“On the day that our father Abraham passed away, all the great men of the nations stood in a row and eulogized him.”
This Talmud text (Bava Batra 91a) reflects a striking similarity to events today, the first anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe. The great men of the nations are standing and speaking about our great man. Let us say something about our father Abraham.
People have the notion that our father Abraham found, invented, or created monotheism. That’s a mistake. The belief in one G-d begins with the very beginning of humanity. But then came a time of degeneration.
In Abraham’s day, there were complex societies and a great amount of science and philosophy. The philosophers tried to create something that they thought would be far more modern and apt. Instead of a belief in one remote G-d that nobody sees, they wanted to create something that one could visualize — a god that one could put on television. With an image, you can have clear access and it will always be relevant.
So they created one idol after another. And the modern people of those times went with the newest fashion, idol worship.
Now, our father Abraham did not discover monotheism. What Abraham said — he possibly said it in almost the same words — is that last century’s notion that “G-d is dead” is nonsense. G-d is still alive — very much so. And he proclaimed it in every corner of the world.
Now, did I speak about Abraham or did I speak about Rabbi Schneerson?
After Abraham passed away, the great people of all the nations felt that something terrible happened and they came to say a very short eulogy: “Woe to the world that lost its leader. Woe to the ship that lost its captain.”
Rabbi Schneerson was a leader — he was a captain — for more than 40 years. With every passing year, his message became clearer, more obvious. And the message was: Just prepare, do the work, because the Messiah is coming.
Yet, does this seem the right time? We do not seem to live in such hopeful times. The Book of Daniel describes the ages of man: the age of gold, the age of silver and, at the end of time, the age of iron.
It seems that we are living during the age of the iron idol. In this century, we have seen power and force displayed as a naked iron fist, blatant and clear. At no other time were so many people killed, all over the world, for so many wrong reasons. Everybody — our people, other people — everybody.
The same naked appearance of things is everywhere. Sex: it seems that everything romantic has disappeared. Sex becomes named, as ugly as possible, an it is displayed for all to see.
The same is true about money. It seems that we live in a really cold, naked kind of world. Still, Rabbi Schneerson told us that the Messiah is coming. Just now.
To put these remarks in context, let me note that Rabbi Schneerson received a thousand letters each day. Most were tales of trouble — sickness, loneliness, loss of money. The rebbe also understood science — he was a scientist in his time — and he knew every aspect of the world, from Russian literature to the cutting edge of every science. Knowing the world and its troubles, how could he say that the Messiah is coming soon?
Now, Rabbi Schneerson repeated one thought in his last years, again and again, sometimes as an order, sometimes as a request. He said, “Open your eyes, please, open your eyes. Open your eyes and see.”
The prophet Daniel speaks about that last age, the age of the iron idol, as a time that is strong and clear and cold. We see the power and we are overwhelmed by it. Yet what is it really? According to Daniel, the power stands on feet of clay. The smallest move will topple it.
Because he understood the world so well, Rabbi Schneerson could see into the fog of events. He was one of the first to predict that the mighty giant of brutal force, the Soviet Union, would collapse. It did not collapse by atomic bomb. It collapsed because it had feet of clay.
In telling us to open our eyes and see the world as it is, Rabbi Schneerson had a much bigger message. It was not just about structures of power; it was also about structures of life. He said: Do you think that this is a world in which people are interested only in sex? You are mistaken. What that really want is a little bit of love. They just do not know how to express it.
Those who seem to strive only for power and possessions are really striving for comfort and a good word. They just do not know how to get it. When we open our eyes and see behind this blatant harsh, rough exterior, we can understand that people are not as they appear to be. We have only to open our eyes and see life developing, how faith is unfolding.
In secular terms, the coming of the Messiah means the end of history. History is the story of human suffering and of endless human strife. In Judaism, the coming of the Messiah is the irreversible turn when we can, at last, live in happiness. That day is not so very far off, but Judaism teaches us that we cannot just wait for it to happen. We have to make the move toward it.
Rabbi Schneerson’s message was not only about Jews. He also spoke about all humanity. He turned to all the peoples of the world and said, “You can be better. You just have to allow yourself. You can be far better. You can become a full and true human being. You just have to let yourself go.” It is not the work of climbing a big mountain. It is just allowing your soul to speak.
That is why Rabbi Schneerson said: “Open your eyes.” Open your eyes to the world and open your eyes inwardly, and so that you can see the supreme secret: We are “menschen,” people. We have to change. We can change. We can do it.