Publisher’s Foreword

Chaf-Daled Teves, 5717 (1956) Brooklyn, N.Y.


Since Yud Shvat, the yahrzeit1 of the Rebbe Rayatz (whose soul is in Eden), falls this year on Shabbos Shirah, Parshas Beshalach, we are publishing herewith [an extract from] a sichah concerning Shabbos Shirah which he delivered on the Last Day of Pesach in the year 5698 (תרח"ץ;x 1938).2

The text of the sichah is taken from a letter3 written [at the time] by R. Yechezkel Feigin4 (May G‑d avenge his martyred blood!)

Introducing the sichah he writes:

As you no doubt know, after reading the Torah every Shabbos and Yom-Tov we read the Maftir, a passage chosen from the Books of the Prophets which echoes the content of that day’s Reading in the Torah. Shabbos Parshas Beshalach is known as Shabbos Shirah, because of the song which the Jews sang5 to G‑d at the Splitting of the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt. The matching haftorah is the song sung by Devorah6 the Prophetess after the Jews won their battle against Sisera.

Every year on the Seventh Day of Pesach, the day on which the Red Sea was split, we again read the Song of the Sea — but for the haftorah we read the song of praise sung by David HaMelech.7

[At the farbrengen on the Last Day of Pesach 5698 (תרח"ץ;x 1938)], the Rebbe Shlita8 related that his great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, had said that his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, had once asked why on Shvi’i shel Pesach we read the Song of David, whereas on Parshas Beshalach we read the Song of Devorah.

Editorial Board of Otzar HaChassidim

1. A slow learner

My great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, once said that on the Seventh Day of Pesach in the year 5561 (1801) his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, had related a story whose opening words were as follows:

In the times of my grandfather (the Alter Rebbe used to refer9 to his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, as his father, and to his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, as his zeide) a certain incident took place.

As is well known, before my grandfather (i.e., the Baal Shem Tov) revealed himself [as a tzaddik], he used to travel about from town to town and from one Jewish village to the next in order to rouse Jews in their divine service and to raise their spirits. Observing their lot, he would intercede on their behalf and invoke Heaven’s mercies. People did not yet know who he was.

In a certain place in which a number of Jews lived, a child of three or four lost his father (May no one know of such woes!) and soon after, when he was five, he was also left without a mother. An uncle brought him up in his home and hired a melamed to teach him, but the child was such a slow student that no matter how much he was taught he did not learn.

The teacher told his other pupils not to make fun of him and not to bother him. In those days children used to be naively innocent. (Since a child usually assimilates the nature of his parents and of the other adults around him, it follows that when parents used to be naively innocent, so were the children.) So they obeyed their teacher and did not tease their little classmate.

His friends were already learning Gemara. Yet, though the child was eager to learn, the melamed barely managed to teach him the individual letters and vowels — but nothing beyond that, except for memorizing the blessings to be recited before eating and drinking.

2. Bitter tears

As time went on and his relatives saw no progress, they ended the arrangement with the melamed and enrolled the child in the Talmud Torah run by the community. When he was twelve the communal authorities decided that it was pointless to keep him at school, and apprenticed him to a local tinsmith.

This pious Jew taught him his craft honestly, took responsibility for his conduct, and patiently taught him by constant repetition which blessings to recite over which kinds of food. The lad for his part was so anxious to learn that he wanted to learn something even while he was working. In those days it was common for craftsmen to recite verses of Tehillim or paragraphs of Mishnayos by heart. So he repeatedly recited by heart all the blessings he had mastered, thinking that by doing so he was studying Torah — until someone explained to him that unless one eats or drinks, such blessings are made in vain. From that time on, as he worked he would repeat from memory alef, beis, and so on, or kometz alef — oh, and so on.

He learned his trade well. After he reached the age of bar-mitzvah, though he had originally been apprenticed for several years, his master released him to set up shop independently if he so desired. This he did. He worked honestly, his workshop succeeded, and he contributed generously to tzedakah. One thing caused him anguish — he had remained an ignoramus.

