A decade after their first meeting, the correspondence between
R. Yosef Yitzchak and R. Menachem Mendel reveals the extent to which their
relationship had developed. R. Yosef Yitzchak took great pride in his
son-in-law’s command of Torah literature and frequently wrote to him, asking
for critical feedback on his talks and writings. R. Menachem Mendel saw in his
father-in-law the living embodiment of the chassidic spirit, and was enormously
impressed by his psychological depth, strength of character and self-sacrifice.
One letter addressed by R. Yosef Yitzchak to R. Menachem Mendel
in 1933, elaborating on a teaching heard from his father, the Rebbe Rashab,
exemplifies the type of instruction that R. Menachem Mendel sought and obtained
My father explained to me the
difference between Torah learning in which the student studies the Torah, and
Torah learning in which the Torah teaches him... This explanation literally
opened my eyes; especially the lessons he drew from living examples - the
qualitative difference between people, all distinguished and all scholars… but
these study the Torah and these the Torah teaches.
There is a deep distinction between textual or theoretical
knowledge and the type of lived wisdom that utterly transforms and refines the
character of an individual.Their mutual desire to perpetuate this repository of lived wisdom... resulted in the development of a new literary genre. From his earliest youth, R. Yosef Yitzchak was
impressed by people who taught through stories told of the exemplary
individuals they had known, and who enlightened by their own example.
Throughout his life he carefully curated such stories and transcribed them,
along with his own memories of his father and chassidim of stature who exerted
a seminal influence on the development of his own character and outlook.
R. Yosef Yitzchak and R. Menachem Mendel’s mutual desire to
perpetuate this repository of lived wisdom, stories and experiences, resulted
in the development of a new literary genre. Previously transmitted orally, such
accounts would now be transcribed for publication.
This collaboration began in earnest in 1934. After settling in
Paris in the spring of 1933, R. Menachem Mendel and his wife remained there for
a year without interruption. As stateless refugees, it was difficult for them
to travel between countries. R. Yosef Yitzchak’s endeavors to make arrangements
to reunite the family finally bore fruit in the summer of 1934, when R.
Menachem Mendel traveled to meet him in Marienbad.
Over the next twelve months R. Menachem Mendel hardly left his
father-in-law’s side. The festival period of Tishrei was spent in Warsaw, where
R. Yosef Yitzchak had moved to live in the vicinity of the Yeshiva. On doctor's
orders to refrain from excessive talking and strenuous activity, R. Yosef
Yitzchak spent the winter in the company of his son-in-law at the Westend
Sanatorium in Purkersdorf, near Vienna. This was not the first time R. Menachem
Mendel was on hand to assist his father-in-law with his medical needs; on an
earlier occasion, R. Yosef Yitzchak expressed his gratitude in a letter to
Chaya Mushka, “Your husband… is attentive to everything I need… not simply as a
dedicated son-in-law, but like a good daughter.”
During this time R. Menachem Mendel made several long entries
in his personal journals, recording hundreds of stories and historical
vignettes related to him by R. Yosef Yitzchak. He also meticulously noted the
manner in which R. Yosef Yitzchak observed mitzvot and seasonal customs.“Your husband… is attentive to everything I need… not simply as a dedicated son-in-law, but like a good daughter.”
R. Yosef Yitzchak himself was a prolific writer, and this was one area where
the doctors did not restrict his activity. The letters he wrote over the course
of this winter are particularly expansive, rich with chassidic tales and
personal memories alongside explanations of their ethical implications.
R. Menachem Mendel explicitly cites some of these letters in his journals, and
the longest of them - covering more than 130 pages in print - was addressed by
R. Yosef Yitzchak to his daughter, R. Menachem Mendel’s wife, Chaya Mushka.
The previous summer, an idea for a journal devoted in part to
Chabad history, thought and ethos, and in part to general Talmudic and halachic
issues, was encouraged by R. Yosef Yitzchak.
But it seems that these intentions did not materialize until R. Menachem Mendel
became involved. In the spring of 1935 R. Yosef Yitzchak informed his daughter
of her husband’s activity, “through the work and dedication of your honored
husband, my precious and beloved son-in-law… an important journal will soon be
published, titled ‘Ha-tamim.’ On paper the editors will be others, but all the
work is his.”
“Ha-tamim” made Chabad teachings and traditions more accessible
to a wider audience. But its most lastingly significant feature showcased R.
Yosef Yitzchak’s own letters and memoirs. Uprooted from its native Russian
ground, and resettled in Poland, Chabad was in danger of losing its identity.
The oral histories transcribed and preserved in the pages of “Ha-tamim” served
to vividly illustrate and successfully preserve the spiritual and ethical
contours that make Chabad unique.
As Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel would cite many anecdotes
transmitted by R. Yosef Yitzchak as the basis for his own teachings. Even more
striking was R. Menachem Mendel’s application of analytical methodologies normally
reserved for Talmud study as a tool to further amplify and develop the ethical
and religious import of the living spirit of R. Yosef Yitzchak’s literary