1. “A Jewish custom is Torah.”1 There are three ways to understand this: (a) a custom grows out of Torah; (b) a custom brings a person close to Torah; (c) a custom itself is Torah.

All the [accepted] customs were given to Moshe at Sinai. Indeed, the entire Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai and was revealed by various individuals at their respective times. Thus, although customs, too, were given at Sinai, Divine Providence determined the order by which the soul of a particular tzaddik would reveal a particular custom, and guide the Jewish people in its practice.

2. Although the various areas of Torah and custom were revealed through the souls of the tannaim, amoraim, geonim, tzaddikim and Rebbes in their respective eras, everything was given to Moshe at Sinai, with all the details relating to each mitzvah. This applies equally to [i] the mitzvos that involve the mind, such as the mitzvah of knowing and understanding Elokus to whatever extent is possible, and thereafter the mitzvah of emunah, belief in that which outpaces the mortal mind; [ii] the mitzvos that involve speech, actual articulation, such as Torah study, davenen, and the blessings made in thanksgiving for things enjoyed;2 and [iii] the mitzvos that involve practical activity.

3. [The Omer3 is now cited as an example of both the second and third kinds of mitzvah listed above.] All the details of the Omer offering – deciding on the time of reaping, and from which area in the field they would choose the grain, and which specific grain would be reaped – were accompanied by verbal announcements.4 [As to practical activity:] They reaped three se’ah of grain; ground it, including the husks, into flour; and sifted it through thirteen sieves until only a tenth of a se’ah was left.

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4. The prophets Yeshayahu, Yirmeyahu, Daniel, Yechezkel and Zechariah speak of the ultimate galus. Thus, Yechezkel5 speaks of the miracle of the dry bones, whose main purpose was to bolster the faith of the [despairing] exiles, for the dry bones came to life. Whenever a new creature is born, the marvel of it is as apparent as here, where unconnected dry bones came near to each other; they were then held together by sinews, flesh and skin; a spirit of life entered them; they stood up on their feet and became men with the power of speech. This prophecy is hinted at in the prophet’s name (יְחֶזְקְאֵל), which spells the two words, Yechazek E-l; [i.e., through him,] “G‑d will fortify” [the people’s faith]. The Divine Name E-l also appears in the phrase, E-l chessed (“G‑d of lovingkindness”), [indicating that G‑d will fortify His people’s faith not by harsh reminders but by means of chessed]. The Torah is likewise called Toras chessed (“a Torah of lovingkindness”) – and the Torah and the prophets are eternal.

We must hold on tight to the Torah, [for] “three are bound together – the people of Israel are bound to the Torah, and the Torah is bound to the Holy One, blessed be He.”6 Each of these three exists at a hidden level and at a revealed level, [so for the bond to be intense, the innermost level of each should be bound with the innermost level of each]. [And since, as above, the Torah and the prophets are eternal,] today, too, by means of the Torah [of chessed] we can sweeten and ease the birth pangs of Mashiach.

5. Devoting additional time to something indicates that one values it. If on Friday one attaches half an hour of weekday time to the beginning of Shabbos, and likewise to the end of Shabbos, this indicates that Shabbos is precious. The same applies in other fields.7

[In the absence of a clear halachic ruling on a particular practice, the Sages sometimes advise:] “Go out and see how people conduct themselves.”8 Now in fact, it would seem at first glance that this principle has no halachic foundation. One could possibly find a scholarly way to explain it, along the lines of Rambam’s explanation of a “coerced bill of divorce,”9 in which a recalcitrant husband “is coerced until he says, ‘I want’ ” [to give the divorce which the beis din ruled that he is obligated to give]. Rambam’s explanation of this paradox is that every Jew, from the viewpoint of his soul, wants to observe the commandments, except that his Evil Inclination overwhelms him.10

My intent here is not to propose learned arguments, but to speak plainly and clearly. According to universal custom, preparations for an important guest begin well in advance.11 Every corner in the house is cleaned two weeks in advance, the family talks about the upcoming visit, and the neighbors are duly updated. He’s arriving soon. It’s now close to the time when Mashiach will come. It’s time to prepare for his arrival.

[6.] Here in this country there’s a huge fallacy that everyone suffers from: people convince themselves that here in America, everything is permitted. In the shtetl back home in the Old Country, in Zhlobin or in Batchaikov, such-and-such was not permitted – but here it is permitted. Where did this self-delusion come from, even among elderly folk, that here things are different? What is the difference between Zhlobin and America?

