1. How to bridge two continents

Yud-Tes Kislev1 is the Festival of Liberation, which tens of thousands of families (May they increase!) celebrate with joyous feasting in all corners of the globe. It is a worldwide festival, which our people have this year been blessed with for the 135th time. This Yom-Tov marks the release from imprisonment of the Rebbe who founded the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of Tanya and of Shulchan Aruch HaRav, who is known among Chabad chassidim as “the Alter Rebbe.” After having been imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress for 52 or 53 days,2 he was liberated on this date in the year 5559 (1798).

The Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment and liberation are not only an instance of the workings of Divine Providence; in addition they most certainly provide us with guidance in the service of our Maker.

Without any shadow of a doubt, anyone capable of thinking can understand that the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment and liberation are to be counted among the divine wonders that have been shown to Jewry; this was an episode that ultimately brought about a distinctive turn of good fortune upon the entire House of Israel.

Counting from 5536 (1775),3 158 years have passed since — through the grace of Heaven — the teachings of Chabad were first revealed. Their innermost content is the requirement that one cause form to prevail over matter,4 through the avodah of “mind ruling heart”5 — that the intellect should cultivate and refine the attributes of the heart, the middos. This is no easy task, but Chassidus Chabad supplies all the means that are needed. The first piece of assistance is the ability to look at any matter with the eyes of intellect, without the heat of middos,6 for the avodah of chassidim over these 150-odd years has caused the very substance of the brain and of the heart to develop in such a way that they are enabled to help each other.

A conversation comes to mind from winter of the year 5663 (1902-3). On account of his ill health, my father had traveled to Vienna to consult one of the leading medical specialists there, and in order to arrive at a clear diagnosis this gentleman asked for the details of my father’s daily program, including the hours he worked and the way his work was arranged. And when Chassidus was mentioned he wanted to know what kind of scholarly discipline this was.

My father replied: “The discipline of Chassidus requires that the head explain the heart what the person should want, and that the heart implement in the person’s life that which the head understands.”

“How can that be done?” asked the specialist. “Are head and heart not two continents separated by a vast ocean?”

To this my father answered: “The task is to build a bridge that will span these two continents, or at least to connect them with telephone lines and electric wires so that the light of the head should reach the heart. As a result of various observations and discoveries, I must add that in those who are born into this branch of learning” — my father referred here to chassidim — “the substance of the brain, in which their psychological and intellectual faculties reside, and the substance of the heart, have an innate aptitude for this branch of learning and for the tasks it demands.”

2. Who brought about his imprisonment?

Chassidim have an innate ability to cause form to prevail over matter, and to perceive the essence of a subject with the utmost clarity. Even in matters in which the first glance sets the heart aflame, chassidim are able to set this emotional arousal aside7 and to consider the subject with the eyes of the intellect. This is a faculty which Chabad Chassidus brought into being.

And it is with this precise and disciplined look which Chassidus has produced that we should perceive and consider the meaning of the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment and liberation.

The episode of the ascent of the Baal Shem Tov’s soul on high on Rosh HaShanah 5507 (1746) is well known. He later told his disciples that the world would be illuminated by shnei or8 “two lights,” the light of nigleh, the revealed plane of the Torah, and the light of Chassidus. According to the tradition handed down by our forefathers, the Rebbeim, the Alter Rebbe at the time of his passing — 24 Teves 5573 (1812) — was 68 years old.9 The letter equivalents of that number (ס"ח) spell out the word חַיִּים (“life”). At the time of the Baal Shem Tov’s above-mentioned aliyas haneshamah, therefore, he was three years old — and the Baal Shem Tov was able to see the luminary who was to radiate two kinds of light.

Consider the situation. This renowned sage and Rebbe — who at the age of 26 had been chosen by the Maggid of Mezritch to compile the Shulchan Aruch, and of whom the Maggid had said hilchesa k’rav,10 that the law would be decided in accordance with his ruling, for his Shulchan Aruch would find acceptance wherever Jews are dispersed — this Rebbe was imprisoned.

As has been said above, chassidim ought to always seek the truth in any matter, to understand its essence clearly. One must set aside one’s burning heart and make one’s calculations with the plain intellect alone. Who caused the imprisonment of this great Rebbe, who had worked with self-sacrifice for the dissemination of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov?

— The greatest scholars of Israel, men who would have been prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, men whose intentions were, without even a fleeting doubt, for the sake of Heaven.

There are things which one may not say; things which one should not say; things which one does not want to say. As to this matter, neither may one speak of it, nor should one speak of it, nor do I want to speak of it. But the subject must nevertheless be clarified in a few brief words. There was a certain mistaken suspicion — a grievous error, a most painful one — but the intention of those involved was exclusively leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of the observance of the Torah and the commandments.

This all shows us that it was the Hand of G‑d that directed those events. It was Divine Providence that brought about the imprisonment of the Alter Rebbe, and it was Divine Providence that released him.

