When Napoleon invaded Russia, the Alter Rebbe sided with the Russian Czar — not so much because he appreciated the Czar’s policies, but because he feared what would happen if Napoleon would be victorious. “If the Czar prevails, it will continue to be difficult for the Jews materially, but spiritually they will prosper. If Napoleon prevails, by contrast, they will prosper materially, but falter spiritually.”

Following the Alter Rebbe’s directives, some of the chassidim took an active role in supporting the Russian war effort. One of them, Moshe Meisels, served as a spy. He would pretend to be a wholesale merchant purveying goods to the French, while secretly listening to their military secrets and communicating them to the Russians.

Once, it became a little bit too obvious that he was listening to the French plans and he aroused their suspicions. Now in wartime, when a Jew was caught as a suspected spy, not too many questions were asked. He would be executed on the spot.

Moshe Meisels was a quick and persuasive talker and so that verdict was not handed down immediately. There were enough people who believed his protests of innocence. There were, however, an equal number whose suspicions were aroused. As the argument between the two sides became heated, Napoleon himself happened to be passing by. “I’ll show you whether he is a spy or not,” he told his officers. And putting his hand over Moshe’s heart as a primitive polygraph, he began to question him.

Moshe remained calm and answered the queries confidently. Napoleon was impressed and released him.

Afterwards, Moshe said: “Now I know I have mastered the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. For he would always emphasize that the mind must rule the heart, controlling its impulses.”

Parshas Vayikra

Thisweek’s Torah reading focuses on the korbanos, the offerings brought by the Jewish people in the Sanctuary in the desert and afterwards, in the Temple in Jerusalem. It introduces this subject with the verse (translated literally): “When a man will offer of you a sacrifice to G‑d of the animal.” Now proper grammar would have the verse read: “When a man from among you offers....” But the verse is structured in this manner to teach that the offering is “of you,” dependent on each person and no one else.

The word korban has its root in the word karov, meaning “close.” Bringing an offering means coming close to G‑d. And the Torah teaches us that coming close to G‑d is dependent on each individual. No external factors can stand in his way. Every person can come close to G‑d. If he truly desires, he can reach the highest peaks.

Also implied is that the offering comes “of you,” of the animal within the person himself. For each one of us has an animalistic side. This isn’t necessarily something bad, for not all animals possess negative qualities such as cruelty or parasitism. On the contrary, most animals are pleasant creatures that are not harmful to humans or other beasts.

Even so, an animal is not considered a positive model for our Divine service. For an animal acts only to fulfill its own instinctual drives. It thinks of nothing more than satisfying its own needs and achieving gratification. Its selfishness lies not in the desire to take advantage of others; it just doesn’t think of others. It is concerned with one thing: how to get what it wants and needs.

We each have a certain animal dimension to our personalities. There are times when we think only of ourselves and what we want. This is not necessarily bad, but it can lead to conflict when two people want the same thing, and it does not represent a developed state. One of the unique dimensions of a human being is that he can think and his brain can control his feelings and desires. But when a person allows the animal in him to control his conduct, he does nothing with this human potential. He will leave the world the same way he came in without having developed himself.

That is not why G‑d brought us into being. He created us to make a change in the world and to begin by making a change in ourselves. Instead of just acting because we feel like doing something, our actions should be motivated by thought. We should act because what we’re doing is right, because it follows G‑d’s intent in the world. Instead of always taking we should think of looking outward and giving. And this involves changing the animal in ourselves, bringing it closer to G‑d. That’s the spiritual service associated with bringing a sacrifice.

How is this done? Through thought. The animal in us is also intelligent. What does it want? To feel good. When it appreciates that giving can be more satisfying than receiving and that the greatest happiness comes from attuning oneself to G‑d’s will, it will also act in that manner. That’s why we must continually expose ourselves to inspiring ideas and uplifting concepts. In this way, we will be motivated to look beyond our self-interest and seek goals that benefit mankind as a whole.

Looking to the Horizon

When describing Mashiach’s coming, Maimonides states: “Goodness will flow abundantly and all the delights will be as freely available as dust.” Maimonides is not wont to speak in similes. Here he uses one to communicate a fundamental concept. Yes, in the era of the Redemption, there will be abundant goodness, but man will regard it as dust, as something not at all alluring. That is not to say that he will not partake of that goodness. On the contrary, that is necessary. In that era of supreme fulfillment, we will also be granted the ultimate in physical satisfaction. Everything that we need, we will have.

But the physical will not be important to us. Yes, we will not lack anything, but our attention will be elsewhere. The depth and power of spiritual truth will capture and control our minds; that is what our thoughts will be engaged in and that is where we will direct our energies. For after being exposed to the knowledge of G‑d that Mashiach will reveal, we won’t be interested in anything else. Our minds and hearts will be focused on spiritual awareness.