A Discourse Addressed by the Rebbe Rashab
to the Students of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah
on its Third Anniversary, Simchas Torah 5661 (
תרס"א; 1900)1


The Sages state: “Whoever goes out Whoever goes out: Tractate Shabbos 56a, where Rashi explains that the get was given conditionally, so that if the soldier fell on the battlefield, his wife would be retroactively divorced. to a battle of the House of David writes a bill of divorce for his wife.”

[Over and beyond its historical meaning, this teaching has contemporary relevance, for] the “House of David” alludes to the revelation of Mashiach, David’s descendant.

The soul of the Baal Shem Tov once ascended to the heavenly realms. Having reached the palace of Mashiach, the Baal Shem Tov asked him: אֵימָתַי קָאָתִי מַר — “Master, when are you coming?” And Mashiach answered: לְכְשֶׁיָפוּצוּ מַעְיְנֹתֶיךָ חוּצָה — “When your wellsprings2 will be disseminated outward.”

When the wellsprings of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings and his paths in divine service are spread throughout the entire world, then Mashiach will come. In plain words, the coming of Mashiach depends in large measure on the spreading of these wellsprings outward; it is our labors in disseminating them that will bring about the revelation of the light of Mashiach — the “House of David,” David’s descendant.

However, the House of David (i.e., the revelation of Mashiach) faces battles. From the beginning of creation, “the spirit of G‑d3 [here interpreted by our Sages4 to mean ‘the spirit of Mashiach’] hovered over the waters”; i.e., the presence of the spirit of Mashiach from the beginning of creation implies that the original divine intent underlying creation was that this material world be guided by the spirit of Mashiach. However, the sin of the Tree of Knowledge and the sins of the subsequent generations which repeatedly angered their Maker5 prevented this purpose from being realized immediately. Instead, it became necessary for the ultimate perfection of the world to come about through our divine service. And when the materiality of the entire world has been sifted and refined, the service of “disseminating the wellsprings outward” will serve as a prelude to the coming of Mashiach.

Our Sages teach: “The world will exist6 for six thousand years — two thousand years of Tohu (‘Chaos’), two thousand years of Torah, and two thousand years of the Messianic Era.” The two thousand years of Torah were intended to correct the two thousand years of Tohu, through the refinement and elevation of the Divine sparks which had descended into this material world following the “shattering of the vessels” of the World of Tohu. Then come the two thousand years of the Messianic Era. The revelation of Mashiach in particular, and the sixth millennium in general, are called ikvos Meshicha, the “footsteps of Mashiach.” And the fifty-year period7 during which Mashiach the son of David will arrive, is the period described in the Book of Tehillim: אֲשֶׁר חֵרְפוּ אוֹיְבֶיךָ ה', אֲשֶׁר חֵרְפוּ עִקְּבוֹת מְשִׁיחֶךָ — “Your enemies, O G‑d, have abused ...8 the footsteps of Your Mashiach.”

The fact is that I am bitterly grieved over the “Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment.”9 For years now, they have been acting as informers to the czarist authorities concerning the Torah schools and teachers, the chadarim and the melamdim, that have remained faithful to our time-honored tradition. This is the tradition which they seek to uproot, thereby polluting the minds of Jewish children by means of their disbelieving teachers, and in particular by this dire new plague, this “delegation of evil angels”10 — the teachers of the schools which endanger the faith of their pupils.11

“I hate them12 with the utmost hatred,” and hold them utterly to blame. I am certain, however, that I can see the woeful turn for the worse and the suffering that they will bring upon our people, and this will be followed by the sweet conclusion of the fifty-year period of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” which will ultimately bring about the coming of Mashiach. But in the course of that period, the battle of the House of David must be fought.

Our Sages teach: “If you see one generation after another scoffing13 [at G‑d and His Torah], be on the watch for the approaching footsteps of Mashiach. For in the above-quoted verse it is written, ‘Your enemies, O G‑d, have abused...the footsteps of Your Mashiach.’ And what is written immediately after that? — ‘Blessed be G‑d forever, Amen and Amen.’ ” I.e., when one generation of scoffers follows another, we can expect the ultimate Divine blessing, the coming of Mashiach.

