What more is there to say about the Lubavitcher Rebbe 16 years after his passing that has not already been said? I was pondering that question as I walked the streets of my boyhood town of Miami Beach over Passover. The growth of Chabad is a modern miracle with the movement now becoming the de facto face of Judaism worldwide. But few understand how a man who is no longer alive can continue to inspire young men and women, newly married, to leave their families and all that they know to travel across the world and live forever in a foreign land in order to cater to the needs of Jewish strangers.
I have been fortunate in my life to meet personalities in positions of authority. I have seen that few, if any, are immune to the vagaries of corruption. By this I mean that those who have made large sums of money, for example, change just a little bit. They develop a sense of their own self-importance. They expect, and receive, a level of deference, however small. Their circle of intimates changes as well. They are often surrounded by people of similar wealth.
Those who climb the political ladder and become powerful in politics have little time for the little people. They wish they had more but given the level of responsibility they carry they have to make a decision about those who warrant their time and those who don't.
The Rebbe could not have been more different. In the sixteen years since his passing I have gone over in my mind countless times every aspect of his life as I knew it. I was fortunate to have had a personal relationship with him and he took a serious interest in my work as his emissary at the University of Oxford, partial as he was to great academic centers of learning. In everything I have thought through I cannot identify an area of corruption, not to the most minute degree.
Who has ever heard of a world-renowned spiritual authority who lived the last decade of his life in his tiny office; who never took a single vacation, or a single day off, in the 40-odd years he headed the world's largest Jewish organization; who stood on his feet every Sunday to meet thousands of common-folk and give them a personal blessing; and died with almost no money to speak of. Has was it possible that a man with that level of power and influence could have emerged without having changed in the slightest or benefited personally from his position?
In this lies the secret to the inspiration he continues to provide to the world Chabad movement.
Each of us is born a believer. If you tell a child that the moon is made of green cheese he will believe you. Only when he later discovers that it is not true does he doubt your next statement. As we mature we become cynical because we discover the world's imperfections and human corruptibility. We cease believing in politicians, convinced as we are that for the most part they put their personal interests before the public interest. We doubt even our parents and those who love us most because we discover they too are imperfect and made mistakes in how they raised us. But all along, deep down, we still want to believe. And when you're fortunate enough to find a personality who doesn't let you down, who remains a pillar of righteousness and is above any consideration of personal interest, you latch on to that personality and you march in his footsteps.
The growth of Chabad is due to many factors. Chabad inculcates an entrepreneurial spirit in its youth that makes them bold risk-takers who are far less susceptible to the fear of failure than the general population. They marry young with little thought as to how they will support families and they build institutions the world over without the knowledge of how they will fund their activities. They have faith in their faith. They believe that hard work will itself provide blessing and solutions. From Chabad they also receive a deep-seated Jewish pride that allows them to go to secular communities without shame of their lifestyle or appearance.
But more than anything else what accounts for the growth of Chabad is the Rebbe's righteous example that is before them at all times. When you are fortunate enough to have a leader who exemplified true selflessness, your altruism increases exponentially.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is Founder of This World: The Values Network, and is about to launch a National Institute of Jewish Values to train the next generation of Jewish writers, lecturers, and broadcasters. His newest book is 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.