By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
In Jewish culture the traditional birthday wish is “till 120!” The famous Jewish leader Moses lived to be exactly 120 years old and his accomplishments and legacy indicate that when we wish each other the best in life, we intend for our lives to be meaningful and impactful as well.
In modern times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson is my ultimate example of a Moses persona, and Tuesday, April 12, will mark his 120th birthday. I find the similarities between these two great leaders striking.
Just as Moses was a master teacher, the Rebbe educated generations of disciples to understand Jewish tradition, life and the ways of the world with profound depth.
Like Moses who shepherded a nation during a difficult transformational period by caring for their every need, the Rebbe assumed personal responsibility for the global Jewish community within a decade of the most traumatic and destructive events in Jewish history. But there is one specific episode I believe frames Moses’ leadership and enlightens a unique aspect of the Rebbe’s life work, which in turn can empower each one of us to be somewhat like Moses.
Prior to becoming the Israelite leader, Moses worked as a shepherd and one day noticed one scrawny little sheep went missing. He searched high and low until he found it standing next to a stream of water and returned it to the flock. At that moment he noticed the miraculous sight of a thorn bush ablaze without being consumed and as he approached to investigate, G-d spoke with him and sent him on a mission to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. The rest is history.
This story illustrates how Moses was only granted the mantle of leadership once he displayed a tremendous dedication to even one single, seemingly insignificant, sheep. Making decisions based on the benefit of the majority has its place, but the core of leadership must be the appreciation that every individual is an entire universe. No one is extra and no one is dispensable.
As an ardent student of the Rebbe’s teachings and the history of his life, I find this to be a recurring theme. He taught that every individual has an inherent spark of goodness which can and should be nurtured. Everything in this world has a divine purpose to be valued and respected. And most importantly, we all have an integral role to play in making our world a more peaceful and better place.
His focus on education was legendary. Beyond establishing numerous educational institutions all over the world, with his own behavior the Rebbe personified the consummate educator by engaging even the smallest children to do good. Before entering the synagogue for prayer services, or walking down the street, he would hand coins to children within reach for them to place into the nearby charity box, empowering them to do an act of kindness.
Education is not about preparing legions of potential participants in the workforce, the Rebbe insisted. Rather, it is the essential and thrilling mission of empowering every individual child to live a life of purpose and higher meaning, with an awareness of his or her accountability to G-d and society. Education prepares the student to have the necessary tools to navigate the often difficult moral dilemmas he or she will inevitably encounter, and to make the right choices.
This is why America observes Education and Sharing Day each year on the Rebbe’s birthday (four days before Passover) and I am so grateful El Paso’s leadership participated by issuing proclamations dedicating April 12 as Education and Sharing Day.
It is a day for us to reflect on how we can be a bit like Moses and care for the spiritual and moral welfare of even one single child – to cherish and value even one single good action, knowing that goodness breeds more goodness and our accumulated good deeds will usher in an era of global peace and tranquility.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad Lubavitch in El Paso.