Originally titled: “How the Rebbe Turned Judaism on its Head”

The Baal Shem Tov wanted to lift Jews up and keep them tied to G‑d, to Torah, and to one another in a tight bond.

So he spoke to them, and his words lit up their hearts.

As did his students, as did all the tzadikim and rebbes of the Chassidim after him. As all the great leaders of the Jewish people had done, all the way back to Abraham. They spoke words from the heart that entered into the hearts of the people. The people returned to G‑d and to His mitzvahs.

Until we came to America. And then there was a tzadik who did things differently. Instead of struggling for the right words to pierce into the heart of a Jew so that she will light Shabbat candles, or he will wrap tefillin, or some Jew somewhere will affix a mezuzah to a doorpost, he told his students—just do it. Start with the mitzvah; deal with questions later.

Tell the Jew, "You're a Jew. Wrap tefillin. It won't hurt. What have you got to lose?"

The same with Shabbat candles. Or a mezuzah. Or put a coin in a charity box. Choose from a whole set of action mitzvahs—there's plenty of them. Get straight Start with the mitzvah; deal with questions later to action.

Once the Jew has done one mitzvah, he or she will be open to more mitzvahs, and even to learning some Torah.

Or maybe not.

But is one mitzvah not a mitzvah?

Where did such a radically new strategy come from?

Marketing Mitzvahs

Some will say the Rebbe was a brilliant psychologist. Think it through. Before that lawyer on Fifth Avenue wrapped those black leather boxes on his arm and head on a Chabad mitzvah tank, how was this mitzvah framed in his mind?

"Superstitious ritual. Bizarre, archaic practice. Senseless form of prayer from the Dark Ages."

But now he's walking away from that experience, thinking, "I'm not superstitious. Neither am I bizarre, archaic, or senseless. And I wrapped tefillin. Obviously, there must be some sense to this practice."

So the "try it first" model turned out to be a personal paradigm shifter for a whole lot of people—many decades before the "in-app purchase" model evolved.

But no, that's just us little minds reducing greatness into clever tricks. If it were really that simple, how is it that no one had done it before?

The popular and influential treatise, Chinuch Mitzah, composed in the twilight of Spanish Jewry, is entirely built on the thesis that "a person's attitudes are formed by his actions." It would have been a simple step for any thinking leader to take the next step of "start by just doing."

Another explanation: While others focused on long-term goals and broad, communal projects, the Rebbe had the wisdom to value every single mitzvah done by any individual Jew.

Rabbi Yoel Kahan, the Rebbe's "oral scribe,” more than any other sensed the inner thread behind the Rebbe's words. He wrote that even if all the action on the street—all the tefillin wrapped, the Shabbat candles lit, the mezuzahs affixed on doors—even if it had not resulted in a flood of returnees to the tribe and an unprecedented rejuvenation of Jewish practice (which it did), even if it would all have stopped there with those isolated mitzvahs, it would still have been a thousand percent worthwhile. Because a mitzvah is a mitzvah.

That is certainly the attitude of those engaged in these mitzvah campaigns to this day—the thousands of Chabad agents across the globe racking up one mitzah at a time. If someone takes the next step, fantastic. If not, is not a mitzvah a mitzvah?

The approach is both profound and effective. But it remains difficult to understand in what way it is new and why it only came to the foreground in our times.

Two thousand years earlier, the Mishnah declared, "A single moment of return and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than all the life of the world to come."

Maimonides declared that every person must see himself and the entire world in such a delicate balance that any one mitzvah could tip him and the entire world to the side of merit.

The first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, wrote that the unity created between your soul and G‑d by any single mitzvah is an eternal union.

So a mitzvah was always the most precious thing in the world, no matter how small, no matter how infrequent. What changed now?

Up With the Times

A simple explanation is that it just wasn't possible before. It would have been absurd.

There's a Jew in Heinrich Heine's Berlin or Mahler's Vienna who is enthralled with Schopenhauer and Neitzche. Approach him on the street and ask him to wrap tefillin.

There's a Jewish shoemaker in Perez’s Warsaw who enjoys the Yiddish theatre and decided he has to open his store on the holy day of Shabbos to make a few more groszen to feed his family. Go ahead and ask him if he's checked the mezuzah on the door of his shop. Even if he agrees, will it change his life?

There's Cindy Goldberg slaving at the stitching machine at a shirt factory in Lilian Wald's Manhattan. Tell her she should give the mikvah a try. You might as well tell her to go back to her shtetl Poland.

