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Marching Orders

Marching Orders

The Rebbe (a portait by Sarah Kranz)
The Rebbe (a portait by Sarah Kranz)

From a speech delivered to a gathering of American Friends of Lubavitch marking the Rebbe's 100th birthday, held at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., March 11, 2002

We are celebrating 100 years since the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One hundred years is a long time. It is an interval that marks change in many ways. It is a very significant number in Jewish lore, because 100 years marks a full cycle of life. One hundred years also defines a unit of historical time -- a century -- and I want to give it the recognition it deserves. I want to speak a little about that century, the century of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe's century was a time in which truly astounding things happened. The world has changed more in this century than in the thousand years before, perhaps even the two thousand years before. In the sphere of geopolitics, this century witnessed numerous earth-shaking revolutions. Totalitarian dictatorships in Russia, Germany, Italy, and Spain emerged and grew and achieved hegemony -- and all of them collapsed. The maps of the world changed tremendously over this century -- Europe, Africa, and Asia changed their faces. Almost everywhere, so much happened during this span of time, including two world wars that shattered the planet.

There were changes in the spheres of thought and knowledge. The new disciplines of psychology and psychoanalysis made a lasting impact on our general culture. Abstract art, new forms of literature and computerization brought entirely new images and ideas into the human experience. Our new grasp of biology has brought about a tremendous post-modernist shift in our understanding of how we change and of the changes we generate. The theory of relativity was a remarkable insight, changing the world's perception and understanding of itself, a position from which it cannot return. It begat the atom bomb, while our understanding of biology created genetic engineering. These achievements, and so many others, hover over us as threats and as opportunities.

Taking a closer look at Jewish life, we also see great changes. Within this century, Jewish life underwent three major transformations. The first unfolded over an extended time, while its significance was not immediately evident right away, but it was quite dramatic. Following an extended period in which the Jewish people had been more or less religious, observant people, there began a clear trend away from orthodoxy. By the end of World War I, most Jews were non-observant. This is a huge change.

The second change was brought about by the Shoah, the Holocaust. The Shoah murdered the core of Jewish life: men, women and children who were the most vibrant, animated elements of the Jewish people. Six million of them -- or more -- were killed.

And then there was the establishment of the state of Israel: another unprecedented event, another tremendous change. All of these things represent dramatic alterations in the history and life of the Jewish people; nothing like them had happened in the previous thousand years.

So the political world changed, the intellectual world changed, and the Jewish world changed.

The Rebbe did not just live in the century in which these events occurred. The Rebbe participated, at various levels and in different ways, in many of them. He survived the pogroms in Russia as a child, was a young man at the time of the Russian Revolution, and escaped from Europe during the Nazi regime. His knowledge and understanding of what was happening in the world were unique. One must remember that the Rebbe could draw on vast stores of both spiritual and scientific wisdom, on his mastery of physics, biology, literature, and human nature. The Rebbe was a part of all those changes, and he was also a person who created and worked within them. He lived through the most fascinating, frightening and changeable time.

The Rebbe lived in the most difficult of times, yet he was always able to forge ahead. The Rebbe was not just aware of many of these changes; he predicted and warned against some of them.

But we must go one step further. Of course, the Rebbe was very aware of the past -- his own past, the past of his people, and the past of humanity. But with all that, he was never a man of the past; the Rebbe was always a man of the future. If you read through his many writings, you will find hints here and there about the past, but the focus and direction are on the future. He sometimes spoke about what had happened, but more about what should happen, what will happen. Some people looked at him as a symbol and a picture of the glory of the Jewish past, but this is an error. In so many ways, he was a man of the next century, a man who belonged far more to the future than to the past. And that will explain what was so very important to the Rebbe in his last years.

The Rebbe watched the world and saw and felt so much happening, so much quivering and shaking all over the world, but he did not see these developments as final effects; he saw them as preliminary tremors preceding a big upheaval. The Rebbe saw all the change and distress throughout the century as labor pains that herald an impending birth. And that was what The Rebbe had in mind when he talked about Moshiach.

The Rebbe spoke about Moshiach because he saw all the past, the century he lived through, as the preparatory rumblings before the occurrence of a huge upheaval. This is what he tried to tell people. This is the message he tried to communicate. As the years passed, he became more and more intense, more and more emphatic, about the idea that Moshiach was about to come. He saw it not only through some heavenly vision; he perceived it in observing how the world was moving, in the changes he had witnessed. He saw the movement, the suffering, and the pain as presaging a major event, a major change, and that change is the arrival of Moshiach.

