1 1. From time to time my father, the Rebbe Rashab, would speak about the various kinds of Chabad chassidim – intellectuals,2 people of refined character,3 people who had worked hard to refine their characters, people who had worked hard to harness their intellects, people who were cheerful, and others who were gloomy. After pointing out their positive aspects, he would conclude that every one of them without exception, regardless of his mode of avodah, worked with all the faculties of his soul, all of which were constantly active and not dormant. And though by nature they differed, some being cheerful and others remorseful, they were all earnest.

My father would often highlight to me the difference between someone who was born an intellectual or who was born with a refined character, and someone who had labored to reach his present rung. Speaking of the pivotal role of avodah, he would emphasize that the main task of avodah in the path of Chassidus is to transform one’s inborn intellect or character. He would conclude by saying that [paradoxically], a person whose good mind and fine character were inborn was more handicapped than a person whose mind was weak and whose character was negative. This is so because a person with a handicap knows that he is handicapped, and by nature people who are sick seek medical attention. With G‑d’s help, that can cure him. However, if a person doesn’t realize that he is sick, that’s really bad news.

While strolling in Rostov-on-the-River-Don on Tuesday, 9 Adar Sheni, 5676 (1916), my father told me about two elder chassidim, both of whom had been melamdim in Lechevitch. Reb Moshe DovBer was born there; Reb Yisrael DovBer was born in Homil and moved to Lechevitch when he married.4 Reb Moshe DovBer was the older of the two, and had visited the Alter Rebbe; the first Rebbe of Reb Yisrael DovBer was the Mitteler Rebbe. Both had a profound understanding of Chassidus and both were baalei avodah, but by nature the first was upbeat, and the second was remorseful.

One day, during a visit to the Mitteler Rebbe in Lubavitch, the older chassid, Reb Moshe DovBer, said to Reb Yisrael DovBer: “I don’t know what’s doing with you! When my peers and I used to daven, we didn’t leave the davenen until we had effected some change in ourselves. But you?! You daven and daven, you clap with your hands and stamp with your feet – yet you’re still fixated at first base!”

[As we see here,] the Alter Rebbe’s chassidim were not satisfied with having progressed only in the areas of Torah study and the awe of Heaven.

2. The Alter Rebbe strongly urged his chassidim to give tzedakah, and revealed their innate capacity for kindly generosity.

To illustrate: One of his chassidim, Reb Tzadok, used to repeat mishnayos from memory, such as when he was making his way on foot among the villages from one squire’s estate to the next, buying and selling items of silver and gold. And whenever he earned a little more than he needed for his livelihood, he would say: “No doubt either an emissary or a letter from the Rebbe is soon due to arrive, asking for money for charitable causes. That’s why Heaven saw to it that I should earn what came my way.”

3. The Alter Rebbe guided his chassidim not only in their avodah in Torah study and davenen and in the refinement of their middos, but also in the way they conducted their households. This included every particular, such as how they should respect their wives, how the household should be conducted, and how they should guide and attentively monitor their children.

He advised them also that in their household expenditure, such as on food and clothing, they should follow the middle path, being neither tightfisted nor extravagant. This principle was to apply even in their expenditure on tzedakah and gemilus chassadim, good deeds – despite the enormous budget that he needed for the kollel that he founded in the Holy Land5 and to support the Chabad chassidim who had settled there. He urged his local chassidim to give generously, but not to undertake burdens beyond what their income enabled.

His guidance thus related to every area of their lives.

One of his chassidim, Reb Yirmeyah Pleshtchenitzer, was a wealthy storekeeper who enjoyed pampering himself with regard to food and clothing. He was a businessman-like oved, who studied Torah extensively, davened with relish, and supported the Alter Rebbe’s charitable funds generously. Once at yechidus he complained that even though he studied and davened as one ought to do, he experienced no vitality when he studied, and no exuberance in his heart when he davened.

The Alter Rebbe responded: “But from where could you expect to receive vitality when you study and exuberance in your heart when you daven – from the refined-flour buns that you eat on weekdays, or from the expensive clothes that you wear on weekdays?! After all, the entire goal of Chassidus is to make Form dominate Matter!”

4. A generation ago, Jews understood the true meaning of the principle that “a Jewish custom is Torah.”Error! Bookmark not defined. Minhagim were observed scrupulously, by both the scholarly and the ignorant, by both men and women. From their earliest years, children knew and respected Jewish customs. All Jews, whether rich or poor – materially or scholastically – knew that these customs were not only “based on holy mountains,”6 but also that “a Jewish custom is Torah.” Everyone knew that minhagim are Israel’s glory. Jews of all kinds and of all ages knew and were deeply proud that they were part of the Chosen People, and made every effort to be its worthy sons and daughters.

