25. A snowbound Hoshanah Rabbah

This is the story, as R. Pinchas of Shklov recounted it to my great-greatuncle, R. Nachum.

That year, 5547 (1786), winter set in with a vengeance, and Liozna1 had its first snowfall during Chol HaMoed Sukkos. It was bitterly cold, and to be able to sit in the sukkah people had to put on fur coats and padded boots. Besides, some of the meals there could not start until the snow had been cleared from the roof. That year Shemini Atzeres fell on Shabbos. Snow fell all Friday night, and in the morning the Alter Rebbe asked someone to remark to Kuzma,2 the gentile handyman, that it would be impossible to eat in the sukkah as long as the snow was piled up on top. He duly cleared the snow away, and the Rebbe went out to the sukkah to recite the Kiddush and eat the festive meal of Shabbos and Yom-Tov there.

Most of the chassidim who had converged on Liozna for Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah suffered from frozen fingers and toes, and many of them had caught heavy colds.

Now on Hoshana Rabbah,3 it was the Rebbe’s custom to have all the sifrei Torah taken out of the Holy Aron Kodesh and properly rolled together again, and bound in such a way that the row of stitches which joined any two neighboring sheets of parchment would fall exactly halfway between the wooden roller (etz chaim) on either side. The scrolls were then carefully tied with their binders.

Reb Michel the Shammes was most punctilious that everything to do with the shul should be done precisely, promptly and calmly. The person who received the instruction from the Rebbe’s mouth traditionally supervised the shammes and the few chassidim who helped him in this task, and when it was completed he would enter the Rebbe’s study to report that the sifrei Torah were properly tied up.

And that year it was my privilege to be honored by the Rebbe with this responsibility.

26. One fire will consume the other

Hoshana Rabbah that year fell on Friday. The Rebbe was of cheerful countenance, so when I had informed him that my task was completed, I made mention4 of the chassidim who had caught heavy colds on the way to town, and many of whom were running a high fever.

The Rebbe leaned his head on his arms, lapsed into a state of dveikus for quite some time, then opened his eyes and said in his characteristic singsong: “Concerning the Torah it is written, esh das lamo — that it is ‘a fiery law for them.’5 Now today is Simchas Torah. So let them all be brought along for the Hakkafos, for [in the Gemara the Divine Presence is referred to as] esh ocheles esh — ‘one fire that consumes another fire.’6 The fire of Simchas Torah will consume the fire of their fever.”7

Now in Liozna at that time there lived two aged scholars who had been amongst the earliest misnagdim. True indeed they had the greatest respect for the Alter Rebbe, but nevertheless they were misnagdim through and through. One of them was known as Reb Aizik Mechadesh,8 and the second as Reb Naftali Zahir. Both of them indeed were exceedingly learned, and both of them were exceedingly G‑d-fearing. R. Aizik was always announcing: “Today, thanks to the Almighty, I was mechadesh such and such in the Torah.” That was how he acquired his nickname. As to R. Naftali, he was forever proclaiming: “I am scrupulously vigilant (Heb.: zahir) as to what I eat; I am scrupulously vigilant as to what I say; I am scrupulously vigilant as to where I look; I am scrupulously vigilant in this, that and the other.” And that was how he acquired his nickname.

These two scholars had both been students at the yeshivah of Smilevitz, which had been famous fifty or sixty years beforehand, when it was headed by a saintly sage called R. Shalom Yudel. To him the Prophet Eliyahu had revealed himself on a number of occasions, and he had produced a number of outstanding students. By the time R. Aizik and R. Naftali had arrived at the yeshivah this sage was old and blind, and the shiurim were delivered by his second son-in-law, R. Shimon Eliyahu, who was known as “the ilui (genius) of Drutzin.”9

In fact before my father was married he studied under him for quite a period, at a time when his mentor had already been the senior rosh yeshivah of Smilevitz for over twenty years.

“It was such a delight to hear R. Shimon Eliyahu propounding a chiddush,” my father would recall, “that you didn’t feel the passage of time. And when he delivered a pilpul you could feel his arguments sweeping through the air, and your head would ache from their sheer profundity.”

27. The Alter Rebbe in Liozna

When my father by intellectual compulsion began to find himself on the side of the Alter Rebbe, and began to develop a strong liking for the teachings of Chassidus, he would often say: “I am certain that if R. Shimon Eliyahu would only have heard the sheer depth of divine wisdom that is to be found in Chassidus, he would certainly have become a chassid. And if he had invested his mighty talents in its teachings, and expounded its explanations with his eloquent tongue, the greatest scholars would have become chassidim.”

At any rate, R. Aizik Mechadesh was a native of Optzug and R. Naftali Zahir hailed from Kochanov, and fifty years earlier they had both married and settled in Liozna, where they had been enabled by their wealthy fathers-in-law to continue as lifelong students.

People used to relate that when the Alter Rebbe arrived at Liozna for the first time and delivered a pilpul, R. Aizik was immensely impressed. In fact he and R. Naftali agreed that since the days when the ilui of Drutzin used to deliver his fortnightly pilpul to an audience of the most distinguished scholars, they had never heard another like it.

When the Alter Rebbe later settled in Liozna, the two elderly scholars often consulted him on halachic questions, and after each such learned discussion they were left open-mouthed.

28. First echoes of the Baal Shem Tov

At this time the townsmen of Liozna, like the townspeople from the surrounding districts, were misnagdim in all their ways, yet they were different from the misnagdim in the regions of Vilna, Minsk, Brisk and Slutzk.

The old folk of Vitebsk and Mohilev and the surrounding townships used to describe how in those days one would often encounter various passersby who would drop into a local heis midrash, and tell their listeners stories of a certain sage and tzaddik who lived in the region of Podolia; he was always exerting himself to better the lot of his brethren, and was a worker of great miracles. These passersby included eminent scholars who were at home in the entire Talmud, and they would liken the miracles recounted of this tzaddik of Podolia to the miracles recorded in the Talmud of various tannaim and amoraim.

In those days people did not know who these passersby were, but in our time, when we were with the Rebbe in Liozna, we knew that they were tzaddikim nistarim, hidden saints, the colleagues and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, and they used to travel about the countryside in order to tell the masses about the Baal Shem Tov and about his teachings on divine service.

A few years elapsed until the ban on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov was first proclaimed at the fair of the regional councils of Vilna and Slutzk. The typical scholar or householder did not understand the point of the councils’ prohibitions; in fact they enjoyed listening to the beautiful stories of these learned wanderers. Because the regions of Vitebsk and Mohilev were inhabited by simple G‑d-fearing townsfolk and scholars, they were the first to become chassidim, and the misnagdim of those parts were also different from the misnagdim in the regions of Vilna, Brisk, Slutzk and Shklov.

29. Esteem, but with reservations

One day, when the Alter Rebbe had returned to Liozna after his first visit to [the Maggid of] Mezritch, R. Aizik and R. Naftali asked him why he had gone to the trouble of traveling all the way to the province of Volhynia, especially since this entailed a certain wastage of time from Torah study. After all, Vilna was much closer, and he could have clarified any of his scholarly queries by visiting “R. Elinke Gaon” (i.e., R. Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna).

To this the Alter Rebbe replied: “In Vilna one learns how a Jew should study Torah, whereas in Mezritch one learns how the Torah teaches a Jew — until he himself becomes a Torah.”

In the years during which the Alter Rebbe began to reveal and disseminate the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, R. Aizik and R. Naftali grew apart from him, though they continued to treat him with the greatest respect.

There had been a time when the Alter Rebbe’s distinguished brothers — R. Yehudah Leib, R. Mordechai and R. Moshe — had come to Liozna, and the Alter Rebbe had delivered an advanced shiur in Gemara for their benefit three times a week, following the mode of study characteristic of the Rishonim. R. Aizik and R. Naftali had then been numbered among the select scholars who were also present at those sessions. Moreover, in the year 5536 (1776), when the Alter Rebbe founded the first cheder, and mapped out a course of study for the married students who were arriving in Liozna, under the supervision of his learned brothers, R. Aizik and R. Naftali would often walk into the white beis midrash in order to listen and discuss. Later, however, when the Alter Rebbe began expounding chassidic teachings in public, the two local scholars grew distant from him.

