Rabbi Krinsky, Rabbi Shemtov, Rabbi Kotlarsky, Rabbi Sudak, Rabbi Lew, all the Shluchim [Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries] from Great Britain, all the Shluchim from everywhere, distinguished guests, friends.
I can sum up my reaction to this evening, in one word; wow!
In two words, double wow!
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If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it!
I know Rabbi Kotlarsky told me he was inviting a few friends… (laughter)
But I have to tell you, mikerev lev—from the depths of my heart, I’ve received many honors, but none as moving or as humbling as this.
Because, you, the Shluchim are among the most important people in the Jewish world today. You are bringing the shechinah [G‑dliness] into places where, perhaps, it was never seen before. You are bringing the shechinah into lives that never knew it before, and you are transforming the Jewish world.
And why are you doing so? Because directly or indirectly, you have been touched, as I was touched, by one of the greatest Jewish leaders, not just of our time, but of all time.
Throughout Jewish history there were great leaders, but I know of no precedent, for one who transformed, visibly and substantively every single Jewish community in the world – including many parts of the world that never had a Jewish community before.
And let me tell you a little story that sums it up:
It happened forty one years ago, Elaine and I were on our honeymoon. We decided to go to the Swiss Alps – I had never been to mountains before. We went, we arrived. It was brilliant sunshine. The view was magnificent.
The Rebbe said, "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."
The next morning I opened the window and said, “Who moved the mountains? They’re gone!” Then I looked again and I saw they were covered in very long clouds. What to do? We’d come all this way to climb a mountain, and we couldn’t go back without climbing a mountain. But we couldn’t see more than two or three feet in any direction. We didn’t know where we were going, we didn’t know how, [if] we got wherever we got, we’d get back.
So I said to Elaine, “It is very simple. We will sing Chabad niggunim.”
She said, “Why are we singing Chabad niggunim?”
I said, “Very simple. Because if a Jew is lost, anywhere in the world, Chabad will find them.”
And all of this, because of the Rebbe, [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,] zechusoh yagen aleinu [of righteous memory]. So it was, and so it is.
You have been touched by greatness and every one of you has become great.
And therefore I say to all the Shluchim and to all those wonderful people who support the work of the Shluchim and make it possible: yehi ratzon shetishreh shchinah bemasei yedeichem – may G‑d bless all you do. Amen.
Friends, Rabbi Kotlarsky asked me to tell you a little story, a personal one, of how the Rebbe changed my life. And I’ve agreed, not because I think my story is special, it isn’t. But it is by telling such stories that we remind ourselves of what Chabad is about and what makes it special.
|Photo: Meir Alfasi
It is a story in three acts; the first took place in 1968, when I was a second year student, a sophomore, at university. I had already encountered Chabad, because Rabbi Shmuel Lew and Rabbi Faivish Vogel visited Cambridge. They were among the very first to go out to university campuses and I was one of the very first beneficiaries. They came that summer, ’68 and I came to America to meet great Rabbis of the day, and every one of them, every single rov [rabbinical leader] I met in America said, “You must see the Rebbe! You must see the Rebbe.”
So I went to Eastern Parkway, 770, I came in; I said to the first Chassid I met, “I’d like to speak to the Rebbe, please.” He fell about laughing.
He said, “Do you know how many thousands of people are waiting to see the Rebbe? Forget it!”
I said, “Well, I’ll be traveling around America, here is the phone number of my aunt in Los Angeles, if its possible phone me.”
Weeks later, I was in Los Angeles, came motzoei Shabbat, the phone went, it was Chabad, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”
I had no money in those days, and all I had was a Greyhound bus ticket, if you’ve ever ridden from Los Angeles to New York on a Greyhound bus… Seventy two hours nonstop I sat on this bus.
I came to 770, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done.
He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?
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. (laughter)
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.
Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it.
Here I was, a nobody from nowhere, and here was one of the greatest leaders in the Jewish world challenging me not to accept the situation, but to change it. And that was when I realized what I have said many times since: That the world was wrong. When they thought that the most important fact about the Rebbe was that here was a man with thousands of followers, they missed the most important fact: That a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.
That's what the Rebbe did for me and for thousands of others.
Friends, that particular episode had an unusual ending: I was due to leave the States, go back to England, on my charter flight on a Sunday at the end of August, beginning of September, I can't remember exactly when. So the day before, on Shabbos, there was a big farbreng[en], and the Chassidim told me, “You're going back to England? Take a bottle of vodka, go up to the Rebbe in a niggun, during the farbrengen, and he'll zog a le’chaim, and you'll take it with you and that'll be the Rebbe's vodka.”