But travel forward in time to 1967, to the midst of a cultural revolution on the streets of America. Grab a Jew out of a confusing, rapidly shifting world. A Jew whose knowledge of Jewishness may not extend much further than bagels, lox, Israel and the Holocaust. Tell him just roll up your sleeve and wrap on these leather boxes.

He's open.

Which is to say that the Rebbe The Rebbe was with the times was with the times. As some pundits have commented, the Rebbe's grasp of what America is all about was far ahead of those rabbis who were trained in the American seminaries.

And once it worked in the USA, as with Hollywood, airplanes, and superheroes, it was a natural step to export it to the rest of the world.

A fascinating observation. But it just shifts the question to a glaring irony: How does it happen that a Ukrainian rabbi of a chassidic sect called Chabad is the one to bring Jewish practice to the American street?

Chabad—those well established as the cerebrally-oriented, highly learned and erudite Jews, scrupulous in their observance of halacha, who stood for hours in meditation and prayer, yearning to cleave their souls with the Infinite. Indeed, the word Chabad is an acronym for Chochmah, Bina, Daat—meaning Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge.

In what bizarre twist of historic irony does this become the army of candle-holder distributing, leather box street wrapping, back-slapping, fund-raising, go-out-and-do-it mitzvah entrepeneurs?

Bringing It Down

It's a question that bothered the elder generation of Chabadniks as well. Rabbi Kahan (fondly known by his students as "Reb Yoel") had his explanation. He saw it as an organic outcome of a long progression reaching its (near-)ultimate, natural fulfillment.

Chabad, he explained, is all about bringing the divine and transcendental down into the mind, even the very human mind, and from there into the heart. That was Rabbi Schneur Zalman's goal—to employ the metaphor of the human psyche so that the Infinite and ungraspable could enter the finite world of human experience, and from there awaken love, awe and longing that would burn as a bright light within every word of Torah we would learn and every mitzvah we would do.

In each generation of the seven generations, the seven rebbes of Chabad and their chassidim labored to expand and develop the rich store of metaphor and hasbara they had inherited. Their meditations, their labor and struggle with their own inner selves, their lectures and lessons to their students—all centered on the task of bringing it down, and yet further down, so that even a Jew of moderate intellectual capacity could be earnestly inspired by these divine truths.

So ultimately the time came when the infinite, divine wisdom had to come down all the way to the street. The mitzvah tank is really the most exquisite expression of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's original vision.

The Reversal

There’s got to be something more to Reb Yoel’s explanation than seen at first read. Because if this were the entire explanation, we would be revealing mystic secrets to the corporate lawyer as he's wrapped in that black leather. And, yes, there are those that do just that. But it was never the focus, and it was never presented as the focus in the hundreds of public talks in which the Rebbe charged us to get out there.

The focus was: Love your fellow Jew. Assist them to do a mitzvah. Every Jew wants to do a mitzvah. Find which one. Here's ten. Pick one. Do it.

And, quite evidently, it was the shock of “I just did what?” more than any lucid explanation or revelation of kabbalistic secrets that shifted minds and hearts. Something awakened inside, something no words could possibly have touched. Otherwise, why on earth is this coldly rational career lawyer enacting an ancient tribal ritual on a street corner?

This was not the next point on The focus was: Love your fellow Jew a continuum. This was a quantum leap. A whole new experience. And it was a reversal. The whole system had been turned on its head.

Go back to the rabbis of the Mishnah, those who stood the Jewish people back on their feet after the destruction of Jerusalem and a series of genocidal Roman massacres. Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, and other great sages of Israel sat in the home of a man named Nit'zah in Lod.

The object of discussion was crucial to establish who we are as a nation. The rabbis asked: Which is greater—the study of Torah, or acting upon it?

Rabbi Akiva, the activist, the returnee who had spent the first forty years of his life in ignorance said, "Study is greater."

Rabbi Tarfon, a scion of an ancient line of learned priests, said, "Action is greater."

All the others responded in a resounding consensus, "Study is greater! Because study brings to action."

And that was Jewish life for the next two millennia. As historians Maristella Botticcini and Zvi Ekstein demonstrate in their painstaking research recorded in The Chosen Few, those who sent their children to school each morning, who spent their own mornings and evenings in the study hall poring over the accumulated texts and commentaries—their grandchildren remained within the tribe. Those who just couldn't make the investment, in most cases faded into the dominant cultures of the nations that had swallowed us alive.

So that is who we became, how our sages and G‑d’s hand in history forged us—a people sustained by study of a Torah that taught us how to live, to act, to do. Learn, and then you will do.

