Translator’s note: The following are excerpts from diary entries and transcribed talks in which the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950), describes the education he received from his father, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (1860–1920).
When I was four years old, I asked my father: “Why did G‑d make people with two eyes? Why not with one eye, just as they have one nose and one mouth?”
“Do you know the alef-bet?” asked Father.
“Then you know that there are two very similar Hebrew letters, the shin and the sin. Can you tell the difference between them?”
“The shin has a dot on its right side; the sin, on its left,” I replied.
Said Father: “There are things which one must look upon with a right eye, with affection and empathy, and there are things to be regarded with a left eye, with indifference and detachment. On a siddur (prayerbook) or on a Jew, one should look with a right eye; on a candy or toy, one should look with a left eye.”
In the year 5644 [1884; Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak would have been 3 or 4 years old at the time] our living quarters consisted of two rooms. One room was the bedroom. In the other room, my father would sit and study with his study partner, the chassid Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai Bezpalov. In that room also stood my small bed.
In those years, I was a beautiful child with a shining face. One night, Yaakov Mordechai looked at me in my sleep and remarked to my father that the features and radiance of my face bespoke an inner purity of mind.
My father was roused with a desire to kiss me. But at that moment there arose in his mind the thought that in the Holy Temple, in addition to the korbanot, they would also bring gold, silver, etc., for the upkeep of the Temple. He decided to transform the kiss into a maamar (discourse of chassidic teaching). He then wrote the maamar titled Mah Rabbu Maasecha.
In 5652  my father gave me the manuscript as a gift and said, “This is a chassidic kiss; in time I will explain.” In 5656  he told me the whole story.
. . . I then remembered how, as a small child, still studying with the late Reb Yekutiel the melamed, I would run to the synagogue to listen to Father pray, and how heavy my heart was: Why doesn’t Father pray briskly, as the entire congregation does, as my uncles do? I once asked why this is so, and my uncle Rabbi Zalman Aharon told me that Father cannot pronounce the Hebrew words easily. I agonized greatly over this.
Once I came to the synagogue. Not a soul is to be found; only Father is standing, his face to the wall, praying. He is entreating G‑d; he is pleading for mercy. But I do not understand: Why is he entreating more than all the other worshippers? Why does he need G‑d’s mercy more than other people?
Suddenly, Father began to sob. My heart sank within me: Father is crying! Not a soul in the house of G‑d, and Father is crying. I bent an ear and I heard him say, Shema yisroel . . . , and he sobs, Hashem Elokeinu . . . , and he sobs. He then falls silent. And then again, in a powerful voice emerging from the depths of his heart, Hashem echod! in a flood of tears and a terrifying voice.
This time I could no longer contain myself. I went to my mother (may she live long) and wept: “Why does Father pray longer than all the worshippers? My uncle Raza says that Father has difficulty pronouncing the words. Why cannot Father recite Hebrew at a proper speed? And today I saw that Father is crying—come with me, Mother, I will show you that Father is crying . . . !”
“What can I do?” responded my mother. “Can I have him sent to cheder? Go to your grandmother and ask her; perhaps she can do something about this.”
I rushed to take the advice of my mother and went to my late grandmother, the saintly Rebbetzin, and posed to her my innocent question. My grandmother said to me: “Your father is a great chassid and tzaddik. With each and every word he utters, he first thinks of the meaning of the word that he is saying.”
I remember how at that moment she calmed me, and how from then on my attitude towards my father changed; for I then knew that Father is apart from and above other men. With his every move, I saw that Father is Father. Father awakens in the morning and dons the tefillin and reads the Shema. Then, he goes to serve his mother tea. (I also wish to do so, but they prevent me, saying that I will be hurt by the boiling water.)
Father washes his hands before meals not like other people. Other people pour water over their hands only twice, but Father takes the pitcher with his right hand, then hands it over to his left hand, and pours three times in succession over his right hand; then he takes another pitcher of water and, using the towel to hold it in his right hand, pours three times over his left.
Every day, before the afternoon minchah prayers, Father again goes to serve a cup of tea to his mother, and sits there for about an hour. Everyone speaks, speaks with gusto, but Father is mostly silent. Sometimes he speaks, speaking softly.
When I was a small child, just beginning to speak, my father said to me: “Every question you have, you should ask me.”
When I was taught to recite the Modeh Ani, I was instructed to place one hand against the other and bow my head, and say Modeh Ani in this position.
When I grew a bit older, I asked my father: “Why, when we say Modeh Ani, must we place one hand against the other and bow our head?”
Father replied: “In truth, you should not be asking ‘why.’ But I did tell you to ask me all your questions.” He then sent for the servant Reb Yosef Mordechai, a Jew of eighty years, and asked him: “How do you recite Modeh Ani in the morning?”
“I place one hand against the other and bow my head,” answered Reb Yosef Mordechai.
“Why do you do so?” asked my father.
“I don’t know. When I was a small child, that’s what I was taught.”