When the time came, he married the daughter of a man who made pitch in a forest to which he had rights and lived in a nearby village. The young man settled there too and worked there successfully as a tinsmith. Yet even when he became a prosperous property-owner, he still shed tears of distress over the fact that he had never learned how to study Torah.

3. Emulating a stranger

The few Jewish families in that village had a place in which they davened together, as well as a shochet and a melamed.

One day the tinsmith called on the only Torah scholar in town and poured out all the pain in his heart. The scholar suggested that he support Torah students anonymously, because what G‑d most desires is an earnest heart.10 He explained that the numerous unlettered folk who support such people are as worthy as the scholars they support. From then on, the tinsmith strove more in this direction.

The custom in that hospitable village was that whenever a visitor arrived, which was not often, they would cast lots to decide who among them would have the privilege of fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. One day an ailing man whose whole body was afflicted with a distressful skin disease arrived in town — and the lot fell on the tinsmith. He took him home, gave him a room of his own, washed him, and gave him ointments to ease his suffering. A few days later, when the guest wanted to move on, his host asked him to stay for another few days.

One day he asked his guest what it was that had ruined his health. The guest told him that he had once been thoroughly familiar with the entire Shas. Desperately wanting to master all the earlier and later commentators as well, he had gone on to study with extreme assiduity while undertaking numerous fasts, until his health collapsed.

A short time later the guest went on his way.

Hearing such a story, the tinsmith walked around and begged of G‑d that even if it cost him all kinds of physical suffering he would accept this willingly, so long as He would enable him to study, to become a ben Torah. However, as the days passed and his ability to learn did not improve, he decided to act as his guest had acted. He began to fast for entire days. He would wander off to the forest and sit among the ants, reciting as many chapters of Tehillim as he could manage, for over the years he had learned to read. Weeping and sighing, though he did not understand the meaning of the words, he would read them one after another.

4. An unconventional deal

Looking up through his tears in the forest one day, he was overawed by the sight of a man with a sack on his back and a staff in his hand. He regained his composure, however, as the stranger approached him and asked what he was doing here in the forest and why he was crying.

The poor fellow shared his story, and added that a recent visitor to his home had told him that fasting enabled one to study. He had therefore decided to take this advice — so long as G‑d would enable him to become a Torah scholar.

“That is advice,” the stranger conceded, “but if you like I’ll give you an easier way to achieve this.”

The young man agreed at once, so the stranger said: “If so, give me a document that transfers everything you own — money, silver and gold, possessions, land — to me. And come away with me for three years. Then you’ll be a ben Torah.”

The tinsmith eagerly agreed at once, but the stranger said: “Take your time. Discuss it first with your wife and hear how your father-in-law reacts. Come back to this spot next week, I’ll be here too, and you’ll tell me then what you’ve decided.”

And with those words, the stranger with the sack and the staff went on his way.

5. One condition

The tinsmith’s wife heard the whole story and her response was simple: “Since you are always so sad that you cannot learn, and now you have been made such an offer, then of course you should agree to it. I’m agreeable, too — but on one condition: before we give the man everything we own, let him be our guest for one meal so that we can fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality, because we won’t be able to practice hachnasas orchim when we have nothing left.”

As to his father-in-law, he began by saying: “True, it is written that the Torah is ‘more precious than gems.’11 However,” he added, “I don’t think the law of the Torah allows you to do such a thing. Look, you’ve got a wife and children to support, so you can’t give everything away. There are plenty of unlettered Jews around. If they support Torah scholars and perform the commandments with an unquestioning heart, they are just as good as the scholars. So I don’t think you’re allowed to give everything away and go off into exile.”

These words left their impact. Day after day the young man fasted and wept, confused by doubt and indecision. On the last day, when he told his wife how her father’s words had left him confused, she said: “The fact that a doubt has arisen in your mind proves that all your sighs and tears were not utterly truthful. If your desire to study sprang from all the truth in your heart, then when someone gave you a way of becoming a ben Torah you would certainly agree.”

“Well, what have you decided?” asked the stranger with the sack and the staff when they met in the forest.

