The End Implanted in the Beginning

A century ago, Jewish newspapers in Warsaw, London and New York, reported on the death of Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (“the Rebbe Rashab,” 1860-1920), in the city of Rostov on the river Don. In some papers the news was transmitted in a few terse sentences; in others full length obituaries appeared. These did not read simply as obituaries for the man, nor did they simply mourn the end of an era. They predicted nothing less than the end of Chabad.1

Chabad-Lubavitch had flourished as the most influential Chassidic movement in Russia for well over a century. Rabbi Shalom DovBer was the fifth leader in the dynastic line of rebbes that began with Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the famous author of Likutei Amarim Tanya. During the difficult decades of social and political upheaval that marked the beginning of the 20th century, the Rashab’s energetic and resolute leadership brought him to national and international prominence. He had established renowned educational institutions and influential networks among rabbis, philanthropists and government officials, in Russia, across Europe and in the Land of Israel. Most importantly, his new approach to the explanation and development of Chabad philosophy had initiated and catalyzed a renaissance of Chabad thought, devotion, and activism.

But now—just as the triumph of Bolshevism threatened Russian Jewish life with total devastation—it seemed that the chain of Chabad leadership had come to an abrupt end.

Hillel Zeitlin, in Warsaw’s Der Moment, painted a vivid picture of the Rashab’s valiance as an ideologue, an organizer, an institution builder, and a teacher. “With such a fire,” he concluded, “with such truth, and with such great dedication, he taught and disseminated the Chabad idea, the Chabad path in Torah and devotion. He was one of the last leaders in Chabad’s golden chain.”2

The educator and journalist Jacob Mark, writing in New York’s Yiddishes Tageblatt, concluded his obituary with the erroneous prediction that the Rashab’s son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, would not succeed him:

Fifty years ago the Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, 1789-1866) left four sons, who divided between themselves the majority of Russian Jewry … But all those dynasties did not last long, except for Lubavitch. And in recent years Rabbi Shalom DovBer was the sole rebbe of the entire Chabad community. He did not leave an appropriate successor. His son hasn’t the aptitude to follow in his place … I greatly doubt he’ll desire to inherit his father’s throne, even if the hasidim will agree.3

Mark was proven wrong, and in a book published a few years later he corrected his mistake. In Mark’s own words, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak “immediately demonstrated that he was worthy of that robe [of leadership]. He submerged himself in communal work with great self-sacrifice, and ignored the difficult conditions that reigned in Russia at the time … I was extremely surprised, wherefrom did that modest young man—as I knew him in Petersburg—acquire such vigor and mighty spirit … ”4 There is a seperate point to be made about Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s heroic leadership under the most trying of circumstances.5 But in the immediate aftermath of Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s passing Mark couldn’t shake the sense that this would mark the end of Chabad history.

In a memoir entry penned in 1952, more than three decades later, Rebbetzin Chana Schneersohn—whose husband was a distant relative and close confidant of the Rashab—vividly captured the shattering loss experienced by the Jews of Russia on that day, the 2nd of Nissan, 5680 / 1920:

I remember when the news arrived. At the time, contact by mail and railway was very poor. Yet we came to know of it that same day. I have no words to describe the impression that this news made. It felt as if our whole life had stopped. That’s how it was in our home, and among those who were close to us, particularly among those who were Chabad chassidim. My husband, of blessed memory, wept aloud, something he almost never did. As soon as those I mentioned found out, I don’t remember how, they came directly to us in our home. More than twenty people came to our home and sat shivah, our spirit utterly crushed. We cried so very much.6

Seven months after Rabbi Shalom DovBer breathed his last—on what would otherwise have been the eve of his sixtieth birthday—a general inventory of his archive was inscribed by his only child, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (“The Rebbe Rayatz,” 1880-1950). It began with these words:

One thousand, one hundred and seventy three discourses, “words of the living G‑d,” are extant from my father—the holy rebbe, for whose death I am an atonement—in his own holy handwriting. They are divided into five categories: 1) Discourses he delivered in public or in private. 2) Discourses that he wrote but never delivered. 3) Discourses in the first and second categories that he never completed in writing. 4) Notes. 5) Treatises.7

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s inventory continues to give a year by year account of his father’s literary productivity, together with a brief overview of the different genres that issued from his pen, and also a list of those whose role it was to “repeat” the Rashab’s discourses so that his listeners could properly commit his teachings to memory. Also listed are twelve topical categories of personal and public letters. “It is difficult to quantify the number of letters,” writes Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, but “in my possession are approximately seven hundred letters, of them about 400 addressed to me.”8

Of all of these writings, only a handful of letters had been published during the Rashab’s lifetime.9 For the most part his discourses and treatises were circulated in manuscript, hectograph and mimeograph copies within the Chabad community. For decades, many of them would not be in circulation at all, and would only come to light with their publication in the second half of the twentieth century.10 Without access to this immense body of material it was all but impossible to construct an accurate portrait of the Rebbe Rashab. The task is rendered even more daunting now that some forty volumes of his writings are available.

* * *

Studious Solitude and Stalwart Leadership

Ink on paper. Thousands of pages. Word after word, after word. Day after day, year after year. Words of the living G‑d.