The first generation of scoffers are the members of the “Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment,” the founders and teachers of the above-described schools. They will educate the second generation of scoffers, who will bring on the “birthpangs of Mashiach” which the world at large and the Jewish people must undergo. This is what necessitates “the battle of the House of David,” whose task is to strengthen our people’s faith in the Messianic Redemption and to ease its birthpangs.

There are two levels of evil found in the time of “the footsteps of Mashiach.” One category comprises “the enemies of G‑d,” the veteran apikorsim and maskilim, the above-described teachers and their disciples, who do not believe in G‑d or in the Torah, and whose prime intent is to ridicule the mitzvos and in particular the faith in the coming of Mashiach. The second category comprises those who believe in G‑d and in the Torah, but do not appreciate the holiness of the Torah.

[This category includes] those who believe that they can bring on the Redemption through their own efforts — such as the new group that distorts the meaning of the verse, “G‑d will build Jerusalem14 and gather in the dispersed of Israel,” saying that “when the dispersed of Israel will gather, they will rebuild Jerusalem.” May G‑d protect us from them and theirs, and ensure that they do not bring about a new spiritual and material destruction.

The other category — of those who “have abused ... the footsteps of Your Mashiach” — comprises all kinds of people; in fact, it even includes quite reputable Torah scholars, whose faith in the imminent Redemption is nevertheless weak. They may well rationalize their beliefs with explanations ostensibly based on the fear of heaven. The final word, however, is that their faith in Mashiach’s coming is weak.

The guiding strategy for “the battle of the House of David” is the principle, לֹא בְּחַיִּל וְלֹא בְּכֹחַ, כִּי אִם בְּרוּחִי — “Not by might,15 nor by power, but by My spirit.” The use of “might” and “power” signifies the rebuking approach of mussar; “My spirit” signifies pnimiyus HaTorah — the inner, mystical dimension of the Torah embodied in Chassidus, i.e., the comprehension of G‑dliness and the service of the heart.

On the one hand, nigleh ought to be studied with deep concentration, so that on the revealed plane of Torah law all the detailed reasoning of every subject will be understood in an orderly manner — from the initial allusion to a particular law in the Written Torah, through its concentrated articulation in the Mishnah, through the full range of debate by which it is clarified in the Talmud, and so on through the explanations given by Rashi and the various approaches proposed by Tosafos. One next needs to seriously consider the phraseology used by the Rambam, the novel interpretations of the law by the Rashba, the form in which it is crystallized in the Tur and the Beis Yosef, and its precise wording in the Shulchan Aruch of the Alter Rebbe.

All this, however, is merely the revealed aspect of Torah. This revealed aspect has an inner depth, the awareness of G‑dliness, which gives it life. And a sound comprehension of this G‑dly knowledge can be attained only through the service of the heart.

It is the temimim who must serve in the “battle of the House of David.” In the fifty-year period of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” it is they who must save the Jewish people from the “enemies of G‑d” — from the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment, with their disciples and their schools, with their scoffing of G‑d and their abuse of “the footsteps of [His] Mashiach.”

We have been taught that “Whoever goes out to a battle of the House of David writes a bill of divorce for his wife.” If a soldier in a physical battle must be not only unblemished, but must be able-bodied and robust in all 248 organs and 365 sinews, how much more is this true of a soldier going out to a spiritual battle. It is not enough that a soldier needed to “fight the battle of the House of David” should be lacking none of his 248 limbs and 365 sinews — it is not enough that he is not lacking in his observance of any of the 248 positive commandments or the 365 negative commandments — but he must be strong and robust in his service of G‑d and in the fear of heaven.

Chassidus refers to this strength as eisan,16 which connotes both strength and hardness. Though there are varying degrees of strength, hardness signifies an unvarying and steadfast fear of G‑d which blocks all the winds in the world from blasting a man from his foothold in the Torah and in his service of G‑d. Eisan describes a Jew of true mesirus nefesh, whose self-sacrificing service of G‑d will be disturbed by no obstruction nor hindrance nor trial.

This is the kind of soldier who fights “the battle of the House of David,” who can — and will — save the Jewish people from those who “abuse the footsteps of Mashiach,” by spreading Torah coupled with the fear of heaven and by rousing our people to teshuvah.

