Upon his Arrival from Petersburg
The Alter Rebbe sent this pastoral letter to all his followers, upon his release from the imprisonment brought about by calumnies instigated by the opponents of Chassidism. This slander resulted from his selfless and tireless efforts to strengthen the chassidic movement and disseminate its teachings. His subsequent release (also) served as a nod of approval from the government for their continued dissemination.
The Rebbeim, the successive leaders of the ChaBaD chassidic school of thought, have taught that the Alter Rebbe’s arrest resulted from an indictment voiced in the Heavenly Court — against his doctrine of clothing the teachings of Chassidism in intellectual terms. (In fact the very word ChaBaD, naming the movement he founded and the teachings he first articulated, is an acronym for Chochmah, Binah and Daat — “wisdom”, “understanding”, and “knowledge”, respectively.) The same voice, moreover, disapproved of the fact that the Alter Rebbe beamed these teachings at the Jewish masses.
The Alter Rebbe wrote this epistle in order that it be clearly understood that his release from physical incarceration resulted directly from his being cleared of all spiritual charges. Indeed, a clear signal and an extra measure of strength was thereby given from Above that the teachings of Chassidism be promulgated according to the Alter Rebbe’s approach of making them intelligible and accessible to all.
With the Alter Rebbe’s release there thus began a second era in the dissemination of Chassidism. This is alluded to by this letter, which is numbered Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 2. It will be noted that the number 2 is mentioned only after the heading, “Upon his Arrival from Petersburg.” Now Epistle 27 also has a prefatory heading that explains why it was written. There, however, the number of the epistle appears first, and only then is it followed by the introductory heading. Here the order is inverted, because the second period (or, in chassidic terminology, “the second degree of greatness”), which is alluded to by the number 2, began with the Alter Rebbe’s arrival from Petersburg.
קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת
“I have become small from all the favors and from all [the truth].”
These words were uttered by Jacob as an introduction to his plea to G‑d that He save him from Esau. Although G‑d had previously assured him that He would accompany and protect him wherever he went, Jacob nonetheless feared that all the kindnesses that G‑d had already shown him had made him “small”, i.e., had reduced his merits. He thus feared that he was possibly in a state in which he would have to ask G‑d anew, “Save me.”
This means —
Rashi comments that “I have become small” is a result of “all the favors and all the truth”; i.e., “My merits have diminished because of the favors and truth You have done with me.” Ramban argues that this comment is inconsistent with the “language of the verse,” which states that “I have become small,” not that the speaker’s merits have become small; there is a diminution in quality rather than in quantity.
Ramban therefore understands “I have become small” to mean: “I am unworthy of receiving all your kindness and truth.” Thus, according to Ramban, “I have become small” is not a result of G‑d’s “kindness and truth,” but rather an expression of the speaker’s being unworthy of receiving G‑d’s “kindness and truth.”
The Alter Rebbe, however, is going to explain this verse according to the commentary of Rashi: “from all the kindness” simply means that it was the kindness that made Jacob feel “small”. At the same time, though, the Alter Rebbe will understand “I have become small” as referring to the speaker himself: it is he himself who has become diminished as a result of G‑d’s many kindnesses and His truth. (Thus, not only have the particular person’s merits become lessened, which results in his diminishment, but he himself is directly affected as a result of the “kindness and truth.”)
Although it is the person himself (and not the tally of his merits) that has become diminished, nonetheless this diminution is a result of the “kindness and truth.” This, then, is what the Alter Rebbe intends by saying “This means” —
שבכל חסד וחסד שהקדוש ברוך הוא עושה לאדם, צריך להיות שפל רוח במאד
that with every single favor that G‑d bestows upon a man, he ought to become very humble.
כי חסד דרועא ימינא
For [the Supernal Sefirah of] “Chesed is the right arm,”
and, as Scripture states, “His right arm embraces me,”
שהיא בחינת קרבת אלקים ממש, ביתר שאת מלפנים
which refers to the state of G‑d actually bringing him close [to Himself], far more intensely than before.