In an ethical will, penned circa 1888 and addressed to his wife, Rabbi Shalom DovBer wrote that his entire life's work, on which “I spent all my days,” was nothing more and nothing less than to absorb the extant corpus of teachings bequeathed by the preceding rebbes of Chabad, and to bring their import to full realization:

I have dedicated my mind and heart to understand their words well, and thank G‑d, I have the capacity to stand among the great ones, being able to prove many philosophical matters through logical means. I have many matters inscribed in writing—regarding faith in G‑d; and regarding the creation, which occurs as something out of nothing etc; and so on—with good reasoning and intelligence … And all this derives only from the “words of the living G‑d” bequeathed by our forefathers, our holy rebbes … such that I have yet to learn even a tenth of their holy words. And I offer praise and thanks to G‑d for what has been achieved in the past, and I plead that in the future my portion should continue to be among those who toil in His Torah, and—most importantly—that this should effect me for the better in “worship of the heart, which is prayer,” and the fulfilment of His mitzvot etc.11

The Rashab wrote these lines during a period of slow, even hesitant, emergence as his father’s successor. He was his father’s middle son, and it was initially hoped his older brother would accept the responsibilities of leadership. When this hope did not materialize, the Rashab found himself under increasing pressure to take on the public role of rebbe. It wasn’t till 1893, a decade after his father’s passing, that he fully embraced this calling. But when he did, he did so with decisive alacrity and with clear-sighted vision.12

Of the period before 1893, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak would recall that though his father would deliver discourses with some regularity, and at a certain point began to receive people for private audiences, his path was fundamentally one of seclusion and introspection; Rabbi Shalom DovBer was “working with himself, and within himself.”13 But from 1893 and onward he undertook an ambitious and activist public agenda. He set out to counter the secularizing agenda of the self-styled Jewish “Enlightenment” movement and to strengthen the core institutions of Jewish religious life on a national scale.14

The Rashab’s first open foray onto the national stage came in 1895. At the time, the philanthropist Baron Horace Günzburg, chairman of the Society for the Spread of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia (referred to by the Hebrew acronym, ChaMaH), sought to establish a “reformist” rabbinical school in St. Petersburg, in a bid to undermine and ultimately supplant the authority of the traditional rabbinate. Rabbi Shalom DovBer initiated and orchestrated a successful campaign to dissuade the Ministry of the Interior from supporting Günzburg’s plan, and the project was subsequently abandoned.15 A few years later, the Paris based Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) pledged to fund ChaMaH to the tune of one million francs. The Rashab launched a successful campaign to reverse the pledge, arguing that the funds would make a far greater difference if invested in hospitals and in large industrial businesses that could provide work for Jewish families.16

On the strength of his fierce response to ChaMaH’s agenda, it is quite understandable that Hillel Zeitlin labeled the Rashab “a conservative through and through.” Yet Zeitlin made the case that even those of an “Enlightened-Rationalistic (maskilish-misnagdishe) persuasion,” should not be dismissive of Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s stature:

Our enlightened folk love to praise a Torah sage or a Tzadik when they find one who was “tolerant” in affairs of faith and ideology, one who could bend to the spirit of the time. It was particularly these merits that Reb Shalom DovBer did not have. He pointedly walked straight on his own path, he did not turn either to the right or to the left …

From the “enlightened” standpoint, naturally, this is a great disadvantage. But from an inner-psychological perspective it is very different, because Reb Shalom Ber was a whole person, a strong person, dependent on nobody. He was unwilling to pander to anyone, and had no particular desire to be pleasing in the eyes of everyone.

He did not want to bow. He was incapable of bowing. Because for him his truth was the most precious and beloved thing in life …

At the very same time Reb Shalom Ber was not a zealot in the sense that we understand that term here in Poland. He never disengaged, and never separated himself and his hasidim from other Jews. He never said “us and them.” He never came out with prohibitions and boycotts. He never militated, in the rabbinic manner, against the “heretics” (apikorsim).17

Rabbi Shalom DovBer combined unbending resolution with gracious diplomacy and collegiality. This quickly earned him the cooperation of the leading rabbis of the day, such as Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Maisel of Lodz (1821-1912), Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918), and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna (1863-1940).18 Though not always in agreement on every issue, these rabbis and others would work closely with the Rashab on a whole range of communal concerns over the course of the next quarter century.

Among other things, the Rebbe Rashab led initiatives to create new sources of livelihood for Jewish families, to provide matzah and kosher meat for Jewish conscripts in the Russian Army, and to gain government recognition of the traditional rabbinate and its authority.19 In 1913 he helped coordinate the defense of Mendel Beilis, who was falsely accused of murdering a non-Jewish child. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, the blood libel was specifically designed to vilify the Chassidic community in general and the Schneersohn family in particular.20

In 1910 Rabbi Shalom DovBer played a leading role in the sixth convention of the Ministry of the Interior’s Rabbinic Commission. There he established a working relationship with Baron David Günzburg, son and successor to the aforementioned Baron Horace Günzburg. On most issues, of course, they did not see eye to eye.21 Yet the Rashab did take the opportunity to persuade the baron to purchase a 75% stake in the famed Romm publishing house in Vilna, thereby preventing its closure.22

When the soon to be assassinated Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Stolypin, met with the leading participants of the Rabbinic Commision he gave them a cold reception. Yet, apparently recognizing Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s irreducible independence of mind and spirit, he dubbed him with an ironic honorific: “Schneersohn the revolutionary.”23

Outside of Chabad, and during his own lifetime, it was primarily Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s activism that earned him the formidable reputation reflected in the obituaries by Zeitlin and Mark. But within Chabad he is primarily remembered as “the Maimonides of Chassidic literature (Chassidus).”24 The 12th century sage Maimonides is seen as the personification of legal and philosophical mastery owing to the combination of profundity and accessibility, clarity and comprehensiveness, found in his two great works, Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchim. Likewise, the Rashab’s writings have likewise sealed his reputation as a master who pushed Chabad thought to the heights of profundity while also providing a clarity of exposition that is not only comprehensive in scope, but also supremely accessible and applicable.25

These writings continue to be the mainstay of the Chabad curriculum up to the present day, and through them we can acquire a much deeper sense of the Rashab’s own aspirations and achievements as a scholar, teacher, practitioner and perpetuator of the Chabad path. Delving into these writings it becomes clear that intellectualism is inseparable from faith, and devotion is inseparable from action.