Yet though they opposed the ways of the Baal Shem Tov, and even more so the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, they still held the Alter Rebbe in the highest esteem. So much so, in fact, that when in the year 5539 (1779) the regional council of Slutzk published its ban against the Alter Rebbe and against Chassidus, and news of this reached Liozna, R. Aizik and R. Naftali signed a letter of protest in which they testified that the Alter Rebbe was a gaon and a tzaddik. Throughout that period, however, they still had their reservations about miracles.

30. Surviving the cold?

Now R. Aizik’s brother had a son called R. Moshe Optzuger, who was a chassid of the Alter Rebbe. For the above-mentioned Simchas Torah10 he came to Liozna accompanied by two sons and a son-in-law, and all four guests lodged together in the home of R. Aizik. R. Moshe was a man of weak constitution, and after the ordeal of the arduous trek in the fierce cold he was kept in bed by a very high fever. His sons and son-in-law also fell ill. Avraham the Doctor said that with G‑d’s help the younger men would somehow find their way out of their illness alive. As to R. Moshe, however, old and weak as he was, and with pains in both sides and high fever too, he was very doubtful if he would survive.

R. Aizik was deeply distressed, and complained constantly that the whole idea of traveling to see one’s Rebbe in such conditions was a mitzvah earned at the expense of a transgression.11

31. In mortal danger

After Maariv on the eve of Shemini Atzeres, I and a fellow townsman by the name of Ephraim Michel and Chaim Elye12 of Dubrovna took along quite a number of young men, and set out for all the local hostelries, in order to invite — or, if need be, to bring — all the out-of-town guests to shul for Hakkafos, so that they should all be warmed and healed by the fire of the Torah.

As we arrived at each inn I told the chassidim there what the Rebbe had said. In fact his words were already known, because as soon as I had left the Rebbe’s study I had walked into the little shul in the courtyard and had told everyone there what I had said to the Rebbe about those who were sick, and what the Rebbe had answered. Within an hour, word of this had reached all the inns in town. Nevertheless, as I arrived at each one, the lodgers there asked me to repeat the Rebbe’s words, letter by letter.

It was a veritable delight to see the joy that the Rebbe’s words aroused in each hostelry, among the women and children too, for now everyone was certain that with G‑d’s help all the patients would recover.

That was a tempestuous night indeed — a night of sleet, torrents of rain, and a wind that went right through your bones. The streets, moreover, were one great quagmire. But none of this prevented the sick from going to shul. Many were able to walk alone, except for a little support on the side; others, who were unable to walk, we had to carry.

When we arrived at the house of R. Aizik, we found him arguing with the sons and son-in-law of his nephew R. Moshe. The three young men were arguing that they wanted a message to be sent to our little party [who had been expected at any minute] that we should come and help them stumble their way to Hakkafos, and carry R. Moshe there too. R. Aizik argued that it was unthinkable that even they should go out of doors. As for their father R. Moshe, there was nothing even to discuss, for since daytime he had lain in a stupor, oblivious to the world. In fact Avraham the Doctor had said that his life was in danger. If he were to be carried outdoors, the first gust of wind would whisk him out of the land of the living, G‑d forbid.

32. To defy plain reason?!

When Chaim Elye Dubrovner and I and another couple of young fellows entered on the scene, R. Moshe’s sons were so overjoyed that they cried out: “Thank G‑d! Now we are all saved, our father and all of us!”

“Murderers, that’s what you are!” shouted R. Aizik. “What you’re doing is an offense against the holy Torah!”

I approached R. Moshe. He was lying still as a log, his skin dark and bluish, his eyes closed. He was in high fever.

I took such fright that I almost lost my wits.

R. Aizik turned to us: “What do you say? This dangerously ill patient they want to take to shul for Hakkafos?! Even when the Beis HaMikdash was standing, and even when people were already in Jerusalem, the mishnah in Tractate Chagigah13 teaches us explicitly [regarding the obligatory pilgrimage]: prat lachiger velacholeh — ‘...except for the lame and the sick.’ Surely, then, this limitation applies to a mitzvah instituted by the Sages. If you carry Moshe outdoors now, you will be guilty of outright murder!”

But then Chaim and Baruch, R. Moshe’s sons, spoke up. Since the Rebbe had said that this was a cure, they believed with perfect faith that if their father were carried off to the minyan for the Rebbe’s Hakkafos he would recover.

I must confess that at that moment I was confused and didn’t know what to say. On the one hand I heard R. Aizik’s arguments, and watched R. Moshe lying there, his very life flickering. On the other hand I could hear the words of simple faith spoken by his sons — homespun villagers, one a tailor and the other a merchant, and it was they in whom the faith in a tzaddik radiated to the very point of self-sacrifice, without any prior meditation whatever.

Mortal reason dictated that R. Aizik was of course right. A patient in this state should obviously not be moved from his bed. The slightest draft would endanger his life; if they were to take him out in such a storm, they might never get him as far as the beis midrash, G‑d forbid. But then the divine reason clothed in the G‑dly soul argued that Chaim and Baruch were right. If the Rebbe said that the fire of the Torah was a cure, then it was a cure, and one ought to stake one’s life on it.

33. Humbled by the simple faith of villagers

Moment by moment I was more amazed by R. Moshe’s sons — ordinary young men with earnest hearts. To this very day I recall the shame that welled up within me. I felt so humbled that I resolved that I really ought to speak to the Rebbe at yechidus.

“Here I am,” I told myself, “Pinchas the son of R. Henich of Shklov,14 who was privileged to study Gemara and poskim and Torah philosophy15 at the feet of Shklov’s mightiest sages; who have come to appreciate the stature of the Rebbe through the comprehension of his teachings; who am now enjoying my eighth year in his presence; — and still the Matter in me prevails over the Form, and the natural intelligence prevails over the intelligence of the soul; while these simple young men, who came here to the Rebbe only out of a G‑d-fearing sense of duty, and who do not comprehend the profundity of the Rebbe’s teachings, — in them the Form prevails over the Matter, and the intelligence of the soul radiates within them in an experience of simple faith! Be ashamed of yourself, Pinye-Reb-Henich’s! Be ashamed in the presence of this chassidisher village tailor, in the presence of that chassidisher village merchant!”

So deep was I in my reverie that I did not notice what was going on around me — until Chaim Elye Dubrovner nudged me and said: “Avraham the Doctor says that the poor old man is in his last hours, G‑d forbid.”

I had not yet managed to take stock of the situation, when I heard Baruch calling out aloud: “Father! The Rebbe has sent messengers to invite you to come to Hakkafos! Father, wake up! We have to go to the Rebbe’s Hakkafos!”

There was a whole uproar in his room. When I walked in I saw R. Moshe lying there with his eyes open, a smile on his face, and waiting to be taken along to the Rebbe’s beis midrash. Chaim Elye darted out to call in another few young chassidim while others dressed R. Moshe, who was unable to move a limb alone, and then he was lifted and carried off to the Rebbe’s minyan for Hakkafos.

34. Coughing and groaning on all sides

As we walked into the big shul in the courtyard, the heat struck us in the face. The minyan was packed from wall to wall with people. Some of them were so sick that they could not even sit on the benches, and had to be propped up against the walls. They at least were quiet, but others coughed without respite, or groaned so pitifully that one’s heart was sore at the sight.

The most serious case there was R. Yaakov Yeshayahu of Chotemsk. He was in his sixties, charitable and hospitable, a scholar and a baal avodah, who worked as a melamed from time to time, and ran a modest hostelry. In the course of the years he had several times made his way on foot to visit the Maggid of Mezritch; he had then gone to Horodok16 a couple of times; and after R. Menachem Mendel had left for Eretz Yisrael17 he had instead visited the Alter Rebbe, among whose chassidim he was regarded as a man with a seasoned understanding of Chassidus. Physically, he was so tall and well-built that his friends used to nickname him “Yaakov Yeshayahu Kohen Gadol (“High Priest,” but lit., “the big Kohen”). According to Avraham the Doctor, this man’s very strength had made him so vulnerable, though he predicted that in the long run his strength would enable him to ward off the Angel of Death. For the moment, nevertheless, he lay there prone and listless, a mighty ruin that was awesome to behold.

