Lighting Our Inner Fire

Our Rebbeim explain1 that before the advent of the Baal Shem Tov, the spiritual and material vitality of the Jewish people had been sapped to the extent that they were in a state of faint. The new energy that the Baal Shem Tov generated roused them to spiritual wakefulness. One of the areas where this was keenly felt was the realm of emotion. Before the advent of the chassidic movement, prayer and Torah study were primarilycold and cerebral. The Baal Shem Tov set the souls of the Jewish people on fire, stirring them to a higher pitch of love for G‑d and enabling them to develop deeper bonds with their fellowmen.

He sent great scholars to learn from simple laborers who were untrained in book knowledge but masters in expressing their love for G‑d and for their fellow Jews. He taught his followers to sing and dance in the midst of their Divine service. Through these and other activities, he gave every person tools to tap the reservoir of spiritual feelings in the depths of his heart and bring them to the forefront of his experience. He and his spiritual heirs in the generations that followed made the Talmud’s teaching:2 “G‑d seeks the heart,” an operational message, not a theoretical ideal. Indeed, historians have identified the outpouring of emotion as one of the unique contribu­tions of the chassidic movement to Jewish religious experience.

Why this emphasis? Because our emotions reflect who we really are and what truly motivates us.3 If there is no spiritual expression for these qualities, our personalities will be disjointed. We will intellectually understand and identify with Jewish values, but our feelings will focus on material things. Such a dichotomy would undermine any attempts to advance spiritually. Instead, our hearts should actually beat faster because of our love for G‑d, and we should taste genuine awe and dread with the realization that we are constantly in His presence.

Holding the Reins in Our Hands

The Alter Rebbe and the subsequent Chabad Rebbeim perpetuated the Baal Shem Tov’s legacy of spiritual vitality and expanded its scope, accentuating how, in order to channel the emotions in G‑d’s service, the mind must harness even the most powerful of our emotional resources.

Based on that premise, Chabad has always viewed emotions as a tool to bring about a more encompassing purpose. Their intent, then, is not self-contained — emotional expression in and of itself was never considered the ultimate goal. Instead, the emphasis has always been on avodah, using the power of intellect to direct the flow of emotions. Then, like a dammed river whose force is employed to produce energy, the strength of our emotions can be used to drive the turbines of our souls and refine and develop our characters.

The term avodah (עבודה) literally means “service” or “work.” Chassidus,4 however, notes the connection with the term עיבוד עורות, the processing of leather, where a coarse entity is transformed into a malleable substance that serves a functional purpose. So, too, avodah molds and refines the coarseness of our characters, and in the process, transforms the way we relate to ourselves, our fellow man, and G‑d. It makes the concepts that we study real, not only intellectually, but emotionally, unlocking the restraints we have within our hearts.

Chipping Away at Stone

The Alter Rebbe also contributed another dimension to the concept of serving G‑d through the heart, focusing on those times when our hearts do not respond as we would like them to. He explains how even when insensitivity dulls our emotions and we do not experience genuine spiritual feeling, we can remain aligned with our mission and conduct ourselves according to the inner truth that we grasp. Though our understanding is not powerful enough to transform the way we actually feel, it can still guide our conduct.

In that vein, the story is told that once the Alter Rebbe’s brother, R. Yehudah Leib, himself a distinguished sage,5 asked his brother: “Why do you speak of such high levels of love and fear of G‑d in your discourses? Personally, you may be able to achieve these levels of emotion, but I cannot and I am certain most of your other followers feel the same way.”

The Alter Rebbe answered: “One of the prophecies of the era of Mashiach is ‘I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’6 In the present era, we have ‘hearts of stone’ and our emotions do not necessarily respond to our understanding. In truth, this is a problem that we cannot eradicate on our own. It will not be until the era of Mashiach, when G‑d grants us hearts of flesh, that the problem will be resolved.

“But the prophecy says nothing about ‘brains of stone,’ a failure to understand what the heart should feel. This we must — and can — remove by ourselves.”

The Alter Rebbe suggests employing this type of avodah within our Divine service on a day-to-day basis. In ch. 16 of Tanya, he outlines “a great general principle in the Divine service of the beinoni,” explaining that the fundamental approach to ruling over our animal souls and natural tendencies is to follow a three-phased pattern of thought, feeling, and deed. One begins with meditation on the greatness of G‑d. This arouses feelings of love and fear, which in turn find expression in the observance of the mitzvos. Fear will safeguard one from the violation of the Torah’s prohibitions and love will motivate the observance of the positive commandments.

The Alter Rebbe, however, continues and explains that there are certain individuals who are unableto function in this manner. They meditate and they understand what they should be feeling, but that is where it ends. Their hearts just never respond.

