During the winter of 5542 [1781-82], the Alter Rebbe conferred with his brothers, Reb Yehudah Leib and Reb Mordechai, about holding a debate with the misnagdim. He then began a campaign to gain support for this idea, as we shall describe later. At the end of Sivan of that year, he made another trip to Vohlynia for a meeting of the Holy Society scheduled for the middle of Tammuz. This time, the Alter Rebbe remained in Vohlynia for only two weeks, after which he quickly returned home.
At this assembly, the Alter Rebbe expressed his thoughts about the present situation regarding the misnagdim. He offered the opinion that the Holy Society could engage them in a debate. He was confident that with G‑d’s kindness (and in the merits of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid) the chassidim would emerge victorious. He also announced that he would publish a public letter on the subject.
Those members of the Holy Society who had supported the Alter Rebbe’s ideas for some time, were overjoyed when they heard his speech about disseminating the study of Chassidus among the young scholars. However, they did not concur on every detail of his report about guiding the young folk and revealing to them such a powerful light. (They also received the good news that the study of Chassidus had spread among young scholars of Turkish Mohilev, Yasi, and Koloresti.)
On the other hand, those members of the Holy Society who had always opposed him, now demanded that [the chassidim reciprocate, and] issue a cheirem against the misnagdim. But the majority opposed this, for the chief leaders and mentors of the misnagdim were in Lita. Therefore, they all agreed to defer to the Alter Rebbe’s suggestion of challenging the misnagdim to a debate, especially since he had already taken steps in that direction.
At that same meeting, they also discussed the funds raised for the support of the Rebbeim in the Holy Land. It was now agreed that funds raised in the territory of Vohlynia would be sent separately. During that year, the Alter Rebbe’s five year term as General Coordinator was due to expire. He refused to accept another appointment to this post, despite the entreaties of his colleagues, especially Reb Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl.
While returning home from this meeting, he traveled by way of Minsk. He stopped off there to make the arrangements for the debate with the misnagdim, according to the plan he had arranged with his brother the previous winter. The plan was as follows:
The two centers in Szventzian and Smilovitch were to designate seven or eight young scholars by name. Their task would be to circulate in the counties of Vilna, Kovna, and Minsk [disguised as misnagdim]. There they were to start a movement among the misnagdim to challenge the “cult” to a debate. They were to demand that the chassidim also answer Torah questions the misnagdim would put to them, basing their replies on convincing evidence from the Talmud and Poskim.
The center in Dubravna was to designate several scholars by name, to circulate in the counties of Shklov and Mohilev (in White Russia) to start the same movement. For Shabbos Nachamu, three young scholars to be designated by name were to come to Minsk in secret, and await the Alter Rebbe’s arrival during his return trip from Vohlynia.
The above plan was carried out to the letter. The instructions were sent to the centers, and they designated the people who were to travel about and start the movements. They made a list of all the places they were to visit, and then departed.
These agents spent a month or two wandering around in their assigned territories. Upon arriving at a given location, they would pretend to be itinerant preachers. They then proceeded to deliver a lecture from the public platform, on the subjects of mussar and fear of Heaven, including a few novel insights on the Torah.
As if incidentally, they would interject a few remarks about the cult that was rapidly spreading its wings, saying that the only remedy for this was to challenge the cult’s leaders to a debate. There, the chassidim would have to defend their ways based upon reference to the Talmud and Poskim. They suggested that the local community should correspond with the communities of Vilna and Shklov, so that they too would challenge the cult’s leaders to a debate.
Rumors began to circulate that letters were being sent from several quarters to Vilna and Shklov, requesting that the heads of the cult be challenged to a debate, at a location to be designated by the leaders of the Vilna and Shklov communities. From the secret chassidic centers in Vilna and Shklov, the news arrived that the local misnagdim were in a state of confusion. Many communities had sent them letters requesting that they challenge the chassidim to a debate. Several meetings had been held on this subject, but they had not arrived at any decision to date.
