1. A house or a tent?

In the haftarah of Shemini Atzeres, after Shlomo HaMelech has concluded his prayer with words of praise to G‑d for having fulfilled whatever he had promised to Moshe Rabbeinu, we read: “On the eighth day he sent the people away, and they blessed the king, and went to their tents joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that G‑d had done for David His servant, and for Israel His People.”1

In every way, the reign of Shlomo HaMelech was the happiest of times for the Jewish People. During the reign of David HaMelech there had been many wars, years of famine, and various plagues and diseases (May we be spared from such things!). G‑d had told David HaMelech that his son Shlomo would be a man of tranquillity and that he would build the Beis HaMikdash, and indeed, as the Torah tells us, “Yehudah and Israel dwelt in safety, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan to Beersheba, all the days of Shlomo.”2

In times such as these, every family was doubtless settled in its own orderly and well-established home, with its own fine grounds and farmyard. The verse that tells us of the prosperity of that period does not mention necessities, such as suitable housing and essential means of support; beyond these, then, the people of those times enjoyed lush fruit orchards and other such conveniences out of a spirit of repose. With domestic conditions so idyllic, it is remarkable that the verse describing the return of the people to their homes after having spent Sukkos in Jerusalem, should say “to their tents,” instead of “to their houses.” Apart from all their other, obvious differences, a tent suggests the life of a nomad, while a house suggests permanence. Why, then, does the verse use such a seemingly inappropriate word as “tents”?

2. Hidden saints, pious peasants

There is a story about the Maggid that dates back to the period when he was still a melamed in Mezritch. The profound thought that this story embodies will enable us to understand why our verse says that the people returned to their tents, rather than to their houses.

The chassidim and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov were of various types. On the one hand they included scholars of renown, hidden saints, men divinely inspired, and those who had experienced the revelation of Eliyahu HaNavi and posed their queries to Heaven. On the other hand they included ordinary men of means, householders, merchants, villagers, and quite simple folk.

The Maggid, as is known, was a melamed in Mezritch, one of the few outstanding scholars in that region, and lived in a modest cottage in one of the poorest and narrowest alleys in the township.

Now one of those who came to visit the Baal Shem Tov in Mezhibuzh one Shabbos was a man who lived in a village near Mezritch. He was a simple fellow, one of the thousands in those days who conducted their lives according to the advice of the Baal Shem Tov — making a living in their villages by tilling the soil, raising cattle and poultry, and selling the produce of their farms.

As is well known, the Baal Shem gave every man a friendly welcome: his opening stance was the love of a fellow Jew. And indeed he taught that ahavas Yisrael is the first gate that grants one entry into the courtyards of G‑d.

At the betrothal celebration of my father, when he was four years old, my great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek passed on a teaching that he had heard from his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe. He addressed himself to two of his sons — my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, and my grandfather, R. Yosef Yitzchak — in the company of their brothers, my revered greatuncles.

During his first days in Mezritch, the Alter Rebbe heard [from the Maggid] a number of stories of the Baal Shem Tov on the theme of ahavas Yisrael. In general terms, he was taught, the entire House of Israel is made up of two kinds of people — the simple, unlettered folk who despite their differences in scholastic attainment may be regarded as comprising one category, and the scholars, who despite their different levels may likewise be regarded as belonging to one category. And the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael, so taught the Baal Shem Tov, applies to both groups equally. One ought to love the simple folk because they are (poor fellows!) unlettered; moreover, they believe in G‑d and His Torah with such pure, fine, and perfect hearts. As for the scholars, one ought to love them because they are great in the knowledge of the Torah — and the Gemara tells us that the greater a man is, the greater is his Evil Inclination.3 In that case, these lomdim (poor fellows!) have huge and fiery Evil Inclinations. Nevertheless they are, thank G‑d, pious Jews. So they too ought to be loved.

3. The teachings of Chabad speak to Jews of all kinds

The Baal Shem Tov had a particularly warm love for the simple, artless folk — “the don’t-know-what-they’re-saying folk,”4 as the Alter Rebbe used to fondly refer to those who piously read the prayers, though without necessarily understanding their words. There is a lengthy narrative that has been handed down from one Rebbe to the next, and that deserves a niche of its own. Yet in order to illuminate this expression of the Alter Rebbe, one point from that narrative ought to be repeated here.

As is well known, the Alter Rebbe’s earliest chassidim — the students of the first and second cheder5 were maskilim of stature. Indeed, even some of the students of the third cheder had a thorough grasp of the profoundest concepts of Chassidus. For twenty years some of the students of the chadarim toiled in the mastery of these concepts, and in the course of these years, too, the Mitteler Rebbe6 grew prodigiously, both in his knowledge of the revealed levels of the Torah and in his knowledge of its hidden levels.

During these same years thousands of chassidim joined the fold. Some of these were simple Jews, who knew no more than how to read the words of the prayers and of Tehillim; in fact the meaning of the words was beyond them. They were mostly countryfolk who did business with the local gentiles, trudging from village to village the whole week long in order to buy or sell their bit of merchandise, or laborers, cobblers and tailors who worked throughout the week in some village or on the estate of some gentile squire,7 and returned to their homes for Shabbos.

When the Alter Rebbe founded his renowned chadarim, and handpicked as their students gifted scholars with brilliant minds, the ordinary householders who wanted to become chassidim were downhearted, considering themselves to be worthless. Their mistake soon became apparent, and they were overjoyed to discover that the Alter Rebbe intended to provide them with their spiritual food just as he did for the celebrated scholars.

