The two young men were earnest and determined. As one sat me down at the head of the boardroom table, I heard the door’s bolt lock slide tight. Before the videographer could hastily snap a mike to my lapel, they had already begun their interrogation.

Okay, I had been warned. But I figured I wouldn’t be the first. Which meant I would only have to ask what the others had said and then mercilessly dissect their views to demonstrate how they had got it all wrong.

Alas, they informed me, I was their first captive. If I wanted to get out of there, I would have to actually say something meaningful.

Theirs was a simple question: What exactly was the Rebbe’s message to the world, and why is it so important?

This is something I’m supposed to know. Only that it hadn’t been put this way before. It was always in terms of what the Rebbe had to say to world Jewry. Or about spirituality. Or leadership. The question here was different: On a platform to the global community, how is the Rebbe relevant? What is his message? How is it unique?

“Do more good deeds and acts of kindness!” wasn’t going to work.

Present Tense

Before I do this, I said, I want to talk about where we are right now.

We moderns are supposed to have a meta-conception of our own selves within history. Yet most of us have a very skewed view of where we are right now. Those who speak about the past are horridly pessimistic about the future. Those who speak about the future are blithely oblivious to the past. But real progress comes from building a future that synthesizes past with present. If you don’t know where you are and how you got there, how can you know whether you’re moving forward or backward? So, let’s try to frame our current situation within the big picture of time.

Our times are tied more with the future than with the past.

Without a doubt, there is something very unique about our times. In a way, our times are tied more with the future than with the past.

In the post–World War II era, humanity was handed its own destiny in a way that was never before imaginable. For the first time in history, open war between the major powers would have meant the end of the human race. We could no longer play careless games of war for territory, nor could we recklessly dump our refuse wherever we wished. A world of independent parts had fused into a single organism, a playing field of empires into a global shtetl. We became the stewards of our own planet, and of our very survival.

Before World War II, very few took notice of crises and catastrophes on the other side of the planet that did not directly affect their own nation. Five million Chinese died of earthquakes, famine and disease between the world wars, and hardly anyone batted an eyelid for them. Even hunger and malnutrition in our own lands went widely unnoticed. In Europe and America, 30 percent of the population suffered malnutrition, yet academics wrote no studies and the media took no interest.

The Second World War was a turning point in human consciousness. As the Rebbe himself noted,1 it was a war of two ideologies, two propositions for the destiny of humankind. One side represented a kind of worship of the state, in which the good of the whole trumped and trampled the rights of the individual. The other represented the supreme value of the individual, to which society and governance must be subservient.

That battle continued after 1945. In the postwar era, the West took the precedence of the individual all the way. If the goal was the greatest material benefit for the most people, then that strategy worked, stupendously. The opposite failed, and is currently undergoing its metamorphosis.

We discovered something that works. Not so much an economic or political system, but a groundwork of values. How do I know that? Take a look at our disastrous attempts to impose democracy and open commerce upon nations that do not have these values.

We discovered values that work. But do they make sense to us?

But to what degree have we ourselves assimilated these values? Do they make sense to us? Are we willing to face up to their origins and to their uniqueness? Do we at all comprehend who we moderns are within the big picture of time?

Big, Crazy Ideas

Here’s a list: Six Big Ideas that have changed the world and which everyone takes for granted—but would sound bizarre to anyone outside our culture:

  1. The rights of the individual supersede the benefit of the state.
  2. The value of all human life, including children, women and even foreigners, cannot be measured.
  3. Every child in the African jungle must have access to the entire corpus of human knowledge at his or her fingertips.
  4. There is purpose to this life; there is meaning to this universe.
  5. The world is made better not through war, power, conquest, enslavement and domination of the superior over the inferior, but through understanding, compassion, and lending a helping hand. All the world needs is love.
  6. We’re going to make this a better world.

Those outsiders actually make a lot of sense. They would argue:

  1. Do the math: Does it make sense that a single individual should take precedence over a conglomeration of such individuals?
  2. What makes human life invaluable? Can you demonstrate that for me in a laboratory?
  3. How can you expect to govern people if you don’t control their information?
  4. Other than getting the most you can out of it, what sort of purpose and meaning could you see in such a crummy world as this? Who gave it purpose? Within what context does it have meaning?
  5. If love is all we need, why did we make war for all those centuries? What took us so long? We couldn’t have been that stupid.
  6. For most of history, life was about getting to another world. Now it’s about making this world into another world. Who made the switch?

Behind all these arguments lies a certain cognitive dissonance. These ideas contain, admittedly, an underlying theme that is counterintuitive.

All these ideas contain an underlying theme that is counterintuitive.

