Yud-Beis Tammuz1 5691 (1931) Warsaw

1. Beyond nature within nature

A miracle stems from a level of Divinity that transcends Hishtalshelus. [This is the chainlike scheme by which the infinite Divine light screens itself by successive stages on its way “down” from supernatural spirituality to its self-imposed limitations in nature.] Hishtalshelus thus signifies nature. A miracle means that that which utterly transcends the natural order of Hishtalshelus is drawn down into the natural order of Hishtalshelus. Any kind of miracle, whether vested in the laws of nature or leaping over them, is drawn down from a level of Divinity that transcends Hishtalshelus.

But why should one live at the level of Hishtalshelus and undergo painful distress and bitter suffering and then eventually — because after all, He is a sweet and loving Father — be relieved of it all by the dawning of a miracle? Surely it is preferable to draw down that which transcends the natural order of Hishtalshelus into the natural order of Hishtalshelus by means of studying Torah and observing its commandments!

And what will we gain by this? We’ll be rid of a bundle of woes.

2. Chassidus demands an attentive heart

We find that the Torah records, “These are the words which Moshe spoke....”2 Initially, Moshe Rabbeinu was “not a man of words,”3 but simply an oved;4 only later did he become a talker. Engaging in practical avodah cultivates a sense of caring for one’s fellow, so that one seeks to share with him words that will rouse him out of his spiritual lethargy. Moshe became a talker, and his words were fiery and pungent.

This same man who had said of himself, “I stammer and am not swift of tongue,”5 eventually began to speak, and he spoke as an oved speaks. Though Moshe was an extraordinary maskil,6 being at the level of the Sefirah of Chochmah in the World of Atzilus, it is as an oved that he speaks to the Jewish people. By virtue of this, his spiritual level actually outshines the level occupied by the Sefirah of Chochmah in the World of Atzilus. True enough, Chochmah of Atzilus is something lofty; indeed, the very word חָכְמָה comprises the letters of the words כֹּחַ מַה, which indicate its sublime standing.7 However, all of that belongs up there in the World of Atzilus. Moshe, in contrast, was down here in the material world, and it was in this world that he lived at the level of Chochmah of Atzilus. This means that he attained the ultimate level of self-effacement8 — and in the simplest fellow Jew he was able to find the profoundest qualities.

A true maskil must also be an oved, for “there is none so wise (chacham) as one who has gained experience”:9 it is practical experience that verifies the truth of an intellectual postulate. Thus, one who is a great chacham and a true maskil is also an oved. Conversely, an oved is also a maskil, as may be clearly observed: those chassidim who engaged in avodah attained far greater scholarly achievements than those who engaged only in the intellectual pursuits of haskalah.

Though haskalah and avodah are thus interdependent, the question of which of them gives rise to the other makes a significant difference. Moshe was an extraordinary maskil, but his speech was infused with avodah, because his intellectual powers became manifest by means of avodah. Avodah was his starting point.

An oved focuses his talk on brass tacks; in any subject he will find the aspect that leads to practical action. Thus, only after all the stern words in the weekly readings of Ki Savo, Nitzavim and Vayeilech, and after the Song of Haazinu, and even later, are we told that “Moshe finished speaking all these words to all of Israel.”10 Only after everything has been spoken out and said, is it then written that “He said to them: ‘Simu levavchem — Make your hearts attentive....’ ”11

3. Make your hearts attentive!

Chassidus is haskalah; Chassidus is comprehension; Chassidus is knowledge, involving Daas in its highest sense; Chassidus is avodah shebalev, both in the sense of Divine service in the heart and Divine service with the heart; Chassidus embraces the relationship between man and G‑d and also the relationship between man and man, which entails the active cultivation of refined character traits.

Chassidus is a luminary. Luminaries are of two kinds — “luminaries of light”12 and “luminaries of fire.”13 In the words of the Zohar, “The lights that rise aloft are called luminaries of light, and the lights that descend below are called luminaries of fire.”14 Both light and fire are activities: light illumines and fire burns, and in each case the active force is also considered an activity. This is the meaning of “luminaries of light” and “luminaries of fire.”

Light and fire correspond to revelation and concealment, light and vessel, nearness and distance — for a perfect activity is only one whose component factors are combined in their proper proportions. In the case of a mentor and his disciple, for example, one may consider a concept to be properly transmitted only when the mentor’s input develops the disciple’s intellectual tools and talents.

