1. The gift of pictorial imagination

When in the course of a chassidic discourse my father1 came to discuss some profound concept such as hafshatah (lit., “abstraction”), he would sometimes express himself as follows: “Once a person has understood an idea, he pauses to contemplate it profoundly, and views it in his mind’s eye just as one looks at a beautiful picture.”

Often he would express himself in these words: “When a person laboriously exerts his body and soul while grappling with either a topic in the revealed levels2 of the Torah, or a concept in the innermost levels3 of the Torah, the subject is still in a state of thrust and parry within his own mind — so long as he has not yet mastered it thoroughly. But once the concept has found a comfortable niche in his thinking,4 he views it just like one looks at a painted picture, for by now it has formed an image in his mind, just like a picture that is seen by the physical eye.”

We have already spoken of the virtues of imagination.5 A person endowed with this faculty can picture a concept and experience it within himself, and this benefits one’s avodah considerably.

Indeed, my great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek once said that a person with the gift of imagination has greater chances of attaining teshuvah than another. Moreover, he can experience ahavah (love of G‑d) and yir’ah (awe) as a sensation in the flesh of his physical heart, just like the sensations of physical love and fear.

In the literature of Chassidus one can find well-ordered advice on a variety of matters — how to broaden and mellow one’s intellectual capacity, how to rectify the attributes of one’s character, and how to change one’s nature and habits. And one of the faculties which our chassidim6 and our yeshivah students7 should accustom themselves to develop is – imagination.

Every individual who ever studied in the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah in Lubavitch certainly remembers what a farbrengen of Simchas Torah or Yud-Tes Kislev was like. Whoever was in Lubavitch — who heard a maamar, or spoke with my father at yechidus, or prayed at the holy resting-places of our saintly forebears8 — ought to picture to himself from memory those inspiring sights that he witnessed and experienced during those days in Lubavitch.

Just as thought is unbounded by spatial limits, so is it unbounded by limits of time. One’s memory houses sights that date back to many long years ago, to one’s loving and carefree childhood, as it then was. And at moments of truthful and intense introspection, one can experience yet again the stimuli and the spiritual perceptions9 of bygone years.

2. Childhood recollections

When I was five years old, in the winter of 5646 (1886), I spent some time with my parents at Yalta,10 in Crimea. When we used to stroll among the mountains I used to play near my father. He often asked me what I remembered having seen when I was very little. I would tell him, and he would explain to me what I had seen. In this manner various sights became engraved in my childish mind, and these proved to be most useful when I grew older. Thus trained by my father to recollect early sights, I was enabled to recall the saintly appearance of my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, whom I had seen when I was two years and three months old.

The year 5650 (1890) was almost the first that my father spent entirely at home, the greater part of the previous years having been spent abroad. During that year he often got me to tell him of sights that I recalled from my early childhood. So it was that it became part of my very nature to preserve various memories precisely, especially farbrengens, and from time to time I enjoyed reflecting over old recollections. Now too, when we have (thank G‑d) been through so much in the course of these almost 20 years of exile11 and wandering, these old, old recollections of farbrengens and sichos at different times and places are one’s life-giving waters, the cool waters that lend one vigor.

The benefits that imagination bestows are tangible; anyone can come to know and actually experience them in his own life.

If, with one’s entire being, one were to deeply contemplate the spectacle of a farbrengen of Yud-Tes Kislev or Simchas Torah in Lubavitch in those days, arousing one’s memory to summon up clearly all the details that he then observed — the holy features of the Rebbe, the warm attentiveness of the mashpi’im and mashgichim, the contentment and self-effacement of all those assembled, the moving melodies, the talks, the faces of one’s comrades — then it is certain that at that moment he will be overwhelmed with the true goodness of those days, and the light and goodness of those times will fill his every fiber.

How good it felt to be within the walls of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah; how pleasant it was to behold that holy countenance,12 with the sweet and lovable smile that caressed every aching heart, that softened every stony heart; how blissful it was to hear those talks on Chassidus!

3. Think positively

Chassidim and temimim who were at a farbrengen or at a yechidus in Lubavitch contain within themselves unlimited treasures. Every farbrengen, every yechidus, is a treasure-house of all kinds of material and spiritual good.

Anyone who has so much as a gift of spiritual sensitivity, and who pictures to himself what it was like at yechidus — reminding himself exactly what he said and asked, recalling the Rebbe’s answer and the wording of his blessing — will be awakened thereby from the slumber of foolishness. He will be infused with new life.

No words can express the solace and hope that such a recollection gives a man. Such an experience makes one’s physical life easier; it suffuses one’s workaday world with light; it gives one the spirit to carry on one’s lifelong task — avodah that is alive.

One of the mashpi’im in the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah in Lubavitch was R. Michael. The older temimim no doubt remember what manner of man he was.

When he was a young man one of his children became so dangerously ill that his doctors said nothing could be done. He went straight off and told a group of his fellow chassidim of his grievous situation. They lent him strength, urged him not to despair because without a doubt the Almighty would be merciful, and advised him to set out at once for Lubavitch.

Hearing this he broke into tears. He would dearly love to go to Lubavitch, he said, but the doctors said that now it was only a matter of hours; what was the point of setting out on such a journey?

One of the elder chassidim turned to him sternly: “Doesn’t the Gemara tell us explicitly, ‘Let no man preclude the possibility of mercy’?13 So for sure the advocating angels will persuade the Almighty to wait with His final decision until you reach the Rebbe!”

R. Michael thereupon set out on foot for Lubavitch accompanied by a chassidisher friend, a tailor by trade, and once or twice they were able to shorten the journey by taking cheap rides with passing wagons. And as soon as they arrived there, R. Michael had the good fortune to be admitted to yechidus at once.

