Elisha ben Avuyah was a great Talmudic Sage who went on to become a famous heretic in Jewish history. Following his rejection and repeated public desecration of Jewish law and community norms, he was held in such contempt by the community that he was stripped of his name and referred to only as Acher, which means other. Elisha ben Avuyah has thus come to represent a particular facet of the archetypal “other” in rabbinic thought and mythos: A person who not only grows up within the community and chooses to leave and live beyond its borders, but one who continuously flouts and flaunts his apostasy publicly.

However, as always, there is more to the story. The Talmud1 relates that one Shabbat, R. Meir was walking behind Elisha ben Avuyah to learn a Torah lesson from him, while Elisha was riding upon a horse—a public desecration of Shabbat. At a certain point, Elisha stopped and pointed out for R. Meir’s benefit that, according to his count of their steps, they had reached the Shabbat boundary, and should thus go no further; a most meticulous display of rabbinic acumen and halachic sensitivity.

We see expressed in this brief Talmudic vignette the numerous shades of existential complexity that exist simultaneously within each human identity, making it all the more difficult to one-dimensionalize and judge the character or worth of any “other” from our finite perspective. So, how are we supposed to read this story?

In 1982, at a farbrengen on Shabbat Parashat Emor,2 the Rebbe referred to Elisha ben Avuyah and his student R. Meir. Citing the inclusion of a teaching of Elisha ben Avuyah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), the Rebbe juxtaposes Elisha ben Avuyah’s teaching with a quote from R. Meir, which appears in close proximity to Elisha’s, reading them both through the lens of their complex personal biographies.

Reflecting on his own inner journey and struggle, Elisha ben Avuyah taught:3 “He who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper; and he who studies Torah as an old man, to what can he be compared? To ink written on paper that has been erased.” In the context of his story, the Rebbe suggests that despite the outward appearance of Elisha ben Avuyah’s total disavowal of the ways of Torah, his prodigious Torah study is still present on some level, and that no matter how far he may go, he carries an imprint of holiness deep within him that can never be fully erased.

Similarly, reflecting on his own experience (as one who continued to learn from such a heretic), R. Meir teaches:4 “Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains.” This explains how R. Meir was allowed to learn Torah teachings from “Acher”—because R. Meir did not regard the “vessel,” rather what it contained, and accepted a teaching which Acher had learned as a child, which remained for eternity because it was as “ink written on fresh paper.”

In the Rebbe’s teachings, we see him following in the footsteps of R. Meir, an exalted Sage of Israel who never gave up on the incorruptible soul of an “other,” no matter how far they may have strayed from the community.

 Judging by Your Intentions

According to Chasidut, the stories in the Torah are existentially instructive. Far from being just historical records of remarkable individuals from a bygone era, each incident, and even each individual, expresses a psycho-spiritual template or dynamic that is constantly present and spiritually relevant throughout all time. Similarly, every person, like the Torah, is a nested being; our deepest inner soul is concealed beneath literal and metaphorical flesh, bones, and garments—thoughts, words, and actions. It is therefore up to us to probe and penetrate the external fronts that obfuscate the transcendent spiritual nature within, whether in relation to Torah or people.

Based on this understanding, and on a belief in the eternal purity of the soul, the Rebbe was committed to actively seeking and finding the inner point of holiness within each person. However, he did not stop there. In fact, so given to this interpersonal aspect of his Positivity Bias, the Rebbe applied that generosity of spirit to personalities and characters throughout the entire corpus of Jewish literature.

If, as the saying goes, people tend to judge others by their actions and themselves by their intentions, the Rebbe did the opposite, revisiting and redeeming character after character in Scripture and tradition by focusing on their noble intentions rather than their misguided actions.

In this spirit, the Rebbe would revisit stories of individuals who were traditionally seen as scandalous or villainous, recasting them in a new, redemptive light by looking beneath the surface and considering their inner intentions. According to the Rebbe, their intentions were rooted in holiness, even if still in need of rectification. Traditionally, the inclusion of such shocking stories and disreputable characters in the Torah itself was understood as providing us examples for how not to behave. But through the redemptive eyes of the Rebbe, misguided actions reveal noble intentions worthy of our acknowledgment and even emulation.