After Pesach, a message arrived from the secret chassidic center in Vilna, stating that [the misnagdim of] Shklov were opposed to holding a debate with the cult. On the other hand, [the misnagdim of] Vilna favored holding the debate. The Gaon Rav Eliyahu of Vilna had ruled that for their part, the misnagdim should not challenge the cult to a debate. However, if the cult issued the challenge, then the Torah required the misnagdim to accept the challenge.
Some misnagdim suggested that the questions should be posed in writing, and that the chassidim should be required to give their reply in writing. Thus, everyone would become aware of the wicked deeds [of the chassidim]. In writing, they could include all slanderous material that they had against the chassidim, without having to investigate whether it was true or false. And the chassidim would certainly not know how to respond, for [it was assumed that] they had no knowledge of Gemara.
This suggestion was forwarded to Shklov. But after a meeting at which this was discussed in all seriousness, the suggestion was turned down, for two reasons:
i.They could not write anything that they did not know to be true with certainty. And as a matter of fact, they knew that much of the material was false. They lived closer to the chassidic communities, and they were aware that some of the charges were totally false. Other charges contained only a drop of truth, mingled with a large amount of exaggeration.
ii.Many of the chassidim were outstanding Torah scholars, thoroughly versed in the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi.
During the month of Iyar, the Alter Rebbe authorized his brother, Reb Yehudah Leib, to publish the following statement among Anash:
The Alter Rebbe was greatly concerned about the difficult circumstances in which Anash found themselves, because of the severe persecution they were suffering. He had no doubt that it was all due to slanderous lies told about the chassidim to the princes of the Torah.
Therefore, he had decided to send a written message to all the communities, informing them that he would arrive in Minsk for Shabbos Nachamu, and remain there two or three weeks. Anyone who had any question or misunderstanding about the chassidim and their leaders, should approach him. He was prepared to answer all inquiries, based upon proofs from the Talmud and Poskim.
This bulletin was immediately sent to all the centers, and from there it was disseminated to all settlements and communities. Within a few weeks, it became universal knowledge. The secret centers in Vilna and Shklov sent the information that the leaders of the quarrel were confounded by the announcement of the debate. However, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu had ruled that they must send well-learned representatives [to the debate]. He had also ordered them to inform the community of Shklov in his name that they must also take part in the debate.
Many people, from various outlying places, came [to Liozna] for Shavuos. Without exception, they all brought reports about the great persecution Anash were suffering at the hands of the misnagdim, and financial losses they were causing them.
The officers of the charity funds for the Holy Land also complained. Because of the poor economic situation, the sums they had collected were far less than in the previous year. This caused the Alter Rebbe great distress, and as a temporary measure, he borrowed money from several individuals to cover the shortfall. These funds were then sent to the Holy Land by messenger.
After dispatching the messengers to the Holy Land with the collected funds, he departed for Vohlynia to attend the meeting, as described above. As mentioned, he made his return trip by way of Minsk. Upon arriving in Minsk, he discovered that many visitors had come from among the misnagdim, to attend the debate.
He also received a summons from the community office, summoning him to a hearing. But the Alter Rebbe refused to come to the community office, stating that he would instead come to a place where many people could be present during the debate.
By order of the court, the debate was to be held in one of the shuls. The Alter Rebbe then filed an appeal with the court: it was impractical to hold a debate with such a large group, consisting of hundreds of people. Therefore, he suggested that only those who could properly answer questions he would put to them on some Torah topic would be permitted to take part in the debate.
The court replied that they would consider the matter. They convened a secret meeting, and after a lengthy discussion they decided that the Alter Rebbe must first answer questions that they would put to him. Afterwards, he could ask them his Torah questions.
Meanwhile several hundred of the Alter Rebbe’s followers arrived in Minsk. They came both from far-away places and from the nearby centers. The Alter Rebbe delivered a Torah lecture before them in the shul. Since the shul was open to the public, many misnagdim also came to hear him speak. Some of them were hoping that he might say something that they could use against him.
His Torah lecture made a great impression on all the listeners. The misnagdim were completely lost, and unable to follow it. The rumor then spread in the city that the head of the cult was speaking teachings of the Holy Seraphim, which had kindled everyone’s heart. The story spread from mouth to mouth, each person adding something of his own to it.