Clearly, the coming of Moshiach is not a mere happening within the world; it is far more important, far more profound. In the words of the prophets, Moshiach signifies the end of days -- that is, the end of history. It marks the end of ordinary days, and the beginning of a completely new era, an era so new that nothing in the past is parallel to it. Moshiach will change history permanently, change human life permanently, and usher in a future that will be very different from the past.

The Rebbe was not just making conversation about Moshiach, and he was not just talking about a prophecy that he wanted to preserve. The Rebbe spoke about Moshiach because he understood that the coming of Moshiach is a process in which we must be both active participants and passive beneficiaries. It is a dual process, like birth, where you cannot specify what part comes from Above and what part comes from the inner working of the human body.

This synthesis is what the Rebbe referred to when he spoke about Moshiach. Therefore, the Rebbe did not see "Moshiach" as a mantra to say six times or ten times a day to overcome difficult times. For the Rebbe, Moshiach was something to work on, to deal with, to fight for. That is because we are built and our history is built, from the very beginning, as the prelude toward the end of days. We are not building up to the end of human life or to the end of earthly existence, but to a tremendous change in all of that. So that is something that we must not only speak about, but something for which we must prepare.

In this context, let me address the notion of the Rebbe's "legacy." One should not use that word in talking about the Rebbe. The Rebbe did not leave a legacy. The Rebbe left marching orders. This is an entirely different concept. The Rebbe did not just leave a collection of books, videos, and speeches. He left a task to be completed, and the books and other resources provide the understanding that will enable people to carry it out.

I will try to outline some of the ideas that are in those orders, properly and correctly, and render his lofty words in simple, down-to-earth language. I believe that his is not just a personal interpretation, but is the outlook of the official leadership of Chabad. I hope, also, that this explication will be valuable for the Chabad movement, which, I believe, is larger than its organization. And I hope that these words will go beyond that, to reach the much wider community of all of those whom the Rebbe touched in one way or another, and they will cause something of a shift.

When we speak about the coming of Moshiach, we speak about a mega-event, a major phenomenon that changes everything. We may not be fully prepared and we don't know the how, what, or when of this event, but we are talking about major changes. One of the consequences of this statement is that, if we are expecting things to change in a major way, we will have to make major changes, too. And one of these changes is that we have to cast away a huge number of petty quarrels and petty issues; insignificant clashes that are not just vicious and unprofitable, but ludicrous.

Next to the truly momentous changes we are anticipating, all of our trivial arguments shrink into trifles; our disputes are comic, not just painful. I am not speaking about personal quarrels only, but about the whole notion of political trappings that you deal with in this country and that we deal with in Israel, my country. Many of the things that people fight about are the sheerest, shallowest nonsense, especially if we compare these quarrels to the establishment of an entirely different order. In that sense, whether Party A or Party B will have a particular right or a particular authority seems ridiculous. Who will remember all these foolish people who were fighting about such things? When the tsunami is about to envelop the world, no one will remember if my shop was on the west side of the street or the east side; everything will be moved.

So, the coming of Moshiach means, among other things, the casting away of internal fights. We must talk to people about what Moshiach means. We must abandon, for example, the Jewish interdenominational quarrels, many of which are associated with small, short-term calculations and evaluations: What will be better for my organization, for my little group, for my little thing in the next two, three, or five years? How will I gain a little bit more support from this rich man or the other rich man? How can I maneuver in another little way to be written up in one newspaper or another? Again, compared to the big things, all these are nonsensical.

It is even more important to talk about the future, what people are going to do, when the time will come… and the time is coming, whether we want it or not. The status quo will change, and all these petty issues will be wiped away. That means, also, there are lots of things we must do. So what do we do?

Let me start by saying something about Israel. We are stuck in a very unfortunate position. We try to move to the right, and the way is blocked. We try to move to the left, and the way is blocked. We try to go forward, but we cannot. We try to retreat, but we are cut off. So, we are surrounded and blocked on every side. There is one direction, however, that is not closed: upward. That route is still open, and we should try to move in that direction.

We should do it not just as a statement, as a slogan, but as a serious practical move toward a different way of life. This does not mean "Let's cast away all kinds of things we are dealing with and go and deal directly with the Above." It does not mean being unearthly and forgetting to eat your breakfast. (People won't forget that even in the World to Come). But we can put our lives and our rational crises in perspective, and when we put them in perspective, they will become very different, because our real notions should be with the Above.