Take that last one: “Making the world a better place.” Sounds so normal, doesn’t it? To us, within our anomaly of a culture. But the intuition that drove the human mind for millennia shakes its head in bewilderment and asks, “What do you people want? Heaven or earth? The spiritual or the material? The transcendental or the temporal? If heaven, then why are you so concerned with this world? If earth, then enjoy it while you can! On what basis has all human life in this world become sacred?”

Social historians agree. They call us bobos: At one time, you were a bourgeoisie or a bohemian, and ne’er the twain could meet. Today, we are convinced we can have it all.

That’s not called an answer. That's called a fantasy. And fantasyland is not forever. Eventually, we will wake up to its incongruities. Worse, we will attempt to resolve them with simple human reason. Once that happens, everything crumbles.

For those who were stirred by the dread of a silent spring, for those who rode the freedom rides in Alabama, and for those who know personally the survivors of Hitler’s ultimate remedy for the human race, truth should need no lawyer. But what happens when there are no fascists, no racists, and corporate America has gone verdant green—and then our kids ask, “Daddy, Mommy, what makes all people equal?”

What do we say right now, when the message of much of today’s intelligentsia can be reduced to the luminous brilliance of “There is no depth. What you see is all you get. The majesty of this universe and the magnificence of life that inhabits it all got here by accident. There is nothing beyond this fleeting material existence; your very sense of self is an epiphenomenon of biochemistry.”

And I’m supposed to fret about the fate of the panda and the blue whale? No wonder the environmental movement has fallen off the radar screen of big politics.

In short, we’re left with great ideas that somewhat resemble bagels: chewy on the outside, hollow on the inside. The Big Question: Is that a sustainable diet?

Imagine if we really got why it works—what an amazing world we could build.

Maybe yes. Maybe we’ll continue to spiral upward in economic growth, environmental stewardship and global peace, just because its nicer that way. Let’s be positive. But then, if we can get this far so totally clueless, imagine if we actually knew what we were doing. Imagine if we really got why it works, where it comes from and what it’s all about—imagine what an amazing world we could build together.

To me, that’s a bigger ouch. It’s one thing to say you might lose what you’ve got. It’s another to say you could be winning the jackpot.

The Modern Ancient Visionary

The key to sustainability, like I said, is to build our future through an organic synthesis of the present with the past. You gotta know where you’re coming from. These values didn’t pop out of nowhere. Neither were they the product of reasoned arguments—that came afterwards. In fact, reason was quite often on the other side, with the fascists, the Nazis, the communists, the totalitarians, the racists and the nihilists. These ideas, in very simplified terms, started becoming popular in Europe mostly when people started reading the Bible in the vernacular. Only once they became accepted (mainly because they somehow actually work) did secularists jump in for the ride, often hijacking the wagon.

That history is for another essay.2 Or several. Or we will fight it out in the reader comments. What’s of urgent, burning importance right now is this: The modern mind thirsts for an inner soul that can breathe life into this magnificent body of ideas. And the Rebbe was a modern visionary grounded in the authentic roots of these values. And he provided just such a breath of life. We need only to inhale.

No, a chassidic grand rabbi in a black fedora citing endless Talmudic and Kabbalistic passages doesn’t look the part for a modern visionary. Looks are deceiving. After all, he also sat in the lecture halls of modernity, at the University of Berlin and at the Sorbonne. Perhaps it was there that he developed this synthesized worldview, a view that lifted him above the conflict of modernity and tradition. Perhaps he was just timeless from the get-go.

Let me speak for myself: Coming from a background of radical politics, I turned to spirituality in the early ’70s. There was a lot of haze back then, but I recall a moment of clarity, a voice inside me uttering, “Spiritual enlightenment has gotta have a lot more to do with real life down on earth than these gurus are letting on.” And it was afterwards that I discovered the Rebbe.

The Rebbe had a certain vision, a very radical vision, of heaven, earth and the human being. Radical, but somehow completely grounded in the same tradition in which all these crazy modern values are rooted. Radical, but totally pragmatic and down here on earth.

Listen for the central messages. Read them more than once:

  1. If you are looking for the ultimate experience of the divine and the transcendental, it is not up in heaven, not in mystic union, not in religious ecstasy, not even in total enlightenment. It is here, in this impossible paradox of the struggle of life; here, in the very physicality of this earth.
  2. Within each of us breathes a spark of the Creator of all things, a spark that entered this world with a unique mission. All that exists is here only for that mission. Therefore, the power of any individual for good is limitless, and nothing can stand in our way. If a single, tiny atom can begin a chain reaction to destroy the entire world, all the more so can one individual turn the entire world around for the good.