Being unusually orderly, having an extraordinary capacity for organization, and being divinely anointed from birth as a guide and a leader of men, the Alter Rebbe arranged the study of Chassidus in such a way that every kind of person, including even the simplest of learners, should have a foothold in it. Having chosen the Alter Rebbe as the shepherd of Israel, the Almighty granted him the unlimited, G‑dly gift and capacity needed to create a work so wondrous as the Chabad school of Chassidus — for this school of thought is a palace in which there is room for men of all kinds, from the geonim and maskilim who plumb the profoundest depths of its teachings, to the utterly naive craftsmen who the whole week long are nebbich begrimed by toil in the houses of the gentiles, and finally come home in time for Shabbos.

4. All souls can aspire to the same heights

One of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings made his stance explicitly clear — that as far as their souls are concerned, all Jews are equal; the simplest worshiper, through the unquestioning sincerity of his heart in his davenen, reading of Tehillim, fulfillment of the mitzvos, and his ahavas Yisrael, can attain the loftiest levels in divine service, just like the most prominent of scholars. Within the first few months that this teaching became known, hundreds and thousands of chassidim began to gather around the Alter Rebbe, and in the course of the next twenty years the number of plain, ordinary folk amongst them grew enormously.

These people all knew full well that even though the Alter Rebbe held them in esteem they were nevertheless quite incomparable to their scholarly colleagues, and every man among them exerted himself to study Torah and understand it.

This teaching of the Alter Rebbe, which he had heard from the Maggid of Mezritch in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, was known to them all, namely: There is a verse [addressed to Noach] that says, Bo el hateivah— “Come… into the ark,”8 [and תֵּבָה means both “ark” and “word”]. One should cleave — in a spirit of dveikusto the words of the prayers and of the Torah, and enter right into them. And the simple folk who do not know the meanings of the words should say them nonetheless.

This teaching inspired thousands of ordinary Jews to be always occupied in reciting the words of Tehillim or Chumash by heart, each individual according to what he was able to memorize. Every chassidisher craftsman who was seated at his work, and every chassidisher dealer who went about from village to village with his bundle of merchandise on his back, was busy at the time reciting the words of Tehillim or Chumash.

Some of these quite simple people became so refined thereby that not only was their actual appearance ennobled: they also developed a certain refinement of understanding in the profoundest concepts of Chassidus.

Speaking to his father, the Alter Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe once marveled over a certain very ordinary person who had thoroughly grasped some abstract concept in Chassidus. To this the Alter Rebbe replied: “Those who ‘don’t know what they are saying’ are vessels capable of absorbing oros atzmi’im.”9

5. Refined nobility in the midst of grinding poverty

The above-mentioned villager10 from near Mezritch who was visiting Mezhibuzh was one of those people whom the Baal Shem Tov brought near to his heart. One day, approaching the Baal Shem Tov in order to receive his farewell blessings, he was told: “When you’re in Mezritch, spend a day there, and pass on my regards to one of my closest and greatest disciples, the scholar and tzaddik, R. Dov Ber.”

Delighted with his mission, the chassid set out for home. As soon as he arrived at Mezritch, he began to ask around as to the whereabouts of this R. Ber. Surely a man held in such esteem by the Rebbe himself must be famed throughout the town! No one, however, seemed to have heard of such a person — until he finally found out that in one of the poor alleys there lived a melamed called R. Ber; perhaps he was the individual being sought.

Walking down the sorry lane that had been pointed out to him, the chassid came upon a mean and derelict cottage with little windows, half of whose panes were missing. He walked inside and beheld a man in his middle years with a face of unspeakable nobility. This, clearly, was the holy Rebbe’s disciple.

The Maggid of Mezritch greeted him with Shalom Aleichem, but since he was in the middle of teaching his pupils, he asked his visitor to be so good as to come back after their lessons were over.

The poverty surrounding him on all sides made the visitor heartsore. The melamed was seated on a wooden stump, his pupils sat on planks that rested on smaller stumps, and the table was made after the same style.

The villager went off to town to see to his affairs, and there he met a friend from another village. Since he too was a chassid of the Baal Shem Tov, he was overjoyed to hear that his friend had just returned from Mezhibuzh. Within a short time they were discussing Chassidus in their own manner. They were both quite ordinary Jews (May that not be accounted a disgrace!), and in fact ignoramuses. They were able to read the words of the Holy Tongue, to be sure, though without understanding what they were saying. But those words, the words of Tehillim and Chumash, they knew by heart, and day and night, wherever they might be and wherever they might go, they were forever repeating.

Whenever chassidim of this kind heard the Baal Shem Tov quoting a verse from the Chumash or from Tehillim in the course of a chassidic teaching, this alone served them as their chassidic teaching. During my childhood, I too knew chassidim who understood chassidic discourses in this manner.

6. Chassidus can refine anyone

I heard a great many stories about simple chassidim from the mouth of my teacher the Rashbatz, who for many years had lived in the agricultural settlements (“colonies”) of Kherson.11 Year after year R. Hillel of Paritch came to spend a period of time in the company of the colonists there, guiding them in the ways of Chassidus.