3. A mere wisp of straw

The concept of hashgachah peratis,11 Divine Providence, as it is explained by the Baal Shem Tov, is well known — that even a wisp of straw and a plucked leaf that kick about in the open are governed by a divine ruling that determines how many times they are to turn over and where they are to be thrown around.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, arranges sets of circumstances of various kinds in order to implement the Divine Providence that governs a minute creation, in order that a fallen leaf that has been rolling about since last year in some backyard or other, or a bit of straw from a stalk which someone used when thatching a cottage roof a few years ago, should now be moved from their places to somewhere else. To accomplish this a stormwind breaks out, shaking Heaven and earth in the middle of a warm and sunny day — and thereby brings to fulfillment the Divine Providence that governs the little stray leaf and the old wisp of straw.

For ten years the Baal Shem Tov studied the Written Torah12 from the mouth of Achiyah HaShiloni.13 So writes the Baal Shem Tov from Mezhibuzh in a letter to his disciple,14 the author of Toldos Yaakov Yosef,15 dated Tuesday of the week of Parshas Miketz (28 Kislev) in the year 551316 (1752). I have this letter, among the many letters which were taken out of the Kherson and Kiev Archives17 in the years 5678-5679 (1918-1919). And even the simplest person can appreciate the meaning of ten years’ study of the Written Torah from the mouth of Achiyah HaShiloni.

As explained in Rambam’s Introduction to Mishneh Torah, Achiyah HaShiloni belonged to the seventh generation in the chain of tradition of those who handed down the Torah in turn: Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and passed it on to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to Pinchas; Pinchas to Eli; Eli to Shmuel; Shmuel to David; and David to Achiyah. “Achiyah HaShiloni saw Amram,”18 says the Gemara; he was one of those who left Egypt; he was present at the splitting of the Red Sea, and at the Giving of the Torah; and he was a member of the beis din of David HaMelech.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that every single created thing has its own worth Above, each according to its essence. That which is domem (“still life”) is different to that which is tzomei’ach (“vegetative matter”); this in turn is different to that which is chai (“belonging to the animal kingdom”); this in turn is different to medaber (“the speaker” — man); and within the realm of medaber, the People of Israel are “the People close to Him.”19 Divine Providence nevertheless applies even to the minutest detail; and the Baal Shem Tov concludes by saying that the degree to which Divine Providence applies to “the people close to Him” cannot even be imagined. For if a question as petty as whether the straw or the leaf will remain in their present place or be moved elsewhere is determined by Divine Providence, then how much more so must something that affects one of His People be determined by a Divine Providence that transcends our understanding.

4. Everything has a role to play

In everything, even in the minutest circumstance which we created beings reckon as nothing and do not take at all into account, there is a divine intention, a divine will; and Divine Providence arranges the circumstances that will enable this intention to be realized in a certain way.

One day in the summer of 5656 (1896) I was strolling with my father in a field in the country resort of Bolivke, near Lubavitch. The crops were almost ripe, and the grain and the grass were nodding in a gentle breeze.

“Behold G‑dliness!” said my father. “Each movement of every single ear of grain and blade of grass was included in the Primal Thought of the partzuf of Adam Kadmon,20 in Him Who watches and gazes until the end of all the generations;21 and Divine Providence brings this thought to realization for the sake of a certain divine intention.”

As we walked on we found ourselves in a forest. Deep in contemplation of what I had now been told concerning Divine Providence, and overwhelmed by the gentleness and the earnestness of my father’s explanation, I plucked a leaf from a tree that I passed by, and held it for a while in my hand. As people often do and without taking particular notice, I tore off little pieces from the leaf every so often as I walked on, ensconced in thought, and tossed them to the ground.

My father now said: “The AriZal says that not only is every leaf of a tree a creature with divine vitality,22 which the Almighty created with a certain end as part of the ultimate purpose of Creation; but, moreover, every single leaf contains the spark of a soul that descends to This World for the sake of a tikkun23 in order to attain restitution.

“Just observe how ‘man is always liable for damages, whether awake or asleep.’24 The difference between being awake and asleep is to be found in the inward faculties of seichel and middos, in a person’s intellect and in his emotive attributes. The external faculties are to be found in a sleeping person, too; only his inward faculties are confused — which explains the presence of the paradoxes to be found in dreams. And where does the difference between a person awake or asleep become apparent? — In the faculty of vision. One who is asleep does not see; one who is awake can see.

“When a person is awake he sees G‑dliness; when he is asleep, he does not.

“But ‘man is always liable for damages, whether awake or asleep.’ Just now we discussed the subject of Divine Providence — and quite without thinking you plucked a leaf, held it in your hand, played with it, turned it around, squashed it, tore it up in little pieces, and scattered it in various places.

