The Changing World
I began my writing career the year Ronald Reagan
was first elected President.
The year was 1980. Before fax machines, internet, e-mails, palm pilots, cell
phones and many of the other amenities that have since changed our daily lives.
That year I became the chief writer and publisher of the Rebbe’s talks. It
was difficult but rewarding work. Particularly on Shabbat and holidays, when
notes and recordings are prohibited, our small team had to absorb hours –
often five or more hours – of dense dissertations delivered by the Rebbe.
We then had to recreate, research, annotate and document these teachings for
The grueling work, the pressure, the intensity required to reproduce profound
ideas from memory is impossible to describe. But as challenging as it was,
the reward was equally exhilarating. My work during those years literally
transformed me as a human being, and defined my life until this day.
Try remembering hours of deep conversation on diverse topics – from philosophy
to law, from Biblical interpretation to psychological application, from the
nuances of mysticism to the intricacies of Talmud. Add to the equation a human
and historical dimension. This and more is what we had to capture on paper
on a weekly basis.
One of the critical things I learned, quite unexpectedly, during the years
of my work was the intimate relationship between Torah thought and world events;
the absolute necessity to integrate spiritual and secular developments.
In the evening prayer we say that Torah is “our life and sustenance.” It
is therefore inconceivable to divorce spiritual life from our daily experiences,
both on a personal and global level.
So, during my work in those years, as immersed as our staff would be in the
inner workings of Torah scholarship, I always kept my eyes open at national
and global events of the time.
In retrospect the 80’s were pioneering years.
Information technology – the processing and distribution of information –
was literally revolutionized. I can personally attest to the far-reaching
implications of the transition from the typewriter to the word processor.
No longer would we need to retype text. Once typed, all you needed to do was
edit the same file. This literally cut out two days of work in producing our
With the advent of the fax machine and then broadcast fax, immediate distribution
of material became possible.
Then, of course, in the 90’s, the Internet and the worldwide web made distribution
literally seamless. – Some of you may be surprised to know that preceding
the web we were using, for a short time, a thing called a BBS (bulletin board
system), where data was posted and could be retrieved via telephone line.
But beyond technology there was perhaps an even more important revolution
in the making: The bloodless fall of Communism. This fall, which finally happened
in 1990, would bring freedom to hundreds of millions of people in Eastern
Europe, Russia and all the former Soviet satellites.
While all this was incubating, I was preparing for publication week after
week, visionary teachings that were addressing, amongst many things, the very
issues that were evolving and emerging in the world around us. A true visionary,
the Rebbe had that keen perspective that recognizes the underlying historical
patterns and spiritual trends of local, national and global events.
At the time, the work was so consuming, I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude
of this wisdom nor recognize its relevance to current events. Like it is with
all things close up, you can’t appreciate them until you step back and look
at them from a bird’s eye view.
Now, in retrospect, and with a few more maturing years and experience under
my belt, I marvel at the foresight of those teachings. Today, they resonate
more than ever.
Among the major themes we explored back then in the Reagan years were issues
like America’s role, the meaning of prosperity, the significance of technology
– and how all these contemporary forces need to be harnessed to serve a spiritual
objective. Another major issue was of course the role of Israel and the Jewish
people in this increasingly emancipated world.
I’ll never forget one of the talks we were working on in 1980. It addressed
the issue of America’s role in the world today. Clearly recognizing the acceleration
of American prosperity, the Rebbe discussed the necessity for America to reaffirm
– and reclaim – its essential roots. Those roots being the belief in the fundamental
principles of freedom: that all people are created equal, and by their Divine
virtue have inalienable rights.
American currency – the symbol of all things material – carries this message
etched in the very fabric of our coins and bills: In God We Trust, E Pluribus
Unum (from many, one).
The only preemptive antidote to the inevitable indulgence and greed resulting
from prosperity and material comforts is to passionately embrace the principles
of accountability to a Higher authority, and to commit with total dedication
to our higher calling and mission in life. This is the only measure that has
the power to counteract the seductive appeal of material success, which left
on its own can feed narcissism and lead to corruption and self-destruction.
And then of course, mention must be made of the many talks in the 80’s regarding
the state of Soviet Jewry – millions of people who suffered most severely
under some seven decades of Soviet oppression. There was barely a farbrengen
(gathering) that did not make mention of the plight of Soviet Jewry. As the
80’s wore on, the Rebbe specifically stated that Communism would crumble,
and the Jews would finally be freed.
As the nation and the world now look back at the Reagan presidency, and people
pour out their hearts in mourning, many are wondering what exactly was it
about President Reagan that enamors so many.
Based on the teachings that I was working on in the Reagan years, allow me
to submit several major points that stand out from those days:
President Reagan’s steadfast commitment to his principles – to the principles
upon which this country was founded. Reagan was an authentic man of faith.
He may not have been committed to formal religion, but he believed in G-d
and was not ashamed to state his belief.
He was a man of vision, of dreams. And he never compromised them. Not a small
achievement for a man of age – to not give up on the idealism of his youth.
How many people do you know like that?
Even those that passionately disagreed with his politics admired his personality.
