Lubavitch

1.

Sunday, 20 Iyar, 5656 [תרנ"ו; 1896]1

2.00 p.m.

It’s about five days now that I’ve been suffering toothache, and it’s hard to talk. After great efforts I managed to get permission to join in the Shabbos meal at the home of my respected grandmother, the Rebbitzin [Rivkah].2

The meals there are always interesting, because at the table they recount episodes full of content — especially this Shabbos, when two guests of stature arrived in town, repositories of chassidic oral tradition:3 R. Avraham Abba Persohn4 and R. Shmuel HaLevi Horovitz.5

After candle-lighting and before the prayers welcoming Shabbos,6 my father, the Rebbe [Rashab], delivered a maamar of Chassidus7 based on the following teaching:8 “Once, when the world needed rain, Rashbi expounded the verse, ‘What a good and pleasant thing it is for brethren to dwell together!’ — and rain came.” My father’s discourse resumed the theme of the maamar (“To understand the significance of the9 anniversary of the passing10 of Rashbi...”) which he delivered last Wednesday night after Maariv at the home of my respected grandmother, the Rebbitzin [Rivkah], in “the room with the steps.”

On Friday evening, though it was almost eleven when we began the Shabbos meal, there was no haste, and it continued until 1:30 a.m. In honor of the distinguished guest, R. Abba Persohn, my former teacher R. Nissan Skoblo,* who loved hearing chassidic traditions firsthand, joined the company at the table.

2.

The first to share recollections was the well-known chassid called R. Chanoch Hendel [Kurnitzer],11 who began as follows: “In my first year in Lubavitch, in 5604 (תר"ד; 1844), Lag BaOmer fell on Tuesday. Lag BaOmer was celebrated as in the early days — we would go out of town, sometimes to the plain in front of the Hanorovo estate and sometimes to a flat field in a village called Achremovo. At that time, a chassid called R. Shlomo ben R. Shimshon lived as an arendar on the Hanorovo estate. He had been a chassid of the Mitteler Rebbe. Achremovo was the home of an elderly arendar called R. Yosef Michael ben R. Feivish Moshe, who had been a chassid of the Alter Rebbe.

“The venue of the celebration used to be set a week or two in advance, usually by casting lots between these two traditional hosts. The winner would invite the longterm married students12 [of Lubavitch], together with the out-of-town guests, to join him on the day before Lag BaOmer, and after an early Minchah there was a festive meal complete with fish and meat that lasted until Maariv. In the course of the meal one of the participants would deliver from memory a maamar of Chassidus, and others would exchange chassidic stories, sing niggunim, and dance. As a rule we would stay up all night and daven early with a minyan, deliberately and at length. At eleven there was a dairy meal ready, with strong drink in abundance, and from about three we would wait for the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] to arrive.

“That year, R. Yosef Michael won the lottery.

3.

“From the beginning of the month of Iyar the Rebbe had again permitted his chassidim to visit Lubavitch, after having forbidden them to do so throughout the winter because of all the tribulations13 that had lasted from the beginning of MarCheshvan until close to Pesach.

“During that winter, the Rebbe had delivered maamarim only on limited occasions — on Shabbos Parshas Vayeitzei, the ninth of Kislev;14 on Yud-Tes Kislev; on Shabbos Rosh Chodesh [Teves], Shabbos Chanukkah; on the twenty-fourth of Teves;15 on Shabbos Shirah; and on Purim. And even on those occasions the maamarim had been delivered in his small private minyan which included a few of the yoshvim.

“On Shabbos HaGadol, after a break that had lasted all winter, the Rebbe delivered a maamar of Chassidus (beginning with the phrase, Zos Toras HaOlah) in public. All the townsfolk [of Lubavitch] were overjoyed, and especially the yoshvim. Emissaries gave out the word that the Rebbe had again allowed chassidim to visit Lubavitch. Many already arrived in time for the first Shabbos after Pesach, Parshas Tazria-Metzora. As the news spread their numbers increased, so that for Shabbos Parshas Emor and Lag BaOmer which followed it there were about four hundred16 visitors, the most prominent among them being the distinguished R. Aizik of Homil and R. Hillel of Paritch.

