Last week I met Mike. We spoke about Passover and everything that comes with it (you know how it is! It’s a lot of stress making sure all the preparations get done….)
Before I left, I offered to help him do the mitzvah of tefillin.
“Rabbi, you know I’m a secular Jew,” he said. “I don’t do this.”
“First of all,” I told him, “labels are for shirts and not for people. Don’t label yourself. A Jew is a Jew, and that’s all that matters.
“Secondly, a mitzvah is a mitzvah. When we do a mitzvah, regardless of what we know or believe, it just feels right.”
Much ink has been spilled over the vision, leadership, and impact of the rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Still, I believe that not enough has been written about the challenge he faced.
It was a unique and unprecedented challenge, the challenge of “life is good.”
Much of the Jewish people’s history was filled with tzuris. You name it: Poverty, persecution, blood libels, pogroms… the list goes on. Jewish leaders in every generation dedicated their lives to protecting, defending, and caring for the Jewish people.
When the rebbe assumed leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in 1950, the world had changed. The shtetls were gone; the tight-knit Jewish enclaves of the Old World were out of fashion. The Jewish people had found their way into the Western world, embracing the opportunities it provided and looking forward to finally being treated equally.
Life was good.
Yet the very survival of the Jewish people was at risk.
This time, the threats were not from Cossacks or evil inquisitors. It was a threat from within. The threat of apathy and assimilation; the threat that the new generation would care more about climbing the ladders of financial and social success and less about Jewish continuity and peoplehood. About being Jews.
The rebbe cared deeply about this issue. From the first moment of his leadership, he spoke about it. Not as a problem that we needed to kvetch and worry about, but as a calling that should inspire us to find new ways to connect our fellow Jews with Judaism.
So, what next?
Perhaps you’d have expected the rebbe to launch an ad campaign in all major newspapers, explaining why assimilation was terrible.
Or perhaps raise a few million dollars to establish a body to research the topic of Jewish apathy.
He did none of that. Instead, he had a simple — and genius — suggestion. Get Jews to do more mitzvot.
On its face, doing a mitzvah doesn’t always seem so valuable. Someone put on tefillin or lit Shabbat candles once. What’s the big deal? Is that what is going to save Judaism?
So the first answer is a resounding yes. Because as Maimonides taught, people must always see themselves as if the entire world is on balance, and one good deed can tip the scale for the better.
The second answer is another resounding yes.
Actions are usually an expression of our deep desires. We work because we care about being financially secure. We cook (or buy) food because the flavors and smells will bring us great satisfaction, but also because food sustains us. We follow the news because being knowledgeable makes us feel powerful.
In the rebbe’s eyes, every Jew has a profound and unbreakable connection to God and Judaism. When you offer a Jew the opportunity to do a mitzvah, it’s not about merely going through the motions; it’s an expression of their deepest essence. It’s like putting a spark next to a barrel of oil. That little spark is going to kindle a flame that will only grow brighter.
And now, looking back at the last few decades, we can see how the rebbe’s idea sparked a revitalization of Jewish life all around the globe. We can easily assume that every Jewish person alive today was significantly impacted by the rebbe.
This past Tuesday (the 11th of Nissan, corresponding this year to April 12) marked 120 years since the rebbe’s birth. Allow me to suggest that the best way to mark this milestone is by adopting the Rebbe’s novel idea and applying it in our daily lives.
Let’s do a mitzvah.
Let’s commit to integrating one more holy act into our schedule. It can be a mitzvah between God and us or something we do to help and inspire others. Either way, this mitzvah will change our lives—and the world around us—for the better.
Our souls will be happy we did.
Our minds will be happy we did.
And the Jewish people will be happy we did. Because our additional one small mitzvah is one of the greatest contributions to ensuring that our people will survive and thrive.
Mendy Kaminker is a member of the Chabad.org editorial team and the rabbi of Chabad of Hackensack.