“How can a person be so lightminded in relation to a creature of the Almighty? This leaf is something created by the Almighty for a particular reason. It has a G‑d-given vitality, it has a body, and it has its life. In what way is the leaf’s ‘I’ smaller than your ‘I’?25

“True, the difference is a big one. The leaf is tzomei’ach and you are medaber, and there is a great difference between the two categories. Nevertheless, one should always remember the mission and the divine intention of every created thing — what is the task that the tzomei’ach has to fulfill in this world, and what is the task that the medaber has to fulfill in this world.”

It was on that occasion too that my father expounded the Talmudic phrase, “The gnat has precedence over you,”26 explaining that there is a way in which creatures belonging to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms are superior to man,27 in that each of them fulfills the mission assigned to it by the divine intention.

Whenever we went strolling together throughout the following several days my father discussed this theme, until he arrived at the subject of divine foreknowledge and mortal free will28 — how the course of action which a man will choose is revealed and known Above, yet this divine foreknowledge does not direct the choice, for a man is granted free will to choose good and spurn evil.

5. Avraham Avinu, too, was imprisoned

There is a maxim29 that says: “The past is the teacher of the present” — i.e., it explains current happenings — “and the guide for the future.”

Picture the situation. The Alter Rebbe is spreading the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov in the world around him; he is traveling about and founding circles of chassidim; thousands of people are becoming chassidim and dozens of towns find themselves drawn to the teachings of Chassidus. And Divine Providence puts him in prison.

The above maxim, however, will help us gain some grasp of the whole point of the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment.

The Gemara says that “our forefather Avraham was imprisoned for ten years”30 — for disseminating a belief in G‑d. For there is a verse that says: Vayikra sham b’shem HaShem, Kel olam — “There he called upon the Name of G‑d, the everlasting G‑d,”31 and this the Sages understand to mean that Avraham Avinu” caused the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be called upon by the mouth of every passerby.”32 He did not wait until he was approached, but himself made the first move, seeking to explain the concept of One Creator to even the very simplest of people.

He devoted himself to the dissemination of G‑dliness33 — to spreading the recognition that there exists One Who is the Creator of the universe and Who directs all created beings — with his body, and with whatever he possessed, borrowing money for traveling expenses and for the costs of extending hospitality. This hospitality was utilized for one purpose only — spreading G‑dliness in the world, by seeing to it that each gentile wayfarer pronounced a blessing, praising the sole Creator and Master of the universe. And if he declined, the beloved and kindly Avraham grew stern, and presented him with a costly account for all the delicacies and beverages which he had been served, pointing out that in the desert wilds they were more expensive than in inhabited regions. Recognizing his predicament, the guest had no option but to listen to what Avraham Avinu explained him about the Creator of the universe, taking great pains to convey the concept of His Unity. Avraham Avinu was not satisfied with simply having the gentile recite the words of the blessing, but wanted him to actually understand what G‑dliness is all about. He proceeded therefore to offer such a range of explanations that even the commonest of coarsened Levantine nomads could understand the meaning of G‑dliness.

This is what is meant when it is said that Avraham Avinu was generous with his money, with his body and with his soul. Whatever money he had he spent on hospitality; he exerted himself physically in order to tend to the needs of his guests; and he forewent his greatest spiritual pleasure. For he was a profound sage, and the greatest pleasure of such a man is to be ensconced alone in the contemplation of ideas. Yet this he sacrificed, setting aside his own intellectual pleasure, and devoting his time instead to explaining to ordinary folk the Unity of the Creator.

Here, then, is Avraham Avinu, devoting his entire resources, body and soul, to the propagation of the knowledge of G‑d in the world — and Divine Providence puts him in prison. There he sits for ten years, until Divine Providence releases him with a victory of which the whole world hears, and from his liberation comes forth the People of Israel.

6. How can that son not sin?

The prison terms of Avraham Avinu and of the Alter Rebbe need to be understood,34 for in them lies a comprehensive Torah teaching.35

It is axiomatic among all thinkers that in every entity there is a mixture of good and evil, such that there is no good without evil and no evil without good. That is to say, in good there are to be found elements of evil, and in evil there are to be found elements of good. In the mixture of good and evil, moreover, just as the elements of evil that are present in good are utterly evil, so too are the elements of good that are present in evil utterly good.

Tranquility is good; imprisonment is evil. In the good and evil of these two states there is an admixture of evil in the good and of good in the evil. This means that in tranquility, which is good, there are elements of evil, and in imprisonment, which is evil, there are elements of good. And, as stated above, the elements of good and evil which are to be found in things which are good and evil are absolute: the evil which is mixed with good is utterly, absolutely and expressly evil, and the good which is mixed with evil is utterly, absolutely and expressly good.

