1. One of our Rebbeim once said that a white beard left him overawed. He interpreted the words,1 Vehadarta pnei zaken [lit., “Respect the presence (or: the face) of an old man”] to mean that by observing the face of a zaken (“an old man”), a person becomes hadur – more beautiful, spiritually. He is overawed by perceiving the Elokus that is present in the hair of a sage’s beard (zakan), just as there is holiness in the hair of a nazir.2

There is a well-known teaching of the Sages3 that [when departed souls behold their Evil Inclination from the perspective of the World of Truth], “these will weep, and those, too, will weep. The tzaddikim will weep [with joy], because they now see that their Evil Inclination was a mountain, [and nevertheless they overcame it]. The resha’im will weep [with bitter remorse], because they now see that their Evil Inclination was a mere hair, [and nevertheless they surrendered to it].” And indeed, in the early stages of one’s Divine service, the numerous mitzvos with all their detailed specifications appear formidable. Moreover, they cannot be taken lightly: each mitzvah is either a positive commandment or a prohibitive commandment.

In truth, however, a person should begin his Divine service with [a task that is no more formidable than] a mere hair. The animal soul doesn’t try to seduce a person by tempting him to transgress an outright prohibition, because for any Jew that would be out of the question. Rather, he tries to tempt him to transgress a marginal prohibition that is so slight that it hangs on a mere hair. In the same way, a person should begin his Divine service with [a task that is no more formidable than] a mere hair.

2. The first time R. Faivl Zalmanov4 came to Lubavitch was in 5656 (1896), that is, before the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah was founded. At that time, as was the custom in all chassidishe towns, the subject of group study in Lubavitch during the winter was Torah Or, and in summer, Likkutei Torah. People often used to say that merely being in Lubavitch, even without considering the studying and the davening, but merely treading on its soil, itself had intrinsic value. However, that approach stems from [the emotive levels of the soul known as] Chagas, whereas Chabad demands active avodah. (At the level of Chagas, the subject of one’s meditation is “[Blessed are You…,] Who grants the rooster understanding,”5 whereas the subject of meditation that springs from Chabad is Shema Yisrael and Baruch Shem.) Those who led those study sessions were Rashbatz,6 R. Chanoch Hendel,7 the halachic authority R. David,8 and R. Yaakov Koppel [Zeligson]. On Thursday evening the chassidim used to farbreng. A five-hour farbrengen was considered a short one; a long farbrengen continued through the night.

3. Once, when I entered my father’s study after one of those public study sessions and he asked me what had been studied, I told him that the text was the maamar in Torah Or which begins, VeEileh HaMishpatim, and which expounds the verse, “I will sow the House of Israel […] with the seed of man and the seed of cattle.”9 This verse alludes to souls of two levels. A man has daas, an animal has not – and here, daas means the ability [not merely to know something, but] to experience it, as in the verse, “And Adam [lit.,] knew.”10

My father explained this distinction to me by the analogy of a man and an animal that are both looking at an object. The animal, too, has eyes, and sees, but unlike the man, it doesn’t understand what it sees. And even if on occasion the animal does understand what it sees, it doesn’t sensitively experience it.

(It is difficult to use the term “animal,” because some people are going to find it painful. Chassidim, however, understand that these terms are both speaking of relative levels of souls, and they appear explicitly in a verse. Moreover, as is stated in the gloss there in Torah Or, almost all the souls in these generations of ours are of the seed of cattle.)

In the present era, even an animal must have spiritual sensitivity. It is us who are being addressed, yet people don’t have that sensitivity. In the words of a familiar metaphor, “Even if you pound a fool in a mortar in the midst of crushed grain with a pestle, his foolishness will not depart from him.”11 So long as there are grains in the mortar, he thinks that the pestle isn’t directed at him, but at the grains. All of mankind is suffering, yet the fool deludes himself that [words of admonition] aren’t directed at him. The fact is, however, that if the Jewish people repent, they will immediately be redeemed.12 The Gemara says that G‑d will raise over them a king whose decrees are as severe as those of Haman, until they repent. The situation today is more severe than it was under Haman, so surely people should do teshuvah!