A disciple of his, R. Gershon Dov, told me that once when R. Hillel was visiting Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek delivered a maamar that spoke of the lofty stature of souls in general, and of souls from the World of Atzilus in particular; such souls, he explained, are in a state of constant dveikus [i.e., cleaving continuously to their Source]; moreover, a model for this may be found in every soul, for the Naran-levels of the soul (i.e., its nefesh, ruach and neshamah) are clothed in the physical matter which is to be refined and elevated, while the Chai-levels of the soul (i.e., its chayah and yechidah) remain in a state of constant dveikus.

R. Hillel heard this maamar and was troubled, for he spent most of the year traveling. Entering the Rebbe’s study for yechidus, he wept bitterly over the time he was losing from his Torah study and his avodah. Perhaps he should bring his journeys to an end, for the colonists were very simple people, and mastering the teachings of Chassidus was beyond their grasp anyway.

The Tzemach Tzedek listened, and entered a state of intense dveikus.

Recounting this to me, R. Gershon Dov added: “My teacher R. Hillel said that for the sake of seeing and (thank G‑d) sensing such a dveikus it was worth making the trek to Lubavitch ten times over. And as for us, R. Hillel’s disciples, we lived with that vort for months after; the warmth of his words infused our avodah with vitality.12

“R. Hillel went on to tell us: ‘The Rebbe’s dveikus raised me up, and set me down in an utterly different place.13 For the Rebbe’s environment, after all, is the Almighty’s environment. As our Sages teach us, “From the day the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has no place in His world except for the four cubits of the Halachah14 and in these four cubits transpire the revelations that used to take place in the Beis HaMikdash.

“‘In the midst of his dveikus, R. Hillel continued, ‘the Rebbe opened his eyes and quoted the words of the Gemara: “R. Nachman bar Yitzchak said, Anan poalei diyemama anan.”15 [Lit., “We are day laborers” — but יְמָמָא in Chassidus signifies not only “day,” but also “light.” Hence the Tzemach Tzedek interpreted the quotation as follows:] “Our task is to illuminate. G‑d forbid: you must not stop traveling out to the colonies! On the contrary, you should continue your work — and you will illuminate that region with the light of Chassidus.‘

“And everyone can see for himself,” concluded R. Gershon Dov, “that my teacher R. Hillel lit up the whole of Malorussia,16 and especially the colonies of Kherson.”

With that R. Gershon Dov gave me a lengthy explanation of how the light of Chassidus clears the atmosphere, and refines even quite ordinary people.

7. When the Mitteler Rebbe remained silent

One of the stories that my teacher the Rashbatz told me concerned a certain colonist, Reb A. T., who was a very simple fellow — but a warm chassid, the son of a chassid, and the grandson of a chassid. In fact I knew him myself.

His grandfather was one of the chassidishe yungelait of Beshenkovitz who in 5578 (1818) went off with another whole group of families to settle in the steppes, as they used to be called. These were the agricultural settlements which the Mitteler Rebbe had succeeded in persuading the government to establish, and which he used to visit for some time thereafter for a couple of months a year.

Ten years after his marriage, and while still living in Beshenkovitz, this grandfather had still not been blessed with children. No matter how many times he had asked the Rebbe for a blessing, he had never been answered. After each visit he would leave Lubavitch brokenhearted, and with bitter tears he and his wife would bewail the Rebbe’s silence.

The letter that the Mitteler Rebbe addressed17 to all of his chassidim at this time, advocating employment in agriculture and the crafts, had great repercussions. Making the move to the colonies was difficult for some — and among these were some of the less scholarly baalei batim, merchants, shopkeepers, and ordinary craftsmen and villagers — because the distance from Lubavitch meant that they would not be able to see the Rebbe as they had always done. Their hesitation vanished, however, when they heard that the Rebbe had promised that once a certain number of families had moved there, he would visit the colonies for a certain period every year.

And when a group of settlers organized in Beshenkovitz, one of those who registered was the grandfather of Reb A.T.

8. More devout than gifted

On their way from Beshenkovitz with their wives and children, the whole party of settlers passed by Lubavitch so that they would be able to receive the Rebbe’s blessing. The Rebbe gave his farewell blessings to the group as a whole, and Reb A. T.’s grandfather was one of the fortunate few to be admitted individually to the Rebbe’s study for yechidus. He was so overawed when he walked in, however, that he was unable to utter a word. So when the Rebbe asked him whether he was on his way to settle in the steppes, he was only able to nod.

“A very good idea,” said the Rebbe; “a change of place.18 May the Almighty grant you healthy and viable children,19 and enable you to see children and grandchildren engaged in the study of the Torah. And may you find a livelihood by tilling the soil.”

Overjoyed, the young man ran off to tell his wife the wonderful tidings of the Rebbe’s blessing, and with cheerful hearts they set out for the steppes. In due course the Almighty fulfilled the Rebbe’s blessing: they were gladdened by the birth of a healthy child, and their farming gave them a generous livelihood.

As the years went by they were blessed with more children — all healthy and robust, but with mediocre gifts. When they grew up they were still far from learned, but they were devout, of upstanding character, generous, and warm chassidim. In fact when A. T. himself was a child, his parents hired the best tutors for him, but with limited success. And as an adult too, though he toiled over his studies, his attainments were modest.