Time and again you hear that he was simply a mentsch.
Reagan was a major cause responsible for the fall of Communism and the end
of the Cold War. I know that debates rage whether this is true. But let’s
face it. We always give credit to the President or leader in place for events
(both successes and failures) that occur under his tenure. Obviously there
are many factors that contribute to any major event, but one important factor
has to include the leader of the time. You can always say that the successes
during World War II would have happened under any President, even if it weren’t
FDR. Yet, historically we always credit the leader in each respective time.
The fact is that Reagan stood strong for his principles, did not cower, and
Communism did fall, without a shot being fired.
Finally, we hear about Reagan’s ability to inspire people. His communication
skills were formidable. “The great communicator” he was called. His wit, humor
and just plain decency came through and touched people. He gave people hope.
He made you feel confident. As one mourner said: “He made me feel proud to
be an American.”
Some have written that a great leader is not necessarily one who does great
things, but one who inspires other to do great things.
Even historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who is not a Reagan fan, writes that
President Reagan had “the vision thing in abundance.” He quotes a foreign
visitor as commenting: “Maybe he didn't know how to run a government, but
he knew how to lead a people.”
Quite a compliment. If Reagan had no other quality than his ability to lead
and infuse people with confidence this alone would make him one of the greatest
leaders in history.
Frankly, I don’t fully understand the antagonism of some of those that disagree
with Reaganomics or other of his policies. Even if you disapprove of his policies,
and even if you’re right, isn’t it possible that he was a good man, with homey
values, with conviction and beliefs that changed the world in which we live?
My objective is not to defend or represent the late president. Rather it
is to glean lessons from current events that we can apply to our lives today.
Based on the principle of Hashgacha Protis (Divine Providence), much can be
learned from the popularity of Ronald Reagan – lessons that I personally was
blessed to be privy to as my appreciation grows, in retrospect, for the teachings
that we wrote and published back in the Reagan years.
If it can be summed up in a few words, the underlying message we were developing
in the Reagan era included the following points:
- The power of the human spirit: Everything is possible if you set your
mind to it.
- The critical need to counter the material tentacles of prosperity with
a deep sense of spiritual vision and purpose.
- The need for America to live up to its founding principles. Namely, in
G-d we Trust, and G-d endowed all human beings with inherent rights and
- These are not American, but Divine principles. Principles given to all
nations of the world. We must do everything possible to encourage – with
compassion and resolve – that all nations embrace the Divine principles.
- To prepare ourselves and the world, including the former Soviet Union,
to live up to our Divine responsibility by committing to the universal Divine
laws of civilization.
Of all the lessons for our times perhaps the most powerful one is the relentless
confidence that we can overcome our challenges, and never waiver in our conviction
to transform the often heartless material world into a spiritual habitat.
This message calls out to us from this week’s Torah portion. Moses sends
scouts to check out the Promised Land. They return with a terrible report:
We cannot enter the Land of Israel, for it is a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”
On that tragic day (Tisha B’Av) they incited the Jewish nation to reject the
land promised to them and their ancestors by G-d.
Their grave sin stemmed, ironically, from their deep piety and spirituality.
They could not fathom how they would be able overcome the challenges of material
existence. And they were unwilling to risk it. Instead they preferred to live
in the spiritual oasis in the Sinai wilderness, protected by the Divine clouds,
provided for by G-d with all their needs.
What then was their transgression? They challenged the very essence of the
purpose of existence: The need to enter a hostile material world and transform
it into a sacred place. We humans have no right to question whether this is
possible; our job is to figure our how to fulfill this mission,
never to wonder whether it was possible. The scouts were charged
with exploring methods how to conquer the land. They in turn challenged the
entire premise of possibility. That is tantamount to challenging G-d Himself,
saying that G-d cannot empower us with the ability to face a powerful material
world. G-d said “I give you life and tell you that you can overcome any challenge,”
but the scouts defied that by declaring “No, we cannot overcome a land that
consumes it’s inhabitants”!
The lesson is clear: One of the great possible curses in life is self-doubt.
Fear and insecurity affect every one of our choices. It demoralizes you with
a sense of resignation and fatalism.
The scouts (with all their good intentions) opened up the accursed door of
self doubt. Therein lies their grave sin.
We must do everything to learn from their mistake, and never allow ourselves
to succumb to fear and unsurety whether we can accomplish our mission in life.
Conversely, perhaps the greatest gift one can give another is: HOPE. Belief
in yourself and in your ability to overcome any challenge.
Once you feel empowered everything else follows.
Ask yourself: do the people around me bolster my self-confidence or feed
my insecurities? Do they make me feel strong or weak; empowered or disempowered?
While you are already asking the question, you might as well also consider
whether you are a person who give others hope?
It’s a mirror image: Confidence breeds confidence; security feeds security.
You usually make others feel as you are; you project what you are and you
are what you project. Confident and secure people make others feel the same.
Insecure people make others feel insecure.
Find people that give you hope. People that feed your confidence.
The fall of the powerful Soviet Union is one contemporary example of what
resolve can accomplish.
Everything is possible. Everything.
So where does this power of confidence come from? Read next week’s article.