The Alter Rebbe sent this pastoral letter to all his followers upon his release from the imprisonment brought about by calumnies instigated by the opponents of Chasidism.1 This slander resulted from his selfless and tireless efforts to strengthen the Chasidic movement and disseminate its teachings. His subsequent release (also) served as a nod of approval from the government for their continued dissemination.

The Rebbes, the successive leaders of the Chabad Chasidic school of thought, have taught that the Alter Rebbe’s arrest resulted from an indictment voiced in the Heavenly Court against his doctrine of clothing the teachings of Chasidism in intellectual terms.2 (In fact, the very word ChaBaD, naming the movement he founded and the teachings he first articulated, is an acronym for chochmah, binah, and daat, “wisdom,” “understanding,” and “knowledge,” respectively.) The same voice, moreover, disapproved of the fact that the Alter Rebbe beamed these teachings at the Jewish masses.

The Alter Rebbe wrote this epistle in order that it be clearly understood that his release from physical incarceration resulted directly from his being cleared of all spiritual charges. Indeed, a clear signal and an extra measure of strength was thereby given from Above that the teachings of Chasidism be promulgated according to the Alter Rebbe’s approach of making them intelligible and accessible to all.

With the Alter Rebbe’s release, there thus began a second era in the dissemination of Chasidism. This is alluded to by this letter, which is numbered Iggeret Hakodesh, Epistle 2. It will be noted that the number 2 is mentioned only after the heading, “Upon his Arrival from Petersburg.” Now, Epistle 27 also has a prefatory heading that explains why it was written. There, however, the number of the epistle appears first, and only then is it followed by the introductory heading. Here, the order is inverted because the second period (or, in Chasidic terminology, “the second degree of greatness”3), which is alluded to by the number 2, began with the Alter Rebbe’s arrival from Petersburg.

“I have become small from all the favors and from all [the truth].”4

"קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל כוּ'".

These words were uttered by Jacob as an introduction to his plea to G‑d that He save him from Esau. Although G‑d had previously assured him5 that He would accompany and protect him wherever he went, Jacob nonetheless feared that all the kindnesses that G‑d had already shown him had made him “small,” i.e., had reduced his merits. He thus feared that he was possibly in a state in which he would have to ask G‑d anew, “Save me….”6

This means—

פֵּירוּשׁ,

Rashi comments that “I have become small” is a result of “all the favors and all the truth”7; i.e., “My merits have diminished because of the favors and truth You have done with me.” Ramban argues that this comment is inconsistent with the “language of the verse,” which states that “I have become small,” not that the speaker’s merits have become small; there is a diminution in quality rather than in quantity.8

Ramban therefore understands “I have become small” to mean: “I am unworthy of receiving all your kindness and truth.”9 Thus, according to Ramban, “I have become small” is not a result of G‑d’s “kindness and truth” but rather an expression of the speaker’s being unworthy of receiving G‑d’s “kindness and truth.”

The Alter Rebbe, however, is going to explain this verse according to the commentary of Rashi: “from all the kindness” simply means that it was the kindness that made Jacob feel “small.” At the same time, though, the Alter Rebbe will understand “I have become small” as referring to the speaker himself: it is he himself who has become diminished as a result of G‑d’s many kindnesses and His truth. (Thus, not only have the particular person’s merits become lessened, which results in his diminishment,10 but he himself is directly affected as a result of the “kindness and truth.”)

Although it is the person himself (and not the tally of his merits) that has become diminished, nonetheless, this diminution is a result of the “kindness and truth.” This, then, is what the Alter Rebbe intends by saying “This means”—

that with every single favor that G‑d bestows upon a man, he ought to become very humble.

שֶׁבְּכָל חֶסֶד וָחֶסֶד שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא עוֹשֶׂה לְאָדָם צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת שְׁפַל רוּחַ בִּמְאֹד.

For [the supernal sefirah of] “chesed is the right arm,”11

כִּי חֶסֶד דְּרוֹעָא יְמִינָא,

and, as Scripture states, “His right arm embraces me,”12

"וִימִינוֹ תְּחַבְּקֵנִי",

which refers to the state of G‑d actually bringing him close [to Himself], far more intensely than before.

שֶׁהִיא בְּחִינַת קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים מַמָּשׁ בְּיֶתֶר שְׂאֵת מִלְּפָנִים,

Every Divine act of chesed brings a man closer to G‑d.

And whoever is [brought] exceedingly close to G‑d, being raised aloft to great heights,13

וְכָל הַקָּרוֹב אֶל ה' בְּיֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְהַגְבֵּהַּ לְמַעְלָה מַעְלָה,

ought to be ever more humble, to the lowliest plane,

צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת יוֹתֵר שְׁפַל רוּחַ לְמַטָּה מַטָּה,

as it is written, “From afar has G‑d appeared to me.”14

כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב "מֵרָחוֹק ה' נִרְאָה לִי".