Eventually, the story took on the following form: While the rav of the cult was speaking, the most high Seraphim could be seen. Some people had even been consumed by a Heavenly fire. It was now popularly believed that the rav of the chassidim was a Master of the Name, and that the Holy Seraphim were his servants.
However, the Torah scholars had a different view of the event they were extremely impressed when they heard his Torah lecture. At the same time, the reply arrived: after Shabbos, a select group of scholars would be chosen to examine the Alter Rebbe on various Torah topics.
Minsk did not yet have its own minyan of Anash. Since the Alter Rebbe had already instituted his text for the prayer service, the communal officers decided to provide a place where he and his guests could daven as they wished.
The local custom in Minsk was to daven at sunrise. Therefore, by the time the Alter Rebbe’s minyan began to daven at nine o’clock, all the other worshipers had already finished the Shabbos meal. Thus, a large crowd gathered to listen to the melodious prayers of the Alter Rebbe and his chassidim.
The Alter Rebbe himself led the prayers and read from the Torah. The listeners marveled greatly at the great care he took with the pronunciation, and in chanting the musical notes. The Alter Rebbe himself usually served as the baal korei, paying scrupulous attention to the grammatical nuances of the notes. It is told that though he used the Ashkenazic pronunciation, and not the Sephardic, he nevertheless distinguished between the letters ayin and aleph, and between the chess and chaff, as many Sephardim do.
While reading from the Torah, he would stand on the right side, with the tallis covering his face only his holy beard was visible. The person who had the aliyah would stand to his left. It is said that occasionally he would raise his tallis and gaze at the person having the aliyah. It once happened that this person fainted from fright. However, the chassidim related that anyone who had the privilege of an aliyah while the Alter Rebbe read from the Torah, had the privilege of witnessing a great light.
The Alter Rebbe’s minyan recited the prayers word by word. The weekday prayer lasted an hour and a half, sometimes even an hour and three quarters. The Shabbos prayers lasted twice as long or more, not counting the time it took to read from the Torah.
The great decorum, the discipline of the chassidim, and the general atmosphere of Torah and avodah all made a great impression on the multitudes who had gathered to see what was happening in the shul where the Alter Rebbe davened.
This was a long summer day, and the news spread throughout the city. Thus, it was not surprising that when the time for the third meal arrived, so many people had come that the beis hamedrash could not contain them all. Even before the Alter Rebbe arrived, they decided to move the podium outside, so that the entire congregation could hear the Rebbe’s address.
Some of the assembled people opposed moving the podium, declaring that it was forbidden. [Various theories were proposed concerning the basis for this alleged prohibition]: some said it involved the prohibition of muktza; others said that the prohibition of carrying was involved; still others maintained that a forbidden act of construction was involved. But all their voices were drowned out by the large crowd. Before they finished stating their arguments, the podium was already outside.
The Previous Rebbe related:
I heard from the chassid Reb Abba Czasznyker that his father had seen the Alter Rebbe several times, and had later become a follower of the Mitteler Rebbe. His father-in-law, however, had become a follower of Reb Aharon of Strashelle.
At the age of twelve, Reb Abba was engaged to be married. At his bar mitzvah, the prospective father-in-law took him to Strashelle. Since the father-in-law enjoyed great favor there, Reb Abba was also favored. He told a very interesting story about his first visit together with his prospective father-in-law to the saintly Reb Aharon.
Reb Aharon’s manner of speech was like flaming fire. Whenever he mentioned the Alter Rebbe’s name, he would stand up and cease speaking for a while, in great deveikus. Reb Abba did not remember the teaching he had heard from Reb Aharon, nor had he understood it properly at the time. But he had observed and listened. As he described it, “fear of Heaven implanted itself in my heart.”
When Reb Abba entered Reb Aharon’s chamber for yechidus with his prospective father-in-law, Reb Aharon related to them:
“When I was seventeen years old, I was privileged to see our holy Rebbe. I was a member of the group that had come to Minsk, and we merited to see the Alter Rebbe assume the visage of “the commanding officer of the Army of G‑d.”
