Devorah Leah was the second daughter of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad Chassidic movement.

The year was 1792 and the teachings of Chassidism were being disseminated very successfully. The Chassidic movement was growing rapidly and gaining strength by leaps and bounds. At the forefront of the movement’s growth was the Alter Rebbe, who served as a pillar of knowledge. It was a time that should have been filled with exultation and exuberance, as Judaism became more meaningful to more and more Jews, as they embraced these revolutionary teachings.

Nevertheless, a gray cloud hung over the horizon. The Alter Rebbe, aware that in the spiritual worlds there existed strong opposition against him and the revelation of the deep secrets of the Torah, was filled with trepidation. He did all that he could to prevent a disastrous decree.

He sent carefully appointed messengers to the gravesites of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, and the Maggid of Mezeritch, his own spiritual mentor, to beg them to intercede in heaven for the sake of their people. He notified his colleagues, students of the Maggid, of the dangerous time for themselves and the Jewish nation. He asked a colleague, Reb Nochum of Chernobyl, one of the most esteemed disciples of the Maggid, for a blessing. And then, as his last resort, he locked himself in his study, allowing no one to enter, deep in prayer and supplication to the Almighty. Nevertheless, he sensed that all his attempts were to no avail.

One day, amidst his anxiety, the Alter Rebbe called for his daughter Devorah Leah. In the privacy of his study, he informed her about the very difficult times that lay ahead, and the strong heavenly opposition against revealing the innermost aspects of Chassidism. He described to her, in the gravest of tones, that he had seen a vision of the faces of the Maggid and the Baal Shem Tov, and they were extremely dark and clouded. Devorah Leah understood that her father’s very life was in danger.

Acting on her own initiative, Devorah Leah gathered together three of her father’s senior chassidim. She requested that they promise to fulfill all that she asked of them, and swear not to reveal her requests to anyone. Only when they had agreed to these conditions did she proceed.

She reminded them that they were all chassidim of her father, and therefore, they must all be prepared to do whatever necessary for his and the Baal Shem Tov’s important work and teachings to flourish. Breaking down in tears, Devorah Leah begged them, “I ask you to swear a solemn oath, one that cannot be annulled, that you will follow my request even if a human life is at stake.” As one of the chassidim became apprehensive about making such a commitment, the two others calmed him by persuading him that Devorah Leah must have contemplated the matter well and certainly would not act recklessly.

The air was heavy with emotion as Devorah Leah notified the chassidim of the urgency of the present situation, and the threat hanging over Reb Schneur Zalman’s life. Resolutely, she stated, “You three chassidim will now constitute a beit din, a court of Jewish law. I have decided to give my own life in lieu of my father’s. I will die and he will live.”

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah of that year, following the afternoon prayers, Devorah Leah went into the small synagogue where her family and some elder chassidim were engrossed in prayers. She walked towards the holy ark and loudly proclaimed, “You are all witnesses before these Torah scrolls, that I, Devorah Leah, daughter of Sterna, accept upon myself, with a clear mind, to exchange lives with my father, Schneur Zalman, son of Rivkah. I, through my death, will be the atonement.”

That night, the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Alter Rebbe left his private room to seek out Devorah Leah. As she approached him, he began to bless her with the customary blessing of “leshanah tovah” (“You should be blessed with a good year”). She abruptly interrupted his blessing with, “Father, leshanah tovah tikatev veteichatem (You should be inscribed and sealed for a good new year).” When he, in turn, was about to finish his blessing to her, she pleaded, “Father, say no more!”

At the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah, the Alter Rebbe called for Devorah Leah and her husband, Rabbi Sholom Shachna. Rabbi Sholom broke down in tears, asking, “What are we to do? Our young son, Menachem Mendel, is so special, yet he is so young and tender. He has just celebrated his third birthday.”

Devorah Leah’s last request of her father was that he should personally involve himself with the duty of educating and raising her young and only son. Reassuring her, the Alter Rebbe promised, “Your son, Menachem [Hebrew for comfort], will be a nechamah (comfort) to me, a nechamah to you and a nechamah to all of the Jewish people.”

