1. The need to fortify Shabbos observance

“We begin with a benediction, to bless and give thanks to G‑d, for He is good.1 My soul has heard and been revived by good tidings. ‘Good’ signifies Torah,2 and ‘G‑d’s Torah is a perfect whole.’ ”3

These holy words of our first father, the Alter Rebbe, with which he opens his first letter4 about furthering Torah study and buttressing Yiddishkeit in his day, are engraved in hundreds of thousands of hearts.

With determined self-sacrifice, the Alter Rebbe forged ahead to disseminate the study of the entire Torah and to fortify divine service in the heart, i.e., prayer. And in these words, he blesses and gives thanks to G‑d for good tidings, for a shemuah tovah, for good things that are heard — that is, for the spiritual perceptiveness with which every Torah scholar apprehends and listens out for the voice within, the inner voice that calls upon him to disseminate the study of the entire Torah and to intensify his endeavors in meditative prayer, the service of the heart.5

My soul, too, has heard and is revived by good tidings — as I behold a gathering of rabbis who have heeded their own innermost call and have assembled here to fortify the observance of Shabbos in particular and of Yiddishkeit in general.

2. Our rabbis underestimate their potential

From deep within, that voice tells every rav and Torah scholar that times like these demand action for the cause of Yiddishkeit. Sadly, however, that voice is often drowned by turbulent currents of embitterment over our brethren’s material predicament; it is drowned out by distress over their spiritual state, over the pathetic collapse of the pride that Jews once had in the age-old heritage that dates back to our Patriarch Yaakov.

Let me state clearly: Our rabbis are too modest; they underestimate their potential to guide innocent Jewish hearts to an awe of heaven.

The present assembly brings to mind the luminous days when we had the good fortune to live under the leadership of the sages and shepherds and mighty tzaddikim — at whose head stood my revered father — who are now in the World of Truth. (May their merit stand us all in good stead, and may G‑d grant long life to the learned tzaddikim who are with us today.)

Before my eyes I have a clear picture of the major rabbinical conference that was held in Vilna 34 years ago. I recall the G‑d-fearing atmosphere that warmed the very air of that enormous hall.

The grievous persecution of that time, which resulted from all kinds of compromises and pseudo-remedies that had been proposed by some circles, intensified the pain of the delegates. Each rabbi in turn depicted the state of Yiddishkeit in his home region, and each one concluded his description with anguished sighs of woe.

After a few such hours, that great hall was shrouded in despair. Then, just before the session closed, a ray of light shattered the gloom.

My father stood up,6 and his heartfelt words at that moment live with me still: “The situation (May G‑d be merciful!) is indeed grim. We empathize with the heartbreaking predicament of Jewry in our lands and we sympathize with your sighs. We have heard everything that you have reported about the sorry state of Yiddishkeit in your respective provinces. However, my dear brothers, we must always remember that one deed is better than a thousand sighs. If every individual rabbi holds on fast to his community and resolutely works to fortify the practice of Yiddishkeit without compromising, G‑d will grant that the sighs will vanish, and the Jewish people will be blessed with light, which is Torah.”7

Honored gathering! The holy spirit of our revered shepherds lives on with us and within us. Our task is to steadfastly follow in the solid path that they paved with their unforgettable self-sacrifice.

The distinguished delegates at that conference drew two conclusions from what they had heard: (a) Drawing true strength from their authority as rabbanim, they rejected even the most minor proposals that had been made to introduce religious compromises and questionable leniencies8 into their educational systems and into the conduct of their communal and Torah-oriented institutions; (b) sensitively and judiciously, they enhanced the effectiveness of every rav and Torah scholar.

The results were richly felt in the Jewish street everywhere.

3. Students: Animate your frigid environment!

Before the actual words of the Priestly Blessing9 appear in the Torah it is written, “Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel, saying to them....” Before one pronounces a blessing one should say a few words upon which the blessing should rest.

When one person blesses another he places his hands on his head. Yet, though he is blessing his head, he intends that his blessing rest upon the entire body, because even an ailing toe is an ailment.

As is the case in the worldwide Jewish community, so too any particular Jewish community mirrors the stature of a man, complete with head, heart, internal organs, external limbs, and conduits for blood and air.

