By Rabbi Meir S. Moscowitz, Special to Chicago Jewish News
We have just commemorated the Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
The Rebbe’s leadership is often described in global and grandiose terms. He founded a movement consisting of more than 3,000 Jewish outreach centers. Leaders and politicians consulted with him on matters of global import. His teachings have touched Jewish communities across the globe—in Illinois itself, his vision was the catalyst for the 47 Chabad centers across the state. The Rebbe was, in a word, a global visionary.
There is another, lesser known, element of the Rebbe’s approach. A focus that comes as a surprise to many, especially considering his global impact: His staunch—almost fanatical—emphasis on the power of the individual.
To the Rebbe, there was no collective. There was no group or society. Each individual, regardless of their background or affiliation, was treasured for the unique gift they could contribute to society. “The entire world was created just for me” was a Talmudic statement the Rebbe would quote repeatedly—and was exemplified in the hundreds of letters he penned weekly, painstakingly applying himself to the personal needs of others as if they were his own.
Over the last 50 years, Chabad has become synonymous with Tefillin stands and Mitzvah tanks. Anyone passing a Chabadnik on the street expects to be asked if they’re Jewish, and be offered to lay Tefillin on their way to lunch.
Many people have asked me: What exactly is the point? What benefit is there in a “hit-and-run” Mitzvah, when the individual has no Jewish affiliation and will likely never lay Tefillin again?
But to the Rebbe, who initiated these campaigns, that was precisely the point: The power of the individual. One single person. One meaningful interaction. One everlasting action.
Today, there is much talk about individuality and self-expression. Small startups are replacing large corporations; social impact is a more alluring incentive than comfortable paychecks; and blaring billboards constantly remind us of the human right to make choices.
Judaism has a slightly different take on the notion of individuality. In the lens of Judaism, being unique is not simply a right. It is a responsibility. Being unique means you were granted unique gifts. And those gifts were given to you for a reason—to fulfill a mission unique to your circumstances. “The entire world was created for me” is not only a source of encouragement; it is a duty and a responsibility. It is a calling to every individual to see themselves as indispensable to the Grand Plan of creation, and to act upon the unique potential only they possess.
Of all the teachings the Rebbe left us with, his special care for every individual serves as my greatest inspiration. It is the guiding force behind the work of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois—to care for the Jewish needs of every individual, regardless of their background or affiliation, one good deed at a time.
I conclude with a powerful story that, often shared by my father, Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, emissary of the Rebbe to the state of Illinois for nearly 40 years.
In his later years, the Rebbe would stand outside his office each Sunday, and distribute dollars to the thousands of people who came to seek his blessings. An elderly woman, marveling at the Rebbe’s stamina—he was in his eighties at the time—once asked the Rebbe how he stood for so many hours and greeted so many people. The Rebbe gazed her in the eye, and with his characteristic smile replied: “When a person counts diamonds they never tire. To me, every individual is a precious diamond.”
Rabbi Meir S. Moscowitz is the Regional Director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois and Rabbi of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook.