1. The1 main sichah concerned the current state of chassidim in general and particularly in this country: the serious neglect of the study of Chassidus; the lack of involvement in the avodah of tefillah; the lack of discipline and of concern for another’s wellbeing; the care to show respect for another only in order that he should reflect that respect in full; the flattery and smiles that people exchange, not out of love but as a deceitful device to curry favor. Even at farbrengens there isn’t an ounce of a genuine chassidisher farbrengen, because the participants exchange either flattery or jibes. And if someone shares a vort that clarifies a maamar of Chassidus, a vort that enables him to display his ego by showing that he is a maskil, his vort in his own eyes is already deemed “Chassidus.”

People forget the core concern – that the whole purpose of Chassidus is to transform the nature of one’s middos,2 which means that one must work on oneself, with regard both to middos, and to hisbonenus, meditation. Nowadays, however, not only do people neglect to toil in studying Chassidus and in utilizing it in their avodah, but beyond that, they turn it into a tool for ego and arrogance. I don’t want to use the correct word and say that they are defiling the teachings of Chassidus, but the truth must be said – that they are destroying Chassidus and leading it off into exile.

Someone once suggested to my father that the teachings of Chassidus should be organized into a schedule, according to topics. People would then know which topics should and can be studied first, each topic serving to introduce the next. That, he argued, would enable ordinary and unaffiliated people, and even non-believers, to study and understand Chassidus.

My father answered him: “Chassidus is in the private domain and cannot be carried out into the public domain.3 If Chassidus is studied like an academic discipline is studied, it’s not Chassidus. Chassidus can be understood by means of two things – by meditation during davenen, and by the practical avodah of working on oneself.”

2. [Speaking of middos, the Gemara uses the term “Chassidus” to describe refined conduct that goes beyond the demands of the letter of the law.] From the wording of the Gemara, as in the phrase, “This law relates to conduct at the level of Chassidus,”4 it is clear that Chassidus does not agree to compromises. Indeed, the notion of compromising does not appear in Chassidus. Rather, “Let the law pierce the mountain!”5 Thus, one should follow the road without veering right or left, and execute every obligation by means of the understanding and the avodah of Chassidus.

People have sharply deviated from the true path of Chassidus. They have gone so far that they must return to the truth, to the vital core.

3. [When Moshe Rabbeinu reminds the people of how he delegated authority to a hierarchy of subordinate leaders, he says (literally), “…and I placed them at your heads.”6 In the Hebrew spelling of that verb, the Sages detected a subtext which makes the phrase imply that when the public errs, “The fault lies with your heads.” On this the Rebbe Rayatz comments:] One must always keep in mind that leaders – “heads,” in the plural – must take responsibility. The leaders of every society, organization, group or community, comprise a head, and a number of heads. The guilty party is sometimes the head, and sometimes it is also the heads. This is what the Sages are telling us in the above teaching.

This means that “the wrongdoings of the Jewish people lie on the heads of their judges, who should have protested and directed them to the proper path.”7 And that statement applies in full force to the chassidic community.

Here we see that the guilt is ascribed to the leaders for two reasons – they should have protested, and they should have guided the community along the proper path. This needs to be contemplated earnestly, and efforts must be made to change the current situation.

4. Chassidim are, and must be, people who live with self-sacrifice.8 In every era, every chassid had to have his kind of self-sacrifice – the pauper or melamed had his kind, the householder or storekeeper had his kind, the businessman or magnate had his kind. As to rabbanim and fulltime Torah scholars, their self-sacrifice goes without saying: theirs is the real avodah-style self-sacrifice.

In the winter of 5657 (1896-1897), my father and we lived in Moscow for a few months, and the local chassidim would often meet in one of the rooms of our apartment and farbreng together. Four or five chassidim – Reb Yitzchak Rubinstein, Reb Zalman the Scribe, Reb Binyamin Berlin, Reb Leib Horowitz, Reb Baruch Shalom Kohen – were usually the main speakers, or, more correctly, the main narrators.