The rabbanim are its head; the shochtim are its heart. (A shochet, it should be noted, is not merely a man with a knife in hand. A shochet in a community is a pillar of Torah and of yiras shamayim, the awe of heaven. He should be known not only through the slaughterhouse and the butcher shop, but also through his own Gemara study and through the local study groups that he conducts.) The internal organs are the schoolteachers and the scholarly householders; the external limbs are the faithful members of the community; the conduits are the youth. This, in general terms, is the structure of the people of the G‑d of Avraham.

Some of the conduits supply the body with blood; others supply the body with life-giving air. The latter conduits are the yeshivah students, the young Torah scholars who invest the body of worldwide Jewry with its spirit of life. It is they who are dutybound to animate the Jewish street and to illuminate the Jewish home. Unfortunately, however, for various reasons they still lack the tenacity needed to insulate the beis midrash, their House of Study, against the frigid atmosphere of the streets outside. They still lack the fortitude needed to wean themselves from the milksop mollycoddling of questionable leniencies, to untangle themselves from the swaddling clothes of religious compromises.

Yeshivah students should realize that they should serve their worldly peers as guideposts; “Whoever sees them will recognize them as the seed that G‑d has blessed.”10 And indeed, I am happy to note that in the biggest yeshivos there has lately been an animated move towards the awe of heaven, towards the spirit of the yeshivos of yesteryear, whose students spurned the above kinds of leniencies and compromises.

My heartfelt greetings to those students whom G‑d has blessed with the strength of purpose to fortify their yeshivos on firm foundations of Torah and the awe of heaven. Fired by the heritage bequeathed to us by our holy forebears, I would like to say to all yeshivah students around the world: Put your heads together and discuss how best you can make spirit prevail over matter.11 May the G‑d of our fathers be with you as you ascend from step to step, and may you be privileged to introduce the light of Torah and the awe of heaven amongst our brethren.

4. Rabbis: Be explicit and outspoken!

The blood vessels correspond to the worldly youth, who receive their spiritual nourishment from the programs offered by various modern educational institutions. This is not the place nor the time to spell out exactly how this wrongheaded schooling has killed off some of our youth, depriving them of their humanity and warping their characters. There is no tefillin, no Shabbos, no code of marital purity, no observance of the dietary laws. The newly-grown percentage of thieves was never before known among Jews.

It is difficult to speak but painful to remain silent.

My dear brothers! A weighty guilt lies upon us. The guilt for whatever we find in the nation of the G‑d of Avraham that is negative, or even evil, lies upon those who stand at the head of the Jewish people — upon the letter yud in וָאֲשִׂימֵם.12

Now, is it not remarkable that in the Torah this word appears with a yud, yet Rashi writes that the yud is missing — and both are true!

This paradox, whereby the yud is simultaneously present and absent, may be understood13 by observing various Torah schools and educational institutions over the last ten years. In them the yud [which often signifies the Divine Name] is in fact present. However, it is so entangled in threads of religious compromise and so thickly salted with leniencies of convenience that it appears to be missing.

Bodily health is measured by means of the blood vessels. Measured by its blood pressure, the Jewish body is ailing and must be healed.

“A man’s spirit can sustain him through illness.”14 When the head and the heart and the internal organs will be healthy, the whole body will be healed.

Respected rabbis: You know full well how all Jews are affected by the Torah and the awe of heaven. Truth lights up anywhere. Jewish hearts are open and eager to hear advice as to how to fortify the practice of Yiddishkeit.

Honored rabbis! Tread your path with fortitude, relying only on the sound foundations that our holy forebears taught us, seeking neither compromises nor leniencies. Remember (to borrow an old adage) that “life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” Be explicit and outspoken in all areas in which the practice of Yiddishkeit may be strengthened. If you do this, entire camps of uncompromising G‑d-fearing Jews will follow you. The Jewish heart remains whole, and in every Jewish heart an inner voice calls on the individual to love the Torah, to love the mitzvos, to love a fellow Jew. Brighten the lamp of Torah and practical mitzvos, and may you and the entire House of Israel be blessed, in soul and in body alike.