Note: This isn’t a treatise on what a Rebbe is. Or even who the Rebbe was. Or even the real reason Chabadniks choose to have a Rebbe.
This is why I, one baal teshuva (a Jew who became religious later in life), have found that I need a rebbe: the Rebbe.
The truth is, for a long time I didn’t get it. I went to yeshiva, and there, all that seemed to matter was connecting to Judaism. Why should someone waste their time worrying about leaders and all that jazz? Just give me the Torah.
But an interesting thing has happened to me, especially as I’ve become more religious, gotten married, and started to slowly integrate into the religious Jewish world.
One of the hardest things for a baal teshuvah is the experience of going from the world of the ideal to the world of “reality”. The world of yeshiva to the religious world. From Judaism to Jews.
The more you become a part of the Jewish world (and as hard as you try to resist it), the more you start to see the imperfections around you. You start to realize that no matter how great a rabbi is, he is only human, and will make mistakes. You see all the confusion, all the problems, all the imperfections. You see the division.
And it’s hard.
This was my experience, as it is for most of my baal teshuva brethren. It’s just part of the process.
The more I was confronted with this reality, the more I found myself looking for some sort of guiding light, some sort of steady hand.
More and more, that light was the Rebbe.
Where others had failed, he succeeded. Where others fell into politics, racism, anger, confusion (in other words, being human), the Rebbe has always been that steady role model. The person who exemplifies what it really means to be a Jew. What it really means to make Judaism a complete part of one’s life, and to give to the imperfect world of Jews, and the world at large, with a full heart.
No one else is like that today. No one.
To hear about the Rebbe standing for hours giving dollars to those he cared about (ie everyone) is to understand what it means to be mensch. To see how he didn’t want followers, but leaders, is to understand what it truly means to be a leader. To see how he consistently defied the expectations of the Jewish world, and even (especially) the Chabad world, is to see what it means not to be controlled by the external and to simply do what is commanded of a Jew.
Every time I’ve seen someone fall, someone I admired not live up to my expectations, the more I remind myself that these people are just that: people. They are supposed to fail.
Because, see, the truth is, I think we all need heroes. I think that’s why people glorify people like Bob Marley, Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Obama, and others, despite their failings. We all need someone to look up to, someone to model our lives after. It is natural and necessary.
But the problem is that most heroes today aren’t true heroes. They don’t completely live out their ideals, no matter how valiantly they try. No matter how much we glorify them, they are human.
The Rebbe was a person who, by all accounts, lived his ideals. Lived my ideals. Lived a Jew’s ideals.
We all need our heroes to remind us that despite the failings of humanity, the ideal does exist, and it is both meaningful and true. And, even more important: what that ideal even is.
And I admit it: as a human, I need such a hero in my life. Or the failings of the world, and especially the Jewish world, would simply be too much for me. I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I would collapse.