1. Ten merits of the Alter Rebbe

The chassidim of old used to enumerate the ten merits of the Alter Rebbe: His compilation of the Shulchan Aruch; his editing of nussach hatefillah, the wording of the prayers; his specifications for the construction of mikvaos; his insistence on the use of finely-honed slaughtering knives; his dissemination of the teachings of Chassidus; his support of those who had settled in the Holy Land; his incarceration and liberation [in Petersburg in 1798]; the acceptance of his works like the works of the early sages, by virtue of which he became widely known as “the Rav,” without further identification; his composition of the ten niggunim whose melodies arouse their listeners to return to G‑d and to cleave to Him; and his blessing that wherever chassidim endeavor to buttress the study of the Torah and the observance of its mitzvos, a solitary individual will be [like] ten thousand.

2. Without self-delusion!

One must not delude oneself. The most lofty and the most trivial subjects have this in common — that one must not live in self-delusion: one must always have an authentic reckoning of where things stand.

Nevertheless, as businessmen know, not all times are appropriate for stocktaking. At certain times, doing this can make a man so dispirited and demoralized that nothing whatever will be accomplished. Imagine a chassidisher contractor with solid securities, sitting in his office. True, times are hard, but he has just decided to accept several new investment proposals. At this point his bookkeeper walks in and presents him with a summary of his debts. “Fool!” says the boss. “Now is no time for balance sheets!”

Businessmen know that there can come a time when one should not look at balance sheets: one should utilize one’s securities, keep the wheel turning, and hope that G‑d will certainly help out. The approach of such people is sound. They are not deluding themselves; they know exactly where they stand; they know what they are owed and what they owe others. But they also know that they have to work hard. One has to value one’s securities highly, but one should utilize them to improve his whole situation and the situation of those around him.

An honest businessman knows full well how he must treasure his trustworthiness. Realizing that borrowed money is not his own but belongs to others, he has to calculate carefully where he should spend it. If the aim is to boost his business, then this expenditure is in fact an income. For this he may certainly utilize his securities and his loans, and ultimately G‑d will prosper his way.

The same applies to a man’s personal avodah. There are times when he should not look at the balance sheet, when he should not leaf through the totals, because then his eyes can be clouded and his heart can grow heavy. Rather, utilizing his securities and his loans, he should forge ahead with his avodah in study and in davenen — not with lowered spirits, but with renewed freshness and liveliness, in the hope that G‑d will certainly help him out.

At all times Jews have solid securities, for “the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”1 The Jewish people are thus not forsaken,2 even though they are like “scattered lambs,”3 strewn and dispersed in every land. (May G‑d hasten our liberation at the hands of the Righteous Redeemer, speedily and in our own days!)

The Alter Rebbe teaches us to appreciate the significance of every trivial circumstance; how much more should we note the major events that take place around us. For example: Thousands of children are studying Torah, without any additional disciplines, and they are going to inspire a fresh breath of life into the House of Israel. Jews have (thank G‑d) great securities. Especially in this time of ikvos Meshicha4 — the era that can hear the approaching footsteps of Mashiach — when “darkness covers the face of the earth,”5 the strength of these securities is even more visible. We are being given huge loans from Above. Even in the currently severe spiritual situation there are Jews active in disseminating Torah; there are Jews whose lives are irradiated by a sensitivity to avodah and to the spiritual lifestyle of Chassidus. This indicates the extent of our securities.

3. Why aren’t chassidim waking people up?

However, the trust that has been placed in us should have been invested in the work at hand. We must not delude ourselves as to our predicament at large. As with the businessman above, these are hard times. Our people are becoming coarsened. Householders are occupied in relaxation. In former days, when a man finished his day’s work or business he dropped into the local beis midrash to study something. Nowadays many people don’t; they explain that after a hard day’s work they must take it easy.