5. On one of the evenings of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, used to hold a farbrengen to celebrate Simchas Beis HaShoeivah.

My father once said of him: “Everything about my father, [the Rebbe Maharash,] both his speech and his writing, was ‘little that contained much.’7 Such conduct characterizes a pnimi, and even more, an atzmi.8 A pnimi, and even more so an atzmi, has no use for introductions and explanations: he goes straight to the point. A pnimi is superior to an atzmi insofar as the former explains the reasons underlying a concept, whereas an atzmi simply radiates light.

“My father was at the level of ‘little that contains much’ – brief in time and brief in words, but abundant in light. The light that my father diffused became a luminary in the listener. A brief teaching of my father lit up a chassid; it uncovered the light of his soul.

“My father used to speak point by point. Each of those statements was an or pnimi and an or atzmi from a long and structured maamar explaining a concept in haskalah or in avodah. And for the listener who integrated it, each point provided him with a long-lasting path in his life of chassidic avodah.

6. My father, [the Rebbe Rashab,] speaking of his father, the Rebbe Maharash, continued: “At the farbrengen of Simchas Beis HaShoeivah on Chol HaMoed Sukkos, 5638 (1877), my father said: ‘Every human being should take into account whether all of his affairs, and the way he conducts his life, are appropriate for him or inappropriate. And one’s realization that something is inappropriate in ruchniyus, in spiritual matters, should be taken at least as seriously as one’s realization that something is inappropriate in gashmiyus, in material matters.’

“He said: ‘It is inappropriate that a layman9 should not study Gemara every day, just as it is inappropriate for him to be dressed shabbily. It is inappropriate that a chassid should not study a chapter of Tanya every day.

“‘It is inappropriate that a chassid should not be deeply involved in refining his character. It goes without saying that it is inappropriate that he should not be earnestly tackling undesirable traits, and beyond that, it is inappropriate that he should not be working on upgrading his positive traits.

“‘It is inappropriate that a chassid should not invest effort in the avodah of davenen. I don’t mean clapping his hands and clicking his fingers. I mean davening with hiskashrus, [bonding with the Creator,] whena genuine yearning for a sensitivity to Elokus finds [spontaneous] expression in a Chabad niggun.

“‘It is inappropriate that a chassid should be utterly submerged in his business affairs, particularly if they distract him so much that (Heaven forfend!) he forgets the plain truth that it is G‑d’s blessing that brings prosperity.10

“‘It is inappropriate that a chassid should not invest effort in the [stocktaking and cleansing] avodah of Kerias Shema she’al HaMitah, the prayer before retiring at night, and instead falls asleep together with all his workaday dust, or even mud, and dreams all the falsehoods that [the angel who is] the Master of Dreams serves him up.’ ”

[Here the Rebbe Rayatz inserts a comment:] One of the Alter Rebbe’s guidelines for chassidic conduct is that farbrengens should be held in which all chassidim – rich and poor, both materially and spiritually – ought to participate. Their efforts will then be helped by the merit of the many, and by the blessing promised by the Alter Rebbe.

[The Rebbe Rayatz now resumes his account of what his father, the Rebbe Rashab, told him:] “A farbrengen of my father [the Rebbe Maharash] would rouse the power of every listener’s soul. Each one of them, according to his level, would make a resolve in the area of correcting the past and in upgrading his future conduct. I want you to have a conception of how an atzmi works. In the above example, every individual went home from a short farbrengen of Simchas Beis HaShoeivah with a resolve regarding his teshuvah and avodah, each according to his level.

“For example, one of the guests who attended that farbrengen, Chaim Nemesov, was a wealthy store-owner from Polotzk, a well-established householder sated with children, health and livelihood – but from the words spoken at that farbrengen he went home in humble remorse.”

8. Among those who used to visit the Rebbe Maharash was Reb Moshe David the Bricklayer. He was familiar with nigleh and Chassidus, and even when he was at work, “his mouth never ceased studying:”11 he would recite Tehillim from memory. My grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, said of him: “He is of higher stature than [the revered chassid] Reb Shmuel Ber Borisover. When on a regular Wednesday morning Reb Moshe David eats his bit of hard bread with salt after davenen, and then goes off to do his work while saying verses of Tehillim, he has reached the level of true teshuvah.”

