This Friday, as I wait in line with tens of thousands of other people who have come to visit the Ohel, the Queens resting place of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—for his 24th yahrzeit, I’ll be thinking of Richard.
I first met Richard in the fall of 2003. I was a 17-year-old student at the Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in Toronto. He had once been a wildly successful hedge-fund manager in New York—“on top of the world,” he would say—when, in his mid-30s, he was stricken with multiple sclerosis. As his body began to deteriorate, he encouraged his wife to divorce him so that she could continue living her life. She did. When I made his acquaintance, Richard, by then in his mid-50s, lived with full-time help in the ritzy Yorkville neighborhood, confined to a midcentury chaise lounge chair in his glass condo.
Together with a friend, I’d visit Jewish businesses in downtown Toronto every Friday as part of the yeshiva’s student-outreach program, ending off the afternoon at Richard’s. He always expected us to share a few words of Torah, and then we’d assist him with putting on tefillin. He had every reason to be despondent and depressed, yet he wasn’t. He was the most positive, upbeat person of faith I’ve ever met. I remember unwrapping the leather straps from his thin arm, and saying “We want Moshiach …” before he’d conclude, with a smile, “Now would be good.”
On the surface of things, our weekly visits were about us helping Richard. But interacting with Richard had in reality changed us, deeply. We were the ones on a mission, but Richard, decades after having been rendered immobile by a horrible disease, had his own important role to play in this world, his own shlichut, which no one else could have fulfilled. He showed us and many others that no matter how rough things got, the spirit could always overcome.
One week, towards the end of the school year, we learned that Richard had passed away. The news came suddenly, leaving us without the chance to say goodbye, and I’ve thought about him a lot ever since. Richard had been a student of the Rebbe’s, via our conversations, but primarily through watching a weekly cable television show that aired the Rebbe’s teachings. The Rebbe taught that sometimes, all it takes to change the world is a positive outlook. For example, he never referred to the Israeli soldiers wounded in war by the common term nechey Tzahal, or the IDF’s disabled veterans. Instead, he called them metzuyanei Tzahal, the IDF’s best. Our words and our intention, he knew, shape our reality. This idea resonated with Richard: Rather than complain about his chronic pain or bemoan the profound injustice of being robbed of his entire life at such a young age, he cracked jokes, exuded kindness, and kept his spirit and his faith in G-d intact.
Richard taught me the meaning of courage, and by his very example illustrated the truth in the idea that everyone has a mission, which is what this weekend is all about for the Rebbe’s followers. To those who’ve never visited the final resting place of a tzaddik, a truly righteous man, standing by a gravesite and praying may seem strange. But visiting the late Rebbe is less about him and more about us: It’s about self-reflection, about standing there in the presence of the great teacher’s spirit and asking myself truly if I’ve done enough to change the world around me for the better. Did I hear, or better yet, anticipate, the cry of the widow or the orphan, and do what I could to alleviate their pain? What have been my accomplishments since I last came to the Ohel? It’s the question the Rebbe asked, in various forms, of the many who came to him. What more have you done for the Jewish people since I saw you last? What have you done for humanity? It’s a question I know Richard asked himself often.
It may sound like a question that’s impossible to answer, but it’s not. All of us have a task here on earth, even if we don’t fully understand it. The Rebbe saw earth-changing potential in each and every individual, a mission to be accomplished, each in their own way, and his yahrzeit is about recommitting to this individual and sacred mission. The Rebbe believed that the Torah that we study and the Torah that we teach, the mitzvot and the good that we bring into this world, will permanently change it. Meeting Richard crystallized this for me: By the very act of embarking upon this mission, we change not only the world, but ourselves, too. Our job is to seek out the Richards around us, identify the good that we can accomplish and get started towards that goal. The journey will do the rest.