A soldier going out to this battle must divorce himself from the conventional approach to material affairs. He must give himself over to the mentors of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah, which educates and instructs soldiers for service in the army which will fight the battles of the House of David.

Our Sages tell us that the coming of Mashiach will be preceded by awesome birthpangs,17 both physical and spiritual. Temimim! The conventional attitudes and the worldly spirit, which are shared even by some of those who observe Torah and mitzvos, are cold and smack of disbelief. Only a very fine line separates spiritual frigidity from actual disbelief. The Sages teach that “If one is found worthy,18 the Torah serves him as an elixir of life; if he is not found worthy, it serves him as poison.” There are Torah scholars in the second category who are poisoned by pride in their own original scholarly attainments (poor fellows!), and who make use of Talmudic quotations to chill their own spiritual ardor and the innate spiritual ardor of others. They teach Torah superficially, as if it could be fully appreciated by simple, finite mortal intelligence.

Since “The L‑rd, your G‑d, is an all-consuming fire,”19 our Torah study and our prayers should reflect the full flame of the Jewish heart, so that “all my bones”20 — every aspect of our being — will proclaim the words of G‑d in Torah and in prayer.

When a chassid studies Torah, his innermost mind should harbor the teaching that “the Torah is G‑d’s wisdom and will,”21 and that “every day one should regard its words as if newly given that very day”22 — so that “just as at Mount Sinai23 [every Jew responded] with dread and with awe, with trembling and with quaking, so now too” will he experience those same emotions whenever he studies Torah.

And this indeed has always been the case, that when immersed in his studies, a chassid would characteristically feel awe before the Giver of the Torah, Whose Presence he sensed within it.

Likewise, when praying, the typical chassid would have an inner appreciation of the words, דַּע לִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עוֹמֵד — “Know before Whom24 you are standing.” Some shuls have this sentence inscribed on the lectern, so that at least it will know before Whom it is standing.... In chassidic shuls it is not written on the lectern: it is engraved in a chassid’s mind and heart.

For a chassid, each of the responses in congregational prayer — such as Amen, or Amen, yehei shmei rabba..., or Baruch hu uvaruch shmo — is a matter of cosmic consequence. A chassid should be (and is indeed) sensitive to the meaning of the words אֵ-ל מֶלֶךְ נֶאֱמָן — “G‑d, faithful King,” which are the soul of the word Amen.25 In the same way, a chassid should (and indeed does) feel and identify with the inner meaning of the words, Baruch hu uvaruch shmo — “Blessed be He and blessed be His Name.”

To explain: The level of Divinity (the Or Ein Sof, G‑d’s infinite light) which is signified in this phrase by הוּא is the same as the transcendent level of Divinity (lifnei hatzimtzum) signified by הוּא in another phrase, אַתָּה הוּא הֲוָיָ-ה לְבַדֶּךָ (lit., “You are He26 Who is G‑d alone”). When in the first half of the former phrase (בָּרוּךְ הוּא) we use the root ברך to signify “drawing down” and speak of drawing Divinity down to this world, we are speaking of the same transcendent level of Divinity signified by the first half of the latter phrase, אַתָּה הוּא, which addresses the very essence of the Luminary Himself. And in the second half of the former phrase (וּבָרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ), the Name referred to is the Four-Letter Name that signifies Divinity in the pristine state that precedes the tzimtzum. Moreover, while meditating on the above insights into בָּרוּךְ הוּא וּבָרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ, a chassid grasps that ultimately, the drawing down of the levels of Divinity signified by the terms הוּא and שְׁמוֹ surpasses the aloof and ethereal state27 denoted by the phrase אַתָּה הוּא הֲוָיָ-ה לְבַדֶּךָ, in which the levels of Divinity known as הוּא and הֲוָיָ-ה are alone, so to speak, and do not relate downward to the created universe.

Chassidus should be studied with intense involvement; it should be taken to heart. It is not meant to be treated with the pedestrian casualness of those chassidim who sip coffee or chicory on Shabbos morning while looking through a passage of Torah Or or Likkutei Torah. They forget the teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, that “Whenever a teaching is cited in this world in the name of a [departed] Sage, his lips murmur28 in the grave.” Chassidim of this kind likewise overlook the injunction of our Sages that “Whoever quotes a teaching in the name of its author should picture him as standing29 before him.”

