1. Creating receptors

The [Alter] Rebbe1 sacrificed himself so that the entire House of Israel should climb to ever greater heights. He sought the good of every single Jew, looked upon every single Jew with a kindly eye, and in every single Jew he sought out the redeeming features.

His self-sacrifice was not potential but actual. Potential self-sacrifice describes a situation in which a tzaddik stays at home, engaging in Torah and avodah, and prays that G‑d open and light up people’s eyes so that they will see and recognize the truth; he prays that G‑d will send forth a spirit from above to arouse in their hearts a desire to follow the paths of avodah. There were times in which this is how things happened — Jewish hearts warmed up and sprang to life in response to an arousal from above, in the wake of the intense prayers of intercession offered on their behalf by self-sacrificing tzaddikim.

Actual self-sacrifice, in contrast, describes a situation in which the tzaddik sets himself utterly aside. His sole concern is to function as a mashpia, a mentor who diffuses light, relating to a mekabel, a receptor of light. This entails sensitively focusing his entire self on all the distinctive characteristics of each particular disciple. And if the disciple is not yet intellectually equipped to be an efficient receptor, it is the mentor’s self-sacrifice that transforms him into one.

For this and other reasons, it has not been the tradition of chassidim to seek out and accept only students who are already blessed with well-developed minds and sensibilities. The key requirement has always been that students be baalei avodah, young men who tackle their tasks of divine service and self-refinement earnestly, each according to his ability. This was the policy of the [Alter] Rebbe — to create receptors, regardless of whether the minds and sensibilities of the individuals concerned were marvelous, mediocre or modest.

2. Starting with… me!

As we know, everything in the life of the [Alter] Rebbe, including his Torah and avodah, was remarkably orderly. There was likewise a specific order in the education he prescribed for the various kinds of students who came to study at his feet: some were more cerebral2 and some were more emotive;3 there were rabbis, shochtim, teachers, businessmen, and young married fulltime students still supported by their fathers or fathers-in-law. For each of these categories and for each individual student there was a detailed study schedule, as may be seen from the second set of regulations which he issued in Liozna in 5558 (1798).4 (I have not yet established when the first set of takkanos was written.)

This characteristic of orderliness may be seen in various periods of his life — as a growing twelve-year-old student of R. Yissachar Dov Kobilniker, the Maggid of Lubavitch; at the crossroads which he confronted at the age of twenty, when his pure soul was attracted to Mezritch;5 and in his conduct as a Rebbe until his last day in this world. To sketch the [Alter] Rebbe in a few strokes: he was — and is — a fiery heart ruled by his brain.

Every published work of his demonstrates how two great worlds, the brain and the heart, converge. Together they create a broad path which equally suits the greatest scholar or chassidic thinker, and the simplest Jew.

The [Alter] Rebbe opened up our eyes and showed us how great is the most trivial entity and how puny is the greatest entity.

Chassidus teaches us to understand and feel the truth of truth; to perceive the material and the spiritual — the body and the soul — in every entity; to refine the material and to be drawn to the spiritual.

The [Alter] Rebbe tells us that one should always start with oneself — self-improvement. Any trace of an undesirable character trait or manner of conduct should engage a person’s attention far more than his most desirable trait, because the negative trait can ruin the positive one. At the same time, the [Alter] Rebbe tells us that through teshuvah and “the avodah of the heart”6 even a touch of good can utterly cure any diseased character trait.

This is the basis of avodah as taught in Chassidus; this is what the [Alter] Rebbe demands of us; this is the foundation of Chassidus in which our holy forebears, the Rebbeim, have guided us.

As mentor to young chassidim, the [Alter] Rebbe no doubt sought out students who included the intellectually gifted and the spiritually sensitive. At the same time, however, he strove above all to inspire his students to appreciate the true worth of every simple and unsophisticated Jew with his artless davenen and Amen-yehei-shmei-rabba, to appreciate the beauty of his native and habituated character traits.

