Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Context: The Evolution of Chassidism
The Rebbe is the seventh leader of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, and the ninth 1 in the chain of general Chassidic leadership, counting from the founder of the Chassidic movement, Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, who was born in the year 5458 (1698 C.E.).
The Baal Shem Tov was an exceptional scholar, saint, and miracle worker 2 as were all the leaders in the chain of Chassidic leadership. After many years of saintly life with his clandestine group of followers, the Baal Shem Tov started actively promoting his message of G‑d's particular providence over every tiny detail, and the immeasurable value to G‑d of even the simple person's divine service.
Of special relevance is a letter the Baal Shem Tov wrote to his brother-in-law, in which he wrote, that once, during a soul ascension, he met Moshiach and asked him when he would come. Moshiach answered the Baal Shem Tov, "When your wellsprings will be spread to the outside", which most simply means when his Chassidic teachings will be widely studied and actively lived. This goal became one of the principle purposes of Chabad Chassidim.
The heir to the Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidic leadership, the Maggid of Mezritch, appointed R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, to be the Rav, or legal authority for the movement. The Alter Rebbe wrote an authoritative code of Jewish law and the fundamental Chassidic text, Tanya, articulating the fiery ideals of Chassidism through an intellectual approach to mystical realties.
Central to the Tanya are the concepts of teshuvah and geulah. Teshuvah means return to G‑d, specifically the restoration of a Torah-based world outlook and lifestyle. Geulah means redemption and is associated with the coming of Moshiach. The latter appears as the pivot of human history and the ultimate goal of the creation. The Alter Rebbe gained many tens of thousands of adherents to the Chassidic movement and established the Lubavitch dynasty, so named for the Russian town where its leaders were centered for over a century.
The Chassidic movement in general and the Lubavitch dynasty in particular, suffered considerable opposition, but continued to grow and flourish nonetheless. One of the bones of contention then (as well as now) was the exalted role of the Rebbe and the special bond between Rebbe and Chassid (or follower). The Baal Shem Tov taught that the word Rebbe in Hebrew is comprised of three letters whose initials spell out a Hebrew phrase meaning Head of the Children of Israel. He explained that just as one's head is the primary residence of the soul, which gives life to all the other parts of the body, so too the Rebbe is the Head of the Children of Israel, who is the source of life for every Jew.
Following the Alter Rebbe, the mantle of leadership passed consecutively to the Mitteler Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Maharash, the Rashab, the Rayyatz 3, and then to the seventh and final leader in the Lubavitcher dynasty, the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
As the time of the redemption approached, the movement focused even more squarely on its goal, the coming of Moshiach. Accordingly, the pace of "spreading the wellsprings" increased.
The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe founded the first Chassidic High School and College with the explicit purpose of raising students who would be as dedicated as soldiers to promoting Torah generally and Chassidism in particular. In a talk he gave in the fall of 1900, he predicted that Moshiach's coming would be soon, following two generations of fierce opposition, one atheistic, and the second, religious but anti-Moshiach 4.
The first period is best exemplified by the forcefully atheistic Soviet Union, within which the Lubavitch movement sustained Jewish faith and observance through a network of underground schools and congregations. Thousands of Lubavitchers, or 'Schneersonskis', as they were called at the time, were imprisoned, tortured, exiled and killed simply for living and teaching the traditions of Judaism.
The second period, religious yet anti-Moshiach, may well be the one in which we presently find ourselves. Among the Jews, this is a generation of incomparable spiritual revival. Also in society generally, we find a New Age spirituality and renewed interest in religious traditions, which together indicate that the societal pendulum has swung back in the direction of faith. In this context it is surprising to find many religious Jews who are strongly opposed to identifying the immediate coming of Moshiach 5 and the redemption even though this is fundamental to the religion that they otherwise observe.
Indeed, faith in the immediacy of Moshiach's coming is one of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith. Maimonides states that whoever denies this principle, denies the entire Tradition from Sinai. The teachings of Maimonides, in turn, are not innovations but are based on the Jewish Bible and the teachings of the sages of the Talmud. In more recent times this view has been strongly adopted by such Torah giants as the Chafetz Chaim, the Chasam Sofer, and others, with special emphasis put on by the Chassidic masters.