35. A blissful whiff of the Sanctuary

On the afternoon of Hoshana Rabbah, on the eve of Shemini Atzeres, it was customary to pray early, in the Rebbe’s little minyan that was known among the chassidim as “the Lower Garden of Eden” — at the same time that Minchah was begun on the eve of Yom Kippur. Straight after Minchah, the light of joy was already in the air, and you could often hear the Rebbe studying alone in his room. Later in the afternoon the Rebbe would deliver a discourse to the scholars of the chadarim and to a select company of guests.

A couple of hours later it was time for Maariv in the Rebbe’s little minyan, and after this the Rebbe would begin Hakkafos together with a certain number of the scholars of the chadarim and of the guests from out of town. The Rebbe himself would recite aloud all the verses of Atah hareisa, lead all of the seven circuits around the bimah, and read aloud all the accompanying hymns and verses. Every time he walked around that table, he would leave his spot at the south-eastern corner of the shul, advance towards the south-west, pause a moment to hold the sefer Torah in his left hand, rest his right hand on the opposite shoulder of one of the elder chassidim — and with him he would dance.

While this was going on the chassidim present literally experienced illumination; every man there felt that he was standing at the site of the Beis HaMikdash; every instant was precious beyond compare; it now seemed within everyone’s reach to clamber to the loftiest heights of Torah, avodah and repentance; at this moment they experienced the ideal described by the Sages: Misham hayu sho’avim ruach hakodesh — “From those wellsprings they drew divine inspiration.”18

Whoever was fortunate enough to be present at “the Rebbe’s yechidus-Hakkafos” — to behold that face, that Holy of Holies; to hear those songs of joy; to witness that dance of bliss; to see reflected in all of this an outpouring of a rapturous love of G‑d; — such a man felt that he too was caught up in the splendor of the innermost Sanctuary that filled the very air of that little shul.

36. A moment of bliss

These Hakkafos were known among chassidim as “the Rebbe’s yechidus-Hakkafos,” for at this time the most subtle, innermost facet of the soul — the makkif of the yechidahrevealed itself. Moreover, this was one of the most propitious times for the “nearing of the luminary to the spark.”19

It is clear in the minds of chassidim that the conduct of the Rebbe echoes the proceedings on high. When there is an auspicious time on high, and the Countenance of the celestial King is radiant, so too is it an auspicious time with the Rebbe, and his countenance too is radiant.

The Rebbe’s yechidus-Hakkafos used to give a chassid a firm footing at an utterly new level. I remember that my first time there triggered off a whole turmoil within me. I became a new man. It was then, for the first time, that I was able to picture how a Jew used to feel when he made the festive pilgrimage to the Beis HaMikdash, and there saw the Divine Presence revealed.

Every organ has its own distinctive pleasure, in harmony with its own nature. The head derives pleasure from thinking, the eyes from seeing, the ears from hearing, the heart from traits of noble character, the hand from action and the foot from walking, and so on. But there exists a kind of bliss that is experienced simultaneously by the whole man, to the point that all his faculties, senses and gifts lose their identity within it. And just such a bliss was the lot of every chassid who took part in the Rebbe’s yechidus-Hakkafos.

Just as in the laws of the Beis HaMikdash and its vessels every detail is precisely ordered and regulated in terms of time and place, so too in the Rebbe’s precincts the time and place of every activity was defined — in regulations that all the chassidim knew and punctiliously observed, for they were all devoted to the Rebbe with all their heart, soul and might.

Thus, for example, everyone knew that the Rebbe’s yechidus-Hakkafos ought to be attended only by those named by the person in charge. Everyone, to be sure, prayed that he should have the good fortune to be named, but one would never go there without being invited. And having once participated, one would never again be allowed to join in, except for the Rebbe’s close relatives and a few other chassidim.

37. Emissaries of healing

After the yechidus-Hakkafos the Alter Rebbe would go into the sukkah to recite Kiddush, and then proceed to the big shut in the courtyard for Hakkafos.

But something unusual happened that year. When the Rebbe entered the sukkah for Kiddush, he asked that three chassidim be called to him — R. Michael Aharon of Vitebsk, R. Shabsai Meir of Beshenkovitz, and R. Yaakov of Semilian.

To R. Michael Aharon the Rebbe said, “You are a Kohen”; to R. Shabsai Meir he said, “You are a Levi”; and to R. Yaakov he said, “You are a Yisrael.”

The Rebbe then addressed all three: “I need a rabbinical court of three, which needs to comprise a Kohen, a Levi and a Yisrael, and that is why I have chosen you to constitute this beis din. You shall now listen to Kiddush, and after each of its blessings you are to respond Amen,’ remembering that the assent that this signifies is to apply to all the spiritual intentions and the requests that I shall have in mind.”

Before proceeding, the Rebbe asked for several large wine vessels. Then, having recited Kiddush, he poured the wine that remained in his goblet into one of the vessels, and told the three members of the beis din that he now appointed them to be “emissaries of healing.”20 They were to mix the wine from the first vessel, into which he had poured, with the wine in the other vessels, and distribute it among the sick, who would then be completely cured. They were to go upstairs to the women’s gallery as well, and pour wine for those women who had never been blessed with children or who had miscarried.

Word spread in a flash that whoever tasted this wine would be healed of all his ailments, and that women who were childless or who had miscarried would be helped from Above. The beis din of three meanwhile selected a squad of young chassidim to carry and distribute the wine. Among them were Ephraim Michel, Shemayah Berl’s, Zalman Mottel’s, Elye Avraham’s and Yeshaya Nota’s, all from Shklov; Chaim Elye, Shimon Baruch’s, Avraham Zalman’s and Leib Yitzchak, all from Dubrovna; Avraham Abba from Rudnia; Yehoshua from Horodok; Zelig from Kochanov; Gedaliah from Kalisk; Berl Meir, Yosef Avraham, Tuvia Meilech’s and Moshe Hirsch, all from Vitebsk; and Aharon Yosef, Shmuel Moshe and Yisrael, all from Liozna.

Among the circles of the burly young men of the time, each of the above-mentioned stalwarts enjoyed a reputation (May no Evil Eye befall it!) for his brawn rather than his brain.21

38. The blessing of a tzaddik is conditional

As soon as the three members of the beis din entered the big shul in the courtyard, silence fell on all those present. Everyone knew that these were the chosen men whom the Rebbe had appointed as emissaries of healing and salvation, and gazed upon them in reverent awe. The beis din together with some of their helpers stepped up to the bimah, and R. Yaakov of Semilian repeated the Rebbe’s words aloud, letter by letter.

As he concluded he said: “Thus far is what the Rebbe said. Now I would like to add a few words that are relevant to us now.

“There is a strong tradition, handed down from one generation of elders to the next, that in order for the blessing of a Rebbe to be realized, the person being blessed has to fulfill two conditions: firstly, that he should believe in the blessing with simple faith, without any alternative thought; secondly, that he should be ready and willing to carry out faithfully the desire of the tzaddik who gives the blessing, in matters of divine service — whether in Torah study, in worship or in ethical conduct.”

Even though everyone heard the elder chassid clearly, nevertheless to be doubly sure they asked R. Michael Aharon HaKohen, because his voice was louder, to repeat his words. And when that was over, the young men began in an orderly fashion to share out the Rebbe’s wine.

39. What made R. Aizik a chassid

As the Rebbe came in for Hakkafos there was a hushed silence. It was his custom to read aloud the first verse (Atah hor’eisa…)22 and the last verse (Ki miTziyon…),23 and he would take a sefer Torah for the circuit of the first and seventh Hakkafah.

