By Rabbi Yona Matusof
Thursday, June 25 - 3 Tammuz, is the anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of Righteous Memory.
As we continue to experience unprecedented chaos, there are some things that remain steadfast and firm—the solid belief in the unity of the Jewish People, and our commitment and responsibility to each other. I would like to share excerpts from an address by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that express this theme.
“…It came about in a most extraordinary way. I had just obtained my rabbinic ordination, and I went to the Rebbe to ask his advice as to what to do next. Should I go back to my first career as a teacher of secular philosophy, or should I pursue my real ambition, which was to be a barrister? And I had been led to believe that what one did was one presented choices to the Rebbe and he said either this or that. Well, he said neither. He said, “You have to become a rabbi in Anglo-Jewry.” He directed every single part of that conversation to the Rabbinate. He spoke to me about how to revive Jews’ College, which was then near to closure. He even told me to change the subject of my doctoral thesis, which at that time, I was writing in secular philosophy. He said, “Make it something about the Rabbinate.” Eventually, I chose the topic of the principle that all Jews are bound together - are collectively responsible. And then he said, “When you finish your doctorate, please send me a copy. I would like to read it.”
Some years later, I finished it. And I wondered, should I send it? I knew that every single week the Rebbe receives thousands of letters from across the world. All he needs is a 400-page doctoral thesis. But my friends in Lubavitch said, “If the Rebbe said send it, you send it.” So I sent it. Some weeks later, a letter came back. Not typed, but carefully written out in the Rebbe’s own handwriting. I didn’t realize at the time the value of such a letter so I promptly lost it, but I can still remember exactly what it said. It criticized two things, of which tonight I am only going to speak about one. It criticized one of the words that I had translated in the thesis, and then the Rebbe said, “You have written a doctorate on Jewish collective responsibility. I am surprised that you didn’t mention Chapter 32 of Tanya” - that great work of Chabad Chasidism of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Why didn’t I write, he was implying, about the mystical dimension of the love of Jew for Jew which defines us as a people?...
In Chapter 32 of Tanya--the chapter that the Rebbe had wanted me to quote in my doctorate. Because in that chapter, Reb Schneur Zalman explains that Jews are called literally brothers and sisters to one another because each Jew’s soul is in the one G-d and, therefore, we are one soul. It is only in terms of bodily presence that we are separated from one another. And just as there can be no divisions within G-d, so there can be no divisions within the collective soul of the Jewish people. Therefore, when we live at the level of the soul, there is unity amongst Jews, but when we live at the level of the body there is disunity amongst Jews. When we live at the level of the soul, we fulfill the command that you shall love your neighbor--not as yourself, but because he is yourself. And it is that mystical idea that lies at the heart of Jewish law.
And I finally understood why the Lubavitcher Rebbe had written to me that my thesis was incomplete without this chapter of Tanya. Because the whole of Jewish law rests on it. The very existence of the Jewish people for the last 2,000 years depended on a belief that even outside Israel, even without power, even dispersed across the world, the Jewish people remains one nation linked to one another, responsible for one another--a single nation bound by a covenant of mutual responsibility. That is a mystical belief, but it was that belief that kept us as a people since the destruction of the Second Temple today.
It was, of course, that self-same belief that lay behind every single act the Lubavitcher Rebbe took. If one Jew suffers, we all feel pain. Many of us can understand that sentence as pain. And that is why the Rebbe sent messages and messengers to every corner of the Jewish world. Because if one Jew is suffering, if one Jew is not yet written into the Torah scroll--the book which is our book of life--he felt pain.
I can think of no more visible proof of the power of an invisible force--the force of the mystical Ahavat Yisrael, the love for every Jew--which the Lubavitcher Rebbe so loved and lived and taught, and how badly we need that message today.”
May the Rebbe’s profound love and uplifting message of unity continue to inspire us as we work together as a community to bring hope and healing to a fractured world.
Excerpts Source: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "A Mystical Covenant", chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/395795/jewish/A-Mystical-Covenant.htm
Rabbi Yona Matusof is the Director of Chabad of Madison. Born in Casablanca, Morocco and studied in Paris, France. After completing his studies at Rabbinical College in New York where he was ordained, he moved with his wife, Faygie, to Madison in 1980 as Rabbi of Chabad (Lubavitch) of Madison, serving the Madison and Dane County Jewish Community.