Embarrassing as it is to admit, when I first met my father-in-law, Rabbi Zalman Itkin, of blessed memory – co-director along with my dear mother-in-law, may she live and be well, Rebbetzin Faigie Itkin, of Chabad-Lubavitch of Hamilton, Canada – I was less than impressed. A nice guy, sure; well regarded by all, with a good word and a joke at the ready for everyone he met. People liked him, but was he a success?

He had spent 20 years in Hamilton and never established a synagogue. He ran a converted two-story house next to campus as a student center for the college kids, but where was his pedestal from which to shine out over the town?

There were historical reasons for his reticence: When he'd first been sent to Hamilton, the Rebbe gave him parting instructions: "You are going there to add to the town, not to cause disharmony."

Hamilton had a successful local rabbi, and an infrastructure of achievement. Starting a competing institution would have been counterproductive to his mission to increase Jewish observance in the community.

And so he didn't compete, but supplemented. He sat at the back of the local Orthodox synagogue and made everyone feel welcome as they walked in.

No one else was ministering to the students, so he rose to the challenge. He also visited people in their offices, gave private classes and touched lives, one soul at a time.

It was really only at his shiva, the seven-day mourning period after the passing of a loved one, that I truly began to appreciate the scale of his achievements. Person after person, of all ages, backgrounds, and degrees of observance walked in broadcasting the same message.

"I loved that man."

"He changed my life."

"He was my only link to Judaism."

"He inspired me to commit to a life of Torah observance, and then showed me how."

Rabbi Zalman and Faigie Itkin, shortly before his untimely death last year
Rabbi Zalman and Faigie Itkin, shortly before his untimely death last year
Students who had eaten at his table every Shabbat for four years huddled in grief next to grandmothers who lit Chanukah candles annually only because he brought them the menorah. Little kids felt like they'd lost a personal friend – the cuddly big man who sang them Jewish songs and told them stories – while older couples related how it was his counseling and advice that had saved their marriage.

It was the same constant refrain: He was always joyful, always inspired, and his passion for people attracted them to him until they couldn't help but want some of whatever he was on.

When Joseph's brothers arrived in Egypt, he recognized them, but they did not recognize him (Exodus 42:8). The worldly nobleman they were encountering, beset and besieged by the cares of the entire world, existed on a plane far removed from their more humdrum existence.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, often pointed out that one can be a statesman and remain spiritual. You can walk with kings and be personally unaffected; you can spend your day entwined in the machinations of state and remain the 'son of Jacob.'

Today we struggle with a different dilemma. Everyone wants to be a general, no one a foot soldier. Whereas in Joseph's day the challenge was to prove that a Jew can be a king, nowadays the question to ask is whether you can live life on a smaller scale and still be counted as a success.

The Rebbe's philosophy accentuated the value of action over theory. To the Rebbe, it was Jews' individual deeds that would realize the redemption; all the gloss and glamour is just a means to an end.

My father-in-law achieved greatness by the impression imprinted on the consciousness of family and friends. Over his short 54 years of life, he touched the soul of thousands by focusing his care and attention on each individual.

Father-in-law, I didn't have the insight or maturity to tell you this when you were here, but I love you and admire you, and will look up to you forever.

Until his untimely death last year, Rabbi Zalman Itkin, obm, was a dedicated servant of the Jewish community of Hamilton, Canada, and students at McMaster University.