This thought-provoking volume of talks delivered in 1942 is projected against an ominous backdrop of three critical threats – the recent threat to Jewish spiritual survival in the USSR; the then-current threat of the Holocaust to Jewish physical survival in Europe; and the ongoing non-violent threat to the survival of American Jewry as Jews.

Interspersed between scores of Torah teachings, the amazing variety of themes that give this volume its eloquent power include, among many:

Mesirus Nefesh in Russia: For example, in addition to his recollections of the horrors of incarceration in Leningrad’s Spalerno Prison in 1927, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rayatz* ) gives a detailed description of how teachers used to risk their lives day after day to conduct classes in actual dungeons. Meanwhile, above ground, the young mothers who had sent their children to study there patrolled the nearby streets as if they were peddling beans, in order to give the alert if necessary.

Living in the Land of Gold: These pages express a due disdain of “America’s dominant characteristic” – the arrogant pride of a mere mortal in the power of his wealth. He automatically becomes a self-appointed expert on what the rabbi should say or not say and what the local Jewish school should teach or not teach. However, the most outspoken criticism by the Rebbe Rayatz is addressed to those Orthodox rabbis who are embarrassed at presenting a Jewish appearance, and who evade their responsibility to counter the freethinking education committees that drafted the curricula of “the treife schools.”

In Chicago, for example, he tells these rabbis: “I am not going to apologize for confronting rabbanim with expectations of change. I have done so in the past, I am doing so now, and I shall continue to do so… – until the G‑d-fearing rabbanim will (with G‑d’s help) become more determined.” This sense of responsibility for the future of authentic Jewish education he exemplified, of course, in his own life. In 1905, for example, throughout a critical educational conference in czarist times, he worked in harmonious cooperation with the celebrated Lithuanian Talmudic scholar, R. Chaim Brisker.

Whenever the Rebbe Rayatz earnestly admonished his listeners, he spoke fearlessly, with no regard for political correctness – yet at the same time, the pill of stern rebuke was often spiced or sweetened by a touch of humor. During his 1927 arrest by the NKVD, for example, he knew that he was in mortal danger, and in fact he was soon after placed under capital sentence. Nevertheless, he not only insisted on addressing his Jewish and gentile interrogators in Yiddish, but told them that he wanted to tell them a story! One of them, sharply displeased at receiving instructions from a prisoner, put his hand to his revolver. The Rebbe Rayatz responded calmly: “If I were to tell a story even to misnagdim, they too would listen!” And he went ahead and told his story.

What Defines a Chassid? We can mention here only a mere sprinkling of the numerous teachings on this crucial question, which is so meaningful to our generation.

For a start, the Rebbe Rayatz speaks here often of davenen. Davenen is sometimes quietly accompanied by a spontaneous meditative niggun though with constant vigilance against self-delusion. Sometimes the davenen grows out of structured meditation on concepts in Chassidus that one has just been studying in preparation – but never studied as an abstract academic exercise, G‑d forbid. In the words of the Rebbe Rayatz: “Chassidus should be studied with vitality – not with conspicuous turbulence nor with vocal excesses, but with inward vigor, so that not only does the chassid feel alive when immersed in the G‑dly concept that he has studied, but the concept is alive within him. Above all, Chassidus should be studied with oneself in mind – with the intent of bettering oneself, not for the sake of mastering the subject per se.”

One’s davenen can then set the tone for his daylong avodah of self-refinement. Moreover, it can also set the tone for the session of Torah study that will follow his prayer services.

In the words of the Rebbe Rayatz: “It is possible to be an outstanding Torah scholar, a veritable prodigy, a prolific fountain of innovative and mind-boggling hypotheses, and yet have no connection whatever with the light of Torah, nor the vaguest conception of the Giver of the Torah...

“Who appreciates the light of Torah? – An oved, one who toils in the service of G‑d; he meditates, as he prays, upon a G‑dly concept. It is he who senses the Luminary within the Torah, and has the conceptual tools to appreciate and become aware of G‑dliness.”

This volume also defines a chassid in many additional parameters. It includes oral traditions about early chassidic history; verbal portraits of memorable chassidim; observations on Chassidus and Mussar; descriptions of candid and comradelyfarbrengens among chassidim; a high regard for scholarship, together with a soft spot for the unlettered; and the requirement that every individual find his spiritual comfort zone exactly where he has been stationed by hashgachah peratis, Divine Providence.

One conclusion from the above descriptions of a chassid worthy of the name is that the individual who is most likely to succeed in communicating the beauty of the chassidic tradition is someone who, regardless of whether he is young or old, is “one of the undiluted, 96-proof vintage oldtimers…”

* * *

This volume was translated and annotated* by Uri Kaploun, designed and typeset by Yosef Yitzchok Turner, and scrutinized and prepared for publication by Rabbi Yonah Avtzon. Thanks are due to: Rabbi Sholom Dober Levin, editor of Toldos Chabad B'Artzois Ha'Bris, 5660-5710, for historical information; Rabbi Aharon Leib Raskin of Otzar HaChassidim for his willing assistance in locating and interpreting sources; and to our many fellow chassidim who volunteered valuable background information.

Above all, thanks are due to Yossi Malamud. This is the fourth volume to appear in a history-making series which from the outset has been inspired, guided and prodded along its path by his public-spirited initiative.

In this volume, the Rebbe Rayatz reiterates the historic call to arms that the Rebbe Rashab addressed in 5661 (1900) to the students of the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah in Lubavitch: Kol HaYotzei LeMilchemes Beis David — “Whoever goes out to a battle of the House of David [writes a bill of divorce for his wife].”* This Talmudic teaching issued all past, present and future students of the Yeshivah with their lifelong marching orders — on a self-sacrificing trek whose unrelenting exertion will ultimately bring about the coming of Mashiach, for the “House of David” alludes to the revelation of Mashiach, David’s descendant. This appeal, to devote oneself to active outreach, resonates from these pages, loudly and clearly, to every chassid of our generation.

Sichos In English

Yud-Alef Nissan, 5777 (2017)