“On that Shabbos Parshas Emor the Rebbe delivered three maamarim. The first, Ein Omdin LeHispalel Ela MiToch Koved Rosh, was delivered after Shacharis on Friday; the second, LeHavin Inyan Koved Rosh BaAvodah BeNefesh HaAdam, was delivered before Kabbalas Shabbos; and the third, LeHavin BeTosefes Biur: Yisrael — Li Rosh, on Shabbos before Minchah.

4.

“The joy of that year’s Lag BaOmer celebration was doubled and trebled.

“Since the third fast [of the Behab17 series of fasts] fell on Monday, the eve of Lag BaOmer, three celebrated rabbis — R. Nechemiah of Dubrovna,18 * R. Aizik of Vitebsk,19 ** and R. Aizik of Homil — convened a beis din, and ruled that on this particular occasion, in view of the imminent communal celebration, those present should not complete the fast. Instead, after an early Minchah, they were to observe their well-established custom and participate in the annual festive meal.

“R. Hillel of Paritch, even though he agreed with their ruling in principle, and participated with his colleagues in jointly reconstructing the newly-delivered maamarim from memory, and joined in the melodies and the dancing, nevertheless completed his fast. Only after Maariv did he break his fast with a cup of tea.

“That night, when the elder chassidim gathered around a table to farbreng together, R. Aizik of Homil complained that [his revered and beloved colleague] R. Hillel was carrying hiddurim to excess. To make his point, he borrowed the rule [concerning the anomalies that make an animal treifah] that ‘a superfluous [limb]20 is equivalent to a missing [limb].’

“With bitter tears, R. Hillel begged him not to accuse him of acting wrongfully out of conceit or arrogance, G‑d forbid. R. Hillel continued thus in a spirit of agitated entreaty, but of his many words I recall only the following: ‘In the four months during which I prepared myself to enter the study of the [Mitteler] Rebbe for yechidus,21 I brought my body to the level of being good, and not only right.’ Another thing I recall: ‘It’s a pity to waste time on arguments and counter-arguments: every moment is precious.’

“One of the yoshvim, Moshe David from Avtzuh, was moved to tears by these words, and said: ‘Now I understand why the two occasions on which I saw the Rebbe at yechidus did not leave their expected mark on me — because in order to be effective, yechidus demands a preparation of actual and practical avodah.’

“Those twenty-four hours — from our arrival at the home of R. Yosef Michael at Achremovo until the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] arrived during the day of Lag BaOmer to give his blessing to the celebrations — passed like a few hours, so joyful were we from the spiritual pleasure of that time.

“The Rebbe delivered a maamar (beginning Eid HaGal HaZeh VeEidah HaMatzeivah), and after about two hours left for home.”

5.

R. Abba of Tchashnik22 then related that he, too, had been present at the time.23 Moreover, among his records he had found notes24 of all four maamarim, the three delivered on Shabbos Parshas Emor and the one from Lag BaOmer. He had also found notes of a story that the Rebbe [Rashab] had told at the time about R. Feivish Moshe of Dubrovna,25 the father of [their host] R. Yosef Michael, as well as notes of the narratives and thoughts exchanged by the elder chassidim at that farbrengen on the night of Lag BaOmer.26

“Yes, yes!” exclaimed R. Chanoch Hendel Kurnitzer. “You’ve reminded me what the Rebbe [Rashab] said about R. Feivish Moshe the Yishuvnik27 — that in earlier times he had been one of the most esteemed citizens of Slutzk and among the greatest opponents of the Baal Shem Tov. Later, for a reason which remains unknown, he left Slutzk and settled in a village near Dubrovna. There he became an ardent chassid of the Baal Shem Tov, and there his only son, R. Yosef Michael, was born.”

6.