These individuals, the Alter Rebbe explains, can still live as beinonim. Because if you know what you should be feeling and you understand what deeds you would be performing if you felt that way, G‑d helps you and enables you to conduct yourself as if you actually felt this way. Our lack of sensitivity does not prevent our understanding from guiding our behavior in the desired path. We may have ideals locked up in our brains because we cannot call forth the emotional energy to open ourselves up to them totally. But even when we do not feel them,they can be real for us and guide our conduct.

A Well of Emotional Vitality

The above concepts are particularly relevant in the present generation when we find it hard to summon up genuine feeling even with regard to worldly matters. Communication gaps between husbands and wives, between parents and children, are all too familiar. One of the complaints we frequently hear is: “I just can’t express what’s going on in my heart.” Sure, a person may get heated up, but the fact that communication does not occur indicates that genuine emotion remains untapped.

And if this is true with regard to physical concerns, how much more so does it apply to the spiritual. Too often, prayer is dull and routine; we perform mitzvos without passion or vitality.

7707 is a fountain of genuine spiritual feeling. From the Rebbe’s example, we can learn to experience many emotions — some that come immediately to mind are genuine joy and happiness, heartfelt yearning, and acute anguish — in a spiritual context. Moreover, in addition to showing us the extremes of the emotional spectrum, from his conduct we can learn the feelings of contentment, compassion, and care for others, which are the backbone of man’s successful day-to-day emotional functioning.

Quite obviously, we can learn from the Rebbe in other ways besides recalling his conduct. In his written works, he introduces us to new horizons in avodah, the field of emotional refinement. In this realm, the Rebbe did more than perpetuate the heritage of his forebears, he points the way to new frontiers, by giving us a multi-faceted conception of avodah, with applications in our Divine service, in our interpersonal relations, and even in our business activities. In that way, he has given us the potential to mold our characters and change the natural flow of our emotions. And for those of us who cannot overcome the inner obstacles that stand in the way of such a flow, he has shown us how to conquer the “mind of stone” by understanding the direction in which our emotions should lead us and acting accordingly. Simply put, his teachings made ideals and concepts that are intellectually abstract cogently real.

The insights that form the basis for this approach are spread out within a variety of chassidic texts including maamarim, sichos, and letters, at times, consisting of a paragraph here and a page there. Rarely do we find an entire work devoted to the exposition of such ideas. We have, however, sifted through the Rebbe’s work and selected several sichos which, though beginning with a scholarly question concerning a Torah reading or festival, place a heavy emphasis on the direction our avodah should take. To underscore the unique fusion of intellect and emotion that we can learn from the Rebbe, we have entitled the collection: A Knowing Heart.

Focusing on the Source

At several stages during the progress of this project, we debated among ourselves whether we should translate these sichos in a manner that adheres directly to the original text or adapt them. There is an obvious advantage in adaptations. They are written with the reader in mind, molding the message to fit his perspective and understanding. Also, since the words are your own, you can write freely, without the encumbrance of having to match your words to an existing text.

Nevertheless, that very advantage becomes a disadvantage, for the text is no longer the Rebbe’s initial message. It is not only that the holiness of the Rebbe’s words is lacking, the original contains a depth and breadth of application that an adaptation can never duplicate. For an adaptation is focused; there is a point that is developed and emphasized, but by doing so, the wide-ranging scope of the original sichah is sacrificed. For that reason, we chose to translate the sichos, giving our readers a taste of the Rebbe’s unique style of presentation to the fullest extent possible in translation. Even though certain portions of the text and definitely many of the footnotes are obviously directed to scholars, we have tried to open them to our readers.

With this goal in mind, we added bracketed [ ] explanations to serve as conceptual bridges within the text8 and translator’s notes. Also, occasionally passages that appear within the body of the original texts have been presented as footnotes in our translation, and in one instance — Parshas Kedoshim — we omitted portions of the sichah.


We have spoken in the plural, because the production of this volume has been truly a team effort. Acknowledgment is due to:

Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, for his translation of the text;

Rochel Chana Schilder, for her editing which added vitality and clarity;

Rabbi Aharon Leib Raskin, who contributed additional references and clarified certain passages;

Yosef Yitzchok Turner, for layout and typography, and

Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, director of Sichos In English, whose encouragement, diligent efforts, and continuous support made it possible for this text to reach publication.

It is our hope that the study of these sichos will inspire our readers and ourselves to full-spirited avodah, empowering us to deepen our relationship with G‑d and with our fellow men. May this in turn motivate us to shoulder the spiritual mission of our age: to prepare ourselves and the world at large for the coming of Mashiach, when we will finally be granted “hearts of flesh.”

Sichos In English

20 Menachem-Av, 5762