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Sunday Dollars: Empowering the Individual

Sunday Dollars: Empowering the Individual

1986

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A lump of wax with a wick, the Rebbe once told Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner, becomes a candle when you ignite it. Once aflame it is complete, for then it fulfills the purpose it was created for. People are composed of body and soul, and become complete when their soul is ignited. “This is what I try to achieve: that every man and woman should fulfill the purpose they were created for.”

Avner asked the Rebbe, “Have you lit my candle?”

“No,” the Rebbe replied, “I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle.”1

In a discussion with college students the Rebbe compared a person to a light bulb connected by wires to large generators of energy. In order to turn the light on, and illuminate your environment, you need to know where the switch is. “My job,” said the Rebbe, “is tell every Jew where their switch is.”2“I have given you the match. Only you can light your own candle.”

When Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Winereb, then living in Maryland, suffered a mid-life crisis, he called the Rebbe’s office seeking advice. “Tell him,” the Rebbe instructed the secretary who answered the phone, “that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to—his name is Weinreb.”

“But my name is Weinreb.”

“If that’s the case, he should know that sometimes one needs to speak to oneself.”3

Weinreb later became Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union

As a philosophy major at Cambridge University, Jonathan Sacks took a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to New York to put his questions about Judaism before the Rebbe:

“I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions. He gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then… 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?”

Sacks tried to be evasive. He began a sentence with the words “In the situation in which I find myself…” but the Rebbe interrupted him:

“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,” Sacks says, “changed my life.” At the Rebbe’s advice he became an ordained Rabbi. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom for two decades, and became a global teacher and leader. “A good leader creates followers,” Sacks reflects, “but a great leader creates leaders. That's what the Rebbe did for me and for thousands of others.”4People who came to the Rebbe seeking answers were challenged to provide answers and illumination themselves.

Time and time again, people who came to the Rebbe seeking answers were challenged to provide answers and illumination themselves.

Initially, the Rebbe impacted individuals through private meetings (yechidus) and letters. Several nights a week the Rebbe met with one person after another, often until past four in the morning. Sack loads of mail were delivered to his office each day, and thirty volumes of his replies have been published to date. With the passing years it became increasingly impossible to maintain this regime, and in 1986 the Rebbe began a new initiative enabling him to continue interacting with each of them personally.

Each Sunday afternoon the Rebbe stood outside his office, sometimes for seven hours straight, handing freshly minted dollar bills to thousands of men, women and children who filled by to receive his blessing. One dollar is not a significant amount, but the gesture profoundly embodied the Rebbe’s unique style of leadership. The Rebbe was empowering each person to make a contribution to whatever cause they wished. The Rebbe was investing in you, in your ability to make the right choice and do something good.5

All kinds of people came, students and business people, politicians and police officers, rabbis and rabble rousers, the famous and powerful along with the down and out. The Rebbe looked each in the eye, wishing them “blessing and success.”

To each person the Rebbe spoke according to his or her needs and station, extending welcoming acceptance and challenging stimulation. Each encounter was marked by deep sensitivity, humor, warmth and meaning, which can best be grasped through watching the many captured on film. The Rebbe often gave children an additional dollar, encouraging them to help their parents in their endeavors.6

To a man recently released from jail, the Rebbe said, “If the Jews have forgotten the Egyptian bondage, it’s time for you to forget about your prison, also.”7To each person the Rebbe spoke according to his or her needs and station, extending welcoming acceptance and challenging stimulation. To a woman notifying him of a successful surgery, “May G‑d almighty bless you to have only good news about healthy people.”8 To an Israeli beauty queen, “A G‑d fearing woman uses her beauty for beautiful endeavors… tell this also to your friends and to the organizers.”9 To a New York comptroller, “The best policy is to prevent all unnecessary events… and to do so with wisdom that G‑d will provide you in ample measure.”10 To a film writer, “You can write in a modest way… not to destroy something, but to build up.”11 To a less than prolific Rabbinic scholar, “I haven’t yet received even one published article… this [dollar] obligates you, it waits to be redeemed.”12

Footnotes
1.
Avner’s testimony is viewable here.
2.
Testimony of Dr. Yitzchak Block, viewable here. A transcript of a similar discussion is viewable here.
3.
A transcript of Weinreb’s testimony is viewable here.
6.
See for example the encounter viewable here.
7.
Viewable here.
8.
Viewable here.
9.
Viewable here.
10.
Viewable here.
11.
Viewable here.
12.
Viewable here.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.