Introduction

“All held their breath and bent their ears to that place from whence the clear voice emanated. First it was heard almost like a whisper. But bit by bit it gathered strength and shattered the quivering silence, filling the entire hall. The voice gathered passion, became enflamed. All who were present held back their thoughts and concentrated only on the words emanating from the mouth of the Rebbe.”

Tzvi Har-Shafar describing the scene when Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the fourth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, delivered a chassidic discourse.1

One hundred and forty years ago, marking the celebration of Passover in the year 1877, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn, the fourth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, delivered the first discourse of what would later become known as Hemshekh Vekakhah Ha-gadol. 2

Hemshekh means “series,” and in Chabad it refers to the distinctive genre of Chassidic teaching pioneered by R. Shmuel, who is generally referred to as the Rebbe Maharash. Rather than only delivering self-contained discourses, he began the practice of serializing them, intensely exploring a single theme over several weeks or months. “Vekakhah” (“And like so”) is the first word of a biblical verse describing how the Jews ate matzah on the eve of the exodus from Egypt.3 With this verse R. Shmuel began a hemshekh that would continue through the summer and well into the next winter. Hence the appellation “ha-gadol”—“the great.” Hemshekh Vekakhah Ha-gadol.

This hemshekh is a broad reexamination of the path that leads from the exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the ultimate redemption to be achieved in the messianic future. More specifically, however, it is a reexamination of the revelatory and redemptive character of the divine faculty of hokhmah, whose usual translation—“wisdom”—does not at all do justice to its true function and significance. Along the way, many other topics are explored—including the difference between Shabbat and the festivals, the Torah as an antidote to unholy folly, the distinction between being and existence, and various mitzvot associated with Passover and Sukkot. These topics are not discussed tangentially, but rather as part of the systematic construction of an innovative philosophy of Judaism. Diverse elements of religious experience and activity are all illuminated by a new perspective on the very purpose of creation, and by a new perspective on the method by which we achieve that purpose.