In this way, the Rebbe practiced a form of intergenerational “love of one’s fellow man,” dedicating himself to the redemption and elevation of not only those souls who lived in his generation, but of all souls to have ever lived. Throughout the rest of this chapter we will explore just a small sampling of the many Biblical characters and historical figures whose stories were transformed as a result of the Rebbe’s rigorous process of revaluation and redemption.

Testing, Testing…

Let’s start at the beginning. The story of humanity’s first failure, as recounted in the Torah, is arguably the most far-reaching tragedy of all time. Adam’s inability to obey G‑d’s command to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit, and his subsequent banishment from the Garden of Eden, are generally understood to be the root source of human negativity and corruption.

The Rebbe taught5 that this story has been read superficially and its deeper, positive message missed. Adam was the first human, created by the Hand of G‑d Himself. He was the ultimate human prototype, literally “created in G‑d’s image.” He was placed in the Garden along with the snake, who represents the force in Creation that constantly pulls us away from all that is good and holy, toward what is destructive and meaningless. But what is the deeper purpose of the snake and its test?

Before Creation, all that existed was G‑d’s Infinite Oneness. There was no other, no possible relationship, only One. A desire stirred within G‑d to share and relate with something other than Himself. In order to make space for a finite Creation to exist, G‑d constricted His Infinite Presence, thus creating a fertile void within which one might emerge. This act of cosmic contraction is referred to by Kabbalah as tzimtzum.

The world and all that is in it was formed within the vacuum created by this act of Divine retention. However, as a result of tzimtzum, G‑d’s presence was no longer overtly apparent. The Hebrew word olam (world), is etymologically related to the word he’elem (concealment), indicating that G‑d’s presence is concealed within the world—to be revealed by man. Like a cosmic game of hide and seek, the Infinite One was now hidden within the finite multitudes of Creation. This was how the world worked, until the sixth day, when Adam was created. With the birth of humanity, a new stage of creation became possible—the conscious relationship between Creator and creation that G‑d initially desired. This, then, was the test of Creation. Would a finite human being, endowed with free will on account of G‑d’s apparent absence, consciously choose to live in an honest relationship with the Infinite One, in loving alignment with His will?

Adam’s test was whether he could fulfill a single Divine command without the revealed presence of G‑d looking over his shoulder. This was the archetypal test of the human condition. The Garden of Eden was the proving ground. Adam’s every move would impact and set the course for human history from here on out. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.

It was precisely because of the enormity of Adam’s mission [the very first command from Creator to creation] that the snake [symbolizing the inclination in humans to negativity] exerted such enormous energies and focused all of its strength on disturbing Adam’s mission, which was simply to abstain from the Tree of Knowledge…. This was indeed a most worrisome moment for the snake, whose entire purpose and reason for existing was to stop man from serving his Maker. To validate his purpose, one can imagine the tremendous effort the snake invested in causing Adam to sin.6

The Talmud7 teaches that Adam was created on the sixth day of Creation, which was divided into twelve hours. Every hour of the day, humanity went through another stage of development, until Shabbat, the seventh day. In the ninth hour of the sixth day, Adam was commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but he ate from it only one hour later! On the surface this would seem to demonstrate a weakness within the nature or constitution of Adam, and thus within humanity. He couldn’t go more than a single hour without disobeying G‑d’s will.

However, if we consider the cosmic stakes on the line, it becomes clear that Adam actually exhibited nearly superhuman restraint by holding off as long as he did.

According to the Rebbe’s treatment of this story, the question is no longer, How could Adam succumb to sin so soon? Instead, it becomes, How was Adam able to withstand the evil inclination’s advances for as long as he did?

Rather than highlighting humanity’s weakness, Adam’s story comes to symbolize and inspire our resilience and tenacity in striving to live a spiritual life in a physical world, where G‑d is present but hidden behind the veil of dualistic knowledge. Additionally, Adam’s example, when seen through the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias, teaches us that the more resistance we encounter when it comes to doing the right thing, the more essential that action may be to our purpose in life.