* * *

An Educational Revolution

In 1897 Rabbi Shalom DovBer founded an entirely new kind of institution, a yeshivah—named Tomchei Temimim—whose curriculum would not only prepare young men for the rabbinate in the traditional manner, but would also entrench in them a deep spiritual sensibility. They would not only learn how to learn, but also how to pray. They would not only learn how to apply Jewish law, but also how to live in a relationship with G‑d.26

Three of Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s “treatises” (kuntreisim in Hebrew), were written specifically for the students of the Yeshivah; one (Ha-Tefillah) as a guide to the practice of prayer, a second (Ha-Avodah) as a guide to the disciplined path of becoming a servant of G‑d, and a third (Etz Ha-Chaim) to explain the ideological basis upon which the yeshivah and its curriculum were established.27

The title of the latter treatise references Genesis (2:8-9): “And the Lord G‑d planted a garden in Eden … and the Tree of Life (etz ha-chaim) in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil (etz ha-daat tov ve-ra).” Drawing on the full spectrum of Talmudic, Midrashic and Kabblistic literature, Rabbi Shalom DovBer argued that “knowledge” alone, without “life,” would lead to spiritual death. The purpose of Tomchei Temimim, therefore, was that students should study and imbibe the fundamentals of Jewish faith—as illuminated and expounded by the Chassidic masters—with the same diligence and rigor that was ordinarily applied to traditional Talmud study. Of the study of Chassidic literature he wrote, “this is the mainstay of our lives; specifically thereby will they study the revealed Torah with vitality, and they and their Torah study will be desirable before G‑d, the giver of the Torah.”28

Tomchei Temimim was established in order that the secret or esoteric facet of the Torah would be studied side by side with its revealed or exoteric facet—Kabbalah and Chassidus alongside Talmud and Halachah—such that spirit and law would be fused as one. Students would be taught to develop a tangible awareness of the presence of G‑d’s transcendence in the world; to awaken love, awe and longing for the divine within themselves; and to nourish a deepfelt commitment to faithfully realize G‑d’s wisdom and will as expressed in both the body of the Torah and in its soul.29

Here, it is worth recounting an anecdote: A student of Tomchei Temimim named Chaim Shaul Brook recalled that once—while on a visit to his home in Snovsk, Ukraine—a chassid of the parallel Kopust branch of Chabad asked him if he had a manuscript of the Rashab’s teachings that he could peruse. Brook lent him a copy of Kuntras Etz Ha-Chaim. A few days later the manuscript was returned and Brook solicited a reaction. “What does he want?!” his interlocutor responded, “That everyone should be like him?!” Brook went on to become a teacher in Tomchei Temimim’s successor institutions, first in the Soviet Union and later in the Land of Israel. Narrating this story to his own students, he would conclude that the chassid in Snovsk had understood the Rashab’s intention perfectly: He wanted the students of his yeshivah to become like him.30

Tomchei Temimim was nothing less than the institutionalization of a revolution in Jewish education. Yet this revolution can in no way be construed as an accommodation to the aspirations of self-styled “modernizers.” On the contrary, it was explicitly designed to counter the resurgent “Enlightenment” agenda of secularization and acculturation. At the same time, Rabbi Shalom DovBer set himself apart from other traditionalists; he did not suffice with conserving tradition, but rather took new steps to strengthen tradition and expand the avenues of its perpetuation. He did not merely fend off the demand that Jewish schools provide four hours of daily secular instruction. Instead he determined that the traditional curriculum must instead be augmented with four hours a day devoted to the study of the Torah’s soul.31

* * *

A New Blossoming

Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s emergence as a leader and institution builder in the public sphere was matched by a new blossoming of his intellectual ruminations and literary productivity. Between 1882 and 1897 he had for the most part delivered and written self-contained discourses. Occasionally he had also extended the elaboration of a single theme over the course of two or three discourses. But in 1897 he began composing and delivering more extensive serializations of discourses, with a single topic now being subjected to an analysis that is more searching and sustained, systematic and sophisticated.32

This genre—known as the hemshech (“series”)—was not entirely the innovation of the Rebbe Rashab. Though he would certainly stamp it with a unique style of his own, it had been pioneered in the mid 1870s by his father, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (“The Rebbe Maharash,” 1834-1882). When the first hemshechim were delivered Rabbi Shalom DovBer was a teenager, and his precociousness and enthusiasm as a student of his father are exhibited in the transcripts he made of his father’s discourses. In a letter that he addressed to one of his relatives towards the end of 1877 he gave a brief appraisal of his father’s recent work:

This past Passover my father began a discourse [beginning with the words] “vekachah tochlu oto”, and has not yet completed it. It comprises one hundred and twenty nine sections [thus far], and no one among us knows its extent,33 it may yet continue for a long while. It is a very profound discourse, kabbalistic from beginning to end—deep, deep, who can find it?34 —and the diction, moreover, is very terse … 35

This series, since known as Hemshech Vekachah Ha-gadol, was delivered over the course of about nine months. Its central thread is a profound reexamination of the divine faculty of chachmah, whose usual translation—“wisdom”—does not at all do justice to its true function and significance. Rabbi Shmuel’s sharply hewn discourses recast the entirety of the Jewish story—from the exodus from Egypt to the ultimate Messianic redemption of the future—as a redemptive journey whose route is trod by practicing the mitzvot as prescribed in the Torah. Chachmah emerges as the cosmic fulcrum through which all of existence is progressively rendered transparent to the infinite revelation of G‑d.

