Notwithstanding his optimistic view of our world as a divine garden of essential goodness, the Rebbe was not blind to the fact that oftentimes, our world on its surface conducts itself not as the divine garden it inherently is but as a jungle. The Rebbe urged that our response to humanly generated tragedies must include the taking of concrete steps to improve the moral state of society.

On Monday, March 30, 1981, just sixty-nine days into his presidency, US President Ronald Reagan was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., when he was shot. The president suffered a punctured lung, but with prompt medical attention, he recovered quickly.

On April 15th of that year, at a community gathering marking his birthday (on the 11th of the Hebrew month of Nissan), the Rebbe addressed the recent attempt on the president’s life and shared the following lesson with the thousands who were gathered for the event:

How could it happen that a person (the would-be assassin) should take such incomprehensible action that contradicts all reason and sensibility? Historically it has been argued that the root of all crime is poverty, which embitters the human spirit and, in turn, leads to feelings of revenge….

We see in the present case that the person who attempted the assassination was not at all impoverished—to the contrary, he was raised amid wealth1 and, apparently, he was denied nothing. Lest it be argued that poverty is the root of crime, this incident makes clear that to find the root cause of such deplorable actions we cannot look to the person’s economic background, but somewhere else.

Where can the root cause be found? The present case points us in its direction: education….

It is true that, by law, schooling is obligatory, but what is the philosophy of the public education system? What is expected of the schools? Only to transmit knowledge, not to shape, cultivate, or structure the child’s inner self—that he develop good character traits and that he recognize that, with all the facts he learns at school, the most important thing to learn is how to do good.2

In this talk, the Rebbe reiterated a position he had advocated many times, including his letter to then Vice President Walter F. Mondale (9th of Shevat, 5739 [February 26, 1979]):

Education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career, or, in common parlance, “to make a better living.” We must think in terms of a “better living” not only for the individual but also for the society as a whole. The educational system must, therefore, pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values.

A more sharply worded iteration of this message can be found in a letter written by the Rebbe to Chaplain Brigadier General Israel Drazin in 1987:

Many thanks for the good news [your letter] contained, particularly about your talks and lectures on the Seven Noahide Commandments3 on a number of occasions and that these were well received, even enthusiastically. I am certainly gratified that you intend to continue doing so.

There is, of course, no need to emphasize to you the importance of promoting these Seven Noahide Commandments among gentiles. In our day and age, it does not require much imagination to realize that, by way of example, had these Divine Commandments been observed and adhered to by all the “Children of Noah,” namely, the nations of the world, individually and collectively, there would not have been any possibility, in the natural order of things, for such a thing as a Holocaust.4

In 1964, the acclaimed American novelist Harvey Swados visited the Rebbe for a yechidut. In the course of their meeting, during which they discussed Hannah Arendt’s recently published book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she accused the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust of having acquiesced too easily to the Nazis’ horrific demands, the Rebbe took a different approach, highlighting the incredible difficulties of retaining one’s integrity under totalitarian regimes. “…the miracle was that there was any resistance at all, that there was any organization at all, that there was any leadership at all.”

Swados then asked the Rebbe pointedly whether it was his opinion that the tragedy of the Holocaust was not a unique visitation upon the Jewish people and that it could happen again? Without hesitation, the Rebbe replied, Morgen in der frie, “Tomorrow morning.”

Swados asked: “Why [are you] so certain that so terrible a horror could occur again?” According to Swados, “The Rebbe launched into an analysis of the German atrocities…. He did not speak mystically nor did he harp on the German national character and its supposed affinity for Jew-hatred. Rather, he insisted upon the Germans’ obedience to authority and their unquestioning carrying out of orders—even the most bestial—as a cultural-historical phenomenon that was the product of many generations of deliberate inculcation.”5

The point the Rebbe made was that a society that does not inculcate in its citizens a belief in a Higher Power Who demands righteous and moral behavior could, if it had the military power to do so, carry out genocide against any ethnic group.

Just as the Rebbe saw the individual tragedies that occur in people’s lives as a call for teshuvah, the Rebbe’s response to national and global “man-made” tragedy was that it was a call upon society to reflect on its values and policies. The Rebbe was especially concerned about the state of education for youth, which he felt must include character development and moral education in order to ensure a safe and healthy society. Through proper education for all, the Rebbe felt, we could effectively transform our world from a “jungle” into a “garden.”