When a chassid studies Torah Or or Likkutei Torah, the holy lips of the Alter Rebbe, of my greatgrandfather the Mitteler Rebbe, and of my grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek, are murmuring in their graves; as he studies, they are standing before him. And even the least refined of chassidim would not be so crass as to sit and sip his coffee while the souls of the holy Rebbeim are standing next to him.

Not that these rank-and-file chassidim are at fault. The blame lies with their environment, which is so cold that mitzvos are commonly fulfilled by rote. They are surrounded by people whose Torah study is frigid; their davenen is frigid; their singing is frigid; even their dancing is frigid. Immersed in a sea of ice, their spiritual life is so frozen that even the chassidic pulse beats faintly.

Chassidus should be studied with vitality — not with conspicuous turbulence nor with vocal excesses, but with inward vigor, so that not only does the chassid feel alive when immersed in the G‑dly concept that he has studied, but the concept is alive within him.

Above all, Chassidus should be studied with oneself in mind — with the intent of bettering oneself, not for the sake of mastering the subject per se. There are fools who study Chassidus for its own sake, as if it were some discipline distinct from their own lives. Having learned off a few dozen maamarim, these self-appointed experts imagine that the sublime concepts of Chassidus are just waiting to be clarified by their favorite explanations, which they hatch in their fantasies and deliver with an air of authority. The student studies; the subject is studied; but never the twain shall meet. Having no desire for change, such a person studies Chassidus without ever grasping its basic goal — to transform him into a chassid, in the best and fullest sense of the word.

These misguided scholars, who study a G‑dly concept academically without seeking to apply it in their own divine service, not only remain ignoramuses in their comprehension of Chassidus, but also inherit Gehinnom both in this world and in the next. I dislike them, and simultaneously I pity them. I pray that G‑d inspire them with a spirit from Above that will motivate them to repent in due proportion to their wrongdoing. Those, however, who brazenly persist with their nonsense will not be forgiven by G‑d, for they desecrate the sanctity of Chassidus.

As we said earlier, Chassidus ought to be studied with oneself in mind; it should train a person to be a true fearer of G‑d, to serve Him with love and fear, and in every facet of his life to exercise the character traits prescribed by the Torah.

Those who study Chassidus with themselves in mind and with deep concentration understand the difference between the first tzimtzum of the light of G‑d’s infinity and the subsequent tzimtzumim that transpire within the chainlike downward progression of spiritual worlds. Whereas the latter tzimtzumim reflect a process of diminution (miut), the first tzimtzum represents a complete withdrawal (siluk). The light that radiates after the first tzimtzum30 is not merely qualitatively inferior to the light that had previously diffused, but utterly different in kind. After each of the other tzimtzumim, by contrast, the nature of the light remains the same, except that it is diminished both quantitatively and qualitatively. These terms are all fully explained in Chassidus.

G‑d’s intent31 in bringing about the first tzimtzum is that the souls of Israel, by serving G‑d through Torah and mitzvos, should ultimately draw down the transcendent Or Ein Sof that radiates in the pristine state preceding the tzimtzum, and infuse it into the attenuated state of revelation that exists after the tzimtzum. This mode of divine service reflects the above-discussed superiority of the downward-oriented level of Divinity represented by the phrase, בָּרוּךְ הוּא וּבָרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ, over the separate and transcendent level of Divinity represented by the phrase, אַתָּה הוּא הֲוָיָ-ה לְבַדֶּךָ. For the latter phrase represents the Or Ein Sof before the tzimtzum as it exists in its own territory, undiffused. The former phrase, by contrast, represents the downward extension of this very same level of light (i.e., the Ein Sof-light in its unmuted state before the tzimtzum, as alluded to by הוּא and הוי-ה) into the lower state of being that follows after the tzimtzum. And this is accomplished by the divine service of the Jewish people, who steadfastly recite the response, בָּרוּךְ הוּא וּבָרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ, with devout concentration.