While the older householders are occupied in relaxation, the conscientious younger adults who do have some connection with Torah study find other things to do. All in all, the prevailing atmosphere loses its warmth, and this frigidity is contagious, affecting one category of people after another. This fellow loses his ardor to study Torah; the next one is too frigid even to daven, quite literally. Eventually his tefillin are forgotten by the wayside; he desecrates Shabbos; he eats anywhere and anything. One’s initial frigidity toward study makes his mikveh cold; all his activities grow cold; his attitude to everything grows cold. Eventually it no longer matters whether there is a mikveh available or not, so he either observes that which should be observed or he does not. There’s no time to worry about all these things: a man has to relax!

Where is self-sacrifice? Where are the chassidim? Where are the temimim? Why aren’t they waking people up? Why aren’t they active? By undergoing actual self-sacrifice for the sake of Jews at large, the Alter Rebbe endowed every individual with the strength to be active, and moreover to succeed in his endeavors.

The Alter Rebbe endured so much suffering until he created chassidim, until he created people seriously devoted to avodah.6 This difficulty, though, is not at all surprising. After all, who is greater than Avraham Avinu? — a soul from the World of Atzilus, who like a vehicle made his own will utterly subservient to the Divine Will.7 Yet only when he was a hundred years old and had already been tried by eight tests, did he become the father of Yitzchak. Before a Jew is born there is a great deal to be endured. Now, however, once the Alter Rebbe opened up the conduit8 of mesirus nefesh and cleared a path for self-sacrifice for the sake of avodah, things are far easier. Nevertheless, one must still invest exertion: nothing happens alone.

I am grieved to the point of sadness. Some people argue that since the current environment is so lowly, then relative to this generation our people do have some visage of Torah and the fear of Heaven. This is simply not true, and at fault are the fulltime Torah scholars. They do not arouse their contemporaries as much as they should; had they done this, things would have looked quite different. Though we have spoken about this many times, the matter gives me no rest.

4. Vigilance with mashke

Sitting together at a comradely farbrengen9 is one vital pillar in the spiritual lifestyle of chassidim, and this is traditionally accompanied by a drop of mashke. Now, surely the very notion of mashke should have been out of the question:10 what connection could chassidim possibly have with strong drink? After all, Chassidus is basically intellective; even when it gives rise to spiritual emotions, these emotive middos are guided by the intellect.

Moreover, vigilance is basic to Chassidus; it is no novelty to define a chassid in terms of vigilance.11 Indeed, the Sages teach that “Bread should be eaten [as if] on the edge of a sword.”12 When one takes a piece of bread into his mouth it is like a sword. This applies not only to meat but even to bread; how much more does it apply to mashke, for the Kabbalah teaches that wine demands especial vigilance.13 R. Moshe Alshech writes that one of the three prerequisites14 for success in one’s studies is refined food, and in particular – for the study of Kabbalah – vigilance in drinking wine. In fact, there was even a time when people were instructed to make Kiddush on bread rather than on wine.

The real reason, then, for the drop of mashke at a farbrengen, is an inner reason — to soak one’s skin, so to speak. An animal is given water to drink before being slaughtered, in order to make it easier to skin. Likewise, the drop of mashke that one takes at a chassidisher farbrengen permeates and softens the skin that covers over the truth, so that one makes an earnest resolve both in “turning away from evil” and in “doing good.”15

Furthermore, after such a drop of mashke, the “turning away from evil” and the “doing good” both disclose a new face. A person can then appreciate that the “evil” from which he should turn away does not signify utter evil: it can include even something which is permissible, but which for him is dispensable. Likewise, after such a drop of mashke, a person can appreciate that the “good” which he should do signifies absolute good, true good, not merely that which is loosely called good because it is better rather than worse.

This kind of appreciation is attained over the drop of mashke16 that one takes at a farbrengen of chassidim, as the skin of the animal soul is softened and sensitized.

5. Stages in self-refinement

One of those present asked the Rebbe Rayatz if there was also a parallel spiritual significance to the other reason for giving an animal water17 to drink before it is slaughtered18 — namely, to facilitate the removal of a minor sircha [i.e., an invalidating blemish affecting the lobes of the animal’s lung]. To this the Rebbe replied:

This certainly has a significance in avodah. It refers to a higher level of avodah than the preceding task: it applies to a person already at a certain spiritual level who knows that he has a blemish and labors to remove it.19 Avodah always begins, however, with the removal of the outer skin [of spiritual insensitivity].