This encapsulation is a poor reflection of so bold, complex and substantial a work. But it serves to give a sense of the topical and conceptual scope that a lengthy hemshech of this kind encompasses. Vekachah was not simply a narrowly focused treatise, dealing with a particular question of divine cosmology, or with the spiritual significance of one mitzvah or another. Instead, it was a systematic reinvestigation, in which a wide array of classical Rabbininic, Kabbalistic, and Chassidic sources were rescrutinized, recontextualized and reinterpreted in the service of a sweeping new argument.36

There is little doubt that his father’s hemsheichim were a formative model for Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s own approach to the further development of Chabad’s intellectual project. The precedent of Vekachah also serves to highlight some of the distinguishing features found in the substantial hemsheichim delivered by the Rashab from 1897 and onwards. For example, while Vekachah focuses on the revelatory significance of chachmah, the highest of the ten sefirot, the Rashab developed a sustained focus on the creative capacity of the last sefirah, malchut. Again, the usual translation—“kingship” or “sovereignty”—does not begin to do justice to its real significance. For both, the uncoding of such kabbalistic mysteries serves as a prism for the rich illumination of life as we live it here, in this world. More will be said about this below. But for now we should note that malchut is especially associated with motherhood, creative expression, and the “feminine” form of divine manifestation.

Another important distinction between the respective teachings of the Maharash and the Rashab is stylistic. The Maharash’s presentations are usually sharp and brief, bold and cryptic. But the Rashab’s presentations are expansive, with each step of the argument being fully explained and unpacked in all its details. Psychological and sociological phenomena are also extensively described as illustrations through which to better appreciate the significance of the multitiered “worlds” of divine being and manifestation, as delineated in the Kabbalistic tradition. The different stations of emotion, intellect, will, desire, pleasure and delight—and also their relationships with one another—are all explored with a searching clarity that is nothing short of amazing.

Throughout the traditional seven day celebration of his son’s wedding, Rabbi Shalom DovBer delivered a series of discourses that runs to more than one hundred pages in its printed form. That very week he also announced the establishment of Tomchei Temimim.37 Beginning with one of the traditional marital blessings, “samach tesamach,” this hemshech uses the embodied relationship between groom and bride as a basis for a deep interrogation of the advantage of action over intellection. The joy and pleasure of mitzvah observance is compared to the joy and pleasure that is celebrated and perpetuated through marital union. Such joy and pleasure is not constrained to one aspect or another of human experience, whether cerebral, emotional or sensual. It is rather all consuming. It reaches inward, to the most essential depths of the self, and is expressed with such potency that it leads to conception, and ultimately to the creation and birth of a new person. Likewise, the mystical union achieved through the embodied service of G‑d in this physical world is such that one participates in the essential, infinite and perpetual joy of the Creator.38

Another important hemshekh, which further explores the creative capacity of malchut, was delivered just one year later, in 1898, and is known as Ranat.39 After spending a year under the tutelage of Rabbi Shmuel Groinem Estherman in the town of Zembin, near Minsk, Tomchei Temimim’s first cohort came to Lubavitch to spend the festival period of Tishrei with the Rebbe.40 It seems quite clear that this series of discourses was delivered with this new audience in mind.41 While expanding on the earlier theme of creativity, especially as embodied in motherhood, here Rabbi Shalom DovBer is most centrally concerned with the dynamic of innovation that is manifest in speech, linguistic communication, and education.42

Ostensibly, when a teacher seeks to articulate his or her understanding of a concept to an audience of students, speech and language inevitably have the effect of constricting and reducing the full breadth and depth that the teacher wishes to convey. But the Rebbe Rashab convincingly argues that in the case of a master teacher this actually initiates a process of educational reconceptualization in which the act of speech becomes generative of new insight. The constraints of language do not diminish the teacher’s understanding but illuminate it with an essential generative quality, transcending all the ordinary processes of cognition, and exponentially enhancing every aspect of its depth and breadth.

Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s argument constructs a deep analysis of human experience as the basis for an even more radical theological conclusion: Usually we construe ourselves merely as passive recipients in relation to G‑d, but this new concept of the dynamic of communication translates into a new concept of the dynamic of creation. The created universe in general, and the embodied souls of the Jewish people in particular, are construed as the cup from which G‑d drinks. The cup does not merely receive what is poured into it, but—more importantly—becomes the medium through which G‑d receives in turn. Like the teacher who receives new insight through speaking, it is as if G‑d too is exponentially enhanced through the unique relational dynamic of malchut. Without creation, and without the work of embodied souls to reveal G‑d within the finite world, the generative quality of G‑d’s infinite and essential being remains unarticulated.