“As I walked into the Rebbe’s study,” R. Michael himself related, “and handed the Rebbe the pidyon nefesh with the child’s name written on it, the thought flashed through my mind: ‘Who knows what’s doing with the child? Didn’t the doctors say it was only a matter of hours?’ And I wept bitterly.

“The Rebbe read the note and said: ‘Don’t cry. Think good things, and things will turn out well.14 Don’t lament! You’ll celebrate the bar-mitzvahs of your grandchildren.’

“Whenever hard times came,” concluded R. Michael — for in later years he was to suffer anguish in the upbringing of his children, “I would always picture to myself the Rebbe’s holy face, and recall those words that he told me at yechidus — and things would work out well for me.”

Thus on the material plane. And in the spiritual dimension even more so, rich memories such as these are a pillar of light and a pillar of fire; they illuminate one’s mind and warm one’s heart.

In every generation, the chassidisher farbrengen has been one of the very foundation stones of the edifice which may be called — the education and guidance of chassidim.

The gift of pictorial imagination is one of the most important of the faculties and senses of the soul; it produces noteworthy results, both in the realm of haskalah and in the realm of avodah, and our forebears, the Rebbeim of their respective generations, always esteemed men who were thus gifted. This esteem may be gauged from a long story that my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, once told about R. Levi Yitzchak, the saintly Rav of Berditchev.

4. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev takes to the road

One summer’s day R. Levi Yitzchak began his morning prayers so early that his disciples were puzzled. Completing Shacharis early, he asked several of them to accompany him, had someone call for a wagon-driver, and arranged that he should take them to a village some 30 or 40 viorst distant. Neither the wagon-driver nor the disciples knew who was the personage living there, for whose sake the Rav of Berditchev was undertaking such a long journey.

Not far from Berditchev, a certain Christian owned an extensive estate. He was widely known because he often used to come into town, and besides, many Jewish merchants used to buy grain and other farm produce from him. Moreover, a number of Jews held the rights to his mills and to the rivers that ran through the estate, under the lease arrangement that was known as arenda.

One day an individual from Germany arrived on the scene, and bought up a substantial part of the estate. Through it ran a rivulet, one of whose banks was adorned by a smooth young pine plantation and a grassy hillock, while the other bank bordered rich and fertile fields.

No one knew the new owner, nor cared very much about him either, beyond their business contacts. He built himself a few fine houses on a spot that was generously blessed with natural beauty, and there he lived with his family, surrounded by his farm laborers. He also built a well-fitted flour mill — a mechanized mill, an innovation in those days — and employed supervisors to manage his estate efficiently. All in all, quite a number of Jews earned their livelihood from the activities on his property.

As time passed, and the mill produced profitably, and the farm yielded rich harvests, the German hired a new manager who was expert in these things. This new man was a Jew who lived there quite alone, without any family.

5. The Kaiser’s guard of honor

He had been born into a fine German Jewish family, but under the influence of a non-religious environment had strayed far from Yiddishkeit. As a young man he went off to serve in the army, and in the course of time forgot that he was a Jew. His comrades-in-arms had never known that he was Jewish.

He was blessed with handsome features and a robust frame; he was an active, lively and energetic worker with a healthy brain; so through dedication to his tasks and constant success, he worked his way up through the military hierarchy until he was accepted into the ranks of the Kaiser’s guard of honor.

His private life, however, was a different story. He was so drunken and dissolute that he forgot his family origins altogether. In time he married a gentile woman with whom he had a number of children, and his immoral lifestyle ran on unchecked.

An old friend of his once introduced him to the new German landowner and his family. Prompted by an unworthy thought, he forsook his position in the Kaiser’s service. He deserted his family, leaving them his property, set out with his friend, and took up the post of general manager of the German’s estate.

Things changed there very soon indeed. The local Jews were abused and driven out, they were no longer allowed to buy or sell farm produce, and soon enough all contact with them was cut off.

And it was for the sake of this gross and vulgar Jew that R. Levi Yitzchak was now making his journey.

6. When dogs should bark

It was the Rav himself who gave the wagon-driver his directions. After a couple of hours along a fine highway they came to a forest, where he told the wagon-driver that it was time to feed his horses, while he wandered off deep into the forest all alone.

As his disciples waited near the wagon, they could hear him at a distance reading Tehillim. They recalled that he had not yet tasted anything that day, and only then realized that he was fasting. Though they waited for two hours, none of them dared approach him.

Suddenly he bestirred himself, hastily approached the wagon, and told the driver to harness his horses and set out. The disciples had assumed that the Rav would say his afternoon prayers while in the forest, but they said nothing. The Rav, however, broke the silence.

“Not far from here there’s a little village that stands on the estate of a paritz,” he said, “so (G‑d willing) we’ll daven Minchah there.”

After almost an hour’s journey they caught sight of the tip of a very tall house. High up there they could make out a balcony with a sturdy balustrade and some benches — a vantage point from which one could no doubt see miles around.

Before they actually reached the village the Rav said that since there were a number of houses there, they should not drive up to any particular house until he told them which one it was to be.

Hearing dogs barking on all sides the Rav said: “When the Jews left Egypt, that was a time when ‘No dog shall wag its tongue.’15 But now, when we are driving right into Egypt, this is a time when dogs should bark.”16

Egypt is a place of claims and complaints. Even when Yosef the Righteous was there, and the first Jews — his brothers, the sons of Yaakov — arrived, he had complaints and claims.17 Egypt is that kind of place.

