1. [One1 of the chassidim asked:] It is taught in Chassidus that one’s avodah on Shemini Atzeres strives in two directions – kabbalas ol [i.e., humble submission to the yoke of the Kingship of Heaven], and simchah [i.e., joy]. Now these appear to be two opposite directions – kabbalas ol involves a self-restriction of the soul,2 whereas simchah liberates the soul to express itself freely.3

[The Rebbe answered:] Shemini Atzeres is linked to Simchas Torah, the Rejoicing of the Torah – and the Torah bridges two opposites.4 This applies likewise to the faculties of the soul.5

2. [The Rebbe then discussed the place of weeping in the course of davenen, and added:] Weeping generally proceeds from stern intellectual stress. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, by contrast, weeping proceeds from chayus, vitality. We are not speaking here of merirus, active remorse, which is of course distinct from atzvus, sadness – for Chassidus despises atzvus and praises merirus. Here we are speaking of weeping that proceeds from chayus, vitality. This means that when one weeps on Rosh HaShanah and the Ten Days of Penitence and Yom Kippur, this results not from one’s awareness that something is lacking; it results from the cleaving of [the soul’s] essence to [its Divine] Essence.6 This is enabled by the self-revelation of the [Divine] Essence to its “part” – that is, the embodied soul – and hence, that “part” cleaves to the [Divine] Essence.

This process is not the same as the concept that during the Ten Days of Penitence “the Luminary draws near to the spark;”7 it is far higher than that concept. So what is it? While one has it, there is no time to stop and consider it, and afterwards it is difficult to picture it.

What, then, is the content of Shemini Atzeres?

The root of the word atzeres (עצר) is related to the concept of limitation and also to the concept of absorption. This root appears in the following phrases: atzar HaShem be’ad kol rechem,8 where it implies withholding; na’atzrah na osach,9 where it implies detaining; and yoresh etzer,10 where it implies limitation. The name “Shemini Atzeres” thus suggests that this is a time to hold back and to contain, to internalize – a time to knock into one’s head [the bottom line of all of one’s spiritual labors during] Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

3. The Baal Shem Tov invested effort not only in [teaching spiritual subjects to] his disciples and chassidim; he also laid down a fundamental principle as to how one should relate to all worldly matters.

In this spirit, he once showed his disciples how a certain rav was eating meat on Shabbos in honor of Shabbos – but at that very time that man himself looked like an ox, because he was eating the meat of an ox. In that way the Baal Shem Tov showed his disciples that wherever a man’s will or desire is, that is where he himself is, totally. The same principle applies in the spiritual realm: if a person’s will or desire is there, then that is where he himself is, totally. The converse is also true, and this can drag him down to the lowest pit.

As is well known, “G‑d’s attribute of benevolence outweighs His attribute of stern judgment.”11 Thus, “in His attribute of benevolence, He counts a positive thought as a deed,12 whereas in His attribute of stern judgment, He does not count a negative thought as a deed.”13 There is just his thought alone – and if that is where that person’s will or desire is, then he himself is there. That man who was eating his meat didn’t know that he was an ox. He [believed that he] was eating for the sake of Heaven.14 Nevertheless he was an ox, because that is where his will or desire was.

Chassidus taught people to consider themselves from a fresh perspective. This also means that a person ought to weigh and consider what headspace he was in, half an hour ago. For so long as a person has a will – a yearning – for Elokus, he is there, but immediately after that, he can be an ox, for wherever his will is located, that is where he himself is located.

The Baal Shem Tov poked holes in the world’s veiling of Divinity; through those holes, the Alter Rebbe with his Chabad Chassidus drew down light.

As R. Shmuel Ber15 used to say: “There’s no father, there’s no mother, there are no brothers, there are no sisters, there’s no sky, there’s no earth; there’s only Elokus and Torah.”

Chassidus made even the loftiest perceptions attainable by means of intellectual comprehension – even perceptions of which R. Shimon bar Yochai says in the Zohar16 that “with one [constant] bond am I bound with Him.” This is an instance of the concept in Tanya regarding [the fusion between the mortal mind that encompasses a Divine concept in the Torah and at the same time is utterly encompassed by it].17 Rashbatz,18 who was the measuring stick par excellence of Chassidus, once said: “[The soul, whose source is] Supernal Wisdom19 in the World of Atzilus, is a bag of Atzmus20 with flesh.”

* * *

One can arrive at a grasp of the loftiest concepts only by first attaining the level of truth. And truth, integrity, is a straight line – meaning that one says what he [really] thinks, and what he says, he does.

* * *

The Baal Shem Tov showed that in the presence of semi-literate graybeards,21 a Torah scholar should stand shamefaced. True, they read the Holy Tongue with mistakes, but their artless simplicity makes them stand immeasurably higher than a Torah scholar.