Two ideas, iterated in a hundred thousand different forms over forty years: The world is worth the investment. And it’s all up to you.

With deep roots. This is the essence of the revelation at Sinai: G‑d came down to earth, to us small people. These are the first two chapters of Genesis: First G‑d creates all, repeating with each creation that “He saw it was good.” Then the creation of the primal human being, man and woman, in the divine image, brought to life by the Creator’s breath.3

How Heaven Got Down to Earth

Genesis is a sublime, majestic and inspiring narrative. But the modern mind needs it all spelled out. So here is the Rebbe’s version (according to my feeble understanding):

In the beginning, there was heaven and earth. Earth pulled you down, heaven pulled you up. If you wanted heaven, you had to let go of earth. If you wanted earth, you had to let go of heaven.

But, the biblical narrative is telling us, that is precisely where G‑d is found—in that impossibility. Do both, and there you will find Him. Not by negotiating a compromise. By embracing the very wonder that these opposites bond in conjugal harmony to create our world.

Where body meets soul, spirit meets matter, sacred meets profane, miracle meets nature, being meets non-being, faith meets intellect, infinite meets finite—in every binary opposite, that wonder itself is a window on the quintessence of being we call G‑d.

The intuitive human mind adores neat binary compartments. The Rebbe shunned them.

The intuitive human mind adores neat binary compartments. The Rebbe shunned them. He pierced the barriers between all of those divisions, turned them on their head, and showed us a whole new world.

A world in which G‑d is here now, here in darkness as He is in light, in matter as He is in spirit—and yet more so. Because what greater paradox could there be than the very nature of this material world? Look around you: Pattern married with chaos to create the beauty of nature. Mind married with matter to create the wonder of life. The infinite married with the finite to allow for inexaustible speculation, science and wonder. The Creator’s omnipresence married with His absence to create the paradox of free choice. An amazing world. And we are privileged to be its stewards.

This is the Rebbe’s messianic idea that has been so misunderstood, so distorted. Years back, I attempted to paraphrase it:

This world was not created for some apocalyptic finale; its magnificence was not formed to dissipate into ionized gas. Each thing was formed for the glory of its Maker, who stands forever.

Only the darkness must wind itself to its end, and it must be robbed of the treasures it holds. For the most precious things of this world are held in darkness.

That is why we must struggle with the darkness now and not run from it. All the torment it gives us, all our toil to overcome it, to tame it and to dig out the diamonds it conceals, all is with meaning and purpose.

For each obstacle that meets us on our uphill battle, each was made for the glory of its Maker.

And here, closer to the Rebbe’s (Yiddish) words:

We must know that this world is not a dark, sinister jungle, but a garden. And not just any garden, but G‑d’s own pleasure garden, full of beauty, wonderful fruits and fragrances, a place where G‑d desires to be with all His essence.

If the taste to us is bitter, it is only because we must first peel away the outer shell to find the fruit inside.

Context Is Everything

The hard part here is that all this requires a sense of that which transcends us. Not a big god in the sky. Not a ghost-in-the-machine god who gives life to something called matter. Rather, a sense that the core reality of all things itself cares.

Think of our investment in this global shtetl and our concern for the biosphere within which it delicately nests. To care for this world, you need to value this world. Not for what you can squeeze out of it, nor for the promise of a sugary treat in heaven. You need to care for this world for its intrinsic value and out of a sense of responsibility, of purpose and of meaning. Responsibility, purpose, meaning—all of that demands a context which transcends my own personal welfare and subjective experience. It’s certainly not to myself that I am responsible. It’s ludicrous to think that I can provide the universe with meaning.

Without a higher context, there cannot be meaning.

Without a higher context, there cannot be meaning. Without the sublime, the mysterious and the all-encompassing, there cannot be purpose. And unless we are answerable to a single voice that transcends us all, we can never work together.

There you go—another paradox: The essence-core of reality cares, desires, and pleads with us who are one with it. Within which lies the most excruciating yet vital paradox, the one that lies behind all in which we believe: There is nothing else but Him, yet it is all up to us.

Within our subjective experience and human reason, there is no resolution to these incongruities. Because we did not make this world. In the view from Above, there is no paradox. There is only One. That’s all that’s missing from those crazy ideas we have embraced—that higher context. From up there, it all makes sense.4

As the Rebbe would so often reiterate: Without that, there is no stability or sustainability to this world. With it, we can open our eyes and see the divine here now. We, the entire world. Now, today.

Well, truthfully, my interrogators didn’t get quite all that out of me. But their question sparked something, and the pistons of my brain have been running on that spark ever since. If it weren’t for deadlines, this essay would never have been finished. Now the spark’s out there. But it’s still burning inside.