The next day everyone was talking about the miracle. In fact R. Avraham the Doctor said that for many of the elderly patients this was a virtual resurrection of the dead; medically speaking, they had been beyond all hope, and only through supernatural intervention had they been saved.

As for R. Aizik, the miraculous recovery of his nephew R. Moshe turned him into a chassid.

He later recalled: “The uncomplicated faith in a tzaddik which I saw then in my brother’s grandchildren astounded me. I would never have believed it possible — unless I had seen it with my own eyes.”

R. Aizik had always been a profound and assiduous scholar, and these traits he now extended to the study of Chassidus. He repeatedly reviewed every maamar that the Rebbe delivered publicly, inquiring as to the meaning of its every word until he had the concept firmly in his grasp.

40. The regulations of Liozna

Everyone was thoroughly familiar with the regulations that had been made public in Liozna24 in 5543 (1783), according to which no chassid was permitted to visit Liozna during the month of MarCheshvan, and during Kislev chassidim were allowed to arrive only in time for the Shabbos preceding25 Rosh Chodesh Teves.

Nevertheless, on Shabbos Teshuvah of the year 5547 (1786), it was announced that since the bar-mitzvah of the Rebbe’s elder son26 would occur in the forthcoming Kislev, the Rebbe had made the following exceptional arrangements: (a) during MarCheshvan chassidim could come to Liozna in time for the Shabbos preceding Rosh Chodesh Kislev; (b) they could come for the Shabbos before the bar-mitzvah, or (c) for the bar-mitzvah celebrations, or (d) for the following Shabbos; (e) those who came for Shabbos Mevarchim Kislev would have to leave Liozna immediately after Shabbos; (f) those who came for the Shabbos before the bar-mitzvah were permitted to remain in town through the bar-mitzvah and for the following Shabbos; (g) straight after that Shabbos all the guests from out of town would have to leave Liozna and go their separate ways.

This announcement was written up and posted in all the minyanim of the chassidic brotherhood27 in all the surrounding towns and villages. Accordingly, for that year’s Simchas Torah there was a smaller assemblage of chassidim in Liozna than usual — some seven or eight hundred28 guests, apart from the students of the local chadarim, who followed an independent study schedule.

The custom in Liozna was to daven early on Shemini Atzeres, and by midday everyone had said Kiddush and was in high spirits. On Shemini Atzeres of that year, regardlesss of the weather, people danced in the streets. Every house was joyful, every heart was glad; everyone was sure with perfect faith that the Rebbe’s blessing was about to come true.

41. The angels came to listen

On Shemini Atzeres it was the Alter Rebbe’s custom to deliver a discourse publicly after Minchah, and then it was time for Maariv. After that he would say Kiddush in the little minyan in the presence of his relatives, as well as certain chassidim and students of the chadarim according to the list drawn up by the appointed personage.

That year, Simchas Torah fell on such a day29 as to necessitate a combination of Kiddush and Havdalah — Yaknehaz. During the blessing of Meorei ha’esh the Rebbe merely looked at the candles that were standing on the table.30 And when he came to Shehecheyanu, the way the Rebbe said the blessing implanted a love of the Torah31 in every heart; they all apprehended the sanctity of the Torah.

At Kiddush the Rebbe would almost always repeat one of the teachings that he had received from his mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, or one of the teachings that he had heard from the Maggid in the name of his mentor, the Baal Shem Tov. On occasion he would repeat a teaching that he had heard from one of the members of the Holy Brotherhood, the disciples of the Maggid, either in his name or in the name of the Baal Shem Tov.

Whenever the Alter Rebbe was about to repeat a teaching, he would open as follows: “When the Rebbe (i.e., the Maggid) used to expound a teaching he would first say, ‘Hush, hush! Listen to secrets!’ The Rebbe’s ‘Sha, sha’ was addressed to the angels who were there to hear the divrei Torah that the Rebbe was about to deliver. The Rebbe’s teachings are the secrets of the Torah, for even the things that are comprehensible are in fact Torah mysteries that need to be clarified through the seventy facets that the Torah comprises.”

On rare occasions the Alter Rebbe would employ a different formula, but the content was the same.

And when he was about to repeat a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov he would open as follows: “The very words of a teaching of my grandfather32 are a segulah for an intellective grasp of G‑dliness, and for the fear of Heaven. And repeating a story of my grandfather is a segulah for long life and a plentiful livelihood.”

42. Soulful melodies and otherworldly words

That Simchas Torah, immediately after Kiddush, the Rebbe took some refreshments and told his saintly brother R. Yehudah Leib to say Kiddush too.

Your father,33 [who was later to be] the [Mitteler] Rebbe, was standing next to [his father,] the [Alter] Rebbe, who said to him: “You are a mufla samuch l’ish;34 recite Kiddush.”

The Rebbe then poured the wine that was left in his goblet into your father’s goblet and said: “Today is Simchas Torah. Undertake to accept the Torah inwardly, so that the Chabad within your soul will be bound up with the Chabad in the Torah, and so that the Chabad in the Torah will illuminate the Chabad within your soul.”

The Rebbe then sang, and asked all those present to join him.

After quite some time he said: “This was the custom of my grandfather,35 this was the custom of the Rebbe,36 and this too is my custom — that before Simchas Torah one should immerse oneself in meditation on the grandeur of the Giver of the Torah.”

He then resumed his melody in such a rapture of dveikus that all of us who were there were afraid to raise our eyes. It was a melody of klos hanefesh, of a soul yearning to expire in sheer ecstasy.

From the midst of his singing the Rebbe then said: “The supernal partzufim, the ministering angels, the fiery seraphim and the holy chayyos all ask, Ayeh mekom k’vodo? — ‘Where is the place of His glory?’37 Yet souls [on earth] are able to apprehend how leis asar panui minei — ‘There is no place devoid of Him,’38 and that this is the place of His glory.”

The Rebbe sang again for a long while, and again interrupted his melody by saying: “Human reason and the philosophers ask what is Elokus, what is the Divine? Yet the intellect of the G‑dly soul is able to grasp how ‘no thought can apprehend Him at all39 — except that when it apprehends and is clothed in the Torah and its commandments, it apprehends and is clothed in the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself.’”40

Once again the Rebbe sang at length, and out of his song he said: “Today is Simchas Torah. All Jews rejoice in the Rejoicing of the Torah. Jews all dance with the Torah, for the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one and the same.”41

After a long interlude of melodies the Rebbe repeated the words which he was accustomed to say before quoting a teaching of his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, and then quoted an exposition of the verse, miyemino esh das lamo — “From His right hand [came] a fiery Law unto them.”42 That done, all those present proceeded joyfully to the Hakkafos in the big minyan.

After the festive meal that was held there, it was announced that in honor of the bar-mitzvah celebrations the Rebbe had decided to allow the guests who had come to Liozna for Simchas Torah to remain in town for Shabbos Bereishis.

For Liozna, that entire week until Shabbos Bereishis was Yom-Tov. Three times in the course of that Shabbos the Rebbe delivered discourses publicly, and in response to the request of your father, the [Mitteler] Rebbe, the [Alter] Rebbe permitted the visiting chassidim to stay through both days of Rosh Chodesh. And on both of those days the Rebbe again taught publicly.

43. Distinguished visitors to Liozna

[R. Pinchas of Shklov, a prominent chassid of the Alter Rebbe, now tells R. [Menachem] Nachum, elder son of the Mitteler Rebbe, of events that took place over a year before the above episode.]

It was a summer’s day in Sivan 5545 (1785) — in fact it was Tuesday of the week of Parshas Shlach — and a large number of chassidim had already arrived [in Liozna] in anticipation of Shabbos Mevarchim Tammuz, for according to the Liozna Regulations chassidim were permitted to come to visit the [Alter] Rebbe only for such a Shabbos. Since it was very warm, many of the students of the chadarim together with other chassidim were seated at their studies outside, in the Rebbe’s courtyard.

