This week the G-20 leaders met in London and pronounced a stirring indictment of humanity. Our bankers can’t be trusted. Unwatched and unregulated, people plus property equals corruption. The solution: massive and stringent new government oversight and regulation.
The sad story of our shrunken investments is the corrosion of our values. Past economic downturns were blamed on cycles. What goes up must come down.
Not this time. It was our greed and self-indulgence that killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. The greatest economy in world history laid low by our own lowliness. Once we became awash with money we became corrupt with materialism. Love was replaced with gifts. Time spent with friends replaced with time spent on Facebook. And feeding the hungry replaced with feeding our insatiable appetite for attention.
Whoa. I was raised to believe that an open democratic society is built on the belief that people are ultimately trustworthy. Did not Thomas Jefferson wage a pitched battle against Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, about the goodness inherent in individuals with Jefferson’s vision winning out?
Very few of us are immune to the corruption that today swirls around us, including we who are Jewish and observant. We are guilty of being religious without being spiritual, of being orthodox without necessarily being moral, of praying to the heavens while trying to accumulate as much as we can on earth.
In pondering this cynical view of humankind my thoughts led me to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and not only because this past Sunday marked his 107th birthday. Rather, as I watch a country that I love awash in fraudulence I was wondering whether there are people who are inured to the temptations of money and power. And as I rummaged through my mind’s Rolodex the one who stood out as having never benefited from his position was the Rebbe.
The Jewish world remembers the Rebbe as a visionary leader who rescued Jewish observance from terminal decline. And that’s why he’s been partially forgotten, the feeling being that Jewish outreach which he pioneered is doing perfectly well without him. What we forget is that the Rebbe realized his global vision not due to exceptional organizational skills but because of personal righteousness. More than anything else the Rebbe was a tzadik. His moral authority was such that it inspired in all who met him a desire to be better. Seeing how he spent no money on himself, his followers gave more charity. Seeing how he never took a day off, his disciples moved to the far reaches of the globe to spread G-d’s message of love. And seeing the affection he accorded all who came to see him his admirers opened their homes to thousands of hungry strangers.
It was his personal righteousness that was decisive. The Rebbe’s global outposts comprised millions of meters but he himself lived within the few hundred square feet of his own office. He was regularly visited by world leaders but he most came to life when he spoke to children.
And that’s what America is missing today. We are becoming corrupt because we have few models of outstanding righteousness. America has many example of success but few examples of high moral rectitude. We have politicians who are gifted communicators and we have celebrities who do good deeds. But we don’t have towering moral giants.
What America desperately needs today is an engine to motivate us that isn’t money. The desire to be righteous provides it. There is no greater feeling of satisfaction than the conviction that you have become a decent and good person. And there is no pleasure greater than liberation from the ego.
Righteousness is found in the respect we accord others. Twice a week the Rebbe would travel to the grave of his father-in-law and pray for the thousands who wrote to him for guidance. But was a mark of his extraordinary sensitivity that, though in his late eighties, he refused to ever sit in the presence of the resting place of his wife’s father.
Now, every year hundreds of thousands make pilgrimages to the same site because he too is now buried there. But where we pray for success he prayed for redemption. Where we pray for the health of our investments he prayed for the health of other people’s children. And where we pray for upward mobility he prayed for that those in pain be lifted from misery.
A few months after the Rebbe died I was forced by the Chabad leadership in the UK to relinquish my position as his emissary in Oxford after I had appointed an African-American Rhodes scholar as President of our student organization. They objected to the thousands of non-Jews who had joined our organization. What none of us could have predicted was that that this dear friend whom I had exposed to the Rebbe and who in-turn taught me of the great African-American leaders would later go on to become not only one of the most inspirational public figures in American public life but also, as a non-Jew, the foremost exponent of Jewish values to Jewish audiences in the United States. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark has inspired countless Jews around the country to reembrace their the heritage and with his vast Torah knowledge has inspired them to become more Jewishly knowledgeable.
Today it is Cory who reminds me of the Rebbe’s righteousness and my need to walk in his footsteps even when I am wounded and in pain. “The Rebbe was about love, Shmuley. Let others poison his legacy. But he believed in you and you must never let him down.”
It has long been the shortcoming of Chabad to make the Rebbe known within Jewish circles but not beyond them, as if the non-Jewish world does not yearn for the same liberation from the tyranny of the ego and the bondage of the self as much as we Jews.