Spark Seeker

Few characters from the Torah are presented as negatively in the Talmud as Jacob’s brother Esau. He is characterized as a brute, a murderer, or a glutton incapable of curbing his appetites. He represents ancient Rome, medieval Christianity, coarse physicality, and a host of other oppressive forces intent on subjugating the spiritual life and sovereignty of the Jewish People. As such, Esau is seen as the polar opposite of his brother Jacob, who represents a pure and simple spirituality in contrast to his brother’s unencumbered carnality.

Yet, the Torah tells us that “Isaac loved Esau,”8 preferring him to Jacob. How are we to understand this? What did Isaac see in Esau that we might easily overlook? Additionally, how are we to understand the fact that Jacob had to don the garments of Esau in order to procure his father’s deathbed blessing?

In a Chasidic discourse delivered in 1963,9 the Rebbe directly addressed this question and applied his signature Positivity Bias to redeem the soul and story of Esau. According to the Rebbe, Esau and Jacob represented possible approaches to spiritual life and service in the world, and in the final analysis, one without the other is incomplete.

Jacob, referred to as a “man of the tents of Torah study,” represents a secluded spiritual existence focused on the World to Come. Esau, referred to as a “hunter of the field,” represents someone who is not afraid to descend and engage with the material world on its own terms in order to elevate and expose its spiritual essence and origins.

Isaac, though supportive of Jacob’s unsullied existence and one-dimensional focus on the ethereal, saw the ultimate point of the Jewish path as requiring an approach much closer to Esau’s. For ultimately, the work of the Jew is to sanctify Creation, not to separate ourselves from it.

However, Esau’s path also brought him into dangerous proximity with the temptations of this world. And without a firm enough connection to the spiritual realm, he fell prey to his lower nature and appetites, which ultimately brought him down. This is the shadow aspect of Esau, emphasized by centuries of rabbinic commentary. In the Rebbe’s view, however, expounding on a theme emphasized by the Alter Rebbe and his successors, there is an additional dimension. Esau possessed an invaluable spark of holy energy that needed to be redeemed. From this perspective, Jacob had to integrate the essence of Esau in order to complete his character. Since we are children of Jacob, we too need to learn to integrate this spark of our estranged brothers and selves.

The Rebbe encouraged all of us to redeem the positive aspects of Esau—the willingness to engage the darkness in order to transform it into light, and the ability to seek out the spiritual spark contained within the earthly realm. We must each have one foot in the tent of Jacob, strengthening ourselves in Torah and prayer, with the other foot in the field of Esau, in active pursuit of the fallen sparks within Creation.

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

This theme of balancing our spiritual and earthly drives and commitments is reflected in numerous other stories in Torah. Notably, the main characters in these stories are often, like Esau, taken at face value, thus blinding us to their deeper, positive aspects that are worthy of our consideration and even emulation. The Rebbe referred to the classic Chasidic interpretation of two stories in particular, to highlight this theme.

While the Jewish People were traveling through the desert, Moses sent out twelve spies to scout out the Holy Land ahead of their arrival. When they returned to the camp, ten of the spies delivered a devastating report about the prospects of inhabiting the Land, roiling the masses. The people wailed and despaired, causing G‑d to respond with a deadly plague directed at those who had slandered the Promised Land, inducing rebellion and unrest within the Israelite camp. This event, known as the sin of the spies, is what elicited the Divine decree that the Jewish People would not enter the Land of Israel until the whole generation passed away, thirty-nine years later.

The most widespread interpretation of the spies is that they acted out of fear and doubt, thus signaling a lapse in faith. In their own words: We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we [and He, referring to G‑d].

However, Chasidut offered a different perspective.10 This was not a typical mutiny or sabotage, nor were these men struck by a gross lapse of faith in G‑d’s word and Providence. The spies, who were actually princes of Israel, were motivated by their responsibility to their charges. They felt that the change of environment from the idyllic spiritual reality in the desert to the mundane physical reality of civilization, with all that it entails, would severely diminish and distract the spiritual focus of their people. In the wilderness, G‑d’s Presence and Providence was openly revealed; manna was provided daily, water flowed from rocks, protection from the elements was provided by Divine clouds of glory, and Torah echoed through hearts and canyons. The spies worried that the daily tasks of establishing a settled life and society would interrupt this collective state of revelation and communion with G‑d. It was the spies’ fear of success (at conquering the land), rather than a fear of failure (resulting from an absence of faith in G‑d’s ability to lead them to victory) that motivated them to return with negative reports.

