1. The role of the Torah is to teach

As is well known, the Alter Rebbe used to read a number of chapters of Tehillim every day,1 according to the alternative division of the book into the days of the month.2 The Rebbeim who succeeded him did likewise.

The first verse of the allotment of Tehillim for Yud-Tes Kislev is as follows: “A prayer of Moshe, the man of G‑d. L-rd, You have been an abode3 for us in generation after generation.”4 David, King of Israel, had received a tradition that Moshe Rabbeinu had composed this Psalm. In the words of the Midrash: “Moshe Rabbeinu uttered eleven Psalms,5 corresponding to eleven tribes.6 To begin with, the Psalm opening with the phrase ‘A prayer of Moshe’ includes the verse, ‘You bring man low until he is crushed, and You say: Return, you children of man.’7 This corresponds to the blessing of Reuven: ‘May Reuven live, and not die.’”8

In the allusions, such as the above, in the Book of Tehillim, there is to be found instruction for one’s divine service, for every word of Torah and prayer ought to give a person a certain degree of guidance as to how to conduct himself in all the areas of his daily life.

That is why there has often been reason to explain the fact that the very word “Torah” (תּוֹרָה) means “a teaching” (הוֹרָאָה): the Torah teaches a person how to arrange every sphere of his mundane life, both in his family affairs, such as the conduct of his home and the upbringing of his children, and in his social life.

In the above allusions in the Book of Tehillim, then, there is guidance for one’s divine service.

The above-quoted Psalm comprises four main points: (a) man is exhorted to contemplate how fleeting is the lifespan of this fleshly, material world; (b) he is told how he is given help from Above to follow the path of Torah and mitzvos, and (c) how by various means he is directed from Above toward the ways of repentance; (d) he is given a solid reminder that things of this world should not bring him to conceit.

This Psalm opens9 with the words: “L-rd, You have been an abode for us in generation after generation.” It closes with the words: “And may the pleasantness of the L-rd our G‑d be upon us; establish for us the work of our hands; the work of our hands, yea, establish it for us.” Now the word for “abode” (מָעוֹן) and the word for “pleasantness” (נֹעַם) are composed of the same letters,10 except that the statement that “You have been an abode for us in generation after generation” appears at the beginning of the Psalm, while the request introduced by the words “And may the pleasantness” appears at its end. This Psalm, then, embraces the entire life of a man on this world — from the moment that the soul enters its abode, the body, until it returns to the place called no’am (“pleasantness”), for, as it is written in the Zohar, “The World to Come is called ‘pleasantness.’”

2. Treasuring oral traditions

It was on Yud-Tes Kislev, then, that the Alter Rebbe read this chapter of Tehillim — the day that marked the hillula of the Maggid of Mezritch, the anniversary of his passing, and the day that was to be his own hillula, the day of his own liberation from imprisonment.

Among my notes of stories (i.e., orally-transmited traditions and teachings) that I heard from my father in the summer of 5655 (1895), there are many about the Alter Rebbe which have been handed down the generations from Rebbe to Rebbe. Some of them were passed down in a whisper, with earnest warnings that they were not to be revealed except for the benefit of avodah.

My great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, was exceedingly particular that stories should be transmitted with the greatest of care.11

My grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, kept notebooks of stories that he had heard from his father and from older relatives who then lived in Lubavitch, as well as from elder chassidim whom he had known as a child. He was well organized and had an extraordinary memory, and at the age of ten began to write down whatever he heard.

In his first jottings he records how his father, the Tzemach Tzedek, went to Petersburg12 in the summer of 5603 (1843), and before setting out he instructed his children13 that every day, including Shabbos, they and their mother14 should read three chapters of Tehillim in his study. He also sent Hershel the meshares with a pidyon to be taken to the burial place of his mother in Liozna.15

With his accustomed brevity, my grandfather the Rebbe Maharash records: (a) the discussions surrounding the sending of emissaries16 to Haditch and Niezhin, the resting places of the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe respectively; (b) a few stories that his father the Tzemach Tzedek had told him about how the Alter Rebbe had made the journey to Petersburg;17 (c) a statement made by his father the Tzemach Tzedek concerning the Alter Rebbe and himself: “My grandfather was taken to Petersburg; I am going myself”; (d) another statement made by his father concerning the Alter Rebbe: “My grandfather experienced self-sacrifice for the sake of the teachings18 of the Baal Shem Tov and for the sake of chassidim; for us this self-sacrifice should be a beaten path.”

Astonishing stories are recorded there of the Alter Rebbe’s stay in Peter-Paul Fortress, stories that have been handed down from generation to generation in hallowed purity.

When my father used to speak of the Alter Rebbe he would say that quite apart from the remarkable spiritual level of his soul, he was an atzmi [i.e., one who is absolutely true to his true self, or etzem],19 and wherever an atzmi may be, he is an atzmi.

The concept of being an atzmi involves two points: (a) an atzmi is what he is; (b) whatever an atzmi is, he is that at all times and in all places equally; changes in space and time are immaterial to him.