In a more concrete way, it means being genuinely concerned about, and working for, every segment of society, not just in details, but in major areas of society: addressing the rifts among ethnic groups and the growing gap between the rich and the poor; making education (not just knowledge) a primary and universal ambition, and bringing the whole country - not just a segment of it - to an awareness of the Divine. It also means being careful not to use the Almighty to achieve narrow benefits (even praiseworthy ones), but to remember that all of us, right and left, are the people of G‑d.

In a more emphatic way, this is the direction and an order for the Lubavitcher movement, a movement that has to continue to progress. So much has been done; so much has been achieved. In some places, the achievements are marvelous, unimaginable. In some places, it is like seeing the flowering of the desert, where Jewish life seemed to be dead, and it has been revived.

But all that is not enough, by far not enough, because we are now talking about a much bigger process. We cannot now stand still and gloat. It is true that when one Jew puts on a pair of tefillin once in his lifetime, there is a new light in the world. It is true that when a Jew eliminates one non-kosher food from his diet, even though he is not abstaining from other non-kosher things, this is a gain, an advance. But we now have to talk to people not only about small changes, but about major changes, about transforming completely. We have to face them; they have to see themselves as Jews. It is not easy to make such changes; it is sometimes quite difficult to suggest them, but now is the time to do it. We don't know when, in two years or ten years, but something great is happening. And if we are to be prepared, then we have to tell people to throw away all the nonsense, to stop indulging in things that are not important, to start to go a different way. That means both those who dedicate their lives to this work and those who are volunteers. That means speaking to those who are here and to many more who are not.

We have to start talking now about changing, not just about turning, but about returning on a big scale. "On a big scale", means that it is not sufficient to make token gestures, for example, to say to an older man, "Do me a favor and send your grandchild to study in cheder for two hours." Rather, this is about reaching people in a deeper and more meaningful way, getting them to change their lives, to set their priorities where they should be set, and to put their efforts where they should be put, because a time is coming when these are the things that will count, and most of the rest will not matter at all. It will be a different reality; things won't be the same. We have to tell people about it. We have to say it again and again in a most emphatic way. This does not mean that we must invalidate what we are doing; we must just work on a much grander scale. We have to act in a much more urgent way. These ideas have to be expressed not only to individuals, but also to organizations, to groups, to the Jewish community at large. We have to repeat the call of the sixth Rebbe: "Teshuvah now -- redemption now." Whatever has been done is not enough. It is never enough. It has to be done ten times as much, if we want to be ready for the time.

There is something else we must say, something that has to do with our attitude about the world. The Rebbe began, but we have to continue to say it, not only to our own Jewish brothers and sisters, but to all of humanity: We have to talk about what are called the Seven Noahide Commandments, the seven laws that the Almighty gave Noah after the Flood. These commandments are for all humanity, for every human being. We should speak about these commandments not just to one individual, as if we were selling merchandise, but to all the peoples and the nations of the world, so that we can change the world. Our goal is not to give a compliment to the Rebbe. A new and different world will come in a short time, and we have to address it. We have to tell people that a different time is coming, a time when different things will count. We must get everyone to keep the basic Noahide laws, the laws of nature and the laws of the Divine, and we must bring the people together. This is what we have to tell individuals and nations.

How can we do it? Because the Rebbe is behind us, in a sense doing and saying these things. It means recognizing that now is the time to go to others and to ourselves, and pay attention to the big things and the important things, and to let the small details go.

Our sages tell us, in reading Genesis 49:33, that "Our father Jacob did not die." The idea is that, as long as there are Jews in the world, the seed of Jacob is alive, living within us. In everything we do in our lives, a small minuscule part of him lives within us. We say in our prayers "David, the King of Israel, is alive and enduring", which means the kingship of David never died. Someone could kill the last Jewish king, but no one can destroy the kingship of the Jewish people. The kingship is still alive, still here. We may be downtrodden, we may be kicked, but the kingship of Israel continues. In that sense, I would say that the Rebbe implanted his spirit in so many people, that his dreams, his visions, his insight, and his tremendous desire continue. If we sustain his utmost desire to bring about that big change, then we can say that the Rebbe lives on. The Rebbe is here, when we are here and we are doing all the things that he left in his marching orders. He said we should advance. He said we should not walk, but we should run. We should attack. He said we should go further.

We should do it, and we will do it.

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