7. A host with murder in his eyes

When the Rav had pointed out which house they were to drive up to, he told the wagon-driver to walk in and to say that a tzaddik was driving through — the Rav of Berditchev — and since he now had to daven Minchah he requested permission to do so in this house.

The wagon-driver had not even managed to step down when out of the house strode a middle-aged man. He was tall and husky, hatless, with long curly hair, and except for a black moustache he was cleanshaven. He was dressed most impressively — like a general, with a staff in his hand, a wide leather belt, a revolver on his right thigh and a dagger on his left. Crimson with rage, and bleary-eyed like a confirmed drunkard, he shouted violently.

He was interrupted by the barking of a black dog that ran out, and jumped up viciously at the horses and the covered wagon.

At this point the wagon-driver quickly took off his hat, his head now covered only with his velvet yarmulke, and wanted to deliver the message that he had received from the Rav. But the burly stranger refused to hear a single word: there was murder in his eyes.

Over their heads windows were being thrust open, and the host’s boorish and red-faced carousing companions bawled hoarsely: “Ah! Another gypsy wagon!”

8. A tzaddik and his bleary-eyed host

R. Levi Yitzchak made a move to get up, so that he could put his head out of the window. His disciples also prepared to rise. This threw the stranger into such a fury that he loaded his revolver, aimed it at the wagon, and fired — but no bullet was released. Sensing the turmoil in the wagon, the dog jumped up at it and barked even more furiously. Its owner meanwhile was so incensed by the failure of his revolver that he quickly checked it, found it to be in perfect working order, and fired again — but with the same result. He tried again, but in his confusion aimed too low, and with two shots accidentally killed his own dog. Realizing that he himself had killed his favorite dog, he was so astonished that he suddenly stood still, petrified and dumbfounded.

One of the disciples chose this moment to climb down from the other side of the wagon. He walked around to the stranger and told him that the renowned tzaddik, the Rav of Berditchev, was passing through these parts, and had to daven Minchah. Could he be allowed to do so in this house?

The name of the tzaddik of Berditchev was known and respected throughout the entire region, among gentiles too. As soon as the stranger heard that name he became a changed man, and said that he gave his permission. They all walked into the house, and the tzaddik and his disciples prepared themselves for prayer. The driver meanwhile took the wagon around to the backyard, where he was given a message from the Rav that he was not to accept any offer of fodder for his horses unless he paid for it.

9. “Give the Jewboys what they deserve!”

As for their host, his head was in a whirl. He walked up and down anxiously, not quite understanding what was happening within him. His drinking companions, whose brutish revelry had been so rudely interrupted, did their best to incite him to action.

“Look what damage these Jewboys have cost you!” they cried. “Look what’s happened to your best dog! Aren’t you going to give ‘em what they deserve?”

His turbulent thoughts found no peace.

When he finally calmed down somewhat, he said that when he had first caught sight of the face of the tzaddik, he had been so awestruck — as if he had been confronted by the German Kaiser himself. In fact he had been so shaken up that his revolver had gone off course, and had fired away.

Recalling those days, he now began to describe how he used to stand on guard at the door of the throne-room, and how the ministers of state used to be terror-stricken when they had to be ushered into the awesome imperial presence.

His common drinking partners had never heard of such august proceedings.

“Tell us! Tell us more!” they chorused.

10. Facing the dreaded Kaiser

“When an officer in charge of 100 rank-and-file soldiers has to report to the officer responsible for 1000 soldiers,” he began, “he’s scared stiff. When the officer responsible for the 1000 soldiers has to report to the commandant of the base, who has 20,000 men under him, he’s even more afraid. When the commandant has to report to his superior officer, who has ten such bases under his command, you can imagine what he goes through. Now from time to time this general has to report to the commander-in-chief in person, and he trembles at the thought. The commander-in-chief, of course, has to get his orders from the Minister for War, and whenever he has to face him he’s even more terrified than all the other officers are of facing him. And then, at the door of the throne-room, the Minister for War stands terror-stricken — because he now has to speak to the Kaiser!”

And as he described these nightmares from his past, the poor fellow lived through all those terrors afresh, as if he himself had to advance from one interview to the next, and face all those fearsome warriors.

His voice dropped to a dread whisper: “Suppose now that an ordinary private, a humble footslogger, has to take a message from the commander of his own unit, with its 100 soldiers, to the officer responsible for 1000 soldiers. From him he has to proceed to the commandant of the base, and from him to the senior officer with ten bases under his command. But this general sends him further, and the poor fellow has to speak to the commander-in-chief, and then to the Minister for War. And then — the Minister for War orders him to walk straight in, and speak to the Kaiser! You can’t imagine what terror that soldier goes through…”

And with these words, the burly estate manager collapsed in a faint.

His friends were thrown into confusion. They knew him well, with his athletic frame and his strong heart — and he fainted?!

When he came to, he explained himself. He said that when he had described the plight of that desperate soldier he had imagined himself to have been in that situation, and that terror was more than he could endure.

11. “He shot the dog?!”

The incident of the dog spread around the estate in no time, and struck fear into every heart. There was only one consolation — that it was the manager himself who had shot it. He had the reputation of being a tough individual who punished his employees at the slightest pretext. Servants had even been known to be whipped because they had laughed too loudly.

They all knew how fond their master had been of this particular dog. In fact he had even retained a special employee whose task it was to keep track of the times that it had to be given its milk and meat, and when it had to be washed and when it had to be brushed. They even used to pass on the story of a certain noble who had once offered the manager a huge sum for that dog, but he had refused the offer. And not only that! He often used to remark that ever since he had acquired that dog he had succeeded in whatever he did. He never went anywhere without it. And now, out of the blue, he himself had accidentally shot it dead!

