Photo Credit: Jewish Press

This Shabbos, the 10th of Shevat, is the yahrzeit of the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn (1880-1950).

The seven great Rebbes of Chabad all emphasized certain pillars of Chassidus, such as the importance of studying pinimius haTorah, particularly as a preparation for prayer. The expectations of the first five Rebbes involved primarily personal improvement in serving Hashem. Intrinsic to this goal was possessing ahavas Yisrael, concern for the needs of others, and they often spoke of how to practice it in daily life.

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Only from select individuals, however – such as rabbis of communities – did the Rebbes demand total dedication to the material and spiritual needs of others. But then the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution came. This revolution radically changed the situation of Russian Jewry and in response to it and the widespread weakening of Yiddishkeit in many lands, the Rebbe Rayatz started to demand that all his followers – indeed, all Jews – become activists for strengthening Yiddishkeit among other Jews.

This new emphasis was not intended to replace the traditional Chabad emphasis on working upon oneself. On the contrary, the Rebbe often stressed how essential it is to be firmly grounded in Torah knowledge and careful mitzvah observance to influence others effectively.

The Rebbe Rayatz called on his followers to organize underground Torah schools throughout the Soviet Union and teach Jewish youth Torah. Some became active mohelim, seeking to circumcise as many Jewish boys as possible even though the USSR outlawed the practice. Others risked their lives to build and maintain clandestine mikvaos.

When the Rebbe Rayatz was forced to leave the USSR in 1927, his campaign to strengthen Yiddishkeit didn’t end. His followers there already knew what he expected of them. Furthermore, he sent roving representatives to most lands and communities where Jews lived from his new centers in Latvia, Poland, and the United States (starting in 1940). Through his vast correspondence, he cultivated key individuals in many locations, working through them to raise the level of Jewish involvement everywhere.

“We are ‘day workers,’” wrote the Rebbe in one letter. “‘Day’ means light. Our work is the work of illumination, to illuminate the world with the light of Torah.”

In another letter: “With sighs alone, nothing is accomplished. The sigh just…opens one’s heart and eyes not to sit with folded arms, but to organize actual activity, each person according to what he can accomplish by campaigning to strengthen the Torah and to disseminate the Torah and mitzvah observance – one by his writing, another by his public speaking, and another by his financial contribution.”

He thus encouraged everyone to utilize their talents and natural abilities to influence Jews to reinforce and advance their level of Torah observance. Tradesmen and businessmen were urged to find opportunities to inspire Jews they encountered while working with a Torah insight or a story with a deep lesson or discuss the importance of attending a Torah class.

He called on women, too, to seek to influence their Jewish sisters, particularly to observe mitzvos unique to women, such as taharas hamishpacha.

This approach was not totally new. The Talmud states that every Jew bears responsibility for the Torah observance of every other Jew. But never had it been so strongly emphasized as it was by the Rebbe Rayatz. For him it was a matter of life and death, the very preservation of Yiddishkeit for eternity, and the way to bring every Jewish soul to its maximum potential.

After the Rebbe Rayatz’s second son-in-law (who later succeeded him as Rebbe) arrived in New York 1941, activities to strengthen Yiddishkeit in North America and worldwide gained new impetus. It soon became the hallmark of every Lubavitcher to be an activist for strengthening and spreading Yiddishkeit. The Lubavitcher Rebbe constantly emphasized every Jew’s responsibility to seek, besides material livelihood, a “spiritual livelihood” – i.e., work in encouraging Jews to come ever closer to the Torah.

The Rebbe Rayatz laid the foundation for this approach. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for dedicating his life to establishing it as essential for preserving Yiddishkeit in our time.

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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the central Lubavitch Youth Organization and a weekly columnist for The Jewish Press.