On his 30th Yahrzeit, remembering the leader of leaders who knew how to influence people

The Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose 30th yahrzeit is next week, left an enduring legacy


In his widely viewed Tedx talk, entitled “Everyday Leadership”, author Drew Dudley observed: “We’ve made leadership about changing the world, [but] there is no world. There’s only six billion understandings of it.”

He went on: “And if you change one person’s understanding of what they’re capable of, and how much people care about them, and how powerful an agent for change they can be in this world, you’ve changed them, and, they, in turn, can change others.”

A powerful example of this is that of the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, of righteous memory. What many don’t know about this legendary religious figure is that he did not intend to become a rabbi at all.

Indeed, as he tells the story, he once shared his three top choices for a career with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of sainted memory, which included barrister, economist or professor. The Rebbe wrote a line through all three and added one life- changing word: rabbi.

In Rabbi Sack’s words: “The Rebbe was the one who challenged me to go out and lead. And in so doing, he taught me something very important. The most transformative moments of your life happen when someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself.”

Imagine if that encounter hadn’t taken place. Our world would have been deprived of one of the greatest Jewish communicators of our time.

And the same is true of countless individuals whose sense of mission and purpose was activated or accentuated by the Rebbe when he guided them to see their own greatness.

One moving example is that of my former headmaster, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Hecht, of blessed memory, who, in 1941, was sent by the previous Rebbe to New Haven, Connecticut, to build up Jewish life and establish a local Jewish day school.

Over the years the demands on Rabbi Hecht grew as he juggled his many responsibilities which included running a school and a yeshivah, as well as leading a congregation.

In 1974, he wrote to the Rebbe, complaining that in 33 years of work, he felt he was back at the same place as when he started and that he simply could not continue. He signed off the letter asking that “the Rebbe should help and do all he can.”
The Rebbe responded: “I’ve already followed your advice. I’ve sent there Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Hecht. But it appears from your letter and from those preceding it that you still are not familiar with him and with the capabilities with which this person is endowed.

“Whatever the case, you should get to know him now. Immediately, everything will change — your mood, your trust in G‑d, everyday happiness etc etc.”

But the Rebbe did more than direct people to their own light, he helped those he encountered see themselves as lamplighters and spiritual accelerators for others.

One fascinating example is that of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who received an unusual request from the Rebbe during a private audience.

The Rebbe confided that he had received a letter from the family of a French Jewish girl who was considering marrying out of the faith. “I am sure that if a well-known individual as yourself, will speak to her about her choice in marriage, she will respect your words, and it will have a positive influence on her,” he told Begin.

The Israeli leader agreed to the mission, arranged to stop over in France and had a conversation with this young girl. She was deeply touched by his presence and message and decided to move to Israel, where she ended up raising a Jewish family.

Another example is that of David Lapin, a young South African who was involved with outreach projects as well as a fledgling business and was feeling overwhelmed. He visited the Rebbe to discuss which of the areas he should focus on.

To his surprise, the Rebbe replied, “Not only should you not cut back on your activities, you should increase in outreach efforts, rabbinic work, and also your business.”

“I’m humbled by your faith in me,” David exclaimed, “but I don’t feel it’s realistic for me to manage all these tasks at once.”

The Rebbe said warmly, “You are viewing human interactions like chemical interactions. When two elements interact, they result in the creation of a third compound. But people aren’t chemicals. When people interact, it’s like a nuclear reaction.

“A nuclear reaction has a centre, from which further reactions spread in all directions. As the outer rings of that sphere get larger, the number of reactions grows exponentially.

“Likewise, when you touch the heart of one person very deeply — even if only for a moment — he in turn will touch many other people, triggering a nuclear explosion of positive influence.”

Perhaps it was this sense of deep-seated faith in every individual he encountered that accounts for the Rebbe’s continued impact on the Jewish world 30 years after his passing.

And perhaps it was his understanding of the reverberating nature of influence — the kind that infinitely ripples out beyond its initial point of impact, beginning with one person, living out their unique purpose — that explains why, to this day, his positive impact on the Jewish world continues to grow exponentially.

So as we mark the Rebbe’s 30th yahrzeit on July 9 (Tammuz 3), let us endeavour to emulate the Rebbe’s faith in every individual, embodying as he did Judaism’s vision for world change, which doesn’t consist of million-man marches and sweeping revolutions but consists of empowering one individual at a time.

Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Chabad Belgravia

Legacy of Light — Marking the Rebbe’s 30th Yahrzeit, Finchley Synagogue, July 11, 6.30pm

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