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The Rebbe Who Had No Box

The Rebbe Who Had No Box

How the Rebbe taught us to ride the waves of modernity


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.

Response Today
Self-Drowning 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.
Fighting Prove that we are right and they are wrong.
Praying 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.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Marcia Naomi Berger, San Rafael, California San Rafael June 11, 2013

Thank you on the Rebbe's yartzeit I was looking for readings to commemorate the Rebbe's yartzeit, which began tonight on Tammuz 3 and am so glad to have found this. What a unique perspective to go from out of the box thinking to "what box?" The challenge is to apply this teaching to my own life! Reply

Dovid Aust. November 28, 2012

Source Likutei Sichot Vol 3 portion of Beshalach Reply

Anonymous July 18, 2012

r h - thinking, June 24, 2012 i would like to posit that there are three types of thinking:

1. Inside the box- which is 95 % of the time.

2. Outside the box - which is maybe 4 %

3. What box ? - which is maybe 1 %. What i mean by this is the fearlessness to do what is right, against all naysayers who don't get it at the time. The need for such thinking comes up only occasionally. Like Moses telling Hashem, if you slaughter my people, erase my name from the Torah. What box ? Einstein quietly saying to a whole lecture hall of the greatest scientists/mathematicians of the day, who were loudly jeering his theories, " It only takes one of you to disprove me. " None could. The jeering stopped. The praise began. Several artists were far ahead of science, for example Van Gogh's energy of stars.

Your intelligence and insights come from a fearless mind free of any box. Simply accept the compliment.

Yasher koach. Keep lighting the way. Reply

R.F Sydney, Australia July 17, 2012

Beautiful! Wondering which Sicha this is from... Reply

mary 000, ireland June 25, 2012

thank you. For me, it is good to be reminded to be the worlds master. This is very much staying faithful to the plan of creation. For me it becomes important to be more assertive and less passive. Thank you rebbe. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma June 24, 2012

thinking outside the box I think it's a beautiful commentary and I have come back to re read this. There is a timelessness to certain teachings and often in the now, what we have learned is seen in a different and broadening context. For example, a book read as a child often takes on layered meanings as we grow older and come back to this same book. It's a way we can perceive growth.

I think it's useless to get tangled up in the nets, but rather to move ahead with purpose, articulated. We can all of us make that leap as there is something we do all share, a common background that is a soul thing.

Often the most creative and innovative thinking comes from those who think outside the box. And they do not always have an easy time of it. I think eventually however, their contributions, if perceived and additive to humanity, do make a profound difference.

Moses realized if not for fortune.. that his gifts came from the same Divine Hand that powers us all. It's a profound realization. We're all in this together. Reply

Anonymous June 23, 2012

interesting I enjoyed your version of working on tikkun olam, righting the world where illusions lurk, standing up for what you know is right.

I am intrigued by the kernels " the true teacher is present in his absence " written in the margin and " the teacher is most present in his apparent absence " written in the text. I am thinking that they have a similar meaning. We can take for example Moses who fits both sentences.

The reason i bring this forward is that it should give you some idea of how much your teaching means to many of us. You are continuously making us think and appreciate. Your writings and videos are an edifice in the making. Not a concrete edifice, i mean a spiritual one, in that your walls will not come tumbling down.

Yaher koach. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA June 22, 2012

OK, this is deep. I think I get some of the Analogies, but I will have to ponder the ideas and connect them with occurrences in my own life to be able to more accurately articulate my thoughts. Very poetic article. One of the problems is being able to judge between something modern which is positive but scary to do, as opposed to something modern which is just not right to do. I think as one of our human frailties, we often just ignore the difficult by saying it's not G-dly, or not kosher anyway. And, vice versa. Reply

Chanoch Brown Miami Beach, FL June 21, 2012

the Response box Rabbi Tzvi, thanks for another wonderful, thoughtful message. Following a "leader" often puts us into a box, defined behavior and perceptions established is the box. The "values" established by others is part of the box. God's comments to Moses and us was masterful (why not, he/she is the master) but itself outside the box. When thing are desperatewe need God, but we also need to use the tools he has provided us in Exodus 14: v 19-21. The triads representing the 72 names of haShem. There are many other examples of her help and teachings...think I'll write a book.
You have been a great teacher and guide. Thanks, Shabbat Shalom Reply

Mary 0000, Ireland June 20, 2012

rebbe I have just read this and it is wonderful. what a wonderful analogy of grabbing the bull by the horns and using it to plow in His fields. wonderful. Enlightening. Fantastically full of action for here and now. Reply

David Levant Emerson, N.J. June 20, 2012

The captain We need a captain that thinks outside the box.Navigating the uncharted waters is dangerous,but these challenges must be met.If we listen to the one's that say "nay"what will we ever discover? If one believes discovery is his divine mission he must steer the ship carefully but confidently,inspiring his crew that the voyage will not be in vain.When land is spotted and we go ashore the journey is not over. Then we begin a new one. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma June 19, 2012

Branches from the Book of LIFE This is beautiful. I do believe however that to be enlightened is to perceive that G_d is omnipresent, and that we are aspects of that Divinity. When we stand in the light this is the percept. Reply

Richard Boca Raton, , FL. USA June 19, 2012

I've nothing to add... ...but thanks: to Chabad, for its continued contact with Jews throughout the world.

Your messages give hope, inspiration and strength to Jews all over.


izzy nmb June 19, 2012

just what i needed to hear .... Thank you so so much! Reply

Richard Jones Tarzana, California June 19, 2012

The Timeliness of the Rebbe's Messages One thing I find so fascinating about the Lubavitcher Rebbe's messages is their timeliness. Look at how some people view the Internet, for example: they see it as wholly evil and an obstacle to righteous living. Then, look at how the Rebbe embraced technology for the good that it can help propagate. The timeliness of this particular article is remarkable, also. Well done Rabbi Freeman! Reply

Anonymous Blaine, wa via June 18, 2012

Wow, Rabbi Tzvi! Perfectly put. I have studied this talk of the Rebbe in its original published form many times, and have presented it to others many times over the years. I read your article and it gives a freshness and an pointedness I had not yet perceived. Many, many thanks for always writing "out of the box." And here is a word to the management of "Thanks for discovering Rabbi Tzvi and for providing a true "out of the box" platform for his original and pointed inspiration." Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, NY June 18, 2012

please keep writing! We need these anchors, the Rebbe's lucid teachings and guidance, in the stormy seas of our world. Reply

Mr. Brian Decker June 18, 2012

Wonderful start to my day Great way to start a day - especially one in which I have an important interview for a promotion! I have found that the more I strive to embrace "Hashgacha Pratis" (Divine Providence) and deconstruct the "boxes" in my own life the easier and more beautiful my journey in this world becomes. Thanks again! Reply