That tranquility is good we can see from an explicit verse in the Torah: “He saw that rest was good.”36 In this good, however, there are elements of evil, utter evil. For all evil desires, theft, robbery, bloodshed, bodily excesses and undesirable character traits stem from tranquility. The Gemara expresses this in a penetrating metaphor: “A lion does not roar over a pile of straw but over a pile of meat.”37 The aroma of meat makes him wild and crazed; or, in the words of Rashi, “He is happy, and crazed, and does damage.”

The Gemara does not stop at this statement, but R. Oshiya and R. Yochanan each spell it out by means of a parable in order to make it even clearer.

“R. Oshiya said: This is like a man who had a lean but big-boned cow which he fed on leeks, and it began to kick him. He said to her: ‘What caused you to kick me if not the leeks which I gave you?’”

This parable speaks of the body. For the body is an animal, striving after material and animalistic things — except that when it is lean, and not pampered, then even if it is big-boned and coarse it is still tolerable. If, however, it is fed on leeks, sated with succulent delicacies, then this big-boned animal begins to kick, and do damage.

R. Yochanan seeks to go further, and offers an alternative parable: “This may be likened to a man who had a son. He washed him and perfumed him, gave him food and drink, hung a purse around his neck, and sat him down next to the door of harlots. Now how can that son not sin?”

Anyone who understands the workings of the soul can perceive how faithfully these three quotations delineate the path of a yored and nofel, G‑d forbid; of one who is slipping from his spiritual level, or falling from it. It all begins with the pile of meat. One does not run wild because of a pile of straw; a pile of meat, however, can make a person wild and crazy, so that he becomes a yored. He can start kicking against the merciful Father, until he even becomes a nofel.

R. Oshiya and R. Yochanan teach their parables in order to enable every individual to find within himself exactly what kind of undesirable trait — or, to be more distinct, what kind of evil trait — his own wildness lies in.

It is difficult and redundant to spell out in more explicit and detailed terms what is meant by yored and nofel. There are people who think that only when someone falls down from the fifth storey and breaks his arms and legs is he called a nofel, whereas in fact it is quite possible for a person to fall down a few steps and lose his reason, G‑d forbid.

There are certain kinds of people who behold the counterfeit smiles, the superficial gentility, of the so-called New World, and grow ashamed of their lineage, of the fact that they are children who were born into chassidic families.

Without any shadow of a doubt, every such son and daughter prizes and cherishes their childhood memories, and many of them no doubt preserve luminous glimpses of chassidic conduct, so that if they were to compare their parents’ home with their own, they would find nothing to be ashamed of in their family background, in the name “chassid.”

The pile of meat which makes one wild and crazy varies from lion to lion; there are lions that any measure whatever of material things can cause to “be happy, go crazy, and do damage.”

7. A universal obligation

Yissachar was wise indeed: “He saw that rest was good.”38 Good, as we have seen, includes elements of utter evil, so Yissachar sought a means of being rid of them. And since, as our Sages teach us, “If someone tells you, ‘I exerted myself, and I found,’39 believe him,” it follows that Yissachar, having undertaken his search earnestly, was successful in it. And the way he found to cope with the elements of evil which are present in tranquility is indicated in the continuation of the above-quoted verse: “He bent his shoulder to bear.” What load did he bear? Rashi answers there: “The yoke of the Torah.”

At first glance this expression is puzzling. Torah, after all, is wisdom, something which everyone relishes; everyone wants to be wise. Moreover, people commonly consider themselves to be wise, as we see from the traditional interpretation40 of the verse describing King Solomon: “He was wiser than all men,”41 according to which this verse means that he was “even wiser than the fools.” For even fools concede that Shlomo HaMelech is wiser than they — except that they consider themselves too to be wise.

If, then, wisdom is so prized, why is Torah called a yoke?

The simple truth is that the essence of Torah is the obligation to bear its yoke, to study Torah every day. And this is a yoke which must be undertaken by every individual, every group, and every community.

It is true that our brethren (thank G‑d) bear the yoke of the Torah by supporting Torah schools and yeshivos; this is very fine, though here too there is more to be done. But not through this alone can one fulfill the above verse, “He bent his shoulder to bear” the yoke of the Torah. Everyone needs to study personally. Every individual, irrespective of whether he is young, middle-aged, or quite old, and regardless of whether he is wealthy or not, a businessman or a laborer, is obligated to study Torah every day.

These are the words of the opening section of Chapter 246 of Hilchos Talmud Torah (“The Laws of Torah Study”) in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah: “The obligation of Torah study devolves on every man of Israel, whether poor or rich, robust or ailing, young or aged. Even a pauper who knocks on doors, and one who has a wife and children, is obligated to fix times for the study of Torah by day and by night, as it is written, ‘You shall meditate upon it day and night.’”42

The yoke of the Torah enables a person to cope with the elements of evil which are interspersed within the good of tranquility; it sears the spirit of wildness which emerges from the good which is tranquility.

8. Looking beyond physical suffering

Just as in the good of tranquility there are elements of evil, utter evil, so that one needs to seek ways and means of somehow becoming rid of them, so too in the evil of imprisonment are there elements of good, utter good, which grant the person involved considerable benefits, things of real use in his life.