Out of ahavas Yisrael, surely one ought to approach a fellow Jew and plead with him: Gevald!13 Have pity! One should be doing teshuvah!” But the fool still isn’t coming to his senses:14 in practice, absolutely nothing is being done. It is difficult to specify, but rabbis, regular householders, people who conduct Torah classes, shochtim, yeshivah students, are doing nothing. They are preoccupied with petty vanities, such as the pursuit of honor. People are toying with tin whistles. A fire is raging, so surely one should try to salvage whatever can be salvaged, but a person doesn’t recognize that fact. His own house is on fire! His children! And so is he himself!

4. When the Prophet Yirmeyahu delivered his prophecies, people didn’t quite connect with them, even when he wrote Eichah yashvah badad,15 [in which he likens Yerushalayim in its mournful desolation to a forlorn widow]. Our brethren overseas are drowning in a woeful ocean of blood. Are we better than them? If we were saved, so what? We are here, thank G‑d, in a peaceful land (and may G‑d grant that it remain thus) – but does that mean that we are any better than our brethren?! I am utterly certain that they over there are tzaddikim. Even those who did not put on tefillin and the like, at this time are perfect tzaddikim. In fact, it could well be that they over there are suffering for us, on account of us. It could well be that “this evil has occurred because of you!”16

How does one feel their pain? How should one express his sensitivity to their plight? True, people give tzedakah – but how? After settling down to a good meal and then reading the paper, one puts his hand in his pocket and writes out a check, and a couple of minutes later, the whole subject is forgotten. That is not enough. While he is eating, he shouldn’t feel comfortable about the bite in his mouth. At that moment he should stop and think: What’s doing with those fellow Jews overseas? Do they have a piece of bread? Should I be breaking off some of mine and sending it to them? Yet the main way to help them is by means of doing teshuvah, studying Torah, and davening – davening with a minyan and studying a chapter of Mishnayos. You see elderly Jews walking about with newspapers in their pockets. What’s with davening with a minyan and studying a chapter of Mishnayos? In their fifty years in this country they’ve forgotten all about that. They hail from Vitebsk and Rakshik and other such towns. What they should be doing now is studying Maavar Yabok,17 so that they’ll know how to prepare themselves for “after 120 years.” A sense of ahavas Yisrael should prompt one to wake them up.

5. In the year 5668 (1908), while at a health resort, my uncle the Raza asked my father, “Why must meditation on Chassidus take place specifically during davenen? Why would it not be sufficient to undertake this hisbonenus before davenen or at another time?”

My father answered that this timing was in fact imperative. Otherwise, he explained, it would be possible for a subject to be understood thoroughly, without being brought to the stage of actual application. This could even lead to a sin. My father perceived a hint of this in the following verse, [which he proceeded to expound at the non-literal level of interpretation called derush]: “And they were both naked, Adam and his wife, and they felt no shame.”18

Arumim, the word for “naked,” can also mean “clever”; hence, Adam and his wife both had intellectual understanding. However, as the verse goes on to say, velo yisboshashu (“they felt no shame”). The letters that spell these two Hebrew words (וְלֹא יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ) suggest the phrase, וְלֹא בָּא שֵׁשׁ – they did not extend as far as the six [middos, the six character attributes that one ought to work on and refine]. It was a lack of this avodah that led to the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge, which one opinion identifies as a fig tree and another, as a stalk of wheat.19

Now, the word for fig tree (תְּאֵנָה) recalls the word meaning pretext (תּוֹאָנָה). When one’s intellectual mastery of chassidic concepts is not translated into practical work on his middos, he perceives only himself, and seeks reason to complain about the faults of others. That other fellow is a liar, is conceited, is too self-centered, and so on – whereas he doesn’t pause to think about himself.

Wheat is an idiom for understanding.20 This idiom alludes to a maskil, who grasps a concept thoroughly, both in nekudas hahaskalah and in nekudas hatamtzis21 – but that can’t be called eating, actually ingesting.