* * *

On my fifth birthday, the 20th of Cheshvan, 5626 (תרכ"ו; 1865), my father (the Rebbe Maharash) took me to visit my grandfather (the Tzemach Tzedek) in order to receive his blessing. As I later stood aside and listened, my grandfather told my father (among other things) that his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, had once said: “My [spiritual] grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, was the Avraham Avinu of Chassidus. Our Sages describe Avraham as ‘generous with his money,32 with his physical exertion, and with his soul.’ Avraham sacrificed himself to draw even the simplest of people close to G‑dliness. My [spiritual] grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, did the same. He too was ‘generous with his money, with his physical exertion, and with his soul.’ He too was willing to sacrifice himself to draw near even the simplest of Jews.

“Our Sages teach: ‘Until Avraham came,33 the world carried on in darkness; when Avraham came, [he] began to radiate light.’ Though before his time, too, there were great tzaddikim, they were all ‘men of darkness.’ Avraham Avinu was the first who ‘began to radiate light.’ Similarly, until the coming of my [spiritual] grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, the world was a dim and sunless house. Though Torah scholars had ‘light in their dwellings,’34 for the ordinary people (and even more so for the unlettered folk) the world was a dark house — until the Baal Shem Tov emerged and ‘began to radiate light.’

“My grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, lit up that dark world by opening up windows in its walls. Amen is a window; Amen, yehei shmei rabbah... is a window; Baruch hu uvaruch shmo is a window. By teaching the simple truth that G‑d cherishes the prayers and the Tehillim offered by unscholarly Jews, he dispelled the darkness of the world with the light radiated by the letters of Torah, prayer, and Tehillim.”

* * *

I heard this teaching cited in the name of the Alter Rebbe when I was five years old. Ten years later my father explained to me in depth how the concept of letters is associated with light, and how spoken letters have the distinction of producing an actual effect, for speech evokes the very essence of the soul.35 This is alluded to in the verse, נַפְשִׁי יָצְאָה בְּדַבְּרוֹ — lit., “My soul went forth36 when He spoke”; i.e., “His speech aroused my soul.” A similar allusion may be found in the words, כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹאמַרְנָה — “My entire being shall declare...”;37 i.e., speech gives expression to the totality of one’s essential being.38 This, however, applies only when one speaks with fire, with the inner vitality of our G‑dly souls which reflects how “The L‑rd, your G‑d, is an all-consuming fire.”

This fire is present only in the Torah study and in the prayers of one of whom it may be said [because of his self-refinement] that “If he is found worthy,39 the Torah serves him as an elixir of life.” In contrast, the Torah study of those who are unworthy is cold, and it chills all those around them, for they conceive of Torah study superficially as a mere academic exercise in legalistics. Their unspiritual frigidity distorts and darkens the light of the Torah.

The light of the Torah is the inner truth of Torah law; it is the garment of G‑d, the Giver of the Torah. Sensitivity to the light of the Torah and a perception of the Giver of the Torah are won only through prolonged prayer, by meditating on a G‑dly concept until it shines within one’s heart to the extent that it arouses a love and fear of G‑d and motivates good actions. At that point one has made contact with the light of the Torah and senses the Giver of the Torah.

Prominent scholars, even geonim, are not necessarily privileged to appreciate the light of the Torah. It is possible to be an outstanding Torah scholar, a veritable prodigy, a prolific fountain of innovative and mind-boggling hypotheses — and yet have no connection whatever with the light of Torah, nor the vaguest conception of the Giver of the Torah.

Who appreciates the light of Torah? — An oved, one who toils in the service of G‑d; he meditates, as he prays, upon a G‑dly concept. It is he who senses the Luminary within the Torah, and has the conceptual tools to appreciate and become aware of G‑dliness.

It is the task of the temimim to refine and elevate the conceptions that are taken for granted by worldly folk, and to warm up their spiritually chilly Jewish environment. No one should be rejected or humbled in the process, even though this might well be acceptable within a cordial circle of intimate friends in the comradely atmosphere of a farbrengen, as a passing preparation for the actual task of refining oneself and one’s peers.

Preparation is necessary for every spiritual task, especially for the task of refining the animal soul, which must be dealt a powerful preparatory, all-inclusive blow that will crush its self-assertiveness.