3. Chassidim mustn’t live in self-delusion

The [Alter] Rebbe underwent considerable suffering for the sake of chassidim, that is, for the sake of making chassidim. In fact, his entire path cost him great difficulty. Anything which may be described as pnimi — i.e., the innermost core of any ideal — can be attained only with difficulty, especially if it involves the innermost core of the brain and of the heart.

Elder chassidim, with the heightened sensitivity of the old-timers, used to enumerate ten kinds of suffering that the Alter Rebbe underwent:7 the path that led to Mezritch; two sharp reactions8 to his teachings by the holy tzaddik, R. Pinchas [Horovitz],9 author of Sefer Hafla’ah; the objections of his former friends and colleagues — the geonim of Shklov, Mohilev, and so on — to his decision to proceed to Mezritch; difficulties in deciding points of law when compiling the Shulchan Aruch;10 the complaints against the Chabad doctrine voiced by veteran disciples [of the Maggid], especially by the holy tzaddik, R. Baruch [of Mezhibuzh]; the disputations held with the misnagdim, the opponents of Chassidus; the complaints of his colleagues, the tzaddikim of Volhynia, over his refusal to join them in (G‑d forbid!) excommunicating his antagonists, the misnagdim;11 the difficulties he encountered in his support of the chassidic settlers in the Holy Land; and the arguments of the holy tzaddik, R. Shlomo of Karlin,12 over the Alter Rebbe’s antagonism to Napoleon.

At this point in the farbrengen one of the chassidim present asked the Rebbe Rayatz: “Why didn’t they count the Alter Rebbe’s incarceration in the Peter-Paul Fortress among the ten kinds of suffering that the Alter Rebbe underwent? After all, the Festival of Liberation celebrates his release.”13

To this the Rebbe Rayatz replied:

Yud-Tes Kislev is indeed a Yom-Tov. [On Rosh HaShanah we say,] Hayom haras olam — “On this day the world was born.”14 On this day chassidim were born, and every year this is the Rosh HaShanah of Chassidus. The [Alter] Rebbe sacrificed himself for chassidim, not for Chassidus. Chassidus is the intellectual understanding; chassidim are the avodah. The [Alter] Rebbe sacrificed himself for the sake of avodah — so that chassidim should not live in self-delusion [regarding their spiritual attainments]; he sacrificed himself so that at all times chassidim should know exactly where they are up to in the world. As to his incarceration in the Peter-Paul Fortress, the elder chassidim used to count it among the ten merits15 with which the Alter Rebbe was blessed....

4. A chitzon is all exterior

In the life of a pnimi, a person whose integrity is utterly internalized, every happening — whether good or (G‑d forbid) the opposite — is experienced profoundly. As we observe, there are people whose experience of any happening, whether good or whatever, is lightweight and fleeting. Such a person is known as a chitzon: he is all exterior; he is superficial, without deep foundations; he is a kal-daas, lightminded. And since daas basically means bonding,16 the bonds of a kal daas are loose and flimsy. In the life of a pnimi, by contrast, every move is experienced profoundly: it springs from the innermost depths17 of the mind and extends into the innermost depths of the heart. And, one mighty leap further, this is even more so in the case of an atzmi, one who is absolutely true to his true self, to his etzem.

The [Alter] Rebbe was an atzmi. In the first place, certain particularly lofty souls are at the pristine level of light which is described in Chassidus as atzmi, rather than at the level which is called hispashtus, implying light that is diffused. (This of course applies even more to a soul that derives from the World of Atzilus.) Moreover, the [Alter] Rebbe was an atzmi by virtue of his avodah. This means that his avodah was at a level resembling that of a mashpia whose avodah can be grasped somewhat by his disciples.

When it comes to the actual intellective and emotive properties18 of the [Alter] Rebbe, we can have no grasp whatever; in the words of the maxim, “Do not seek to fathom what is beyond you, nor delve into what is hidden from your sight.”19 The area in which we may have some meager measure of a grasp is the area of action — how the [Alter] Rebbe related to his close disciples, to his chassidim in general, or to Jews at large.