The light of the sun, the heat of the sun, and the influence of the sun — whether in relation to the vegetative kingdom, the animal kingdom, or humanity20 — are each only hispashtus, an “extension” of the sun, and not atzmus, the “self” of the sun. This is why they vary under the influence of changes in time and space. That which is at the level of hispashtus can be delimited, obscured, withheld or hindered.

With an atzmi, however, changes of space and time are of no consequence. The etzem of the sun is equal in all places and at all times. As to the divine command that “they shall be luminaries in the firmament of Heaven to give light upon the earth,”21 signifying that “the realm of this one shall be daytime and the realm of the other shall be nighttime,”22 — this delineation refers only to the hispashtus of the luminaries. That which is atzmi, by contrast, is unbounded, for the realm of atzmi is unaffected by changes of time and space.

The Alter Rebbe was an atzmi, and an atzmi, as we have said above, is unaffected by changes of time and space. Once inside the office of the Peter-Paul Fortress where he was to be crossexamined, as soon as dawn came (for he had been brought there before daybreak) he took out his tallis and began to examine its tzitzis, whereupon all the clerks there were overwhelmed by dread23 — for wherever an atzmi may be, he is an atzmi.

In fact, however, the etzem of the sun is not exactly analogous to the atzmiyus of the Alter Rebbe, for a nivra, a created being, cannot provide an exact analogy with a neshamah, a soul. Though the atzmi of a maor (lit., “a luminary”) and the atzmi of chiyus (“life-force”) are both atzmi, they are nevertheless different.

Wherever the Alter Rebbe was, he remained just as he had been. His stay in prison constitutes entire Torah teachings that can and should provide us with direction and encouragement in the study of Chassidus, a path in the avodah of the heart required by prayer, and zeal in following the ways of Chassidus.

My greatuncle R. Baruch Shalom, the son of the Tzemach Tzedek, was gifted with a musical talent. When he was eight years old24 the Alter Rebbe taught him the tunes for the cantillation of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. Concerning the latter, the cantillation for the Kesuvim, he said that this was the song of the Levites in the Beis HaMikdash. At the same time he told him two stories that he had heard from his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, and concluded with these words: “When we25 used to hear a Torah discourse from the Rebbe, we saw this as the Oral Law, and when we heard a story from his mouth, this was our Written Law.”

The Alter Rebbe, then, is saying here that a story heard from one’s Rebbe is Torah Shebichsav, whereas a Torah teaching heard from one’s Rebbe is Torah Sheb’al peh. One should listen attentively to the depth and richness of those words, for a statement of the Alter Rebbe is a wellspring of life-giving waters.

The full weight of a vort of the Alter Rebbe, and how it ought to be studied, may be clearly seen in Likkutei Torah.26 There we see how my great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek studies each statement of the Alter Rebbe, illuminating it by reference to Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Zohar and Midrashim.

And from all the above it is now perfectly clear for what soundly-based reason my great-grandfather was most particular that stories should be transmitted with the greatest of care.

3. The Maggid and the Alter Rebbe

My grandfather the Rebbe of Ovrutch27 once told my father28 something that he had heard from his saintly grandfather, R. Mordechai of Chernobyl, in these words:

My father (R. Nachum of Chernobyl29 ) once told me that the Rebbe (the Maggid of Mezritch) regarded the Rav (the Alter Rebbe) as his child.

The Maggid had once said to R. Zusya:30 “Write to our sage (gaon), Reb Zalmanyu31 Litvak (‘the Lithuanian’), and tell him to set out for here.”

And from that time on, his colleagues of the Chevraya32 called him “the Rav.” One of them, R. Avraham der Malach (“the angel”), the son of the Maggid, told his father of this and this was the answer: “The holy brotherhood concur with the truth. A name carries significance,33 and in the Halachah, the law is determined according to him who is called ‘Rav.’34 The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) of the Rav will find acceptance throughout all the scattered communities of the House of Israel.”

When the Rav arrived, R. Zusya told him that the Maggid had referred to him as “our gaon.” The Rav sighed deeply, and fainted. When he came to he was exceedingly weak, and had to remain in bed.

This took place in Rovno,35 at the time of the big meeting.36 The members of the brotherhood were afraid to tell the Rebbe, the Maggid. R. Mendele (R. Menachem Mendel) of Vitebsk held that it was out of the question for them to do so, because of the anguish involved. The members of the brotherhood would have to find some means themselves of making a pidyon for the Rav. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev argued otherwise, and ultimately persuaded the other disciples to inform the Maggid. This they did through a deputation of three: R. Mendele, R. Zusya, and R. Levi Yitzchak.

The Maggid answered in the following words: “And G‑d hid it from me! He has the sensitivity of a son. I was like a son to my Rebbe (the Baal Shem Tov), and he is like a son to me.”

None of us understood what these words of the Rebbe conveyed — until a few days before his passing37 he told us: “What you sense now, R. Zalmanyu already sensed last summer....”

And before his passing he took the Rav’s hand in his own and said: “Yud-Tes Kislev is our hillula” (day of rejoicing).