In the epistle opening with the words Lehaskilcha Binah in Iggeres HaKodesh,43 the Alter Rebbe discusses physical suffering — involving one’s children, health, or livelihood — and says that it is not proper that a person should desire the life of flesh, and children, and sustenance; he explains further how visible physical suffering is in fact a hidden good, and how through simple faith it is transformed into good.

In other words, the Alter Rebbe is saying here that physical suffering is really not suffering: it is hidden good. That, however, refers to its root. But as to the state in which it becomes apparent in this world, laborious avodah is called for if one is to uncover the elements of good which are to be found in physical suffering — and then the evil becomes transformed into good.

Broadly speaking, the good in physical suffering is the fact that it is an atonement for sin; the “lessening of fat and blood” which suffering brings about makes an effective sacrifice.44 The undesirable fat becomes lean; the grossness described in the rebuke, “You have grown fat, thick, and fleshy,”45 which is present in some degree in every individual, according to his spiritual level, — this grossness melts away; and the seething heat of one’s unwholesome blood is cooled.

Everyone knows to what extent unworthy elements are compounded in his own fat and blood, and how vitally he is in need of a certain degree of cleansing.

9. Rebuking demands vigilance

Truth to tell, one should be very wary of rebuking another. Concerning this there are laws in the Torah as to when one should — or, rather, when one must — do so. But even in such cases, in particular with offenses committed publicly, and even more so with instances of chillul HaShem, a desecration of the Divine Name, must one also be exceedingly careful not to shame the person being rebuked. For if this does happen, G‑d forbid, then not only does one not achieve the aim of having the offender improve his ways, but in addition gross harm is done to the speaker, in whom the trait of meanness may thereby emerge.

We encounter a comparable situation in the physical world. Moreover, as was mentioned on another occasion, the life of the body serves as a parable that can teach us how to conduct our spiritual lives.

Before we come to our parable: May the Almighty grant that all our brethren enjoy good health, and may He send a complete recovery to those who are not well! If, however, one has to perform a surgical operation, then one simply has to do it, for it is the greatest favor that can be done to the patient.

Performing an operation requires a certain strength. It is no easy matter. True enough, one needs to sympathize with the patient, but at the same time one must have this certain strength, together with a hope in G‑d that the operation will be successful.

The fact is that a doctor needs to tread a path in avodah that is all his own. He grows accustomed to seeing sick folk, and his sense of compassion can dry up, so that if he is to preserve a due humanity he must make strenuous efforts and be aware of his responsibility.

10. To be contrite, pious, and spiritually sensitive

In the Mishnah in Tractate Kiddushin,46 R. Yehudah in the name of Abba Guria tells us of the character traits and the spiritual life that typify certain kinds of people.

He says: “Most camel-drivers are upright people.”47 Rashi explains: “Because they travel through deserts where wild beasts and robbers are to be found, they are afraid for their lives, and their hearts are contrite (lit., ‘broken’) before G‑d.”

He goes on: “Most sailors are pious,”48 and Rashi explains that this is “because they travel afar to dangerous places and are forever trembling.”

Further: “The best of doctors is destined for Gehinnom.” Here Rashi comments: “He is not afraid of illness; his diet is [carelessly] that of healthy people; his heart is not contrite before G‑d; sometimes he takes people’s lives; and it can happen that he has the opportunity to cure a poor man but does not treat him.”

Abba Guria speaks here of three kinds of people, three categories which embrace a great proportion of humanity. Let us not take note of their occupations, but only of their attributes of character and their spiritual level, for this is how Rashi understands the three categories.

The first category, people whom Abba Guria describes as honest men, are those who make their hearts contrite (“broken”) before G‑d. True enough, such a man arrives at this state because of a certain reason — his place of work is dangerous — but the practical consequence is a good one: his heart is pliable, and a person with such a heart deserves to be called “an honest man.”

A man in the second category is called “pious,” his brokenheartedness being expressed in trembling. He is a G‑d-fearing man, and is always trembling lest he sin. His heart is not only pliable, but contrite, or “broken,” and such a man is worthy of being called “pious.”

The third kind of person is one who fears no illness; he eats and drinks; the fear of Heaven does not move his heart; and his occupation sometimes brings him to bloodshed. To this kind of man Abba Guria applies no name at all; he merely indicates where his place is, where he belongs – for a man of this kind belongs in Gehinnom.

This last and worst kind of person is the great exponent of tranquility, of complacency. Of him it is written,49 yaoz behavaso, which the Targum understands to mean that he is conceited on account of his wealth. His ego — his “I need” and “I want” — gives him a certain self-assuredness that David HaMelech calls he’azah, insolence.