My father once told me: “Both Reb Shmuel Ber Borisover and Reb Moshe David the Bricklayer arrived in Lubavitch for Shavuos, 5640 (1880). During the couple of weeks that they stayed in town, I closely observed how they davened, and I envied Reb Moshe David more than I envied Reb Shmuel Ber. A person can attain that level only after the profound concepts of Chassidus have become spiritually axiomatic within him. One shouldn’t seek to understand every abstraction by having it materialized through intellectual explanations. The fact is that one can attain a true understanding only by having simple faith in the teachings of Chassidus, and not by wanting to clothe everything in comprehensible terms.”

9. At the midday meal on Shabbos Parshas Balak, 5655 (1895), at the country resort of Bolivke, my father asked my teacher, the Rashbatz, to share his recollections of his earliest years in Lubavitch. The Rashbatz repeated one teaching of the Tzemach Tzedek from that time and described one farbrengen.

He related that on that occasion the Tzemach Tzedek was particularly happy. He delivered the maamar that begins, Mashiach is coming in order to induce the tzaddikim to do teshuvah,” and concluded by saying that Mashiach will arouse in them a desire for teshuvah, and they will actually do it. [For them, teshuvah means]a heightened degree of understanding Elokus, at a level that they had not attained one minute earlier.

The Rashbatz also related that one day, when Reb Hillel [Paritcher] and Reb Aizik [Homiler] were in Lubavitch for the wedding of my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, and my grandmother, Rebbitzin Rivkah, the two eminent chassidim farbrenged together. At one point Reb Aizik said: “The chassidim of bygone times knew what was expected of them, and recognized what level they had reached. Today, chassidim know what kind of comprehension is expected of them, but they don’t recognize what level they have reached!” And with that he fainted.

Reb Pesach Malastovker then offered an explanation of Reb Aizel’s words. He related them to [the words of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai on his deathbed: “There are two paths before me, one to Gan Eden and one to Gehinnom,] and I don’t know along which path I will be led.”12

When my father was told of the above, he shed tears. That was in Bolivke, in the year 5655 (1895). So what can be said about New York, in the year 5700 (1940)…?

True, thought has no bounds. By means of thought one can situate himself in the year 5655 (1895). Nevertheless, unless one takes action, that’s nothing. Thus we see that if someone has a thought, or even many thoughts, about making a vessel, that won’t result in a vessel. Things are different if someone makes a vessel, because then, even if it’s an amateurish job, he’ll do better the next time. Thinking alone can’t produce any vessel.

10. Once at a farbrengen we spoke about the difference between a Polish chassid and a Chabad chassid. Each of them travels to meet a Rebbe. As to the Polish chassid – just as he is in This World, so he is in the Other World.13 In our circles, more is demanded of a chassid, because we have more [i.e., the teachings of Chabad Chassidus], and in fact we toil more.

There used to be [Chabad] chassidim who davened with fire and gusto, and there also used to be elder [Chabad] chassidim who had their reservations about that approach. They used to quote an old avodah-teaching that played on the words menuval zeh, and interpreted them creatively to imply that any avodah whose fire is visible is disgusting.14

A systematic oved has a set time for merirus, earnest remorse. True, it is written that “my tears were my bread,”15 and so on, alluding to [the avodah of] the “broken vessels”16 that is carried out by means of merirus. But who says that that avodah should be externally visible? It ought it be inward.17 A person should know within himself that he is broken-spirited, but that shouldn’t be shown to another. The time for humble remorse is – atKerias Shema she’al HaMitah, the prayer before retiring at night; at the midnight devotions of Tikkun Chatzos; and at the avodah of terumas hadeshen.18

11. Reb Moshe David the Bricklayer, the chassid whom we mentioned earlier, would never let any money spend the night in his home. He would give it all to the poor, except for a coin that he would set aside toward the cost of his next visit to Lubavitch.

The Sages speak in praise of a person haneheneh miyegia kapav – “who benefits from the toil of his hands.”19 And since the word haneheneh also implies pleasure (hanaah), Reb Moshe David the Bricklayer used to say that the above-quoted phrase teaches that the toil of one’s hands gives the soul pleasure.

12. My grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, once delivered a maamar which was not understood by those present, including the prominent chassid, Reb Shmuel Ber Borisover, who was then visiting Lubavitch. He was one of the elder chassidim whom my grandfather invited to join him at the seudah of Shabbos, and they asked him to explain the maamar. The Rebbe Maharash answered, “If one doesn’t know the foundation,20 what can be explained?” With that, he repeated the maamar.

13. Before the chassidim of earlier generations closed the Siddur at the end of their davenen, they used to make a sign21 to indicate what stage they had reached – what they had accomplished in their avodah of davenen, and what remained to be accomplished. And after their davenen, they would translate their resolves into practical action.