Picture the local magnate (who is thus addressed, even to his face, as Reb Yaakov the Naggid) making his grand entry into a farbrengen of chassidim. Who calls out to him unceremoniously? — None other than the most penniless chassid in town. He is popularly known as Mottel the Kabtzan (“the collector”), because he rattles the alms boxes for the various local charities.40

“Yekkel,” he calls out informally, “come over here!” And he seats the magnate at his side.

Or imagine Reb Eliezer the prodigy (the celebrated Talmudic innovator from the learned city of Shklov: the Rabbi’s own son-in-law, no less) stepping into an informal house of study, where he encounters a bunch of chassidim. He is immediately greeted with demonstrative glee by Reb Shlomo, the ginger-bearded schoolteacher, or by Leibe, Mamme Tzeite’s jolly and irreverent son: “Make room for young Leizerke, the celebrated Talmudic innovator!”

This approach breaks through the arrogance that often accompanies wealth and the pride that often accompanies Torah knowledge. In itself, however, this broad blow is not sufficient. As far as the arrogance of the rich is concerned, this broad blow must be followed up by a finely-focused program of clarification, which sorts out the good and the bad that both result from wealth.

On the positive side, since wealth enables one to support Torah scholars and sustain the needy and offer interest-free loans and disburse charity, someone needs to teach the benefactor to appreciate his G‑d-given privilege.

However, there is also a negative dimension to wealth, as is implied by the verse, “You have become fat, thick, and gross.”41 Often, “a wealthy man answers brazenly.”42 His riches blind him from perceiving how crude he really is. He develops a sage and scholarly self-image, seeks to uncover long-forgotten claims of lineage, and freely proffers his definitive views on the suitability of the local rav or shochet, and on what should and what should not be studied in the cheder or yeshivah. He overlooks the fact that as an ignoramus he has no conception of these matters. If an ignorant pauper were to venture his opinion, he would be the first to silence him as crazy; to him it is clear that the counsel of a rich man is ever so much wiser.

Those who misuse their G‑d-given wealth should be made aware of the tremendous responsibility they carry, for they themselves can transform their wealth into a potential problem. A man who uses his wealth, as intended, for good deeds, “enjoys their fruits43 in this world, while the principal [reward] remains in the World to Come.” One who does not use his wealth according to the intention of its Giver, not only does not enjoy the present fruits of the future principal, but makes do with a present material substitute for a lost spiritual future.44

Moreover, a man who uses his wealth properly achieves merit himself and spreads merit among others. One who does not, is not only himself a sinner, but also causes others to sin — especially if he supports the above-described schools, which violate the sanctity of the Torah and which employ teachers who are disbelievers, who do not wear tzitzis, who scoff at the teachings of our Sages, who teach Chumash as if (heaven preserve us!) it were an old wives’ tale and the Prophets as if they were mere literary classics.

These teachers, particularly those trained and employed by the “Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment,” uproot their pupils’ faith and nurture within them a hatred for Torah and Yiddishkeit. Ultimately, the students educated in these schools will be responsible for more religious persecution45 and anti-Semitism than the severest pogroms.

In summary: Wealth, man’s greatest challenge, is simultaneously one of the most desirable and most undesirable of G‑d’s creations. The man who knows what to do with it according to the guidelines of the Torah, is happy — in direct contrast to his opposite number — both in this world and in the next.

* * *

A similar approach is needed with regard to the pride that sometimes infects scholars of note. Once such pride has been somewhat humbled by an initial broad blow, here too there is a need for follow-up — a judicious analysis that will allow those affected to separate the good from the bad that coexist in the scholarly world. Such an analysis will make it clear that what matters most in Torah learning is that one recall that the Torah is G‑d’s wisdom and will, and that one constantly keep in mind the Giver of the Torah.

Elder chassidim who lived in Vitebsk at the time have passed down an account of an episode that took place when the Alter Rebbe was a very young man. It involved a fellow townsman so distinguished that his colleagues (who included the eminent Reb Avraham Zalman of Beshenkovitz) would refer to him in adulation as “Reb Elisha, the gaon of the geonim.”

It once happened that this scholar found a certain interpretation written by Rashi (on a passage in Tractate Eruvin46 ) highly problematic. All the other local scholars struggled to resolve the difficulty, offering different explanations. One of them, the Alter Rebbe, also suggested a possible resolution, which most of the other scholars accepted.