* * *

The Golden Era

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these discourses include an autobiographical subtext. Rabbi Shalom DovBer had not entered the public sphere without qualms. Indeed, in a biographical overview compiled by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, it is recorded that prior to the establishment of Tomchei Temimim, the Rebbe Rashab strongly considered leaving the Russian Empire “to establish his home in a place where he would be unencumbered by the yoke of leadership, and be able to toil in Torah and worship in solitude.”43 His continued desire for solitude and anonymity is reflected in his frequent trips for rest, recuperation, and consultation with health specialists in cities and resort towns across Europe.44 But in the establishment of Tomchei Temimim we see a full reversal of this consideration.

The Rebbe Rashab’s decision to remain in the dynastic seat of Lubavitch, and to greatly increase his communal work and activism, seems to reflect the theme developed in the above described hemsheichim; individuals realize their deepest qualities and find ultimate satisfaction specifically through engaging with others. It is only through the hard work of communication, education, and real world action that the essence is most fully manifest.45 For Rabbi Shalom DovBer, this is understood to be true for G‑d just as it is seen to be true for the human being. As he so often puts it in his discourses, this is “seen tangibly” (nireh bemuchash), meaning it is directly manifest in human experience.

In 1929, nearly a full decade after the Rebbe Rashab’s passing, his son’s reminiscences eloquently characterize the evolution of the discourses delivered from 1897 and onward:

Those who study Chassidic literature, and have some understanding of it, see a certain change in the discourses of the years 1897 to 1900—both with regards to the essential topics of the discourses and also in the manner of the explanation and the reasoning—from one year to the next …

By way of the different Chassidic discourses that my father delivered throughout the twelve years of 1893 to 1904, each person may recognize the very great transformation and expansion of Chassidic exposition and of the work of the Chassidim, which occurred during that period. These twelve years achieved a general preparation to raise up a “learned generation” (dor de’ah) who would study Chassidic discourses in depth, and deeply relish the work of prayer.46

This preparatory period, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak intimates, laid the way for what would be the crown jewel of his father’s legacy, a hemshech whose first discourse was delivered on the second night of Rosh Hashanah in the year 5666 (1905).47 It would not come to a conclusion before more than two years had elapsed. Known simply as “Samach Vov,” this would not be the very longest hemshech delivered and penned by the Rebbe Rashab (more on that below), but it does stand as the clearest, most elegant, and most comprehensive articulation of his thought. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak remarks that this should not only be seen as testimony to the ability and achievement of Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself, but also shows that by this point he had successfully cultivated an audience of yeshivah students and Chassidim who were worthy receptacles for so substantive a revelation:

This discourse … with its sixty instalments … is witness to the proliferation of the teachings of Chassidus and the status of students of Chassidus at that time. Those who familiarize themselves with the topics elaborated in Chassidic discourses … and how they are discussed with such breadth and detailed clarity in the discourses from the years 1905 to 1908 … see that from the year 5666 (1905) a new era of the proliferation of the teachings of Chassidus was begun … The teachings of Chassidus made born chassidim into true chassidim, and chassidim made paper Chassidus into living Chassidus.48

Samach Vov runs to more than 700 pages in the printed text, presenting an arduous challenge to stamina as well as to cognition. For many it seems too daunting, and—paradoxically—for that very reason it remains underrated. In truth, Samach Vov deserves to be appreciated as a landmark contribution to modern Jewish thought. Its systematic and elegant structure might well be compared to that of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi's Likutei Amarim Tanya. Samach Vov certainly builds on that work, and indeed on the entirety of the extant Chabad corpus.Yet it should not be mistaken for just another instalment of Chassidic commentary. Its significance as an entirely new crystallization cannot be overestimated.

Broadly speaking, the relationship between Likutei Amarim Tanya and Samach Vov might be framed as follows: Likutei Amarim Tanya is primarily concerned with the application of cognitive techniques to motivate and inspire a consistent behavioural alignment with divine wisdom and will as revealed via the Torah and its commandments. The focus of Samach Vov, however, is directed towards endowing such behavioral alignment with the kind of devotional luminosity that elicits an entirely new manifestation of the essence of the divine self. This project—which is articulated clearly but briefly in the very first discourse, and then effusively unpacked in layer after layer of exquisite elucidation—is radical, ambitious and all embracing. The result is nothing less than a complete re-exploration of the fundamental meaning of the living tradition that we call Yiddishkeit; Jewish life, learning,worship, and ritual, in toto and in all its multifarious forms.

The themes developed by Rabbi Shalom DovBer in earlier discourses—the nature of pleasure, the primacy of action, the significance of the mitzvot, the relationship between essentiality and embodiment, the dynamic of communication, and the quest for creative novelty—are all examined anew within the scope of Samach Vov’s comprehensive structure. Swirling layers of orderly abstraction are presented with dizzying coherence, each concept is carefully peeled away from the next, each is anchored deeply and rigorously in the highest highs of esoteric tradition, and—just as firmly—in the concrete relevance of this lowest realm; here, now.

The following is an attempt to summarize the fundamental thesis of this voluminous work in just a few sentences: In any spiritual realm, however transcendent and sublime, G‑d’s most intimate essence is utterly inexpressible and unknowable. G‑d’s most intimate essence can only be known by embodied souls in this physical world, the lowest of all realms. G‑d’s most intimate essence is only knowable when we fully know ourselves, and we can only fully know ourselves through fully learning and living the G‑d given Torah and the G‑d given mitzvot. Yet, in order for self-knowledge to become a fitting prism through which to know G‑d, we must first attain utter self-effacement. Only thereby can we become transparent to the hidden essence of divine pleasure.