And, indeed, the Tuesday of the week of Parshas Vayeishev, 5533 (1772), was the hillula of the Maggid of Mezritch, the day of his passing, while the same day 26 years later — the Tuesday of the week of Parshas Vayeishev, 5559 (1798) — was the hillula of the Alter Rebbe, the day of his liberation from imprisonment.38

Speaking of this once at a farbrengen, the well-known chassid R. Shmuel Dov of Borisov39 said that the 26 years between these two events correspond to the four letters of the Name of G‑d, whose numerical value totals 26. “The Alter Rebbe,” he said, “revealed the path of yichuda ila’a.”

When I was imprisoned in the Shpalerke40 I was reminded of the above farbrengen, about which my father had told me. I recalled too that when he had once entered the study of his father the Rebbe Maharash for yechidus, his father had expounded a certain concept in Chassidus, and had meanwhile said: “My great-grandfather (the Alter Rebbe) underwent self-sacrifice so that chassidim should have a perception of yichuda ila’a and an understanding of daas elyon.”

4. How to be wise

The Psalm referred to above opens with the words, Tefillah leMoshe, ish haElokim — “A prayer of Moshe, the man of G‑d.” Commenting on the latter phrase, the Midrash asks: “If ‘man’, why ‘G‑d’? And if ‘G‑d’, why ‘man’?”41 And one of the answers which it gives to its own question is the following: “When he ascended on high he was a man...; flesh and blood ascended to the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, Who is all fire, and Whose angelic messengers are fire. Moshe ascended to Him and is called ‘man,’ and when he descended he is called ‘G‑d’.”

Two points are made here: one is that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended on high he is called “man” and when he descended he is called “G‑d”; the other is that it is relative to the angels that he is given the name “man” – for although angels are called אֵשׁ (esh, “fire”), the souls of mortals are called אִישׁ (ish, “man”). The superiority of mortal souls over angels may be seen in the very word אִישׁ, which comprises the word אֵשׁ and the letter yud (י). Moreover, that added letter is within the אֵשׁ, reflecting the superiority of אִישׁ over אֵשׁ.

Now to explain. The letter yud signifies Chochmah. This is a vast concept, discussed at length in all the classical works on Kabbalah. Briefly, nevertheless: One’s initial comprehension of any concept appears as a swift and brief revelation. We observe, for example, that in the case of someone toiling to resolve a problem encountered in his studies, the first intimation of a solution comes to him as a brief flash. This is why Chochmah is known as barak hamavrik, the “lightning flash” of the essence of the concept.

The smallest of all the letters is yud, but [the writing of] every letter42 must begin with it, for yud is a point (nekudah), and everything begins with a point.

The fence (the gader, i.e., the defining characteristic) of Chochmah is bittul (“self-effacement”). Indeed, “the fence (the syag, i.e., the safeguard) for wisdom is silence.”43 The fence of something is not the thing itself. For example, in the instruction to “make a fence around the Torah,”44 we see that the fence and the Torah are distinct from each other, though the fence does have a connection with the Torah in that it safeguards it. The same applies in relation to Chochmah, where the fence — i.e., the vessel — for Chochmah is bittul.

And the essence of bittul is hearing and accepting what another says. A wise man, a chacham, listens to everyone. Whoever can learn a little something from every situation and from every man,45 whether great or small, is truly wise.

5. A threefold bond of souls

Every single aspect of my father’s conduct had a basis in the Halachah or in Kabbalah. And any custom observed by his forebears, the Rebbeim, which he had either seen himself, or which he had heard of on reliable authority, was regarded by him as an inflexible statute.46

Our Sages tell us: “One is obligated to quote a statement in the very words of his mentor.”47 With my father, this principle of faithful transmission applied not only to a custom, but even to every nuance of a niggun how each melody was sung, and when it was sung.

The singing of niggunim plays a serious part in the chassidic way of life. Everyone knows, for example, the ten niggunim composed by the Alter Rebbe, to be sung on particular occasions. My father taught us the great niggun comprising four themes, and explained48 that they correspond in ascending order to the Four Worlds —Atzilus, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah.49 I have kept a hanachah50 which I recorded of this talk at the time.

Some of these ten niggunim are quite short — single motifs which he would sing at certain times. And in Lubavitch the great niggun was sung only on special occasions: on Yud-Tes Kislev, at the celebration of a circumcision, bar mitzvah or wedding, and on Rosh Chodesh Elul.

My teacher the Rashbatz, R. Shmuel Betzalel, once told me something that he himself had heard from the mouth of the Tzemach Tzedek at the wedding of R. Shneur-R. Nachum’s,51 as follows: “Our Sages tell us that ‘Whoever quotes a teaching in the name of another should regard the original speaker as if standing before him.’52 When a person repeats a Torah teaching, he unites himself with the Naran (nefesh, ruach, neshamah) of the one who taught it; when one sings a niggun which one has heard from him, one unites oneself with his chayah and yechidah.” The Tzemach Tzedek had then proceeded to sing the Alter Rebbe’s celebrated niggun with the earnest rapture of dveikus. His sons sang with him, and all those present shed contrite tears of teshuvah.