The following day, on the third day of Tishrei, Devorah Leah’s prayer came true—she fell suddenly ill and died a natural death. Her soul left her body and ascended to the heavens.

For the seven days of shivah, Menachem Mendel recited the kaddish for his departed mother. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Alter Rebbe, with his young grandson at his side, prayed at the gravesite of Devorah Leah. The Alter Rebbe declared, “Even greater are the righteous in their death than they are in their lives! The power of their blessings is greater when their soul ascends to heaven than when it is confined to their bodies. Devorah Leah, bless your only son now, on the eve of Yom Kippur! This child—he should be blessed with many years—will become exemplary in his knowledge of the revealed Torah as well as Chassidism, the hidden Torah, and in his good deeds. Please pray, Devorah Leah, that the Almighty should have mercy on the chassidim and on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.”

On the day following Yom Kippur, the eleventh of Tishrei, the Alter Rebbe arranged for a chassid of fine character, by the name of Rabbi Avraham, to be the personal teacher of Menachem Mendel. That same day, the Alter Rebbe carried Menachem Mendel, accompanied by his father Rabbi Sholom Shachna, to his mother’s grave.

Mazel tov, mazel tov!” announced the Alter Rebbe. “Devorah Leah, today is the day that we are introducing your son to Torah. Bless him that just as he has been introduced to Torah, likewise, he should enter the chuppah (marriage canopy) and have many good deeds, and live a long life.” All present answered, “Amen.”

The Alter Rebbe faithfully kept his last promise to Devorah Leah. Daily, he studied with Menachem Mendel, who later became famous for his erudition and vast knowledge in all aspects of Torah, and became known as the “Tzemach Tzedek,” named so after one of his masterful works. The Alter Rebbe also decided that his grandson’s bed should be put in his own private chambers. From that night on, Menachem Mendel slept soundly at the side of his grandfather.

On one occasion, though, in the midst of the youngster’s sleep, he fitfully cried out, “Mommy, Mommy! Take me with you.” Devorah Leah appeared to Menachem Mendel, and softly reassured him, “No, my dear son, sleep peacefully. Your zaidy (grandfather) is right here next to you.”

In order to replace her father’s life with her own, Devorah Leah had to give up the most that anyone could give, the gift of life itself. Any person can fathom the immense spiritual willpower required for an act of such magnitude. Only a mother, though, can appreciate the awesome self-sacrifice required to choose to depart from this world and, by doing so, abandon a son so young and so needy of her. Yet the legacy of Devorah Leah runs even deeper still.

A magnificently sublime spiritual level was required to effect a switch of such significance. To order heaven to take one person’s life and spare another requires a very special individual. May I suggest that to enact this switch of lives, and manipulate the heavenly decree so that she could replace her father, she had to be on par, in certain respects, with her saintly father.

Though she was a loving mother, Devorah Leah knew that for the sake of the Jewish people, the teachings of her father were of vital importance, even more important than her own life. She understood the invaluable need of spreading these teachings of the inner aspects of Torah.

The Chassidic movement was able to continue, in full momentum, through Devorah Leah’s self-sacrifice for the teachings of her father and the Baal Shem Tov.

Her little Menachem Mendel grew to be one of the greatest Jewish leaders in his generation. After his uncle Rabbi Dov Ber’s passing, he assumed the leadership of Chabad Chassidism, and brought the movement to unparalleled growth. His own followers numbered well over a half a million, and he was greatly respected and revered by all Jewry, chassidic and non-chassidic alike.

Menachem Mendel carried on the task for which his mother sacrificed not only her very life, but also her only chance of the intimate bond with him that only a mother and child can have. Devorah Leah played a crucial role in the perpetuation of the essential teachings of the Inner Dimension of the Torah. She will be remembered for her immense self-sacrifice, acted out so quietly and passively, but ever so valiantly.