Most of the farbrengens in this volume focus on a particular date, whether a Yom-Tov or a chassidic red-letter day, yet in addition, each of them is packed with a wealth of colorful information and thought-provoking inspiration on a vast range of subjects. Thus, whether a reader seeks intellectual stimulation by an original or transmitted Torah teaching, or is fascinated by chassidic history, or candidly feels a need to upgrade his daily davenen, or seeks to dig beneath the surface of oft-heard chassidic concepts and well-worn phrases, this volume offers an appetizing smorgasbord to pamper the spiritual palate of every connoisseur.

To start with, this volume is the original source for some of the best-loved moments in the memory of any chassid. For example: The Alter Rebbe1 was once challenged by the unloving scholars of Shklov to prove his scholarship by answering their learned queries. However, instead of doing so by delivering a learned discourse, “he began to sing a haunting melody, and in it the local scholars heard the intense yearning of a lofty soul. A sweet stillness stole into the heart of every man there; deep in thought, they did not sense for a while where they were. As they listened, the thorny questions and problems that had brought them there all found their sure answers. With his melody lending voice to his dveikus, he refreshed their minds from the wellsprings of wisdom, unlocking their intellectual tools. He raised them aloft to a level at which their problems all vanished.”

In this volume the Rebbe Rayatz2 allows us to listen in to a pungent exchange between R Aizel of Homil and R. Hillel of Paritch. He allows us to envy the davenen of Reb Isser the Chazzan, who was so engrossed in intoning the Avodah of the Kohen Gadol in the Beis HaMikdash, that he alone did not realize that at that same moment, the wooden beis midrash in Lubavitch was being shaken up by a violent explosion of thunder and lightning. And speaking of davenen, we read that the Mitteler Rebbe3 said of R. Binyamin Kletzker’s mode of avodah while davenen, that “the angels who minister on high would gladly exchange their avodah with his!”

On what is perhaps a more familiar level of davenen, we read how an unsophisticated villager by the name of R. Elye Abeler challenged the Rebbe Maharash4 at yechidus: “How can a person be expected to think holy thoughts while he is busy peddling his wares among the gentile townsfolk?” And we hear the answer of the Rebbe Maharash: “If a person can have alien thoughts while saying Shemoneh Esreh, he can think holy thoughts while he is out on the street…” We also hear the advice that the Rebbe Maharash gave to a chassid who complained that even though he toiled until he grasped a concept in Chassidus, he did so without relish.

Another recurring topic is the role of a niggun in one’s avodah – for example: how it ought to be sung (“as it is, without cantorial frills”); the various genres of meditative niggunim; and an explanation as to why “a meaningful melody is able to open a gate from the yechidah to the chayah” and so on, and is thereby able “to reveal transcendent lights in the conscious faculties of the soul.” Yet even avodah at that level calls for caution. Thus, for example, we read of how the Rebbe Rashab5 characterized two classical archetypes of chassid: “An oved walks on his feet; a maskil walks on his head. When a maskil walks he is audible and visible; an oved walks by unnoticed...”

The list of subjects is endless. We learn about perceiving the Ten Creative Utterances that are constantly present in any created entity; about the contrast between Yeshayahu and Yirmeyahu; about the campaign for the widespread memorization of Mishnayos; about what the Rebbe Rayatz expected of the temimim, both with regard to themselves and to others; about the various levels of festive meals; about the early history of the Baal Shem Tov; we read about the role and the responsibility of a community’s mashpia; about the daily schedule of an ordinary tailor or butcher, and about how giving tzedakah to someone who was even poorer came naturally to that needy tailor or butcher, because “the earnings I have from Above include your share, too.” We also read the informal diary entries written by the seventeen-year-old educational director of Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim, the Rebbe Rayatz.

On the other hand, not all the recurring themes in the present volume are heartwarming. One is the author’s intense anguish at what European Jewry was undergoing at the time, in 1943, at the peak of the Holocaust. He repeatedly urged his listeners to feel the pain of their brothers and sisters, and to do whatever could be done to alleviate it. He also took action to see to it that the thousand Polish-born refugee children, mostly orphans, whom self-sacrificing fellow Jews had recently rescued and brought to the Holy Land via India and Teheran, should be transferred to institutions that respected the lifestyle in which they had been nurtured in their observant homes.

Another subject that pained the Rebbe Rayatz was the frigidity of American Jewry at the time. Unafraid of using forthright language, he speaks of stores with treife kosher-certificates; of European migrants now attending a modernized house of worship in order to be entertained by the sermons of its “rabbinic jester”; he speaks of “Jewish grandfathers wandering about with the Shabbos issue of their Yiddish-language newspapers”; of the widespread neglect of the laws of family purity; and of the cultural alienation of children and their consequent intermarriage. As to the faithless and utterly unobservant rabbis who taught in after-hours Talmud Torah schools, he declares that “the fact that the prominent members of Agudas HaRabbonim (the roof organization of Orthodox rabbis) stand aside coolly in the face of this situation is utterly incomprehensible.”

The first response of the Rebbe Rayatz to this situation is a cry from the heart. He describes how the Prophet Yonah thought that he could hide himself from G‑d and ran away to a ship. There, not realizing that the ship was foundering, he fell asleep, until the captain shouted: “What are you doing there asleep?”

The Rebbe Rayatz concludes: “American Jews have jumped onto a ship and have landed in a very nice country, where they have fallen asleep without realizing that the ship is in danger. Why are they waiting until the captain wakes them up?”

The other response of the Rebbe Rayatz is a pioneering call to his chassidim, and especially to the temimim – to go out in the streets and to engage in active outreach with regard to all the above, and in particular, to the practical observance of mitzvos.

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This volume was translated and annotated6 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’Artzos 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.

This is the sixth volume to appear in a unique series that is giving thousands of eager readers the gift of direction and inspiration. The entire series owes its ongoing success above all to the far-sighted initiative of its sponsor, Yossi Malamud.

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In this outspoken volume, with its stark description of widespread passivity in the face of the ravages of assimilation in the 1940s, the Rebbe Rayatz looks each of us straight in the eye and leaves us with a bold challenge: What action are we personally taking in our days to stem that tsunami? We read here of how he defied the prevalent apathy of his generation and blazed new paths in outreach. And for our generation the Rebbe has opened up even more avenues of outreach, via the broad spectrum of mivtza’im and via the world-spanning network of motivated shluchim. Equipped with such opportunities, each of us can confidently meet the above challenge with a meaningful response.

Sichos In English

Yud Shvat, 5779 (2019)