If, however, a doctor is of the kind that humbles his heart before G‑d, and heals the poor, then things are as they should be, though he still needs a strong heart. As to the faults listed in the Mishnah, they occur because his work makes him grow accustomed to the sight of people in ill health, and that is why his responsibility to them must constantly be brought to mind.

11. Hold fire! First rebuke yourself.

Just as there is such a thing as physical illness so is there spiritual illness,50 and one who rebukes another must relate to it just as the doctor relates to physical illness. But if the physician of the soul — the person who is rebuking — is himself unafraid of illness, seeing no malady in himself and recklessly eating and drinking as if he were in ideal health, and thinking himself to be so merely because he is a Torah scholar, not humbling his heart before G‑d, — then he is (G‑d forbid) a destroyer of souls, because the rebuke of another must be governed only by the directives of the Torah.

Let me tell you about a conversation that took place between a few elder chassidim at a farbrengen in Lubavitch in the winter of 5649 (1888-1889). Those involved were R. Hendel, R. Aharon and R. Yekusiel, the last two being melamdim from Dokshytz, and all three were baalei avodah whose labors of self-refinement had permeated their entire being.

The discussion turned to the subject of rebuke — how the time-honored custom of chassidim at a farbrengen among themselves is to analyze various character traits thoroughly and candidly, and how sometimes this airing is effective and sometimes not.

At this point R. Yekusiel the melamed told his friends how once when he was a young man he was making his way to Lubavitch — by foot, as usual — and arrived in the nearby town of Dubrovna. As he entered the beis midrash of the local Lubavitcher chassidim he found that it was packed to capacity. Someone was repeating a discourse of Chassidus. It was the Rebbe’s personal emissary, R. Gershon Dov, who in his younger years had been a chassid first of the Tzemach Tzedek and then of the Rebbe Maharash.

When he had completed the maamar, all those present sang together. In the course of the farbrengen that followed, R. Gershon Dov related that at a farbrengen that took place during his travels, the illustrious R. Hillel51 had said: “I once heard from the Rebbe (the Tzemach Tzedek) that hochei’ach tochi’ach is like himol yimol. [The former commandment means, ‘you shall surely rebuke’;52 and the latter means, ‘(he) shall surely be circumcised.’53 ] Just as the commandment of circumcising another can be fulfilled only by one who is himself circumcised,54 so too can the commandment of rebuking another be fulfilled only by a person who has first rebuked himself,55 and only then proceeds to rebuke his fellow.’”

To this R. Hillel had added: “And only on this condition is rebuking effective.”

Whoever rebukes himself56 — and this is an obligation that lies on every individual personally57 — knows full well what manner of man he is, and how vitally he needs a cleansing of the grossness of his having “grown fat, and thick,” and of his seething blood.

And all of this is cleansed through (Heaven forfend!) physical suffering.

12. Settling one’s debts

Everyone has his own shamanta, avisa, kasisa – his own “growing fat, thick, and fleshy.” Not only does this blind him from perceiving his actual spiritual state; moreover, it is a foul wellspring from which flow all kinds of negative traits.

This form of grossness needs to be removed — by each individual’s own efforts. Every individual ought to think deeply in order to devise means of rescuing himself from the fearsome, stagnant swamp of “growing fat and thick,” for this is a question on which his very life depends.

In the course of our prayers we ask the Almighty: “May it be Your will that I sin no more. The sins that I have committed, erase in Your abounding mercies, but not through suffering or severe illnesses.”58

This is our request, and it is of course made earnestly. After all, it appears in the confessional prayer of Al chet which we say before retiring every night,59 before returning the deposit [i.e., the soul] which was lodged with us for safekeeping, and which we say in particular in the prayers of Yom Kippur. But beyond requesting, something needs to be done — in two directions: settling debts from the past, and living a healthy present.

In the material world we see that if (G‑d forbid) someone’s livelihood totters and he slips into debt, and asks his creditors to pardon his tardiness in paying, then provided that he pays off his debts in installments they continue to supply him with merchandise.

Old debts must be paid up — even in installments, but they must be paid up. There is no way out. We once discussed this at length60 in connection with the phrase, ulecha yeshulam neder [“to You shall the vow be fulfilled,” lit., “to You shall the vow be paid up”]. The divine intention underlying the descent of the soul into the body must be realized — if not through kindly means, then (G‑d forbid) through suffering.

The maamarim61 which begin with the words Zeh HaYom and Min HaMeitzar discuss at length the concept of a trial which involves both prosecution and defense attorneys. A parable is set out from an ordinary courtcase, and a distinction is drawn between the trial of every man that takes place on Rosh HaShanah and the trial that takes place after his passing. In addition, definitions are given of four levels at which a person’s avodah may be — the level of meisim (“the dead”), the level of noflim (“those who are falling”), the level of cholim (“the sick”), and the level of asurim62 (“those who are imprisoned”).