It is strange but true that many Jews today accept the authority of the Sages for guiding their lifestyle and other beliefs, yet seem to ignore or rationalize away these same Sages on the importance of believing that Moshiach and the ultimate redemption are matters of current relevance. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself has testified that our times fulfill this prophecy of the Rashab. 6
The sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Rayyatz, led the movement through Stalin's Communist regime, World War 2, the Holocaust, and the relocation of its world headquarters to Brooklyn, New York. He announced that immediate repentance would bring immediate redemption and that the horrible tribulations of the Holocaust were actually the birth pangs of Moshiach. From Lubavitch HQ at 770 Eastern Parkway he set about to rebuild Jewish study and observance worldwide and especially throughout North America, which by then had become home to the world's largest (and most assimilated) community of Jews.
His son-in-law, the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, formally assumed the leadership of the movement in 1951, precisely one year after the passing of the Rayyatz. We will now take a closer look at the life of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The Rebbe's Early Years
A few days before Passover in the year 5662 1902 C.E.), in the city of Nikolaev, in the Ukraine, a son was born to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson and his wife Chanah. At the circumcision, the baby was named Menachem Mendel, after his great-great-great-grandfather, the third Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty. Even then, there were signs that something special was in store for this child.
On the day he was born, the Rashab, who was the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, sent six telegrams to the parents with detailed instructions regarding the infant. According to these instructions, his mother was to wash the baby's hands 7 before he ate; she even washed his hands before nursing him. Indeed, he never ate in his life without first washing his hands.
When he was only two years old, Menachem Mendel was already asking the four questions at the Passover seder. At two-and-a-half, he knew how to pray like an adult. His mother, not wanting to draw undue attention to the child, would scurry him out of sight rather than allow him to astound houseguests.
At three, he started his Torah studies in the traditional cheder - Jewish primary school. Once, his mother came to visit him during recess. All the other children were trying without success to climb one of the trees that stood in the playground, but her son succeeded in climbing the tree in a few short minutes. "How did you manage that, Mendel?" asked his mother. "They look down, so they are afraid of falling, but I look up so I am not afraid," answered the little boy.
Only a short time later, the teacher of the cheder reported to Menachem Mendel's parents that their son could no longer study with the other children because his talents were so superior to theirs. Menachem Mendel began to learn at home with his father, the Rabbi.
Those were the days of the short-lived Russian Revolution of 1905. For some time, waves of pogroms and attacks against Jews were common. One day, when Menachem Mendel was four-and-a half, a wild mob fell upon the Jews of Nikolaev, threatening their lives. The Jews escaped to various hiding places to wait until the danger passed. Menachem Mendel and his parents were hiding with other families with small children, but the children were making such a racket with their screaming and crying that they were all in danger of being discovered.
Little Menachem Mendel, who was keenly aware of the danger, went around to all the little children, gave this one a candy, that one a pat on the cheek, another words of love and encouragement, and succeeded in distracting them until the danger had passed.
When he was five, his family moved to Yekaterinoslav, where his father had been appointed Rabbi of the City. Despite the constant traffic through the house with all the personal and community concerns that his father dealt with, little Menachem Mendel could always be found sitting and learning. He would learn day and night, typically until dawn, take a quick nap, and then resume his studies.
One day, a few years later, he was taking a walk with his mother on the banks of the Dnieper River, when his mother noticed a preschooler surrounded by an excited crowd. The child was soaked to the bone. The boy's mother was emotionally telling the people around her what had happened: "My son fell into the water and he was drowning, but at the last moment an older boy about nine years old, jumped into the river and pulled him out!" Only then did Rebbetzin Chanah notice that her Menachem Mendel was not at her side. She was filled with fear until, a few moments later, her son appeared, soaking wet - without saying a word.
As a young man, he became known as a great genius from whom no secret of the Torah was hidden. He succeeded in teaching himself a variety of foreign languages - French, German, Spanish, English, Italian an