4. About 1700 years have passed since the beginning of the Babylonian diaspora, when Rav arrived there and founded a yeshivah, and he was followed by Shmuel and Rava and other scholars. At first it was thought that his aim was simply the study and dissemination of Torah study, but soon the faculty was broadened by the appointment of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak. He was able to become the menahel ruchani, the spiritual director responsible for the guidance of the students, because the uncle who brought him up was a chassid – Rav Acha Chassida, which is Aramaic for “Rav Acha, the chassid.” The spiritual director’s title was resh kallah, which is Aramaic for “head of the Torah assembly.” Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak did not deliver academic lectures. Only in a few places in the Talmud do we find his statements on Halachah, except for the legalistic rulings that he cited in the name of other masters, such as Rav Huna and Rav Yosef. By contrast, he appears very often in the realm of aggadah,22 because he was a menahel ruchani, a moral mentor – a position that continued after his time.

This tradition, however, was forgotten for some 1500 years, until my revered father founded the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah and appointed a mashpia to serve that function.23

Some of today’s yeshivah heads are not serious scholars: study is not their main concern; they don’t spare a thought for the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch; for [the everyday laws summarized in] the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch they rely on their wives; they don’t study [the part of the Shulchan Aruch that is entitled] Orach Chayim;24 in their eyes, [the part that is entitled] Yoreh Deah25 is not really needed, because people don’t ask them questions that relate to it; and so too with the other parts of the Shulchan Aruch. Their only interest is to use their scholarship to outwit each other. In the past, by contrast, yeshivah heads were immersed in their studies. A rosh yeshivah would first toil individually to master a text, then listen to how a colleague understood it, until ultimately, by analyzing it together, they would arrive at its true meaning. In contrast, the above-described individuals revel in academic dueling, seeking only to flaunt their scholarship by refuting each other’s arguments. They study a passage of Gemara only for the sake of the subtle argumentation in [commentaries such as] Ketzos [HaShulchan], instead of studying the commentaries in order to better understand the Gemara. As to the Giver of the Torah, He is completely forgotten. Hence, if such scholars, lacking serious scholarship, misunderstand statements in Tosafos, Rashi, Gemara or Mishnah, that is because they lack the guidance that ought to have been provided by a spiritual mentor.

5. A chassid ought to have mastered all of the printed works of Chassidus.26 One should study them all, even if not intensively,27 in order to become familiar with their range of concepts. Reading Ateres Rosh in that manner should take a week, Shaarei Orah should take ten days, and so on.28 As to intensive study,29 that can be undertaken instead of time spent on idle talk (which adds up to a lot of time). When a person studies a maamar and then talks about it, that is of course preferable to idle talk, but what is expected is beyond that.

A time will soon come, in a few years’ time, when people will tear their hair in anguish when they realize what they missed out on during the years of exile. True, today people groan over the present bitter exile, but at that time they will tear their hair for having missed this rich period.

Everyone should make the effort to study every day for at least an hour – more or less, but one shouldn’t allow twenty-four hours to pass without studying Torah.

Today, [Shemini Atzeres,] is a time for teshuvah ilaah, the higher level of teshuvah.30 In these generations of ours,31 it is within the reach of every Jew, in fact more than during the period of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and it can be attained by [metaphorically] holding on tight to the etz-chayims32 of the sefer Torah.

[At this point one of those present asked:] But after all, how can one in fact arrive at that level?

[The Rebbe answered:] If only throughout the year it would be as easy to arrive at the lower level of teshuvah as it is to arrive at the higher level of teshuvah today!

[The Rebbe concluded:] Doing so doesn’t require a vessel. After all, a pauper can wish for a million, even though he has nothing. It is possible to desire a great deal, as was discussed earlier.33 Doing so doesn’t require a vessel.

It is written, Keilim reikim al tam’iti.34 [With these words, the Prophet Elisha instructs her: “Borrow] empty vessels, and do not diminish their number.” [On the non-literal level of interpretation known as derush, the Rebbe here reads the first two Hebrew words as a question, and the third word (al, translated “do not”), which implies negation, as an answer. Accordingly, in those three words the Rebbe perceives the following message:] What are the “empty vessels?” I.e., how can one make oneself into a more capacious vessel to accommodate the presence of G‑d? – By negating [one’s ego in His presence].

This concept recalls a teaching of the Mitteler Rebbe in Toras Chayim on the Talmudic admonition, “One should always be flexible like a stalk of grain, and not tough like a cedar.”35

* * *

On Simchas Torah,36 everyone ascends to the Torah.37 One should raise himself towards the Torah. True, a person is also spiritually higher whenever the Holy Ark is opened throughout the year – but that ascent does not equal one’s ascent on this day.

On Shemini Atzeres in the year 5662 (1901), a number of people who throughout the year had no connection with the Torah entered the beis midrash [in Lubavitch] and immediately joined the dancing throng. Observing a smirk on the face of one of the local chassidim, my father told him: “You are desecrating that which is holy!” And he added: “On Simchas Torah, every minute is worth a year.”

6. There happens to be a common expression for a Torah scholar: a ben Torah – literally, “a son of the Torah.” That means that the Torah fathered him, and by nature a child is drawn to his parents.

7. What is needed on Shemini Atzeres is the walls [of one’s spiritual sukkah], not the s’chach.38