The ethical teachings and the guidance in the service of G‑d which are to be found in Chassidus are intended for all Jews, not only for chassidim. Every Jew ought to listen closely to the voice of G‑d which has been revealed through our forefathers, the Rebbeim.

It is difficult to speak of this often. One would far prefer to speak only of happy things, never mentioning any harsh or stern words. But everyone should well remember [the warnings which follow] the verse that begins, Im bechukosai teileichu — “If you walk in [the path of] My statutes.”63 And may the Almighty grant that the verse [of blessing] be fulfilled: Venasati gishmeichem — “And I will grant your rains...,”64 and that our brethren be blessed with an abundance of good, both materially65 and spiritually.

13. Growing nearer to one’s soul

The point that has been made thus far — that in the evil of suffering there is a good — refers to a general benefit, in that it constitutes an atonement for sinful deeds, words or thoughts, for suffering reduces the kind of fat and blood that comes into being through one’s having [metaphorically] “grown fat, thick, and fleshy.”

The atonement of sin, however, is only a tikkun of the past; i.e., through one’s suffering the past is rectified. But in fact the evil of suffering comprises elements of good which are utterly and absolutely good.

It is characteristic of the teachings of Chassidus to illuminate any subject with the understanding of ner Havayah nishmas adam — “The soul of man [which] is a lamp of G‑d,”66 until one has it in his grasp: clearly, with vitality welling from within,67 and in a manner that produces tangible results68 — for such understanding points out a path in actual, practical avodah.

To apply this thinking to our subject. — Suffering brings about two kinds of benefit. One is the reduction of the fat and blood of materiality, and hence the atonement of sin, the rectification of the past. The second benefit is that it makes a person more spiritual, more refined, nearer to his soul.69

Guf and nefesh represent material reality (gashmiyus) and spiritual reality (ruchniyus). Guf and nefesh are body and life. Chassidus explains how in every body there is a soul. In the category of domem [the so-called “inanimate” creations in the universe], in which our eyes of flesh see no more than a body, there is a soul as well. And in an entity as spiritual as the soul there is also a body. And just as our eye cannot see the soul of an “inanimate” object, so can our brain not grasp the concept of a body in the nefesh.

Both body and soul are the handiwork of the Creator. His way is that of mafli laasos — “He works wonders,” joining the spiritual soul with the physical body.70

14. Light that proceeds from darkness

Man is the elect of creatures and, like all other creatures, is compounded of body and soul. In two respects, however, the manner in which these two elements are compounded in man differs from that of all other creatures.

In the first place, though in all creatures including man the body is a material creation and the soul a spiritual one, yet he is utterly different from them all in that his body and soul each stem from the extreme point of their respective sources.71 Soul and body, as we have said, are ruchniyus and gashmiyus. The soul of man, then, stems from the loftiest level72 to be found in ruchniyus, such that it is called chelek Eloka mimaal — “a part of G‑d73 above,” while the body stems from the lowliest level to be found in gashmiyus.

In the second place, the manner in which these two elements are compounded is itself different in man. In all other creatures the combination of body and soul — of matter and form — subsists only in the fact that the body lives by virtue of the soul: the soul gives life to the body. They do not influence each other. In man, by contrast, body and soul are compounded in such a way that matter and form are engaged in perpetual battle.

Before a man even knows how to choose good and detest evil, the battle between body and soul74 has begun. Both natures, his physical nature and his spiritual nature, are at work within him. His physical nature perceives whatever is good and pleasurable in bodily things alone, whereas his spiritual nature perceives the good and the delight and the refinement of noble character traits, and appreciates the beauty of understanding.

Gashmiyus and ruchniyus are at war. The physical body seeks to override the spiritual soul: matter prevailing over form; the spiritual soul seeks to gain mastery over the physical body: form prevailing over matter.

The second kind of benefit to be gained from suffering [i.e., becoming thereby more spiritual and more refined] is the absolute good which is to be found in the evil of suffering. This is a kind of good that one ought to yearn for; it is a distinctive and unique kind of good,75 a kind of good that is simply not to be found in that which comprises good alone.

And much yet remains to be said about the lofty quality of the manifestations of the second kind of benefit which are to be found in the evil of suffering.

15. The sunny side of imprisonment

Imprisonment is evil, but within it there are elements which are good, utter and absolute good. In fact, this is a dual good, since it comprises both kinds of benefit which are to be gained from suffering — the simple benefit which accrues from the lessening of fat and blood, and, more importantly, the second benefit discussed above.

In the suffering brought on by illness, G‑d forbid, pain hinders a person from being rapt in thoughts of repentance and spiritual stocktaking and whatever else he should be thinking about. Likewise, worries involving one’s children, health and livelihood make a person confused and preoccupied, by ensnaring him in the foolishness of devising stratagems, and the like.

None of these disadvantages, however, are to be found in the evil of the suffering of imprisonment.

