From a address delivered by Rabbi Steinsaltz on June 17, 2004, at a gathering marking the 10th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M schneerson, in the JFK Library in Boston, Mass.

The Talmud, in a few short sentences, records a dispute that took place some 2000 years ago between the two major ideological and halachic schools of the time, Beit Shammai ("House of Shammai") and Beit Hillel ("House of Hillel"). The subject of their dispute was: "Is it better for a man to be born or not to be born?" For two and a half years they argued. When the decision finally came, it was agreed by all that it's more worthwhile to not be born. The only qualifier was that once one is born, one should at least do the best one can.

There are hundreds of debates between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel recorded in the Talmud, and most of them concern questions of Torah law and ritual, such as, when sitting down to the Shabbat meal, do we first recite the kiddush, or do we first wash our hands? To find a dispute over whether or not the existence of man is worthwhile among the other disputes seems strange. What's the basis of their disagreement?

If one wishes make a general summary of the difference between the two schools, it would be this: Beit Shammai were idealists while Beit Hillel were realists. Beit Shammai were thinking about a perfect picture, an ideal existence; Beit Hillel thought of existence as it is. This is, of course, a gross simplification, but it is a common thread in their debates. Beit Shammai were people of the heaven. Anything they see in this world, they don't want to see its limits; they want to see it in its totality, in its ultimate significance. Beit Hillel constrain themselves to problems and situations of our lives as they are. This makes for many differences in many questions.

In our times, in this world, we rule according to Beit Hillel. And in Moshiach's times, the law will reverse itself and we will rule according to Beit Shammai. In an imperfect world law will follow Beit Hillel and in an ideal world it can follow perfection and rule according to Beit Shammai.

So it all depends on what is your view of the world, what view of existence you have before you, how you perceive the question of "what is man?" Beit Hillel says that in imperfection we should deal with what we have. That it's really a question of "how to be." Beit Shammai says that we cannot disregard the big theoretical picture. It's not enough to simply do what you have to do — it has to add to up something in the big picture.

In many ways, man is a creation that doesn't justify the effort put into it. In real life people sin, they don't care. Beit Hillel tried to maintain a positive outlook and say: we're here, we try to do things. Beit Shammai, however, insisted on perceiving man compared with what he could be, compared with angels. Seen in this light, there are just too many imperfections. In the words of Psalms 8:5, Mah enush kee tizkerenhu, "What is man, that You are mindful of him?"

The most remarkable thing about the Rebbe — and this is something you could see in everything he did, you could hear this in snippets of his discussions with people, in virtually every sentence he spoke or wrote — was his enormous drive. To always supersede oneself, to always do more.

I experienced this myself in my relationship with the Rebbe. I know that one shouldn't speak of oneself, but what can I do, this is a subject I know a little bit about... More than twelve years ago, I wrote a letter to the Rebbe. I tried to describe what I was doing, tried to explain that one project I'm involved with is enough work to occupy me all day, every day. There was also a second project, which was also enough work to fill my entire day. And then there was a third undertaking which was a full day's work. I told the Rebbe that I find it hard to carry on with them all, and that every day is more difficult than the one before, because there is just so much. So what should my priorities be? What should I cut out? This is the letter I wrote. So he responded — this is practically the last letter I received from the Rebbe — the Rebbe's answer was, "continue all these things that you are doing and add more to all of them."

He demanded these things. How can I explain? You know the famous story about the farmer who comes to the rabbi complaining about his small house so full of children. It's unbearable. So the rabbi tells him to take a goat into his house, a noisy, smelly, dirty goat. Very soon the farmer comes back to the rabbi. "Every problem I had is worse!" he cries. The rabbi tells him to take the goat out. So he takes the goat out of his house and soon he's back to tell the rabbi what a big wonderful house he now has. A very old story but what the Rebbe did was similar and yet quite different. When people complained about how hard their work was he would give them more to do. When they complained how terrible that was he would give them even more. He told them to add the goat, and them he'd give them camels to put in their house! That was the way he worked all the time. Whenever anybody complained about their inability to cope or the hard times they endured, he would suggest "take on something more."