My grandfather (the Rebbe Maharash) used to sing certain niggunim to himself: in the course of davenen — during pesukei dezimrah and the blessings of the Reading of Shema, and while putting on the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam; while he was putting on his Shabbos clothes, and again after Shabbos as he took them off; and at the Shabbos table, by evening and by day.

Among my notes there is a vort that I heard my father telling R. Shmuel Dov on the way home from Yalta53 in 5647 (1887) — that a niggun, a discourse of Chassidus,54 and yechidus, correspond respectively to thought (machshavah), speech (dibbur), and action (maaseh).

Now to clarify. It has been explained55 that the bond and union between Rebbe and chassid exists at various levels.

When a chassid speaks with his Rebbe at yechidus, two forces are at play. Firstly, the word yechidus means the state of being sole, as in the statement in the Mishnah, “Say what you said to me when we were alone (beyichud).”56 Secondly, yechidus implies clarity, as in another statement of the Mishnah, “And they knew clearly [beyichud, as defined by R. Ovadiah of Bartenura] that the Ark was hidden there.”57 Yechidus, then, means not only the union of chassid and Rebbe — which is a product of the bond of the chassid to the Rebbe, and of the innate love58 which the Rebbe feels for the chassid — but in addition it means clarity. The essential content of yechidus is a union that gives rise to clarity in the mind of the chassid as to what course of action he should take. For when a person first begins to tackle the subject of avodah and draws up an account of his spiritual situation, his spirits wilt, and confusion sets in. He does not know what his first step should be towards tikkun, towards rehabilitating his spiritual condition methodically and effectively.

It is this much-needed clarity that a chassid finds in yechidus, through union with his Rebbe. When he tells his Rebbe of his inner spiritual condition, the Rebbe tells him how he should begin the labor of tikkun.

The term maaseh (translated above as “action”) does not refer only to a piece of work such as making a vessel or writing and drawing — instances of motor activity. Rather, maaseh is a term that describes a function. The function, or effect, of every faculty of the soul — whether we are speaking of the intellectual faculties of Chochmah, Binah and Daas, or the emotive attributes of love and awe, chessed and gevurah, or the faculties of sight and hearing, thought and speech — is called maaseh.

This, then, is the explanation of the above vort — that a niggun, a discourse of Chassidus, and yechidus, correspond respectively to thought, speech, and action (maaseh). When a chassid brings the entire content of his yechidus to realization, his bond with his Rebbe extends to the furthest level of maaseh. (This subject warrants a deep-reaching explanation, which will be forthcoming when the Almighty provides the opportunity.) When a chassid repeats the Chassidus heard from his Rebbe, there is created a union on the level of speech. And through a niggun, there comes into being a union on the level of thought.

6. Preparing for a bar-mitzvah

It was the private custom of each of our forebears, the Rebbeim, to deliver certain maamarim in the presence of their children. As has been mentioned before, Biurei Zohar,59 the Siddur,60 and certain maamarim in Pirush HaMilos61 are based on the maamarim which the Alter Rebbe delivered for the most part in the presence of his children alone.62

Likewise, the Alter Rebbe repeated for the Tzemach Tzedek alone the maamarim which he had first delivered either before the latter’s birth or in his early childhood. So, too, my great-grandfather (the Tzemach Tzedek) delivered certain maamarim for my grandfather (the Rebbe Maharash). And my grandfather delivered certain maamarim for my father (the Rebbe Rashab), as well as a number of expository maamarim explaining the discourses which he had delivered publicly.

In preparation for my bar-mitzvah63 I had to memorize and master three maamarim, one short and two long. My father directed me to repeat one of the long ones on Monday of the week of Parshas Balak, which was the twelfth of Tammuz, at the burial places of my grandfather and great-grandfather.64 He told me to repeat the short one65 publicly, at the festive table on the same day after prayers, and the third maamar66 at a certain time which is recorded in my notes of that time.

No one was to know of this third maamar. In those days I saw this as a major trial — but this too I withstood, even though it entailed a major battle with myself. Indeed, my life in that period presented a number of such fresh challenges that seemed to demand more of a struggle than my childhood strength could muster.

From the year 5651 (1891)67 onwards, a new world opened up before me, a world of notions that were somehow spiritual. It was at this time that my father began to teach me Chassidus, and that I began to feel somehow that there exist comprehensible concepts whose effect is that one should not desire the things which one spontaneously desires, and that one should desire the things which one does not spontaneously desire.

7. As observed by a child

There were three people at the time of whom I was particularly fond. The first, and the one I loved most of all, was my teacher, R. Nissan. From the very first day that I started studying under him I found him lovable. He captivated me with the whole of my heart of childhood innocence — by his clear explanations of the Gemara with its commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos, by the good-natured patience with which he listened to my childish queries, by his fiery joy, by his explanations of the Aggadah, and by every move that reflected the refined character traits of a true chassid. R. Nissan the Melamed was the first to open my eyes to perceive how in the realm of human conduct good and evil are to be found jumbled together, and the first to explain to me how one ought to abhor evil and choose good.

The second of the beloved people was R. Chanoch Hendel Kurnitzer, and the third was R. Meir Mordechai Borisover. I owe them a great deal for the influence they had on me in my early childhood years, when I was seven or eight years old.