The whole story was soon repeated throughout the whole region in all its details — how the estate manager had twice wanted to shoot at the wagon in which the Rav of Berditchev was sitting with his disciples; how his revolver had twice failed him; and how he had shot his own favorite dog unawares.

Half a viorst away from the estate there was a large village in which there lived three Jewish families. When they heard that the Rav of Berditchev was in their part of the province and in fact was right now at the home of the estate manager, they were of course disappointed that he had not come to their village instead. Nightfall was drawing near — it was already six or seven — but they were unable to make up their minds as to whether they should actually go and visit him. It was dangerous to walk into that place. Finally, however, since they did not know which direction he planned to take, and there was always the possibility that he would set out straight for the broad, unpaved road that did not pass their village, they decided to take the plunge. They dressed up in their Shabbos best and set out by foot together with their older children, and with the little ones in their arms, and headed for the dreaded estate just down the road, where the Berditchever Rav was visiting.

12. “The black kelipah

The sight of over 30 persons walking down the road in the middle of the week, all dressed up so festively, made the local peasants gape in amazement. Soon enough, though, they found out who was the renowned guest whose presence explained everything, for many of the gentiles themselves used to make a point of going to see him.

The little party marched on. They were armed with various sticks and whips, for more than once they had tasted the vicious bite of the manager’s black dog, which they knew by the nickname, “di shvartze kelipah.”18 All the dogs that infested the place were ferocious enough, so that it was hard to get in or leave without a local escort for protection. But this black dog had a distinctive habit: a gentile peasant would suffer nothing more than its fearsome bark; any Jew daring to enter the premises would be attacked and bitten. Besides, the other dogs never ran out beyond the fence. This dog alone used to leap right over it and attack passers by — until one of the local workers was finally compassionate enough to drive it indoors. Small wonder, then, that it was nicknamed “di shvartze kelipah.”

The three families came in sight of the gate. All the children were wearing high boots, and everyone clutched something in hand for self-defense.

13. A moment of crisis

It was just at this time that the Rav of Berditchev was inside, as we have mentioned, davenen Minchah, while the manager was pacing the room restlessly. It was clear that he was experiencing a moment of tempestuous crisis.

Not that the loss of the dog worried him in the slightest — for he surprised everyone by ordering one of his servants to dump its carcass into a pit in the forest.

The prayers of the tzaddik were no doubt accompanied by the kinds of kavanos that call forth particular memories — as in the well-known story about the Rebbe Maharash.19 They certainly served as the catalyst to a mighty upheaval in the mind of his host. At length, however, finding some measure of repose, the host walked across to the disciples and began to question them all about the present conduct of the tzaddik.

Before the visiting villagers walked into the estate, some of the farm laborers whom they met on the way told them all the news — about the tzaddik who had wanted to pray in the manager’s house, and about the revolver that had failed, and about the fate of the black dog.

14. A plea for compassion

As they heard that they were finally rid of “di shvartze kelipah,” they all began to realize that this was no mere coincidence that of all possible places, the tzaddik had wanted to daven Minchah in the home of this tyrant who had never admitted a Jew into his estate. There was clearly something momentous in the air, and they joyfully walked straight inside the gate. There they met the household staff, who not only told them the whole story all over again, but added something new — their employer had invited the tzaddik to spend the night in his home.

By now the sun was setting. The visiting villagers went across to the house, and as the disciples of the Rav saw them coming, they went out to greet them. The villagers had one request — that the disciples try to secure the consent of the tzaddik to receive them individually at yechidus; or, to use their idiom, er zol zei praven. Meanwhile the manager himself caught sight of them. He was overjoyed, and had his servants bring them whiskey, beer, herring and fruit.

Night fell, and the Rav of Berditchev himself took up his place in front of that little congregation to lead them in the Maariv prayer.

Before he so much as uttered a word, he soared into a state of holy rapture, and while in that state of dveikus he sang a sublime melody. All those who were present could not help but be moved, for its opening strains were the voice of lament, and a plea for compassion from the depths of someone’s heart. The melody changed color. It grew increasingly joyful, until it bespoke exultant ecstasy — to the point of sheer expiry of the soul. Then, to the opening strains of the melody, the tzaddik began to intone the opening words of the evening prayer: “For He is compassionate and pardons iniquity, and does not destroy; time and again He turns away His anger, and does not arouse all His wrath.” Then, to the exultant rhythms of the latter part of his melody, he sang the words that follow: “G‑d, deliver us! The King shall answer us on the day we call.”

15. The still, small voice inside

On Yud-Tes Kislev, 5663 (1902), my father asked that the niggun of the Alter Rebbe be sung.20 He began, and all the chassidim present joined in. When it was over, my father explained how its four themes correspond to the Four Worlds Atzilus, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. He added that a niggun should be studied, and be meditated upon deeply.

This thought ought to be understood properly — by which I refer to the kind of understanding that generates a gefihl, a spiritual sensitivity to the question at hand. Let me therefore interrupt the story and explain.

When the Rav of Berditchev began his melody, everyone there was so bewitched by the sensation of sadness and compassion that its sweet tones aroused, that they no longer noticed each other. Every man there was occupied with himself. At that moment every individual seemed somehow to be living in a loftier and isolated world, the world of the individual — a private domain, not a public one; it was the world of one’s thoughts. At times such as these one hears no one and sees no one. One becomes an individual person who lives somehow up in the air, and laments his past life.