[After repeating this teaching of his father, the Rebbe Rayatz now added a comment to his listeners, relating to what he had just been saying:]

People hear what is being said. They listen attentively. People even discuss these things among themselves, and write them down, too. However, as above, velo yisboshashu – those concepts don’t get as far as being translated into actual, practical avodah.

6. The Rabash – [acronym for] R. Baruch Shalom, eldest son of the Tzemach Tzedek22 – was extremely humble and contrite of heart. Unlike his brothers,23 he did not become a Rebbe after the passing of his father. He used to say that he remembered his father, the Tzemach Tzedek, his grandfather, the Mitteler Rebbe, and his great-grandfather, the Alter Rebbe24 – and that was why he could not undertake a nesius. On the fact that [the Rabash, the oldest son of the Tzemach Tzedek,] remembered the Alter Rebbe, my grandfather the Rebbe Maharash [who was the youngest son] used to say that this was an instance of the “double portion” that the eldest son is entitled to inherit.25 To this the Rebbe Maharash added that a “double portion” alludes to matters that surpass the limits of the physical world.26

7. One day, my grandfather the Rebbe Maharash sent my father [the Rebbe Rashab] to be examined in his studies by his uncle, the Rabash. My father, who was then about seven years old, was learning the mishnah of Arbaah Avos in Tractate Bava Kama. On that occasion, the Rabash told my father that he recalled how when he himself was about seven years old, the Alter Rebbe had taught him that same mishnah.

(At that time, the Alter Rebbe also taught him the melodies to which the Torah, Nevi’im and Kesuvim are cantillated.27 Within the Torah [i.e., the Chumash] itself there were distinctive melodies according to which he would read the Song of Az Yashir,28 the Song of Ali Be’er,29 and the Song of Haazinu.30 There were also unique melodies for the passage beginning Vayehi binso’a,31 and for the passage that details the itinerary of our forefathers in the wilderness.32 )

This is how the Alter Rebbe interpreted the above-mentioned mishnah:

There are arbaah avos nezikin – literally, four “fathers” of damages, meaning that there are four kinds of damages that result from four causes of damages. Resulting from those causes there are numerous specific kinds (called tolados – lit., “offspring”) of damages, but there are only four “fathers” of damages. [The Alter Rebbe now enumerates those parent causes of damages, as in the mishnah: [a] an unguarded ox that gores; [b] an uncovered pit into which someone’s animal falls; [c] an unleashed animal whose teeth chew their way through a neighbor’s vegetable patch; [d] an unmonitored fire. Here, however, the Hebrew names of these parent causes of damages are each interpreted on the level of derush, so that they now relate to possible spiritual damages that call for vigilance.]

[a] The word meaning “ox” (שׁוֹר – pronounced shor) can be vocalized to read shur, a root which means “to look.” This cause of damages is… looking where one should not look.

[b] The word meaning “pit” (בּוֹר – pronounced bor) can be vocalized to read bur, a word which describes an uncultivated field where things grow wild. This is true even of a person who does study Torah and does perform the mitzvos, except that he does so by rote, uncultivated by the toil of avodah.

[c] The word מַעֲבֶה (pronounced maaveh), signifying “tooth” (שֵׁן), alludes to a person who does say a berachah before he eats, but he then chews away unthinkingly.

[d] The word signifying “fire” (הֶבְעֵר – pronounced hev’er) hints at anger.

These, the Alter Rebbe concluded, are the four “fathers,” the four parent causes, of [spiritual] damages.

(One of the rabbis listening to this talk of the Rebbe Rayatz queried: “But isn’t there an opinion in the Gemara that the word maaveh, signifying one of the above parent causes of damages, refers to man?” To this the Rebbe Rayatz replied:) There’s no greater cause of damage than man.

8. When the Alter Rebbe arrived in Vitebsk, it was a town filled with sages and scholars of standing. Seventy years earlier, the leading Torah centers had been Minsk, Brisk and Polotzk, and before them, Vilna. The townsfolk of Polotzk at the time were unlearned, but later, after the Behman Decree had lapsed,33 a number of eminent scholars settled there and it became renowned for its sages. The local custom was for married students to daven vasikin, at daybreak, and then to study throughout the day – until midnight, when they did Tikkun Chatzos with a minyan. The unmarried students used to study throughout the night.