Chassidus is a comprehensive luminary, comprising both “luminaries of light” and “luminaries of fire.” It illumines and it burns. It comprises both the avodah of the brain and the avodah of the heart. The avodah of the brain is called “the luminaries of light” and the avodah of the heart is called “the luminaries of fire.”

The avodah of the brain is called “the luminaries of light.” The avodah of the brain illumines, so that the individual now stands in a well-lit location; he senses that which his brain cannot grasp; in the deepest reaches of his brain he hears that which mortal intellect cannot fathom. He lives in light; wherever he goes, he is flooded with light; wherever he stands, he sees everything in a way that is more refined and more sublime than the way in which fleshly eyes see material things. Even within the earthly physical things that ordinary men call nature, he sees the truth — that “G‑d is true, [in the world,] forever.”15 He sees how the world, which is nature, is in fact higher than nature.

The avodah of the heart is called “the luminaries of fire.” The individual serving G‑d in this mode is bubbling hot, all aflame, in the spirit of the verse, “In my contemplation,16 a fire is aflame.” He himself is on fire and everything around him is on fire. Everything he does is done with a fiery vitality. It goes without saying that this is true of his davenen, which is an ascent up the “ladder standing on the ground,17 its top reaching up toward heaven,” at the auspicious time that the Infinite One granted the souls of His people to enable them to draw near to Divinity. It is also true of the way he studies Torah and fulfills the mitzvos and does a material or spiritual favor to a fellow Jew. In all these activities he is animated by a fiery vitality. And this fire cauterizes all the stains and blemishes of mortal man.

My grandfather the Rebbe Maharash once recorded something that his father the Tzemach Tzedek had described to him after repeating for him a discourse that he had heard a few months after his bar-mitzvah from his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe. This was in 5563 (1802), and the maamar began with the words, BeChaf-Hei BeKislev.

In that discourse the Alter Rebbe extols intellectual exuberance (hispaalus hamochin) and disparages exuberance of the spiritual emotions (hispaalus hamiddos). True avodah, he states there, is avodah with one’s brain, with the ultimate intention of diffusing light and thereby exerting a positive influence on one’s fellow. And even though exuberance of the middos alone is also a worthwhile level to attain, it is utterly incomparable to intellectual avodah.

The Tzemach Tzedek told my grandfather the Rebbe Maharash that around the time the maamar was delivered, a circle of young chassidim had come into being — men with superior minds, outstanding scholarly attainments, and fiery hearts. There were elder chassidim, too, whose avodah in prayer was likewise awesome in its exuberance.

“Indeed,” my grandfather writes, “they could not daven in town. They used to go outside the town, in fields and forests, and in their prayer they would suspend themselves between heaven and earth.”

In the summer of 5659 (1899), when our eldest daughter Chanah was born, my father presented me with the manuscript book which includes the above maamar in the handwriting of the Rebbe Maharash, and also the above description as he heard it from the Tzemach Tzedek. I repeatedly studied this maamar until I knew it well enough to repeat it clearly from memory (for my father had instructed me to memorize all the discourses in the book), and I also read the description appended to it. And I was overwhelmed — by the imposing stature of those chassidim who could not pray in town and had to pray in solitude, and even more, by the fact that even this level and nature of attainment is regarded by the teachings of Chassidus as a fault.

One day, when I was strolling with my father at a health resort, he asked me to repeat one of the maamarim in that book, and when I had done so he expounded some of its teachings for me. Then, uncontrollably, I began to talk about those chassidim with the fiery hearts. This subject left such an impression on my father that for about half an hour he walked on wordless, deep in thought. The appearance of his holy face that year stands alive before my eyes today, and may G‑d grant that through all the days of my life I will never forget one solitary move of his, nor any of his holy words — whether in Chassidus or in nigleh, whether concerning avodah or public affairs or worldly matters — that I was privileged to hear in the course of about forty years.

Eventually he glanced at his watch and said that we would resume this subject at another time.

For a few days, for one reason or another, he did not take his stroll. The next time we went out he again asked me to repeat the same maamar, again expounded some of its points, and then took up our former subject.