6. The function of a chassidisher farbrengen

There is a mishnah that teaches: “If ten people sit together20 and engage in the study of the Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them. [...] And from where do we know that this is so even when only one person [studies Torah alone]...?” Expounding this mishnah, my father [the Rebbe Rashab] once said: “Efforts are being made so that the Torah which people study should have an effect upon them, so that they should sensitively perceive the light that is hidden in the Torah. When this happens, sublime spiritual lights of the transcendent level called makkifim are elicited, and they constitute a Sanctuary for G‑d’s Presence. The spiritual arousal of such people constitutes the altar in that Sanctuary. And just as on the altar in the Beis HaMikdash, even though there was a Divine fire present, it was nevertheless a mitzvah to bring manmade fire21 as well, so too in the Sanctuary here described. And in terms of this Sanctuary what is the bringing of manmade fire? This is a chassidisher farbrengen.”

The fire from Above is present in every single Jew, even if he is extremely... whatever.22 My grandfather [the Rebbe Maharash] once said that if on Rosh HaShanah a Jew utters a sigh or sheds a tear on account of some physical difficulty, such as his health or livelihood, this is counted as teshuvah ila’ah,23 the Higher Level of Repentance. My father explains that this is so because on Rosh HaShanah, a Jew’s every move takes place at a higher level than usual. This means that every move takes place at its innermost dimension — and at the innermost nucleus of his innermost self, every Jew is a Jew: deep within him, there is fire from Above.

Nevertheless, it is a mitzvah to bring manmade fire as well, and this is the function of a chassidisher farbrengen. There, in a spirit of brotherly love, people agree on setting aside a time for regular study as a group; they talk about the refinement of a certain character trait; they plan how to do something for someone who needs help; they speak candidly from the heart; they awaken themselves to spiritual endeavor and at the same time (whether intentionally or not) they awaken others likewise; and they remind their younger colleagues that they are duty bound to participate in study sessions and to inspire people in their respective environments to observe the Torah and its mitzvos.

7. Complacency

All around, people have become complacently satisfied with any level whatever of spiritual performance. If someone attends a shiur in Gemara, this is noted approvingly; if he studies a page of Gemara alone and thereby brings himself a little nearer to the spirit of our Patriarch Yaakov, he gets quite a reputation. When youths organize in groups and study together regularly, of course that is a very good thing — but that is as things should be: a young man should study Torah and conduct himself in all the mitzvos as a Jew should. So why do people turn it into a remarkable sensation?

If you walk down the street and see that someone is not walking on crutches because he has his own hands and feet, will you be overawed? Surely, that is the normal, healthy state of affairs. It is true that one should “praise G‑d with every single breath”24 (as our Sages teach in their exposition of the verse, “Let every being that has a soul praise G‑d”), but such praise is unrelated to complacency.

In the spiritual sphere likewise: If one encounters a Jew who puts on tefillin, observes Shabbos, eats kosher food, keeps the laws of family purity, and studies Gemara and Mishnayos and Ein Yaakov and Midrash, that simply means that he doesn’t walk on crutches: things are merely as they ought to be.

8. Halachic leniencies

This complacent satisfaction with one’s current spiritual state has lately produced gross anomalies: “Along came Sancheiriv25 and confused the world.” We observe a novel phenomenon: G‑d-fearing people with halachic leniencies!26 Such-and-such a practice has been declared permissible by Rabbi So-and-So, and it even comes to be regarded as a mark of commendable piety, a veritable middas Chassidus — though even a misnaged, who doesn’t study Chassidus and doesn’t want to know what Chassidus is, wouldn’t do it because he is a G‑d-fearing Jew without halachic leniencies. Some other individual has permitted the use of butter from the marketplace,27 and so on and on. So now we have a world of G‑d-fearing folk who have come to regard halachic leniencies, which were grudgingly granted after the event by extenuating circumstances, as initially and intrinsically permissible!28

Many of these young people can certainly be G‑d-fearing men without any need for kosher certification; they are healthy limbs of the Jewish people. Indeed, if their blood was not frozen,29 all these limbs would be animated by an inner vitality. But in their present situation no one can come to them with complaints. They are still “chickens whose eyes have not yet opened”:30 they have never yet seen light. No one has yet exerted himself to show them the path of life. Indeed, effort should be invested so that they will be shown light.

