Tuesday, July 1st (3rd of Tammuz) marks the 20th yartzeit (anniversary of passing) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. Over the past several months several biographies have been released, exploring the Rebbe’s life and teachings. We bring you this article, written by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. It appeared originally in the Jewish Action magazine and has been reposted here with permission.
There have been many great Jewish leaders in history. Some left a permanent mark on the Jewish mind by their contributions to Torah and the poetry and prose of the Jewish soul. Some created new communities, others revived flagging ones; some shaped the entire tenor of a region. But it would be hard to name an individual who, in his lifetime, transformed virtually every Jewish community in the world as well as created communities in places where none existed before. That is a measure of the achievement of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was not just a great leader—he was a unique one.
I have told the story of my first encounter with the Rebbe many times, and I mention it only briefly here simply as a reminder of how vast his impact was, and how early it was recognized. In 1968 I was a second-year undergraduate at Cambridge, studying philosophy at a time when being a philosopher with religious faith seemed, at least in Britain, almost a contradiction in terms. So that summer I traveled to America to see if I could meet the leading rabbis and Jewish intellectuals and hear from them how they wrestled with some of the problems I had encountered. What fascinated me from the outset was how many of those I met mentioned the Rebbe. Already then, he had assumed almost a legendary stature. It didn’t matter where I went or whom I spoke to, somehow his name would come up in the conversation and it would be spoken of in awe, whether the person I was speaking to was Chassidic or not, Orthodox or not. People seemed to know that there was something special about this man that transcended the normal parameters of religious leadership.
I soon found out what it was, when I had the chance to meet the Rebbe in the course of that visit. He was the only person among the dozens I encountered who performed a role reversal in the course of our conversation. Within minutes I discovered that it was not me who was interviewing the Rebbe, but the Rebbe who was interviewing me. He wanted to know about the state of Jewish life in Cambridge, how many Jewish students there were, how many were engaged with Jewish life and what I was doing to increase their number.
This was wholly unexpected and life-changing. Here was one of the leaders of the Jewish world taking time—considerable time—to listen to an unknown undergraduate student from thousands of miles away and speak to him as if he mattered, as if he could make a difference. He was, powerfully and passionately, urging me to get involved. Years later, looking back on that encounter, I summed it up by saying that good leaders create followers. Great leaders create leaders. That was the Rebbe’s greatness. Not only did he lead, he was a source of leadership in others.
Rabbi Sacks continues, detailing specific examples he’s encountered over the years that illustrate the unrivaled leadership of the rebbe. If you’d like to read more, you can do so at the Jewish Action website.