The Lubavitcher Rebbe with Netanyahu
The Lubavitcher Rebbe with NetanyahuCourtesy of jem

“His status is unique among our people. So I am certain his blessings will strengthen me as I embark on a mission of acute importance for our future."

So stated Prime Minister Menachem Begin, as he arrived in New York for a highly unorthodox visit with the Rebbe, back in the summer of 1977.

The sitting leader of Israel had broken protocol, which typically expected a rabbi to travel to the Prime minister, rather than the reverse.

Begin was en route to Washington to meet with President Carter for negotiations which would ultimately yield the Camp David accords. By his own description, he felt he needed the spiritual strength imbued by the Rebbe’s blessing to face this enormous challenge.

This episode has always fascinated me as a strong marker of the Rebbe’s genuine love and concern for the land, people and leadership of Israel; the reciprocity of these sentiments is clearly evident.

Prior to Begin assuming the mantle of Prime Minister, Israeli President Shazar went against political etiquette norms du jour when he paid a visit to the Rebbe’s Brooklyn synagogue.

A great many Israeli dignitaries between those two trailblazers and a large number after, went on to maintain a close connection with the Rebbe’s office, soliciting not just his blessings and prayers, but his strategic advice and insight into complicated geopolitical issues.

As we prepare to mark the Rebbe’s thirtieth yahrzeit, while our brethren in the Holy Land are still at war, I find myself revisiting the meaningful and mystical relationship the Rebbe harbored with Israel and Her people.

Assuming the leadership of any Jewish movement in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust was an enormous and exhausting job. Dispossessed and broken, the Jewish people were depleted and despondent.

Yet somehow, from his modest synagogue in Brooklyn, the Rebbe began nursing the wounds of this orphaned nation, whispering hope and life into its ears.

The Rebbe spoke of a bright Jewish future, while the ruins of the shtetl were still smoldering. He preached Jewish pride and joy while traumatized immigrants docking at Ellis Island hurried to ‘Americanize’ their names lest their identity attract undue attention in the goldene medinah.

Leading by example, with fortitude and faith, the Rebbe showed us all over again how to believe - not just in G-d, but in ourselves, our traditions and in each other. He taught that America and indeed, every country, had the potential to be a bastion of Jewish life.

This seemed to many like a revolutionary reverie, especially as in those days many New York neighborhoods still bore sickening signs such as: “No Jews, Blacks and Dogs Allowed.”

The source of the Rebbe’s unwavering faith was simple yet profound. Simple as it stemmed from the most elementary reading of the Torah, which speak plainly of G-d’s love and blessings for His people. Yet profound because, although available to all, none had quite read those promises with the same degree of pragmatism and reality as the Rebbe had.

As Israel faced enormous existential threats, and the ‘experts’ predicted doom and gloom, the Rebbe stood alone in his adamant position that no harm would befall us, and that, with G-d’s blessings, we would emerge victorious.

When Saddam Hussein promised to ‘obliterate the Zionist entity from the map’ in 1991, firing hundreds of scud missiles at Israel, many yeshivot closed in a rush to send their pupils back to the relative safety of the United States and Europe.

Anxious Israeli civil authorities designated public parks as cemeteries in preparation for the impending bloodbath. Yet simultaneously, the Rebbe exhorted all to pay no heed to the doomsday predictions and consequently raised the morale of IDF personnel, encouraging people to trust in the Guardian of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

The Rebbe’s worldwide Tefillin Campaign, launched on the eve of Israel’s most stunning victory in the Six Day War, was his way of patiently reminding us that G-d’s protection involved more than physical weapons, and that the might of our faith plays as crucial a role in the defense of our land.

Sure enough, the facts on the ground vindicated him time and again.

The Rebbe diligently reminded us that no friend nor foe has the final word on what happens to us. Irrespective of whether it is Washington, Damascus, Beirut or London – none can decide our fate.

He would oft-repeat G-d’s promise in the Torah that Israel is “a land that the Lord, your G-d, looks after; the eyes of Lord your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”

Whilst we had read those words previously, the Rebbe taught us to truly comprehend this as the guarantee it was meant to be.

With the Rebbe, though, faith was only half of the soulful story;it needed to be coupled with a robust dose of pragmatism if it was to have an impact on real life.

The Rebbe understood that Israel is a tiny country in a terrifying and tough region. He advocated ‘peace through strength’ warning that in this unenviable environment, concessions are interpreted as weaknesses - not virtues. The mere talk of surrendering land, he cautioned, would invite more pressure from allies and more bloodshed from adversaries.

In our post-October 7th world, we have to come learn the hard way, how right he was.

Yet the Rebbe’s stance was also nuanced. To the untrained eye, he might have come across as a ‘hawk’ or hardliner. In truth, the Rebbe often emphasized that his position had the double virtue of preserving Jewish lives as well as those of our adversaries.

The Torah of truth, Torat Chaim, explained the Rebbe, has room for everyone.

In a world of deep divisions, of partisan politics and unholy tribal alliances, the Rebbe transcended traditional norms, finding common ground across political, religious and cultural divides.

To be sure, the Rebbe reserved some of his sharpest criticism for several Israeli political policies he felt endangered its security or prosperity and the overall wellbeing of our homeland. Yet the chastising was never ad hominem – the Rebbe excoriated ideas, policies, administrations, never people.

This is why the targets of those comments remained receptive to the Rebbe’s guidance even after a healthy rebuke.

The story of the Rebbe’s involvement in Israeli national security is still being told; but any account would be incomplete without a mention of the Rebbe’s breathtaking understanding of battleground dynamics and political jockeying.

Once, the Rebbe entertained an intricate conversation with IDF Major Rolly Greisman, probing about every detail of the military’s operation. He made suggestions about the armor of personnel carriers, Thompson machine guns versus their Swedish counterparts which, as the Rebbe explained, had a higher rate of fire and greater velocity.

The decorated Major walked out of the Rebbe’s study awed by the expertise he hadn’t seen from anyone inside the IDF, let alone from a rabbi in the United States.

Today, facing existential threats both from within and without, our beloved Land of Israel sorely needs the Rebbe’s vision, wisdom and gentle strength.

(The Rebbe reminded a young Bibi Netanyahu, then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, to ignite a ‘single light in the house of lies’ within the UN, which consistently and routinely maligned Israel for merely existing.)

Although he is not physically here to express his views, I know that in his timeless teachings, we will yet find the guidance to lead us to the light.

I pray that very soon, the words which he taught us to view as not mere poetry, but as a real and attainable goal, will materialize:

“And I will return the captives of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild desolate cities and inhabit them ... And they shall no longer be uprooted from upon their land, that I have given them, said the Lord your God” (Amos 9).

Rabbi Levi Wolff is a speaker and author who serves as the Chief Rabbi at The Central Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.