The Land is one that [spiritually] swallows its inhabitants was their argument.

The spies wanted to remain within the womb of the wilderness; they expressed a positive desire to live in the uncompromised embrace of truth and transcendence. This is, according to the Rebbe, the positive point within the intentions of the spies that must be redeemed. However, the Torah also teaches us that we must not abuse our spiritual life by using it to escape the world. We are meant to spend time in the tent of Torah, as well as within the desert of the soul, but we are also meant to bring those experiences and truths into the beautiful, often complicated mess of everyday life. The Torah does not divide physical and spiritual, body and soul; it unites!

On one occasion among many,11 the Rebbe spoke as above, about the virtue of the spies, reflecting on the statement of our Sages that “due to the severity of their sin, they have no portion in the World to Come.” The Rebbe explained that the spies do not have merely a portion in the World to Come; they have more! After the talk, Chasidim began to sing a Chasidic melody with the words: “V’chol karnei resha’im,” meaning that G‑d will remove all wicked people in the Messianic times. The Rebbe stopped them from singing and asked: “We just spoke about the virtue of the spies, and now you have chosen to sing about sinners? Please exchange that song for ‘Yifrach beyamav tzaddik’”—a different song based on words relating to the righteous: May the righteous one flourish in his days….

Spiritual Overdose

Nadav and Avihu were two sons of Aaron the High Priest. As recounted in the Torah, they offered a strange fire before G‑d, which He had not commanded. This elicited G‑d’s swift retribution, as it says, A fire went out from G‑d and consumed them, and they died before G‑d.

While the cause of death is clear from the text, the reason for their deaths is not. The Divine logic behind this tragedy has plagued commentators throughout the ages. Here are some of the reasons they offer, which, when combined, paint an overwhelmingly negative portrait of these two ill-fated young men:

They entered the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies without permission.12

They weren’t wearing all of the necessary garments while performing the priestly service.13

They never married.14

They had no children.15

They were arrogant and many women remained unmarried while waiting for them. They said: “Our father’s brother is a king, our mother’s brother is a prince [Nachshon, the head of the tribe of Judah], our father is a High Priest, and we are both deputy High Priests; what woman is worthy of us?”

They offered up an “alien fire,”16 i.e., an unbidden incense offering.17

They rendered a decision on a matter about which they should have consulted their teacher Moses.18

Each of them acted on his own initiative, not taking counsel from one another.19

They performed the Temple service while intoxicated.20

They entered the Sanctuary without washing their hands and feet.21

They already deserved to die at Mount Sinai, when they callously feasted their eyes on the Divine.22

In all cases, these brothers are essentially portrayed as self-centered, egotistical, spiritual thrill seekers, who deserved what they got. The Rebbe, however, highlighted23 and developed a teaching of the Or Hachayim24 and elaborated on in Chasidic sources. Aaron’s eldest sons passed away from a “Kiss of G‑d,” a most positive description, used only for the highest souls. Each of the punishable actions enumerated in the Midrash was rooted in a single, positive source—intense passion and yearning for G‑d. In the words of the Rebbe: “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by ‘Divine kiss,’ such as experienced by the perfectly righteous…. This is the meaning of the verse, They came close to G‑d and died.” From this perspective, it becomes clear that Nadav and Avihu died of a spiritual overdose—too much of a good thing.

Jewish tradition teaches that we are here for a reason, which is to elevate and sanctify the material world, not only to transcend it.

While not condoning their approach of unfettered and irresponsible spiritual indulgence, we can and must emulate Nadav and Avihu’s willingness to give up everything, even life itself, in pursuit of spiritual truth. With our feet firmly planted on the earth, our souls are free to reach for the heights to bring the infinite light of the Divine down into our daily life and tasks.

Moshiach Now!

Another one of the archetypal villains of the Torah was a man named Korach, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron in the desert; he is also understood by classical Chasidic teaching, elaborated on by the Rebbe, as being motivated by righteous principles. Rather than a power-hungry and disrespectful insurrectionary who sought to seize control of the masses to satisfy his ego and delusions of grandeur, which is how he is often seen, there are two aspects of Korach’s personality in particular that are worth elevating and emulating.