A couple of hours after morning prayers, which used to take place very early, a common village wagon rolled into the courtyard. In it sat two men43 — an older man of somewhat less than average height, and a younger, taller man. In a [Yiddish] accent derived from Poland, Volhynia and Podolia, they asked whether this was the home of R. Zalminye44 Litvak.45 At first we did not understand what they were saying, and whom they were inquiring about. Two chassidim, however — R. Simchah Zisl of Horodok and R. Shmuel of Kalisk, that is, Shmuel Munkes — immediately realized whom they were talking about, and pointed out the Rebbe’s home. I and R. Zalman Chiyene’s, a young man from Beshenkovitz who studied in Cheder Gimmel, accompanied them to show them the way.

As we conducted the guests into the little yechidus-beis-midrash46 (the “Lower Garden of Eden,” as chassidim used to call it), we found Arke Osver — better known as the saintly R. Aharon of Strashelye — studying with the [Alter] Rebbe’s son, [later] the [Mitteler] Rebbe.

After the Rebbe’s son had greeted them with Shalom, the elder of the guests said a few words, but I was unable to follow on account of his accent. The Rebbe’s son, who did understand, responded with a few words about the subject that he and Arke Osver were studying. The guest then asked once more where R. Zalminye Litvak lived; the Rebbe’s son smiled. At this point the Rebbe opened the door, and the guests were overjoyed. The Rebbe extended his hand to greet them with Shalom, and they entered his study.

When Zalman Chiyene’s and I returned to the courtyard, R. Simchah Zisl of Horodok and R. Shmuel of Kalisk recounted what they had heard from the tzaddik R. Mendele of Horodok and from R. Avraham of Kalisk — that when they and the [Alter] Rebbe had been in Mezritch as disciples of the Maggid, the Rebbe was known as R. Zalminye Litvak.

44. “The Rebbe’s son has fainted!”

The guests were closeted in the Rebbe’s study for quite a few hours. R. Moishele-the-Rebbe’s,47 who did not yet speak clearly, came running from that direction with a report: “They’re arguing with my father, and my father says, ‘It’s not allowed!’”

Little R. Moishele repeated his account over and over, as children of such an age are wont to do, but no one knew what was being discussed in the Rebbe’s study, or who the guests were. The students of the chadarim and the other chassidim were curious to know their identity, and what they were seeking, and some of the older students of Cheder Alef were growing worried — when suddenly Arke Osver ran out of the building and cried out: “R. Berl, the Rebbe’s son, has fainted!”

The first to race into the little yechidus-beis-midrash were Chaim Elye of Druye, Avraham Zalman of Beshenkovitz, and R. Nachman Velvel of Babinovitch. There they found the Rebbe’s son, [later] the [Mitteler] Rebbe, lying on the floor near the door to the Rebbe’s study. Chaim Elye and Avraham Zalman, both emotional by nature, cried out: “Ai, Rebbe! Ai, Rebbe!”

By the time the rest of us reached the little yechidus-beis-midrash, we found the Rebbe’s son lying on the sofa — pale, and with his eyes closed, his head resting in the hands of his father.

The Rebbe asked for cold water. He sprinkled a little on his son’s face until he opened his eyes, and then sighed deeply. The Rebbe then asked everyone to leave the room, except for Zalman Baruch of Ratchov, myself and Arke Osver, who were to stay with his son. The Rebbe then returned to the guests in his study.

45. What made the Mitteler Rebbe faint?

The courtyard was in a tumult. Everyone was talking to everyone around him. Everyone sensed that something momentous was taking place, but no one knew just what it was.

At Minchah-time the visitors left the Rebbe’s study, and stood waiting at the door leading to the little yechidus-beis-midrash.

When the Rebbe’s son came to, he was convulsed by feverish extremes of heat and cold. Zalman Baruch Ratchover and I therefore carried him from the little yechidus-beis-midrash into the other half of the Rebbe’s house, where the rebbitzin and the children were, and laid him on his bed. The Rebbe’s son fell asleep, and Zalman Baruch remained at his bedside.

I went back to Arke Osver in the little yechidus-beis-midrash, and implored him to tell me: had he perhaps heard anything of what the Rebbe had said to his visitors? Did he perhaps know who they were?

At first he would not say a word. I gathered that he did know something, but that he did not want to tell me, so I pleaded with him further — but all my entreaties were in vain. And when I begged him even more insistently, he broke down and wept. This caused me unspeakable anguish. My anxiety did not know which direction to turn, and I pleaded with him again to tell me what he had heard.

46. An excommunication can boomerang!

Seeing that my tears brought no response, I understood that something weighty was transpiring.

Since all other measures had failed, and since I was one of the senior members of Cheder Beis, as well as a close disciple48 of the Rebbe, I promised Arke that I would pass on to him two or three chassidic insights that I had heard from the Rebbe — at yechidus.

This was effective. Arke Osver now told me that from the moment the visitors walked into the study, the Rebbe’s son and he heard that the tone of the discussion was very loud, but they did not want to interrupt their studies. After this tone had continued for a couple of hours, the Rebbe’s son and he had decided to stand near the door to hear what was being said. For quite some time they heard a Torah debate, and after that they heard a discussion of the subject that had brought the visitors there.

The visitors had stated explicitly what they sought, and had said that this was the decision of a minyan of the Maggid’s elder disciples, the Chevraya Kaddisha. The [Alter] Rebbe had replied that according to the law of the Torah such a measure was not permissible. If an individual was excommunicated,49 G‑d forbid, this would cut him off from the source of his soul; once in this condition he could lapse into disbelief, which would cause a great chillul HaShem, a desecration of the Divine Name.

The elder of the two visitors answered that the members of the Holy Brotherhood had weighed the possible effects of an excommunication. They had resolved, however, to proceed regardless, for this was an hour of woe: the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Maggid were in jeopardy.

To this the Alter Rebbe had reiterated that the law of the Torah could not allow such a desecration of the Divine Name. Not only would he be no party to it: he opposed it intensely. In response, the elder of the two visitors uttered a word — a curse. And hearing that word, the Rebbe’s son had fainted.

47. The Alter Rebbe stands firm

Arke Osver’s narration troubled my spirit. I stepped over to the study door to follow what was now being said, and distinctly heard a discussion of the detailed laws of the three levels of excommunication — shamta, nidui and cherem. While I stood there, young R. Moishele-the-Rebbe’s ran in with a jolly shout, and began to race around the lectern for the Torah Reading that stood in the little yechidus-beis-midrash.

The door opened soon after, and the Rebbe accompanied his guests out of his study. They paused a while at the door, however, and resumed their earlier legal debate.

Catching sight of his father, R. Moishele-the-Rebbe’s ran across to him and hugged him, and the Rebbe affectionately placed his holy right hand on the little one’s head.

The elder of the visitors then said to the Rebbe: Nu, R. Zalminye? So you don’t want to join us? Think it over thoroughly!”

“But the Torah cannot sanction such a chillul HaShem,” protested the Alter Rebbe.

The elder of the two visitors thereupon repeated the same dire word that he had earlier used, and headed for the door. The Rebbe saw them both out to their wagon — which aroused considerable wonderment among the cheder students and other chassidim who were there; it was clear to them all that these visitors were men of standing.

For several weeks thereafter, the Rebbe’s son was confined to his bed with high fever. Even later, he was still disturbed by that word that he had heard while standing near the study door. Only when the Rebbe told him everything explicitly did he regain his quietude.

48. A clandestine chassidic cell in Vilna

From the very first years that the Rebbe was made responsible for Lithuania,50 he was very active on behalf of that entire region. In the course of the three years 5538-5540 (1778-1780), he figured in several disputations in Shklov and Smilovitch, and had established centers in Lithuania. In the course of the three years 5541-5543 (1781-1783), he participated in several disputations in Minsk, Smorgon and Sventzian, and maintained centers in these towns; in fact there was even a clandestine cell in Vilna.

