What the rebbe taught me about love

What the rebbe taught me about love

I have been thinking a lot about love lately. And I realized I had it wrong.

Until recently, if you’d ask me to describe a loving person, I would say something like this:

A loving person is kind, listens empathetically, tries to be there for others, and goes out of their way to show care for the people they love.

I was wrong.

Okay, not really. A loving person does possess the qualities of caring and being there for others. But a crucial component has to be added to this list.

That insight came to me while realizing that the rebbe’s yahrzeit is right around the corner (on the 3rd of Tammuz this year, June 22).

Every year I spend time thinking about the rebbe’s impact. When I do, I try not to focus only on his global impact (did you know, for example, that the rebbe’s suggestion inspired the creation of food stamps? Google it!). Instead, I focus on ideas that I can implement in my own life to make me a better person.

And this is how I was thinking about love.

So many people who came to visit the rebbe spoke about his love. They’d mention how they felt the rebbe was fully present during the conversation, as if he had nothing else on his mind.

They felt loved and accepted.

And yet, something else happened during these encounters. The rebbe would gently encourage them to go above and beyond anything they ever did until that point. To double their efforts, to dare to reach higher and farther.

Here are three stories to illustrate this point.

Story number one:

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan is the rabbi of Chabad of Maryland. Today, there are dozens of Chabad houses around Maryland, but back in the 1970s, he was the first and only Chabad rabbi in the state.

Shortly after his arrival, he successfully arranged a Simchat Torah program for 3,000 people. Very proud of his accomplishment, he rushed to share the news with the rebbe. “Rebbe, 3,000 people participated in the program!”

The rebbe looked deeply into his eyes and said: “30,000?”

Rabbi Kaplan “corrected” the rebbe. “3,000.” But the rebbe asked again: “30,000?” Rabbi Kaplan then realized the rebbe was sending him a clear message. 3,000 is nice, but you can get 30,000.

Story number two:

Jonathan Sacks was a young student from Cambridge who came to visit the rebbe. Years later, when he became a world-famous rabbi, lecturer, and philosopher, he talked about that fateful meeting.

“The rebbe started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in?

“Now, I hadn’t come to become a shliach. I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and suddenly he was challenging me. So I did the English thing. The English can construct more complex excuses for doing nothing than anyone else.

“So I started the sentence, “In the situation in which I find myself…” – and the rebbe did something quite unusual for him. He stopped me mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.”

“That moment changed my life.”

Story number three:

In the late 1980s, a delegation of the newly merged UJA Federation of New York visited the rebbe. Knowing how much the rebbe cared about Torah educational activities, they happily informed the rebbe of a quarter-million-dollar allocation toward such projects.

The rebbe looked at them with a broad smile.

“You expect me to be satisfied about a quarter-million?”

I thought that love was about being kind, accepting, and validating. But reading these stories, I realized that the rebbe loved so profoundly that he wanted the best for everyone.

If you truly love someone, you want them to be the best they can be.

When the rebbe looked at Rabbi Kaplan, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, and the UJA Federation delegation, he knew they could achieve much more than they had. He knew that God endowed them with abilities far surpassing their existing accomplishments.

And he knew that this unlocking their full potential was the only way for them to feel genuinely fulfilled and satisfied. In pushing them beyond their perceived limits, the rebbe bestowed them with the most significant expression of his love: the unwavering belief in their untapped capacity for greatness.

As we get closer to the rebbe’s yahrzeit, I hope to bring more of the rebbe’s love into my life. I want to remember that caring for others (and myself!) extends beyond just acceptance and addressing needs; it’s also about fostering growth and making the most of God’s gifts.

Mendy Kaminker is the rabbi of Chabad of Hackensack and an editorial member of Chabad.org. He welcomes your comments at rabbi@ChabadHackensack.com