Obviously, this is against the laws of nature. You have a certain amount of space, you are confined by the limits of the human condition. What did the Rebbe do? How could he overburden people like this? I will give an answer from the realm of physics. Once, when I was a nice, honest, young man I was interested in that field. There is something in physics — you have a certain amount of pressure on something, and there is a point at which it can take no more. When you put ten times, one hundred times that pressure on it, something happens. The molecules collapse and the very nature of the object changes. In astronomy you have what is called "white dwarves." These are small stars, the size of the earth, sometimes even smaller. The mass they contain is many times that of the sun. Each cubic centimeter of weighs many tons. Why? Because the matter collapsed and became something else, the laws themselves changed.

In a way, this was what the Rebbe wanted to do. He wanted to change the very nature of human matter, human behavior, the very way the human being operates. With everybody he encountered, he tried to change their nature into something completely different. They weren't people anymore, they are something else.

The first person that the Rebbe tried this experiment on was himself. There are letters he wrote back in 1950, when Chassidim pushed him to become rebbe. They are unusual for him, very emotional: "How can I take this suffering? I didn't deserve it. I don't want it. It's not me." He writes that he is "not able to, not willing" to take on the position. He says, "they tear the flesh from my bones when they ask me to be the rebbe." If he would have been asked "to be or not to be?," his answer would have been, as Beit Shammai, "Not to be." But then he did it. He undertook to become something he had insisted he was not. To become something that goes beyond being a human being.

Which brings us back to the Talmud's question. After two-and-a-half years of debate, all the sages, both the optimists and the pessimists, had to admit that man was a failed experiment. The only thing that could be said was, "now that we're here, let's do the best we can." But there is a different way of answering the question. Instead of answering "yes" or "no", to find a third answer. This is what the Rebbe tried to do. He said, instead of answering the question "is man worthy of being here in this universe?" let us make a new human being, a new kind of existence from which the answer must be positive.

Increasingly through the years the Rebbe's emphasis was on Moshiach. He spoke of the Moshiach again and again and again. He made it clear in his first public speech that this is the matter that he was interested in. He expressed the same notion thousands of times; in everything he said there was always the same idea — that Moshiach is coming.

Now, Moshiach is not a small little thing that happens from time to time. Moshiach is really and truly the end of history. Moshiach means there will be a time that not only will things be slightly better, they will be as they should be. It means all the things we have tried in all the generations, in all the ages, will be fulfilled. The way thing were up until now, we advance in certain ways, and then we have a failure, a backlash. This is what history is made of. The story of the attempts and failures of humanity. Moshiach means a time will come that problems will be solved. That from that time on there will no longer be a matter of failing. The end of time, "the end of days" in biblical terminology. The end of the ups and downs of human history in creating something that is completely new, completely different.

Bringing Moshiach is much harder than creating a state of Israel or creating a United States of America. Bringing Moshiach is changing the world in a way that never reverts back. Instead of all this erratic movement of existence, where every ascent is followed by failure, the Rebbe aimed higher by asking people to do what they cannot do. What's called in Chassidic thought "b'chol m'odecha." This phrase appears in the Shema and is commonly translated "with all your might" but really means "with all your more." It means giving your life and everything that you possess, and then you give more. What is the more? The things that you cannot do.

This was the Rebbe's approach: put so much work on a person until he becomes something else. The Rebbe was not interested in creating a crops of "outreach professionals"; he wanted to make every home into be a "Chabad House." He wanted to literally change people, their very nature. He kept on asking for more, demanding more, never satisfied because we still didn't get to a different plane of existence, to the collapse of matter as it were, the collapse of the existing structure and the building of a very different structure of reality. More compact, less empty, better. Not simply changing a few people here and there — this is a reality that comes of something that must be done by everybody. When in his last years the Rebbe cried that we must bring Moshiach now, he pushed harder, again and again.

What he was speaking of were things that we cannot do, things that are impossible, thing that we could never complete in just a lifetime. Because it is said that when Moshiach comes when we pass into the world of impossibilities, when we achieve not only what we can do but also what we cannot do...

The Rebbe wanted to do something that was far more reaching than any revolution. He wanted to make this kind of irreversible change in human nature, this change in human history, he wanted it to become entirely different.

The Rebbe understood people, he understood them very well because many of them revealed themselves, became more than naked in his presence. They told everything that they had to tell, their failings, their weaknesses. And his message to us was: Run! And if you cannot run — Walk! And if you cannot walk — Crawl! But always advance, advance, advance!