In this second of a series of excerpts from the groundbreaking new biography-memoir of the Rebbe, “My Rebbe", the author explores the Rebbe’s unique approach to work.

In a famous Jewish story, a man once came to a rabbi and complained that his wife, his children and his mother-in-law were all stuffed into a small apartment. He was practically suffocating. The man also mentioned that he had a goat. The rabbi said, “Bring the goat into your apartment.” The man did as he was told – but the goat took up room and also smelled bad.

The man returned to the rabbi and complained again. The situation was worse and they were more crowded than ever. The rabbi then said, “Take the goat out.” A few days later, the man returned and reported, “Now we have some space.”

When Chasidim complained to the Rebbe that they were overworked, he said in effect “bring the goat in,” that is, take upon yourself another responsibility. Yet unlike the story, the Rebbe never told his Chasidim to take the goat out. The complaints were irrelevant to the Rebbe, who would always demand an increasing workload. Reducing complaints was not the point; the point was to accomplish more. Eventually, there were more than ten mitzva campaigns, Chabad outreach operations. The Rebbe never ended any of them; he just added new ones. Similarly, the Rebbe would add new subjects to the Chasidim’s daily study schedule. None ever ended; new ones were always added.

The Rebbe believed that by doing more, we could change the very nature of reality.

In my last letter to the Rebbe, I told him I was holding down three full time jobs: scholarly writing, outreach work in Russia, and a network of schools in Israel. Since it all seemed like too much for one person, I asked him what to focus on. His answer was typical of him, that I should “continue to do all these things and to do more things and work even harder.”

When someone does “more and more” – as the Rebbe would say – we worry that he is being stretched too thin. In our daily routines, we seem to be at the limits of the human condition. However, the Rebbe believed that by doing more, we could change the very nature of reality. The science of physics has such a law: when one applies massive amounts of pressure to an object, the molecules collapse and the very nature of the object changes. The white dwarves of astronomy 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 weighs many tons. Matter has collapsed and become something else; the laws of nature 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 regular people anymore, they became something else.

There could never be enough, because the Rebbe believed that there are no theoretical ideas in Judaism. To the Rebbe, every verse in the Torah, every idea in the Talmud and every word in the chasidic teachings was an instruction. Everything had to be applied.

The Rebbe only asked of people the nearly impossible, which he believed they were capable of fulfilling.

It seemed as if the Rebbe was measuring everyone else on his own scale. Even the rebbetzin was heard saying to herself, as she listened to the Rebbe’s farbrengens via telephone: “He thinks everyone cares about Mashiach as much as he does,” and, “He thinks everyone is as close to God as he is.”1 What he expected of himself, he expected of his Chasidim: to make the utmost effort to the best of their abilities, and to carry out his directions.

The Rebbe was focused on the idea that one should never be satisfied. While he had a calm temperament, his plans drove him further and faster. He needed his Chasidim to keep up with him in order to fulfill his dreams.

Rabbi Herbert Weiner, who led Temple Israel in South Orange, New Jersey, wrote a number of articles about the Rebbe for Commentary magazine. They were very friendly and Rabbi Weiner interviewed him more than once; he and I would often exchange notes. Rabbi Weiner once asked the Rebbe how he could give orders to his Chasidim and expect them to be followed. The Rebbe replied: “I never tell a person to do what I think he is neither willing nor able to do.”2 The Rebbe was saying that he never demanded the impossible. While it might seem that his requests were far beyond his Chasidim’s abilities, he actually took their capabilities and limitations into account. The Rebbe only asked of them the nearly impossible, which he believed they were capable of fulfilling.

Written with the admiration of a close disciple and the nuanced perceptiveness of a scholar, Rabbi Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)’s “My Rebbe” is sure to inform and provoke and, ultimately, to inspire us to think about our own missions and aspirations for a better world. Available now in bookstores worldwide, “My Rebbe” can also be purchased here.