“I am agreeable to everything,” said the tinsmith.

But as they sat down to talk, a sigh escaped his heart.

“Why are you sighing?” asked the stranger. “If you have second thoughts, you can still withdraw.”

The tinsmith then told him the whole truth — what his wife had said, but also the fact that his father-in-law’s words had made a certain impact.

“Your father-in-law is right,” said the stranger. “There are certainly many unlettered Jews who support Torah scholars and fulfill the commandments, and they are even worthier than the scholars themselves.”

“I hear you,” said the tinsmith, “but I have made my decision. I want to give everything away and to wander in exile for three years. My wife, though, has made one condition: before this happens, please be our guest for just one meal. Let us fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim while we can.”

And off they went to the home of the tinsmith.

6. “Is today a Yom-Tov?!”

It was already Maariv time when they opened the door and found a table set with all kinds of delicacies and candles lit as if it were Yom-Tov.

“What kind of a Yom-Tov is it today?” asked the guest.

“I don’t know,” answered the tinsmith. “I’ll have to ask my wife.”

“What kind of a Yom-Tov is it today?!” echoed the good woman. “It’s Yom-Tov for two reasons. Firstly, today we have the mitzvah of hachnaas orchim. Secondly: I see that G‑d wants to take away everything we own. There are many ways in which He could do this. But with us He is acting out of great kindness — He is taking away our possessions, but in exchange He is giving us Torah! Tell me: when G‑d chooses such a beautiful way of taking back whatever He has deposited with us, isn’t it a Yom-Tov?!”

They brought out a big bag and filled it with everything — money and silver and gold — as agreed. They then wrote out a document which transferred everything they owned, including houses and fields, as a gift to the stranger, and two neighbors signed as witnesses. After the meal they retired for the night.

Before the two men took to the road the stranger told the tinsmith’s wife that though the house was now his, he allowed her and her children to live in it — just as neighbors — until her husband came home. He presented her with a sack of flour and a bag of potatoes and told her that she could sow in the garden and use the fruit of the orchard — all as gifts between neighbors, not by virtue of ownership. Finally, having blessed her and her two sons and daughter, he took up the big sack, bid them all farewell, and set out with her husband.

Left alone, the woman found that the garden and the orchard were so extraordinarily fruitful that she was able to maintain her family throughout her long wait.

7. A hidden tzaddik

[At this point, R. Yechezkel Feigin reported, the Rebbe Rayatz remarked that there was much more to be told, but he had to be brief. He added no more than the following paragraphs:]

When the tinsmith came home after three years he and his wife settled elsewhere and became wealthy. In the course of time he became a hidden tzaddik.

8. After 120

After they passed on from this world,12 the tinsmith was granted a palatial place in Gan Eden in the company of Torah scholars and his wife was granted a palatial place in Gan Eden in the company of other righteous women. Moreover, whenever the time came for his soul to be elevated to a loftier level of Gan Eden, her soul was summoned there, too, and it was announced that he was being elevated thanks to her.

9. The power of joy

The Alter Rebbe concluded his narration by saying that the stranger with the sack and the staff was the Baal Shem Tov, before he became revealed as a tzaddik. Moreover, he added, the greatness of the wife lay in the joy with which she undertook her self-sacrifice for the sake of the Torah and its commandments. For when the Jews passed through the dry ground in the middle of the Red Sea the menfolk sang a song of praise, whereas the women did the same “with cymbals and dancing”13with joy. And this explains, the Alter Rebbe concluded, why the haftorah of Shabbos Shirah14 is the Song of Devorah, because all salvation comes by virtue of women. “Everything comes from the [‘feminine’ Sefirah of Malchus which, as a source of life and growth, is likened to] dust.”15

10. In honor of Mashiach

When the Tzemach Tzedek repeated the above narration, he concluded by explaining why the haftorah of the Seventh Day of Pesach is the Song of David:16 The Seventh Day and the Last Day of Pesach are a time of the revelation of Mashiach, the descendant of David — so on the Seventh Day, in honor of Mashiach, we read the Song of David.