And so it was in that room. With every phrase of the niggun that the tzaddik sang before even beginning the words of the evening prayer, every man there experienced increasingly intense remorse over his unsatisfactory past. Phrase by phrase the melody now subsided into a still, small voice that sobbed from the depths of a heart so broken that you would think someone’s very life was ebbing away.

The tone of this part of the melody described a man’s nearing expiry. The soul bemoans the state of the body, the body bewails the state of the soul, and both together grow faint in their anguish. Both the soul and the body want to remain together — they both want to live — but they both sense that their minutes are counted. In just another moment, in just another instant, they will have to part company, in view of their imperfect conduct.

At this point the voice of the tzaddik grew silent. Some of those present fell into a swoon; some were dazed; all were affected beyond description.

A mighty sound broke the silence: the Rav of Berditchev began to sing the second part of his song, a rhythm heralding glad tidings. This was a voice bold and clear, a voice bearing aloft a ray of hope, a voice with all the vigor of the soul’s life, a voice resounding with the confidence born of certainty. Everyone there was enveloped, refreshed and invigorated by the jolly and generous melody. Everyone there felt infused with a renewed life-force, an exalted frame of mind from an unknown source.

16. The odyssey of a soul

One cannot hope to describe the impact of this niggun on the disciples of the tzaddik.

The others heard and sensed only the parable, as it were; that is to say, the niggun penetrated to the innermost point of their hearts and raised them to an unfamiliar world. However, they were unequipped to grasp what was involved — in particular, the spiritual lesson concerning the descent of the soul to This World, which the tzaddik had portrayed in his melody.

As for his disciples, who at every turn of the melody understood and sensed its spiritual message, during those moments they experienced within themselves the entire saga of the descent of the soul into the body. For them the niggun was as explicit as a narrative told in words. And in fact, for him who understands what he hears, a niggun tells more than a narrative. As they listened, the disciples heard the niggun describing for them how a soul, residing in the loftiest realms of Heaven, descends from one world to the next — until finally it enters a mortal body.

The opening bars of the melody described how the neshamah felt when it was first informed that it would have to go down and enter a body. It then has to take leave of its niche in the heavenly Treasury of Souls; it must bid farewell to the revelations of supernal light, to its fellow souls, and to the Rebbe who had been its mentor. When it now sets out to fulfill its G‑d-given mission of animating a body, it is painfully vexed, for its destination is unknown to it. For before their descent, souls have no conception of the nature of This World, and of a mortal body. The mere knowledge that they will have to descend there and animate a body fills them with vexation and terror.

17. Woe to those whose hearts are dull!

Before their descent, souls have no connection whatever with things of This World. Angels, by contrast, know This World exists; they know moreover what it is, and that it contains good and evil, a Good Inclination and an Evil Inclination. They are often brought news of what goes on there, by the angels newly created by the good deeds of mortals. The only souls who know what This World is, and what a physical body is, are those that have already inhabited a body in the world below, and have since ascended to the world above — but these are not the souls that are to be found in the Treasury of Souls.

In the Zohar one often encounters the following exclamation: “Woe to those mortals who are blind of eye and deaf of ear. They see, but do not know what they see; they hear, but do not know what they hear.” Sometimes one finds the alternative phrase, “...Whose minds are blocked and whose hearts are dull.” The Zohar is here bemoaning those who have minds with which to understand, hearts with which to feel, eyes for seeing and ears for hearing; that is, they have understanding and feeling, sight and hearing — and nevertheless, their minds are blocked, their eyes are locked, their hearts are dull, and their ears are sealed.

In Tehillim, David HaMelech describes what it is that makes an idol. He begins by saying, “Their idols are of silver and gold, the work of human hands.”21 He proceeds to enumerate six organs — mouth, eye, ear, nose, hand and foot, five of which house the five senses. To these five organs the verse adds the foot, because it stands a man upright, and takes him to wherever the mind understands and the heart feels he ought to go.

Now even though an idol has all the organs that correspond to the five senses, and has feet as well, it is still in the state described by David HaMelech: “They have a mouth, but cannot speak; they have eyes, but cannot see;”22 and so on.

18. In the Lower Garden of Eden

The extraordinary gifts of the Mitteler Rebbe could already be discerned at an extremely young age. He was also exceptionally diligent: while he was still in the class of the very youngest toddlers, his melamed used to complain that this little boy would never let him teach anyone else, because he wanted to be taught all the time.

This melamed actually taught two classes at once: the younger children were taught to read, while the older group learned the translation23 of the prayers and the beginnings of Chumash. While one group was being taught, the other group was meant to revise alone. The Mitteler Rebbe was in the reading class, but while his classmates were dutifully revising, he used to listen in to the lessons of the older group. His teacher was concerned — but only until he examined him, and found that he had retained whatever he had been taught. Moreover, on his way home from cheder he used to recite from memory whatever he had heard the older group learning, until in the course of time he had committed the entire Tanach to memory.

For one semester only did he attend classes with his age-mates. From that time on, he always studied with children older than himself.

One evening when the family was still living in Liozna, he came home from school and dropped into the room which the chassidim of his father, the Alter Rebbe, used to call “the Lower Garden of Eden”24 (that is, the waiting room adjoining the study in which the Rebbe received chassidim for yechidus, the latter room being known as “the Upper Garden of Eden”25). There he found a number of the most venerable elder chassidim conversing soberly, as each awaited his turn to be received in private. Among those present were R. Shmuel Munkes, R. Isser Kisess, and R. Shlomo Raphael’s of Vilna. They were soon joined by R. Yosef of Shklov. Formerly of the camp of the misnagdim, and now a chassid, he was one of the wealthiest merchants in his city, and a prominent philanthropist.

