The Response Box
Whenever someone asks me a question, I first have to think, “What kind of a box has this guy trapped me in?” Then I can deconstruct the box. If the box dissolves, there goes the question. If it doesn’t dissolve, I better listen up. The guy’s got a point.
Here comes one now:
“Rabbi, what was the Rebbe’s response to modernity?”
For at least two hundred years, Jews scrambled to find a response to modernity.
Today, there’s no longer much scrambling. Movements have stopped moving, firmly entrenched. But there was a time when Jewish creative genius generated a cacophony of responses to modernity: Reform, Orthodoxy, Zionism, Religious Zionism, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Reconstructionism, Modern Orthodoxy, Renewal and more. Each movement had leaders who spent their years zealously articulating and re-articulating their particular response to the progressive, liberal, enlightened, modern world that came rushing down upon us, particularly after France beheaded its kings and smokestacks started belching into the sky.
Now, in Brooklyn sat a Jewish leader who built up a powerhouse movement that has transformed the face of Jewry worldwide. What was his response to modernity?
Gotcha. Neat little box. But it doesn’t work. What doesn’t work? The box: “Response.”
Just Keep Moving
The Rebbe dissolved that box with this Midrash:
The Children of Israel are stuck at the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptian army is closing in fast. The Jews divide into four parties—four opposing responses to one situation, perfectly summarizing the orthodox responses of the modern era: The Just-Go-Back-to-Egypt response, the I’d-Rather-Drown-Myself response, the Get-Up-And-Fight response and the Get-Down-And-Pray response.
||Immerse in a ghetto of Torah, and pretend the world does not exist.
|Back to Egypt
||Give up on the world, on the future, or on trying to change anything. Just do what you have to do because G‑d says so.
||Prove that we are right and they are wrong.
||Rely on G‑d to bring Moshiach real soon.
G‑d’s response? You’re all wrong.
“Why are you crying out to me?” G‑d demands of Moses. “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to keep going forward!”
No response. No reaction. Proaction. Take charge. You have a purpose, you’re going somewhere. Keep going.
Which is just what the Children of Israel did. And the obstacle turned into a miracle.
Show Your Stuff
An obstacle demands a response. A world of obstacles constantly demanding response is a scary world. The Rebbe never lived in a scary world. In the Rebbe’s world, only one thing exists: the purpose for which I am here. And that purpose is the same as the purpose for which the entire world is here.
“Why on earth would a world that shares your purpose present obstacles?” the Rebbe would demand. So there aren’t any obstacles. Only challenges. Challenges chiding you to show your stuff. Show that stuff and do what a Jew has to do, and those challenges themselves lift you on their shoulders, carrying you high.
We are not prisoners within an ominous world; we are the agents of its Master.
Every talk, every letter, every teaching of the Rebbe must be understood in that context: We are not prisoners within an ominous world; we are the agents of its Master. We are not here to placate the world, but to repair it; not to reform ourselves to its tastes, but to reform it to the tastes of its Creator; not to conserve Judaism, but to be an organic part of its flourishing growth; not to reconstruct it, but to use it to reconstruct our world. Because ours is not a Torah of the past, but one that beckons to us from a magnificent future.
In this way, you can understand all the seeming paradoxes of the Rebbe’s directives—on Israel, on academia, on science, on society. Dove or hawk? Conservative or progressive? Scholar or activist? Rationalist or mystic? Scientist or medievalist? Activist or ghetto Jew?
None of the above. Just eternal Jew. Abraham, out to change the entire world.
Everything that exists in the world, the Rebbe taught us, awaits us. It beckons us to redeem it and use it for its true purpose. If the world puts something in your hands—technology, knowledge, talent, opportunity—look for a way to use it for good. If you can’t use it for good in a kosher way, if it’s pulling you down instead of you pulling it up, drop it—fast. That’s not your purpose.
The world throws stuff at you—it’s telling you your purpose. But if the world tells you, “This is your purpose!” tell it to get lost.
If you find yourself in a place, you are there for a reason. But when the world says, “Sit here in your place!”—keep moving.
If the world says, “This is how it’s done!” do it the way you know it should be done. If the world says, “We don’t think that way anymore!” teach it how to think.
Don’t enslave yourself to a world that seeks a master. If it gives you something you don’t need, don’t take it. If it tells you everyone is doing this, tell it you’re not everyone. Once you show it who’s boss, then it will hand you its finest jewels.
No, the Rebbe did not respond to modernity—he grabbed it by its horns and harnessed it to plow his field.
Do It Now
That is why the Rebbe’s strongest presence and his greatest impact began after his passing in 1994.
If all of life is about survival, and the history of the Jews is that of a small crew upon a raft in a vast and stormy ocean, then we are in dire need of a captain to be always gripping the steering apparatus tightly, yelling his orders and keeping us all aboard.
The true teacher is most present in his absence.
But if life is about purpose, and that purpose rests within each one of us; if we were put in this world to grab it from the bottom and turn it upside down; if the ship has a destiny, and that destiny is before us here and now—then the teacher is most present in his apparent absence, the captain is found in the hands on deck.
When you stand in a place of enlightenment, the Rebbe so often taught, you may have boundless, infinite light—but you do not have G‑d Himself. In the void of light where this world was made; in the darkness of Jewish exile, where we must choose life from the depths and create our own light to find it; in a society that forces us to wake up, take the reins of our own lives and challenge everything—there we touch G‑d at the very core.
In 1991, the Rebbe was ready for the messianic era to arrive. Apparently, we were not. He left it up to us to prepare ourselves and the entire world, to shake off the mentality of exile and yearn and kick and cry for a world the way it is supposed to be. Those who share his vision, who resonate with his wisdom, who keep alive his spirit and make it real, they have his guidance now more than ever, steadily, almost palpably. He is our Rebbe, our teacher, our captain. He trusted us to prepare the ship for shore.