So in the middle of the farbrengen, thousands of people there, I went up to the Rebbe and asked him to say a le’chaim, and he looked at me with surprise. He said, “You're going?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Why?”
I said, “I have to get back to Cambridge, the term is beginning.”
He turned to me and he said, “But the Cambridge term does not begin until October.”
I never knew then, I still don't know today how he knew it, but he was right! He said to me, “I think you should stay for Rosh Hashanah.” So he said a le’chaim; I went back.
Everyone around me wanted to know, “What did the Rebbe say to you? What did the Rebbe say?” So I told them what the Rebbe said. I didn't know – if the Rebbe says stay, it's the polite thing, you say thank you very much – I didn't realize; if the Rebbe said stay, you stay. So I stayed.
As a result of which, I heard the Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah blow shofar. Quite the most remarkable experience I ever had. The purity of those notes, the sight of all the Chassidim hanging from every surface, trying to catch sight of the Rebbe blowing shofar. And I heard a sound in which heaven and earth touched. And the echoes of that shofar have stayed with me ever since. That was the challenge he threw down. A challenge to lead.
That didn't immediately change my life. I went back to University, although I still felt the power of the Rebbe's challenge. So in 1969 after getting my degree, I went to study in Kfar Chabad, where I learned with Rav Gafni, and it was a wonderful experience. In 1970 I came back, got married, started teaching philosophy, writing a doctorate, but I still felt I hadn't done enough to meet the Rebbe's challenge. So I studied for smicha. I qualified as a rabbi, and I thought that's it. I've grown a little as a Jew, and now I'm ready to get back with the rest of my life.
That was when I made the second great mistake – I went back to see the Rebbe again. (laughter)
|Photo: Meir Alfasi
January 1978: My friends in Lubavitch told me exactly what to do. You put your question in writing, you give the Rebbe options; one, two, three, and the Rebbe will tell you, the one or two or three. So I set out my options. I said to the Rebbe, “I have a career in front of me, I have three choices.” Number one, maybe I would like to be an academic – halevai one day I would be a professor or maybe a fellow of my college in Cambridge. Or number two – I went to university initially to study economics – I’d like to be an economist. Or number three, I'd like to be a barrister, an advocate. I was a member of one of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple where you study to be a lawyer.
I went in to the yechidus [private audience] not knowing what the Rebbe would answer, would it be one, would it be two, would it be three? The Rebbe looked at me and he went through the list; not one, not two, not three.
I thought, “Hang on, this is against the rules!”
The Rebbe did not give me time to reply. He told me Anglo Jewry was short of Rabbis, and therefore he said to me, “You must train Rabbis.” He specified Jews College, where rabbis were trained in Britain. And then he said, you yourself must become a congregational Rabbi, so that your students will come and they will hear you give – I still remember the way he pronounced the word – "Sermons". They will hear you give sermons and they will learn. He said you say you will train rabbis and you will become a rabbi. Well, I was a little farblonged – a word I’ve introduced into the English language courtesy of the BBC – but if the Rebbe says do it, I did it. I gave up my three ambitions, I trained rabbis, I taught in Jews College, eventually I became head of Jews College, and I became a congregational rabbi, in Golders Green and Marble Arch.
You know, a funny thing happened.
Having given up all my three ambitions, having decided to walk in the complete opposite direction, a funny thing happened. I did become a fellow of my college in Cambridge. I did become a professor. In fact, this year I have three professorships; one in Oxford University, two in London University. I did deliver Britain's top two economics lectures, the Mais lecture and the Hayek lecture, and Inner Temple made me an honorary barrister and invited me to give a law lecture in front of six hundred barristers, the Lord Chancellor – the highest lawyer in Britain, and Princess Anne who’s the Master.
You know, you never lose anything – by putting yiddishkeit first.
And I learned something very deep: Sometimes the best way of achieving your ambitions is to stop pursuing them, and let them pursue you.
The Rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary; he said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love.
And that was act two. Act three was in 1990. Anglo Jewry was looking for a new Chief Rabbi. It was clear that I was going to be one of the candidates. But I wasn't sure that I was right for the job or the job was right for me. And so, I sat down with my family, with Elaine, with my children, and they agreed to permit me to write to the Rebbe and ask his advice.
I set out the tzdodim lekan u’lekan – the pros and cons of the job, and the Rebbe wrote a most extraordinary reply, a brilliant reply, without using a single word.