* * *

The Son Who Becomes a Servant

In the very first discourse of Samach Vov Rabbi Shalom DovBer engages and problematizes the classical kabbalistic and philosophical discourse on two fundamental questions: What is the purpose of creation? What is the purpose of the Torah and its commandments?49

For our purposes it is sufficient to highlight one element of the Rashab’s multifaceted intervention:

According to classical Lurianic kabbalah, “the worlds were created via the primordial withdrawal (tzimtzum) in the infinite light” which left a “hollow space,” empty of divine illumination, within which the cosmos could take form.50 Rabbi Shalom DovBer adds that the purpose of mitzvot is “to elicit additional luminosity … from the infinite light that precedes the tzimtzum, to the degree that in the [messianic] future the revelation of the infinite light will be in the hollow space (makom ha-chalal) as it was prior to the tzimtzum.”51 However, he immediately queries, this ultimately seems pointless. If the infinite light initially filled the entirety of the hollow space, why was the space then cleared only to refill it with infinite light drawn forth by the observance of mitzvot?52

The Rebbe Rashab offers two answers, the full elaboration of which drives the entire continuation of the hemshech:

1) The self-described “simple” answer is that “initially, when the infinite light filled the entirety of the hollow space, it was not possible for worlds to exist … and now the revelation is in the worlds too.” Accordingly, the innovative purpose of Torah and mitzvot is to refine the created cosmos, including this lowest of all worlds, to the point that it shall be a receptacle fit to be illuminated by the infinite light that preceded thetzimtzum, even though such a revelation initially precluded the very possibility of creation.53

2) The Rashab further posits that Torah and mitzvot can ultimately elicit “a supernal light that is loftier than the primordial light” that filled the empty space prior to the tzimtzum, namely, “the interiority and the essence of the infinite light.”54 Elsewhere in the hemshech this loftier form of revelation is described as “a new light from the essence of the emanator,”55 or “the drawing forth of the literal essence … the essential hiddenness of the essence of the infinite.”56 The precise significance of each of these different terms is fully parsed before Samach Vov comes to a conclusion.

The key point, however, is that our souls did not descend to inhabit physical bodies in this lowest realm merely in order to elicit forms of divine revelation that are already manifest in more spiritual realms of the cosmos; realms inhabited by angels, realms in which disembodied souls bask in divine radiance, realms in which all is encompassed and effaced in the infinite revelation of the divine. However transcendent and special those realms might be, there must some greater purpose in this world, in the here and now. There must be something new that we alone can achieve, that we alone can give.

In part, the Rebbe Rashab explores this through the juxtaposition and synthesis of two different forms of human relationship with G‑d; in classical Jewish liturgy we are cast both as the sons and the servants of G‑d. In turn, G‑d is both our father and our master.57

In Samach Vov sonship is explained as signifying the inheritance and expansion of preexisting qualities or assets. Servitude, by contrast, signifies the addition of new qualities or assets from an independent source. The perfect son—for all that he profits from his father’s assets by way of his good intelligence etc—is actually not truly complete unless he obtains the ability to sustain himself by the work of his own hands, independent of his father’s assets. To achieve this he must travel far away from his father’s house, without any of his father’s assets, apprenticing himself to a master craftsman:

Certainly this requires that he be as a servant, serving his master, the craftsman who teaches him, to be devoted to him and to his will, and to work with him for many days with great and intense toil to the point of soul expiration, until he too is able to fix and create with craft tools like his master. And he will be able to sustain himself by the work of his own hands …58

The result of this is that the son attains a much higher degree of satisfaction than he ever did profiting from his father’s assets, even if he is only able to support himself meagerly, and certainly if he ultimately creates an independent fortune that allows him to support his father as well. This is true for the father as well:

And the father too will be very happy, and it will be extremely pleasurable to him, that his son is able to sustain himself, far more than [the pleasure he took] in all the wealth of his household that he wholeheartedly entrusted to his son due to his good intelligence and quality … Because this means that the son’s intelligence has enabled him to create additional blessing that is wholly original … as opposed to the wealth he created from his father’s assets, which is merely an accrual of what preexists.59

It is only when the son attains the stature of a servant—not merely building on the father’s success, but creating entirely new sources of revenue out of nothing—that the father experiences true joy and satisfaction of a sort that is wholly original.

But this is not merely a psychological investigation of the nature of sonship and paternity. Far more importantly, for the Rashab, this offers us a window into the relationship between us and G‑d. It is not enough for us to be like sons to G‑d, we must become like servants too.

The Jewish souls are sons to G‑d, and their inheritance is the Torah. In their conventional mode of divine worship, and especially in their conventional mode of Torah study, the Jewish souls are likened to sons who serve their father out of love. As Rabbi Shalom DovBer writes:

In general terms, Torah study is worship out of love and pleasure … It is not in a manner of innovation, but is rather that which is drawn down out from concealment to revelation from the primordial wisdom [of G‑d] etc, and also the work of refinement achieved by means of the Torah is attained in a passive manner, without work and effort.60

But like the son who is sent far from his father’s home, the Torah too descends from its more theoretical, or abstract, transcendence, and must be applied in the real world, giving specific direction to all aspects of earthly life. This is reflected especially in the study of the Oral Torah, with all the difficult legal arguments—along with the awesome sense of responsibility, acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and awe before G‑d—that mark the process of halachic decision making. Thereby, the son too can become a servant, creating an entirely new form of spiritual wealth, and eliciting a new manifestation of divine pleasure that would otherwise remain secreted within G‑d’s undisclosed essence. To quote just one part of Rabbi Shalom DovBer’s elaboration:

All of this is with very great effort etc., till one comes to the truth of Torah, from the capacity of the hiddenness of the essence specifically, in a manner of utter innovation etc. And all this is by one’s own strength and effort etc. And this is by way of a servant’s servitude; that he works with a yoke specifically, not by dint of the pleasure and satisfaction that he has in his work, and nor to create satisfaction for his master, but rather due to the yoke of the master that is upon him … Specifically thereby one comes to the truth of Torah as it is in the essential hiddenness of the infinite, literally, immeasurably loftier than the station of the primordial Torah.61

Broadly speaking, sonship models the first of the two concepts of cosmic purpose summarized above, according to which our task is simply to draw the primordial revelation of infinite divinity into the finite realm of creation. By contrast, servitude models the second concept of cosmic purpose, according to which our task is actually to elicit a manifestation of G‑d that is entirely new—never manifest prior to our work in this world. Moreover, this new revelation is also to be drawn from the deepest essence of divine being, “which no eye has ever seen.”62

Acceptance of the yoke, in the manner of a servant, not only reverses the usual foregrounding of self, but also allows your unadorned actions to become transparent vehicles for the infinite unfolding of the essence. But for Rabbi Shalom DovBer this is not yet enough. Just as it is insufficient to be merely a son, so it is insufficient to be merely a servant. After all, a son is a substantive extension of the father’s own self. A servant, on the other hand, is fundamentally “other” in relation to the master. The bond between father and son is axiomatically essential and indelible, while that between servant and master is superimposed, utilitarian, and easily undone. This is a point the Rashab would emphasize time and again, both in Samach Vov and elsewhere: Our servitude can elicit new pleasure from the innermost essence of G‑d precisely because we are sons to G‑d, because we are rooted in G‑d axiomatically, essentially and indelibly.63

* * *

War and Revolution

On the festival of Shavuot in the year 1912, Rabbi Shalom DovBer began a hemshech that would occupy him till the very end of his life, bringing his “conceptual renaissance” to its culmination.64 By the end of 1915 he had delivered one hundred and forty four discourses in the ongoing series, when he made the decision to leave Lubavitch and relocate to Rostov.65 By this time all of Europe was at war, and the German advance into Russia would only be halted by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. These events ended his delivery of this epic hemshech, known as “Ayin Beis,” but he continued to inscribe it with pen on paper. At the same time, he continued to write and deliver discourses that were not part of Ayin Beis with indomitable regularity.66

The move to Rostov marked the beginning of a period of massive upheaval for Chabad, and for all the Jews of Russia. Within five years much of what the Rebbe Rashab had worked to achieve would be left in tatters. Community resources, institutions, and networks would be eroded by war and famine, and then decimated and dismantled by the Communist regime.67 Yet, three things would not only endure, but would indeed prove themselves indestructible; the Chassidus that Rabbi Shalom DovBer taught and transcribed, the Chassidim who imbibed his teachings, and the yeshivah that he built—Tomchei Temimim. Today, a full century later, the yeshiva and its affiliates are established internationally, providing the educational backbone for Chabad’s ongoing flourishing and expansion.68

Jacob Mark, who wrote an obituary that was briefly excerpted above, recalled that his first personal encounter with the Rebbe Rashab took place in 1916. At the time, exemption from military mobilization had been extended only to the state rabbis, who were often little more than community registrars. It soon became clear that members of the traditional rabbinate—who bore the full burden of spiritual leadership, extending to every facet of Jewish life and law—were still subject to the draft. As Mark recalls:

[Rabbi Shalom DovBer] immediately traveled [from Rostov] to Petersburg and did not rest day or night. He convened a meeting of great rabbis and community activists (klal tu’er), and remained for several weeks in Petersburg under the most difficult conditions … until he achieved that the traditional rabbis were freed from military service …69

In the face of every obstacle, Mark added, Rabbi Shalom DovBer always responded, “when we are dealing with saving life (piku’ach nefesh) you must bring to the fore your own life-commitment (mesiras nefesh).”

The Rebbe Rashab continued to shuttle back and forth between Rostov and Petersburg even as revolution brewed and the government began to lose control. In fact, he was in the capital when the February Revolution of 1917 broke out, and witnessed the Tsarist regime toppled and replaced with a Provisional Government before his very eyes.70 Fascinatingly, the last discourse delivered before he left Rostov took up the theme of the exodus, with a particular focus on the role of the righteous in securing the fall of a despotic monarch (i.e. Pharaoh), even if he remains at the height of his power and is impervious to any process of repair.71

As Jacob Mark recalls, Rabbi Shalom DovBer “exhibited even more energy and greatness after the great revolution.” No one yet knew how short lived Russia’s fledgling democratic framework would prove to be, and preparations were soon underway for the election of an “All-Russian Jewish Congress.” Mark was one of the leaders of a religious party, and he unsuccessfully sought to persuade the Rebbe Rashab to sanction his platform. This proved impossible, due—among other things—to Mark’s unwillingness to excise a plank in support of political Zionism.72 Instead the Rebbe established his own party, with a far more traditionalist platform, and with the understanding that an inter-party coalition would be formed. Despite their acknowledged differences, Mark wrote glowingly of the Rebbe’s activities during this period:

Through the entire eight months that we prepared for the congress, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, was several times in Moscow and Petersburg … All such journeys in those times were undertaken at great personal risk, and the trip from Rostov to Moscow took more than a week … Once, in November 1917, he came to Moscow for a meeting. This was exactly when the Bolsheviks seized power, at a time when there was shooting in the streets of Moscow, and for more than a week one couldn’t go out into the street. In general, he wasn’t in the best of health, though this was not usually evident … But he never held back when it came to achieving something for the benefit of the community.73