After Pesach 5647 (1887) we were on our way home from Yalta, where my father had been from the middle of Elul 5646 (1886), and spent about three weeks in Kharkov. There, for the first time in my life, I saw assembled in one place all the celebrated chassidim of stature — such as R. Chaim Ber Vilenski (from Kremenchug); R. Dov Ber [Ze’ev] Kozevnikov (from Yekaterinoslav), who was known as the Radaz; R. David Zvi Chein (from Chernigov) — the Radatz; R. Yaakov Mordechai Bespalov (from Poltava) — the Rim; as well as a host of rabbanim and well-to-do chassidim. All of this made a strong impression on me, particularly the self-effacement and the respect shown by all these hoary rabbanim and chassidim in the presence of my father. Every move of every single one of them became deeply engraved in my young mind, especially the honor accorded my father by the rav of Kharkov, R. Yechezkel Arlozorov, a scholar renowned in the rabbinic world, and by his brother R. Eliezer, the well-known rav of Ramen.

In honor of Lag BaOmer a festive meal was arranged, which was attended by all of the above-mentioned men of stature, and by so many chassidim that the large room was packed. I clambered on to a chest of drawers68 that stood at the side, and witnessed the profound respect shown by all those present. I observed their happy faces, as their warm hearts found expression in enthused melodies. Then suddenly they all fell silent, and my father began to expound Chassidus.

Back in Lubavitch in time for Shavuos I found myself strongly drawn to R. Hendel. I began to make a special point of listening to whatever he said, and watching him as he davened.

That Shavuos I began to take an interest in the chassidim who had made the journey to Lubavitch for Yom-Tov. All around me I heard names — R. Gershon Ber, R. Shalom-R. Hillel’s, R. Zalman Neimark, R. Avraham Ber of Bobruisk, R. Shmuel Ber of Borisov, R. Yoel of Podobranka, R. Avraham of Zhebin.

Then there was R. Pinchas Leib. He had been my grandfather’s gabbai sheni, an assistant of the gabbai R. Levi Yitzchak. R. Pinchas Leib was a true chassid — a chassidisher Yid and a really good friend. Nowadays he spent most of his time in our house, because he was busy copying various manuscript maamarim for my father — almost my father’s aide. He used to speak to me warmly, telling me stories about my grandfather, and detailing the praiseworthy attributes of each of the above-mentioned elder chassidim.

That Shavuos was the first Yom-Tov on which I was present for the whole time during which Chassidus was being expounded in the minyan that was held in the little hall69 where my father used to deliver his maamarim on Shavuos (unlike Shabbos, when this would take place in his home). I understood nothing, but I observed everything closely; the proceedings interested me intensely.

Since I had learned little during my almost three-quarters of a year in Yalta, my studies had fallen behind the expectations for my age. A temporary private tutor was therefore hired for me, by the name of R. Yitzchak Gershon, whose task was to prepare me in the few months remaining until the new term for admission to the cheder of the advanced Gemara class.

At this point an extraordinary studious discipline developed within me, and in those few months I managed with G‑d’s help to attain the standard required for admission to the class of an efficient teacher — R. Shimshon the Melamed under whom I studied for three years. As a teacher, he carried out his tasks well in all respects, but as a person he was far from good-natured, so that through various circumstances I was brought even closer to R. Hendel Kurnitzer and R. Meir Mordechai Borisover. Whenever I had free time from cheder I would sit down next to them to hear a story or a vort.

R. Hendel’s davenen, the way he read Tehillim, his admirable character; R. Meir Mordechai’s settling down at certain times to study (he was a businessman who had time available only in the evenings, when he would take a seat in the little hall and study, in such a pleasant manner!); all of this left a mighty impact on me. I felt a special degree of attentiveness and respect towards them, and would find delight in serving R. Hendel a cup of tea, or bringing a little something for R. Meir Mordechai.

Quite often R. Meir Mordechai would listen to my recitation of the Gemara that I had studied. When he saw that I had grasped a particular passage properly, he would afford me pleasure by teaching me the novel interpretation70 of one of the commentators. And R. Hendel would often listen as I recited the Mishnayos that I had committed to memory.

The greatest joy of all was listening to R. Hendel telling of how he had grown up among elder chassidim. In fact he had even known chassidim of the Alter Rebbe.71 From every story or custom that he recounted of the chassidim of bygone years he would derive a moral,72 a lesson in proper conduct. With him, the love of a fellow Jew was one of the key lessons. Whatever he said sprang from a heart inflamed by the enthusiasm of a chassid, and found expression in mild words which sank deep into the listener’s heart.

8. Fasting, not dieting

By the winter term73 of the year 5650 (1889-1890) I had been admitted to the class of the above-mentioned R. Nissan the Melamed. With him I began to experience the first really happy days of my childhood, and all three — R. Nissan, R. Hendel and R. Meir Mordechai — had become the dearly-loved folk with whom I had to share my every glad moment. It goes without saying, then, that keeping my big secret of the two maamarim that I now had to master for my bar-mitzvah entailed a major battle. But my father’s injunction that no one should know of them was observed minutely: no one even detected that I had a secret.