16. Facing the Angels of Destruction

In prison a person becomes closed off from the entire turbulent and tempestuous world.76 Every minute is an hour; every hour is a month; every day is a year.

In prison a person becomes acquainted with the utmost depth of evil which malevolent geniuses can engineer. The experience gives one a limited but precise picture of what Hell means, and of what is meant by Angels of Destruction.

From one’s first step inside, and one’s first glance at one’s cell, all bodily desires vanish, and in the first few minutes during which one is left alone, there flutters through a ray of delight at the temporary respite from the torture and humiliation which one has undergone at the hands of the wardens and the interrogator.

At one’s very first attempt to reflect on what has transpired, when one has the full image of the governors of the prison clear before one’s eyes, one stands overawed by the sheer depth of evil which can be found in the creature called “man.” One becomes minute and lowly in one’s own eyes as one beholds the scum of humanity.

There are learned works that discuss the varying natures of different kinds of creatures, and consider the cruel habits of those that prey with tooth and claw — the predators of the towns and the wilds, the snakes and scorpions of the deserts, the fearsome denizens of the seas and the skies — and they come to the conclusion that the most pernicious beast in the whole of creation is man.

But it is only when one is in prison that one comes to know the evil of this wild beast. It is there that one sees his real face, and hears his vulgar voice and harsh speech. It is there that with bloodshot eyes one witnesses a man’s calm enjoyment from shedding blood.

The most difficult time in prison is at night. For those who have already experienced the taste of prison it is quite unnecessary to explain that daytime in prison is far quieter than midnight in the smallest of hamlets. But for those who are caught up in the hubbub of the world it is difficult to imagine the deathly silence that reigns in prison even by day, and more so by night, when the wardens and all the officials are at rest.

In the midst of this dead stillness one hears metallic footsteps and the clatter of keys in one of the iron doors. Involuntarily one shudders, for one knows full well what a night visit signifies. At best it means a summons to the interrogator, with all the dire tortures that accompany it. A more dread experience is to overhear an exchange of conversation between a prisoner and the warden who is escorting him to the place of execution.

17. A productive experience

Prison is a fine little retreat for private meditation.77 Here one is spared the customary bother of having to close one’s eyes in order that one should not see things that one ought not see, of blocking one’s ears against things that one ought not hear, and of guarding one’s tongue from undesirable speech.

This is a place in which a person can rediscover his own equilibrium,78 where he can make a really honest self-appraisal, where he can thoroughly consider his past, joyfully accept the suffering of the present, and firmly resolve how he will live his future as soon as the Almighty raises him from bondage into freedom.

The good which is to be found in the evil of the sufferings of imprisonment sets a man up on a higher rung in life; it has a salutary influence on certain faculties of the soul which develop only by such means; and provided that all this is utilized for the service of G‑d, it is a most useful experience.79

18. The path of self-sacrifice

All of this is true of ordinary people, that tranquility is good and imprisonment is evil. But in the case of consummate tzaddikim, the fathers of the world, whatever things they encounter are various paths in the service of G‑d.

The imprisonment of Avraham Avinu took place in order that he should blaze the trail80 of utter self-sacrifice for G‑dliness, for Elokus. The imprisonment of the Alter Rebbe took place in order that he should blaze the path of utter self-sacrifice for the service of G‑d according to the teachings of Chassidus.

The Baal Shem Tov said before his passing that the alternative was open to him of leaving this world in the manner of Eliyahu HaNavi,81 of whom it is written, “[He] ascended Heavenward in a storm,”82 but he did not want to forgo what was written in the verse, “For dust you are, and to dust shall you return.”83

The Alter Rebbe, who was chosen from Above to disseminate the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov according to the path of Chabad, was given from Above the power to open up the spiritual faculties of Chochmah, Binah and Daas in his fellow Jews, in order to make them vehicles for Elokus. [To this end,] the Alter Rebbe had to experience all the possible paths in divine service.

In order to open the gates of one’s Chochmah, Binah and Daas so that these faculties should illuminate the heart in the course of one’s practical avodah, one must have actual mesirus nefesh. In Chassidus, this term [usually translated “self-sacrifice”] is explained as meaning mesiras haratzon,84 setting aside one’s own will. And it was the Alter Rebbe who cleared a path to mesirus nefesh for the sake of avodah.

As one contemplates the inner meaning of the Alter Rebbe’s imprisonment and release, one lights upon new ways of understanding and fresh insights as to what paths in avodah they opened up.

By virtue of the merit of our forefathers, the Rebbeim of blessed memory, may the Almighty grant us and all of Israel the understanding and the strength to walk — with hearts joyful in both a material and a spiritual sense — in the ways of divine service which the Alter Rebbe opened up through his mesirus nefesh. May the promise of the verse be realized: Yafutzu maayonosecha chutzah — “Your wellsprings [the teachings of Chassidus] shall be spread far and wide.”85 And may Mashiach, the king, come speedily and in our own days, Amen.