Central Themes

When talking about the many legacies of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, people will often tell you about a vast collection of talks and ideas. This is simply not true. There is no such collection. A collection implies some sort of cornucopia, with a scattered assortment gathered into a single basket. The Rebbe’s ideas all grow from one tree, and can be properly understood only as they remain hanging on that tree.

In other words, there are consistent themes throughout absolutely everything the Rebbe ever said or did. And, without much trouble, we can even see a single core theme, the trunk of the tree that carries all those branches, which carry the twigs, which carry the fruits. What the Rebbe did was to demonstrate what a vast diversity of ideas and applications could be borne by a single, simple idea.

Let’s take one theme that the Rebbe often described explicitly. I will give a few examples of its application, and then dwell on one that is very important to us today, concerning the dynamics of education and government, especially when they are in conflict.

Balanced Protocols

The processes that comprise our world can be described dichotomously. (A process can mean a dynamic within physics or biology—how nature works. Or within the human psyche, between individuals or within a society. Or it can be a process of history.) In all of these, there are those that work from the top down, and those that build from the bottom up. A healthy system, person, lifestyle, society, etc., is a balance of both of these protocols. This is all pretty straightforward. But then the Rebbe discusses situations where these two come into competition or conflict with one another. Which one steps aside for which? This becomes very fascinating.

It is particularly fascinating today, because we live at a time where these two protocols are at war, with Western civilization on one side, and the world of Islam on the other. I’ll explain later how this works.

Let’s start with a dynamic very central to Jewish thought: G‑d and the human being. We like to credit Abraham with the discovery of G‑d. Now, G‑d is a pretty top-down idea: a single authority over all that is. He designed it, He created it, and He calls the shots.

In fact, classic Jewish tradition does not attribute this discovery to Abraham. Neither does it ascribe to Abraham the discovery of divine providence. Noah also spoke with G‑d, and so did several others, all the way back to Adam. In fact, citing the Talmud and Maimonides, the Rebbe describes how “the age of Torah” didn’t begin with Abraham’s discovery of G‑d. Rather, it began with Abraham’s discovery of the human being. That is, when Abraham demonstrated that G‑d was a subject for human discussion. That is really what toppled the old paradigm of the priestly cult and god-kings: As long as “the higher truth” came down from above, and only from above, then those on top could hold on to their authority by screening the truth for those beneath them. The fact that there was an early tradition of a single, all-powerful, invisible G‑d didn’t help much, since those who held on to this tradition were not in power. And even if they were, they did not know how to communicate this to the common people.

Abraham wasn’t working from a tradition. He discovered G‑d on his own—as they say, he “pulled himself up by his bootstraps.” Therefore, he saw no problem in discussing the matter with others and bringing them to achieve this same cognizance, as Maimonides puts it, “each person according to his understanding.” That’s what we call a bottom-up process. In today’s marketplace, Abraham would be a grassroots activist.

So Abraham’s unique contribution was this combination of two ideas: one as authoritarian as you could get, but balanced by an appreciation of the individual and each one’s particular perspective. What about when those two came into conflict? So here the Rebbe discusses the difference between Abraham and Noah.

Noah was told by G‑d that He’s fed up with human beings, so He’s going to flood the world and wipe them all out. How does Noah respond? He asks G‑d, “So what are my instructions?” And he follows those instructions, building an ark for his family and a sampling of the zoological spectrum. Noah obeys authority.

Compare that to Abraham’s response in a similar situation. G‑d tells Abraham that he’s upset with the evildoing in Sodom and Gomorrah, so He’s going to wipe them out. How does Abraham respond? With the absurd: he starts bartering with G‑d. Abraham considered his faithful obedience to G‑d and his belief in the human person, and decided that it was worth it to argue with G‑d for the sake of the human being. The bottom-up protocol took priority over the top-down.

Abraham didn’t dispose of G‑d for the sake of his humanitarianism. After all, Abraham’s concept of the intrinsic worth of human life was entirely within the context of a G‑d who gives life. What Abraham did was to make clear that G‑d was G‑d only if He did justice, if He was concerned with the individual.

You could say that Abraham discovered the “person”—that a human being has worth and significance just for the fact of his righteousness, regardless of his position in the hierarchy of power.

Moses’ Decision

Moses took this a step further. For Moses, even righteousness was not a prerequisite. People have worth, period.

Moses was an even greater populist than Abraham. We all know Moses for his radical statement to Pharaoh that slaves are people and deserve a vacation for religious freedom. When Moses got the people to Mount Sinai, he struck the greatest blow to the priestly cult in history: he required that every last person be there for the divine revelation of ultimate truth—men, women and children. Yes, he taught a divine law, with divine incentives, reward and wrath all bundled together. But he first asked the people if they were ready to accept this. He personally explained it to them, and he even taught them to each write it down as a personal possession.

So, again, a balance of two opposite dynamics, divine decree and populist involvement. As with Abraham, the test for Moses was when they came in conflict. After the people had rebelled against G‑d and against everything Moses had taught them by forging a golden calf and worshipping it, Moses had some explaining to do. G‑d told Moses that He was about to wipe them out. As for His promise to the forefathers, He would make Moses into a great nation instead.

So Moses had a choice: his G‑d or his people. And in one of the Rebbe’s most endeared passages, Moses says to G‑d, “If this is what you are planning to do, then erase me from the book you have written.” The people won.

The Rebbe points out that the greatest act of Moses’ life was not liberating the people from Egypt, nor bringing them the Torah. It was the moment when he came down from the mountain with the tablets of G‑d, saw what the people were doing around this calf, and realized that if they would receive these tablets now, they would be doomed to annihilation. And so, he smashed the tablets. If there are to be no people, then there is no point in this Torah, in G‑d’s law.