After my bar-mitzvah my father would every so often deliver a maamar for me alone. These private discourses were generally unrelated to the maamarim that he would deliver on Shabbos to the chassidim at large, though a minor portion of one of them was occasionally included. Most of them were very short, dealt with topics in avodah, and included parables expounded at length. Among other things he would point out exactly which details of each parable were relevant to the lesson being illustrated. Moreover, apart from teaching me each maamar, systematically explaining every concept according to the extent of my grasp, he taught me how to study.

On Sunday of the week of Parshas Pinchas [i.e., six days after my bar-mitzvah], my father called me into his study and said: “It is true that this is a deferred fast,74 but it is the first fast of your ‘being a man’.”

This was a reference to the maamar that my father had delivered two months earlier, based on the verse, “Be strong, and be a man.”75 It was then Sunday of the week of Parshas Acharei-Mos-Kedoshim, 11 Iyar 5653 (1893), and the occasion was my yom chinuch (“the day of my training”) — i.e., the day on which (to all appearances) I began to put on tefillin.76 In fact I had begun to put on tefillin much earlier.77

That maamar had discussed the four terms for “man” — adam, enosh, ish, gever. In it my father described an admirable adam and a fine ish, and showed how being termed enosh or gever depends on each man alone.

Adam and ish, he pointed out, are terms describing the essential level78 of the individual concerned. Specifically: Adam speaks of mochin, i.e., the level of avodah which focuses on Chabad divine service that is generated by intellectual activity. Ish speaks of middos, i.e., the level of avodah which focuses on the emotive attributes of the soul and on the refinement of one’s character traits. Enosh and gever are (as it were) adjectival terms describing the essential levels of adam and ish. Specifically: Enosh indicates weakness, while gever indicates strength. That is to say, that if the level of avodah characterized as that of adam or of ish is executed in a weak manner, then it may be described by the term enosh. If, however, an adam or an ish executes the avodah expected of him energetically, then it may be described by the term gever. This, then, is the meaning of my father’s above statement that being termed enosh or gever depends on each man alone.

That was the first maamar in which I experienced a pleasure that was distinctively personal. In that maamar I sensed the meaning of “Rebbe” according to my understanding of those days, and felt the meaning of “father”.

I remember the farbrengen at which the above three chassidim sat together after that maamar, each of them explaining it to me in his own style. R. Meir Mordechai explained the level of adam as spoken of there, R. Hendel discussed the level of ish, and my teacher R. Nissan clarified the use of the terms enosh and gever, pointing out how one’s weakness and strength depend only on the manner in which one’s avodah is carried out in practice.

[Now, two months later, soon after my bar-mitzvah, my father took up the subject of fasting.]

“On one’s first fast-day,” he said, “one should fast — and I mean fasting, not losing weight.”79

And he proceeded to explain himself: “Abstention from eating and drinking is called losing weight, whereas if one toils away at one’s studies while not eating and drinking, that is called fasting.”

“Today,” he went on, “you will review mentally all three maamarim that you have prepared for your bar-mitzvah, as well as a certain number of chapters of Mishnayos which you will memorize” — this was in addition to the allotment of chapters of Mishnayos that I had to memorize every day — “and at four you will come to see me in my study.”

When I came, he told me to recite all three maamarim from memory. Since this took a good few hours he told me to go and rest a little while between one maamar and the next.

The warmth that my father showed me gave me the greatest of pleasure: I felt no difficulty in fasting at all. Before I left his study he warned me that no one was to know that I was fasting.

On fast-days in Lubavitch we used to daven Minchah late, and intentionally so. I don’t mean after sunset, but in the late afternoon, such as eight o’clock on Shivah-Asar BeTammuz and seven o’clock on Tishah BeAv. When I went to shul for Minchah, then, I very much wanted it to be known that I was now a grown-up, that I was fasting, but [I saw to it that] no one noticed.

From Monday80 of the week of Parshas Pinchas, 19 Tammuz, until Shabbos Parshas Vaeschanan,81 my daily task was to review and recite to myself from memory one of the three maamarim in a certain order.

On Tuesday of the week of Parshas Eikev, 19 Menachem-Av,82 my father called me into his study and said that I should tell my melamed, R. Nissan, that my father had told me that I should see him that afternoon, so would he excuse me from cheder for a few hours. My melamed gave his permission at once. But I was restless, curious as to what was in store for me, and it was with impatience that I waited out the time until Mendel the Meshares came to the cheder to say that my father was calling for me.

When I entered his study my father said: “We’re getting close to Elul. This is your first Elul since becoming a man (ish), so one needs to prepare for it. I’m going to say a maamar for you, and then I’ll help you commit it to memory so that you’ll know it well. Then you’ll recite it from memory by yourself and review it mentally. But no one is to know of it.”

My father then delivered for me a brief discourse that began by quoting the verse, “G‑d will remove all illness from you.”83 I spent the whole afternoon with my father, until I had mastered that maamar thoroughly. On the following Shabbos, Parshas Eikev, he publicly delivered an expanded version of the same maamar, though it was the original version that he instructed me to continue reviewing until he would say another maamar for me.

