Few contemporary religious leaders, certainly few contemporary Jewish religious leaders, have stimulated so much curiosity—and ambivalence—as the Rebbe of Lubavitch.

The religious and secular media have been fascinated by the devotion of his adherents and his disproportionate political influence at home and in Israel, not to mention the trumpeting of his messianic stature by his most ardent followers. When was the last time the death of a rabbi was the lead story on both channels of CNN?

He was a most unusual man: a quiet, self-effacing heir to an impeccable Hassidic pedigree. A maritime engineer educated at the Sorbonne. The master of a dozen languages. The childless father of a half-million disciples.

My own relationship with the Rebbe has been an elliptical orbit: sometimes nearer, sometimes farther, but somehow always magnetically drawn to the focal point. I will forever remain unapologetically prejudiced toward the Rebbe, not so much for his global influence as for my personal encounter with him less than three years before his passing.

I became momentarily privy to the Rebbe’s inner circle through my friendship with Rabbi Yossi Groner, the Lubavitch emissary to North Carolina, son of Rabbi Leib Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary.

My encounter with the Rebbe came just months after the demise of my second marriage and the disgraced undoing of my rabbinical career had plunged me into a black hole of depression and despondency.

Accompanied by Rabbis Groner junior and senior, my meeting with the Rebbe lasted a scant half-minute.

“Sometimes,” the Rebbe counseled me in Yiddish, “a devoted layperson can do incalculably more good than a rabbi.

“You should teach something, perhaps Talmud, even if it is to one or two people in your living room.

“They say,” the Rebbe went on, “that you were once a student of Reb Aharon Soloveichik,” invoking the name of the yeshivah teacher with whom I had had an acrimonious parting of the ways two decades earlier. How he knew, I do not know.

“I am making a gift to charity in the hope that you make peace with him.”

However inspired I might have been at the moment, a year passed, and I did not take action on the Rebbe’s counsel. It was, all told, a dismal, dark year, full of sickness and grief and self-recrimination. Traveling to New York, I again found myself a guest at the Groners’ Sabbath table.

“Have you been teaching?” Rabbi Groner prodded.

“Er, uh, it hasn’t been feasible. The situation . . .” I squirmed.

“The Rebbe said,” he admonished.

“But . . .”

“No buts. The Rebbe said!”

How could I do this? Where? When? I had not a clue. But the Rebbe said. Confused and disconcerted, at Sabbath’s end I retrieved the messages from my answering machine. As G‑d is my witness, there was the voice of a long-forgotten colleague, a rabbi in suburban Atlanta: “Marc, I’ve been thinking all Sabbath long. It’s a pity you’re back in town and not teaching. Would you consider teaching a class, say in Talmud, for my congregation?”

Let the cynics snicker. These are days of miracles and wonders. I mark the first moment of my gradual restoration to sanity and self-respect from that wondrous Sabbath in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I will forever attribute the first step of that restoration to one man who, with unfathomable intuition and faith in humanity, made a selfless, precise therapeutic intervention in my spirit, and demanded neither my soul nor my bankbook as recompense: Make peace with yourself. Put aside anger. Reconcile with your neighbor.

Was he a “savior”?

Critics who assess the Rebbe’s impact in terms of large social, spiritual or political issues are missing the point. The real measure of the man’s magnitude is in the thousands of pinpoint surgical interventions he has made in the souls of his faithful, that have redeemed them from despair and regained them their lives.

Let theologians quibble over whether the cumulative effect of such interventions over 40 years ordains one as a “savior.” Even if it is not so, we must freely acknowledge that our presence has been blessed by one whose life was spent as the catalyst for so many countless acts of saving grace. How much more do we dare ask of any human being?

What of the reconciliation with my long-ago teacher? I confess that I was not so quick to act on the Rebbe’s behest. Until, that is, I heard the news of the Rebbe’s passing, when you may be sure it was the very first action I took.

After all, “the Rebbe said.”