In every aspect of his conduct, in every word, in every letter of Iggeres HaKodesh concerning prayer, whether speaking of the need for internal toil in the avodah of prayer20 or whether uttering his awesome warning against conversing during the prayers,21 and in every letter offering guidance in the cultivation of positive character attributes — every word of these is permeated by an actual part of that atzmi, an actual slice of life. Every word is so earnest, steeped through and through; you can feel that it springs from a vigorous wellspring, deep and distant. For us these are now written words, words printed on paper. But these printed and written words pulsate with an inner vitality; the very words cry out. The holy words which pour forth from his fiery heart are still burning with the selfsame flame with which they first issued from their primal source. They cry out; they implore; they command. When one has studied a few lines of one of these letters, whether printed or still in manuscript, when one’s mind has absorbed its words, one finds that those very words alone arouse the reader, and activate his head and his heart.

5. Supporting the scholars in the Holy Land

The [Alter] Rebbe’s pastoral letters concerning the R. Meir Baal HaNess Charity Fund are fiery words — a firm directive for the succeeding generations, and a promise of blessings for children and life and a livelihood for ongoing generations. The [Alter] Rebbe invested so much of his life for the welfare of activities in the Holy Land (May it be rebuilt and reestablished!). The Baal Shem Tov was likewise a Nasi for Eretz Yisrael. He writes in a letter that heaven had just granted him the privilege of being the charity warden responsible for supporting the hidden tzaddikim of Eretz Yisrael. His successor, our mentor the Maggid of Mezritch, also worked for the good of this Charity Fund, and after him the Alter Rebbe toiled energetically in the same sacred task. As is well known, he promised all the [Maggid’s] disciples who constituted the Holy Brotherhood which set out [in 1777 to the Holy Land] with the saintly R. Menachem Mendel [of Horodok]22 that their livelihood would, with G‑d’s help, be assured. Thanks to this undertaking, we have been blessed with the relevant letters of Iggeres HaKodesh.23

Solemnly and irreversibly, and on behalf of the forthcoming generations, our fathers and grandfathers swore to heaven that they would support the Torah scholars of Eretz Yisrael. In whatever land they find themselves, every Jew and Jewess of chassidic stock should therefore have at home a charity box of Colel Chabad. In this way they will be fulfilling the pledge of their departed forebears; they will bring merit and bliss upon their souls in Gan Eden; and they will be found worthy of all the promises and blessings which the [Alter] Rebbe gives, generation after generation, to all those who will fulfill his directive to contribute Eretz Yisrael-money through Colel Chabad. For the words and the blessings uttered by tzaddikim are alive and valid forever.

6. Contemplative prayer

As to why people do not seriously engage in Torah study and in “the service of the heart”24 — i.e., devout and contemplative prayer — as demanded by the teachings of Chassidus, all the current excuses were equally applicable in earlier generations. They, poor folk, also endured grinding poverty, but they were spiritually active. People engaged in avodah; rabbis were alive to their sacred obligation to offer guidance; and householders knew that they ought to heed the teachings of their rabbis. People revered the Torah, and undertook the yoke of avodah.

In those days, realizing that they were the pillars upholding the House of Israel, shochtim bore the yoke of Torah study. They themselves used to study long hours (apart from the laws which their occupation obliged them to constantly review), and would regularly lead study groups of householders. Chassidic shochtim in particular were occupied in the study of Chassidus, both from printed texts and orally. Davenen was a major theme in each man’s mind and in each day’s avodah. The time spent in preparation for the morning’s davenen and the time that immediately followed the davenen was in its own right the subject of avodah. As to the davenen itself, this was regarded by chassidim as a sweet reward. If one’s prayers welled forth spontaneously, why, that was really praying;25 that was really being alive. And if one’s prayers did not pour forth spontaneously, for that very reason the aching heart overflowed with tears. But even in such a case, the time spent preparing for davenen and the time that followed the davenen remained an avodah in its own right. There was no rushing: people understood that their davenen was their source of life.