True, they themselves should continue with their own activities — arousing young people to observe the Torah and the mitzvos, talking to groups of people in the streets about observing Shabbos and tefillin and the laws of family purity. They should speak in their own youthful language, whose power and fire and tempo and ardor make it effective.

At the same time it should be made clear to them that the present necessity to speak of basics such as Shabbos and tefillin resembles the necessity during an epidemic to speak about basic health and hygiene, whereas this is not usually spoken about at normal times. So now, until with G‑d’s help the spiritual state of our people improves, there is a need to speak about basics. What should really be spoken about is advancing one’s scholarship31 and upgrading one’s observance of the mitzvos. Besides, if businessmen were to take their part-time study sessions seriously, the young married fulltime scholars would certainly be motivated to advance their own studies even more energetically.

9. Homespun Jews are precious jewels

A man may be considered healthy only if all his organs, and not only his head and heart, are healthy. If the other organs are weak, this weakens the heart and the head.

Rabbanim are “the eyes of the congregation,”32 the heads of the Children of Israel. It’s true that we have spoken of this before, but we must get down to brass tacks. Self-delusion is falsehood, which is evil. We must not delude ourselves concerning negative things or positive things: we must know the truth about both sides.

In the material sphere, whether someone mistakenly thinks that he is poor or rich, he will certainly end up poor, because he will not exert himself to better his situation.

Likewise in the spiritual sphere, one should not delude himself in one direction or the other. Admittedly things are far from rosy, as every individual knows all too well. The fact is, however, that we are rich paupers: our credit is good; from Heaven we are being given the strength to act;33 and we have a lot of merchandise. It is true that much of it is not yet processed, but it’s still merchandise. The ordinary Jewish man-in-the-street is very fine merchandise indeed: his ear is always ready to listen to a Torah teaching;34 he attends his local beis midrash eagerly; and when he is addressed he is spiritually aroused.

Looking back over the last few generations, in these simple Jews we see an artless awe of G‑d and a loving desire to support the study of Torah. A wealthy Jew would take responsibility for the livelihood of a number of fulltime scholars; a regular businessman would maintain one or two scholars; a well-established villager35 would make sure that his household included a fulltime scholar; a regular family man would provide meals for a yeshivah student a few times a week with a couple of extra students for Shabbos. The simple Jew and his wife were happy to be able to host the student who had been allotted to “eat days”36 with them; they fussed around him more than with their own children.

This routine of “eating days” lit up Jewish homes and refined people’s characters. Its effect was reinforced by the daily recital of Tehillim and by the common practice of listening in to the public teaching of Ein Yaakov and Midrash in the local House of Study, before dawn every morning and in the interval between Minchah and Maariv in the evening. This produced generations of healthy Jews, men of good character and upright conduct.

What was the daily schedule of an ordinary Jew in bygone years? In winter he got up while it was still dark and in summer while it was still very early. He set out for the beis midrash, where he was listed as a member of the brotherhood who read through the whole Book of Tehillim every day. After Shacharis he went off to do his day’s work, and returned to the beis midrash for Minchah. During the next couple of hours there he listened in to a study session of Ein Yaakov or Midrash or Gemara. From this he brought home a teaching of the Sages, or something about character refinement or upright conduct, or a story about a tanna or an amora, and retold it to his children. In this way those teachings became fused and baked into the hearts of all the members of his family. Their obligation to honor their father and mother was thus observed with a renewed vitality. The sanctity of the Torah and its mitzvos became deeply engraved in their hearts.

It is these simple Jews who established the House of Israel on a wholesome basis and gave our people its towering scholars.

10. A glimpse of the World of Truth

Anyone with a little sense can meditate and form a mental picture of the World to Come.