My teacher, the Rashbatz,28 recounted that 5609 (תר"ט; 1849) was the year of the last Lag BaOmer celebration, in the field near Hanorovo, in which the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] participated. As he told it:

“That year Lag BaOmer fell on Thursday. After Shacharis on Wednesday all the yoshvim and the yeshivah students and the visitors who had come to Lubavitch for the preceding Shabbos, Parshas Acharei-Kedoshim, and who intended to remain until after Shavuos, together with the new visitors who had come from out of town for Lag BaOmer, — all of these, in response to the invitation of R. Shlomo, traveled to his home in order to celebrate Lag BaOmer according to the custom that had been observed every year since the [Mitteler] Rebbe had settled in Lubavitch in 5574 (תקע"ד; 1813).

“For us that was a day of pure jollity. The white-bearded elders danced in their talleisim ketanim, and we young yeshivah students pranced like rams, with ears and mouths open to catch every precious word from their lips.

“At about four o’clock on the afternoon of Lag BaOmer, the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] arrived, and delivered the maamar that begins, LeHavin Inyan HaKeser, SheHu Memutza Bein Or Ein-Sof HaMaatzil LaNe’etzalim. This discourse explains the one that begins Shechorah Ani, which he had delivered on Shabbos Parshas Acharei-Kedoshim.29 The Rebbe stayed for about three hours.

“Before he left he asked those present to sing the Alter Rebbe’s celebrated Niggun of Four Themes.30 As the chassidim sang, the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] sat with eyes closed in a state of intense dveikus, tears rolling down his cheeks. When the singing came to an end he stood up straight and said: ‘May the merit of the tzaddik whose anniversary is being marked today31 protect the commonalty of our brethren, the Children of Israel,32 and also the particular commonalty.’33

“As a spontaneous response to these words, there gushed forth from the hearts of all of us a mighty Amen!’

“His holy face showed a faint smile, and he said: ‘Amen, may this indeed be G‑d’s will!’

“As soon as he left for home, the elder chassidim with R. Hillel at their head gathered together, and from memory reconstructed the text of the maamar that they had just heard. They wondered34 at the Rebbe’s instruction to sing the Alter Rebbe’s niggun and his closing words left them very anxious.

“On the Monday after Shabbos Parshas Emor a horse-borne courier brought [to the Tzemach Tzedek in Lubavitch] a letter from one of the printers in Zhitomir: On [that day] police detectives had come to investigate how many copies of Likkutei Torah had been printed and to which towns had they been sent. They stamped approximately 280 copies that they found on the premises, and delivered a warrant ordering [the printer] to report to their headquarters in Kiev on Wednesday.

“The news spread through the township in a moment. The sons of the Tzemach Tzedek went to ask him what had actually happened, because within one hour the townspeople were already circulating exaggerations and unreliable rumors.

“Early in the evening of the same day we heard from R. Asher Sofer, quoting the Maharil,35 that the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] had remarked to him and to his brother, the Rashaz:36 ‘Once a case is delayed37 overnight, the dispute falls away.’

“On Thursday evening an express courier arrived from Kiev with a letter from a magnate called Dobry who wrote that when R. Shapiro, the printer from Zhitomir, had reported on Wednesday to the police detective headquarters in Kiev, he was spoken to crudely and was arrested. On Thursday morning he had been brought before an interrogator and was returned to his cell, but early that evening he had been freed. The next day, on Friday, the secret police of Kiev wrote to their counterparts in Zhitomir instructing them to remove the marks stamped on the copies of Likkutei Torah; the matter could be considered closed.”

7.

R. Shmuel Horovitz recalled that among the elder chassidim of Denenburg and Griva there was a hoary scholar known as R. Abba’le David Iskasya.38 In the study of nigleh he was the longtime colleague of the learned R. Baruch Mordechai39 when the latter was still in Vilna, and in Chassidus he was his disciple.

R. Abba David, who was born in Polotzk, was gifted and assiduous, and advanced from one yeshivah to the next until he found his way to the yeshivah of the Gaon of Vilna, where he shone as an outstanding student. By nature he leaned towards solitude and intensive study.

For some days he lived in the shul in a suburb called Shnipishak, and then moved into the center of town. Throughout all that time not one idle word escaped his lips; he knew of nothing but conscientious study; and he made the acquaintance of no man.

