The following is a rich description of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah 5660 (1899) as it was celebrated in the town of Lubavitch. The writer was a young student who found himself in a world he had never known existed.

Editorial note: Throughout the article, the term “the Rebbe” will be referring to the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch.*

I was a young boy, rather well educated; I had mastered the ability to comfortably study Talmud with its primary commentaries. Perhaps quite different than my peers, I even had a healthy grasp of the deeper works of Jewish thought, like Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and other great writings.

My knowledge extended past the frontiers of Jewish subjects, for, as I was a studious young man, I had tread the waters of secular topics and taken an interest in philosophy and other areas of study.

I even had a healthy grasp of the deeper works of Jewish thought

I held this broad gamut of interests of mine very dearly and greatly enjoyed the time I spent poring over all sorts of books. I believed strongly that I would retain my dual “identity” and somehow manage to combine my familiarity in both the religious and academic worlds.

By the summer of 5659 (1899), the fame of the newly established yeshivah in Lubavitch had reached my ears and piqued my curiosity. Attracted by its outstanding reputation for rigorous study, I set my compass towards the little Belarusian town. I was perfectly aware that secular education wasn’t emphasized in Tomchei Temimim, let alone provided for, but I—I reasoned—would manage to keep my balance even there.

What a bittersweet mistake! As soon as I arrived there, I realized that I had been wrong. I came to understand that the founder of this unique yeshivah had a wholly different perspective, a perspective that didn’t include, or necessitate, any outside influence.

I thus decided that Lubavitch wasn’t the place for me and that I would return home shortly.

I was conflicted about whether to remain for a few weeks, considering how costly and difficult the journey there had been, or to simply turn right back. Time made the decision for me, and after a few days of hesitation, I was still there, scrutinizing with a watchful eye every nuance and detail of the yeshivah’s curriculum and student body.

Upon walking into the main building, I beheld a large study hall. It was filled with young men sitting across tables and studying diligently. Every one of them was preoccupied with the material he was learning and was devoted to understanding it—reading it, and reading it again, not ever tiring or stopping. There was a loud and productive chatter, a cocktail of voices from all corners of the room filling the air, and I could almost sense the pleasure and sweetness of these boys’ assiduity.

I remained there, standing in a corner, observing and pondering and trying to take it all in, when suddenly, as soon as the clock struck eight, the sounds came to an abrupt end. Everyone closed the books they had been delving into throughout the day, only to replace them with other books, which were also rather thick and large. Where volumes of Talmud and the Code of Jewish Law had rested till but a few moments earlier, now sat Tanyas, Likutei Torahs, and other volumes I had never before seen.

I couldn’t quite define it, but it seemed like this new setting was identical, yet entirely different; yes, there were the same boys studying across the same tables, but their tunes were different, the air was fresh. Here and there I could catch a soft sound—a subdued note flitting by in the wind—which inspired me and drew me near. I perceived a higher degree of seriousness and concentration than in the previous study period, and an all-around solemn atmosphere.

I mustered up some courage and asked one of the boys what everybody was learning; was it some cryptic mystical work, or perhaps the deepest secrets of Torah?

Chassidism!” he told me with a broad smile. “We’re learning Chassidism!” I looked at him, baffled and beguiled, and dared to ask him what this was all about.

“You see my friend,” he continued, “Chassidism in general, and more specifically the Chabad school of thought within Chassidism, is a world unto itself. It teaches a person the purpose of his life, and shows him the path to its fulfillment. Chassidism differs from most other codes of ethics; it is first and foremost a profound study on the root of man’s soul, and an elucidation of G‑d’s unity and the lofty significance of Torah and mitzvahs. Only after all this does it reach out to its pupil and, with gentle discipline, teaches him to refine himself and come closer to his Creator.”

A cold shower. This was all new to me. “Incredible! Entire books explaining how to be a better Jew!” I thought.

“Later on you’ll merit to see our holy Rebbe deliver a chassidic discourse. You will learn it again and again, until you’re fluent in it, and then, and only then, will you begin to understand,” I was told.

More days passed, and then it was the day before Rosh Hashanah. That morning I arose early and got to yeshivah at daybreak to find the room filled with guests who hadIncredible! Entire books explaining how to be a better Jew! come from near and far to spend the High Holidays in the presence of their leader and guide, the Rebbe.

People were chatting pleasantly and greeting one another, clearly enjoying being together in Lubavitch. I could identify in their midst many distinguished rabbis and communal leaders, all joined by the common denominator of being Lubavitcher chassidim who had undertaken a long trip to spend the most solemn days of the year with the Rebbe.

Behold! A piercing silence befell the room. The Rebbe was coming! A little path was formed for the Rebbe to walk through to his seat at the front of the synagogue. I observed the Rebbe’s saintly look as he strode past, and I was immediately impressed.

Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the Rebbe. All were standing in total abnegation–as if they didn’t exist—stemming from the awe of being in the presence of a man in a different league entirely.

My thoughts had caught on fire, yet my mind remained cold and detached. I couldn’t tell why or what, but seeing everyone standing with such reverence, I too was numb and silent.

The selichot services began, and the cantor’s initial song was immediately overpowered by the chants of the entire congregation. From time to time, people would raise their eyes slightly from their prayer books and gaze towards the Rebbe, closely monitoring his moves and taking careful heed of them.

At that moment, I decided that this flock had at its core a raging fire, capable of melting even the hardest of hearts. Precisely what was it, however, that fueled this fire?

I would have to wait and see.

The day passed and the sun set, and hundreds of yeshivah students, along with the countless guests, gathered in the large hall of the yeshivah to usher in the New Year with the evening services.

A distinct seriousness and sobriety was visible on everybody’s face.

A few minutes passed, and the Rebbe came in. His holy face was like a blazing torch of fire, and his gaze was ever so serious; however, in a paradoxical mixture, there was also loving warmth radiating from his brilliant smile. I clearly saw how two opposing forces—bitterness and joy—were merged in one vessel, in harmonious unity and beauty.

Services began. Everyone prayed with fervor, and I tried to get closer to the Rebbe’s place to see, to hear, though I didn’t know what. Bitter cries came from his holy place, and dreadful sighs pierced the air.

In the Rebbe’s prayer, no word was uttered without first immersing in a generous bath of tears, and I stood beside him in awe and wonder.

”Many people cry on these most solemn days,” I thought to myself. “What sets the Rebbe’s cry apart from everybody else’s?” No sooner had I had this thought than I found my answer. These weren’t cries, or tears; this was hishtapchut hanefesh—the outpouring of this righteous man’s soul before her Father’s throne.

The general noise gradually subsided, and the prayer was over, but the Rebbe remained standing still in his place, softly humming an old Chabad melody, a tune of yearning and supplication that challenges its singer. And then, a deep cry broke forth from the Rebbe’s heart.

You see, there are many types of cries: cries of pain, of yearning, and even of joy. The Rebbe’s cry was unlike any other, or perhaps it was like all of them together.

“Maybe, just maybe,” I thought to myself, “the Rebbe’s cry is there just to arouse the hearts of thousands of Jews to their Father in Heaven, and even if it were just for that, it would serve its purpose.

“Here stands a man,” I continued to myself, ”whose ambitions are so sublime and divine, whose humility and modesty aren’t a product of hard toil, rather a result of his subservience to, and unity with, an absolute truth.”

That night I could not sleep

To stand in his glorious company was worth being squashed by the crowds that came to bask in the radiance of his holy presence.

An immaculate purity welled up from the heart and propelled tears like rain, and inside you felt hope and happiness, bitterness and longing. Indeed this can only be found in the presence of someone special.

The Rebbe, the messenger for the nation entire, stood before G‑d and offered an account of the year past, beseeching Him to bestow His blessings for the upcoming year, and pleading and begging that this year be a plentiful one, both physically and spiritually.

When the Rebbe had finished his prayers, he turned to the waiting crowds to wish them a good year; his face shone like that of an angel, and light streamed forth from his eyes with a sweet fatherly love.

That night I could not sleep. The sights I had witnessed had made such a strong impact on me that my thoughts were running incessantly and gave me no rest.

In truth, I hadn’t even understood very much or been able to intellectually process the events of the evening, but inside of me something had changed irreversibly. My previous notions and imagined wisdoms had lost all value, and I was left dumbfounded and mute.

I had begun to understand—or more accurately, to feel—that there’s a most sublime meaning and goal to mankind upon this earth.

I had come to the recognition that not everything can be dissected on the cold operating table of intellect and knowledge. I had realized that there are things that the frigid and dry mind cannot grasp, yet you feel with all your being that they are real indeed.

Listening to the Rebbe’s prayers that evening, I could almost see the heavens open up above me and the Heavenly Court deliberating over our future. My soul shuddered hearing the Rebbe’s every word, and I perceived that all of the heavenly rulings and decrees are indeed influenced from below.1

I then decided that if there’s any purpose to life, here was the place where I would discover it and learn how to reach it.

At that precise moment, I had made up my mind: I was going to stay in Lubavitch.

* Translator’s note: This article is a translated excerpt of a longer, more detailed memoir, originally written in Hebrew. In the process of translating this piece, we’ve had to adapt to English prose and grammar rules, at times at the expense of the poetry and particular style that is the signature of the original writer.

For the full essay in its pristine language and lexicon, see Hatomim, vol. 1, pp. 223 and 416.