A chassid in those days would be preoccupied with the refinement of a particular character trait. He would hold himself vigilantly in hand. He would examine himself strictly, with no self-delusion. At the same time, he was sensitively aware of his fellow man. His neighbor’s material well-being and of course his neighbor’s spiritual well-being were matters of serious concern. In those days a man himself wanted to live a life of Torah and avodah, and he wanted his friend to live, too.

A Jewish home in those days was suffused with a love of Torah and a love of holy things. A pious and upright Jew was someone to be cherished, and a warm response to the sanctity of the Torah’s letters and sounds was ingrained and embaked deep in the heart of every Jewish man and woman. Parents were so joyfully grateful when a kind Providence spared them to see the day when they could bring their toddler to the local cheder. The melamed there was conscientious and filled with zest. He exerted himself to the utmost to implant the awe of heaven in his tender charges, teaching them how to wash their hands in observance of netilas yadayim, reminding them to cover their heads with a yarmulke when they went to sleep, to recite the blessings at their appropriate times, to read Kerias Shema, to join in the responses of Amen, yehei shmei rabba whenever they went to shul, to obey their parents, and to recite the blessing over tzitzis. Their parents would see to it that their peyos remained intact. Years later, a bar mitzvah was a real celebration, and when a son studied in a yeshivah, that was a cause for joyful satisfaction.

7. Frostbite in a Jewish home?!

But today, what has come of us? Just to think of it makes the heart grow heavy. From all sides, bitterly cold winds blow frostbite into the Jewish home. Even the blood freezes and congeals. In the days when a sacrifice used to be offered in the Beis HaMikdash and it was punctiliously prepared for its particular purpose and for the sake of its contributor,26 steps had to be taken to ensure that the blood of the sacrifice would not congeal.27 It is written that “the blood is the soul.”28 The blood is a receptor for a living creature’s vitality, which it distributes among all the organs to the rhythm of the pulse’s advance and retreat. Today, however, the frozen blood congeals. Even if someone does (so to speak) offer a sacrifice — by setting up a cheder, for example — no one cares for an observant melamed. Instead, if people find a teacher who has studied modern methods, then automatically everything about him is deemed kosher. No one is disturbed if he is lacking in the awe of heaven, or lacking in reverence for the sanctity of the letters and the vocalization points.

People’s bloodstreams have frozen: no field of avodah excites exuberance. Chassidim learn only a little Chassidus, and some people attend an occasional study session as if they were making an unenthusiastic donation. The same frigidity inhibits comradely love and comradely farbrengens, not to speak of zest in the avodah of davenen, which used to be common among quite ordinary chassidim in warmer days.

We do have a bitter and painful excuse — the spiritual condition of the world at large has deteriorated. This does not even need to be spoken of, because everyone knows for himself where his thoughts lie. Though this is seemingly an excuse, every individual should ponder and ask himself whether it really is an excuse. It is true that the world is becoming gross and the limbs of the ailing House of Israel are becoming weak, but the fault lies only with the freezing bloodstream.

8. Tell the truth, without frills

It is true that today one has to speak about things which once did not need to be spoken about. Now at a chassidisher farbrengen things are being spoken about that once did not have to be mentioned even by a professional rebuker29 [of the Mussar school]. In bygone years, no matter how desperately difficult it was to make a living, there was never a need to even mention subjects such as observing Shabbos, putting on tefillin, observing the family purity laws,30 and entrusting the education of one’s children to the hands of pious melamdim who taught them kometz-alef – oh.31

It is true that it is painful to have to speak about such things, but if the situation is such that they have to be spoken about, then one has to speak from the depths of one’s heart, telling the whole truth the way it is, not masking it (as is often done) with frills and smiles. The listener will hear. A Jew recognizes the truth when he hears it. The heart of a Jew is the spark of G‑d within him,32 his essential Jewish nucleus.33 And when one Jewish man or woman sensitively apprehends the truth, there sprouts forth a wholesomely kosher Jew — and a single Jew is a tree which (with G‑d’s help) will yield rich and abundant fruits and blessings for the entire House of Israel. Experience demonstrates that when one succeeds in this, then no matter how bitterly gloomy is the state of Jewish observance in certain places, the Jewish people’s heart is visibly alive. And so long as the heart is alive, the entire body can regain its health.