And yet, if the Rebbe had have been there at that meeting, I can hear his voice, quietly and calmly noting, "In my generation, action is greater, because action brings to learning."

And he would describe how the Fifth Avenue lawyer, as the leather straps of tefillin were pealed off his arm, asked the rabbinic student, "Are there any classes in Talmud I could attend during the lunch hour around here?"

Abruptly, in the second half of the 20th century, the Jewish paradigm was turned backwards, its head to the ground and its feet ruling supreme, and particularly by that chassidic group that, ideologically, valued intellectual pursuit above all. Brilliant yeshiva graduates became kosher lunch caterers, scholars of Talmud and philosophy became youth leaders.

Yes, to express genius in action, that is one thing. But here, the focus became just action, action, action.

Paradigm Reset

The truth is there was no paradigm shift at all, just a tighter focus on the original target.

Chabad had always been about getting to the essence of things—the essence of Torah, the essence of a Jew, the essence of G‑d. When you get to the essence, the highest things can reach the lowest places and the lowest things rise to the highest places. Because at the essence there is no higher and lower.

So this was the Rebbe's insight: That now, in post-holocaust modernity, when hearts had shriveled and shrunk, spirits had run dry, and souls tumbled around like sagebrush without roots to lay down, now it had become possible to access the core of a Jew's soul.

In the Jew on the street, devoid of the cultural context of the Old World, free of the intellectual baggage of Europe, the essence had become eminently accessible. Not through an idea. Not through an emotional appeal. Through a plain and simple just-do-it mitzvah.

Because when it comes to the essence-core of the soul, of Judaism, and of G‑d, action is the point of access. And action is where everything begins.

Light Vs. Essence

The Baal Shem Tov's name was Israel, son of Eliezer and Sarah. Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz, one of his closest disciples, used to say that the life of the Baal Shem Tov was G‑d whispering the name of the Jewish people into their ear.

That's a Jewish practice: When someone has fallen into a deep coma and fails to respond to any stimuli, you whisper their Hebrew name into their ear. Even if the mind and heart are sleeping, the essence is still awake—and hearing your own name gently mentioned in your ear can awaken that essence.

Once the essence is awake, Action is where everything begins everything comes awake. Because your essence is the essence of all of you.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman wouldn't settle for anything less than the essence. His grandson told of the times he witnessed his grandfather in the rapture of his prayer, speaking to G‑d, crying, "I don't want Your heaven! I don't want Your Garden of Eden! I don't want Your Infinite Light...I only want You, You alone!"

What is essence? For one thing, it is beyond light.

Light is beautiful, but you can get caught up in the light. The mind loves light, because light brings knowledge of things yet unknown. Emotions come into harmony when there is light. Your thoughts make sense when light shines through them and your words are well received when they are crafted as tight packets of light.

Not the light that shines through the window, not the light that shines from a bulb. More like the light that flashes in your mind an insight, an ingenuity, a crazy new idea. As trees reach ever upward toward the sunshine, so all healthy human beings strive towards light.

So the Kabbalists called G‑d, "The Infinite Light." Because what could be higher than infinite light? Kabbalah speaks of merging with the light, drawing down the light, shining with that light. Everything starts with light.

But no, G‑d is not light. Light is about something—that thing, whatever it is, that the light reveals. But G‑d? G‑d just is.

Yes, G‑d chooses that there should be light. And that the light should speak of an existence beyond itself, of its luminary, the source of light. “And He saw the light, that it was good.”

But it would be a mistake to call G‑d even a source of light. He is not a luminary like the sun or the stars. He has no need to shine light, and in all the light that could ever shine, He cannot be known.

"For You," David sang in his Psalms, "darkness is light and light is darkness."

Indeed, Maimonides writes, all things that we experience, all creations, are contingent beings. There is no reason that light must be, or that matter must be, or that physics or mathematics or logic or any form of being must be. But G‑d, He is absolute being.

That is what Rabbi Schneur Zalman wanted to touch. And the Baal Shem Tov taught him that it was attainable. Where? In a simple mitzvah of a simple Jew, done with no other motive other than, "This is what G‑d wants me to do."

So the Rebbe’s chassidim found you could uncover that simple Jew/simple mitzvah combo on Fifth Avenue.

Atzmus and Tears

In Chabad parlance, we call this atzmus. That’s just a convenient term for "G‑d in the raw." Not His light, not His thoughts, not His desires. Just Him.

You can't describe G‑d’s atzmus. You can't even talk about it in negative terms, to say “In His essence, He is not this or not that.” Even Maimonides' "absolute existence" is a compromise.

Yet we stood there at the Rebbe's farbrengens in 770 and witnessed the Rebbe sobbing at the mention of the atzmus of G‑d. "No thought can grasp Him," the Rebbe would say, citing the Zohar, "and yet He is grasped in the desire of the heart to bond with Him.”

“But no, that is not yet Him, not Him in His atzmus, because there is a heart, and there is desire. If there is something else other than just Him, it can’t be atzmus. Because, essentially, there is nothing else but Him.”

“So He is grasped in total devotion and absence of any sense of self, just to do His will. Especially when His will is not your will, when you don’t feel like doing it, when you don’t understand why you should do it, when you have no desire, no pleasure, and it should be utterly impossible for you to do it—and yet something much deeper inside, far more essential, more fundamental to you even than your own will, something there emerges and you do His will nonetheless, just because it is His will."

"And yet, not even in that is His atzmus. Because even there, there is Him and there is you doing His will."

"But in the the raw, physical act of a mitzvah, just that it was done, in that there is nothing else but Him."

Again, a complete reversal. To the philosophers, to the ethicists, to the kabbalists, to all who explained the meaning and purpose of mitzvahs throughout the ages, the crucial, central element of any mitzvah was its kavanah—the mental and emotional focus you invested in that mitzvah. Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, several students of the Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself cite "the sages" (the origin seems to have been lost) as saying, "A mitzvah without kavanah is like a body without a soul."

But that is all speaking about light. Here we are speaking about essence. Atzmus. G‑d Himself. If you can approach it with your mind, touch it with your heart, it's not the essence.

That essence—that you can only touch with your hands.

Matter and Light

Think physical. We said G‑d is not light because He's not about anything. He just is.

Words and thoughts are about something. Emotions are about something. Intellect is about something. Even desire is about something.

What do you know that is not about anything at all, that just is?

Matter. Plain simple matter as it is experienced in our universe.

Of course, it's an illusion. We all know that matter is sustained moment to moment by a perpetual dynamic of energy.

But in the subjective Matter is stuff that just is. And so is a simple mitzvah experience of a human being, matter is stuff that just is.

And so is a simple mitzvah. The leather box with scrolls inside was on the table; now it is on your head. The candles on your Shabbat table were unlit. Now they are burning. The matzah that lay upon your table on the night of Passover have now been eaten. The shofar was blown and you heard. Your stomach remained empty on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps you had kavanah, perhaps you didn't. It's a mitzvah, and the mitzvah was done. With all the kavanah in the world, there would be no mitzvah without the action of doing it. But if the action was done, even without an ounce of feeling or sense of meaning, a mitzvah was done.

Did you give G‑d something He didn't have before?

Yes. Because He desired that you exist, as an embodiment of His desire and love, and He desired that you do this mitzvah with a desire that contains all His essence. And it was done.

Why does He so desire? He can desire whatever He wants. Or not desire at all. He just is. That’s where a mitzvah comes from—Him as he just is.

And that is why the most crucial element of a mitzvah is just that it is done. And, most often, with physical material that appears to be a thing that just is. And best done by a Jew who does the mitzvah just because it is a mitzvah.

In the physical world, in a simple mitzvah, essence meets essence.

Essence Light

But this is only where it begins.

When, in all preceding generations, the focus was entirely on light, then the ultimate fulfillment of that light was to enter into word and action. That was the "greatness" of learning—the intensity of light it attained as it burst its bounds and descended into action.

But now, our bodies and souls saturated with three and a half thousand years of that light, now, it is action's turn to shine.

How does action shine? How can action inform kavanah. How can the body inform the soul?

It shares its sense of nothingness. Its unique insight that there is nothing else but Him. And it reveals that atzmus in Torah.

It says, "Dear wonderful, deep emotions, precious and beautiful ideas! You shine such intense light, you speak so much, such wealth."

"But know that there is nothing about you that must be. Know that if G‑d had so desired, He could have arranged His ideas in Torah in any way He so pleases, the meanings of His mitzvahs could have taken any form, or none at all."

"You are beautiful and precious only because He chose you to be so. Because You are the light within which G‑d in all His essence chose to let us touch Him, to bond with Him, to become one with Him."

That is called an essence-light. In truth, essence should not be capable of shining in our world, or in any world. There is no expression of the essence, no information to be radiated.

But here it shines. It shines the light of a world yet to come.