He now discussed the avodah of the brain in the above terms of “luminaries of light,” and also the avodah of the heart. He told me that his father the Rebbe Maharash once told him that he had recorded the above description in brief. In addition, the Tzemach Tzedek had defined the particular talents of those fiery young chassidim of the Alter Rebbe and had spoken highly of their avodah.

“However,” the Tzemach Tzedek had added, “visible exuberance is superfluous.”18

The Rebbe Maharash asked him, “so what should there be?”

The Tzemach Tzedek replied, “Something like Moshe Rabbeinu at the Splitting of the Sea. At that time all of Israel beheld Elokus, manifestly and palpably, and they were so overwhelmed by what they witnessed that they could not contain themselves.”

“And what about Moshe?” asked the Rebbe Maharash.

“Moshe’s blaze was cold,” replied the Tzemach Tzedek. “Aflame and aglow — but cold.”

And there was more on this subject.

“Now,” my father resumed his remarks, “that we have been blessed with the gift of Chassidus, then through self-sacrifice and with G‑d’s help one can attain the highest levels in intellectual avodah through one’s own efforts.”

Those were my father’s words. We may understand them by considering the possibility that intellectual avodah can come as a gift from Rebbe to chassid, as in the well-known episode of R. Yekusiel Liepler. He was a simple fellow, but he devoted his whole self to the Alter Rebbe.

One day he clambered up a wall, looked in at the window of the attic in which the Alter Rebbe was studying, and cried out, “Rebbe, chop off my left side!”19

When he was then admitted for yechidus he said whatever he had to say, and in response to his appeal the Alter Rebbe said, “Master of the Universe! Is it not written, And You give life to them all?!”20

From that time on, R. Yekusiel began to live a truly spiritual life; he actually saw spiritual light.

The Alter Rebbe stationed him in a well-lit spot — but that came to him as a gift. One should strive to arrive at a perception of light and revelation through one’s own efforts,21 through carefully-gradated avodah. And it is the study of Chassidus that teaches one how to progress from level to level, just as one climbs from rung to rung to get to the top of a ladder.

However, even though Chassidus is indeed a comprehensive luminary, how can so many broad concepts all be pinned on to this one peg? For Chassidus, as we said above, comprises haskalah, comprehension, knowledge, the service of the heart, and so on. And some of these diverse components of Chassidus are remote from each other.

The intellectual exercise of haskalah, for example, is something one tackles alone. When one is grappling with some deep concept in nigleh or Chassidus, company distracts. True enough, “Much have I learned from my mentors, and from my colleagues more than from my mentors, and from my disciples more than from them all.”22 However, this applies only after one has plumbed the depths of one’s subject alone. In contrast, the practice of refined character traits of course requires the involvement of others.

These two values are thus opposites. How, then, can Chassidus comprise them all?

The answer lies in the basic message of Chassidus: “Make your hearts attentive!”

Once a chassid has studied and mastered a concept in Chassidus that relates to his avodah, making his heart attentive means that he should bring himself close to the concept and bring the concept close to himself. Indeed, he should strive to fuse with it, so that the student becomes the concept and the concept becomes the student; the student is alive in that concept and the concept is alive within him.

4. Time for an accounting

The recently-delivered maamarim expounded the phrase, Bo’u Cheshbon — literally, “Come to Cheshbon.”23 On this phrase the Sages teach, Bo’u venachshov cheshbono shel olam“Let us come and do the world’s accounting.”24 This includes taking stock of the descent of the soul into the body, and taking stock of the creation of all the worlds. All this, however, is a universal stocktaking. In addition, each individual has to make his own personal stocktaking: What’s with me? He should take apart and scrutinize every detail of his own life and determine exactly what state he is in, both with regard to man and G‑d and with regard to man and man. He should weigh and consider where he is up to in his world, for self-delusion is neither possible nor helpful.

An honest status report will reveal that one day pursues the other, as things are habitually postponed for later. In the meantime, as the [Talmud] Yerushalmi expresses it, “a week comes in and a week goes out, a month comes in and a month goes out, a year comes in and a year goes out.”25 And things get worse, for as one grows older one’s senses weaken, whereas one’s shortcomings are like those of a young man. Everyone knows that if things do not get better they get worse. Every businessman knows that if he does not secure payment on time, the debt grows tougher and the security grows weaker.

