Ask a typical Jew what Chabad is all about and the answer you're likely to hear is "outreach." The young boys stopping pedestrians and asking them to don tefillin, the 3000+ Chabad Centers spanning the globe, the public Passover seders in Nepal, or any of the other creative magnets Chabad employs to draw Jews to their Jewish heritage.

But this definition of Chabad is relatively new. In the early part of the twentieth century, Chabad's claim to fame was its clandestine activities behind the Iron Curtain. When the Soviet regime was determined to eradicate religious activity, brutally punishing anyone who defied their vile agenda, it was Chabad chassidim who risked everything to keep the embers of Soviet Jewry smoldering. The name Chabad evoked images of resistance; underground schools, mikvahs and circumcisions; Siberian labor camps and martyrdom.

What core teaching serves as the basis for diverse activities such as meditation, underground schools, and public menorahs?But that, too, was introduced into Chabad culture with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Until that point, since its inception in the 1770s, Chabad was a movement that focused on concentrated study of the Torah's esoteric teachings, intense meditation and lengthy soulful prayer.

It is apparent that Chabad's public image adapts to the times and changing needs, but what lies at the essence of this movement? What singular core teaching serves as the basis for diverse activities such as meditation, underground schools, and public menorahs?

G‑d created a world that while perfect, acts as a smokescreen, concealing the identity of its Creator and obscuring the purpose of its existence. We are the smoke-battlers; it is our task to reveal the divine truth in this (superficially) hostile environment.

Chabad facilitates this process. To this end, its founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, encouraged all Jews to inculcate their minds with a clear and logical understanding of G‑d. His intelligible teachings introduced the masses to a G‑d that had hitherto been unknown, relegated to the domains of faith and belief. Once G‑d is introduced into the mind – Chabad is an acronym for the Hebrew words that translate as "wisdom, understanding and knowledge" – the rest of the faculties follow suit. Understanding G‑d's greatness causes the heart to love Him and be in awe of Him. That in turn translates into passionate Torah study and mitzvot. In short: it starts with Chabad, and ends up suffusing the person's entire being with G‑dliness. Personal smokescreen eliminated. Mission accomplished.

At times, however, the smokescreen changes guises. When that occurs, the mission remains the same, we simply have to adjust our execution.

When the Soviets outlawed Torah education, a clear threat to the revelation of the Divine truth, Chabad opened up schools. When Western assimilation threatened our mission – albeit with kinder and gentler methods – Chabad Houses sprouted up.

Go forward? A sea lies in their path!In this week's Torah reading, the Israelites are being pursued by the Egyptians, trapped between the mighty Egyptian army and the Red Sea. Panic erupts in the Israelite encampment, as our nation divides into different factions, each advocating a different plan of action. Some want to submit and return to Egypt, while others want to wage battle against their former slave masters. A defeatist faction suggested mass-suicide, while the spiritually inclined suggested mass-prayer. (For a detailed account of these factions, along with contemporary parallels, see The Four Factions.)

G‑d rejected all these approaches. Instead He told Moses: "Speak to the children of Israel, let them go forward!"

Go forward? A sea lies in their path! And the commandment "Go forward" was not accompanied by a clarification to the effect that G‑d would part the waters.

There was one man who did not hesitate. Nahashon son of Aminadab, leader of the tribe of Judah, went forward. Straight into the sea. When the water reached his neck, at the very last moment, the waters parted.

G‑d had taken the Israelites out of Egypt in order to bequeath to them the Torah at Mount Sinai. There was a mission to be accomplished. No matter the opposition, Nahashon was undeterred. He was headed forward.

The Torah reading that discusses the Splitting of the Sea is always read in close proximity to the 10th of Shevat, the day when we celebrate the lives and accomplishments of two modern-day Nahashons. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, passed away on the 10th of Shevat in 1950. Exactly one year later, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, accepted the leadership of this chassidic movement.

Like our ancestors before us, the path leading to our mission isn't a smoothly paved road. Logic dictates that we should be doing anything but "going forward."

Logic dictates that we should be doing anything but "going forward"...Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak and his few thousand followers faced the full fury and might of a determined superpower. And despite the tremendous risks and slim chances of success they persevered. Many hundreds of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's followers were imprisoned and murdered, but the effort moved forward. If the teacher in one city was sent to Siberia, another took his place. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak himself was imprisoned on several occasions, and was even sentenced to death (a sentence that was eventually commuted), but he continued forward.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, faced the blight of assimilation with similar resolve. While other religious groups hunkered down, insulated themselves, and concentrated on protecting their base, the Rebbe – with even less followers at his disposal – embarked on a visionary outreach campaign. He was ridiculed. One person and a few "backwards" European-born followers will make a dent in the American well-entrenched trend of assimilation?

But the Rebbes walked into the water up to their necks, and the waters split.

So what is Chabad?

Smoke fighters? Trekkers? Water splitters?

Am I again getting lost in the world of synonyms?