Every Divine act of Chesed brings a man closer to G‑d.
וכל הקרוב אל ה׳ ביתר שאת, והגבה למעלה מעלה
And whoever is [brought] exceedingly close to G‑d, being raised aloft to great heights,
צריך להיות יותר שפל רוח, למטה מטה
ought to be ever more humble, to the lowliest plane,
כמו שכתוב: מרחוק ה׳ נראה לי
as it is written, “From afar has G‑d appeared to me.”
When G‑d appears to an individual through a particular manifestation of kindness, this should make him perceive himself as being — in relation to G‑d — “afar”, i.e., humbly distant from Him. Alternatively, the verse may be implying that perceiving oneself as being “afar” is the very means by which to attain a state in which “G‑d has appeared to me.”
וכנודע, דכולא קמיה דווקא כלא חשיב
And, as is known, “All that are before Him are esteemed as nothing.”
A being of even the highest conceivable spiritual level is of absolutely no account — indeed, it is nullified out of existence — when in G‑d’s presence, when it is “before Him,” for nothing exists before G‑d other than Himself.
ואם כן, כל שהוא קמיה יותר, הוא יותר כלא ואין ואפס
Hence, whoever is more “before Him” — whoever is closer to G‑d — is that much more like nothing, naught, and non-existent.
וזו היא בחינת ימין שבקדושה, וחסד לאברהם
This [self-effacing response to Divine favors] is the level of the “right side” of holiness, and of “Chesed unto Abraham” — the Divine lovingkindness that is bestowed upon Abraham, as in the verse, “You grant truth to Jacob, loving-kindness unto Abraham,”
שאמר: ואנכי עפר ואפר
who said, “And I am dust and ashes.”
The kindness that G‑d showed Abraham motivated him to attain the ultimate degree of humility that this statement expresses. Just as in the heavenly realms “the right arm of Divine Chesed” causes recipients of the Chesed to lose their independent identity in the identity of the Bestower of lovingkindness, so too does it affect mortals upon whom it is bestowed, making them likewise humble and self-effacing.
וזו היא גם כן מדתו של יעקב
This [humility born of kindness] is also the characteristic trait of Jacob,
ובזאת התנצל על יראתו מפני עשו, ולא די לו בהבטחתו: והנה אנכי עמך גו׳
and therewith he justified himself for his fear of Esau, and did not regard the [Divine] promise given to him as being sufficient: “And behold I am with you [and I shall protect you wherever you go].”
מפני היות קטן יעקב במאד מאד בעיניו, מחמת ריבוי החסדים
[This was so,] because Jacob regarded himself as utterly insignificant on account of the multitude of [G‑d’s] favors,
כי במקלי גו׳
[as he said,] “for [only] with my staff [did I cross the Jordan, and now I have [enough property for] two camps],”
ואינו ראוי וכדאי כלל להנצל כו׳
and he considered himself as being utterly unfit and unworthy to be saved, and so on.
וכמאמר רז״ל: שמא יגרום החטא
As our Sages, of blessed memory, expressed it, “[Jacob was apprehensive] lest sin would cause [him not to be saved],”
שנדמה בעיניו שחטא
for it appeared to him that he had sinned.
“I have become small” thus means that the multitude of kindnesses bestowed upon Jacob caused him to feel so small and insignificant that he feared that he had sinned, and hence needed once again to beseech G‑d that He save him from his brother Esau. And, indeed, every Jew would do well to follow in the footsteps of his father Jacob, becoming ever more humble with every successive act of kindness that G‑d shows him.
The Rebbe once explained why at the outset of this epistle the Alter Rebbe uses an expression in which the word Chesed is repeated: בכל חסד וחסד. (This is translated above, “with every single favor [that G‑d bestows upon man].”) In general, there are two modes of Divine kindness: (a) that which descends to man within the ordered framework of created worlds and becomes manifest in a natural manner; and (b) that which transcends the conventions of the created universe and whose manifestation is supernatural.