On one hand, Korach was motivated by a spiritual urge. Korach was a Levite, and while he could participate in the Divine service, he could not perform the service of the High Priest. He intensely desired such an intimate experience of G‑d, and he was therefore willing to take up Moses’ challenge the following morning to offer incense before G‑d, despite knowing that it could be fatal.25

On the other hand, Korach was socially motivated. He saw the world in its Messianic state of utopian universalism, a world in which we are all spiritually equal, when G‑d will be revealed as the water covers the sea.26 This led him to foment an ideological revolution in the camp meant to destabilize the prevailing power structure and hierarchy of leadership, questioning Moses directly: Aren’t we all holy?27

From one perspective, Korach was absolutely right; this is where the world is ultimately headed. However, as is true for many visionaries, he was ahead of his time and suffered the consequences of trying to implement the Messianic transformation of history and humanity before the world was ready.28

Nevertheless, the Rebbe points out that we must not lose sight of the holy vision and spiritual yearning of Korach!

Dynamic Duo

Two colorful characters in Korach’s rebellion in particular have also been singled out as being particularly corrupt. Dathan and Abiram are regarded as the prototypical pair of inveterate trouble-makers. According to the Talmud,29 they were wholly wicked “from beginning to end.” They are identified30 as the two quarreling Jews in Egypt, and it was they who caused Moses’ flight to the desert by denouncing him to Pharaoh for killing the Egyptian taskmaster and revealing that he was not the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.31 They incited the people to return to Egypt,32 both at the Red Sea and when the spies returned from Canaan.33 They transgressed the commandment concerning the manna by keeping it overnight,34 and they accused Moses of bringing the Jewish People out of Egypt to die in the desert. Finally, Dathan and Abiram became ringleaders of the rebellion under the influence of Korach and died as a result.

The Rebbe explains this,35 based on classic commentary, so that a different picture emerges. It’s not that these two did not instigate any trouble; there was more to them than that. In fact, they had a point of goodness within. While this goodness was generally muted, it nevertheless shone brightly on certain occasions, revealing that beneath the layers of rebellion there existed a core of righteousness worth examining.

Based on a Biblical commentary,36 Dathan and Abiram were actually deeply involved Jewish leaders concerned about the welfare of their people. Although they had all of the personal failings mentioned above, they were also part of the group of Jewish officers who risked their lives to confront and challenge Pharaoh for ceasing to provide the Jewish slaves with straw for their bricks. They cried out to Pharaoh, saying, “Why do you do this to your servants?”37

Furthermore, they were among those officers willing to take a beating for the Jews when they did not fill their quotas: And the officers of the Children of Israel whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had appointed over them were beaten.38

Moreover, they challenged Moses and Aaron directly for making things worse for the people, as conditions rapidly deteriorated for them as soon as Moses started instigating against Pharaoh. May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you have brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to place a sword into their hand[s] to kill us.39

Indeed, Moses validated their claim by bringing their challenge to G‑d on behalf of the Jewish People!

Read through the Rebbe’s deeper insight, despite their many shortcomings, Dathan and Abiram also emerge as vigilant guardians of the people, faithfully protecting them from all potential threats, whether from within or without.

You Can Take the Jew out of the Temple, But…

A particularly fascinating example of this aspect of the Rebbe’s Positivity Bias was expressed during a farbrengen in which he spoke about a woman named Miriam bat Bilgah. The Talmud40 relates that Miriam bat Bilgah abandoned Judaism, married a Greek officer, and accompanied the Greeks as they stormed the Holy Temple (in the era leading up to the story of Chanukah). In that very moment of one of our deepest and darkest national tragedies, as the Greeks were defiling the Holy Temple, she went and pounded on the Holy Altar with her sandal, taunting G‑d and mocking the Jewish People: “Wolf, Wolf! You consume the people’s wealth, but you don’t answer them in their time of need!” For this vile act of contempt and utter disrespect, the Sages punished her entire family.

