1 [New York]

[Introductory Letter]


Tuesday, 12 Kislev, 5709


To my esteemed friend, a devout elder chassid, Rabbi...,

Greetings and blessings!

[There exists] a view that the entire goal of toiling in the “service of the heart” [i.e., prayer] is to weep torrents of tears — as if all that the avodah of Chassidus has to contribute is that people should cry during their davenen; as if their spiritual stature should be gauged by the extent of their weeping; and as if they should therefore indulge in it extensively. Moreover, if during one’s davenen the tears are to freely spring in sweet contrition, one has to make solid preparations — by first reading through the Book of Tehillim once or twice, and only then praying in this way.

Setting out one’s divine service along the above lines — weeping profusely during davenen, and first reading Tehillim at length in order to ensure that the tears will indeed spring from the depths of one’s heart — is generally not only advisable but essential. Nevertheless, this too should be kept within due limits.

During the time of my education among the elder chassidim in Lubavitch, they used to say that in order to become acquainted with the plots and wiles of the animal soul,2 whether on his own account or whether by means of his agent, the Evil Inclination, one first has to realize that their entire goal is to prevent people in general, and chassidic students in particular, from performing their divine service through Torah study, prayer, and the refinement of character.

Since many of those being educated in Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim have misconceptions regarding the paths and principles of avodah, I am planning a talk specifically on this subject, which will appear in print (G‑d willing) in honor of an auspicious forthcoming date — the 24th of Teves.

With greetings and blessings,

Yosef Yitzchak


To read a regular allotment of Tehillim with a heart aroused to the point of tears, is vital for any Jew; for one whose heart not only recognizes but also feels his personal spiritual standing, earnestly reading a chapter of Tehillim with tears that well from within partly serves as a cure. “Tears launder,”3 says a familiar quotation, which Derech HaChaim explains while mapping out the teshuvah of a penitent.

Teshuvah is great,” teach our Sages, “for it brings healing to the world.” This material world is a sick man, and a sick man has to take medication.

However, only when the exact dosage is administered at exactly the right intervals can medication help.4 Everyone knows that medicine is taken by the drop, not by the beaker. Indeed, swallowing medicine by the beaker is a symptom of serious disease. In spiritual terms, a desire to do so warns the sufferer that his animal soul is up to mischief.


Over 175 years have passed — from 5532 (תקל"ב; 1772) to 5708 (תש"ח; 1948) — since the truly auspicious time when the Alter Rebbe, with the grace of G‑d, laid out the holy path of Chabad Chassidus. In the course of those years, the ways have been indicated by which one ought to guide and educate a chassidic child so that he will know how one should and can climb up the ladder of Chabad Chassidus.

This is a ladder of many rungs. The ground on which it stands is the Chabad-chassidic home, where at every opportunity fathers and mothers tell their children of whatever they saw and heard in their parents’ homes. Then, step by step, the child starts climbing the first rungs of the chadarim and yeshivos. This stage of his education sees the beginning of the period in which the light of Torah study contends confusedly with the darkness of pride and conceit. Whether the founders and directors of his yeshivah are chassidim (and, more specifically, whether they are Chabad chassidim, or those from Poland and Galicia who are known as Chagas5 chassidim), or whether they belong to other circles, the way in which the yeshivah is administered and the style of its administrators affects every single student, each according to his own spiritual personality.

It is during these years of one’s schooling that one is commonly confronted face to face by the animal soul, which acts upon one’s mind, and by the Evil Inclination, which acts upon one’s heart. Both of these deploy all their talents toward clamping him inescapably in an iron vise, contriving their various wiles to match the particular nature of the student at hand. If, for example, he is of a morose disposition, so that he perceives things in gloomy colors, he is made to be more conscious of his deficiencies — in the future and even in the present — than of his positive attainments. If, instead, he is of a more cheerful humor, so that he sees things in brighter colors, the task of the Evil Inclination is to show him his present and especially his future in jolly colors.

In either case, whether the Evil Inclination raises his spirits or depresses them, its aim is to deflect him from the true path of divine service, from fulfilling G‑d’s intent — that a man should attain the ultimate goal for which his soul descended here, namely, that the lowly physical world should not only become refined thereby, but that it should materialize the Divine plan for the continuous elevation of all the worlds.


