Translation is an act fraught with difficulties. Ever since Babel, the multiplicity of languages has stood for more than a variety of ways of saying the same thing. Each language, even each dialect, embodies a culture. To translate is thus of necessity to adapt, and to capture no more than an approximation to the original.

This general reservation is singularly in place when translating a work of Chassidut. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, on whose work the present volume is based, has himself given a classic definition of Chassidut. It is not to be understood as one among many of the branches of Jewish thought. Instead it reaches to the core of Torah and is addressed to the inward essence of the soul, touching upon the very nature of existence. It illuminates the other modes of Jewish expression—halacha and aggadah alike—and reveals the inner unity behind their diversified forms.

Chassidut belongs, in other words, to uniqueness of Torah, and as such is almost by definition untranslatable. Far from being reproducible in the language and structures of contemporary Western thought, it challenges secularity at every point. It invites us to “see through” the sensory universe of the secular mind, to the mystic reality beneath and beyond. Therein lies its unmistakable challenge and relevance to a century which has witnessed the tragic consequences of a secularity that makes man the measure of all things, and leaves morality without a Divine foundation.

What, then, is a translator to do? Maimonides, almost eight hundred years ago, stated the problem and a route to its solution. In a letter to his own translator, Shmuel ibn Tibbon, he wrote: “One who wishes to translate from one language to another, rendering each word literally and adhering to the original order of words and sentences, will meet with much difficulty and will end up with a translation that is questionable and confusing.

“Instead the translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject and then explain the theme, according to his understanding, in the other language. But this cannot be done without changing the order of words, sometimes using many words to translate one, or one word to translate many. He will have to add or delete words so that the concept may be clearly expressed in the language into which he is translating.”

It was in this spirit that the present translations were undertaken, in an attempt to do no more than sketch the mood and thrust of the original ideas, full as they are of detail, nuance and subtlety that verge on the untranslatable. Certainly if this work serves to whet the reader’s appetite for further study, they will have fulfilled their function.

To hear or read a sicha, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is to undertake a journey. We are challenged and forced to move: where we stand at the end is not where we were at the beginning. Time and again a talk will be set in motion by a seemingly microscopic tension—a question on a comment by Rashi, perhaps, or a problem in understanding a halacha, a practical provision of Jewish law. Once in motion, however, the argument leads us into fresh perspectives, provisional answers and new questions, until we climb rung by rung to the most elevated of vantage points. From here, as we survey the ground beneath us in its widest of contexts, the initial question is not only resolved but also revealed as the starting point of a major spiritual search. The question only existed because we were looking at the surface, not fathoming the depths, of Torah. Thus a problem in the laws of divorce leads us to consider the concepts of separation and unity and to a radical reinterpretation of the nature of exile. A passage relating to the fruit of trees in their fifth year takes us through the levels of spiritual reality, an examination of the Baal Shem Tov’s life, and a reversal of our normal understanding of holiness and sanctification. A meditation on the name of a Sidra passes through the subjects of leprosy, repentance and personal identity. Each talk moves from the specific to the general, the finite to the infinite, and back again. Each invites us to undergo a profound transformation in our way of seeing the world and ourselves, so that when we return at the end of a sicha to the question with which we began, everything has changed.

Each, in short, is a Chassidic journey of descent and ascent, climbing and returning, through—Torah, the universe and the soul. Key themes recur: the inseparability of the soul from G‑d, the constant demands and possibility of teshuvah, the unity of Israel, the error of despair, the insistent light beneath the dark surfaces of history. These are the motifs of Chassidut, and are like a continuing thread through the Rebbe’s teachings. The very form of the talks—their intellectual rhythms of question and answer, their reasoning and rigor—mirrors a central feature of Chabad, that through a mental journey we affect both emotion and action. A truth grasped first by the mind then shapes heart and limb, and in perceiving reality we become our real selves.

These talks, then, are addressed with relentless clarity to the contemporary Jewish condition. Their implicit starting-point is the darkness of a post-holocaust world in which spirituality, moral conviction, and the Divine purpose of creation, seem almost beyond reach. Their tacit faith is that step by step we can be led from the present moment of confusion to the timeless lucidity of Torah, beyond the low clouds to the Infinite Light.

In the original work of translating and adapting these talks, I was encouraged and immeasurably helped by Rabbi Fyvish Vogel and Rabbi Shmuel Lew. The credit is theirs; the errors and infelicities my own. To their friendship and inspiration, this book is dedicated.

Jonathan Sacks,
London, 5746 / 1986