As we know, “All the souls are equal, and all have one Father,”37 and the Alter Rebbe writes that “The soul of every Jew is derived from G‑d’s thought and wisdom.”38 All souls, moreover, are ultimately rooted in the World of Atzilus.39 Indeed, the Halachah determines that [any] ten Jews constitute a minyan, whereas nine Moshe Rabbeinu’s, even though “G‑d spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu Face to face,”40 do not constitute a minyan.

A soul’s return to the World of Truth is like coming home from a fair. The soul had earlier been sent down to this world, which resembles a fair, where it can go ahead and acquire a mitzvah or a positive character trait, because the time for action is the present.41 When it returns from the fair, they check through the merchandise that it acquired in the course of a lifetime.

Picture it. A neshamah arrives there, which in the course of its time on earth studied Torah and engaged in avodah, lit up its environment with Torah, and brought merit upon the people whom it encountered by bringing them to teshuvah and good deeds. Now, this soul had a body and a family and needed a material livelihood. Where did that come from? So they summon the souls of all those who supported the family of this scholar who was occupied in Torah and avodah, and the Heavenly Court rules that the yishuvnik who maintained him or the householder and his good wife who enabled him to “eat days” have a rightful share in his Torah and avodah. And all those upstanding simple folk are then granted a place in the same treasured Torah chambers of Gan Eden in which the scholars enjoy their spiritual reward.

With a drop of thought anyone can appreciate the delight experienced by the souls of these simple Jews who furnished our people with scholars and tzaddikim. And how did these simple Jews acquire their unsophisticated faith and their robust Jewish identity? By attending their local beis midrash, by davenen there three times a day, and by sitting around a table with their townsmen every evening to listen in to the unpretentious public teaching of Ein Yaakov and Midrash!

11. To remain naked of Torah?!

Nowadays, when a rich man is someone who owns a house and if he is richer this means that he owns two houses and his mind is all in a flurry, such a man who goes to the beis midrash every day to daven is already regarded as a man of spiritual stature.... He has no time, though, to come along and study something. Studying a page of Gemara is too hard for him. (“He can’t concentrate.”) Studying Ein Yaakov and Midrash is beneath his dignity. (“What, is he going to sit together with all those simple folk?!”)

So the poor fellow remains naked of Torah. People who don’t study aren’t knowledgeable; people who do study are. When it comes to the world of affairs, these same businessmen have fine heads and contrive all kinds of bright ideas and firmly-based arguments. So if they were only willing to apply their heads they could understand a page of Gemara very well indeed. The trouble is there’s something missing, and that’s the really sad part of the story. May G‑d help them recognize the truth.

12. On such a Jew the world stands

Jews are blessed with abounding strength; this we can see in our orphaned generation. On all sides we have enemies and persecutors; we are being harassed from without and within. On one side we have religious oppression; on the other side we have those who think they are doing us favors by building up a list of halachic leniencies and questionable certificates of kashrus. Yet despite all this, we have (thank G‑d) many young people who are in a very good state, and even more who could also be in a very good state, provided that their blood would not be frozen, as we said above.

Jews are indeed blessed with abounding strength. When a Jew stands and sells his wares in the marketplace and between one customer and the next he thinks through a Torah teaching, or tells someone about a Torah teaching that he has recently encountered, in his merit the whole marketplace exists. When a Jew makes his way unnoticed through the hustle and bustle of a street, and as he walks he mentally reviews a verse or two of Chumash or Tehillim or a paragraph of Mishnayos or a chapter of Tanya, then all the people around him are preserved in existence in his merit. For it is written, “In the beginning (bereishis) G‑d created heaven and earth.”42 This word our Sages read as if it were written beis reishis, as an allusion to two entities,43 namely the Torah and the people of Israel, each of which is referred to in a verse as reishis. It was for the sake of the Torah and Israel, then, that G‑d created heaven and earth. Now, the Torah is light, and light is referred to as a lamp, as in the verse, “The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d.”44

In brief, when a soul garbed in a body walks down the street and either thinks or articulates words of Torah, then on such a Jew the world stands.