Since these were comradely farbrengens, at which my father was not present, they were quite often turbulent, sometimes joyful and sometimes somberly earnest.

One of them was attended by Reb Yitzchak Lebedov, a veteran Muscovite who as a Cantonist had undergone severe torment for his faith. He was born in Polotzk in the province of Vitebsk, and at age nine he had been abducted and conscripted into the Cantonists’ unit in the czarist army, in Smolensk. From there, he and dozens of other Jewish children were taken on a year-long trek to Vladimir, where their captors tortured him and over twenty others in order to persuade them to baptize. Reb Yitzchak was one of the surviving half of the group.

When he finally returned to Moscow and met a number of Jews from Polotzk and Vitebsk, he began to learn alef-beis, and within a year he was able to understand a passuk of Chumash alone.

A few years later a wealthy individual from Polotzk, Reb Zalman Maniyevitch, settled in Moscow, and since he was a very chassidisher yungerman, he brought with him his personal tutor, Reb Nosson Polotzker, who had been a chassid of the Tzemach Tzedek. He was a man with a warm heart who took his davenen seriously.9 Blessed with a fluent tongue, he soon charmed the chassidic community of Moscow with the maamarim that he repeated and the chassidishe niggunim that he sang.

Reb Yitzchak Lebedov reminisced: “Reb Nosson the Melamed was particularly fond of us, the Cantonists, and of our outwardly coarse – but truly self-sacrificing – fellows, the soldiers who had been conscripted to the army of Czar Nicholas. We loved listening to the stories from the Gemara and Midrash that Reb Nosson used to tell us.

“Reb Nosson knew my father, Shlomo the Potter. My father knew the whole of the Mishnayos by heart, and when he stood with his pots and pans in the marketplace he would repeat them audibly, from memory. Reb Nosson also knew my mother’s father, Reb Chaim Elye the Baker, who had been a chassid of the Alter Rebbe.

“One day Reb Nosson the Melamed told me: ‘You know, Itche,10 it’s such a pity for the souls of your father and grandfather! They were big learners, and chassidim, and you’re an ignoramus.’

“Those words were so meaningful that I burst into bitter tears. I went home, read Tehillim all night long with an aching heart, and wept. Before daybreak I fell asleep, and dreamed that my father told me, ‘Go off to the Rebbe and you’ll feel good. Itche, go off to the Rebbe!’11

“When I told this to Reb Nosson, he told me I should not breathe a word of it to anyone; I should just do what my father told me to do, and make the trip to the Rebbe in Lubavitch as soon as possible. I arrived there a few weeks later and told the Rebbe my whole story. And when I told him of how we Cantonists were tortured, he sighed and shed tears.

“The Rebbe then told me: ‘I knew your zeide, Chaim Elye the Baker, and your father, Shlomo the Potter. They were both great chassidim. May G‑d grant that you, too, will be a chassid. Learn every day’s Chumash with Rashi, learn Kav HaYashar,12 and say Tehillim with Maamados.’13 And he gave me his blessing for a long life.

“When I told Reb Nosson what the Rebbe had said, he told me that no one should know of it. And from that time on, he taught me Chassidus. For fifteen years I learned and heard Chassidus from him, and on the course of that time I was able, thank G‑d, to learn a passage of Likkutei Torah by myself.

“Whenever he farbrenged, which was often, it was his passion that heated the boiler... He would demand mesirus nefesh, and would say (using a Russian idiom) that a chassid without mesirus nefesh is useless even for the devil.

“Once at a farbrengen he said to Reb Zalman Maniyevitch: ‘What’s needed is mesirus nefesh.’ Reb Zalman was very generous with his charity, and Reb Nosson expected of him that he should devote more time to study Torah and to daven at length. As Reb Nosson expressed it, ‘Your tzedakah doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to study and to daven.14 You’ve got no time? That’s no excuse. You’ve got time to sleep, no?’ And he would conclude in Russian: ‘What do you think it takes to be a chassid? To be able to gobble a pancake?!’ ”