This sequence recurred from time to time. For example: In the summer of 5654 (1894), when my father travelled to Liman84 for health reasons, he took me along to accompany him as far as the Smolensk station. (There we would have to wait a few hours for the Oreol-Odessa train, quietly: no one in Smolensk knew that my father was passing through.) And in the railway carriage on the way from Rudny85 to Smolensk my father delivered a short maamar for me that began with the quotation, “At three years of age Avraham recognized his Creator.”86

9. Who made Moshe Rabbeinu feel humble?

When my father was about to set out in the train headed for Oreol he said: “Our Sages teach, ‘Who is wise? He who learns from every man.’87 Now one doesn’t have to be wise to be a learner, for learning is the very definition of the level called ‘man’ (adam): a man is someone who learns, and one who does not learn is not a man. But he who learns from every man is wise. That is, a wise man is he who in every person finds something good from which to learn.”

Learning is an expression of seichel (intellect), and seichel involves deliberateness.88 The term ish (“man”) refers to middos,89 but only to middos that are guided by the seichel. One’s natural middos, by contrast, are a fiery flame, whereas אִישׁ (ish) is made up of the word אֵשׁ (esh, meaning “fire”) and the letter י (yud, which indicates the intellect). That is to say, אִישׁ signifies the kind of fire in which the qualities indicated by י — chochmah and seichel — are to be found.

Now this superiority of אִישׁ is significant only when a contrast is drawn with the angels, who are called אֵשׁ, while souls [i.e., of people] are at the level of אִישׁ. In fact, however, the real superiority of souls lies in their belonging to the level of adam, and not that of ish.

The pre-eminence of Moshe Rabbeinu is [nevertheless] stated in terms of his being at the level of ish. Thus we read: “Now the man (ish) Moshe was very humble, more so than all the men on the face of the earth.”90 This is paradoxical. Since adam refers to man as an intellectual being, and ish refers to the middos, the level of adam is clearly loftier than that of ish. Moreover, the Torah proceeds to speak in praise of Moshe Rabbeinu as follows: “Throughout My house he is a trusted servant.”91 On this Ibn Ezra comments: “Like a member of the household [who enters and makes his requests at will].” And, in the next verse, “With him I speak face to face.”92 Ibn Ezra’s comment: “With no intermediary.” Yet a man of this stature is described by the term ish rather than adam!

This paradox is explained in Chassidus. The term adam, as we have seen, refers to seichel. Now seichel is a lofty thing — but it is not a consummation. The term ish refers to middos, and good middos do reflect the attainment of perfection. For after all the superlatives that the Almighty employs concerning Moshe Rabbeinu, attesting to his being at the level of adam — that to the Almighty he is “like a member of the household,” for he is at the level of Chochmah d’Atzilus; that “with him I speak face to face,” without intermediaries, because the level of Chochmah signifies bittul, utter self-effacement (as the Alter Rebbe says in Tanya93 when characterizing the lofty level of the sefirah of Chochmah) — the noblest level attributed to him is that of ish. Hence, the more profound the Chochmah, the more does it find expression in the perfection of the middos.

On Shavuos 5679 (1919), when we were in Rostov94 on the Don, my father delivered three maamarim,95 all long and complex. The third maamar included a discussion on the advantage gained (as it were) by the Divine Plan when the ultimate purpose of the beginning of a process is realized only at its end.96 In the course of this discussion my father said: “This is what is meant by the verse, Veha’ish Moshe… — ‘Now the man Moshe was very humble, more so than all the men on the face of the earth.’97 For Moshe Rabbeinu saw the Book of Adam.98 There he saw that in the last years before the footsteps of Mashiach99 there would be a generation of people devoid of G‑dly understanding, i.e., their understanding could not be defined as such, in particular when compared to the understanding of Moshe Rabbeinu, next to which their attainments would be reckoned as naught. He saw moreover that there would not be real avodah in the mind and the heart, but only the fulfillment of the mitzvos in actual practice. He saw, however,100 that this would be accomplished through self-sacrifice — that there would be numerous physical and spiritual obstacles obscuring their path, but that they would withstand every hindrance and survive every trial, and fulfill the commandments with mesirus nefesh. It was in this that Moshe Rabbeinu saw the ultimate purpose of the beginning — of the beginning that sprang from the innermost essence of the Infinite One. And contemplating all the above, he grew exceedingly humble, since the people of that generation were so much higher than he.”

Every year, on the Second Day of Shavuos101 after the midday meal, my father would come to visit me. In the course of the farbrengen in my home that Shavuos he discussed the concept of veha’ish Moshe — “the man (ish) Moshe.” He pointed out that the distinctive quality of Moshe Rabbeinu lay in the perfection of his middos in keeping with the level of adam that he had attained in keeping with the transcendent reaches of Chochmah102 that he had attained. (It is explained in Chassidus, in one of its more abstruse areas, that this transcendent quality of Chochmah undergoes two stages, which are known literally as enrobing and disrobing.103 )

10. Are your intellectual efforts refining your middos?

The above discussion will give us a new insight into the verse which we looked at a little while ago. It will be recalled that, commenting on the description of Moshe Rabbeinu as ish haElokim — “the man of G‑d,” the Midrash says that “when he ascended on high he was a man (ish).”104 That is to say: When he was in the midst of his loftiest flights of divine understanding he remembered that he was at the level of ish, a man of middos.