Again, Moses didn’t give up on Torah; he went back up the mountain to try again. But this time it had to be a different sort of Torah. Not G‑d-made tablets that descend from above. These second tablets would be human-made, inspired by the repentance of the people, and with forgiveness built in.

There are so many other examples. In the dynamic of Torah from heaven and human reason, a balance must be achieved. The Torah is G‑dly wisdom, and that can’t be changed, but human reason is central.

The sages discuss which is greater, study or the performance of good deeds. To know what G‑d has to say, or to do it? They answer that study is greater, because it brings to good deeds. The Rebbe observes, if so, then good deeds are greater, since all the greatness of Torah is that it brings to good deeds. In other words, both are vital, both have a greatness the other needs, but at the center of the dynamic lies that which comes from below—the deeds of man.

In several discourses, the Rebbe explains a deeper rationale behind this logic. The heavens, the Rebbe says, are created for the sake of the earth. All that is above is created so that which is below can rise up. The purpose behind the entire creation is, as the Midrash states, because G‑d wants a dwelling place in a lowly world. In other words, the mundane, the ordinary, the visceral human experience should become G‑dly. Therefore, the whole universe is designed in this way, that all that is above is subject to the good of that which is below.

The Wandering Government

Now we arrive at a very practical example, one with pertinent application in this city.

When the Jewish people had first settled the land of Canaan, a terrible civil war broke out. An outrageous, brutal rape and murder occurred in the territory of Benjamin. The other tribes were outraged. The book of Judges tells us that close to 70,000 people died in the ensuing battles.

In the ancient Midrash Tana d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, the sages ask: Why did so many have to die? Their answer is very revealing. Because, they say, the great assembly of judges and rabbis that Moses and Joshua had left behind sat in their place next to the Holy Tabernacle and judged the people. What should they have done? In the language of the Midrash: “They should have lifted their skirts above their knees, girded their loins with iron girdles, and wandered from town to town—one day in Hebron, one day in Lod—and taught the people civil behavior.”

The Rebbe cited this passage often, with a twist. He notes that the proper place of this assembly, known as the Sanhedrin, is next to the Holy Tabernacle. If they move from this place, it’s not just a matter of travel expenses. If they are not there, the law is that no court throughout the land can carry out a capital sentence. According to some authorities, their power is even more limited. So here we have a very poignant instance of just what we are talking about: we are sacrificing the power of the governing body to administrate and adjudicate, for the sake of teaching the people civil behavior.

It gets even more fascinating. The Midrash doesn’t tell us that they should have sent agents, appropriated funds to hire teachers and built schools. The judges themselves were to leave their place and go to the people. As one commentary explains, the people must see they are taking this seriously.

The core of the matter, the Rebbe writes, comes down to this: What is the purpose of this assembly of sages? Obviously, law, governance and education all fall under their domain. But which task lies at the center? Is their principal task to mete out divine law and govern the people, and in order to do this, the people must be educated? Or is their principal task to educate the people, and law and governance are there only so that people can be educated? Are the people to be educated for the sake of better governance, or does governance exist for the sake of the people’s education? The opinion of this Midrash is apparently the latter, because we see that the power of governance is sacrificed for the sake of education. And without that sacrifice, the stability of the nation is at risk.

In a letter to a leader and thinker of the Kibbutz movement, the Rebbe says this quite explicitly: The idea behind a community is to provide a nurturing environment for the individual. Society exists for the sake of the individual, and not the other way around. In Talmudic law, an entire community is sacrificed for the protection of one of its citizens.

Protocols at War

We see that Jewish tradition is a tightrope between two protocols, which often become paradoxical. It is interesting to note that in our times the globe is torn between two cultures, both finding their birthplace in the Jewish nation, at war. One culture grasps the top-down protocol, with all human life subject to the supreme will of Allah, and condemns the Western world for its shallow and self-serving humanism. The other grasps the idea of the human person that Abraham and Moses also introduced, and condemns the “fundamentalism” of today’s Islam.

Either extreme is destructive. Worship of a deity who offers paradise for blowing up civilians is not friendly to the planet. But neither does worship of the human being make for a sustainable society. Without a supreme authority upon whom to hang an absolute standard of right and wrong, right and wrong rapidly fade into the mud. As the Rebbe put it, if a child’s only reason to not do wrong is because he might get caught, then he learns to get good at not getting caught.

We stand for balance. For a society of more than two dimensions. We stand for a society that is obsessed with the concerns of each of its citizens, while recognizing the supremacy of divine authority—“one nation under G‑d.”

So a senator or congressperson or supreme court judge may say: That’s very nice, but it’s not our job to take care of the spiritual welfare of our nation. To this, the Rebbe replies: On the contrary, the entire purpose of a nation, of law and order, of freedom and of government, is the spiritual growth of each individual. This is the only way a society can establish stability. True, there is reason not to mix in, but you can at least remove hindrances, by allowing the subject of G‑d, of the soul, of human purpose and meaning in life into the schools, as a subject of discussion. That is why the Rebbe strongly advocated a “moment of silence” in all public schools. This way, at least the parents are led into discussion of the subject with their children.

When fighting evil, we must take extra precautions not to be soiled, rolling in the mud with our enemy. Law and order, justice and the security of its citizens are divine missions of every governing body, but they are not its principal task. The principal task of government is to provide opportunity for every individual to grow, physically, mentally and spiritually, and to reach the greatest potential of human expression that that individual is able to reach; to teach people civil behavior, and engage them in discussion of spiritual growth.

I look forward to soon seeing the members of the Senate,1 of Congress, and yes, of the Supreme Court girding their loins and traveling to the kindergartens of America to ensure that this is happening. Because, as the Rebbe sees things, the kindergartens are the true capitol of the land.