Be that as it may, during a public gathering in honor of the anniversary of his mother’s passing,41 the Rebbe spoke at length about Miriam bat Bilgah and the meaning of her story. Miriam’s outburst was not out of contempt; it was out of compassion for the suffering of her people. In a voice audibly strained by emotion,42 the Rebbe broke into tears as he explained. Despite the fact that she had intermarried and renounced the ways of her people—joining and even encouraging their enemy all the way to the desecration of the Temple—upon reaching that innermost sanctum, her innermost truth was activated, and she was overcome with the feeling of an unbreakable bond between herself and her people. This moved her to protest to G‑d on their behalf, even as her husband ransacked and defiled the Holy of Holies.

Herein lies a profound message: It may appear that a Jew is cut off from everything Jewish, but the Torah says, “No! What you see is only superficial.” The fact remains that they are and will always remain a Jew. As R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi teaches:43 “A Jew neither desires nor is capable of being separated from G‑dliness, G‑d forbid.” Even after Miriam bat Bilgah apostatized and joined the enemy, what was it that ultimately bothered her? “Why is the Altar not protecting the people?” After all was said and done, she cried out in pain for her fellow Jews. So why does the Talmud tell us this story? Not, G‑d forbid, to disparage a Jewess, but to the contrary: To teach us about the beautiful and unbreakable bond that exists among the Jewish People.

Infidelity or Inspiration

In addition to Adam’s sin in the Garden, the sin of the Golden Calf is one of the most notorious and far-reaching stories in the Torah. A mere forty days after experiencing the revelation at Mount Sinai and hearing from G‑d, Himself, “I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, do not worship another,” the people fashioned an idol and served it. It is hard to find anything redemptive in this seemingly irredeemable episode.

Nevertheless, the Rebbe quotes classic commentaries44 that enable us to see the light within such tremendous darkness. Through a close analysis of the text of the Golden Calf incident itself, it becomes clear that the greatest blemish on our national record and history does not actually begin as a story of religious betrayal and infidelity.

The Jewish People were not (initially) seeking out a new god to worship; rather, they were seeking a new spiritual leader who would guide them in their service of G‑d.

This becomes clear from the verse that introduces the Golden Calf incident, which states: The people saw that Moses delayed in descending the mountain, and therefore gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Rise up, make for us an Elokim who will go before us.45 It is important to point out that Elokim is a multivalent Hebrew word that can either refer to deities or to powerful human leaders. The Jewish People then proceeded to push for their request by exclaiming: For this man, Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him!

The people desired—and felt they required—someone or something to replace Moses, who, according to their mistaken calculations, had gone missing. In other words, the Jewish People were not looking for a deity that would replace G‑d; rather, they were looking for someone (or something) who would replace Moses.

Essentially, the Jews were lost and looking for sustainable inspiration and a channel of revelation. When they thought that their source of leadership and spiritual guidance was gone, they sought a replacement. Without wasting a moment or sparing any cost, they set about creating a new collective focus for spiritual practice. Instead of taking time off from their intense spiritual experience while waiting for Moses to return, they didn’t allow a moment to pass before seeking out a new means of inspiration!

Needless to say, the Rebbe is not condoning the creation of the Golden Calf itself, which was a forbidden act and quickly devolved into idol worship. Rather, he is acknowledging a Divine spark within their initial intention, which was to ensure that they always had a point of spiritual focus.

This brings us to our final area of inquiry, indirectly introduced in the episode of the Golden Calf: The role of a true spiritual leader in relation to the people.

Expanding the Tent

The leading scholars of Mezhibuzh once visited the Baal Shem Tov in his sukkah. After closely inspecting the structural design of his sukkah, the scholars unanimously declared it invalid.

In response, the Baal Shem Tov began bringing various proofs to demonstrate that his sukkah did fulfill the mitzvah as prescribed by the Torah. The two sides debated back and forth—the Baal Shem Tov maintaining the validity of his sukkah, the scholars maintaining their opposition.

Finally, the Baal Shem Tov opened his hand. Inside lay a small piece of parchment. The scholars took the parchment and found it to be a note from heaven. “The sukkah of R. Yisrael [Baal Shem Tov] is kosher,” they read. The note was signed by the archangel Metatron, keeper of the “inner spheres.”