19. How to become an idol…

The Mitteler Rebbe was a very lively child, and R. Shmuel Munkes had a playful side to him. Now, as the little boy ran straight to his aged friend, he heard him asking R. Yossele of Shklov why he was so downcast.

He and R. Shlomo, who was also wealthy, both answered: “Times are bad; business is slow.”

Hearing this, the child sat up and said to R. Shmuel: “Why do you need to ask for the reason for the melancholy (Heb.: עַצְבוּת)? Your question is answered by an explicit verse in Tehillim: עֲצַבֵּיהֶם כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב — מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָדָם. [In plain translation, that verse says that, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.” However, he quoted it as if it were punctuated as follows]: “Their עֵצֶב (lit., ‘idol’, but here, punningly, ‘melancholy’) is the result of thinking that ‘silver and gold are the work of human hands….’”

And the prodigy proceeded to spell out his lesson explicitly: “People succumb to melancholy because they are blinded and deluded. They think that they acquire silver and gold as a result of their own endeavors. They think that the more business they do, running off to bring merchandise from the Leipzig fairs” (which was exactly R. Yosef’s line of business), “or racing off to Koenigsburg to buy up their wares” (for this was where R. Shlomo Raphael’s used to buy his stock of costly liqueurs), “the more silver and gold they’ll have! Businessmen become so blinded, [and here the child continued with the further phrases from Tehillim,] that even though ‘they have a mouth,’ and use it to study aloud the Chassidus they have heard, nevertheless, v’lo yedabeiru. [Literally, וְלֹא יְדַבֵּרוּ means, ‘they do not speak.’ On the non-literal level of derush, however, the future Mitteler Rebbe expounded this verb as if in the verse, יַדְבֵּר עַמִּים — ‘He subdues nations.’26 Hence:] וְלֹא יְדַבֵּרוּ implies that even those who do study Chassidus do not make it rule their lives; its study therefore remains pointless. Moreover, ‘They have eyes, but do not see’ the workings of Divine Providence. Likewise, ‘They have ears, but do not hear’ or perceive anything beyond the external aspect (the chitzoniyus) of things. As a result, even though ‘they have a nose,’ yet they have no spiritual sense of smell.

“Now add all this up,” concluded the future Mitteler Rebbe, “and what’s the result? Such a person becomes – an idol!”

20. Men of a different stature

Since the above incident took place, some 150 years have passed. Every generation has its own distinctive mortals who are blind of eye and deaf of ear, with minds that are blocked and hearts that are dull. True enough, the men of 150 years ago were men of a different nature, and of quite a different stature. We once spoke of how differently people were once assessed — according to their inner essence, and not like today’s criteria of outward appearance, clothes, wealth and domestic circumstances.

Through Divine Providence, the stream of life sometimes brings one in touch with minute incidents, which may nevertheless serve as telling indicators of matters of moment. Either at farbrengens or in letters to various individuals, I have had occasion to recount some of my impressions of things seen and heard during my travels to Eretz Yisrael and America. For everyone knows the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, that a Jew ought to utilize whatever he hears and sees for the service of the Creator, since every word and every action that he observes is a directive instructing him how he should serve, whether in the field of passive abstention,27 or in the field of prescribed action.28

The scattering of our brethren throughout the length and breadth of the world is designed by Divine Providence for a particular purpose — that ultimately, by means of avodas habeirurim, as our brethren fulfill the Torah and its mitzvos throughout the world, the world will thereby be prepared for the revelation of the kingdom of Heaven; as it is written, “For then will I transform the peoples to a purer language, so that they will all call upon the Name of G‑d.”29

Every group of Jews introduces some measure of the light of the Torah and the mitzvos into their host country — but in some sense that country’s stream of life influences the natures of the people who live there.

It is mentioned in the literature of Chassidus that through the various foreign idioms and expressions that find their way into the vernacular spoken by Jews, those foreign source-languages undergo beirur — they are refined and elevated.

A number of prominent chassidim arrived in Lubavitch in time for Chanukah 5651 (1890).30 They included R. Abba Persohn, R. Zalman Manevitch, R. Yosef Yuzik Hurevitch, R. Yitzchak Rubinstein from Moscow, R. Yaakov Rashal, R. Avraham Zvi Averbuch from Riga, R. Yisrael David Kadinski, R. Shmuel Michel Trainin from Petersburg, and R. Chaim Leib Trainin from Homil. At one of their farbrengens together, everyone present being in a jolly mood, R. Yosef Yuzik Hurevitch and R. Avraham Zvi Averbuch mingled a number of Russian and German words into their Yiddish. Following this, R. Abba Persohn and R. Yaakov Rashal retold stories that they had heard from the Rebbe Maharash on the above-mentioned theme — that the admixture of foreign idioms in the language that Jews use for the study of Torah or for the performance of a mitzvah refines and elevates those words.

21. Building one’s own monument

When I was in America (1929-30), and came in contact with a very wide range of people old and young, I was particularly struck by the way in which the American lifestyle had created certain characteristics, both good and otherwise, and certain idioms — short, sharp, and pointed. For example, when businessmen or others are discussing how much some individual owns, they talk about “how much he’s worth”; this person is “worth 10,000,” that one is “worth 100,000.”

Comic as this expression may sound, it is characteristic of life in today’s world, where each individual is unfortunately measured according to the extent of his property. In the course of these 150 years, the above-described attitude to “their idols – silver and gold” has undergone an inflation of 1000%. The false view that the work of human hands is what produces silver and gold has inundated entire countries and blinded tens of thousands of people.