When G‑d appears to an individual through a particular manifestation of kindness, this should make him perceive himself as being in relation to G‑d—“afar,” i.e., humbly distant from Him. Alternatively, the verse may be implying that perceiving oneself as being “afar” is the very means by which to attain a state in which “G‑d has appeared to me.”

And, as is known, “All that are before Him are esteemed as nothing.”

וְכַנּוֹדָע, דְּכוּלָּא "קַמֵּיהּ" דַּוְוקָא – כְּלָא חָשִׁיב,

A being of even the highest conceivable spiritual level is of absolutely no account indeed; it is nullified out of existence when in G‑d’s presence, when it is “before Him,” for nothing exists before G‑d other than Himself.

Hence, whoever is more “before Him”—whoever is closer to G‑d—is that much more like nothing, naught, and nonexistent.

וְאִם כֵּן, כָּל שֶׁהוּא "קַמֵּיהּ" יוֹתֵר – הוּא יוֹתֵר כְּלָא וְאַיִן וָאֶפֶס.

This [self-effacing response to Divine favors] is the level of the “right side” of holiness and of “chesed unto Abraham”—the Divine lovingkindness that is bestowed upon Abraham, as in the verse, “You grant truth to Jacob, lovingkindness unto Abraham,”15

וְזוֹ הִיא בְּחִינַת יָמִין שֶׁבִּקְדוּשָּׁה וְחֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם,

who said, “I am dust and ashes.”16

שֶׁאָמַר "אָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר".

The kindness that G‑d showed Abraham motivated him to attain the ultimate degree of humility that this statement expresses. Just as in the heavenly realms, “the right arm of Divine chesed” causes recipients of the chesed to lose their independent identity in the identity of the Bestower of lovingkindness, so, too, does it affect mortals upon whom it is bestowed, making them likewise humble and self-effacing.

This [humility born of kindness] is also the characteristic trait of Jacob,

וְזוֹ הִיא גַּם כֵּן מִדָּתוֹ שֶׁל יַעֲקֹב,

and therewith, he justified himself for his fear of Esau and did not regard the [Divine] promise given to him as being sufficient: “And behold, I am with you [and I shall protect you wherever you go].”17

וּבָזֹאת הִתְנַצֵּל עַל יִרְאָתוֹ מִפְּנֵי עֵשָׂו, וְלֹא דַי לוֹ בְּהַבְטָחָתוֹ "וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ כוּ'" –

[This was so,] because Jacob regarded himself as utterly insignificant on account of the multitude of [G‑d’s] favors,

מִפְּנֵי הֱיוֹת קָטָן יַעֲקֹב בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד בְּעֵינָיו, מֵחֲמַת רִיבּוּי הַחֲסָדִים

[as he said,] “for [only] with my staff [did I cross the Jordan, and now I have [enough property for] two camps],”18

"כִּי בְמַקְלִי כוּ'",

and he considered himself as being utterly unfit and unworthy to be saved, and so on.

וְאֵינוֹ רָאוּי וּכְדַאי כְּלָל לְהִנָּצֵל כוּ',

As our Sages, of blessed memory, expressed it, “[Jacob was apprehensive,] lest sin would cause [him not to be saved],”19

וּכְמַאֲמַר רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה "שֶׁמָּא יִגְרוֹם הַחֵטְא",

for it appeared to him that he had sinned.

שֶׁנִּדְמֶה בְעֵינָיו שֶׁחָטָא.

I have become small” thus means that the multitude of kindnesses bestowed upon Jacob caused him to feel so small and insignificant that he feared that he had sinned and hence needed once again to beseech G‑d that He save him from his brother Esau. And, indeed, every Jew would do well to follow in the footsteps of his father Jacob, becoming ever more humble with every successive act of kindness that G‑d shows him.

The Rebbe once explained why at the outset of this epistle, the Alter Rebbe uses an expression in which the word chesed is repeated: בְּכָל חֶסֶד וָחֶסֶד. (This is translated above, “with every single favor [that G‑d bestows upon man].”) In general, there are two modes of Divine kindness: (a) that which descends to man within the ordered framework of created worlds and becomes manifest in a natural manner and (b) that which transcends the conventions of the created universe and whose manifestation is supernatural.

This is why the Alter Rebbe there goes on to say that (a) “chesed is the right arm” as well as (b) “His right arm embraces me.” The former phrase alludes to the chesed of the supernal sefirot, a finite mode of Divine kindness that is analogous to the finite degree of life-force that is clothed in the human arm; the latter phrase alludes to the infinite mode of Divine kindness that is analogous to the infinite degree of life-force that transcends the limitation of being clothed in a particular organ and is thus said to be “encompassing” (makif) or “embracing.”

