Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, passed away on the 10th of Shevat, January 28th, 1950. The devastation experienced by his chassidim was starkly depicted in a drawing by the chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman: A desolate wilderness is scattered with bare, twisted trees. Chassidim sit on the ground, faces contorted in anguish and hands held aloft in grief. In the lofty firmament of the sky the sharp eyed visage of the departed Rebbe looms.

Initially the loss was too raw to come to terms with. But there were a few who did have the presence of mind to think of the movement’s future.1 First among them was Rabbi Yitzchak Dubov, a senior chassid who had first encountered Rabbi Menachem Mendel in Riga. Just three days after the Previous Rebbe’s passing, Dubov approached R. Menachem Mendel, urging him to accept the mantle of leadership.

R. Menachem Mendel responded by invoking a mystical principle articulated by Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “the life of a tzaddik is not a life of flesh, but rather spiritual life – faith, fear and love [of G‑d]…”2 Accordingly, R. Menachem Mendel exclaimed, despite physically passing on, “the Rebbe yet lives.” This was a theme he would keep returning to over the coming months. But Dubov persisted. The spiritual lives of the previous five rebbes, he pointed out, had not ended The spiritual lives of the previous five rebbes had not ended with their passing, yet successors still emerged.with their passing, yet successors still emerged.3

It soon became clear that the great majority of chassidim were looking to Rabbi Menachem Mendel for leadership.4 But throughout the next year he steadfastly refused to acknowledge his candidacy. Two factors contributed to his unwillingness. 1) His personal reserve and practiced evasion of attention. 2) His sensitivity towards his older brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, who, precisely due to R. Menachem Mendel’s general reticence, initially considered himself the more likely candidate.5

But the leading chassidim knew that Chabad’s future depended on visionary leadership. This was not a figurehead position that could be filled by default. Ultimately, R. Menachem Mendel’s uncontrived piety and authoritative erudition, combined with his breadth of mind and disciplined efficiency, would decide the course of history. His personal reluctance was only cause for greater esteem.6

As the first anniversary of R. Yosef Yitzchak’s passing approached, the campaign to crown R. Menachem Mendel as rebbe reached a crescendo. Leaders of the Chabad community in the Holy Land had already held two public gatherings declaring their allegiance to him.7 In New York their counterparts announced that they would formally accept his leadership on the 10th of Shevat, January 17th, 1951. R. Menachem Mendel initially intended to publish a denial, but was persuaded that he could not deny the facts: Whether he liked it or not, the chassidim considered him their leader.8

On the 10th of Shevat chassidim gathered from across North America to present R. Menachem Mendel with a communal “writ of adherence” (ktav hitkasharut), expressing their desire to bind themselves to him as chassidim to their rebbe.9

R. Menachem Mendel spent most of the day praying at the graveside of his father-in-law. There he read the “writ of adherence” and wept with emotion.10 When he returned, several hundred people had packed the synagogue, following him with their eyes as he took the seat prepared for him. He spoke first of the continuing influence of R. Yosef Yitzchak and, citing American custom, made an inaugural “statement” proclaiming that love of G‑d, love of the Torah and love of the Jewish people “are essentially one.”11

After about an hour, Rabbi Avrohom Sender Nemtzov, an elderly chassid living in London, stood up, and said in a voice that everyone could hear, “Talks are good, "Make no mistake! No one is relieving you of your missions… no one is relieving you of any work.” but the assemblage requests a chassidic discourse…”12

There was silence. An original chassidic discourse could only be imparted by the Rebbe. Then R. Menachem Mendel began to speak: “In the chassidic discourse published for the day of the [previous Rebbe’s] passing, the Rebbe begins with the verse, ‘I have come to my garden…’” Here the Rebbe paused for several seconds, then began again in the traditional sing-song in which such a discourse is delivered.13

In this first discourse the Rebbe spoke in a deeply personal way, at once invoking mystical themes, fighting back sobs, and articulating a very practical vision of the mission facing Chabad’s seventh generation. “Upon us rests the mission to draw from the loftiest heaven below… When you come to a place where they don’t know of G‑dliness, they don’t know of Judaism... you put yourself totally aside… and make sure that those who until now knew of nothing should go into the streets and shout… that G‑d and the world are one.”

When he had finished he turned directly to the subject of leadership. “The leaders of Chabad always demanded that chassidim must achieve things themselves… You think you have laid the burden on me… that you can have a peaceful life… Make no mistake! No one is relieving you of your missions… no one is relieving you of any work.” From the outset the Rebbe made it clear that he expected his chassidim to be leaders too.14