Something else needs to be known: Even a student who is successful in his studies and in his own character refinement needs extensive life-experience in the company of his elders before he is fit to be an educator and counsellor. As chassidim from the earliest days have been fond of saying, “An old chassid has more mellow sense6 than a young chassid who is both a maskil and an oved.”


It is difficult to give a detailed portrayal of the reason for the misconceptions which prevent the younger temimim and the young chassidim from contemplating the lifestyle of the elder chassidim of stature who are steeped in avodah. These men, thankfully, were privileged to behold the holy countenance of my revered father, and to hear maamarim and sichos from his mouth. Some of them, moreover, were fortunate enough to have been received by him at yechidus; they were given his blessings for success in their orderly service of G‑d, each according to his individual spiritual faculties and according to his style of divine service, in his Torah study and in his avodah of prayer.

But in any case they were all working on something, and that work was based on crushing and pruning away opinionated conceit, on cultivating an appreciation of another’s qualities, and, in particular, on learning to cherish the worth of an elder chassid.


The lowered standards of achievement within the community of chassidim at large and in particular among the temimim, is painful indeed. Moreover, it is difficult to express in speech. For the soul-garment called speech has a distinctive virtue and a fault. Its virtue is that its letters reveal and clarify. This explains why even when a person is studying a profound subject alone and finds difficulty in plumbing the depths of its various arguments — especially if he finds difficulty in experiencing their intellectual beauty and sensing their differences — he has to articulate his thought processes in speech. On the other hand, speech is deficient in that it limits the thought expressed. It is possible to give a rational explanation as to why speech is more pleasurable than thought, which is more a matter of sensitive perception. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the shortcoming of speech is that with its circumscribed words it limits thoughts.


For Chabad chassidim in general, but especially for temimim and for those who tackle their avodah earnestly, a chassidic farbrengen is an innermost foundation stone.


In the years of my education I saw faithful sons and grandsons of chassidim who were overjoyed when any of the elder chassidim took an interest in them. The involved attentiveness of an elder chassid made a student feel good, and sometimes happy. Whether he was offered a heartwarming word of encouragement or an irate word of admonition, the budding chassid felt gratified in the knowledge that he was thereby being ever more effectively cultivated to be able to absorb the Chabad-chassidic education into the very roots of his soul. Every episode that was related to him inspired him in its own way, and left its imprint on his capacity for study and for refinement of character.

Surrounded by an upbringing of this kind, the chassidic child grew up from his earliest years, advancing from level to level, eventually heading his own household, and setting up a Chabad-chassidic family.


Every Chabad-chassidic father or grandfather used to take the closest interest in the education of his young married children, encouraging them to observe the customs of Chabad chassidim just as they themselves did and as their parents had done.

In my childhood I heard elder chassidim repeat an expression which they had heard from their teachers in their own childhood — that elder chassidim are the midwives of chassidim: they bring up their charges just as they themselves had been brought up.

An elder chassid used to regard it as his sacred duty to feel deeply responsible for the continued education of a younger chassid, seeing to it that he progressed both in his studies of Chassidus and in his orderly avodah of self-refinement.

A Chabad-chassidic7 educator would first of all exert himself until all the dried-up dirt was swept out of his young charge, until he had been (so to speak) washed down with hot water, and until he had been scrubbed and scoured clean of any deeply-ingrained behavior patterns that resulted from that murky and morbid ailment called “ego”.


Hoary chassidim, toilers in the field of education, who had been privileged to see the Baal Shem Tov when he first emerged from the self-imposed anonymity of a hidden tzaddik, and who had also known his hidden and saintly disciples R. Baruch8 (the Alter Rebbe’s father) and R. Yosef Yitzchak (the Alter Rebbe’s uncle), used to repeat a Torah teaching which they had had the good fortune to hear from the mouth of the Baal Shem Tov, as follows.