It is different, though, with the [unholy] counterpart [to the attribute of kindness that belongs to the holy “side” of the universe]; i.e., [it is different] with Ishmael, [who personifies] the attribute of chesed that belongs to the kelipah.

מַה שֶּׁאֵין כֵּן בְּזֶה לְעוּמַּת זֶה, הוּא יִשְׁמָעֵאל – חֶסֶד דִּקְלִיפָּה,

The counterpart to Abraham, who personifies the attribute of “chesed (kindness) that belongs to holiness,” is Ishmael, who personifies “kindness that belongs to unholiness”; the opposite of Isaac, who represents the attribute of “gevurah (severity) that belongs to holiness,” is Esau, who represents the attribute of “gevurah that belongs to unholiness.”

The more kindness [shown to Ishmael and to his ilk], the more he grows in pride, arrogance, and self-satisfaction.

כָּל שֶׁהַחֶסֶד גָּדוֹל, הוּא הוֹלֵךְ וְגָדֵל בְּגוֹבַהּ וְגַסּוּת הָרוּחַ וְרוֹחַב לִבּוֹ.

A Jew must thus be on guard against the “chesed of kelipah” and ensure that G‑d’s acts of kindness will lead him to cultivate the traits of Abraham and Jacob, the “chesed of holiness,” so that his response will be humility rather than pride.

Accordingly, I am now making a weighty announcement to all the men of our [Chasidic] fraternity,

וְלָזֹאת, בָּאתִי מִן הַמּוֹדִיעִים מוֹדָעָה רַבָּה לִכְלָלוּת אַנְשֵׁי שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ,

regarding the multitude of favors, “the great things that G‑d has done with us.”20

עַל רִיבּוּי הַחֲסָדִים אֲשֶׁר הִגְדִּיל ה' לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּנוּ,

The attribute of chesed (kindness) is also known by the name gedulah (greatness), as in the verse21 which enumerates the Divine attributes and which begins, לְךָ ה' הַגְּדֻלָּה וְהַגְּבוּרָה. Indeed, the term gedulah connotes an even greater manifestation of Divine kindness than does chesed. The Alter Rebbe therefore adds the phrase regarding “the great things that G‑d has done for us,” thereby indicating the extraordinary kindness G‑d had shown Chasidim by releasing him.

[As a result of all these favors:] Hold on to the attributes of Jacob,

לֶאֱחוֹז בְּמִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל יַעֲקֹב

[for Jews are known as] “the remnant of His people”22 and “the remainder of Israel”23; a Jew possesses within himself the attributes described here as “remnants” and “remainder,”

"שְׁאָר עַמּוֹ" וּ"שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל",

regarding himself truly as mere remnants,24 as something truly superfluous and dispensable.

שֶׁמֵּשִׂים עַצְמוֹ כְּשִׁירַיִים וּמוֹתָרוֹת מַמָּשׁ שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ שׁוּם צוֹרֶךְ,

Let [the men of our fraternity] not become haughty in relation to their brethren…, i.e., their opponents, who caused the arrest of the Alter Rebbe.

לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבָם מֵאֲחֵיהֶם כוּ',

Let them not jeer nor whistle derisively at them, heaven forfend.

וְלֹא לְהַרְחִיב עֲלֵיהֶם פֶּה, אוֹ לִשְׁרוֹק עֲלֵיהֶם חַס וְשָׁלוֹם,

A strict warning: Hold your peace! Mention nothing!

הַס מִלְּהַזְכִּיר בְּאַזְהָרָה נוֹרָאָה,

Rather, [the men of our Chasidic fraternity] are to subdue their spirit and heart before every man according to the attribute of “truth unto Jacob,”25

רַק לְהַשְׁפִּיל רוּחָם וְלִבָּם, בְּמִדַּת אֱמֶת לְיַעֲקֹב, מִפְּנֵי כָּל אָדָם,

with humility, with “a soft answer [that] turns away anger,”26 and with a restrained spirit…

בִּנְמִיכוּת רוּחַ, וּ"מַעֲנֶה רַךְ מֵשִׁיב חֵימָה", "וְרוּחַ נְכֵאָה כוּ'",

and through all that,27 perhaps G‑d will put [a conciliatory and loving response] into the heart of their brethren, [for] “as waters [reflect] one’s face, [so does the heart of one man reflect the heart of another].”28

וְכוּלֵּי הַאי וְאוּלַי יִתֵּן ה' בְּלֵב אֲחֵיהֶם "כַּמַּיִם הַפָּנִים וְגוֹ'":