This whole episode is chronicled elsewhere.51

As soon as the two visitors had taken to the road, the superintendent of studies52 — the saintly R. Yehudah Leib, brother of the Rebbe — called together several of the young men of Cheder Beis who happened to be still in town.53 (Most of them, like the students of Cheder Alef, had already left Liozna and had gone their separate ways.) He said that the Rebbe would like each one of them to undertake to spend a period of some two months in whatever place he would be sent to, in order to arouse people to study Chassidus and to follow the characteristic lifestyle of chassidim. This was all to be done in secret.

These young men, of whom (added R. Pinchas Reizes) I was one, were all dispatched to towns deep in Lithuania. Needless to say, all the shluchim, every single one of us, fulfilled these respective missions admirably and energetically. In the course of the year, from summer 5545 (1785) to summer 5546 (1786), the fruits were visible. Young men began to arrive in Liozna — outstanding scholars who had been educated among the opponents of Chassidism, and through the activities of the emissaries had become chassidim. These results confirmed that the sending of suitable young emissaries to the various towns to do their work in secret had proved itself. Accordingly, in the summer of 5546 (1786) the superintendent of studies arranged that a different group of young men be sent out on a similar mission, to disseminate Chassidus.

Visitors from Vilna came to Liozna in time for Shabbos Mevarchim Elul, and from them the superintendent learned that there was a widespread revival of interest in Chassidus in Vilna and in the surrounding region.

Early in Elul a special messenger arrived in Liozna with a message sent by a meeting of the emissaries in the Vilna area. In their opinion, it was imperative that the Rebbe should visit Sventzian immediately after Sukkos 5547 (1786). Moreover, they would need to be informed of the Rebbe’s decision on the matter before Rosh HaShanah. The superintendent of studies relayed their request to the Rebbe, who decided in the affirmative.

49. Portrait of a wealthy ascetic

The news got around immediately after Rosh HaShanah that straight after Sukkos the Rebbe would be visiting Sventzian, in the Vilna region, and hundreds of chassidim from all around made their way to the town.

On Tuesday, the day after the second day of Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan, the Rebbe set out for Sventzian in a covered sledge on a snowbound road, accompanied by some twenty close chassidim. They arrived before daybreak on Friday of the week of Parshas Noach.

The Rebbe remained in town for two weeks that included the Shabbos of Parshas Noach, Lech Lecha and Vayeira, and delivered several learned discourses. Numerous scholars of repute came to hear him from far afield, including several from Vilna. They confronted him with a number of weighty academic problems, and were left highly satisfied. Indeed, the impact of this encounter was such that scores of very learned young men, and hundreds of others who likewise undertook the approach and customs of chassidim, now swelled the ranks.

Now on Shabbos Parshas Vayeira, the third and last Shabbos that the Rebbe spent in Sventzian during that visit, something happened that rocked that entire region.

In Sventzian there lived an aged scholar of real stature, who was born in Kaidan. It was said that when he was still a young man, one of his students was R. Shaulke, the rav of Vilna. R. Shlomo Raphael, as this aged scholar was called, was renowned not only as a gaon, but as a G‑d-fearing man of noble character. For near on fifty years he had been sitting at his studies in the beis midrash known as the Perushim Shtibl, never peering beyond a radius of four cubits.

He had been one of the first and most determined antagonists to the ways and customs of chassidim, and to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch. In fact he had been a party to the very earliest proclamations and excommunications that had been promulgated against the Baal Shem Tov in Vilna, Slutzk and Shklov, in 5517 (1757).

R. Shlomo Raphael was a prominent and wealthy merchant. He had married off his six sons and four daughters as they had come of age, and had gradually transferred his business affairs into their hands. By the time he was forty, he had secluded himself in the ascetic lifestyle of a parush. All the worthies of Sventzian esteemed it an honor to marry their children into his family, and so it was that he eventually married off all his sons and daughters to the offspring of the families of the most distinguished scholarship and lineage. Indeed, in the course of time most of the dignitaries of the town were related to him directly or by marriage.

In a word, people liked to describe R. Shlomo Raphael and his sons and sons-in-law by the phrase, Torah ugedulah bemakom echad — “Torah scholarship joined with worldly riches.”54

50. A dramatic turnabout

All of R. Shlomo Raphael’s children and two of his sons-in-law resembled him in their bitter antagonism to Chassidus. No chassid was allowed to tread the soil of Sventzian. This attitude he instilled in his children and sons-in-law, and they in turn trained their children accordingly.

He had been 63 years old when he had made the journey to Vilna in order to join with the geonim of Vilna, Slutzk and Shklov in the proclamation and excommunication issued against the Baal Shem Tov — and that was in 5517 (1757), thirty years earlier. In the course of those years his descendants had multiplied prolifically and had set up numerous families. Only three sons and one son-in-law were still alive, but his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were all heads of families by now, and mostly serious scholars.

In the course of those same thirty years, however, he had undergone a transformation. For seven years he had been in the thick of battle, the driving force behind the “holy war”55 (as they used to call it) against “the Sect.”56 It was he who had given the impetus to all the proclamations that had been issued against the Maggid and the Holy Brotherhood, in Vilna, Brisk, Slutzk, Minsk and Shklov, and by the regional councils. His children likewise had contributed large sums of money towards the expenses of the emissaries [of those towns], and towards similar expenses.

Then one day, suddenly — and no one knew why — R. Shlomo Raphael notified the sages of Vilna, Slutzk, Brisk, Minsk and Shklov, that he would no more participate in the activities directed against the chassidim. Likewise, he told his children and grandchildren that he never wanted to hear that subject discussed again.

51. News: “The Sect” observes the mitzvos!

R. Shlomo Raphael’s notification caused considerable concern in all those towns. Meetings and discussions were deferred, and after exchanges of correspondence between all the towns involved, it was decided that their representatives should meet at a regional conference to be held in Vilna. Some of the delegates proposed that a replacement ought to be chosen, but the older speakers held that they should first find out from the saintly gaon what it was that motivated his change of heart.

At first the majority of the delegates supported the former view, but when they heard the reasoning of the older speakers — that R. Shlomo Raphael had perhaps discovered that the members of “the Sect” in fact observed the Torah and the mitzvos, and that was why he had relented — it was decided unanimously to send emissaries to Sventzian.

Though they spent three days in the company of R. Shlomo Raphael, they did not succeed in discovering why he was no longer interested in helping eradicate “the Sect.” In response to the question of the geonim as to his assumed reason, R. Shlomo Raphael only answered that there was now no doubt as to whether the chassidim did in fact observe the Torah.

The first person who had ever visited Sventzian in order to speak publicly in praise of Chassidus and chassidim was R. Yosef of Shklov — R. Yosef Kol-Bo,57 who was renowned among the geonim for his scholarship, his piety, and his wisdom. That was in 5537 (1777). In the ten years that had passed since then, a considerable number of young men had been drawn to the study of Chassidus and the spiritual lifestyle of chassidim58 — and among them were some of R. Shlomo Raphael’s grandchildren. Two of them, in fact — R. Moshe Gedaliah of Sventzian and R. Pinchas Eliyahu of Ilukst — were students of the Rebbe in Cheder Alef, and it was R. Yosef Kol-Bo who had made them chassidim.

52. “Today I recall my sins”

Before Moshe Gedaliah left Liozna for his home in Sventzian, the Rebbe told him to tell his grandfather that thanks to the seventeen years during which he had obeyed, he would enjoy long life and success in his studies. These few words left R. Shlomo Raphael overjoyed.

When the Rebbe now visited Sventzian, R. Shlomo Raphael called on him, and asked him to clarify various queries that had arisen in the course of his studies. He was astounded by the answers he received.

Then, before Minchah on Shabbos Parshas Vayeira, as soon as the Rebbe had delivered his discourse in the big “cold beis midrash,” as it was called, the aged R. Shlomo Raphael had it announced that he wanted to say a few words, and since he was an old man and his voice was weak, he asked for quiet.

“My masters,” he began, speaking from the bimah, “‘today I recall my sins.’59 Some thirty years ago I participated in the conference of sages that issued a proclamation against the tzaddik, R. Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. And, as I stand in this sanctuary of G‑d, I affirm that our intention was for the sake of Heaven. For seven years I was active in that war, that holy war.

