By the seventh generation of Chabad, the walls separating the Jew from the rest of the world had all come tumbling down. It was 1951, and the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, accepted the leadership with these words: “We are the generation to complete the work of all the generations before us, to finally bring heaven down to earth.”
Until this point, Chabad had been about the soul, the mind and the heart. You could almost say that everything up to this point had been only a rehearsal, battle practice for the final victory. That was the material world that needed to be fixed.
For the Rebbe, fixing up the material world meant the entire big world out there, every last country, every last culture, every last individual. You could almost say that everything up to this point had been only a rehearsal, battle practice for the final victory. And now, the paratroopers were landing on foreign soil. Everywhere.
It meant sending young couples and their children out to every place a Jew may roam—whether that be Tunisia or Thailand, Kathmandu or Kentucky. What Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal Shem Tov, and the Ari had spoken in the esoteric language of the soul and the heavens suddenly meant here, now, down on this earth. Tikun had hit the hard, concrete pavement.
It wasn’t just those chassidic families. The Rebbe asked this of every Jew and every human being with whom he came in contact. The message, always: You have a job to do. The circumstances in which you find yourself, the community in which you live, your place of work and the skills and talents G‑d has given you—they are all screaming out to you to do your job. And what is that job? To turn this world on its head.
Neither was the Rebbe satisfied with his impact on the Jewish world alone. He urged Jews to speak with their non-Jewish neighbors and acquaintances, to tell them, “You are created in the divine image. You have a divine mission to accomplish. We all have to increase our acts of goodness and kindness. That is all that’s needed to bring the redemption of the entire world.”
The transformation left many older chassidim gasping in the dust. For over a century and a half, Chabad had been about theological contemplation and “labor of the heart.” Now, the Rebbe introduced something the likes of which had never been seen before: A worldwide organization dedicated to reaching out to every Jew and pulling them back in.
Not that any of that contemplative,Not that the contemplative was left behind. It was simply extended outward, downward, and into the world. inner labor was ever left behind. It remains the curriculum of every Chabad student. It was simply extended outward, downward, and into the world.
An outside observer would explain simply: These were urgent times. Six million had been lost—even more in Russia—the rate of assimilation in the West was accelerating, and if something drastic wasn’t done fast to save world Jewry, there wouldn’t be any Jews left to save.
But if you stood at the Rebbe’s farbrengens—the gatherings at 770 Eastern Parkway, where students and chassidim would sit or stand for hours and listen to his talks, sing chassidic melodies, say l’chaim, and listen some more—there you would pick up an entirely different story. The inside story.
“We are the last generation of this exile, the generation to greet Moshiach,” the Rebbe would say. “We are gathering the very last sparks, the most concealed and tightly held. We are making the final touches, polishing the buttons. These are the last preparations for a world as it was meant to be. And to do that, you cannot stay within the four walls of your yeshiva or your synagogue. To do that, you must go out into the world, with all your essence and being, and there be a beacon of light, a gatherer of sparks.”
Chabad is not two worlds. Chabad is not two worlds. Chabad is about bringing the highest light of the divine to every corner of G‑d’s world.It is all one, and the only way it can be understood is as a single whole—albeit, working in two opposite directions: from the top-down and from the ground-up. Chabad is about bringing the highest light of the divine to every corner of G‑d’s world, and it is about discovering and redeeming the divine spark hidden within all that exists.
At one time, that was achieved only in the world of the spirit. In our times, it has become as literal as imaginable.
It’s strange, but what I am about to say was never stated explicitly, yet all who have been steeped in the Rebbe’s world have tacitly understood the same thing. It was implied, again and again, from so many different angles. At some point, it has to be stated loud and clear.
Certainly, every human being on this planet has his or her role to fulfill in its tikun. But the Maker of All Souls had deemed that a Jewish soul was meant to heal the world with the light of Torah. And that raises a great question.Why would G‑d toss a soul into a world where it would be so lost? Because, if that is so, why would G‑d toss such a soul into a world where it would have no idea that there could be anything spiritual or meaningful to discover in the whole of Judaism?
It could only be that this is the exclusive means to recover those final, lost sparks.
Like a homing pigeon sent on a journey to return with precious jewels, so the souls of Israel are scattered among the nations of the world, among every sort of ideology and idealism, lifestyle and compulsion, ashram and cult, rat-race and escapism. So deep must they plunge that it takes the army of a tzadik, a battalion fighting with all its might, to pull them out of there, so they can bring those jewels back home.
Some sparks can be returned home with a simple mitzvah. Some can only be extracted by cracking a hard nut and tossing out a pile of trash. And some—those “tied down,” as Rabbi Schneur Zalman described them—only by exerting every ounce of your strength to pull yourself out of their sticky mud.
There is a teaching that says this—almost:
The only reason G‑d spread the Jewish People among the nations was so that they could gain converts. As the verse says (Judges 5:11), “I have planted you among the nations.” If a man plants seed, does he not expect to reap a hundred bushels of seed for every bushel planted?”
—Talmud Pesachim 87b
Asked Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “Can we take this literally? How many converts have there been in history? Could we possibly be in exile from our land for 1800 years for this reason alone? If this were meant literally, the world should be filled with Jews by now!”
“Rather,” he answered, “the converts to which the Talmud refers are none other than the lost sparks.By spreading us out among the nations, we wrestle out those sparks from their place. By spreading us out among the nations, we wrestle out those sparks from their place, on their own territory, so that their redemption is a real and lasting one.”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman may have seen it, but how many others could have understood how far this would go, to what places we would have to journey to rescue those sparks, how deep those souls would have to plunge to find them, and what extreme means would be needed to convince the homing pigeons to return home.
Finish the Job
In 1967, the Rebbe spoke about how the souls had begun to return home. In the 1980s, he talked about the walls of the exile crumbling before us. In 1991, he insisted that enough sparks had been gathered, and it was incomprehensible that the final geulah had not yet come.
It was up to us, he said, to complete the job—we had to want it from the innermost of our hearts, and demand it with sincerity. And in order for that to happen, we had to learn what geulah is, understand it and come to feel it as though we were living it already. He continued speaking that way until the day of his stroke, in 1992.
In each of our private lives, much work remains to be done. But the world is ready. It is we who must awaken a longing to come home.
If we would recognize what this worldIf we really knew, we would be pounding our fists on heaven’s door. really is and who we really are, how high we could be and what a world we could be living in, how we are but silkworms trapped in the darkness of our cocoons, miners trapped in a cave so long that we have forgotten the light of day, a bright, glorious day that awaits us—we would be pounding our fists on heaven’s door, demanding to see the fruits of our labor, demanding it now and no later.
In the meantime, keep working. Work hard. For we are G‑d’s partners in the creation of heaven and earth.