However, in the midst of all the hubbub and tumult of life in this world, one encounters various moments of enlightenment and various incidents that bring about a certain upheaval in one’s life. They sober up all those who are intoxicated and beclouded by smoke, and create a clearer air.

In addition, the “dew and rain”31 of the teachings of Chassidus, which in the course of these 150 years have become unfolded through our Rebbeim and their tens of thousands of chassidim, have the power to open up the blocked minds and eyes, and to penetrate the insensitivity of one’s heart and ears, enabling one to understand and feel and see and hear the plain truth about the life of man in This World.

Everyone knows that he is no more than an overnight guest in This World, and everyone wants to erect some monument or remembrance of himself. It is part of human nature that a person does not want to be forgotten: he wants to be remembered. Everyone puts up some kind of monument for himself. One person puts up a tombstone outside of town in the cemetery; another builds himself one in town, in the form of a beis midrash, a shul, a yeshivah, or a home for the aged. One person puts up a dead monument, one that will let his children and relatives know where his bit of dust and ashes was buried; one person puts up a living monument, such as a cheder, a yeshivah, or a study group of talmidei chachamim.

Everyone wants to have a monument, and everyone wants to have a remembrance. They ought to be reminded — and at least one should not forget, for many people do forget — that everyone builds his own memorial monument. With every evil action (G‑d forbid), an evil angel is created, and as a result of every good action, a good angel is created.

22. Anguish of the soul

Angels, as we have mentioned, know what goes on in This World; souls do not even know what it is. They know neither its evil nor its good.

When a neshamah comes to Gan Eden (for before its descent into a body it is conducted from the Treasury of Souls through the Garden of Eden, where it finds out what This World is), it sees the souls of the tzaddikim in their palaces — the tannaim and amoraim, the geonim and the tzaddikim, all with their respective disciples.

Speaking of the well-known phrase, “The World Above resembles the world below,”32 we once explained that just as in This World every Rebbe and every tzaddik is surrounded by his disciples and chassidim, so is it too in the World Above. As an expression of ahavas Yisrael, it is an obligation and a mitzvah to let all Jews throughout the world know, that whoever studies in a yeshivah in This World, and whoever is bound to a tzaddik in This World, will be privileged — after a lengthy lifetime33 — to be present in the yeshivah and in the company of his Rebbe in the World to Come.

From Gan Eden, as we were saying, the soul is conducted past the various chambers of Gehinnom, where it is shown the retribution of the wicked. The soul is then informed that once it has seen for itself the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked, the person in the world below will have a free choice in the path that he decides to follow.

It is easy to imagine the anguish that the soul undergoes: it must leave the Treasury of Souls, and be tossed about like a vagabond in the wild and fleshly world that is called alma deshikra, a world that lies.

23. This fleshly world is a liar

This World is called alma deshikra, because everything that exists in this fleshly, This-Worldly world is a lie. This World is a liar.

For a start, gashmiyus is all a lie. For what really exists is the spiritual life-force, not what exists materially. Material existence obscures the spiritual life-force.

People lie. “No man knows what transpires in the heart of his friend.”34 Everyone goes about with his own secret, with his own inner faults that are known to no one but himself, and he makes every possible effort to ensure that it stays that way.

How painfully difficult, then, does the soul find its long descent from the World of Truth35 into the World of Falsehood. And once it arrives, it finds itself in the hands of the Evil Inclination,36 lying with all kinds of stratagems aimed at deluding the person, and dragging him off into materiality and physicality. What a difficult situation does the neshamah now find itself in!

The melody that the Rav of Berditchev sang as a prelude to Vehu rachum that night resounded like a sorrowful march that accompanied the soul on its cheerless journey from the pure and luminous tents of the Treasury of Souls to the gloomy and filthy depths of this false and fleshly world.

So much for the strains of the former part of the melody, the strains that echoed the words of the first sentence of Maariv: “For He is compassionate and pardons iniquity, and does not destroy; time and again He turns away His anger, and does not arouse all His wrath.” But then came the joyous and optimistic part of the melody, the part that exulted to the words of the second sentence: “G‑d, deliver us! The King shall answer us on the day we call.” This part of the melody articulates G‑d’s lovingkindness, in that He extends His help to every individual who seeks to serve Him.

Now that we have understood the niggun, and now that we have also understood more or less the meaning of these two verses, we can carry on with our story.

24. Ransom of a captive soul

When the Rav of Berditchev had sung the melody from beginning to end without words, he began again, this time intoning the words of Vehu rachum. Each word settled into its rightful place in that heavy-hearted theme, and permeated the heart, lungs and liver of every man there.

His host, who had grown contrite from the wordless melody alone, could bear no more. When the tzaddik then repeated the first theme, and brought the first verse to a close with the still, small voice of an expiring soul, his pent-up listener fell to the floor with a piercing shriek of anguish.

Everyone present shuddered — except for the tzaddik. As if oblivious to what had happened, he now sang the words of the second verse to the tune of joy and hope, and then proceeded to daven Maariv as usual.

The visiting Jewish villagers, and indeed the gentile farm laborers too, were thrown into consternation by these strange events, and the gentiles stood in fearful awe of the tzaddik who stood before them.

As for the disciples, at long last they now realized that the whole journey had been undertaken for the sake of the man who owned this house. They came to realize that what was taking place before their eyes was a kind of pidyon shevuyim, the ransom of a captive out of the lowliest levels. What they could by no means understand, however, was how was it that this gentile should be possessed of such sparks of spirituality that their Rebbe found it necessary to redeem and elevate them. They therefore concluded among themselves that this man was no doubt the reincarnation of some lofty soul, which the Rebbe had decided to redeem even at the cost of mesirus nefesh.

