1. Fatherly Punishment in Av

With1 regard to Av, the approaching month which is blessed on this Shabbos,2 a certain maamar of the Rebbe Rashab3 raises a query: Is it not surprising that the Destruction [of the Beis HaMikdash] took place specifically in the month of Av, which is characterized by the attribute of mercy?

The very name Av (lit., “father”) signifies mercy, as in the phrase,4 כרחם אב - “As a father is merciful….” Mercy is also indicated by the descending order of the letters (alef, beis) which spell the word. As taught in the Zohar,5 the arrangement of letters in ascending order (i.e., beginning from the end of the alphabet) indicates the attribute of stern judgment,6 whereas the reverse order indicates the attribute of mercy. Accordingly, it is in the month of Tishrei (תשרי), whose first three letters begin at the end of the alphabet and proceed towards the beginning, that the world is judged.7 By the same token, the month of Av, whose letters appear in descending order, is characterized by the attribute of mercy.

This month saw a great many punitive episodes - the Destruction of the First and Second Beis HaMikdash, the sin of the Spies8 which was the root of the Destruction, and all five calamities enumerated in Tractate Taanis.9 How is it, then, that this month should be called Av, which signifies (of all things) mercy?

By way of explanation, the above-mentioned maamar teaches that these episodes illustrate the verse,10 שמע בני מוסר אביך - “Listen, my son, to the rebuke of your father”; and likewise the verse,11 ואוהבו שיחרו מוסר - “and he that loves [his son] chastises him early.” Observed from their external aspect, these punitive episodes are expressions of stern justice; in their inner core, they express mercy.

2. Mercy in Disguise

In truth, everything that happens is an expression of mercy, for nothing evil comes forth from G‑d’s hand.12 With His people Israel, who are His children and the flock of His pasture, His conduct is certainly kindness and mercy - except that there is revealed mercy, and there is a greater mercy that transcends the entire scheme of Hishtalshelus. This is a degree of mercy so lofty that it cannot be revealed except in a garment of stern justice.

This superior degree of mercy is called for when the attribute of stern justice prevails. At such a time mercy cannot be revealed straightforwardly, because it is opposed by this attribute of uncompromising justice, and must therefore become concealed in a garment of uncompromising justice. When this takes place, and the attribute of stern justice is thereby appeased and its opposition neutralized, there is an additional gain: an extremely lofty level of mercy can then be drawn downward from an infinitely sublime level of Divinity.13

This month is therefore called Av, signifying mercy, for its punitive episodes are a garment of strict justice that hides the loftiest mercies.

3. This World, Here and Now

The above perception is sharpened by the fact that on Shabbos Mevarchim, this new month is blessed by the name Menachem Av. As far as concerns legal documents (such as bills of divorce) drawn up according to the Torah, the month is called simply Av. When it comes to the Blessing for the New Month, however, it is the Jewish custom (which assumes the force of Torah14) to refer to it as Menachem Av.15

This may be understood as follows: The intent underlying this Blessing is to draw “deliverance and consolation” into the entire month (as well as into the days preceding Rosh Chodesh, during which one prepares for the approaching month). Consolation is appropriate only after a time of sorrow. As discussed above,16 consolation is the manifestation of the innermost intent of past sorrow.

One of the ways in which this intent finds expression is the name of the month, Menachem Av. This name echoes our request that there be a downward flow - not of sublime mercies that are hidden in a garment of strict justice, but of sublime mercies that are manifest, even down here, “lower than ten tefachim.17

This request recalls a well-known exchange between the Rebbe Maharash18 and his father, the Tzemach Tzedek.

When the year 5608 [1847-48] came to a close, the Rebbe Maharash asked his father to explain: had it not been hinted that this past year was going to be a ketz, a particularly auspicious time for the long-awaited Redemption?

“What’s wrong?” replied his father. “The coming of Mashiach is essentially the revelation of the innermost core of the soul19 - and this year saw the publication of Likkutei Torah, which is a revelation of the pnimiyus of the Torah, and through this, the pnimiyus of the soul is revealed.”

The Rebbe Maharash protested: “But we want to have the coming of Mashiach lower than ten tefachim!”

