The late Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Brooklyn, May 1987 (Photo/Wikimedia CC BY 3.0)
The late Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Brooklyn, May 1987 (Wikimedia CC BY 3.0)

Remembering Rabbi Schneerson, who believed a single mitzvah could change the world

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Every year from April to September, cities across Northern California prepare for wildfire season. While there are many contributing factors to forest fires, several local governments recently banned fireworks ahead of July 4 to minimize the risk of residents accidentally sparking a mass fire. The logic is that one person lighting just one firework can inadvertently lead to a catastrophe. 

According to Jewish tradition, events all around us contain within them powerful life lessons. Measures like the ban on fireworks teach us that even one small action can have massive negative consequences. Hasidic philosophy takes this one step further and says that what is true for the negative must be even more true for the positive. Any life lesson with a negative message must contain greater truth in its positive iteration. In this instance, we learn that the power of one action, no matter how small, can have positive, world-changing impacts.

This is one of the core teachings of the Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, whose 30th yahrzeit will be marked on the third of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, which corresponds to Tuesday, July 9, this year. On Thursday, July 11, all of the Chabad Centers in the greater Sacramento area will jointly host a celebration concert featuring Shulem Lemmer honoring the Rebbe, as well as celebrating 30 years of Chabad in Sacramento. 

A little-known fact about the Rebbe is that he studied electrical engineering in university and worked as an engineer during WWII. Many times throughout the years, he would use scientific and mathematical concepts as metaphors to illustrate deeper lessons about life. One example was when South African rabbi and businessman David Lapin was struggling to manage his numerous responsibilities. 

The Rebbe’s response was to share an analogy about chemical and nuclear reactions. He said, “In a chemical reaction, there are two elements which interact with each other, and they result in a third compound. But people aren’t chemicals. When people interact, the result is a nuclear reaction. A nuclear reaction occurs at the core and then it radiates in a spherical, rather than a linear, way. As the outer rings of your sphere get bigger and bigger, the number of people you are touching gets bigger and bigger — indeed, there is no limit.

Each kind interaction we have has the power of a nuclear reaction to transform the reality we live in. 

“When you touch the heart of one person, there is a nuclear reaction because that person in turn touches so many other people. So, each person you touch — even if it is a moment’s interaction — represents a nuclear reaction in terms of impact. That’s what it really is.

“Don’t underestimate what each person is capable of doing. Just remember that when you touch one person you are causing a nuclear reaction.” 

Rabbi Lapin never forgot this lesson, which inspires him to this day. 

One of the Rebbe’s major initiatives was the Mitzvah Campaign, launched in 1967, which encouraged people to do just one mitzvah. The campaign called on people to spend just a moment or two to light Shabbat candles, to put on tefillin, study a verse of Torah or give a coin to charity. At the time, many were skeptical about the campaign, wondering what the point of doing one mitzvah was.

The Rebbe countered by quoting Maimonides, the renowned Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar, who taught that a person should always look at the world as equally balanced between good and evil. He wrote: “If one performs just one mitzvah, they can tip the balance of the entire world to the side of good.” The mitzvah campaign was a practical way to make this philosophy accessible to Jewish people everywhere.

These days, there are countless individuals of all backgrounds who have resolved to fulfill one mitzvah such as lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, giving tzedakah, baking challah or saying the Shema. Everyone has their own personal reason for doing so, whether it’s in memory of a loved one who has passed, on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Israel or as a way to feel connected to their heritage. 

Many young people today look at the world and feel like there’s very little hope. To them and anyone who is feeling down at the state of our world, I encourage them to adopt the Rebbe’s perspective that each mitzvah we do has the potential to tip the scale of the world to good. 

Each kind interaction we have has the power of a nuclear reaction to transform the reality we live in. If one small spark can start a devastating forest fire, then the power of one kind word, one good deed and one positive action can also change the world.

Rabbi Mendy Cohen
Rabbi Mendy Cohen

Rabbi Mendy Cohen leads Chabad of Sacramento, which he co-founded in 1994.