This sermon was delivered on Shabbat Parshat Korach, 3 Tammuz 5779, the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory

Today, the 3rd of Tammuz, is a notable date on the Jewish calendar.

According to tradition, it is the day that the sun stood still over Jericho.

Today is also the 25th yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. While people may have different types of relationships with Chabad, the Rebbe’s legacy is one of the most significant contributions to Jewish life of the last century. The emissary network, the shluchim, with thousands of Chabad Houses worldwide, has contributed much to the strengthening of Jewish life for Jews of all ages and affiliations. They are, quite literally, everywhere. As the saying goes, “If there is Coca Cola, there’s Chabad.”

Here in KJ (Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun), the Rebbe’s presence is especially found in our Beginners Program. On Friday, Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin posted a video on Facebook honoring the Rebbe’s legacy. It was a video of our own George Rohr reporting back to the Rebbe about the very first Rosh Hashanah Beginners Service attended by 200 Jews, as George phrased it, Jews “with no background.” In it, the Rebbe responds (the way George so eloquently reports every Kol Nidrei at the Beginners Service) to George that he should deliver a message to those 200 attendees – that they have a real background of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.

On a personal level, I was educated in a Chabad school and am very much impacted by the teachings and outreach strategy of Chabad. My first rabbinical training was to go to the Yale University campus on Sukkot to seek out students and provide them an opportunity to bentch [ say a blessing over] etrog.

At the same time, my parents both attended Yeshiva University. In our home, the books and teachings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik were prominent. His picture was on the “rabbi wall” of our sukkah. Our Judaism was the Modern Orthodoxy of the Rav.

For me, the power and influence of these two personalities was captured in a picture I found in the Jewish Press around my bar mitzvah. It was a picture of the Rebbe greeting the Rav at a farbrengen, a public Chassidic gathering in 1980, celebrating the Rebbe’s 40th year as leader of Chabad. In the picture, the Rebbe is standing up to greet the Rav and both men are smiling.

How can it get any better than this? My two spiritual heroes joining forces! (I cut it out, laminated it and saved it.)

The Rebbe and the Rav had a friendship dating back to the time when both were students at university in Berlin. There are various accounts of their interactions and friendship from that time. The closeness continued in America. The two maintained periodic, substantive correspondences, punctuated by a few personal encounters – none more dramatic than the farbrengen in 1980.

The Rebbe and the Rav each have legacies that continue to resonate throughout the Jewish world.

Rav Soloveitchik would often describe himself as a simple melamed, a teacher. In actuality, he ordained more than 2,000 rabbis, taught thousands in his YU shiurim [classes]and public presentations, and his lectures and writings continue to be studied throughout the Jewish world. There’s a reason Rav Soloveitchik is referred to simply as “the Rav” in our community.

There is no Jewish leader with a wider reach than the Rebbe. Think of the variety of people who sought out his wisdom and blessings. Of countless examples, Israeli President Zalman Shazar and Bob Dylan illustrate an unlikely duo of personalities who visited the Rebbe’s office. Today, Chabad continues to disseminate the Rebbe’s teachings on so many subjects. You name it, and you can find a lecture or a letter or a video addressing the issue at hand.

Is there a unified message from their teachings on which we can focus today?

I never met the Rav. And I only attended two farbrengens in 770 [the Rebbe’s shul] as a boy and once lined up to receive a coin for tzedakah from the Rebbe before davening [praying] Minchah [ afternoon service] with my visiting day-camp group. Nevertheless, I’d like to share one theme that the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rav both stressed as our lesson on this date of Gimmel Tammuz.

The key to the Jewish future is for Jews to learn and live a proud, relevant Judaism that is anchored in tradition.

The Rebbe and Rav taught, encouraged and lived this idea from their earliest moments of influence and leadership in this country.

Rav Soloveitchik arrived in America in August, 1932, and became Chief Rabbi of Boston. In December, the Rav gave two interviews with Boston newspapers reporting on his new role for the Jews of Boston. On December 25, the Boston Sunday Advertiser published an article entitled “To Bridge Gap Between Old and Modern Culture Not Easy” with the Rav’s comments:

“Orthodox Jewry faces a difficult, a most serious problem today, a problem which involves the harmonious blending of two hostile educational systems, each one very significant and valuable in its own right, but each one most essential to the spiritual and mental make-up of the modern Jew…”

Sound familiar? At the end of the interview, Rav Soloveitchik notes that the complex challenge has one solution: “The modern products of Jewish culture are not able to present the old Jewish point of view…Without the absorbing study of the Talmud and the Jewish Law, they will never be able to answer the question, ‘What is Judaism?’ in the true spiritual sense of the word. And the future of orthodox Jewry depends upon this answer!”

The Rav, from his first interview, presented both the challenge and solution: “It is difficult to balance Judaism with the modern world. The only way to succeed is to more deeply engage – double down if you will – on the study of Judaism in the traditional sense of the word.” This was the Rav’s contribution to the Jewish world and our community. He presented a model of an intellectually vibrant and engaging Judaism that could compete with the modern world.

Rabbi Schneerson gave his first official talk as leader of Chabad in 1951. His first ma’amar, Chassidic discourse, defined the generational mission as being one of mesirut nefesh – self-sacrifice. People must be willing to give of themselves for others. This concept manifests itself in simple actions like kindness for others and can also serve as the inspiration for a young Jewish couple to go to the other side of the world to serve Jewish travelers in Chabad Houses.

Every individual has a role to play, and each person’s mesirut nefesh may manifest itself differently, but the goal of the Jew in fulfilling his/her Divine mission requires giving of one’s true self to others.

The Rebbe could make this point in a simple encounter.

Shimshon Stock’s father was friendly with the Rebbe, and Stock himself knew the Rebbe from the time before he assumed the movement’s leadership. He recalls an incident around 1951 when Stock was walking with a man and his son, both devoted Brooklyn Dodgers fans, who were en route to a game at nearby Ebbets Field.

Suddenly Stock saw the Rebbe walking toward them, and he introduced the men to him. The Rebbe immediately started to talk to the pair, particularly the son, about baseball. The boy, assuming that the Rebbe was quite uninformed about baseball, mentioned in passing that when the team that one favors is either winning or losing by a large margin, many spectators leave the game without bothering to wait for the end.

“Do the ball players leave?” asked the Rebbe.

“Of course not,” the young man said. “They are not allowed to leave. They stay to the end and keep trying to win.”

The Rebbe smiled at the young man. “This is the lesson in Judaism I want to teach you. When you pray, when you put on tefillin, you’re playing with the team. You’re not just a spectator; you’re in the game. [You’re not a fan who can leave the game early.] You can be either a fan or a player: Be a player.”

Each and every Jew needs to get in the game and become a player in the divine mission. We play the “game of Judaism,” and we should each give of our Jewish selves to every Jew we encounter. Some of us are starters. Others are backup players, and there are also bit players like closers or one-pitch specialists. We all “play” and live Jewish lives in an effort to ensure that others also maximize a Jewish life.

There are thousands of other teachings and lessons of the Rebbe and the Rav. On Gimmel Tammuz, it’s appropriate for each of us to get in the game and promote a traditional Judaism that can meet the challenges of modernity and play our role to share this and enhance the lives of our fellow Jews and the world around us.

May their memories be for a blessing and always inspire us to strive for more.