He became one of the prominent householders of his settlement, and one of the most outstanding philanthropists of that entire region. He was quite wealthy, and his house was open to all comers. However, though he was the leader in every charitable cause, his learning remained (nebbich) weak throughout his life. In his older years he memorized the mishnayos of Berachos, as well as the first three chapters of Tanya, and Tehillim and the Chumash, and these words he was forever repeating by heart.

9. The precious Chassidus of an unlettered villager

Whenever A. T. visited Lubavitch he would repeat the Chassidus that he had heard. Being an enthusiastic chassid, he made strenuous efforts to grasp the maamar that the Rebbe had delivered, but unfortunately he never mastered more than the verse with which it opened, as well as the verses from the Chumash and Tehillim that were quoted in the course of the maamar.

As with all Chabad chassidim, the whole aim of his visit was to hear the Rebbe expounding Chassidus, to repeat the maamar, and to enter the Rebbe’s study for yechidus — in order to discuss the state in which one currently finds himself, to present a stocktaking of one’s spiritual standing to date, to ask for guidance in planning one’s avodah, and to ask for a blessing for success in one’s future efforts. But the Chassidus for A. T. meant something quite distinctive. True enough, he had the characteristically chassidic fervor, the chassidic devotedness to the Rebbe, the chassidic humility, and the chassidic elation of the spirit — but all of this related only to the familiar verses opening the maamar or quoted in the course of it.

Words cannot do justice to the sheer innocent enthusiasm, to the spiritual elation, which this man experienced when he later repeated those verses. For on his return, not only did he invite to his home or to his store all his fellow settlers, but he would also send out carriages to bring guests from the neighboring colonies, as well as from the nearby town of Nikolayev. He would then ask them all to join him in the festive seudas mitzvah that he had prepared, to celebrate his good fortune in having been privileged to visit the Rebbe. At the table, dressed in his Shabbos clothes, he would now repeat the Chassidus that he remembered from Lubavitch. And no sooner had he uttered the first few words of his well-loved pasuk, than he was uplifted into a state of ardent rapture. His face was all aflame, and from his closed eyes big tears rolled down his cheeks.

Whenever he came home from Lubavitch, this chassid brought with him a renewed vitality — in the cultivation of his character, in his charitable activities, in his hospitality, and in the love of his fellow Jews. At all times he radiated an artlessly chassidic warmth throughout his house, but especially at the seudas mitzvah of a farbrengen.

True enough, the Chassidus of such utterly unlettered Jews is uniquely theirs — a homespun Chassidus. But it is sincere; it is cherished; it is precious.

And such was the Chassidus of the villager20 who conveyed the greetings of the Baal Shem Tov to the Maggid of Mezritch.

10. Visiting the Maggid

In the course of conversation, this yishuvnik who had just come from Mezhibuzh told his friend that he was bringing regards from the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, to a great disciple of his, R. Ber; he was a melamed here in Mezritch, and he had found him only with difficulty. The friend was also a quite simple individual, of the kind that could certainly have no concept of the stature of a giant such as the Maggid. He knew nevertheless that the Maggid was a great gaon and a tzaddik, and that prominent congregations had repeatedly asked him to be their rav. The Maggid had always refused their offers, however, choosing instead to work as a melamed, though without accepting payment. The family’s only means of support was his wife’s handiwork.

So it was that the local townsman accompanied the visiting villager on his second call at the home of the Maggid. Once again the visitor saw before him the alley with its crooked, hunchbacked hovels, one more dilapidated than the next. To make things worse, the mire was so thick that it did not dry up even in the summer, and the air too was foul.

When they walked inside they found that the table was no longer there, for every evening the same boards were used to put together a place for the children to sleep in. The Maggid, who was seated on the wooden stump and studying, was exceedingly pleased to receive his regards from the Baal Shem Tov. He made his guests feel welcome, and asked them to be seated on the boards that were ranged around the edges of the room on low blocks of wood.

Having passed on his message, the visiting villager now turned to the Maggid: “What shall I say? I am far from rich, but if you were to come to my home you would find, thank G‑d, a stool, a chair, a crib for the little ones, and other kinds of furniture too.”

“At home things are quite different,” replied the Maggid. “At home one does in fact need a chair, a bed, a table and a lamp.”

11. Materiality is merely a temporary tent

Even men so ignorant as these two simple chassidim understood the Maggid’s reply. It was brief, but crystal clear.

Those select few words — “At home things are quite different” — open one’s eyes, and state clearly that here, in This World, is not home; that “At home things are quite different.” One’s real home is very, very different; “At home one does in fact need a chair, a bed, a table and a lamp” — for these are the four tikkunim21 that everyone must see to.

Now this reply that the Maggid gave the villager will enable us to understand the expression used by the verse — that the people returned to their tents,22 rather than to their houses.

It is perfectly true that the Jewish People has never enjoyed such prosperity as it did during the reign of Shlomo HaMelech, with everyone living in comfortable houses. But when people visited the Beis HaMikdash and beheld G‑dliness, as is explained at length in the teachings of our Sages, every Jew and Jewess acquired the firm conviction that gashmiyus, materiality, is no real home. A solid house, with its well-appointed grounds and its orderly farmyards, is no more than a temporary tent.

The whole of This World, with all of its pleasurable material things, its houses, goods and possessions, is no more than a temporary tent that wanders about from one place to the next, a shelter that one puts up in order to get a night’s sleep, or a couple of days’ rest.

This World is no home; home is something quite different.