“Wash yourselves and refine yourselves!”12 In preparation for the imminent guest, one ought to wash and cleanse oneself and one’s family, cleansing the way one eats and the way one sleeps and the way one sits. Everything must be cleaned up – by rabbanim, shochtim, householders, businessmen, fulltime Torah scholars – by every individual according to his status and his situation.

There are other categories, too, such as the case of a person who is unaware of the lofty value of a mitzvah and nevertheless performs it, and is richly rewarded. Conversely (G‑d forbid), there is the case of a person who knows what is involved and nevertheless transgresses a prohibition. His punishment is greater [than that of someone who did not know], just as there are differences between the sacrificial sin-offerings prescribed for various degrees of offense.

As we were saying, every individual ought to cleanse himself according to the needs of his personal situation. I would suggest that in addition to one’s regular study sessions, everyone should begin to memorize one mishnah a week, starting with Mei’eimasai korin es Shema.13 I have three reasons for this suggestion. If, beyond that, a person can master the Torah, or the Books of the Prophets, or the Shas, that of course is really good – but at least, even memorizing one mishnah a week and thinking of it constantly will help to cleanse the air. In that way, it will be felt in the air that what is forbidden is in fact forbidden, here in America, too.

Suppose that a peddler, walking down the street and busy with his daily affairs, realizes that it’s getting late. He drops in somewhere, washes his hands and davens Minchah. With that he is materializing the sublime intent that is rooted in the Primal Thought of the Creator. That is the fact, even though the peddler himself may not know of it.

[A propos the fact that the soul perceives more than the intellect can grasp:] My father used to take the midday meal together with the family, including our daughters, even the youngest one, and he geared his table talk to their level of understanding. One day, for example, one of them asked why there were so many stories in Chumash Bereishis – about when G‑d created the world with all its creatures; all about the Deluge; and the narratives about our patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and our matriarchs, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel. On another occasion one of them asked my father to explain what angels are all about. My father answered that was a subject for emunah, believing the truth, which is higher than the reach of mortal understanding. He explained his meaning by means of a parable:

A wagon driver with two horses is taking two very learned gentlemen to a scholarly conference. The horses are thinking about what awaits them at the end of the journey – hay and chaff! This, so their horsy intelligence tells them, is the reason for the trip. The wagon driver is thinking about the food that he’ll soon be able to buy himself. And the two scholars are discussing the words of wisdom that they will exchange with their learned colleagues at the conference.

Regrettably, the minds and hearts of some American Jews are still preoccupied with matters of food and drink, and for some, food and drink and clothes actually occupy pride of place in their daily schedule.

7. The lifestyle of this generation of American Jewry, in which Matter dominates Form,14 is an epidemic invention, countrywide. Forty or fifty years ago, once a new arrival in America had settled his family affairs, he invested effort in seeing to it that a mikveh should be built, and a cheder, and a shul. People commonly attended study sessions – in Gemara, Mishnayos, Ein Yaakov, Tanya, and Shulchan Aruch.

By means of all the Torah that a person studies and all the Tehillim that he reads, he can erase the [spiritual] letters that were created by the great quantity of idle talk15 that he has amassed. As is well known, the punishment for idle talk is kaf hakela16 and chibut hakever17 – but that all relates to the period after one’s 120 years,18 whereas we’re talking here about during one’s lifetime. It’s such a pity if someone (G‑d forbid) dies now, because Mashiach is coming soon. So19 in order to remove and erase the effects of one’s stock of idle talk, the best course of action is to memorize a mishnah every week and to think or talk about it at all times and places, and this will be effective. Likewise, every father who wants his sons to be blessed with a long life should try to memorize a mishnah with them every week. A long mishnah can be divided up over two or three weeks.

The yeshivah students really ought to schedule times to study the laws of Kodashim20 and Taharos,21 and also the laws that relate to the Land – that is, the pure land – because now, too, there are laws that apply [uniquely] to the Land [of Israel].22 Just imagine: Mashiach will arrive, and no one will know the laws governing these subjects. What an embarrassment!

8. The work entitled Maavar Yabok23 sets out the punishments in Gehinnom and the rewards in Gan Eden. Reading about those punishments is enough to make one lose any desire to indulge in idle talk, and even in any talk about matters of This World. One desires to speak only about Torah and mitzvos.

