My rav, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, outlined the purpose of his life’s work in a letter he wrote in 1980 before undergoing major surgery that became his last will and testament, writing that he sought to “strengthen the connection between all of the following: The God of Israel, the People of Israel, the world in its entirety, and the Torah.” (The full Hebrew letter can be found at https://www.inn.co.il/news/449786).
This is a lofty goal that takes lifetimes to accomplish, and Rabbi Steinsaltz understood that he couldn’t accomplish it on his own. He created educational institutions in order to groom students to become leaders in their own right in order to realize this goal. In the words of Rabbi Steinsaltz “...even though you do not hear it when a person takes one small step, when a hundred people move together—it makes noise, and when a million people move together—it shakes the world. So, let’s make a movement together wholeheartedly, and it will shake the world.” (From a Rosh Hashanah talk delivered in 2015 at his minyan and transcribed by one of his students).
I am one of those students of Rabbi Steinsaltz who has invested most of my life in working on those tasks he set forth for all us. One of the last questions I was able to ask Rabbi Steinsaltz, before he had his stroke and lost the ability to speak, was: How does one work hard while knowing that one may not see the fruits of their labor?
I asked the question because I was feeling that so much needed to be done but I was moving one inch at a time and it was exhausting me. Rabbi Steinsaltz said to me that when one is plowing a field, one should avoid looking up to see how much more there is to do. Keep your head down and continue working!
There is so much to do and, now that Rabbi Steinsaltz has passed away, the responsibility is daunting. That feeling of awesome responsibility is the primary emotion that is now being expressed by many of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s students. We were groomed for this moment ever since we all decided to become one of his students.
This sense of mission doesn’t negate the feelings of mourning and sadness for the loss of a person like Rabbi Steinsaltz. Those feelings exist, but they can’t affect the realization of the mission we are all tasked to accomplish.
I learned this lesson when I heard Rabbi Steinsaltz respond to a question, if he thought the Rebbe was the Moshiach. This was after the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a stroke but before he passed away. Rabbi Steinsaltz said, in a quiet and thoughtful voice, that if one has time to theorize about who is Moshiach, that shows that they aren’t busy enough working to bring him.
In a certain way, it may be considered selfish if we allow ourselves to wallow in grief that paralyzes our ability to realize Rabbi Steinsaltz’s vision. It definitely means that we’re not busy enough working on what he wanted us to work on. Too many people are thirsty to connect to their heritage, stuck in their own spiritual desert due to ignorance and cannot take ownership of their own Jewish journey, whether they are what we consider to be “observant” or not.
If I am finding the time to sit and mourn the loss of my rabbi, teacher and mentor, then that means that I am not busy enough working on the mission he entrusted me with.
So now that Rabbi Steinsaltz isn’t here with us in this world, we must go on and fill the void that he left. One of the ways of doing this is to join a new initiative that is starting up called Shalhevet. “Shalhevet” is a program for Torah study designed to answer Rabbi Steinsaltz’s call for deep Torah learning and desire to connect and know our heritage.
The program will offer one-on-one weekly study sessions of a subject of the participants’ choice with one of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s students. There will be an option to join a monthly class on the learning material of the month of your learning track with other pairs that are studying the same subject.
Rabbi Steinsaltz desired to empower all Jews on their personal Jewish journey through the process of gaining Jewish knowledge. Let us all start with the first step and shake the world together.
Please reach out to [email protected] for more information about the Shalhevet program.
Rabbi Shmuel Greene is the NCSY Director of Central and Southern New Jersey. As a passionate and devoted Jewish educator, constantly striving to empower Jews of all backgrounds to connect to and enjoy the richness of Jewish living, Rabbi Greene has served the Jewish community as Director of Education at Rutgers Hillel, Director of Teen Initiatives at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life at The Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation and Director of The Steinsaltz Ambassadors program.