And this is the realization that the people of Israel attained during the reign of Shlomo HaMelech. Rich, healthy and secure, they recognized the truth only when they entered the Beis HaMikdash — that materiality is nothing more than a temporary tent.

12. Wealth is always accompanied by wisdom…

Wealth is quite a useful thing, and pleasurable too — but an awesome commodity.

It is written, “There is a sore evil that I have seen under the sun, [namely, riches kept for their owner to his hurt].”23 In this connection the Midrash lists five names24Korach,25 Navos of Yizre’el,26 Haman,27 the tribesmen of Gad and Reuven,28 and Iyov29 (Job). Of these five very different categories of people, some were harmed merely in their material affairs; others actually lost their lives.

Of these five, it is Korach whom Rashi chooses30 to exemplify the teaching of this verse. Quoting the phrase, “riches kept for their owner to his hurt,” Rashi comments: “Like the riches of Korach, through which he grew proud, and went down into the pit.”

His wealth made him so arrogant that even though he knew that Miriam had spoken disrespectfully of Moshe Rabbeinu,31 as a result of which G‑d had rebuked her and Aharon, and even though he knew of how G‑d had spoken in praise of Moshe Rabbeinu,32 none of this affected his arrogance.

“Riches kept for their owner to his hurt” (May no Jew know of such woes!) leave their impact in a variety of ways, but mainly in a pride that knows no bounds.

When a man grows rich, he forgets who he is and what stock he stems from. In his eyes he is now wise, aristocratic and omniscient. Above all, as the verse says, “The rich man answers with insolence.”33 His insolence soars at a grotesque rate.

An incident comes to mind from the years 5639-5641 (1879-1881). During that period of growing anti-Semitism, the ruling circles of Petersburg were inciting the populace to initiate pogroms. Accordingly, meetings of rabbinic leaders often took place there, and these were also attended by the leading local magnates.

One day, when a certain religious issue was being discussed at one of these sessions, one or two of the latter dignitaries expressed themselves in a disrespectful manner toward the Torah and the mitzvos. Distressed by their attitude, one of the prominent scholars spoke up.

“Though the previous speakers think otherwise,” he said, “one cannot rely on their opinion, because the balance-sheets of their wealth don’t balance.”

Hearing such words, all his listeners were quite shaken up — two of them especially.

“Shlomo HaMelech,” he went on, “knew very well what a magnate is, both as regards his wealth and as regards his character — and he tells us that ‘the rich man answers with insolence.’ But the wealth ought to balance the insolence. For there are those whose insolence outshines their wealth....”

There is no need for me to discuss the “riches kept for their owner to his hurt.” Everyone knows full well what the very next verse says: “But those riches are lost by misadventure; and he begets a son, and there is nothing in his hand.”34 Moreover, everyone knows what the Midrash35 expounds on this verse.

The various dire upheavals that have taken place in our lifetimes have clearly demonstrated to us just how unshakable a thing wealth is, and what it is really worth.

Here is a teaching that our parents learned in the Gemara.

Concerning the giving of charity, the Torah promises that “for the sake of this thing, the L-rd your G‑d will bless you.”36 Noting the similarity between בִּגְלַל (“for the sake of”) and גַלְגַל (“wheel”), the scholars of the School of R. Yishmael taught: “There is a wheel [i.e., fortune] that turns in the world.”37 Accordingly, R. Elazar HaKappar used to say: “One should always pray for mercy on this matter [Rashi: ‘That he should not come to know poverty’], for if he does not experience it, his son may, and if his son does not, his grandson may.”

What our parents learned in the Gemara, we have lived through in our own lives.

It is painful to witness the suffering, especially the spiritual suffering, that the turning wheel brings around.

Deep in his heart, every formerly well-to-do individual recalls how with the insolence of the rich he used to regard less fortunate brethren with scorn, and made light of the needs of the poor.

May the Almighty in His compassion rehabilitate them all, and restore to them all their wealth. And this time, without any doubt, their conduct will be very different.

13. Relax: the wheel of fortune turns

Early in the year 5659 (1898), one of the elder chassidim from the days of my grandfather38 came to spend the Shabbos of Parshas Lech Lecha in Lubavitch — a wealthy contractor called R. Aharon Chazanov, from Pochip.

That Shabbos my father39 delivered the maamar based on the words, Pakad’ta haaretz — “You remember the earth,”40 which follows on from the one that begins, Yom-Tov shel Rosh HaShanah. Though it is quite a difficult maamar, the students of the Yeshivah41 mastered it, and it was repeated publicly.

R. Aharon was no stranger to learning, and used to spend time studying Chassidus too, but maamarim as profound as this one presented something of a difficulty. He was very pleased therefore that some of the Yeshivah students repeated it in his presence, and explained it to him as well.

By this time he was advanced in years, and his business was conducted by his sons and son-in-law. Actually, his affairs were now going downhill and he had huge debts, but because his firm had extensive governmental contracts, his real situation was not known.

The following Thursday, in the week of Parshas Vayeira, another elder chassid from the days of my grandfather came to Lubavitch. This was R. Yaakov of Sebezh, who had grown extremely wealthy in the previous seven or eight years. With my father’s approval he had moved from his little township to the big city of Riga, where he had grown even wealthier, and where within a very short time he occupied a position of honor among the leading chassidim of the community.

These two elder chassidim honored me with a visit42 at my home, where they recounted various stories from my grandfather’s days.