“You see,” said Father to me. “He does it so because his father taught him so. And so on back until Moses our Teacher, and until Abraham our Father, who was the first Jew. One should do without asking ‘why.’”
“I’m just a little boy,” I said in my defense.
“We’re all ‘little,’” Father replied. “And when we get older, we first begin to understand that we’re little.”
Once, when I was about six years old, my father called me to his room and told me to make the blessing on the tzitzit. I replied that I had already made the blessing earlier in the day. “Nevertheless,” said father, “say the blessing now.” I refused.
Father slapped me lightly—this was the only slap I ever received from him—and said: “When I tell you to do something, you must obey.” Tearfully, I burst out: “If one must recite the blessing for G‑d, then I have already done so; and if one must recite the blessing because of your command . . . well . . .”
Father replied: “One must recite the blessing for G‑d. But every father has been entrusted with the task to educate his children, and he must be obeyed.”
On Rosh Hashanah of 5648 , when I was a child of seven and several months, I visited my grandmother and she treated me to a melon. I went out to the yard and sat with my friends on a bench directly opposite my father’s window, and shared the melon with my friends.
My father called me in and said to me: “I noticed that though you shared the melon with your friends, you did not do so with a whole heart.” He then explained to me at length the concept of a “generous eye” and “malevolent eye.”
I was so deeply affected by my father’s words that I was unable to recover for half an hour. I wept bitterly, and brought up what I had eaten of the melon.
“What do you want from the boy?” asked my mother. “He’s only a child!”
Father replied: “It is good this way. Now this trait will be ingrained in his character.”
This is education.
For Passover of 5650 —I was several months short of my tenth birthday at the time—a new suit of clothes was made up for me, together with a brand-new pair of shoes.
In my hometown of Lubavitch, the preparations for the festival were conducted in a meticulous and thorough manner. On the day before Passover, a strict procedure was followed: first, all chametz (leaven) was searched out and eradicated from the yard, chicken coop and stable. The caretaker, Reb Mendel, was busy with this for a good part of the night before, and followed up with a double-check in the morning. Then the chametz was burned, following which we would go immerse ourselves in the mikvah, dress for the festival, and bake the matzat mitzvah for the Seder. Finally, there were always the last-minute preparations to be taken care of.
Among these final odds and ends was a job entrusted to me: to remove the seals from the wine bottles and to partially pull out the corks. The latter was a most challenging task, for one had to take care that the metal of the corkscrew should not come in contact with the wine.
That year, I was busy at my appointed task in my father’s room. I went about my work with great caution, careful not to dirty my new suit and, most importantly, not to dull the shine on my new shoes.
My father noticed what was uppermost in my mind, and said to me: “The Alter Rebbe [Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi] cites the following metaphor: A great nobleman sits at a table laden with all sorts of gourmet dishes and delicacies. Under the table lies a dog, gnawing a bone. Can you imagine the nobleman climbing down from his chair and joining the dog under the table to chew on a luscious bone?”
My father’s words so affected me that I was ashamed to even look at my new clothes.
This is education.
It was the summer of 5656 , and father and I were strolling in the fields of Balivka, a hamlet near Lubavitch. The grain was near to ripening, and the wheat and grass swayed gently in the breeze.
Said father to me: “See G‑dliness! Every movement of each stalk and grass was included in G‑d’s Primordial Thought of Creation, in G‑d’s all-embracing vision of history, and is guided by divine providence toward a G‑dly purpose.”
Walking, we entered the forest. Engrossed in what I had heard, excited by the softness and seriousness of Father’s words, I absentmindedly tore a leaf off a passing tree. Holding it a while in my hands, I continued my thoughtful walking, occasionally tearing small pieces of leaf and casting them to the winds.
“The Holy Ari,” said Father to me, “says that not only is every leaf on a tree a creation invested with divine life, created for a specific purpose within G‑d’s intent in creation, but also that within each and every leaf there is a spark of a soul that has descended to earth to find its correction and fulfillment.
“The Talmud,” Father continued, “rules that ‘A man is always responsible for his actions, whether awake or asleep.’ The difference between wakefulness and sleep is in the inner faculties of man, his intellect and emotions. The external faculties function equally well in sleep; only the inner faculties are confused. So, dreams present us with contradictory truths. A waking man sees the real world; a sleeping man does not. This is the deeper significance of wakefulness and sleep: when one is awake, one sees divinity; when asleep, one does not.
“Nevertheless, our sages maintain that man is always responsible for his actions, whether awake or asleep. Only this moment we have spoken of divine providence, and unthinkingly you tore off a leaf, played with it in your hands, twisting, squashing and tearing it to pieces, throwing it in all directions.
“How can one be so callous towards a creation of G‑d? This leaf was created by the Almighty towards a specific purpose, and is imbued with a divine life-force. It has a body, and it has its life. In what way is the ‘I’ of this leaf inferior to yours?”