Now Reb Elisha was the great-uncle of Reb Leib Segal, the Alter Rebbe’s father-in-law. When Reb Leib, the richest man in Vitebsk, was considering the merits of marrying off his daughter to the brilliant fourteen-year-old son of Reb Baruch Weiskvaliker from Liozna, Reb Elisha had been one of those chosen to test the Alter Rebbe’s scholarship.

[Even some years earlier, the Alter Rebbe had attracted attention.] At that time Reb Baruch was living in the estate which he had received as his dowry, some three viorsts from Liozna. His gifted six-year-old son was once sitting in his father’s orchard with his brother, Reb Mordechai, who at the time was five years old, and as they studied Chumash together they came to the verse, “These are the descendants of Seir, the Chorites, the dwellers of the land.”47 Rashi explains that they are so described because they were experts in agriculture; by tasting the soil they could tell which crops should be planted in each spot. The young Reb Mordechai found this hard to understand. Does not all soil look the same? The Alter Rebbe explained that there are ways of knowing what goes on beneath the surface. “For example,” he told his brother, “water flowing underground can be heard. Under that mound of white stones over there, there flows a powerful stream of water.”

The stream eventually broke through the mound and formed a pool, which proved very beneficial to the farmers of the surrounding villages when a cattle plague broke out a few years later. From that time on, they called this estate (in Russian) “the white fountain,” which is also the translation of the name (in Yiddish) by which Reb Baruch became known.

At any rate, especially after he became Reb Leib Segal’s son-in-law, the Alter Rebbe had attracted the admiring attention of the scholars around him, including, of course, Reb Elisha — until they supported the Alter Rebbe’s understanding of that problematic statement of Rashi.

Reb Elisha understood the passage in Eruvin otherwise than Rashi. This, he would explain, was quite legitimate, for is the crown of Torah not offered like a gift in the wilderness48 to whoever is found worthy of it? Rashi was an authoritative commentator on the Torah in his generation, and he, Reb Elisha — “the saintly gaon,” as he would refer to himself — was an authoritative commentator on the Torah in his generation.

Also living in Vitebsk at this time was one of the Baal Shem Tov’s chassidim, Reb Ephraim, a brother of the learned Reb Moshe and an uncle of Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the revered author of Pri HaAretz. Reb Ephraim supported himself by working as a gardener together with his sons, and was respected in the learned circles of the town for his sharp and encyclopedic scholarship in both nigleh and Kabbalah. Though he was widely known to be close with the Baal Shem Tov, even those who were antagonistic to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov liked him for his truthfulness.

It was in 5521 (תקכ"א; 1761), the first year after the Baal Shem Tov had passed away, that Reb Elisha presented his plaint to Reb Ephraim: Why did people reject his interpretation of the passage in Eruvin because it differed from Rashi’s? Does not Tosafos often differ from the interpretation of Rashi? Does not the Raavad often differ from the interpretation of Rambam? Yet when he, Reb Elisha, proposed an interpretation that differed from Rashi’s, no one was willing to accept it! Why not? Are there not “seventy faces to the Torah”?!49

Always a man of truth, Reb Ephraim answered straightforwardly: “It is written, ‘And behold there was a scroll...written front and back.’50 Just as there is a face, i.e., an inner dimension, so too there is a back, i.e., a posterior perspective. The differing commentaries and arguments and legal postulates of Rashi and Tosafos, of the Rambam and the Raavad, are all part of the seventy faces of the Torah. Your arguments and explanations and legal postulates are part of the seventy rearmost facets of the Torah.”

When one studies Torah with bittul, effacing one’s own ego in the process, one’s innovative insights are part of the seventy faces of the Torah. When, however, one studies it with egotism and arrogance, the novel concepts one develops are part of the seventy rearmost facets of the Torah.

* * *

The proper order of divine service, both in regard to one’s own personal self-refinement and one’s work with others, begins with a comprehensive act of bittul — dealing an all-inclusive blow to the essential element of evil. One must then sort out the good and the bad, salvaging the positive sparks hidden in every undesirable trait, and utterly rejecting any negative dross. And just as the latter analytical program of beirurim is necessary, the preparatory comprehensive bittul is also necessary, and in fact indispensable, for it sets the tone for what follows.

