A Sign of Divine Approval

Yud-Tes Kislev commemorates the nullification of the capital sentence against the Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch chassidic movement, and his liberation from imprisonment in the year 5559 (1798). The Alter Rebbe had been arrested by the czarist authorities for spreading Chassidism throughout Russia, creating a movement which they perceived as threatening the Czar’s authority.

Like every event in the temporal world, the Alter Rebbe’s arrest was a reflection of events taking place in the spiritual realm. While in prison the Alter Rebbe was visited by the souls of his predecessors, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, and his successor, the Maggid of Mezritch.1 When he asked them why he had been arrested, they explained that his manner of teaching chassidic thought had aroused a kitrug; i.e., its legitimacy had been challenged in the Heavenly Court.

Before his imprisonment the Alter Rebbe had been teaching Torah’s mystical secrets openly to the masses, and the objection had been raised that the world was not suffi­ciently refined to receive these spiritual truths. This kitrug had resulted in the Alter Rebbe’s arrest.

When the Alter Rebbe heard this explanation, he asked whether or not he should continue his teaching upon his release. The Baal Shem Tov explained that if the Alter Rebbe were duly released this would be a sign of Divine acceptance of his actions and that he should continue “with greater intensity and power.” Shortly afterwards, the Russian gov­ernment dropped the charges against the Alter Rebbe and he was released on Yud-Tes Kislev. Since then, this date has been commemorated as a major chassidic holiday, a day from which to draw inspiration.2

A Point of Transition

Yud-Tes Kislev marked a turning point in the Alter Rebbe’s approach to teaching. After his release, he began to deliver longer discourses and to present chassidic thought within an intellectual framework, rather than as brief articles of faith. The Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, held that the fundamental service of “spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus outward” began after the Alter Rebbe’s release on Yud-Tes Kislev.3

On one occasion,4 the Rebbe Rashab stated that before Yud-Tes Kislev, “Chassidus used to scorch the world”: its tran­scendent, spiritual nature could not be contained within the thought patterns prevalent in the material world, and in fact, contradicted them. From Yud-Tes Kislev onward, however, the Alter Rebbe garbed his teachings in a form that could be grasped intellectually, enabling anyone, even a spiritually insensitive person, to approach and comprehend the Torah’s deepest mystical secrets.

The Alter Rebbe named his approach Chabad, an acronym for the Hebrew words “wisdom, understanding, and knowl­edge,” thereby highlighting the intellect as a medium for connecting with G‑d.

An Extension or a Departure?

At first glance, the Alter Rebbe’s approach appears to depart from the main thrust of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. The Baal Shem Tov taught that5 “G‑d desires the heart.”6 He extolled the simple faith and unreserved commitment of the common man, and explained that these could establish a deeper and more powerful bond with G‑d than a scholar’s endeavors. The Alter Rebbe’s emphasis on the importance of the mind appears to be a change of course, a retreat from the vitality of the heart to the reserve of the intellect.

The Alter Rebbe himself saw no contradiction between his teachings and those of the Baal Shem Tov. On the contrary, he would refer to himself as the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson.7 When challenged by R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh, the Baal Shem Tov’s biological grandson, the Alter Rebbe replied, “You may be his grandson in a physical sense; I am his grandson in a spiritual sense.”

The Alter Rebbe’s perception of himself as the spiritual heir of the Baal Shem Tov sheds light on the connection between Chabad Chassidism and the Baal Shem Tov. While the essence of parents is manifested in their children, chil­dren do more than passively receive. They contribute to the legacy received from their parents, enhancing it with their own powers. The Alter Rebbe received the essence of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings but also contributed to them, extending their scope to include the realm of intellect as well as the realm of the heart.

An Expression of the Soul’s Infinity

Given the apparent contradiction between head and heart, how can the spiritual emotions encouraged by the Baal Shem Tov be reconciled with the intellectual approach of Chabad?

This question can be answered by an analysis of the potentials we possess within our souls. Certain of our poten­tials, such as our intellects and emotions, are defined and limited. The soul’s essence, however, stands above these and all other limits, for the soul is “an actual part of G‑d,” and just as G‑d cannot be defined or limited in any way, neither can our souls.

Accordingly, the soul cannot be reduced to being defined or identified with any particular human quality. By the same token, however, this potential cannot be defined as com­pletely transcending all our other potentials since this, too, would constitute a limitation of the soul’s powers. The soul must be capable of pervading the entire realm of conscious human potential, revealing its unlimited power within this limited context. Otherwise, the existence of this limited framework would appear to be a barrier to the boundless essence of the soul.8

On this basis, we can understand the transition from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov to the philosophy of Chabad Chassidism. The Baal Shem Tov stirred the essence of the Jewish soul, revealing a realm of experience beyond the range of our conscious powers. Once revealed, however, this tran­scendent essence of the soul needs to be internalized and integrated within our conscious powers as well — and this process begins with our intellectual faculties. This was accomplished through the Alter Rebbe’s teachings, especially through the new approach to his teachings that followed his release on Yud-Tes Kislev.

Above, But Not Beyond

However, the focus of Chabad on intellectual endeavor does not limit Chassidus to the constraints of human thought. Instead, it shows how the study and practice of Chassidus can transform the nature of our thoughts and expand our intellec­tual potential to the point where it can relate to essential G‑dliness.

Intellect allows people to grow and communicate. By developing an intellectual framework for chassidic thought, the Alter Rebbe made it possible for the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings to permeate the full scope of our personalities and to be shared with other people.

In light of this, we can understand the choice of oil as a metaphor for Chassidus. Oil has two distinctive qualities: it does not mix with any other liquid and it can penetrate all matter. The same is true of the teachings of Chabad Chassid­ism. It reveals the essence of our souls, the highest of our potentials. The Alter Rebbe’s contribution enables this poten­tial to influence and affect the functioning of all our powers, and thus be expressed in every aspect of our lives.

Precipitating the Redemption

With this in mind, we can understand why the coming of the Redemption is related to the revelation and spreading of Chassidism.9 In the Era of the Redemption, G‑d’s purpose in the creation of the world will be revealed.10 And why did G‑d create the world? — Because He “desired a dwelling in the lower worlds.”11

It is at home that a person reveals his true self. Hence, in describing G‑d’s desire for a dwelling as the purpose for crea­tion, our Sages implied that He desires that His essence be revealed.12 Furthermore, He desires that this revelation take place “in the lower worlds,” i.e., in our physical world. Hence, it is important that this revelation be perceived and understood by man, a critical element of this lower realm.

In the Era of the Redemption, both of these desires will be realized: G‑d’s essence will be revealed and that revelation will pervade the entire creation. In order to hasten those revelations, we must manifest similar qualities in our present divine service, for the Torah’s rewards are granted “measure for measure.”13

On the human level, this means making use of the Baal Shem Tov’s revelation of the essence of the soul, and making use of the Alter Rebbe’s revelation of our ability to internalize this essence by intellectual effort. Through these teachings, we and our environment can become a “dwelling for G‑d,” and prepare for the extension of that dwelling throughout the world with the coming of Mashiach. May this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,Vol. IV, Chai Elul;Kuntreis Inyanah shel Toras HaChassidus