1. I heard the following from my father five times, and it is based on an incident that took place in the year 5585 (1825). As is well known, from the year 5583 (1823), “two kings were wearing one crown,”1 but since the Tzemach Tzedek was wise, his role as nasi was not overtly evident.2

In the year 5585 (1825), one of the chassidim of the Alter Rebbe visited Haditch and prayed at his resting place. After he then arrived in Lubavitch, the Mitteler Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek both saw the Alter Rebbe in a nighttime vision, but did not mention this to each other. When this chassid then entered the study of the Mitteler Rebbe for yechidus, the Rebbe told him that the Alter Rebbe had visited him and had told him that this chassid had pleaded too hard. The Alter Rebbe had then asked, “Why?” The chassid then entered the study of the Tzemach Tzedek, who also spoke to him about the question, “Why?” The chassid concluded that this was no simple matter.

That incident is the basis for what I want to tell you, after having heard it five times from my father.

After Minchah on the 18th of Kislev in the year 5653 (1892), on the yahrzeit of my revered grandfather, the Rayatz,3 my father took a break and rested. After Maariv, the townsfolk of Lubavitch gathered together to celebrate the festival of Yud-Tes Kislev – for the first half-hour in the home of my grandmother, Rebbitzin Rivkah,4 then for half an hour in the home of my uncle, Raza,5 and for about another half-hour in the home of my uncle, R. Menachem Mendel.6 Only then did the real farbrengen begin.

In the course of that farbrengen one of the townsmen said, LeChaim! May the merit of the protagonist of this simchah protect us!”

My father asked him: “Why?”7

2. The second occasion was Purim, 5670 (1910), in Menton.8 Among the wealthy chassidim who arrived there were R. Shmuel Gourary and R. Yaakov Horovitz of Riga. At that time R. Yaakov took a glass of mashke and said, LeChaim! May the merit of the Alter Rebbe protect us!”

My father responded, “Why?” and went on to say: “Yaakov! Do you remember that when you were in Shebishtz, whenever an emissary [of the Rebbe Rashab] arrived in town, you would run through the mud in order to hear an inspiring chassidisher teaching?”9

In Riga there was a strong-willed chassid called R. Shmuel Barshei,who used to teach the children of the local chassidim, until the wealthy members of the community made him their personal tutor. He would tutor R. Yeshayahu Berlin at 4:00 or 5:00 AM, and R. Yaakov Horovitz at 6:00 or 7:00 AM, for a few hours each. (He used to say: “Whoever claims that when he studies a chapter of Tanya, he understands it fully, is exactly like a person who claims that when he studies a passage of Chumash, he understands it as fully as when it was given at Sinai – and such a person is an utter goy and an apikores!”) Among the wealthy chassidim from whom he solicited large sums for tzedakah was Yaakov Horowitz.

Now, at the above-mentioned Purim farbrengen in Menton, my father asked him: “Why is it that when you are asked to contribute for tzedakah you ask, ‘Why?’ – whereas now, when you wish for yourself that the Alter Rebbe’s merit should protect you, you don’t ask, ‘Why?’ You know what happens when a good angel ascends to Heaven bearing a request that a certain tzaddik intercede on behalf of someone. Up there it’s a World of Truth, and truth implies judgment. Up there it’s not enough [for the tzaddik] to be a nice, easy-going guy. There has to be a Why? And in fact, at any time angels stand in awe of entering the chamber of a tzaddik. That’s why when I heard your request, I asked, Why?”

In the course of time, R. Yaakov Horovitz became more of a mekushar10 and also contributed heavily for tzedakah. The question remains as to whether he is wanted as a mekushar…

It is written, “And His surroundings storm fiercely.”11 Hair can either burn, or can obscure...12

3. The third time I heard that question was in a private conversation with my father, who said: “A pnimi should always be asking himself, Why? – because the Alter Rebbe ensured that his chassidim should not be beggars who eat bread for which they have not sweated.13 A pnimi should always be asking himself, Why? – to the extent that even when spiritual advancement is offered to him from Above, he should not want to accept it.”

On two later occasions I heard that teaching again from my father.

4. My father’s intense words at that farbrengen of Yud-Tes Kislev, 5653 (1892), made an impact on all those present. (My teacher, R. Nissan [Skobla],14 later explained everything to me at length.) The chassid who was most powerfully affected by what my father had said about asking oneself Why? was R. Hendel [Kurnitzer]. When the chassidim later gathered together in the little study hall to write their pidyonos in preparation for their visit to the Ohel, R. Hendel began to confront himself with tearful complaints: “Hendel, Why?” This continued for so long that he didn’t manage to commit his pidyon to writing, so that when he then went to the Ohel he made his requests orally, and pleaded for undeserved loving-kindness and Divine compassion. This left his spirits crushed. This wasn’t remorse, for remorse includes a trace of yearning and thirst [for the nearness of G‑d]: his spirits were plainly and simply crushed.