“ ‘The Master of the Celestial Academy9 opened his discourse and said: He who [considers himself] insignificant is eminent; Insignificant...eminent: In the Aram. original, מָאן דְאִיהוּ זָעִיר אִיהוּ רַב, וּמָאן דְאִיהוּ רַב אִיהוּ זָעִיר (lit., ‘He who is small is great, and he who is great is small'). he who [considers himself] eminent is insignificant.’ The Master of the Academy makes a point of first speaking of the regulated pattern that characterizes the world-order of Tikkun, even though the World of Tohu preceded the World of Tikkun. For both dimensions, ‘small’ and ‘great’, exist in Tohu, too — but with this difference. In the World of Tohu one begins by being ‘great’ and proceeds to become ‘small’; as we observe in practice, a person who strays in the paths of avodah and is ‘great’ while yet young, remains ‘small’ even when fully grown. In the World of Tikkun, where ‘He who [considers himself] insignificant is eminent,’ the order is reversed, and one progresses from ‘smallness’ to ‘greatness’. At the outset of one’s avodah one should sense that one is ‘small’, that one’s understanding is childlike. Above all, one should have the sensitivity to feel this.”

In order to feel this, one must first undergo a particular kind of preparation, a preparation which is received when one absorbs well when in the company of elder chassidim.

The aged chassidim of our day and those who studied in Tomchei Temimim, who had “an ear that hears and an eye that sees,” heard the deeply impressive episodes that were related by the elder chassidim of their day; during the dancing on a chassidic festival, they beheld those venerable faces aflame.


In two versions, on two occasions in my childhood years, I was privileged to hear my revered father explain the two well-known and related teachings heard by the elders who had been fortunate enough to have studied at the feet of the Maggid of Mezritch and of the Baal Shem Tov.

The Baal Shem Tov taught: “Immersion in a mikveh10 and dwelling in a sukkah are related, both with regard to the preparation of the recipient and with regard to drawing down the Divine light.”

“The Maggid,” my father once stated, “says that a mikveh purifies and a sukkah elevates.”

The elder chassidim of those days heard these two teachings that the Alter Rebbe had brought home from his first visit to Mezritch, and were fully nourished by them for the rest of their days. Those teachings richly served the Alter Rebbe’s young children as well as his early chassidim.

In my early childhood, when my father once explained these teachings at length at a farbrengen, I was unable to fathom them, nor was my teacher R. Chanoch Hendel able to clarify them for me. Only a few years later was I [again] fortunate enough to hear them explained extensively and in detail [by my father].

* * *

The above values, then, are the rich treasure that a child brought up in the Chabad-chassidic tradition absorbs deeply during the time that he is being educated by his teachers and parents as he grows up in a home of the old, small-town style, in a home of happy morality.


While still in his youth, my greatgrandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, invested considerable effort into assembling the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov which certain aged chassidim had heard from his mouth or from the mouth of the Maggid of Mezritch. While so doing, he sought out elders who told him many things that they recalled from the time that the Alter Rebbe had arrived at Vitebsk where his father-in-law supported him. These elders told the Tzemach Tzedek that at that time the Alter Rebbe had received a teaching from his learned and saintly uncle, R. Yosef Yitzchak, which he and his brother-in-law, the holy R. Baruch, had heard from the Baal Shem Tov when he had first become revealed.

* * *

The core of Chassidus is — improving one’s character traits11 and cherishing a simple fellow Jew. By ascending these steps one advances along the road of life. And if one is to ascend steps in an orderly fashion, one needs to be helped along by an elder chassid.


There is another ailment to be found among some of our young chassidim. They plan their avodah and their studies alone, and most of them of course lose their way in the paths of avodah. Then, when at a suitable opportunity someone alerts them to certain aspects of their conduct that need to be set in order, they become dispirited and undertake various kinds of physical self-mortification.

These young men genuinely desire to live their lives as chassidim should — except that when they discover their mistakes in avodah, their distress permeates them through and through. For, as we said above, the animal soul lurks in ambush, seeking to trap a man and confuse him, and thereby to prevent him from perfecting himself. For this reason one must fortify oneself in every way possible so as not to be ensnared in his net. And when a man puts his whole heart and mind into this effort, heaven shows him compassion, and presents him with whatever resources that are needed for his development, enabling him to enjoy genuine success as he ascends the steps of the ladder of divine service.