In a letter penned upon his return to Rostov, Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself gave an account of the street battles that he witnessed:

I arrived in Moscow about one or two hours after midnight, and between then and Shabbat morning the maelstrom in Moscow began. On Shabbat morning there was gunfire in the locality of my hotel and one corner of the building was disfigured by [cannon] shot. On Sunday the gunfire increased greatly in some sections of the city, though not in the immediate vicinity of my hotel … and our friends would not allow me to travel on that day. On Monday morning I decided to travel and walked to the train on foot. Some of our friends accompanied me … and thank G‑d we arrived safely at the Kurskaya Station and departed on the Kislovodsk train.74

Rephael Nachman Kahn was in Moscow at the time and recalled that his parents prepared kosher food for the Rebbe which they carried through the streets “while the cannon shot flew over our heads.” The Rebbe was determined not to leave Moscow empty handed, and despite the danger convened a group of wealthy chassidim. Once they had gathered at his hotel the Rebbe began to speak about the religious needs of the many refugees who had fled to cities and towns that hadn’t even the most basic resources necessary for daily Jewish life. He proposed a new initiative to print and distribute prayer books so that they could pray and seek spiritual solace despite the difficulties that they would continue to face.75

On returning to Rostov the Rebbe acquired a printing press and published prayer books according to both the regular Ashkenazi liturgy and the Arizal liturgy favored by Chassidim. The press imprint was Defus Ezra and the prayer book was titled Siddur Tehillat Hashem. These prayer books were reprinted several times during the early years of the Soviet regime and the standard Chabad prayer books in use today continue to bear that title.76

* * *

“I Leave the Writings for You”

As the Bolsheviks gradually expanded and tightened their grip across Russia it soon became clear that the dream of democracy and a representative Jewish congress would not materialize. Rostov was captured for the final time at the beginning of 1920 and strict curfews were imposed, forbidding any gathering of three people or more.

Initially, Rabbi Shalom DovBer kept a low profile, instructing chassidim to stay within the bounds of the restrictive regulations. On the festival of Purim, however, each of the chassidim supposed that they would be the only one to show up, and soon a large crowd gathered in the Rebbe Rashab’s apartment. Although the mood was initially subdued, the Rebbe began to behave just as he did every year on Purim, encouraging those present to sing exuberantly and to say l'chaim on vodka.

Moshe DovBer Rivkin was in attendance that evening, and subsequently wrote a detailed account of everything that transpired. The illegal gathering soon attracted the attention of Bolshevik officers, at first they went away, but they later returned and entered the Rebbe’s apartment. In the interval the Rebbe continued the celebration as if there was no danger at all:

During this duration the Rebbe delivered the discourse [beginning with the description of Moses during the battle against Amalek] “vehayah kasher yarim” … and also many informal talks that were marvelous, with great self-disclosure … with great joy. All the chassidim were joyful too, when they saw our Rebbe so joyous, with his face shining like the countenance of the shechinah77

Even once the officers returned, and demanded to search his study, Rabbi Shalom DovBer simply ignored them, and instructed everyone to carry on as before. “I am not impressed by them,” he announced, “perhaps at another time I would be afraid, but as I stand now I am not impressed at all … We will remain whole. And I don’t mean whole but hidden. I mean that we will be whole with full openness and expression, for unholiness in the presence of holiness is truly nothing.” Perhaps even more remarkably, he then began to deliver another discourse. Speaking in a loud voice, he interrupted himself several times to rally the chassidim, “listen to what is being said, do not be disturbed, don’t look at them!”78 After standing around in the hallway for a while, the officers settled with checking the papers of two or three people, and then went on their way.

“The revelations of that night,” Rivkin wrote, “cannot be described in writing. In this manner our Rebbe sat with the chassidim, with joy and great openness almost till the morning dawned.”79

Although the chassidim did not recognize it then, for almost all of them this would be the very last time they would sit with their master and hear teachings directly from his lips. Two days later Rabbi Shalom DovBer secluded himself in his study, penned a final will and placed it in the drawer of his writing desk. Before another week had passed he began to feel ill, and registered a high fever. Over the course of the next eight days his condition deteriorated. As described by Rivkin, the doctors attending to him did not diagnose the underlying illness, but his strength simply drained away.80

On the evening following Shabbat, which coincided with Rosh Chodesh Nissan, at about 10pm, the Rebbe turned to his son, who was standing at his bedside and spoke the following words:

I am ascending to heaven. I leave the writings for you. Bring me to the study hall; we will be together.

“Understandably,” writes Rivkin, when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak heard these words “he was struck with great fear.” Seeing this, the Rebbe said to him:

Emotion … ? Emotion … ? Intellect! … Intellect!

“It is clear to anyone who understands,” Rivkin wrote, “that thereby our Rebbe removed the natural excitability from his son, and drew upon him lofty intellect … One who was there at that moment, literally witnessed this with their eyes, that from then onward Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was entirely transformed, accepting everything with great mindfulness. It was a wonder to see how he stood at the bedside all the while, until the Rebbe’s soul ascended; girded with his sash, and with his hat set as he wore it on the holy Shabbat, just as he would always stand for the delivery of a discourse, directly opposite our Rebbe, face to face. It is impossible to describe all this and to pour it out on the page.”81