For this reason, the Mitteler Rebbe’s chassidim in Shklov used to say that one passing word of rebuke from Michel, the lame melamed, could provide the bittul necessary to turn a man into a chastened receptacle fit to receive the Rebbe’s words at yechidus.

What they had in mind was the following incident. Reb Shlomo Monnesson (the father of Reb Menachem Manes51 ) was one of the Mitteler Rebbe’s chassidim. He was born into a rich family, and had been educated and trained in the chassidic lifestyle by chassidim of the Alter Rebbe. True enough, he observed chassidic practices; for example, he would join the other chassidim in the farbrengen and the spirited dance that traditionally followed yechidus, but he lacked chassidic warmth. His conduct was characterized by that temperate and bourgeois spiritual frigidity which chassidim describe as baalei-batish.

Like the other chassidim of Shklov, he too would pray with fervor and attend the farbrengens of the local chassidim. At one such informal and comradely gathering, Reb Michel, the lame melamed, burst into tears. Beating his breast, and complaining to no one but himself, he uttered a sincere prayer: “G‑d, have pity on me and help me! Let me be able to make the request, וְהָאֵר עֵינֵינוּ בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ — ‘Enlighten our eyes52 in Your Torah, cause our hearts to cleave to Your commandments, and unite our hearts to love and fear Your Name...’ with the same fervor and energy as Shlomo Monnesson says, וְהָעוֹשֶׁר וְהַכָּבוֹד מִלְּפָנֶיךָ — ‘Wealth and honor53 emanate from You.’ ”

Reb Michel had no intention of humbling Reb Shlomo: he was concerned with himself. He was dissatisfied with his own level of divine service and envied the other man’s heartfelt request. His overheard plea, however, made a deep impression on Reb Shlomo. Shortly afterwards, he traveled to Lubavitch, was received by the Mitteler Rebbe at yechidus, and came home a different man.

At every step, a chassidic upbringing echoes the Talmudic teaching, that “Serving a Torah sage54 [and thus experiencing his approach to everyday life] is superior to studying under him.” Being received at yechidus corresponds here to study, and participating in a farbrengen of chassidim corresponds here to service. Here we have a tangible instance of how a farbrengen among chassidim can have a greater effect than even the experience of yechidus. For eight years Reb Shlomo had been going to Lubavitch for yechidus without seeing any substantial change in his personality; yet casually overhearing the plea of Reb Michel broke through the barriers of his ego and made him receptive to the teachings he could then hear at yechidus.

Underlying this episode is the power of the light of truth that characterized the divine service of Reb Michel the melamed. As pointed out above, he had not set out to correct Reb Shlomo’s character faults; he was concerned with his own lack of genuine service and that is what he sought to correct. He had been brought up among the Alter Rebbe’s chassidim, who were steeped in genuine avodah without excuses. Among those elder chassidim, an experience of the love or awe of G‑d was common currency, and when their avodah was imperfect, this bothered them to the core. Reb Michel was genuinely bothered that his daily request for spiritual enlightenment and for the attainment of a love and fear of G‑d lacked the enthusiasm of Reb Shlomo’s daily declaration that G‑d is the source of “wealth and honor.” Thus it was, that the light of truth which fired his request had such a powerful effect on Reb Shlomo, that it shattered the insensitivity that had prevented him from fully appreciating the holy teachings which the Mitteler Rebbe had offered him at yechidus.

* * *

[The Rebbe Rayatz concluded his written account of the above talk of the Rebbe Rashab with the following words:]

May all chassidim be blessed with good health, for with their farbrengens in the best chassidic tradition they literally restore souls to life. I hanker after the times when I was able to sit and farbreng among chassidim, even though pressure of time never allowed me to devote myself to this as I would have liked to. A chassidic farbrengen imparts an all-pervading sense of bittul, which is the breakthrough that paves the way for the orderly divine service of “turning away from evil55 and doing good.”

May G‑d grant you all success in your Torah study and in the divine service within your hearts, so that within you all, and through your efforts, His ultimate desire and intent in creation56 — that He have a dwelling place in the lower realms — will be fulfilled.