Reb Aharon then became excited, and began running back and forth in his chamber, exclaiming to himself “G‑dliness! Holiness! Ay! Ay!” He continued thus for quite a while, before resuming his story about the debate in Minsk.
“Thousands of people were present in the courtyard of the shul in Minsk. When our holy Rebbe went up to the podium, everyone was overcome with awe of the Divine. They all stood there like the Jews at Mt. Sinai. And when the Rebbe began his discourse with the words Shema Yisrael, everyone in the shul courtyard was seized with holy fervor. The Rebbe’s appearance and his voice were awesome, and the fear of Heaven fell upon all who were present.”
One day during the year 5664 , when Reb Abba was in a very good mood, he gave me a transcription of the discourse the Alter Rebbe had delivered by in Minsk. He had discovered this among the papers left by his late father-in-law. [The discourse was a commentary on the verse,] “Hear O Israel, The L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is One”:
“Hear O Israel” A Jew comprehends that “the L-rd is our G‑d.” This means that our power and our life-force are derived from G‑d’s name Havayah: the letter yud stands for Chochmah, the first hei stands for Binah, the vav stands for the six middos, and the second hei stands for Malchus. And [he also comprehends that] “the L-rd is one” everything forms one perfect unity.
However, all this is applies only to the soul, for the soul literally sees G‑dliness through its actual sense of sight. But when the soul descends into the body even if one’s mind is filled with Torah its comprehension comes through the intellect alone. The remedy for this situation is teshuvah, which transforms the darkness of the intellect to the light of emotional activity in one’s heart.
Each person and his soul are agents of the Holy One, sent to illuminate the thick darkness of this physical world, and to convert it into a vehicle for G‑dliness. This is accomplished through one’s avodah of Torah, prayer, and fulfilling the mitzvos with love and awe. It is written, “The lamp of G‑d is the soul of man.” Just as a lamp can light up the darkness of a house, so too the soul lights up the darkness of this world, through the avodah of Torah and mitzvos.
Concerning this, it is written, “…a blessing in the midst of the earth.” This means that one must draw down the ideal of “blessed is G‑d from the world,” drawing it down from the “hidden world” into this “revealed world.” This revelation entails inspiring the heart of man (from deep within the heart), so that the soul emerges from its shell, and becomes enraptured with G‑dliness. This is the meaning of “the L-rd is one.”
As far as one’s soul is concerned, nothing stands in the way of this avodah. It is only the physical body, and the coarse and frigid intellect, that stand in one’s way. Great punishment awaits an agent of the King who fulfils his mission with deceit. He causes tremendous harm to all aspects of the kingdom, especially [he undermines] the mission assigned to him by the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One (blessed be He). Because of this, he will be cast out from the palace of the Supernal King, and will be forced to undergo numerous reincarnations. After all this, he may possibly [achieve atonement]. [This delay is undesirable, for] it is written, “The [mitzvos] are to be done today.”
When one carefully contemplates and meditates deeply into all the above, his soul will burst into passionate flame, as he cries out from within, “To You, O L-rd, I lift up my soul.” Then, he may do teshuvah, and he will be healed.
Whenever the chassid Reb Abba told this story, his whole body would become agitated. He used to say, “I was later privileged to see the [Mitteler] Rebbe and to become an adherent of the Tzemach Tzedek. Nevertheless, I will never forget what I saw and heard from that chassid [Reb Aharon]
“I deliberately call him a ‘chassid’; he was a tzaddik, a holy and pure individual but not a ‘Rebbe!’ Whenever Reb Aharon repeated the above discourse of the Alter Rebbe, it seemed as if the words were then emerging from the Holy of Holies, the Alter Rebbe’s mouth. When Reb Aharon would finish repeating the discourse, he would say, ‘From that time on, we were bound up [with the Alter Rebbe] in an everlasting knot.’”
That Shabbos, the atmosphere in Minsk was cleansed. It had a great effect on the entire congregation especially on the Torah scholars. On Sunday, an announcement was made by the rabbinic court, that the debate would be held on the following Tuesday. It would feature a discussion with the Rebbe of the cult on complex Torah topics.