On Sukkot, 5727 (1966), the Rebbe recounted this extraordinary tale and asked the obvious question: While the story demonstrates the Baal Shem Tov’s unique spiritual clout—his ability to pull heavenly strings to prove a point—we are left wondering why this saintly Jewish leader would construct his sukkah in such a questionable manner to begin with. Why invite the suspicion and judgment of the other rabbis by dwelling in a seemingly impermissible sukkah?

The Rebbe explained that what motivated the Baal Shem Tov was the desire to find merit for the masses. Knowing that there was a large amount of unlearned Jews who did not know how to properly construct a sukkah, the Baal Shem Tov built his sukkah in the most lenient manner possible in order to validate every sukkah with issues similar to his own, and to thus declare the practice of less-educated Jews to be within the pale of Jewish observance.

The moral of this story is clearly less about the kosher status of one man’s sukkah than it is about the role of a Jewish leader. The Baal Shem Tov was trying to impress upon the scholars of Mezhibuzh that a true Jewish leader must be willing to make not just material, but also spiritual and social sacrifices for his people.

People Before Principles

We will close this chapter by looking at the archetypal leader in Jewish history, Moses. At the conclusion of the Torah we find a concise eulogy for the only man whom all Jews refer to as “Rabbeinu,” our Teacher, to this day.

And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.46

In his commentary to this verse, Rashi asks: “What great thing did Moses do before the eyes of all Israel?” His answer may be surprising. The great act of Moses that the Torah refers to in its very last words, according to Rashi, is the shattering of the Tablets when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Jewish People dancing around the Golden Calf. The idea that Moses’ greatness lies in his “breaking of the law,” needs to be unpacked to be properly understood.

Toward the end of Moses’ forty days on top of the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments directly from G‑d, the Jewish People became anxious that Moses had abandoned them and constructed a Golden Calf, as discussed above. Upon seeing this desecration, Moses threw down the tablets, shattering them in front of the people. G‑d then tells Moses to step aside so He can destroy the people and start afresh. Moses responds on their behalf: If you would, bear their sin; if not, then erase me from your book.47

When Moses came down from the mountain and saw the Jewish People dancing around the Golden Calf, he knew that it was an offense punishable by death—according to the very Tablets he was holding. In that moment, Moses did the only thing he could think of to save his people—he broke the Tablets, nullifying the contract that made them liable. When faced with a choice between the survival of the Jewish People or the survival of the Torah, Moses chose the people.

For a Jewish leader who loves Torah almost more than life itself, this is the ultimate expression of unconditional love. That is why the Torah, which is called Torat Moshe, “Moses’ Torah,” ends on this very note, lest we forget the ultimate point behind all of its principles—that the way to love G‑d is by loving His people.

It is thus the eternal love and commitment to the Jewish People that Moses exhibited in this very instance—even challenging G‑d—that forever engraved him in our hearts as the ultimate leader.

The Talmud48 goes even further when it informs us that G‑d, Himself, was “in accord with the mind of Moses” in this instance, even going so far as to offer him congratulations, “Yeyasher kochacha sheshibarta (Strength to you for breaking the tablets)!”

R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi makes a similar point. He was asked, “Which takes precedence, the love of G‑d or the love of Israel?” He replied, “Love of Israel takes precedence—for you are loving whom your Beloved loves.”49

In a world where real people are perpetually put in the service of abstract principles, whether religiously or politically, Moses made a revolutionary statement: It is not a matter of having to make a choice between loving people or loving G‑d, because it is G‑d’s essential will that the best way to love Him is to love His children. This is the greatness of Moses—his commitment to the people he was entrusted to care for and guide through the wilderness of life, no matter what they may have done. And this too is the greatness of Torah—that it is not afraid to supplant its own supremacy for the sake of the Jewish People, because the Jewish People is its essential purpose. In this eternal moment, as illuminated by our Sages, the Torah is teaching us that a Jewish soul, no matter how brilliant or broken, is not a means to an end—it is in fact an end unto itself. This is the Torah’s last word, its crown jewel.

This, too, is the super-rational principle underlying the Rebbe’s relationship to all of G‑d’s children, those whom he encountered personally as well as those recorded in our history. The Rebbe never stopped looking for the good points within each one of us and never stopped advocating on our behalf, despite whatever failings or frailties we may have had. This is the essence of Jewish leadership. This is what makes a Rebbe.