him. In the present time however, the Jewish people are just a little more lonely. Following the Rebbe’s directives not only helps us connect with him when his physical presence is missing, but ultimately serves as the catalyst to see him once more with the coming of Moshiach.
Medrash Rabba, Shemos 3:2
Tikunei Zohar 9. 112a
 Chapter 2
 Ketuvot 111b