In reading Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the great Lubavitcher Rebbe, I’m struck by something he says about a person’s “fixed and steady center.” He equates it to a compass with the one fixed leg while the other circles. If the one is not constant, the other cannot draw the circle. However, if we can establish a constant center, the circle will be perfect. In these turbulent times, he tells us, we need this stable center that unifies body and soul into a cohesive moral core from which all action comes. If we have no spiritual center, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, as Yeats tells us in his poem. How do we build this core? Schneerson, in true Rebbe form, advocates study. We come to an understanding through vast amounts of reading, especially sacred texts.
Simon Jacobson in his book Toward A Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Harper, 2004), writes “There is profound comfort in realizing that our modern struggles are in fact ancient ones, that our battles are not new.” If we look at history, human beings have overcome greater challenges and faced more destructive disasters, and this should be a comfort in today’s troubled times.
Schneerson (1902-1994) lived through many of the most horrific events of the twentieth century. He led the Lubavitch movement in Hassidic Judaism for more than forty years after barely escaping from Germany as the Nazis took over. Later, he was forced to flee again from the Nazis occupation in Paris. He landed in the United States on June 23, 1941. In this new country, he first worked in the educational and social organizations of the Lubavitch movement and in 1950, became the leader. He was a major force in Jewish life, and his wisdom made him the subject of debate over the possibility that he was the long promised Messiah. His scholarship was fluid and inspired, and his knowledge connected faith with other disciplines including science and mathematics. Jacobson writes “A fundamental aspect of the Rebbe’s intellectual approach was to establish unity between apparently unrelated areas of thought by uncovering their conceptual roots. In his discourses, he created a tapestry of philosophy, psychology, and sociology showing the intimate connections between the revealed and the hidden, between the practical and the mystical.”
Schneerson asks us to think deeply about our lives. What gives us joy? What are our blessings? What is our mission? The Rebbe knew people; he was a student of Torah and Talmud as well as humanity. To work to understand one person is to work to understand all people in all situations. It is remembering that this is an ordered universe set in motion by God, unfolding exactly as it should. It is a river with a strong current, and we cannot buck the flow so to speak, so we must learn to navigate within it. Although his words are uniquely Jewish, they can be applied to many philosophical and theological points of view.
All human beings are composed of a body and a soul and these dual forces must be in harmony to live a good life. The duality can be expressed in the concept of a material world and a spiritual world. Body is material—physical health, bodily needs, death and decomposition are all part of the body. The spiritual side reflects an eternal life and a connection to God. The body dies but the spirit or soul does not. The body senses things—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch. The soul intuits these same things in supersensory ways—emotions, conscience, intelligence and what Jacobson calls “the subliminal spiritual forces.” If the balance is shifted, we feel as if something in life is missing. We may become aimless, wandering, or become acutely aware of the emptiness inside us. Our lives are always propelling us forward toward our ultimate fate or destiny. Therefore, every single moment is important and critical. Jacobson believes a “person is not fully alive unless he is attuned to his soul’s higher purpose, unless he realizes its mission.” That mission may be something as basic as trying to perfect ourselves and our society and make the world a sacred space.
What I have always admired and appreciated in the Jewish tradition is the need for study, for intense intellectualism and for giving the life of the mind its intensive priority. Learning is a lifelong process. Jacobson believes our intellectual growth should actually intensify as we grow older and become more experienced. Certainly there are ethical and moral principles to teach, but the next step is to apply those principles to life. How do we live, day to day, as moral, ethical people?
One of the most effective parts of Jacobson’s book and the Rebbe’s teaching is on fear and anxiety. Who doesn’t suffer from fear and anxiety in these times? Whatever causes the anxiety, Schneerson tells us to “Think good and it will be good.” Schneerson teaches that to lead a productive and ultimately satisfying life, we must be free of the oppression of anxiety. The remedy is to bring our fears out into the light and recognize that if we keep our goals and objectives in sight and are clear about our life’s purpose and use all our energies to push forward, we will overcome the setbacks and ultimately be successful. We must approach each difficulty asking ourselves what we can learn from it. Jacobson writes “The only person on earth you need to be accepted by is yourself. You achieve this by integrating God into your life, which means devoting yourself to the purpose for which you were created. By following the divine laws of morality, you introduce sanctity and serenity into your life—and a sense of order.”
The wisdom of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is practical and commonsensical. At times, he reveals himself to be a man of his age, a little too patriarchal, a little too twentieth century, but his words, wisdom and insight can be adapted for our new millennium. Schneerson and Jacobson propose that true change in this world comes from within. It cannot, and should not, be imposed from outside. Only when we take ownership our lives and our behaviors can we succeed in changing ourselves and our world. That is the life’s work of all of us.