Following the above-quoted verse comes the phrase, “For fire went forth from Cheshbon.”26 A fire is ignited by this kind of accounting, in which a man contemplates the Divine intent that underlay his descent into this world, and considers that there will come a time at which he will have to give an account for every single step, for every word and thought.

True enough, at any particular moment he is preoccupied and overwhelmed by all kinds of day-to-day concerns — but he does not realize that the days are slipping by, the weeks and the months are flying by, while he is busy making a living and dealing with mortal requisites.

His day is spent on “This I need” and on “This I must have” and on “This I want to have.” His desire creates his “This I need,” and his “This I must have” drives him downhill. It brings him low and dwarfs him, until he loses his identity as a man.

Everything is a “must” or a “should.” One has to socialize, one has to relax, one has to keep abreast of world affairs. There is time for everything, except for davenen with a minyan at a measured pace without swallowing the words, and except for attending a daily study group session. And in this way, a person becomes coarsened and frigid.

But if with G‑d’s help he wakes up and makes an honest appraisal of where he is really up to, his accounting bursts into a blaze.


A flame from the city of Sichon27

The name Sichon is connected to a root that means “moving.” This is seen in the word for a swimmer,28 for the swimmer moves from place to place. It is also seen in one of the words used for prayer,29 which in terms of avodah signifies an advance from one’s present state to a better one, for one’s positive resolutions during the morning prayers are meant to affect one’s avodah throughout the day.

The word mikiryas (“from the city of”) suggests the word kir (“wall”), hence, a partition that separates a man’s thinking from his emotive attributes and his emotive attributes from his actions. He may understand that Torah and mitzvos and positive middos are desirable, but his cerebration does not give birth to any spiritual emotion. And even if it does, that spiritual emotion does not give birth to any related action.

In the worldly realm, too, thinking plays a part in one’s positive conduct, except that it is not blocked by a partition. In the good side of the worldly realm there also exists the understanding that a man is not a mere animal that simply follows its eyes. In that realm, however, a man’s understanding that a certain kind of conduct is not appropriate for him is immediately followed by a strong feeling of what he wants, and this is immediately followed by action.

In the realm of avodah, however, there is a gulf between thought and emotion and between emotion and action. First of all, it takes time until the individual grasps the chassidic concept before him. Next, even if he grasps it so well that he is able to discuss it intelligently, it takes time until it sparks an emotion and he finally begins to yearn for the spiritual good which he has been studying about. And if he does finally experience a yearning for it, it takes time until that feeling in the heart translates into action.

We are speaking, of course, about a person with a whiff of spiritual earnestness. (After all, as the Sages say, “Are we dealing with fools?!”)30 We are speaking about a person who takes his davenen seriously and who studies Torah and does his mitzvos and goes out of his way to do a favor for a fellow Jew and is a chassid — yet with all this he does not budge from his accustomed groove.

In the context of such an individual, the words kiryas Sichon hint at the “wall” that inhibits his “movement.” We are not speaking of a far-reaching move out of the bounds of materiality. We are speaking only of the need for him to rouse himself out of the inertia of his accustomed niche and to move on — for example, to upgrade his awe of heaven and his efforts at character refinement.

Now, if he makes a candid and detailed accounting which is unadorned by self-love, and takes it to heart, “a fire goes forth from [his] Cheshbon”: his accounting sparks a fire whose first spark lands on kiryas Sichon and consumes the internal “wall” that inhibits his “movement”. This is borne out by common experience: the first davenen that follows an honest stocktaking breaches the wall between brain and heart. Moreover, at least temporarily, it leaves its impression on one’s actions, too.

6. The priests of Arnon’s high places

The above-quoted verse goes on to say that the fire from Cheshbon “consumed the Moabite [land of] Ar31 and the priests of Arnon’s high places [of worship].”

Now, everyone knows what happens when even a tiny spark falls on a highly flammable substance such as kerosene or balsam resin. (These are two opposites, but they share this characteristic.) In the spiritual realm likewise: when the above kind of meditation takes place during prayer, which is a particularly auspicious time, the resultant spark ignites practical results.

However, a person may find himself encumbered by either of two negative thought-patterns. One of these kelipos is alluded to by the phrase Ar Moav (“the Moabite [land of] Ar”); the other is alluded to by the phrase baalei bamos Arnon (“the priests of Arnon’s high places”).