This is why the Alter Rebbe there goes on to say that (a) “Chesed is the right arm,” as well as (b) “His right arm embraces me.” The former phrase alludes to the Chesed of the Supernal Sefirot, a finite mode of Divine kindness that is analogous to the finite degree of life-force that is clothed in the human arm; the latter phrase alludes to the infinite mode of Divine kindness that is analogous to the infinite degree of life-force that transcends the limitation of being clothed in a particular organ, and is thus said to be “encompassing” (makkif) or “embracing”.
מה שאין כן בזה לעומת זה, הוא ישמעאל, חסד דקליפה
It is different, though, with the [unholy] counterpart [to the attribute of kindness that belongs to the holy “side” of the universe]; i.e., [it is different] with Ishmael, [who personifies] the attribute of Chesed that belongs to the kelipah.
The counterpart to Abraham, who personifies the attribute of “Chesed (kindness) that belongs to holiness,” is Ishmael, who personifies “kindness that belongs to unholiness”; the opposite of Isaac, who represents the attribute of “Gevurah (severity) that belongs to holiness,” is Esau, who represents the attribute of “Gevurah that belongs to unholiness.”
כל שהחסד גדול, הוא הולך וגדל בגובה וגסות הרוח ורוחב לבו
The more kindness [shown to Ishmael and to his ilk], the more he grows in pride, arrogance and self-satisfaction.
A Jew must thus be on guard against the “Chesed of kelipah,” and ensure that G‑d’s acts of kindness will lead him to cultivate the traits of Abraham and Jacob, the “Chesed of holiness,” so that his response will be humility rather than pride.
* * *
ולזאת באתי מן המודיעים מודעה רבה לכללות אנ״ש
Accordingly, I am now making a weighty announcement to all the men of our [chassidic] fraternity,
על ריבוי החסדים אשר הגדיל ה׳ לעשות עמנו
regarding the multitude of favors, “the great things that G‑d has done with us.”
The attribute of Chesed (kindness) is also known by the name Gedulah (greatness), as in the verse which enumerates the Divine attributes, and which begins, לך ה׳ הגדולה והגבורה. Indeed, the term Gedulah connotes an even greater manifestation of Divine kindness than does Chesed. The Alter Rebbe therefore adds the phrase regarding “the great things that G‑d has done for us,” thereby indicating the extraordinary kindness G‑d had shown chassidim by releasing him.
לאחוז במדותיו של יעקב
[As a result of all these favors:] Hold on to the attributes of Jacob,
שאר עמו ושארית ישראל
[for Jews are known as] “the remnant of His people” and “the remainder of Israel”; a Jew possesses within himself the attributes described here as “remnants” and “remainder”,
שמשים עצמו כשיריים ומותרות ממש, שאין בו שום צורך
regarding himself truly as mere remnants, as something truly superfluous and dispensable.
לבלתי רום לבבם מאחיהם כו׳
Let [the men of our fraternity] not become haughty in relation to their brethren, i.e., their opponents, who caused the arrest of the Alter Rebbe.
ולא להרחיב עליהם פה, או לשרוק עליהם, חס ושלום
Let them not jeer nor whistle derisively at them, heaven forfend.
הס מלהזכיר, באזהרה נוראה
A strict warning: Hold your peace! Mention nothing!
רק להשפיל רוחם ולבם, במדת אמת ליעקב, מפני כל אדם
Rather, [the men of our chassidic fraternity] are to subdue their spirit and heart before every man according to the attribute of “truth unto Jacob,”
בנמיכת רוח, ומענה רך משיב חימה, ורוח נכאה כו׳
with humility, with “a soft answer [that] turns away anger,” and with a restrained spirit.
וכולי האי ואולי יתן ה׳ בלב אחיהם, כמים הפנים וגו׳
And through all that, perhaps G‑d will put [a conciliatory and loving response] into the heart of their brethren, [for] “as waters [reflect] one’s face, [so too does the heart of one man reflect the heart of another].”
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