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How the Lubavitcher Rebbe employed the halachic concept of shelichut to reach and influence every corner of the globe

The Emissaries

The Emissaries


What do you do if you have a vision, and are determined to see that vision implemented in the life of every man, woman and child on the face of the earth? Only you can make others see what you see, only you can communicate its urgency, only you can impart the motivation and empowerment to make it happen. But you are a single individual. How to bridge the miles, not to mention the cultural and psychological expanses, that separate you from them?

"From the time that I was a child attending cheder," the Lubavitcher Rebbe states in a letter he wrote on his 54th birthday in 1956, "and even earlier than that, there began to take form in my mind a vision of the future redemption: the redemption of Israel from its last exile, a redemption such as would explicate the suffering, the decrees and the massacres of galut."

The Redemption, of course, is not just the vision of a very exceptional child growing up in the pogrom-smitten city of Nikolayev in the first decade of the 20th century. The vision of a future world free of ignorance, suffering and strife — a world which embodies and exhibits the goodness and perfection of its Creator — is the subject of numerous biblical prophecies and the aspiration of a hundred generations of Jews. But no man in recent memory has made this vision the stuff and substance of his life, and has achieved so much towards its realization, as has the Rebbe.

Upon assuming the leadership of Chabad in 1950, the Rebbe set himself a goal: to reach every person on the face of the earth and inspire them to turn to the Torah as the guiding light by which to achieve personal and global redemption. To attain this goal, the Rebbe invented the shaliach.

Man is a creature of contradiction.

On the one hand, the human being is the most egotistical of G‑d's creations. Other life forms are content if their daily labor secures them food and shelter; we want to know "Are my talents being fully exploited?" and "Am I producing something that is distinctly my own?" Other creatures toil to survive and perpetuate their kind; we strive also for recognition, fulfillment and "self realization."

On the other hand, we are constantly seeking union and fusion with something greater than ourselves: a community of which we may be part, a personality or cause which we might submit to and serve. Deep within us resides a craving for self-abnegation — a desire to shed the trappings of the ego and be absorbed within the universal and the divine.

Employers, political leaders and military commanders — anyone who needs to motivate other people to do his or her bidding — usually enlist one or the other of these human traits. An employer might, for example, encourage creativity, initiative and the attainment of "personal best" in the workplace. Or, he might take an opposite approach, placing the emphasis on teamwork and company loyalty, thereby tapping his employees' instinctive striving for an identity which transcends the personal.

Each approach has its drawbacks and limitations. For while each cultivates one of the above basic human qualities, it also runs contrary to the other, no less fundamental property of the human soul.

And then there is the approach of the shaliach.

Shaliach — the word means "agent" and "emissary" — is a halachic (Torah-legal) term for a person empowered by someone else to act in his stead. The shaliach first appears in the Torah in the person of Eliezer, whom Abraham commissioned to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Rebecca was selected and betrothed as a wife for Isaac by Eliezer — she was legally Isaac's wife without her actual husband having ever set eyes on her or having exchanged a single word with her. In the words of the Talmud, "A person's shaliach is as he himself."

There exists a halachic model (the eved or "slave") for one who has abnegated his will, personality and very identity to that of his "master." There also exists the model of the "employee" (sachir), who assumes the obligation to perform a certain task for someone else, but whose personality and identity remain separate and distinct from the personality and identity of his "employer." The shaliach is unique in that he or she retains a great degree of autonomy in carrying out his mission, yet at the same time becomes a virtual extension of the person who commissioned him (the meshaleiach).

The shaliach does not abnegate his intellect, will, desires, feelings, talents and personal "style" to that of the one whom he represents; rather, he enlists them in the fulfillment of his mission. The result of this is not a lesser bond between the two, but the contrary: the meshaleiach is acting through the whole of the shaliach — not only through the shaliach's physical actions, but also through the shaliach's personality, which has become an extension of the meshaleiach's personality.

The Rebbe took the halachic concept of shelichut and transformed it into a calling and a way of life. In the five decades of his leadership, he recruited, trained, motivated and commissioned thousands of men, women and children to act as his personal representatives and emissaries in hundreds of communities throughout the world.

Intrinsic to the role of shaliach is the challenge to bring one's own initiative, resourcefulness and creativity to the task. The Rebbe did not allow his sheluchim the luxury of mindless obedience to his dictates. Instead, he insisted that Chabad's programs and activities arise from the particular strengths and inclinations of the shaliach and the particular needs and circumstances of his locality.

But neither did the Rebbe send his emissaries to tackle their mission on their own. He empowered them to be "as he himself," so that a shaliach's every deed is imbued with the awareness that he is acting as an extension of the Rebbe's very person; that his thoughts and feelings, choices and deliberations, efforts and satisfactions, while the product of his own prowess and personality, are now serving as extensions of the Rebbe's prowess and personality.

Never before in the history of our people has one man built a following so large in number, so diverse, so highly motivated, and so successful in the furtherance of his vision. At the core of this phenomenal success is a seemingly benign legal dynamic, first employed more than 3,600 years ago when Abraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for his son.

It is now more than a decade since the Rebbe's passing, and the urgency of his vision has never been more acute. Our hurting world needs him more than ever. Yet in a certain sense, he is here more than ever, a tactual presence in the thousands of lives imbued with his passion and compassion, his wisdom and commitment.

Yanki Tauber served as editor of
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Jeff Griggs Tallahassee via July 31, 2017

This is phenomenal. Insights into the wisdom of G-d. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for June 26, 2016

To Moshe That's great! A good place to start would be to attend a Chabad yeshiva. Reply

Mo9she Lieberman New York June 24, 2016

I would like to become, a Chabad Sheliach. Reply

zeynep October 23, 2013

Through Rabbi J.Immanuel Schochet to the Rebbe I very recently started studying/internalizing a small precious work by Rabbi Schochet entitled 'Living with Moshiach' (readily available on this amazing website).

In his introduction to the work, the Rabbi beautifully conveys the intensity of the Rebbe's passion in yearning and awaiting the New Era. It was the realness of this passion emanating from the words of Rabbi Schochet that has connected my soul to the Rebbe. The very informative article above, seen in this context, further helps strengthening this new connection.

May both rest in peace and may we all feel the undeniable resonance of the Rebbe's words in our souls: UNTIL WHEN, HOW MUCH LONGER? Reply

Marie Marcelle Golstein Mons, Belgium November 11, 2010

Abraham servant, Eliezer, emissary, shaliach Very interesting ! I just now understood what an emissary is, and how high was the mission Abraham commissioned his "servant". Also, I never realized, that the servant could be Eliezer, as his name is not pronounced, and one can wonder why ?
This explanation of "shaliach" is just enlightning ! Thank you Reply

Joshua Johannesburg, South Africa November 12, 2009

Well put A beautiful message connected with current events. Reply

Chani Benjaminson, February 18, 2009

Re: Biography Indeed the Rebbetzin was an exceptional woman...You can find an online biography at this link. Reply

jacqueline yaffe kfar saba, israel February 16, 2009

rebbetzen chaya mushka i would dearly like to know more of the biography of this woman, who must have been exceptional to be the life partner of the Rebbe. Reply

Eric S. Kingston CA February 9, 2006

Direction & Purpose A man travels down a river in a craft. The river is filled with "Water". This water has its way and direction. The man goes with this water, but he must still steer his craft. Reply