“However, when it became known that the son-in-law of the head of the Rabbinical Court of [Vilna], ‘the Jerusalem of Lithuania,’ the brilliant R. Baruch Mordechai, was now loyal to the banner of ‘the Sect’ and was now at the head of the [local chassidic] movement, there erupted such a scandal that it aroused even the curiosity of R. Abba David: What lay at the root of this storm that was rocking all of Jewry and Vilna, and especially agitated its most eminent scholars? To cut a long story short, the more he savored the scholarly expositions of Chassidus on themes such as knowing G‑d by understanding the concept of creation ex nihilo, the more did his soul cleave to its teachings. Since he was a scholar of great standing, whom the Alter Rebbe chose to teach his grandson the Tzemach Tzedek for a full year after his bar mitzvah, he was offered numerous rabbinical posts. He refused them all because of his love of solitude, preferring to live in a village for about thirty years. And that was why the chassidim used to call him ‘Abba David Iskasya.’

“When he was about eighty years old he came to live near his son, R. Zerach, the moreh tzedek of Griva, who rented him an apartment near the shul. He spent most of his days and nights studying in the shul, and sometimes slept there.

“The chassidic communities of Denenburg and Griva treated him with reverence, since he was known to be a scholar of repute in both the revealed and esoteric planes of the Torah. Indeed, elderly chassidim testified that forty years earlier, in 5567 (תקס"ז; 1807), the Mitteler Rebbe had said: ‘Abba David’s brain is saturated with Divine intellect.’

“A chassid by the name of R. Zalman Moshe Leitzener, who for many years had known R. Abba’le David from the time he had been in Vitebsk and in a village near Nevel, and who had also met him on many occasions in Lubavitch, was amazed that he had changed his conduct — far from being a silent recluse, he was now companionable and a ready talker.”

8.

Among the events recalled by R. Abba’le David Iskasya [as transmitted40 at my grandmother’s Shabbos table by R. Shmuel HaLevi Horovitz] was the celebration of Lag BaOmer41 in Lubavitch in 5604 (תר"ד; 1844). This is how he described it:

“From the first year that the past [i.e., the Mitteler] Rebbe settled in Lubavitch, in 5574 (תקע"ד; 1813), he renewed the old custom of celebrating Lag BaOmer in the fields out of town. Every year there would be a light festive meal that included mashke and hard-boiled eggs, and there was singing and dancing. In the middle of the meal or at the end the Rebbe [the Tzemach Tzedek] would arrive and deliver a maamar of Chassidus, and would then urge the elder chassidim to tell him whatever they remembered of Lag BaOmer celebrations [with his predecessors] in bygone years — customs, teachings, narratives. After he left, the chassidim would continue to celebrate together at the table until early evening. From the time that two chassidim — R. Shlomo ben R. Shimshon and R. Yosef Michael ben R. Feivish Moshe — settled as arendars in villages near Lubavitch, the setting for this celebration was a full festive meal.

“Early in MarCheshvan of that year a special messenger brought the chassidim of Nevel a circular letter written on the Rebbe’s instructions by his emissary, R. Yosef,42 son of the esteemed R. Yissachar Dov. The letter conveyed the Tzemach Tzedek’s directive that his chassidim should not visit Lubavitch nor write letters there, and detailed the slanders initiated by the maskilim of Vilna.

“For all of us, the chassidim of Nevel and the whole province and the whole country, that winter was a time of anguish — until the affair of the slanders was cleared up early in Nissan, and once again we were allowed to visit Lubavitch. Among the dozens of chassidim of Nevel who went there at that time were my mechutan R. Eliyahu Yosef Dig and myself and my son Yisrael.

“From the time that the above-mentioned R. Shlomo and R. Yosef Michael settled near Lubavitch, the celebrations began after Shacharis on the eve of Lag BaOmer.

“That year, that day fell on Monday, which was Taanis Sheni Basra [i.e., the third in the Behab series of fasts],43 a public fast that most of the chassidim observed. However, three halachic authorities — R. Yitzchak Aizik of Homil, R. Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk, and R. Nechemiah of Dubrovna — ruled that out of deference to the community’s celebration it was permissible on that particular occasion to cut the fast short after an early Minchah. The revered chassid R. Hillel of Paritch, however, did not interrupt his fast.