There are people who in the course of serving G‑d through prayer set about their meditation in a way that involves a solid grasp of their subject. One can see that they are davenen as one ought to daven, and that they are duly aroused. But when after davenen such a person steps into the big world, he is almost like someone else: he can stumble in various ways involving middos, which are not at all in keeping with his davenen.

The reason for this is that while he was davenen he did not work on himself, toiling toward the refinement of his own middos. Prayer today replaces the sacrifices,105 and a sacrifice has to be accompanied by a verbalized confession. Prayer without self-directed avodah is a sacrifice without a confession. In such a case, a person is close [to his Source] during prayer, but when he comes in contact with the outside world after prayer he is deficient.

This, then, is what is meant by the statement of the Midrash that “when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended on high he was a man (ish)”: he remembered that he had middos, and that they had to be refined.

Now the above-quoted Midrash went on to say that when Moshe Rabbeinu descended from the Heavens he is called “G‑d” (Elokim). The Name Elokim signifies power, judgment, and tzimtzum. There is a verse that says that “G‑d (Elokim) did not lead them by way of the Land of the Philistines (Plishtim), for it was near.”106 On this verse the Alter Rebbe comments in Torah Or107 that Plishtim ((פְּלִשְׁתִּים signifies expansiveness — being broad and wide open, like an open-ended alley (מָבוֹי מְפוּלָשׁ).108

On the one hand, the characteristic of Plishtim is to be found in the realm of holiness (Plishtim dikedushah). Thus, the unbounded and open-ended joy with which a person gives expression to his cleaving to G‑d belongs to the level of loving Him bechol meodecha — “with all your might.” On the other hand, the parallel characteristic of Plishtim is to be found in the realm of impurity (Plishtim dikelipah). This finds expression in the evil attribute known as scoffing (leitzonus) — wisecracking, empty-headed hilarity, and idle chatter. The Psalmist writes, “[Happy is the man...] who does not sit where scoffers sit,”109 and on this phrase the Sages comment: “This refers to Plishtim.”110

There is thus a lesson to be learned from the above-quoted verse: “G‑d did not lead them by way of the Land of the Plishtim, for it was near, [for G‑d said: Lest the people regret] when they see war, and return to Egypt.” It is not the way of G‑d to be in a state of excessively revealed joy as soon as one gets out of [one’s personal] Egypt.111 For “G‑d created one [side] opposite the other,”112 [i.e., everything on the holy side of the universe has its counterpart in the realm of impurity]. Thus, counterpoised to the joy that stems from holiness there is a kelipah the joy derived from vanities.

The above verse about the Land of the Plishtim includes the phrase, ki karov hu — “For it was near.” The shell or peel (Heb., kelipah) of a fruit envelops it totally, and so too is the animal soul closely bound up113 with a person. Moreover, the Gemara calls the Evil Inclination “a skilled craftsman.”114 He is most accomplished in his work. He begins by getting a person [over-]involved in things that are permitted — as can readily be seen, and as every individual (nebbich) senses the situation within himself.

It is hard to speak — but it is painful to remain silent.

How is it possible that a person who has just been involved in his davenen, his dveikus finding expression ardently in the sweetness of his voice, should now — when he comes out into the world — not only bring along nothing, but moreover be jolly, with a wisecrack to spare, and be pleased with himself? This very self-satisfaction is the Plishtim of the kelipah, of the unholy side of the universe.

Every peel or shell (kelipah) bears a relation to the fruit that it covers. There are fruits whose kelipah can also be eaten — but only after being cooked. Though the fruit may be edible raw, the kelipah will not be digestible unless it is first scalded and stewed.

There is no need for this to be explained at length: everyone knows what is intended. This is the thrust of the statement of the Sages, that when Moshe Rabbeinu descended from the Heavens he is called Elokim. For [after the avodah of davenen] a person needs to employ powerful restraints, to stand in judgment over himself, and to delimit himself (tzimtzum)115 in order to know what his tasks are in this world.

This is the path blazed by the [Alter] Rebbe whose liberation we are celebrating now, in order to enable everyone to become involved in the dual avodah implied by the words ish haElokim — during one’s avodah of intellectual endeavor, to be working simultaneously at the level of ish (middos); after one’s davenen, when one resumes one’s daily life, to be a judge over oneself.

Now, to consider the words of our verse afresh: Tefilah leMoshe, ish haElokim. The word tefilah ((תְּפִלָּה implies joining, bonding.116 The spiritual leaders of Israel are called “Moshe,” as in the well-known quotation, Ispashtusa deMoshe bechol dara — “An extension of Moshe is to be found in every generation.”117 Our verse thus intimates that each such Moshe bonds the people of Israel to the Almighty, bringing them to the level at which every one of them can become ish haElokim, in the dual sense explained above.