Maariv was over, and it was getting late. So, remembering that the tzaddik was still fasting, and knowing his midnightly practice of Tikkun Chatzos, they decided to be daring and to ask him to eat something. The visiting villagers each wanted to be admitted to his room individually, but he said that he would not be able to oblige that day. Midnight came, and the tzaddik closeted himself in his room.

The estate manager invited the Jews from the neighboring village to help themselves and their families to the refreshments that he had ordered for them, and they were left discussing what an upheaval had taken place. Not only were they rid of di shvartze kelipah, but this Jew-baiter, this veritable Haman, was somehow visibly transformed.

25. Eve of a blood libel?

Overhearing this conversation, the disciples tried to sort out the story. In answer to their questions, the villagers told them that since this wicked individual had first arrived a few years earlier as superintendent of the estate belonging to the gentile paritz, he had driven away all the Jews who had previously made a living there. To make things worse, he had brought a black dog with him from Germany, a dog that used to attack every bypassing Jew, even out on the road that skirted the fence. More than one local Jew had been badly bitten.

Listening carefully, the disciples now fully understood what was taking place, and they grew anxious. They grasped that a spiritual war was now in progress. The Rebbe was involved in the ransom of a doubtlessly lofty soul — and who could tell how things might work out?

At this point one of the disciples walked into the house — this conversation having taken place outside — because he wanted to hear the tzaddik at his devotions of Tikkun Chatzos. But as he approached the room he caught sight of their host. He was lying on the floor with his head near the door, face down, and sobbing from the depths of his heart.

Overwhelmed, he hurried out to tell his colleagues what he had seen. They followed him in at once, and immediately locked the doors so that the local employees should not see what was going on. They were fearful lest these gentile workers exploit the moment for some act of violence against them. Moreover, the Jews with whom they had just been speaking had told them that the estate manager was on very friendly terms with the local priest. If he were to find out what was happening, this might spark off a blood libel.

26. A Jewish Jew-baiter

A few hours later, the estate manager himself got up and approached them, his eyes swollen from weeping. They stepped back a little, fearful lest something painful take place. In order to put their minds at ease, he spoke to them in a jargon of Yiddish and German, with some Polish words thrown in. He told them that he was born a Jew; that he had worked his way up in the military until he had become one of the guardsmen at the palace door; he had not only reached the point where he had forgotten his Jewish origins, but he had actually come to hate Jews; in fact Jew-baiting had become his greatest pleasure. The previous day, when he had seen a wagon-load of Jews driving right up to his house, he had rejoiced at the prospect of killing a few of them. But then when he had seen that his revolver had refused to shoot, and instead he himself had accidentally shot the dog that had brought him such luck, he had realized that something supernatural was afoot.

“And now,” he concluded, “I’ve decided to become a Jew just like all the other Jews.”

Once again he broke down in bitter tears, and asked them first to show him what he had to do, and then to speak to the tzaddik for him, so that he would help him turn into an upright Jew.

27. Warmed through to the core

At that moment the disciples heard the door of the tzaddik opening. One of them went over, and the tzaddik asked whether there was a brook nearby where he could immerse, as in a mikveh. Some of the villagers, who had remained all night, said that there was a mikveh in their village, so the Rav had the wagon-driver harness the horses so that they could drive there. Hearing this, the estate manager had his men prepare his coach and four, but the Rav declined the offer, and traveled in his own wagon.

The village was agog with joy. Straight from the local mikveh, the Rav of Berditchev went off to join the minyan which the villagers held in the home of one of their veteran settlers. In keeping with his usual custom, the Rav followed the early morning prayers of the vasikin-minyan, and then retired to say his prayers alone, after which he studied his regular daily texts.

The estate manager also came to the village. Since he had had the reputation of being hard-hearted and unprincipled, his arrival caused quite a stir among the villagers.

As far as he was concerned, though, the sight of a whole Jewish village gathering together on an ordinary weekday, and praying as happily as if it were some extraordinary Yom-Tov, warmed him through to the core. Having spent some hours by now in the company of the disciples, he asked one of them to show him how to put on a tallis and tefillin. He then borrowed these from one of them, and a Siddur as well, and went home to pray.

28. To be blessed with that gift

After davenen, R. Levi Yitzchak received each of the villagers in private audience. They had thought that they would be able to hold a festive meal in his honor, but he said that he had to make haste. He merely tasted something, and asked the wagon-driver to prepare the horses at once.

Before he left, the estate manager spent quite some time closeted alone with the tzaddik. The disciples would have loved to know and hear what was said, but the door was locked. On the way back to Berditchev, moreover, the tzaddik warned them that no one was to breathe a word of all that had transpired.

Soon after, the manager parted company with the owner of the estate. Not a soul knew where he had gone to. According to the story that did the rounds, he was supposed to have received a fine sum from the owner in exchange for his own property there, and had then set out to travel the world. In fact, however, he had set out for Berditchev, where no one — apart from that select group of disciples — knew who he was. In the fullness of time he himself became one of the inner circle of the disciples, and eventually set up one of the finest families in Berditchev.

Such is the sublime level of teshuvah that can be engendered by the gift of pictorial imagination. For while portraying the terror that struck the heart of the humble soldier when he had to enter the presence of the Kaiser, here was a man who experienced his own depiction so immediately that he fell in a faint. One who is blessed with that kind of a gift can indeed attain the loftiest levels in avodah.

And now we can understand the words of my father: “Once a person has understood an idea, he pauses to contemplate it profoundly, and views it in his mind’s eye just as one looks at a beautiful picture.”