13. He waxed fat and kicked, but…

One mustn’t fool oneself. If a man is rich and he thinks that he is poor then he ends up poor,45 as we explained above. Chassidim should realize that they are rich. One shouldn’t fool oneself and seek to discharge one’s obligations merely by a regular study session of Mishnayos or Gemara or Ein Yaakov or Midrash and by doing someone a favor and so on. Not at all. One must not live in self-delusion. Chassidim have a heritage by virtue of their very nature. Chassidim have an inner sensitivity, a flame of fire. This is not of our doing; it is not produced by our own efforts; it is a heritage bequeathed to us by our forebears. By means of avodah everyone can attain it, though this demands intense exertion. Chassidim, however, have it as an inheritance, and it surfaces in one’s children and children’s children for generations on end, though this is influenced by the spiritual state in which the potential recipient finds himself.

Listen to a story. In a palatial Petersburg residence, surrounded on all sides by Jewish and gentile magnates, a certain wealthy individual with many business interests lived a life of luxury, waxed fat, and kicked. He didn’t desecrate Shabbos publicly, but there’s not too much to say about his conduct. At any rate, in his office there stood a picture of the Alter Rebbe. One Yud-Tes Kislev he said LeChaim over a drop of mashke with a number of chassidim who visited him. They spoke in the style of elder chassidim at farbrengens in former years: they truthfully wanted to do a fellow Jew a spiritual favor, and their words of course proceeded from the heart.

In the middle of all this they were surprised to notice that their host had left the room. They continued with their farbrengen in his absence, but after a long time passed they went to look for him and found him lying on the floor of his office. He was facing the Alter Rebbe’s picture and sobbing bitterly, “Rebbe, help!”

He changed his lifestyle completely and from that day on observed Torah and mitzvos. Before the War I knew his two sons, who at the time of this episode already belonged to the Petersburg circle of luxury-seeking chassidim, but even in them there was a discernible inheritance from some grandfather or great-grandfather.

Chassidim have a heritage from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. This is a sure and dependable guarantee that no one should fool himself about.

14. A mitzvah has a body and a soul

Chassidim should study Chassidus and engage in avodah, in the “service of the heart” which is called davenen. Working with one’s heart means refining one’s middos, one’s character traits. An evil character trait is something absolutely forbidden, but even a character trait which is “not good” is already treif. And good character traits are something that one must have. For, as we have explained many times, the commandment to “Love your fellow as yourself”46 is a vessel — a means — to fulfilling the commandment, “You shall love the L-rd your G‑d.”47

Every mitzvah comprises a body and a soul.48 The actual tefillin that one places on the arm and head is the body of the mitzvah; the soul of the mitzvah is one’s kavanah, one’s devout intention in fulfilling it. This kavanah is twofold. The kavanah concerning the head-tefillin relates to one’s capacity for comprehending [matters of Elokus], but comprehension is of value only when it leads to positive action. There is a saying that “There is none so wise49 as a baal nisayon.” Though this phrase is commonly translated “a man of experience,” it may be understood to speak of one whose wisdom is put through the test of actual experience. The head-tefillin, then, relate to the intellective aspect of avodah; the tefillin of the arm relate to the spiritual emotions, to the middos of love and awe of G‑d.

On the physical plane, one who does not put on tefillin falls in the unfortunate category of “a scalp bereft of tefillin.”50 The same applies to those who do not fulfill this mitzvah on the spiritual plane. Accordingly, one should study Chassidus and understand it to the extent of one’s individual capacity; that is the tefillin of the head. In addition, one must set limits to one’s emotive attributes, so that these middos of the heart should be guided by the Torah’s intellect; that is the tefillin of the arm.

We must not live in delusion. Chassidim are (thank G‑d) rich — rich in understanding,51 and rich in well-directed and ardent sensitivity. All of this comes to us as a heritage from our forebears. Empowered by this heritage, every individual should invest effort in his Torah and in his avodah and in the refinement of his character traits, and G‑d will surely make his efforts prosper.