1. [The Rebbe noticed that for some reason, one of the older students at the table was not eating, and commented:] According to the Torah, on Shabbos one should eat. There are two main approaches as to how a Jew should conduct himself in the spirit of avodah. Mussar teaches one how not to eat; Chassidus teaches one what to eat and how to eat. This is one of the positive qualities that Chassidus introduced, thereby going beyond Mussar.

Mussar crushes the body, by not eating and not sleeping, whereas Chassidus teaches a person what he should eat and how he should eat – not crushing the body, but educating it.

Chassidim used to say that a person should respect his own body as much as another’s body.1

2. One can succeed in grasping and knowing Chassidus only by living the spiritual lifestyle of Chassidus, whose basic principle is orderly and gradated avodah. Thus, one cannot attain a higher level in avodah before having been through the first step. So first of all one has to arrive at the level of Mussar, and after that one can arrive at a higher level.2

When it comes to cultivating an awe of Heaven and refining one’s character, just as in other contexts, a person’s conduct can vary in its degree of refinement or coarseness, wisdom or foolishness. Thus in avodah, for example, not everything must be eaten. Some things one is not permitted to eat, and that obviously applies when there is a doubt as to the kashrus of an object. But beyond such a case, even if that doubt is raised only by the criterion of a regular hiddur or of a particularly punctilious hiddur, such an object should certainly not be eaten. Moreover, even if according to the law something is permissible, the integrity of one’s avodah dictates that it should not be eaten.

As summarized in a time-honored chassidic teaching, “Not everything that one is permitted to do should one necessarily do.”

3. My father once heard at yechidus [with the Rebbe Maharash] that when people engage in avodah that is not well-ordered, it does not succeed.

According to the tradition that we have received, a fast helps a person – provided he is healthy – to refine and correct his middos and to tap his intellectual resources. However, if a person merely does not eat, but during that time he neither davens with prolonged meditation nor invests effort in study, that’s not called fasting: that’s called dieting. Fasting means not eating, but instead studying and davening.

It is possible to fast for a predetermined number of hours. And the word taanis (תענית), which means a fast, derives from inui (עינוי), which means self-deprivation. Thus, a person can fast by depriving himself of food for an hour, or by depriving himself of talking for an hour, or by depriving himself of looking around himself for an hour – and during that time to devote himself to his studies. That’s what chassidishe avodah is about.

To explain: avodah is – pliers. There are two kinds of pliers: those used for a nail and those used for gold and precious gems. And the same is true of avodah in the spiritual realm. [But whichever pliers one has to work with,] the absolutely basic principle is that one must work on oneself, without self-delusion. When a person works on himself genuinely, he accomplishes either more, or less, but he does accomplish. All one has to do is to work.

4. When the Mitteler Rebbe was sixteen years old, [his father] the Alter Rebbe entrusted him with the task of being mentor to the young fulltime married students in Liozna, who were known as “the budding chassidim.”3

One day in 5550 (1790), he told these young men: “Whoever isn’t working on the correction of his middos should not stand near me.” They assumed that he was talking about fine-tuning the subtler imperfections. However, since he was not fond of beclouded words, he explained that he was talking plainly and simply about what Mussar describes as coarse character traits, such as anger. He concluded: “One can’t move up to the second step unless one is already standing firmly on the first step.”

5. Last week I mentioned that in the years 5650-5651 (1890-1891), my father used to give a class in Likkutei Torah and Torah Or. The group included several chassidim and several householders.

From 5651 (1891) until mid-5653 (1893), my teacher was Reb Nissan, who used to attend that class. I joined it early in 5653 (1893).4

Those present included individuals who not only heard, and understood what they heard, but also sensed and experienced what they understood. When my father was teaching a maamar that focused on avodah, which was often, some of those listeners were not bashful about shedding a genuine tear that sprang from a humble and contrite heart.

Once, when my father was teaching the maamar in Likkutei Torah5 on the words, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov (“How pleasing are your tents, O Yaakov”), he explained that the obligation to “turn away from evil” (sur meira) should relate to the evil in the World of Beriah – because the World of Atzilus is exclusively good, but lower down, in the World of Beriah, evil too is present, so it must be refined and elevated.6

My father also discussed the three levels of teshuvah that are spoken of in that maamar: (a) “turn away from evil”; (b) “do good”;7 and (c) when one has perfected his avodah at those two levels, there still remains the teshuvah in which one seeks to cleave to Atzmus, the very Essence of Elokus.

6. The ultimate goal is not merely to attain these levels of teshuvah in one’s will (ratzon) and thought (machshavah). Beyond that, one’s endeavors must be brought down into comprehension in the brain, then further down into a feeling in the heart, and yet further down until they are expressed in the actual traits of one’s character.

There is a teaching of the Sages which literally reads:8 “A good thought – the Holy One, blessed be He, links it to an action.” Chassidim have handed down a creative avodah-interpretation of these words, as follows: “When can a thought be called a good thought? – When one [is helped from Above, and] makes that positive thought materialize into an action. And that is how ‘the Holy One, blessed be He, helps him [overcome his Evil Inclination].’ ”9

7. Bilam, [the gentile prophet,] says: “I have sinned, because I did not know.”10 On this, the holy Shelah11 comments that the sin of some people is that same excuse – “I didn’t know.” A person can live through a day, a week, a month, a year, ten years, twenty years – and still claim, “I didn’t know.” That excuse is a sin. After one has lived out his 120 years, he will be held accountable for not knowing. One ought to know.

8. Reb Avraham Ber Bobruisker12 once relayed to me the following account from Reb Aizik [Homiler], which he in turn had heard from Reb Moshe Vilenker.

The Alter Rebbe once stepped out of his study, his face exuberant, entered the antechamber in which a number of chassidim were sitting, and quoted the verse,13 “Who endowed the kidneys with wisdom, and Who endowed the heart with understanding?” This he interpreted in Kabbalistic terms as follows: “Who enabled Chochmah to behold the Mahus – the very Being – of the Creator, and Who enabled the mortal mind to understand Elokus?”

Reb Aizik concluded: “When Reb Moshe Vilenker quoted that teaching, it created within me a deep-seated desire to cleave [to Elokus], and a deep-seated intellectual awakening.”

9. Reb Avraham Ber Bobruisker also told me that there were two chassidim in Bobruisk. Both of them were ovdim who davened with measured meditation, one tearfully and the other cheerfully. When RebAvraham Ber Bobruisker was asked why their paths in avodah were such opposites, he explained: The first chassid ponders over the situation from which the soul came, and contrasts it with its present state. He therefore becomes morose and remorseful. The second chassid ponders over the soul’s present state and contrasts it with its future state – and realizes that this depends on his current avodah. He, therefore, is cheerful.

Reb Avraham Ber Bobruisker offered a rationale for his above explanation. He said that the cheerful one’s avodah is superior, because remorsefulness is a medication, and hence is effective if it is taken at the right times, but not if it is taken constantly. There is no such problem with regard to the chassid who was always cheerful. First of all, joy in itself is always a positive factor, since it opens up the mind and the heart, and most certainly so if it is aroused by considering the revelations of the Future Era.

10. Reb Avraham Ber, who made his living as a bookkeeper, was a wise and mellow scholar in nigleh and a mashpia in Chassidus. He toiled in avodas hatefillah patiently and diligently. His striking appearance was so luminous that an onlooker’s animal soul was simply embarrassed to gaze upon him, particularly if he was deep in meditation on some concept. It was a sweet and cherished pleasure to observe him, despite his stern nature.