By Rabbi Levi Greenberg
We all have things in life we can never get enough of: a classic novel, a scenic pleasure ride, a favorite delicacy. Well here’s a story I’ve heard many times since my childhood that I appreciate anew every time I hear it.
Rabbi Yosef Wineberg was a globetrotter who raised funds for several Chabad educational institutions and nurtured relationships with Jews around the world. Late one evening in 1960, a Jew from Oklahoma called him at his Brooklyn home and requested he submit on his behalf an urgent question to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the global Chabad Lubavitch movement, lovingly referred to as “the Rebbe.”
The voluminousness of the Rebbe’s correspondence was extraordinary. There was a time when the amount of mail delivered daily to his office at 770 Eastern Parkway was exceeded only by the White House. Requests for advice and blessing flowed in from a rainbow of humanity, but the Oklahoman was asking Rabbi Wineberg to get him an answer immediately, despite the late hour.
Mindful that the Rebbe’s chief secretary, Rabbi Hodokov, had already brought the final batch of mail for the day into the Rebbe’s office, Rabbi Wineberg inserted the envelope with the question in the space between the door and the doorpost at shoulder height, hoping the secretary would notice it while leaving the office. He was therefore disappointed when he saw Rabbi Hodakov overlook the envelope, which fell to the floor as he closed the door for the night.
That’s why he was particularly shocked when, 15 minutes later, he received a phone call from the secretary with a response to the question. Rabbi Wineberg immediately understood that it had been the Rebbe himself who had noticed the envelope on the floor and bent down to pick it up.
Rabbi Wineberg felt terrible and wrote an apology to the Rebbe for not going through the standard channels of communication and thus causing the Rebbe the inconvenience of lifting the note himself. The Rebbe replied there was no need to apologize for “my entire raison d’être is to uplift — especially those whom others overlook.”
This anecdote encapsulates everything you need to know about the Rebbe’s legendary leadership and expresses the attitude he endeavored to nurture within every person.
One of the Hebrew words for leader is “nassi,” which is etymologically linked to the word for raising or uplifting. While many people have the wisdom, charisma and ability to interest themselves in the needs of others and help them, a true leader provides it all in such a pleasant and beautiful manner that the recipient is uplifted in the process and empowered to do the same for others. This requires a special sensitivity, a deep interest in others and a strong conviction that every individual is unique in their ability to perfect the world.
In 1986, on his 84th birthday, the Rebbe started a weekly custom of standing near his office every Sunday to greet the thousands who wished to have a moment of his time, and handed every man, woman and child a single dollar bill to be given to charity. Although they were all coming to receive his blessing, advice and spirit, the Rebbe coupled everything he gave with a mission – even as small as giving one dollar to charity – thereby empowering every person to be an agent of goodness and a leader in their own right.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, once said: “I had been told that the Rebbe was a man with thousands of followers. After I met him, I understood that the opposite was the case. A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders. More than the Rebbe was a leader, he created leadership in others.”
On Thursday, June 22, we will mark the 29th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. As we do so we should try to be the leaders the Rebbe envisioned we all can be. Without running for political office, heading a corporation, or being the captain of a sports team, ensure that every opportunity of giving to others, enlightening others or inspiring others is done in a way that uplifts them to become givers themselves, because we all have an integral role to play in making our world a more peaceful and better place.
Levi Greenberg is associate rabbi at Chabad of El Paso.