“On the day that by the grace of G‑d I turned seventy, I fell asleep while studying Tractate Menachos. A personage appeared to me and said: ‘I am the Baal Shem Tov. Seven years ago you and certain other sages published an excommunication against myself and my disciples — but not according to the Torah, for there was no prior investigation. Relent!’

“I awoke, and was enveloped by gloom. For this was a valid claim! The Torah stipulates, ‘You shall investigate and probe, and make careful inquiry.’60 Had we fulfilled that requirement?! I therefore began to probe and investigate — and discovered that the chassidim observe the teachings of the Torah and fulfill its commandments scrupulously. So I withdrew from the battle.

“From that day to this, over twenty years have elapsed. Throughout all of that time I have thoroughly inquired into the teachings and the spiritual stance of Chassidus, especially since the visit to our town of the esteemed R. Yossele of Shklov.61

“Gentlemen, today I am three-and-ninety years old. And as I stand in this sanctuary of G‑d, I declare without hesitation: ‘Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, Who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion,’62 to meet face to face this great man of Israel, this gaon and tzaddik,63 who has brought thousands of thousands of Jews to a genuine awe of Heaven, and who has made the Torah great and glorious.64

“By virtue of this, ‘may the Redeemer come unto Zion,’65 speedily, and in our own days. Amen.”

The brief words of the hoary scholar were heard throughout the entire beis midrash. Their impact was indescribable, and in a flash their message raced through the town.

Right through the night of Motzaei Shabbos the Rebbe received at yechidus all those who had come to see him, and on Sunday morning after Shacharis he set out. He reached Vitebsk at Minchah-time on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, the twenty-fourth of MarCheshvan, he arrived at Liozna.

53. Teachings for the bar-mitzvah

[R. Pinchas Reizes continues his narration:] On our return to Liozna with the Rebbe, we found a great many chassidim who had already come to town for Shabbos Mevarchim Kislev. That year, in honor of the bar-mitzvah of his son, the Rebbe had permitted chassidim to visit Liozna for this Shabbos, which would otherwise have been forbidden by the Liozna Regulations. Those of us who had accompanied the Rebbe repeated the discourses that we had heard for the benefit of the other arrivals, and gave them as well a detailed account of our whole journey.

Twice on each of the following three Shabbosos, the Rebbe publicly expounded Chassidus — on Parshas Chayei Sarah and Toldos, before the bar-mitzvah, and on Parshas Vayeitzei, after the bar-mitzvah.

On Thursday morning candles were lit in the big beis midrash in the courtyard, and Shacharis began at daybreak. Three wooden walls with windows and a roof of boards had been added to the beis midrash, in order to accommodate the chassidim who had come from out of town.

The Rebbe went up the steps of the bimah, and read the Torah himself. After a Kohen and a Levi had been called up to the Reading, the Rebbe was called upon, and at the conclusion of his aliyah he recited the blessing of Baruch...sheptarani,66 complete with the Name of G‑d.67

Immediately after Shacharis the Rebbe expounded the verse, “For I have given you a goodly teaching; do not forsake My Torah.”68

He began by pointing out that in the usage of the Sages, both לֶקַח (“teaching”) and טוֹב (“goodly”) signify Torah;69 why, then, does the verse seemingly repeat itself by adding the word תּוֹרָתִי (“My Torah”) in the phrase, “Do not forsake My Torah”?

In order to answer this question, the Rebbe explained that לֶקַח represents the revealed levels of the Torah70 — i.e., its laws, which stem from G‑d’s Wisdom. In this spirit, as a synonym for לֶקַח, Rashi71 gives לִמּוּד (“learning”). This word is etymologically related to [מַלְמַד [הַבָּקָר (“the goad72 [of an ox]”), for the laws of the Torah must be fulfilled by accepting the yoke of Heaven. This is Divine Wisdom — and, indeed, the Targum73 translates לֶקַח by the Aramaic word mada (“wisdom”).

As for the other word, the Rebbe explained that tov represents the innermost levels of the Torah,74 the unfathomable mysteries underlying each law.

This, then, explains the lekach tov — the [twofold] “goodly teaching.”

As to the question as to what is added by the word Torasi, the Rebbe pointed out that “the Torah was given as a gift,”75 as in the phrase matan Torah — “the Giving of the Torah.”76 And this Torah, which we are told not to forsake, is referred to (in the second half of our verse) as Torasi — “My Torah,” the Torah of the very Essence of the Infinite One, blessed be He. Likewise, it is this quality in the Torah that the Sages refer to in their teaching, אוֹתִי אַתֶּם לוֹקְחִים — “It is Me Whom you are taking.”77

Having completed his exposition, the Rebbe then told his son, the bar-mitzvah, to deliver the discourse which he had told him to prepare.

54. The bar-mitzvah speaks

The bar-mitzvah thereupon began to expound the verse, “He tells His words to Yaakov, His statutes and ordinances to Yisrael.”78

He first explained the statement of the Midrash:79 “It has five names — nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechidah.” These five levels of the soul divide into two brackets — Naran (an acrostic for the first three levels) refers to the indwelling oros (“lights”) invested in keilim (“vessels”); Chai (an acrostic for the two highest levels) refers to oros makkifim (“encompassing lights”).

He went on to explain that the two alternative names, Yaakov and Yisrael, allude to two diverse approaches in divine service.

The former name (יַעֲקֹב) comprises the letter yud and the word עָקֵב (lit., “heel”). This means that the yud of the Four-Letter Divine Name as found in the soul — i.e., the indomitable quality80 of souls, the innate resoluteness81 of the soul, and the Essence82 of Ein Sof irradiates in the akev [i.e., the lowliest levels within the Jewish People], namely, in simple folk. In them too the yud of the Four-Letter Name in the soul shines forth, by virtue of the letters of Torah and prayer that they utter with simple faith. Even though they do not know the meaning of those words, this yud sheds light within such folk nonetheless — because the comprehensive intention motivating their words is that they should be uttered for the sake of Heaven.

The second name (יִשְׂרָאֵל) echoes the two words יִשָׂר אֵ־ל (lit., “G‑d prevails [within their souls]”). This alludes to intellectuals, whose divine service lies in the direction of mind and heart, through meditation and comprehension.

[Having compared the terms “Yaakov” and “Yisrael,” the Mitteler Rebbe now turned to another pair of contrasting words in the verse, as follows:] The term mishpatav (“His ordinances”) signifies the commandments that may be grasped by mortal intellect; the term chukav (“His statutes”) signifies those commandments that transcend83 mortal intellect. Our verse teaches that one’s observance of the former category of mitzvos should be prompted by an acceptance of the yoke of Heaven — simply because G‑d is the One Who prescribed the mitzvah — just as is the case with the latter category of mitzvos, namely, the chukim.

As to the verb (מַגִּיד) which opens our verse [and serves both of its clauses], it suggests “drawing forth,” or “progression,” since it may be seen as being cognate with the first verb (נָגֵד) in the phrase that means, “A river... flows and goes forth.”84

[To sum up: Our verse said, “He tells His words to Yaakov, His statutes and ordinances to Yisrael.” The latter phrase, which relates to avodah at the level of “Yisrael,” may now be understood as follows:] The quintessential statutes (chukim) and ordinances (mishpatim) of the Essence of the Ein Sof are drawn forth into one’s avodah in mind and heart, so that the mishpatim are observed out of the same acceptance of the yoke of Heaven as are the chukim.

[Likewise, the opening phrase of the verse, which relates to avodah at the level of “Yaakov,” may now be understood thus:] The quintessential words (devarim) of the Essence of the Ein Sof are drawn forth into that kind of avodah that consists of reciting the letters of Torah and prayer out of simple faith.