You know that the Rebbe, before he was Rebbe, ran the Chabad publishing house – Kehot – and as a result he knew – I've written twenty four books and I don't know these things yet, but he knew the typographical symbols that are used by proofreaders. So towards the end of the letter having set out the pros and cons, I wrote the sentence, “If they offer me the job, should I accept?” This was the Rebbe's reply: The typographical symbol for reverse word order. Instead of saying, “Should I?” The answer is, “I should.”
So, thirteen years to the day after I became a congregational rabbi I became Chief Rabbi, and in that job I have tried to the best of my ability – if I succeeded I don't know – but I tried to do what I know the Rebbe would have wanted me to do: To build schools, to improve Anglo Jewish education, to reach out, and to make – not followers – but leaders.
And I did one other thing, which was a little bit unusual, and I want to explain to you, now, why.
I never said this in public before. There was a point when I was a little involved – the hanhola [board of directors] in Lubavitch in London asked me just to get involved a little bit – there was a point in the 1970s and 80s, when the Rebbe developed a very interesting campaign – the sheva mitzvos benei noach campaign - to reach out not just to Jews, but also to non Jews.
I realized that in my new position as Chief Rabbi I could do just that. So I started broadcasting on the BBC, on radio, on television, writing for the national press. I wrote books read my non Jews as well as Jews and the effect was absolutely extraordinary. The more I spoke the more they wanted to hear – which certainly proves they weren't Jewish. (Laughter.) The more I wrote the more they wanted to read, and you know what that experience told me – not only the wisdom, the vast foresight of the Rebbe in understanding that the world was ready to hear a Jewish message – but it taught me something else as well. And I want you never to forget these words.
Non Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism.
And non Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.
The Rebbe taught us how to fulfill verau kol amei haaretz ki shem hashem nikra alecha. Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall as Jews.
So, at the three critical turning points in my life, the Rebbe was my satellite navigation system, showing me where to go and how. And though I didn't always understand why at the time, in retrospect I see how extraordinary his advice was, and how wise.
Most people look at others and see what they seem. Great people look at others and see what they are. The greatest of the great – and the Rebbe was greatest of the great – see others and see what they could become. And that was his greatness.
And you are testimony to the fact that, everyone of you, that not only did the Rebbe transform lives, he transformed people into people who themselves transforms lives and that, through you, is how he changed the world. Through you, his Shluchim and though all the other special people who support you and make your work possible.
And now friends, we must continue to transform the world. And how do we do it?
We do it precisely in the words that are taken from Hayom Yom that are the theme of this year's conference, "ah shliach iz doch an ain zach mit dem mishaleiach.”
We know, from Reb Yosef Engel, from the Rebbe himself, that there are various madreiges in being a Shliach, but the highest madreigah is, as it says in Hayom Yom "in altz mekushar!" Join in every single thing that we do, "es geit ah Chassid, est a Chassid, shluft ah Chassid" – I hope you're doing that now guys, because if not I have not been doing my job.
Friends, if we live and breathe the Rebbe's Shlichus, then he lives on in us.
The question is, what is that Shlichus here and now? There are so many things we can say about the challenges of the months ahead – I want to say just three things: Number one – think about this – the Rebbe, like every Rebbe, set it his goal to mekarev the geula and to bring Moshiach. But the Rebbe was different from other Rebbeim, because the Rebbe did so with particular urgency, and although he never specified why, I’ve speculated on this, and I thought this – maybe I'm wrong, but I think not – because he was the first Rebbe to become Rebbe after the Holocaust.
And how can you redeem a world that had witnessed Hitler? And the Rebbe did something absolutely extraordinary; he said to himself: if the Nazis searched out every Jew in hate, we will search out every Jew in love.
This was the most radical response to the Holocaust ever conceived and I don't know if we still – if the Jewish world still – understands it.
Today, in many parts of the world anti-Semitism has returned, and baruch Hashem [thank G‑d] there are hundreds of organizations fighting it. But still, even now, no one is saying what the Rebbe said – not explicitly but implicitly in everything he did.
If you want to fight sinas yisrael [hatred of your fellow], then practice ahavas yisroel [love of your fellow].
Friends, hands up all those who think there is too much Ahavas Yisroel in the world...
So friends, we still have work to do, we still have work to do.
Anti-Semites, you know, are totally crazy. Anti-Semites believe that Jews control the banks, they believe Jews control the media, they believe that Jews control the world; little do they know that we can't even control a shul board meeting. (laughter)
And that is why, friends, if there are sonei iisroel out there, we have to be ohavei yisroel, if the Rebbe were speaking to us today he would say "es geit ahavas yisroel, est ahavas yisroel, shluft ahavas yisroel" and if you already love Jews, love them more!
