The train was packed. It was rush hour on a Thursday evening traveling back from work in Manhattan. Most people had in their ear phones, some had out books, and a few people stared blankly into space. As I sat there with the Hebrew text of Toras Menachem on my lap, I couldn’t help but smile. I was about to spend the next 15 minutes tapped into my greatest source of inspiration and growth.
Toras Menachem is the Hebrew translation of the talks and Chasidic discourses of the man many consider the greatest Jewish leader of recent time, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe). Looking back at my life, I would never have thought that the highlight of my day could be reading a text in a foreign language that most people have never heard of. My life had been filled with so many pursuits of happiness, from sky diving to self-development seminars to backpacking around Africa. And yet all the while, I never really felt complete and consistently inspired.
I never expected this clarity and inspiration to come from something Jewish. I had always been connected to Judaism, going to services every week, attending Jewish camps, going to afterschool programs. Many of my finest memories were in Tucson working at the Jewish Community Center or the Jewish Community Foundation, leading programs for USY, attending Hebrew High. Nonetheless, Judaism was a family tradition for me, a place where I found my community but it wasn’t really where my inspiration and direction in life came from.
That all changed a few years after college. Through the Chabad house at Arizona State University, I saw the beauty of life as a religious Jew. I saw the loving atmosphere that followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe were able to create, where anyone felt welcome. I started to do more mitzvot, little by little. I reached the point where I was looking to get married and I wanted to start a Jewish family that followed all the Jewish laws, would raise children that would be inspired by their Jewish practice and would be a home of joy and delight in Judaism. I had no idea how to do that. I knew I needed to learn more about Judaism so I went to yeshiva in Jerusalem for two years.
While I was there, I first encountered the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although I was reading his talks that were delivered 40-60 years earlier, they all seemed to speak directly to me. Somehow, all the questions that were bothering me, all the guidance that I needed, was always found in the Torah portion of that week.
When I first started four years ago, I didn’t know how to translate Hebrew. I sat with a dictionary, going through the Hebrew translation word for word and took 15 minutes just to understand the slightest idea of what was said in one paragraph. But I kept working at it, just 15 minutes a day, every day. Little by little it got easier as I was able to do two paragraphs in 15 minutes, then three paragraphs, then a page, then two pages.
All the while, I felt like I was being guided by someone who understood all the things about myself I didn’t understand and was speaking to me in a language that was exactly on my level. Although I never had the chance to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I felt his presence through my learning. Despite all the changes I went through, I always felt cared for and directed.
To this day, my 15 minutes of learning Toras Menachem, now 2,000 pages into the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teaching, is the highlight of my day. We all have 15 minutes that we can spare from browsing on Facebook, watching TV, or reading the news. That time can instead be used to learn something holy. And when we make that choice, it unlocks a whole new world of what happiness, clarity, and joy can mean.
To learn more about the Rebbe and his teachings, go to therebbe.org.
Binyamin Wood-Isenberg grew up in Philadelphia and moved to Tucson in high school, attending Catalina Foothills High School and then Arizona State University in Tempe. He now lives in Philadelphia with his wife and 13-month-old baby.