55. The Alter Rebbe’s Niggun rouses souls

As soon as the [Alter] Rebbe’s son had completed this discourse [and R. Pinchas of Shklov here resumes his account of the Mitteler Rebbe’s bar-mitzvah], the Rebbe was most joyful, and for quite some time entered a state of dveikus. A hushed silence reigned in the big shul in the courtyard, and in its newly-opened extension. All eyes focused on the raised bimah where the Rebbe and the bar-mitzvah stood, together with the Rebbe’s brothers.

Finally, the Rebbe quoted the statement of our Sages: “Whoever cites a teaching in the name of the person who first taught it, should regard that teacher to be as if facing him.”85

And with that he began to intone his niggun,86 the one whose four themes parallel the letters of the Four-Letter Name of G‑d, and the Four Worlds — Atzilus, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. The Rebbe sang each theme twice, except for the fourth, which he sang several times.

As he sang, all the people assembled in the big beis midrash and in the adjoining hall were bound to his singing with all their thoughts, with all their spiritual faculties, and with all their senses. With each theme that the Rebbe sang, another facet of the soul was awakened; that niggun raised up every individual — one higher, one lower — from his accustomed spiritual plateau. In fact R. Yosef Kol-Bo and R. Isser Kisess told me that as the Rebbe sang, they recalled everything that had taken place within them from the day when they began to become thinking individuals.

Having come to the end of his melody, the Rebbe said: “When I was in Mezritch I heard from the Rebbe87 in the name of my grandfather88 that honey-cake made of cornflour causes one’s heart to be drawn towards the Torah, because the spiritual roots of grain and of honey are vessels for containing the Torah.”

The Rebbe took a piece of honey-cake and pronounced the blessing of mezonos, and a little glass of mashke, over which he pronounced the blessing of shehakol and said LeChaim. Everyone was then given some lekach and whiskey, and there was joy in the air.

After Maariv there was a festive meal at which the Rebbe delivered a discourse, and the chassidim embarked on a farbrengen that lasted the whole night through. This was the Rebbe’s first bar-mitzvah celebration.

Three times in the course of that Shabbos, Parshas Vayeitzei, the Rebbe expounded Torah publicly — before Kabbalas Shabbos, on Shabbos at the daytime Kiddush, and after Minchah and the Shabbos meal. Both the Kiddush and the Shabbos meal were held in the big shul in the courtyard.

56. A unique Torah Reading

At Minchah that day the Rebbe read the Torah himself, and said that the third aliyah should be given to his son, the bar-mitzvah.

All those who were present when the bar-mitzvah was called to the Torah, who saw the Rebbe’s dveikus when his son pronounced the blessings, and who heard the Reading of the Torah, — all those people must have been overawed when they heard how the Rebbe read that brief passage of four verses that begin, respectively, Vayomer Yaakov, Katonti, Hatzileini, V’Atah amarta.89

The Rebbe was always insistent on grammatical precision, and meticulous about the traditional melody for the Torah Reading. Though he followed the Ashkenazi pronunciation, he nevertheless distinguished between alef and ayin, and between ches and chaf, as in the Sephardi accent. And though he intoned that day’s portion exactly according to the prescribed cantillation, each of its four verses nevertheless echoed the melodic line of one of the four themes of the well-known niggun.

The eminent scholars who were present were engrossed in learned speculation as to why the Rebbe had deferred having the bar-mitzvah called to the Torah from Thursday to Shabbos. Their discussion considered the halachic definition of ish (“a man”), which begins at the age of thirteen years and one day, whereas on the day of one’s bar-mitzvah one reaches the age of thirteen years, and they considered too the rule that “part of the day counts for a whole day.” The arguments raised were all reasonable — but no one was able to explain why the aliyah should have taken place at Minchah instead of at Shacharis.

The Rebbe’s younger son, R. Chaim Avraham, was a child of six or seven at the time. He would often walk into the little beis midrash in the courtyard, because he liked listening to what chassidim had to tell. He was a child of serious temperament, and had no time for mischief.

When he walked in soon after the bar-mitzvah he found a number of chassidim there, including R. Yitzchak of Yanovitch — a particular favorite of his, because he was such a gifted storyteller. They asked the little boy whether he had perhaps heard an explanation as to why the Rebbe had said that the bar-mitzvah should be called to the Torah at Minchah on Shabbos instead of in the morning.

57. Why at Minchah on Shabbos?

R. Chaim Avraham told them that on Friday night his father had learned Zohar with the bar-mitzvah.

“I didn’t understand a word,” he reported, “but my brother understood it thoroughly.

“When they finished learning, my father told my brother that his zeide (the Baal Shem Tov) had told his Rebbe (the Maggid of Mezritch) that one should endeavor to arrange the first aliyah of a bar-mitzvah for the Reading of the Torah on Monday or Thursday morning, or at Minchah on Shabbos.”

The little boy went on to relay what his elder brother had later explained him: “Zeide said that the Torah Reading of Mondays and Thursdays is an auspicious time Above, just like all of Minchah-time on Shabbos, and the Torah Reading at Minchah on Shabbos is the pinnacle of the most sublime moment of Divine gratification.90

“I understood nothing of what my father was telling my brother. My heart ached so badly that I started to cry. My brother told my father that I was crying, so my father called me over and asked me why. So I cried even more, and told him that I hadn’t understood a word of what he had been explaining my brother. My father told me to finish with my tears, and then he would explain it all to me. I stopped crying, and my father said: ‘Berl asked me why he was to be called to the Torah at Minchah on Shabbos instead of at Shacharis; so I answered him, “Because at Minchah on Shabbos we say, Vaani tefilasi… — ‘May my prayer to You, G‑d, be at a propitious time.’”91

“So I asked my father: ‘But surely whenever a person davens is a good time! Why especially Minchah-time?’

“My father said: ‘There is a certain time every day at which a king listens to the requests of those who come to see him. There are people who are close to the king, and they know which are the best times to approach him, and those who know such a person ask him to submit their request to the king at a good time. Now until one is thirteen years old, one is clear of sin. At thirteen one becomes bar-mitzvah, and the Good Inclination appears. This Yetzer Tov is one of those who are close to the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, and it comes from Him as an emissary — to remind the person to observe the mitzvos and to do good deeds. And that is why a bar-mitzvah is called to the Torah for the first time at the auspicious hour of Minchah.’”

[R. Pinchas of Shklov’s lengthy narration to R. Nachum — much of which described the bar-mitzvah of the latter’s father, the Mitteler Rebbe — ends here. From this point on, the speaker is once again the author, the Rebbe Rayatz.]

58. “You saw me behind an iron grille”

According to the custom of Lubavitch, people get together after Shacharis, the relatives of the bar-mitzvah say a few words in honor of the happy occasion, and the bar-mitzvah repeats a discourse of Chassidus. Those present are then offered cake and mashke, and a festive meal is held in the evening.

At this point the bar-mitzvah, the grandson of the Rebbe Rayatz, repeated the well-known maamar that opens with the words, Issa beMidrash T[eh]illim — “It is cited in Midrash Tehillim....”

When it was completed, the Rebbe, cup in hand, said LeChaim! to his grandson, and blessed him in these words: “Today you have become bar-mitzvah. So I give you my blessing: that the name that you bear92 — and may you bear it for long days and good years, radiant with the light of the Torah and mitzvos and good deeds, both materially and spiritually, according to the path of Chassidus, and in keeping with the will of our illustrious forebears, the Rebbeim, — that this name illuminate your innermost being.

“You were four-and-a-half years old when you saw me standing in prison behind an iron grille, as I was bidding farewell to the family and to you, and about to be exiled to a place of desolation — because of my efforts on behalf of chadarim and yeshivos. Let that picture from your childhood remain always before your eyes! Remember always — that for the dissemination of Torah and yiras Shamayim one must be prepared to undergo literal self-sacrifice.

“May G‑d grant that your dear parents — in comfortable circumstances — raise you and guide you to Torah, to the chuppah, and to good deeds, and that we should derive an abundance of joyful satisfaction, both materially and spiritually, from all of you and from all our children, together with all the members of the chassidic brotherhood, and all of our brethren of the House of Israel. May G‑d’s blessings light upon them!”