4. Inadvertent Offenses

As was discussed above, sublime mercies can be elicited specifically during the month of Av. This discussion can throw light on the language of the Alter Rebbe in today’s reading20 of Tanya:21Shmos 34:7.22In the original, zedonos.23In the original, shegagos; this includes the kind of offense called וחטאה.24Epistle 28 (in Lessons In Tanya, Vol. V, p. 187ff.).25Moed Katan 28a.26Bamidbar 20:1ff.27Ibid., ch. 19.28These Kabbalistic terms are discussed in Lessons In Tanya, Vol. V, p. 193ff.29Ibid., p. 196, quoting Tehillim 74:12.30Unlike the three utterly impure kelipos, which represent the absolute antithesis of kedushah in the universe, kelipas nogah contains a redeeming glimmer of Divine light. Cf. Tanya, end of ch. 1.31In the original, avi avos.32Lessons In Tanya, Vol. V, p. 189.33Lit., “feminine waters”; i.e., a mortally-initiated spiritual arousal.34Ibid., p. 197.35Yoma 86a.36See Shavuos 2b, s.v. תולה. See also Rashi on Bereishis 9:5.37The above passage (38

5. The Power of Repentance

This week’s reading, Parshas Pinchas, also echoes the above theme - repentance, which evokes the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, sublime mercies.

This reading speaks of the census that was taken by Moshe and Elazar the Kohen before the Jewish people entered the Land, towards the end of their forty years in the wilderness. The count of the Tribe of Reuven includes a mention of Dasan and Aviram,39 and proceeds to specify that40 “these are the same Dasan and Aviram who were communal leaders and who incited [the people] against Moshe… when they incited them against G‑d, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korach….” The following verse adds,41 “The sons of Korach, however, did not die,” because42 “at the time of the dispute they had thoughts of teshuvah in their hearts; by virtue of this, a high place was fortified for them in Gehinnom and there they stayed.”

This episode highlights the prodigious power of teshuvah: even after “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them,” their repentance bore fruit, and a refuge was prepared for them. In this spirit it is written,43 מוריד שאול
ויעל - “He brings a man down to the deepest pit, and He raises him up.” That is to say: even though He brings him down to the deepest pit, He nevertheless raises him up.

6. The Missing Families

There is something puzzling in the account given in Parshas Pinchas of the census of the Jewish people, and it calls for explanation.

Since the aim of the count was to determine the number of Jews alive at that time, why does the Torah mention families that no longer existed? For example: In the Tribe of Reuven - Dasan and Aviram, even though the passage goes on to state explicitly that44 “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them”; and in the Tribe of Yehudah - Er and Onan,45 even though the same verse proceeds to say that “Er and Onan died in the Land of Canaan.”

One cannot answer by arguing that the Torah had to mention them and to make it clear that they left no survivors in order to avert a possible question as to why they were not listed. According to this argument, the Torah should also have mentioned the46 “five families [that] were missing from the sons of Binyamin.” Since this cannot be the reason, why does the Torah mention specifically Dasan and Aviram, and Er and Onan?

7. The Sign of the Covenant

By way of introduction, we must first understand how the counting of the people before their entry to the Land is connected specifically with Parshas Pinchas - spelled here פינחס , including the letter yud. (According to one opinion, whenever this name appears, with one exception, it is spelled without a yud; according to another opinion, whenever this name appears, with one exception, it is spelled with a yud;47 here, according to both opinions, it is spelled with a yud.)

The Zohar teaches:48 “The letter yud was added to Pinchas because he was zealous in this matter [of guarding the purity of the sign of the covenant49].” Likewise, the Zohar teaches, the letter hei was added to Yosef, in the phrase,50 עדות ביהוסף (lit., “testimony in Yehosef”): “Because he was vigilant in this matter, he became bound with the Divine Presence and linked with that testimony.” I.e., by virtue of their vigilance in this matter, a matter on which hinges the connection between G‑d and the House of Israel, the letter yud was added to Pinchas and the letter hei was added to Yosef.

Here we see how the name Pinchas (spelled with a yud) is connected with the counting of the people, for this counting also highlights the theme of guarding the purity of the sign of the covenant. As Rashi writes:51 “G‑d placed His Name upon them, hei at one side and yud at the other, as if to say, ‘I hereby testify that these people are indeed the sons of their fathers [and were not born of Egyptian duress].’” Rashi concludes by stating that this testimony is alluded to in the phrase,52 עדות לישראל שבטי י-ה - “the Tribes of G‑d [using the Divine Name which comprises these two letters], a testimony for Israel.”