Point two, point two, if you want to mekarev yidden [bring Jews closer], do it the way the Rebbe did when he took a twenty year old student from far away and turned him into a leader.
Friends, I once heard a beautiful story from a shliach, who had gone to a little town in Alaska, he asked the local town hall, are there any Jews there? They said to him there are no Jews there. So he asked – in order not to go back having not done anything – could he go and visit the local and give a talk to children? And the mayor or head of the school – I don't know, I can’t remember the story, the shliach himself told me this story – said fine. And he went, and he went in to a classroom – this little town in the middle of Alaska – and he said, "Children, have any of you ever met a Jew?"
And one little girl put up her hand and she said, “Yes.”
And he said, “Who?”
And she said, "My mother."
And he was thinking to himself, "What do I say to this girl?" She's the only Jewish child in this school, this is the only Jews in the entire city, I have to go, and there is no way I can get them to leave and come to a place where there are other yidden [Jews]. What can I say to this girl now that will lead her to stay Jewish?
And this is what he did; he asked her every erev Shabbos to light Shabbos candles. And he said this to her, he said, "I don't know if you know this, but Alaska is the most westerly place in the world where there are Jews, it is the last place in the world where Shabbos comes. And when every Jew lights Shabbos candles they bring light and peace to the world. So every Shabbos the whole world is waiting for your Shabbos candle – the last of all to be lit."
Can you imagine what that did for that child? He could have said, what are you doing in middle of nowhere where there are no Jews? Instead, in the most beautiful way, he made her feel important. She had a task performed for the whole Jewish people, for the whole world, that is how you change lives, that is how the Rebbe changed lives.
By showing people a greatness they did not know they had. By showing people what they could become.
So those are the first two ways, love Jews and show them what they can become.
The last point I think is very simple, Rosh Chodesh Kislev – Chanukah is on the way. There is a famous machlokes [dispute] in [the Talmud,] Gemara Shabbos, daf chof beis, on the following question; madlikin mi'ner l'ner o’lo? – can you take a Chanukah candle and use it to light another Chanukah candle? Yes or no? On this there is a machlokes [between] Rav and Shmuel, Rav says no, Shmuel says yes. Rav says no because ko machish mitzvah – you diminish the Mitzvah. If I take a light to light another light, then I’m going to spill a little of the oil, or a little of the wax and the result is that I will diminish the first light. And Shmuel doesn't worry about this, now we know in general, any machlokes Rav and Shmuel, Halacha k’Rav – the law is always like Rav against Shmuel with only three exceptions, and this is one of them.
What is at stake? What were they arguing about? And why in this case is the law not like Rav but like Shmuel?
And the answer, you will find in today's Jewish world, you will take two yidden, two Jews, both religious, both frum, both erlich, both yorei shamayim, both keeping all the mitzvos, kale ke’chamura. But there's a big difference between them; one of them says I have to look after my light, and if I get involved with Jews who are not frum, not religious, who are not committed, ko machish mitzvah – my yiddishkeit will be diminished. That is the view of Rav, and Rav was a spiritual giant. But Shmuel dared to say otherwise. He said when I take my light to set another Jewish soul on fire, I don’t have less light, I have more! Because while there was once one light, now there is two, and maybe from those two will come more! And on this the Halacha is like Shmuel. Friends, that is what it is to be a Chassid, to paskin like Shmuel, to know that when we go out to Jews who are less committed than we are, our light is not diminished; the result is we create more light in the world.
A Chassid of the Rebbe knows, aron nossei es noisav, if you lift another Jew, you yourself are lifted. If you light with your candle and kindle the flame in the heart of another Jew, your light will not be diminished, you will be lifted; your light will be double.
Friends, forty two years ago, one of the great Jewish leaders of all time, took an unknown student from thousands of miles away, and lit a light in his soul that has burned from that day to this, and he did it not just for him, but for ten thousands of thousands of others. And we are his Shluchim.
We will never manage to do it fully, but we will do our best to walk as he walked, eat as he ate, shluft as he shluft, which was pretty nearly never.
And you know, you know what I know, and this, in the silence of our souls we can hear what the Rebbe would be saying to us now. He would be saying, “You think you’ve done enough? You must be as a light is on Chanukah, mosif veholech – always doing more. Mailin bakodesh, v’ein moreidin – in kedushah, you always climb, and there is always more of the mountain to climb.
And he would be saying to us: number one, live, breath, and sleep ahavas yisroel; number two, become leaders who turn other Jews into leaders; and number three, be madlik mener le’ner, take your light and make light others. And together, let us light a flame in the hearts of other Jews, and together let us light up the world. Amen.