“At the farbrengen that then took place, R. Yitzchak Aizik of Homil rebuked R. Hillel of Paritch for his numerous hiddurim and for his excessive vigilance. A basic principle in avodah, he argued, is that one should follow the middle path. As the medieval thinkers44 conclude, superiority is not to be sought in either extremity, even in the higher; true happiness lies only in the middle path.

“R. Yitzchak Aizik explained this principle beautifully by expounding the verse, כִּי צַדִּיק ה', צְדָקוֹת אָהֵב, יָשָׁר יֶחֱזוּ פָנֵימוֹ — ‘For G‑d is righteous,45 He loves righteousness; those who are upright shall behold His face.’ That which is innately superior, he explained, is praiseworthy in any time, place or circumstance — but it can bring a person to descend and fall, even suddenly, for ‘the Wicked One46 [i.e., the Evil Inclination] beleaguers the righteous.’ Since the middle path, by contrast, has no opposite counterpart, it leads to true happiness: it is based on one’s present condition, and is a passage which leads one to a praiseworthy level that is as strongly entrenched as an immovable tent peg.

“There is a verse that begins: ‘For G‑d is righteous (tzaddik), He loves righteousness.’ The infinite Ein-Sof is garbed in spiritual lights and in epithets which signify that He is vested in garments. G‑d as described by the epithet tzaddik — i.e., the infinite Ein-Sof light that is so described — loves (so to speak) acts of righteousness, which are the most highly-prized of all attributes. At the same time, however, יָשָׁר יֶחֱזוּ פָנֵימוֹ — ‘those who are upright (yashar; lit., straightforward) shall behold His face’: It is those who walk along the middle path who behold and are nourished by the innermost Divine light, for this light is revealed only after the recipient has duly prepared his vessels, the capacious vessels of the World of Tikkun.

“[In response to R. Aizik of Homil’s rebuke], R. Hillel of Paritch sought to explain that he had not been prompted by conceit or arrogance. Weeping as he spoke, he recounted the story of his life until he first came to meet his mentor, the saintly R. Mordechai of Chernobyl, and then the events through which he eventually found his place under the wings of Chabad Chassidus and its teachings.

“At fourteen he began to study Kabbalah, to accompany his prayers with the kavanos of the AriZal, and to engage in fasting and self-mortification. At eighteen he first beheld the holy light of R. Mordechai of Chernobyl; he cleaved to him and pursued the paths of Chassidus.

“In 5571 (תקע"א; 1811) the Alter Rebbe journeyed to Vohlyn, and on his way back through the Mozir region thousands of people gathered together to hear him at every town and village. At one of the inns on the way, some five hundred people awaited him. Among them was R. Hillel, and these are the holy words that he heard from the lips of the Alter Rebbe:

9.

“The Gemara says: לְעוֹלָם יַרְגִיז אָדָם יֵצֶר טוֹב עַל יֵצֶר הָרַע — ‘A man should always incite his Good Inclination against his Evil Inclination,47 as it is written, רִגְזוּ וְאַל תֶּחֱטָאוּ — Tremble, and do not sin.48 If it goes away, good; if not, he should engage in Torah study, as the verse goes on to say, אִמְרוּ בִלְבַבְכֶם — Speak in your heart.... If it goes away, good; if not, he should read Kerias Shema, as the verse goes on to say, עַל מִשְׁכַּבְכֶם — ...upon your bed. If it goes away, good; if not, he should remind it of the day of death, as the verse concludes, וְדֹמּוּ סֶלָה — ...and be silent.’

“The Mishnah teaches: אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בָּאָדָם — ‘There are four character types49 among men.’ This refers to traits and modes of conduct that are inborn.

“שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי, וְשֶׁלָּךְ שֶׁלָּךְ — ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’: [On the mystical level,] this signifies a mode of avodah in which the divine soul does not become garbed within the animal soul in order to refine it; rather, it simply does not allow it to dictate any opinions or modes of conduct in ‘the little city’ [which is man], because these are exclusively mine. This is described as ‘a median characteristic’ (middah beinonis), for this is avodah at the level of Beinonim.

“שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלָּךְ, וְשֶׁלָּךְ שֶׁלִּי — ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine’: This signifies a mode of avodah in which the divine soul does become garbed within the animal soul in order to refine it; it harnesses the strength and power of the animal soul (as alluded to in the verse, וְרָב תְּבוּאוֹת בְּכֹחַ שׁוֹר — ‘There are many harvests in the strength of an ox.’) People whose avodah is at this level are described as am haaretz (lit., ‘the people of the earth’), for through their avodah they refine and purify earthy materiality.

“שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלָּךְ, וְשֶׁלָּךְ שֶׁלָּךְ — ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours’: Through the endeavors of the divine soul in refining the animal soul, the divine soul itself is upgraded. Thus, ‘What is mine is yours’ means that these labors of the divine soul — in refining the individual’s traits — benefit the animal soul; and ‘What is yours is mine’ [as in the previous paragraph, describing the level of the am haaretz] refers to what the divine soul gains through this avodah. The level of a chassid, however, is superior. In the words of the Zohar: אֵיזֶהוּ חָסִיד, הַמִּתְחַסֵּד עִם קוֹנוֹ, עִם קֵן דִילֵי-ה — ‘Who is pious50 (a chassid)? He who is benevolent (mis’chassed) towards his Creator, towards his Nest.5152 Such an individual has no thought of the benefit that his avodah will bring him. For him, ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours’: his only intent is that his Creator’s intent should be fulfilled.

“שֶׁלָּךְ שֶׁלִּי, וְשֶׁלִּי שֶׁלִּי — ‘What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine’: If a person engages in avodah only for the sake of what his divine soul will gain from it, then even if he secures mighty ascents and salvations within his soul, the materiality of the world remains just as physical as it was. Indeed, the letters of the word רָשָׁ"ע (lit., ‘a wicked person’) signify that [in such a person] the רַע (‘evil’) is [paradoxically] animated and sustained by the letter שׁ (‘the letter of truth’), as is known from various sources.53

* * *

“The above discussion deals only with avodah that relates to the middos, the emotive attributes. Higher than this there is a mode of avodah that relates to the middos of the intellect, and a yet higher mode of avodah relates to the intellect itself. Assuredly, the middos of the intellect belong to a level far higher than the middos of the heart. The middos of the heart become palpably excited: the heart physically experiences the emotive attributes of Chessed or Gevurah or boastfulness, or love or hatred as expressed in actual bodily trembling. Though the middos of the intellect also experience excitation, their excitation is intellectual. Nevertheless, the middos of the intellect are still incomparably inferior to the intellect itself, which knows and becomes bonded with [Divine] concepts.

* * *

“In light of the above we can understand the above-quoted teaching, ‘A man should always incite his Good Inclination against his Evil Inclination.’

Among those who serve G‑d there are likewise [as with the above-quoted ‘four character types’] four kinds of approaches. There are ovdei Havayah, servants of G‑d. These are the tzaddikim who are connected with Divinity and who study the Torah. There are baalei Torah, who are at the level of Beinonim. Then there are baalei middos, who serve G‑d with intellectually-aroused love and awe, but especially with love. Finally, there are yirei Elokim, those who fear Him on account of future judgment with its possible punishment by Gehinnom or by the withholding of the wondrous rewards of the World to Come.

“By nature, people often misjudge their actual spiritual standing. Hence the Sages warn: ‘An adam — a term which denotes an intellectual54 — ‘should always incite his Good Inclination against his Evil Inclination.’ Such a man should be aware that even a person who is at the level of a tzaddik needs to be constantly vigilant that the Evil Inclination should not suddenly ensnare him. For this reason he must always incite his Good Inclination against it, and keep watch over it. Beinonim need to study Torah constantly and remain free of the Evil Inclination. The baalei middos who serve G‑d with love and awe should engage in the avodah of Kerias Shema, meditating on Havayah echad (‘G‑d is one’). And yirei Elokim55 should serve G‑d by keeping in mind the day of death, when teshuvah is no longer of any avail; there is only הַיּוֹם לַעֲשׂוֹתָם — ‘this day, to do them.’”56 57