In the course of this farbrengen, R. Aharon said that once at yechidus my father had cited the above-mentioned teaching of the Gemara, that “there is a wheel that turns in the world.”

My father had then gone on to say: “Though a wheel is round, it still has a top and a bottom. There are times when a man is way up, on top of the wheel, and there are times when a man is down below, underneath the wheel. Now human nature is such that when a person is on top of the wheel he is in high spirits, and laughs heartily out of sheer enjoyment; if he is (G‑d forbid) underneath the wheel, he is downcast, and weeps bitter tears out of the melancholy in his heart.

“But in fact they’re both fools, both the grinning guy on top, and the sorry soul below.

“The miserable one under the wheel should be told : ‘Why are you weeping? This is a wheel, isn’t it? And a wheel turns. The Almighty will surely help you get back on your feet!’ And one should tell the puffed-up fellow on top: ‘Why are you so self-important? It’s only a wheel, after all. And a wheel turns.’”

14. Leaving the Beis HaMikdash – happily?!

“They went to their tents joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that G‑d had done for David His servant, and for Israel His People.”43

Was this, then, the satisfied frame of mind in which they returned from the Beis HaMikdash in Jerusalem to their comfortable homes?

In the Beis HaMikdash, after all, they had seen that what really exists is ruchniyus, spirituality, and that gashmiyus, the material world, is no real home at all; it is no more than a temporary passage. And in fact this is readily understandable. For before the soul descends into the body it is Above, and after spending its 120 years in the body it is Above once more — so that the time it spends down here is in fact no more than a temporary passage. So why all that joy? Why were they so glad of heart?

What made them so happy was their awareness of the truth. When a person recognizes the truth, this fact alone arouses an infinite joy, and gladdens his heart.

But this is strange indeed! The People of Israel had come with their wives and children to Jerusalem with their tithes44 in hand, whether as produce or in currency; they had rejoiced in their goodly lot; and they had arrived at the understanding that what really exists is ruchniyus. And after all that, when they were on their way back to their material homes, they were joyful and glad of heart!

Let us understand. The boundless joy that they and their families experienced on their way from the Holy City back to their material homes had five sources.

1) The first reason was that “He has set us apart from those who go astray, and has given us Toras emes, the Torah of truth.”45 The meaning of Toras emes is that the truth itself is an entire Torah, an entire teaching. That is to say, that quite apart from the fact that the Torah is truthful, the Torah brings us to the truth, enabling us to have a conception and an understanding of the truth.

2) The second reason was that “He has chosen us from among all the nations.”46 This act of lovingkindness, whereby G‑d chose us to be “His People, and the flock of His pasture,”47 and whereby He says of us, “You are children of the L-rd your G‑d,”48 is prompted only by His innate love for us, as it is written, “‘I have loved you,’49 says G‑d.”

3) The third explanation for the joy of the pilgrims returning from Jerusalem is found in the verse, “We shall be differentiated... from all the nations that are upon the face of the earth.”50 This refers to the fact that we, “the people of the G‑d of Avraham,”51 have been granted the privilege of having the Divine Presence dwelling within ourselves, and of being worthy vessels able to absorb and experience this indwelling.

4) Fourth is the fact that G‑d has given us the capability of recognizing the truth, and thereafter, the privilege whereby the truth can make its impact.

5) Finally: With the same sensibility and recognition by which the returning pilgrims felt and saw that the real reality is G‑dliness and ruchniyus, they felt and recognized the truth — that the gashmiyus they owned was a gift that G‑d had given them, so that they would be able to make ruchniyus out of it, and serve Him with an easy mind.

15. Vengeful hellfire

There is a story that dates from when the Baal Shem Tov was still a hidden tzaddik,52 and traveled about from town to township.

The memory of the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49 was then still fresh,53 and in those parts there was hardly a family that did not pass on from generation to generation its dreadful narrative of the sacrifices that their forebears had suffered.

In those days, the maggidim who used to travel about from town to town delivering their moralistic sermons were of two kinds. There were those who would seek out teachings of the Sages and stories that demonstrate the loftiness of the Jewish People — in their faith, their trust in G‑d, and their self-sacrifice for the Torah to the point of Kiddush HaShem. In this way they would summon up hidden strengths in their listeners, and in some measure they succeeded in fortifying their optimistic trust in the Almighty.

Then there were those who were forever rebuking and chastising, terrifying their listeners with vivid descriptions of the punishments due for sin. They would portray the Almighty as a jealous and vengeful G‑d, sternly meting out strict retribution for every offense. Their sermons were based on Talmudic quotations that warn of punishment, and on verses such as that which says, “And G‑d does it, that men should fear Him,”54 or on the passages of rebuke55 in the Torah. Warming eloquently to their dire theme, they would even utter phrases that recall curses: “For such-and-such an offense, the Almighty will visit upon you (Heaven forfend) such-and-such a fearsome punishment!” Needless to say, they left their listeners in a very woebegone mood indeed.

These maggidim were all no doubt pious and learned men, who certainly intended to improve the conduct of the House of Israel. However, they did not always find the right means of conveying their lesson, and with their harsh words of rebuke they actually disparaged the Almighty. For the simple men and women who listened to them learned to picture the Almighty, Who is “benevolent, compassionate and gracious,”56 and Who is “good and does good to all,”57 as (G‑d forbid) a relentless and unsparing avenger.

