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Michael Jackson and the Lubavitcher Rebbe

June 30, 2009 – 7:24 pm26 Comments

By Yoram Symons

Both Michael Jackson and the Lubavitcher Rebbe died on the 3rd of Tammuz.  This much is fact. The rest of this piece is entirely speculation.

The first I heard of Michael Jackson’s death was when a lapsed Lubavitcher called me.  In a daze, an almost hallucinogenic tone to his voice was asking me: what was the significance that Michael had died on the 3rd of Tammuz, the exact same date that the Rebbe had passed from the world. He had been shaken, almost to his core it seemed. For while he is indeed a lapsed Lubavitcher, the memories of childhood can never fade and the phenomenon that was the Rebbe’s final mortal days left an indelible mark upon his soul.

I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan. I liked his music but I would never have thought of myself as a genuine fan, a devotee. And the same goes for the Rebbe. Not having been raised Lubavitch, observing the hysterical euphoria of the movement in the early nineties had a sense of watching something unreal and distant. It was not something that I was a part of, merely a spectator to.

Yet the deaths of both Michael and the Rebbe shook me somehow. For the past few days I have been trying to make sense of this emotion. Watching Michael’s video clips and interviews via YouTube, listening to his songs played over on the radio and reading bits and pieces about his life, gleaned from the Wikipedia and the fan-sites and the overwhelming number of blogs. Yet through it all my question remained – why am I upset over the death of Michael Jackson?

Michael Jackson’s death was a tragedy. There he was, so incredibly and almost inhumanly talented, yet at the same time so obviously and inconsolably sad. After watching countless YouTube clips and listening to endless playbacks, I began to have the sense that every time Michael spoke, in that soft, almost feminine voice, he was staring out from behind a mask.

Michael spent his lifetime wearing a mask. At first the mask was the same as all performers wear – the outlandish and flamboyant costumes of his Jackson 5 days. But by the time he released Thriller he was wearing a new kind of mask, a mask that had been sculpted into his very skin. And this mask proved too addictive. It never hid him quite enough, so he had it changed and enhanced and altered until by the end of his life he had taken to wearing a veil – the ultimate, most unsubtle and most obvious mask of all.

The Rebbe also wore a mask. In his final days he would appear before his followers from a balcony. While the crowd sang itself into a frenzy of yechi’s they would see only a veil. Then at the crescendoing moment the veil would be lifted and behind it was the Rebbe. For a few brief moments the Chassidim would bask in the glory of their master and then almost as quickly the veil was drawn tight and the Rebbe disappeared.

Chassidus teaches us that we all wear masks. We all hide our true selves behind layers and layers of a constructed personality.  The human is unable to deal with other humans face to face. Only from the safety of our personas can we engage with the world. Chassidus teaches that it is not only the Michael Jacksons who wear masks. We all do. And for the same reason. To escape the glare.

There was something messianic in Michael Jackson’s tone. From when his decision to cease being merely a popstar and enter the realms of philanthropy and activism, there became an almost palpable sense that he believed, through the power of music, that he could heal the world. Perhaps when so many individuals use you as a canvas on which to project their hopes and dreams, you begin to absorb it and then radiate those hopes and dreams back into the world.

The Rebbe taught that in every generation there is a messiah. Perhaps this means that the messiah isn’t just a single person, but an energy that is present in the world at any given moment, that finds individuals and coalesces around them. Perhaps messiah is the word for our collective longing for something better, something transcendent.  But it is a longing that we are too ashamed to openly declare, so we stand back and allow others to absorb our longings and let them declare them for us.

Celebrities embody that longing. They become focal points for masses of emotional energy. Whether their celebrity is won through incomparable talent or simply succeeding in a prime time cooking game show, celebrity always functions in the same manner, differing only in degree. While on the stage, in the glare of spotlight, the celebrity openly declares their ambition and desire – their longing. While under the spotlight they take off their mask. We need celebrities and leaders and messiahs. We need to see someone to take off their mask, because we cannot take off our own.

The Lubavitchers of Melbourne publish a newsletter called The Lamplighter. The symbolism is that the one who lights the lamps on the street takes a single candle and from it can light many others. I am told that the Rebbe saw his mission on earth like that, helping others to light their own candles. The tragedy of the Rebbe and indeed of all leaders is that we get so absorbed in the light reflecting from them, we fail to realize that the source of their light is from the light that is within us.

This blog has spent considerable time discussing the idea of communal leadership. And while no one would equate communal leaders to the Michael Jacksons and the Lubavitcher Rebbes of the world, in some ways they serve a similar function. They put themselves out there to do what most people will not.  And while the debate around the selection processes of a leadership body is worthwhile, the underlying reality of leadership – that a few must act in the name of the many – will not change, no matter how selection takes place, from the most clandestine to the most democratic.

If there is anything to learn from the passing of Michael Jackson, it is when we put so much of our hopes and desires into another human being, we diminish our own potential and force them to bear a burden that is too great. When all the individuals of a polity are willing to assume full responsibility for that polity that is when leadership will begin to change.

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