The phrase Ar Moav alludes to the kind of person who perceives himself as a heavyweight intellectual.32 We are not implying that there is anything amiss with his intellect or his faith or his scholarship. It is only that he perceives himself as a heavyweight intellectual and likes to describe himself as a maskil: he approaches Chassidus as an academic, so to speak. True, he studies Chassidus, and is happy to hear a chassidic teaching — but that does not begin to affect his actual life. It can also happen that he davens at meditative length, but his goal in this is not avodah.

The sorry fruits of his misapplied intellectuality are alluded to in the words Ar Moav, for the mirror image of the letters עָר (Ar) spells רַע, which means evil; and Moab stands for the Chochmah of kelipah,33 the wisdom of the evil side of the universe.

On the following phrase, baalei bamos Arnon (“the priests of Arnon’s high places”), the Sages comment, “This alludes to the arrogant.”34 Among us there is a band of opinionated and self-important young men,35 though how any one of these self-appointed priests of prominence can come to be so inflated is hard to fathom. After all, such an individual is no great scholar. Why? Because he does not invest time in studying. And why so? For that he can muster a number of excuses. He cannot join in any of the daily study circles in the local shul, because that is beneath his dignity; for some other form of study he of course has no time; and so on. Does he call himself a chassid? “Of course,” he will answer — but he studies no Chassidus. And despite all that, he is complacently pleased with himself!

In the spirit of our verse that was expounded above, phrase by phrase, the solution to this situation must begin with honest accounting (בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן); this will generate a spark (אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן) that will land at an auspiciously flammable time, such as during davenen; its flame will burn down the wall that obstructs one’s path to dynamic advance (לֶהָבָה מִקִרְיַת סִחוֹן); and one’s positive resolves during davenen will undo the evils of barren intellection (אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב) and humble the arrogant patrons of high places (בַּעֲלֵי בָּמּוֹת אַרְנוֹן).

This sequence exemplifies how the basic message of Chassidus is “Simu levavchem” — “Make your hearts attentive!”

When a chassid has immersed himself in a concept relating to his avodah, it is Chassidus that makes him bring himself close to the concept and bring the concept close to himself. In this way he fuses with it, so that every aspect of his life and all his worldly affairs will be conducted in the spirit of the teachings of Chassidus.

7. Think big!

At this point one of those present asked the Rebbe Rayatz: “If it sometimes happens that there is no time for [the extensive preliminary study of Chassidus and the subsequent measured meditation upon it in the course of davenen that is called] ‘the service of the heart’ through prayer, can one discharge this obligation by studying one of the classic works of Mussar such as Reishis Chochmah?”

The Rebbe’s reply follows:

There are all kinds of ways of making a living. One man applies for a license and launches a business; another decides that since things are slow he’ll beg for pennies. Now, both of them have created vessels for making a living, and G‑d will help them both. Yet there is a difference. When G‑d helps the first, he will end up prosperous — fish and meat, a comfortable home, fine clothes — and able to help others too. The other fellow, meanwhile, is collecting pennies for bread and herring.

In a word, then, Chassidus picks up a chassid and stations him in a spot that is incomparably higher than where he was.

Chassidim of former years used to approach their study of Chassidus and their avodah methodically, just as one approaches the study of nigleh, the revealed plane of the Torah: one day he studies the discussion of a subject in the Gemara, and the next day he studies the resultant law in Choshen Mishpat. With the classic topics of Chassidus likewise: an old-timer would know that on a certain day the subject of his meditation during davenen was to be the exalted state of the Ein Sof; the next day he might meditate on the infinite Ein Sof-light that is vested in the created worlds; the next day, on the infinite worlds preceding the Tzimtzum; the next day, on the divine lights that are emanated as “direct light”; on another occasion he might meditate on the lights that are emanated as “reflected light”; and on another occasion, on what it means to have an “elevated heart in the ways of G‑d.”36

Today, however, even if someone more or less does do something in this direction, is this real avodah? It’s only imagined. So if one day he comes to the conclusion that on that particular day, for whatever reasons, he can’t seriously relate to the avodah of meditative davenen, that means that he has come to the conclusion that he can’t seriously relate even to an imagined endeavor.

And that thought itself will surely chasten him as effectively as any of the classic works of Mussar...