The nature of the speaker himself must of course also be taken into account. If he was by nature kind, compassionate and generous, then even his censorious teachings would be expressed gently and compassionately. But if the maggid was by nature severe, if he was dry, rigid and hard-hearted, then his message would come across oppressively. Every word bit, every phrase scalded. Even his sonorous, ominous voice would diffuse terror.

16. The artless lifestyle of villagers

During those years that the Baal Shem Tov was still unknown, he and his fellow tzaddikim nistarim would quietly go about visiting towns and villages, where they would often converse with quite simple folk, and thereby fortify their faith and trust in G‑d.

One day the Baal Shem Tov arrived at a certain hamlet. Most of the townsmen were unlettered artisans and farm laborers, but pious Jews. All week long they toiled bitterly hard, but still managed to daven with a minyan three times a day, and to read the daily portion of Tehillim before dawn. On Shabbos they would recite the whole Book of Tehillim with a minyan, once before daybreak and once again in the afternoon. And at some time in the course of the Shabbos one of those who was more learned would read and explain for them a little bit of Chumash or a mishnah out of Pirkei Avos.

Whenever the Baal Shem Tov came there, he would be warmly gratified to observe their artless prayers, the simplicity with which they read their Tehillim, and the beauty of their family life.

This was the period during which he used to wear the homespun clothes of an ordinary craftsman, a village tailor or cobbler, topped by his familiar fur jacket. In this way he was able to move freely among the simple folk and their families. He was fond of spending time with the little boys and girls, teaching them how to say Shema Yisrael, Modeh ani, Torah tzivah or Beyadcha afkid. And with the kindly eye of a great guide and leader, the Baal Shem Tov enjoyed observing the beautiful domestic life of those unsophisticated Jewish families.

During this particular summer, within a few days of his arrival the Baal Shem Tov heard the local farmers bemoaning their sad lot. Their very livelihood was threatened, because it had been such a parched and burning summer that the unripe crops of grain, fruit and vegetables, which had been sparse in the first place, were now being scorched by the sun.

Though he had been about to leave, he was deeply affected by the plight of these good folk. He therefore decided to bring several more of the circle of the hidden tzaddikim to this village, so that together they would strive to arouse the mercies of Heaven.

17. A fruit pudding of thanksgiving

By the next day another few of the Holy Brotherhood58 had arrived. Together they made a pidyon for the township, and prayed. And the Almighty, Who “desires the prayers of the righteous,”59 and Who fulfills their requests,60 sent rain. The plants in all the gardens were revived from their stupor, and the township was filled with joy. With shining faces, the townsmen expressed their thanks to the Almighty: “The salvation of G‑d comes in the wink of an eye,”61 they exclaimed. “Blessed be He-Who-lives-forever!”62

People meanwhile came in from the fields, and told of the wonders of the Creator: the parched ears of corn and the withered leaves of the cabbages and beets had reawakened to life, like a man getting up from a sickbed. The township was all agog with joy. Men and women, old and young, and children too, could not stop talking about how G‑d had had mercy on them and sent His blessed messenger, the timely rains. This was late Thursday afternoon. The elected leaders of that little community therefore decided that this Shabbos was to be proclaimed a festive day, a Shabbos HaGadol. This time they would recite the whole Book of Tehillim not twice but three times over, and when it came to the third time, everyone would have to participate, except of course for the bedridden, women after childbirth, and very small children. Moreover, to mark the great occasion, each family was to prepare a sweet fruit pudding. This would be given to the children at Seudah Shelishis, when they would be told of the kindness of the Creator.

When the Baal Shem Tov and his colleagues of the Holy Brotherhood saw how the Divine Name was being sanctified by the joyful gratitude of young and old, and when they heard about the proclamation of the leaders of the community, they decided to stay on in the township and to witness this Shabbos HaGadol with their own eyes.

18. Gehinnom won’t be hot enough

Then, on Friday morning, a maggid came to town. As soon as he arrived he headed for the home of the head of the community, in order to receive his permission to deliver his sermon the next day. According to the letter of approbation with which he was armed, he was a quite exceptional preacher. After only a few minutes of his oratory, so the letter averred, any congregation would melt into tears. In fact, his sermons were known to make people repent.

The head of the congregation was a very simple Jew, but very pious and very aged, so he received his guest with every mark of respect. He then explained that this Shabbos was a day of thanksgiving for the whole township, and the time which might otherwise have been appropriate for a sermon had been set aside for the public reading of Tehillim.

When the maggid heard these words he gave the old man a piece of his mind. By not honoring such a worthy sage as himself, he was abusing the holy Torah, no less! How dare he tell a scholar of his standing that there was no time to hear his sermon!

“For sleeping and eating sweet fruit puddings you find time!” he insisted. “But when it comes to hearing a word of Torah and a word of mussar you’ve got no time. Gehinnom itself won’t suffice for you folk!” And so on and on — until the poor old man became so terrified that with tears in his eyes he asked forgiveness, and then had to work hard to persuade the offended party to agree to accompany him to the home of the local rav, for there they would have to decide what time the congregants should be told to come to hear his sermon. The maggid explained the head of the community that according to the old congregational regulations, whenever a maggid came to a town he was obligated to call on the head of the congregation, the rosh hakahal, to request permission to deliver his sermon. He was not, however, obligated to call on the local rav. A common maggid, he explained, might be expected to wait until the local rav dispatched a respectable delegation to invite him to call on him. However, a maggid who was also a scholar of outstanding repute — such as himself, for example — would be accustomed to wait for a visit from the rav in person....