5. What manner of man was this chassid, R. Hendel, who had spent forty full years in Lubavitch and had utterly divested himself of the things of This World? For example, what did his diet consist of? – Bread and water. And when he had guests, such as R. Yekusiel Dokshytzer, he would add a little water – and there was enough for everyone…

His love for any fellow Jew defies description. He would virtually give his life for him. When R. Shraga Faivish Zalmanov15 was ill and needed fresh milk, R. Hendel would rise every day before dawn and walk a great distance to bring back a little pot of milk which he himself then boiled. It was this kind of conduct that recharged him with vitality. Likewise, when the news reached Lubavitch that R. Elchanan Dov [“Chonye”] Morozov had been freed from conscription to the czarist army, R. Hendel danced from sheer joy in the Rebbe’s courtyard.

When his own son was taken from him, he accepted that fact with cheerful equanimity and commented, “I suppose that’s how it had to be.” Yet one day, as he stood and watched cottages in Lubavitch going up in flames, he wept bitterly: “The property of fellow Jews is on fire!” In fact the sight of someone else’s property on fire affected his health so drastically that even the two leading doctors who were summoned from Vitebsk could not save his life.

Just before R. Hendel passed away, he asked that a certain individual, who happened at that time to be in the house, be requested to go outside, because he didn’t want to return his soul to its Maker while that man was in the house.

It is known that after a person has lived his 120 years, the punishments meted out Above follow either of two routes, one long and one short. The suffering experienced in the short route is so intense that even the Prosecuting Angels cannot watch it. Nevertheless, R. Hendel requested that he be conducted through that route, because he wanted to be admitted to the spiritual abode of the Alter Rebbe on the anniversary of his passing, which is the 24th of Teves – and R. Hendel passed away on the 19th of Teves, 5660 (1899).

Throughout all the years from 5653 (1892) until his passing, that chassid was always confronting himself with the same self-scrutinizing question, Why? That’s what chassidim used to look like.

Chassidim used to be powered by a single teaching.16 More than that they didn’t need, because that is what characterizes the attribute of truth: it lives in all of one’s 248 organs and 365 sinews, and animates them.

[Their concern was:] How does one deal with the bad neighbor, the Evil Inclination?

6. By analogy, it is human nature to feel sorry for a person who walks about in rags and tatters, and how much more is he to be pitied if he possesses enormous wealth that he is unaware of. The same is true in the spiritual analog. Every Jew – and it goes without saying that he was born after [his mother’s] immersion in a valid mikveh, and not in a bath – possesses enormous wealth, yet he walks about wearing spiritual rags and tatters, meaning here his soul’s [untapped] potentials and its [unmonitored and uncultivated] modes of expression, namely, his conscious thoughts, his speech, and his actions. How much more is he to be pitied!17

7. In Lubavitch, the Kerias Shema before Retiring at Night was not recited at all on certain nights – on the Seventh Day of Pesach, on Hoshana Rabbah, on Shavuos, and on the first night of Pesach.

Throughout the year, at midnight, it was my father’s custom to recite Kerias Shema unobserved, even when he stayed awake later. As to the above nights, when he did not recite it, on one occasion he spoke about its message and on another occasion he discussed its wording. On Shvi’i shel Pesach he would speak about Yichuda Ila’ah, which is a major theme of that day.

8. The avodah of the Baal Shem Tov and of the Maggid of Mezritch resembled the avodah of the Patriarchs before the Giving of the Torah. The avodah of Avraham found expression through gemilus chassadim, acts of kindness; Yitzchak served G‑d by [the spiritual avodah (of elevating the world through prayer) whose physical analogy at that time was] digging wells;18 and Yaakov served G‑d by [the spiritualavodah (of arousing the same Sefirah as is aroused today by tefillin) whose physical analogy at that time was] peeling rods.19 Only later came the Giving of the Torah, [which heralded the tangible mode of Divine service] that is alluded to by the well-known phrase, “Your Name is like oil that can be poured.”20

The Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch were revealed in a manner that recalls the avodah of the Patriarchs. They echoed the World Above. This is seen in the supernatural stories of the Baal Shem Tov.21

As is well known, the author of Toldos [Yaakov Yosef]22 would spend a whole day making his way on foot to the Baal Shem Tov. Arriving there he would light the Baal Shem Tov’s pipe, then daven, and then spend the whole of the next day making his way home on foot. That’s what he did. Neither did the Baal Shem Tov make a big issue of it, nor did the author of Toldos applaud himself, even though he was a towering scholar, thoroughly familiar with Kabbalah, and a chassid who took his avodah seriously – because everything in their lives echoed the World Above.23

By contrast, beginning with the Alter Rebbe, the revelation of Chabad has resembled the era after the Giving of the Torah. This school of thought is characterized by the principle of oros bekeilim (lit., “lights within vessels”), [meaning that the raw energy of the “lights” of spiritual arousal should be restrained and contained within the “vessels” of disciplined study and conduct]. This approach enables every individual to grasp and to draw down oros pnimi’im (“lofty and intense spiritual lights”) into keilim pnimi’im (“lofty and intense spiritual vessels”), and to draw down oros makkifim (“transcendental spiritual lights”) upon those vessels.

9. What is needed is actual avodah. By studying three lines of Chassidus one can engage both in intellectual comprehension and in avodah. In Chassidus, quantity doesn’t count, because the ultimate goal is actual avodah – particularly in the present era, when it must be pursued persistently and with self-sacrifice.

True, we have been endowed with freewill, but that very fact highlights our distinctive standing – in that G‑d chose to give us that gift. That choice of His indicates that we have the power to observe the Torah and its mitzvos, and to toil in actual avodah.