9. A postcard of artless faith

Today I received good news — a postcard from a well- educated non-chassidic young man who informs me that he took notice of what I had written him: he spoke with a few individuals and as a result they began to observe the kosher dietary laws. A few weeks earlier I received a letter from a young man who wanted and needed to travel to a certain place on business, and asked for a blessing that G‑d should grant him success in his endeavors. While responding to his letter, I wrote by the way that he should schedule a daily study session for himself in a subject which I mentioned. Moreover, I explained that it is the sacred obligation of every individual to influence his environment with regard to the observance of the mitzvos. I suggested therefore that he should speak with the people he encountered about observing Shabbos, putting on tefillin and observing kashrus, aiming to reach a point at which they would eventually study a little Torah.

I don’t know this young man, but his first letter breathed artless faith, free of ingenious arguments, and my heart drew me to write to him as I did.

Since that time I have received several letters from him. He has accomplished a great deal, and a number of people now fully observe whatever needs to be observed. He already has six or seven good friends whose main concern is how to influence others to observe the mitzvos as they do.

10. The price of complacency

Sad, indeed, are years whose reasons for exultation are... that someone is putting on tefillin or eating kosher food, studying a passage of Chumash with Rashi or reading a chapter of Tehillim. But in the prevalent state of affairs these are reasons to say, Baruch HaShem — “Thank G‑d!” If G‑d gives a critically ill patient the strength to take a step on his own, He will enable him to recover and regain his health.

Such cases I have seen (thank G‑d) in plenty. Whoever arouses another becomes aroused himself. True enough, the limbs are weak, but if the blood is healthy and pulsates vibrantly, it fortifies those limbs until they are truly healthy.

We must always keep in mind a lesson that the [Alter] Rebbe taught us — to see the lofty aspect of every detail, to regard everyone not only with a good eye, but with a kindly eye.

Thousands of people are becoming lost because of frozen blood, because of the complacency that has overtaken some G‑d-fearing Jews — including some of the chassidic community — rabbis, shochtim, schoolteachers and householders. Torah scholars should have been active in fortifying Torah study, instead of formally discharging their obligations by a mere donation to a yeshivah. In addition to his personal duty to engage in regular study, such a person should exercise his influence so that his acquaintances should participate in the public sessions conducted in their local synagogues. This goal demands self-sacrifice, a total commitment of one’s energy and concern.

Anash, members of the chassidic brotherhood, should have regular study sessions in Chassidus that are scheduled according to local circumstances. We have spoken of this frequently, with widespread results, and may blessings light upon the heads of those involved.

11. Extend a welcoming hand

The [Alter] Rebbe opened up the conduit of self-sacrifice for Torah and avodah shebalev, the heart’s service of G‑d through contemplative prayer. As is well known, the [Alter] Rebbe declared that the strength and merit of his labors for the sake of the teachings and spiritual lifestyle of Chassidus, he bestowed as a gift to the chassidim of all succeeding generations; hence, whenever and wherever a chassidisher Jew endeavors to revitalize Torah study or avodah or mitzvah-observance in a spirit of character refinement and comradely love, he will succeed. In the darkest of corners (May G‑d in His mercy light it up materially and spiritually!), whenever little groups of chassidim and other fellow Jews gather together to study Chassidus and farbreng, every step of which entails literal self-sacrifice,34 the [Alter] Rebbe’s blessing fortifies them and protects them. Not only for chassidim born into families of Anash, but also for G‑d-fearing observers of Torah and mitzvos, both chassidim and misnagdim, in any land in the whole wide world, the [Alter] Rebbe’s material and spiritual blessings rest upon them and upon their offspring — for the [Alter] Rebbe utterly sacrificed himself for the entire House of Israel.