19. Basking in honor

Off went the rosh hakahal to the rav, and told him the whole story of his encounter with the maggid. Being a humble and G‑d-fearing man, the rav assured him that it was certainly important to show due deference to the Torah and to a talmid chacham; how much more so if he was a maggid, a man who exerted himself so nobly to deliver his moral exhortations for the public good. Indeed, it would be a pleasure for him to go and call on the visitor.

The maggid was staying at the home of the shammes of the local beis midrash. On the way to the township, he had calculated that he would need the services of some townsman who would know how to put him in touch with the right people, and who could do some odd errand for him. For a start, at least, he would stay with the local shammes.

Gratified to be paid a call by both the local rav and the head of the community, the maggid was soon involved in scholarly conversation with the rav, who found him to be a man of considerable learning. The rosh hakahal for his part stood aside and respectfully listened; unfortunately, he was unable to follow their debate. When it was over, the rav and the maggid discussed what time would be suitable for the next day’s sermon, and decided that it would start after Seudah Shelishis, and end in time for the singing of Shir HaMaalos.63

The rav then invited his visitor to his home for breakfast, during which they resumed their scholarly discussion. Word quickly spread throughout the township that a maggid had arrived — an outstanding scholar, a tzaddik, a man who toiled for the edification of his brethren. In fact their own rav together with their rosh hakahal had called on him to invite him to the rav’s home for breakfast; he was going to be the guest of the rosh hakahal; and on Shabbos, after Seudah Shelishis and before Shir HaMaalos, this very same maggid was going to deliver his derashah in the big beis midrash, and everyone was expected to come.

20. Shreiks of despair

The local womenfolk all wanted to do the right thing by this Shabbos, and in their own way to give it the distinction it deserved. So whereas every other Friday they each used to bring one of their Shabbos candles to the beis midrash, this Shabbos they each brought along two, and the whole shul was lit up.

Surrounded by this abounding joy — the extra candles that were lit, the zemiros that were sung, the first reading of Tehillim at daybreak, the davenen with its Mi SheBeirachs, the afternoon’s Tehillim of thanksgiving, and then the sweet fruit pudding that the children enjoyed as they were told of the mercies of the Creator — the Baal Shem Tov and his saintly colleagues were more than happy that they had stayed on over Shabbos, to behold this Kiddush HaShem with their own eyes.

The appointed hour drew near, and the whole town foregathered in the big beis midrash. Ascending the steps of the bimah, the maggid began by quoting the warning of the mishnah in Pirkei Avos: “Seven kinds of punishment64 come to the world [for seven kinds of transgressions].” That done, he proceeded to spell them out in Yiddish so that everyone would understand exactly what they were, and in a short time he had them all in tears.

With a voice that was stern and strident, dour and dry, the maggid rebuked his listeners for not being sufficiently devout. The Almighty was sure to punish them — first by famine, so that their fruits, vegetables and grain crops would all be burned up. After that, He would proceed to visit punishment upon their houses.

By this time men and women, old and young, were all sobbing bitterly, as the maggid held forth with his unrelenting tirade. The Almighty would take their lives, too. The first to perish would be the little children, and then would come the turn of the bigger ones, and those who survived would all be widows and orphans — exactly as they recalled from the days of the Chmielnicki massacres.

At this point, alarmed, the whole congregation broke out in cries of desperation; men and women fainted; shrieks rent the air.

21. Taken by surprise

Into this scene walked the Baal Shem Tov. From all the wailing and the wringing of hands, it was clear how the visiting maggid had been addressing the townsfolk, and the Baal Shem Tov felt their anguish.

Climbing up high on to a lectern, he called out to the maggid: “Rabbi! Doesn’t the Midrash say that the Almighty, as it were, told Moshe Rabbeinu that he should rebuke Him?65 So as for you, sir, why are you rebuking these folk for not serving the Creator well enough? Rebuke Him, so to speak, for not showing compassion to His children.... And now that He has shown them compassion, by sending them the rains of blessing, they will certainly serve Him properly!”

The whole place was in an uproar. Someone quickly began Kaddish deRabbanan to mark the end of the visitor’s derashah, and with voices of happy relief everyone joined in the singing of the Songs of Ascent.

22. Making ruchniyus out of gashmiyus

This, then, is what is meant when we say that gashmiyus, materiality, is a gift from G‑d, and that out of gashmiyus one needs to make ruchniyus, spirituality. And all of the five above-mentioned reasons66 brought about the boundless joy and the gladness of heart in the Jews who were taking their leave of the Beis HaMikdash.

As our verse said, “They went to their tents, joyful and glad of heart.” When one leaves Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdash and goes back to one’s material home, one has to take along enough joy to light up that material home.

The joy of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah ought to light up all homes and light up the whole year. May the Almighty prosper our paths, the paths of the entire House of Israel, both materially and spiritually, and grant that the light of the revealed levels of the Torah and the light of Chassidus should illuminate all Jewish hearts and homes, so that everyone shall recognize the truth — that it is in the genuinely devout cheder and in the genuinely devout yeshivah that truly worthwhile education is to be found.

May He send us the righteous Redeemer, and gather in our dispersed people from the four corners of the earth, and lead us upright to our Holy Land, speedily and in our own days, Amen.