In 1974, a new apparition began to make its appearance
in the streets of Manhattan. Even in that hubbub of crowd and clamor,
this strange vehicle attracted attention.
It was a standard van of the “U-Haul”
or “Ryder” variety. It’s back door was rolled
up, showing a cargo of one large wooden table, two wooden benches,
and a dozen young men with beards and black hats. From a loudspeaker
taped to its roof issued forth a medley of Chassidic songs played
on high volume—that is, high enough to make itself heard above
the din of a Manhattan street corner. Large posters taped to the
sides of the moving van proclaimed: “MITZVAH TANK”,
“Teffilin on board” and “Mitzvot On The Spot For
People On The Go.”
The Rebbe had sent his tanks into the battle for
the soul of the American Jew.
If a large part of American Jewry had ceased to
come to shul each morning to don tefilIin and pray, the Rebbe was
going to bring the tefillin to them. He was going to send one of
his students to stop the American Jew on a city sidewalk. “Excuse
me, sir,” the lad would say. “Are you Jewish?”
If the answer is affirmative, the young man would continue: “Would
you like to put on tefillin today? It’s a mitzvah.”
The American Jew will be invited to step up onto the truck, roll
up his left sleeve, bind the tefillin to his arm and head and recite
a short prayer.
If the American Jew is a she, she would be offered
a free kit containing a small tin candlestick, a candle, and a brochure
with all the information necessary to light Shabbat Candles that
Friday evening—the proper time (18 minutes before sunset),
the blessings in Hebrew and English, and a short message on the
importance of ushering Shabbat into her home. He or she would also
be offered literature on the Rebbe’s other “mitzvah
campaigns” or assistance in anything from having a mezuzah
checked to finding Jewish school for their child.
Eventually, the Ryder vans were replaced with mobile
homes equipped with shelves for books and comfortable seating for
a quick discussion or even an impromptu class. But the concept remained
the same: Go out there and get a Jew to do a mitzvah.
* * *
“Mitzvah” means “commandment”.
A mitzvah is one of the 613 divine instructions to the Jew contained
in the Torah. The word also means “connection”: a deed
that connects the human being who performs it with G-d, who commanded
Before the Rebbe’s “mitzvah campaign”,
the mitzvah was a private deed, performed by the “religious”
Jew at home or in the synagogue. So it was only natural that the
Rebbe’s approach raised many an eyebrow: “Tefillin on
a hippie?” “What’s the point of doing one mitzvah
on the way to lunch in a non-kosher restaurant?” Mitzvot were
seen as the details that made up a religious Jew’s lifestyle—pointless
when not part of the whole package.
The Rebbe saw things differently. As a connection
between man and G-d, as a bridge between Creator and creation, a
mitzvah is a deed of cosmic significance, a deed of infinite value
unto itself. Citing Maimonides, the Rebbe repeated time and again:
a single person performing a single mitzvah, could be the deed that
tips the scales and brings redemption to the entire world and all