In the section on Gan Eden, that work describes how “the world On High resembles the world below.”24 There, too, there are yeshivos, and those who study in yeshivos down here will study there, too. There, too, there are shuls and shamashim, and whoever was a shammes down here will be a shammes up there, too. When does this apply? When the shuls down here are as they should be. If a shul down here is the kind of place where if a stranger drops in to ask about someone or other, he seizes the opportunity and meanwhile says a few psukim of Tehillim or a few other words of Torah, then it will be the same up there. This is the case even if he says those words by rote – provided that he says them with temimus, with the artless simplicity of an ordinary unlettered fellow who walks into shul, washes his hands, and says the passage beginning Pitum haktores.25 True, he doesn’t begin to understand what it’s all about, but since he says it with temimus and with no sense of self,26 he too has a place Up There.

If, by contrast, a person reads words from the Siddur by rote, but without any sense of accepting the Yoke of Heaven, he is not granted admittance.

The difference between This World and the next is that in This World, “A person does not know what is in the heart of his friend.”27 It can happen that a person has no idea of his friend’s actual spiritual status. He can perceive him as being in a fine state, and if someone were to reveal to him that this friend is in fact in a despicable state, he will refuse outright to believe the report. In Gan Eden, by contrast, everything is done by announcement. When someone is brought there, they announce: “This is so-and-so, the son of so-and-so,” and they enumerate everything that he has managed to do. A person in this predicament is so ashamed of himself that he hopes to be admitted to Gehinnom to undergo his punishment.

When one considers this through the eyes of a chassid, he can visualize what shame will be experienced when Mashiach comes: he is addressed as HaRav HaGaon, “the erudite rabbi,” when he knows the truth – that he has not mastered the halachah. That itself is a reason to study the Shulchan Aruch.

9. Our mentor the Baal Shem Tov was born in the year 5458 (1698),28 and the same year saw the publication in Amsterdam of Shnei Luchos HaBris29 with clear typography.

When my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, studied the teachings of the Alter Rebbe, he sought meaning in every single letter. Now, the Alter Rebbe once said that tzaddikim resemble their Creator. From this the Tzemach Tzedek deduced that just as at the Giving of the Torah, the Ten Commandments included both positive and prohibitive commandments, the self-revelation of the Baal Shem Tov likewise comprises both positive and prohibitive commandments. To start with the prohibitive commandments: The Baal Shem Tov took away the tears from Jewish faces. As is well known, he made every effort to make people happy, to make a Jew glad that he was a Jew. As a child of ten he already belonged to the circle of hidden tzaddikim. When he was seventeen, wearing a short fur jacket like the ordinary villagers, he would travel about widely in order to fortify the faith of our fellow Jews.

Once, in the midst of a midsummer drought, he arrived at a village of Jewish farmers. The crops had dried up and the farm animals were struck by an epidemic. It was a time of extreme distress. As G‑d-fearing Jews, the villagers were aroused to do teshuvah. Seeing no change, they decided to bring an itinerant maggid mochiach, an itinerant preacher of rebuke, to arouse them to teshuvah. The whole township crowded into shul. Sparing no words of rebuke, the preacher showered those simple folk with such helpings of fire and brimstone that soon enough they were all weeping loudly and lamenting.

Among them stood the Baal Shem Tov. Hearing the cries of despair uttered by the men and the women, and sensitive to the suffering of his fellow Jews, he confronted the preacher in a mighty voice: “What have you got against these Jews. Jews are good!” He then called out to all the villagers: “Let’s all start dancing together, and after Minchah there’ll be rain!”

Their first glances were doubtful. Was this stranger (G‑d forbid) lacking in faith? Was he (G‑d forbid) out of his mind? However, when the Baal Shem Tov proceeded to back his words with teachings of the Sages, they were prepared to listen to his words of encouragement and belief in salvation from Above. With their faith now fortified, they joined him in a rollicking dance. The rain poured down, and the Baal Shem Tov blessed them with plentiful prosperity.

The tears that he took away from Jewish faces were only the tears that were shed over material concerns – children, health and livelihood. One’s spiritual avodah, by contrast, which means Torah study and davenen, calls for an earnest frame of mind.

10. There’s a practice in this country that everyone observes vigilantly – insuring oneself with life assurance. I’m not going to underwrite it anyway, so as long as this country exists, it can continue, but real insurance is the Torah, because the Torah is eternal. One should ask G‑d for a clear head and luminous eyes to see the truth.