For some time the Alter Rebbe, too, followed this schedule, but then he began to daven from the Siddur of the holy Shelah34 and to follow the directives of the Kabbalah. There were some Kabbalists in Polotzk, including the father and grandfather of R. Azriel Polotzker. They used to refer to the Alter Rebbe as der-yungerman-baal-mekubal, because on the one hand they had to address many of their questions on Kabbalah to him, but on the other hand, he was still a very young man.

Around the year 5525 (1765),35 the Alter Rebbe proceeded from Polotzk to Mezritch. By that time, the Maggid had already borne the mantle of nesius for four years, after R. Zvi, the son of the Baal Shem Tov, had succeeded his father for the first year after his father’s passing.

9. While in Mezritch, the Alter Rebbeheard many teachings that had been transmitted from the Baal Shem Tov. Thus, when he went from there to Vitebsk, he announced from the dais in the beis midrash that he had brought his listeners a fresh Torah teaching, and they readied themselves to hear it, as follows:

The Torah commands: “Do not accept a false report.”36 This command includes the prohibition against hearing and accepting lashon hara, slander.37 The verse continues: “Do not collaborate with a wicked person to serve [him] as eid chamas, a corrupt witness.” Now, in what way does that continuation explain the preceding prohibition against hearing and accepting slander? After all, the Sages derive the prohibition against serving as a corrupt witness from a different verse!38

To explain the link, the Alter Rebbe now cited a teaching that he had heard from the Maggid in the name of the Baal Shem Tov:

* * *

Every individual is endowed with a unique positive quality as a gift from Above, when his soul descends down here below. [In the course of its stay in This World,] that soul no doubt also has failings, but it still has a unique positive quality. Now, when two people [by conducting a slanderous conversation] testify to a failing of that soul, that person’s unique positive quality is taken away from him. Their slanderous talk thus directly brought about this robbery, and the word for robbery, chamas, is the same word that appeared as an adjective in the above-quoted phrase, eid chamas – “a corrupt witness.”

We can now appreciate the link in the above verse. The Torah commands us: “Do not accept a false report” in order that you should thereby “not collaborate with a wicked person” (in allusion to the Yetzer Hara), by serving as two witnesses – eid chamas, “a corrupt witness” – a witness who robs, a witness who causes that individual to be robbed of his good side, to be robbed of his positive quality.

* * *

The above teaching delivered by the Alter Rebbe aroused a stir of exuberance. After all, he was in his very essence a wise sage and a born commander, and he knew how to capture his listeners.

10. The Alter Rebbe then told them that he had another teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, as follows:

It is written:39 “When you see the donkey of someone you hate40 lying under its burden, would you refrain from helping him?! You must certainly help him.”

[The Alter Rebbe continued:] Listen, fellow Jews, to how this verse is learned in the Yeshivah on High!

When you see – When you look around carefully, you will see that…

the donkey (chamor) – that is, your chomer (“materiality”), your Evil Inclination, your materiality, is…

one that hates you [i.e., it hates your soul’s spiritual strivings]…

lying under its burden – of the body with its embedded holy sparks that are waiting to be refined and elevated by the avodah of beirurim…,

would you refrain from helping him – and leaving him, preferring loftier missions over working with your donkey?! On this the Torah directs:

You must certainly help him, for by helping him (lit., with him), you too will benefit from his power, in the spirit of the verse, “There is an abundance of harvests in the strength of an ox.”41 This avodah makes the soul’s light brighter. This brighter light is hinted at in the gematria of the word for “lying” (רֹבֵץ – rovetz), the numerical value of whose letters is equivalent (when including the kollel42 ) to the numerical value of the letters that spell the word meaning “a source of light” (צֹהַר – tzohar).43

* * *

After hearing this teaching, people stopped addressing [their ideological objections to] the Alter Rebbe. It was after hearing these two teachings that the well-known chassid, R. Gavriel, forged his connection with him.