The [Alter] Rebbe opened up the conduit of self-sacrifice and pointed out the path in avodah that demands that one should invest not merely financial effort, but also exertion of body and soul — having the self-sacrifice to lay aside both body and soul in the practice of avodah. In this we see the superiority of Avraham Avinu over earlier tzaddikim. To be sure, they were of imposing stature in themselves; moreover, they interceded on behalf of their contemporaries. Avraham Avinu, however, added a new dimension in avodah: he gave them understanding and thereby made G‑d’s Divinity known in the world. When an Arab came his way, Avraham Avinu personally attended to him, offered him food and drink, and explained to him, in terms intelligible to his Levantine mentality, the meaning of Divinity — that the world has a sole Creator and that a man should cultivate and refine his character.35

In the same way the [Alter] Rebbe taught people to know G‑d and opened up the conduit of self-sacrifice for avodah. By virtue of this, we are able — even in the present era — to illumine the world with the light of the Torah and the light of avodah shebalev. The first step in this endeavor is the dissemination of Torah study. In addition to laboring even more intensely in maintaining the existing yeshivos, chassidim should see to it that householders and businessmen should attend regular sessions of group study in their local synagogues. This task should be undertaken with enthusiasm and vigor until there is no single Jew who does not attend a study session. To all our fellow Jews we must extend a welcoming hand that they will be able to hold on to firmly, and thereby find their way closer to the observance of Yiddishkeit. People should also be addressed publicly and they will no doubt be aroused.

12. Time invested in kiruv is replenished

“Charity uplifts.”36 Through giving spiritual charity by doing one such good deed, one’s brain and heart become refined a thousand times over.37

If a weighty Torah scholar who is also a chassid, so that every hour of his is precious, approaches a young man and speaks with him for an hour or two about a simple thing such as putting on tefillin or observing the laws of family purity, such an hour is far more precious than an hour spent in studying the profoundest subjects in nigleh or Chassidus — because this is literal and actual avodah. As the Gemara says, “Because they are pious [lit., ‘chassidim’],38 their Torah scholarship is preserved and their work prospers.”

This is the meaning of self-sacrifice for the sake of another. In those two hours this chassid would have studied nigleh or Chassidus, which would have upgraded his own love and awe of G‑d and heightened his own spiritual enjoyment of divine service. Yet all of this he gives away out of self-sacrifice — for the sake of a fellow Jew, who will now put on tefillin or observe the laws of family purity. Concerning precisely this the [Alter] Rebbe reassures chassidim that “Charity uplifts” — that by virtue of this single good deed one’s brain and heart become refined a thousand times over.39 This means that when this chassid later studies Torah and engages in avodah, he will accomplish (with G‑d’s help) as much as if he had studied during that time. The [Alter] Rebbe, who opened up the conduit of mesirus nefesh, has given his promise and his blessing that whenever and wherever chassidim will exert themselves in these directions they will succeed.

13. Youth are running wild – and it’s our fault

Hear me, fellow Jews! You know the state of affairs around us: it is painful and dismal. Even more so, the Jewish youth of worldly circles are running completely wild. The level of observance of Shabbos, tefillin, family purity and kashrus is extremely low. (May G‑d be compassionate and have mercy upon us!) It is agonizing to say this, but the truth is that we are at fault. All Jews who fear G‑d and who study Torah must know that they have the power to change things. Make the dissemination of Torah your serious concern. Attend the study sessions held in your local synagogues. Learn to cherish every single verse of Chumash-and-Rashi that is publicly studied and every single chapter of Tehillim that is publicly recited. Speak to young adults with heartfelt friendliness, and you will (with G‑d’s help) accomplish a great deal. For then the light of Torah and avodah will light up the entire House of Israel.