As to why the testimony regarding the above-mentioned vigilance should be connected with these two particular letters, a simple explanation may be found by relating our subject to a statement of our Sages:53 איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן - “A man and a woman: if they are found worthy, the Divine Presence resides in their midst.” Rashi explains, “For He divided His Name and housed it in their midst: yud in איש and hei in אשה.” For this reason, it is the letters י-ה that testify that G‑d’s people are all pure and all holy.

8. Entering the Land

We can now come to explain why, in the census which is described in Parshas Pinchas and which was taken before the people’s entry to the Land, it is mentioned that “Er and Onan died in the Land of Canaan.”

As is known,54 the sin of Er and Onan (viz., non-vigilance regarding the purity of the sign of the covenant) obstructs the Redemption, which involves a complete entry into the Land.

The maamarim of Chassidus on Parshas Vayechi - beginning with the derushim of the Alter Rebbe in Torah Or55 and continuing over the generations to include the derushim of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz]56 - explain that in addition to the kinds of avodah that characterize Reuven, Shimon and Levi, there is also a need for the kind of avodah that characterizes Yehudah: [As his mother Leah said at his birth,]57 “Now I shall praise G‑d.” This is the culmination of [man’s] avodah (as we see from the continuation of the verse, “She stopped having children”). Nevertheless, [the way to the Redemption] may be obstructed even by the offspring of Yehudah - by the sin of Er and Onan, for on this matter hinges the connection between G‑d and the House of Israel.

This explains why, when the Torah records the counting of the people before their entry to the Land, it draws attention once more to a matter which can (G‑d forbid) obstruct their entry.

9. Incitement against Moshe

One question still remains unanswered. Moshe Rabbeinu was there, and he could - and did - correct all blemishes; how, then, could such an obstruction remain in existence? How could he have allowed such a situation?

The answer to this question has already been quoted:58 “These are the same Dasan and Aviram who were communal leaders and who incited [the people] against Moshe.” Dasan and Aviram were indeed communal leaders, and they were joined by 250 heads of the congregation, who were heads of the courts.59 They were also joined by Korach, “who was clever” (and even though “his eye deceived him,” he did have reasons to think as he did).60 Nevertheless, since they “incited [the people] against Moshe,” this means that they “incited them against G‑d”; as it is written,61 “and they believed in G‑d and in Moshe His servant.” Belief in G‑d and in Moshe His servant are interconnected; hence, a lack of belief in Moshe signifies a lack of belief in G‑d62 - and as a result of this, the people’s entry to the Land was hampered.

Despite this, teshuvah is effective even in such a situation; as the passage goes on to say,63 “The sons of Korach, however, did not die.”

This, then, is why Dasan and Aviram are mentioned when the people are being counted before their entry to the Land - in order to draw attention to the subject of incitement against Moshe, an attitude which can (G‑d forbid) obstruct the people’s entry.

10. Spiritual Lifesaving

Counting the Jewish people highlights their innate power, by analogy with the halachic principle,64 “Things which are counted do not lose their identity.”

True enough, the Jewish people are65 “the least among the nations,” and Torah-observant Jews in particular are a minority within the Jewish people - so much so that there are people who argue that they cannot find the strength to stand firm for the sake of the Torah and its commandments without being overawed by the whole world. Nevertheless, that minority is not only staunchly standing its ground, but is also reaching out to others. As the Rebbe [Rayatz] demanded long ago, in his address of Yud-Gimmel Tammuz,66 one should see to it that “not only is one alive as an individual, but one animates others as well.”

Being strong in matters of Torah and mitzvos belongs not only to the time during which one finds oneself in the yeshivah or the House of Study. One should go out to the streets and approach a Jew concerning whom one does not know whether he is wearing a tallis katan, or even whether he wears a tallis gadol during prayers, or even where he stands with regard to putting on tefillin every day, and say: “Listen, fellow Jew! I’m not asking you for money nor for anything else. All I’d like is that you should put on tefillin (at least briefly) every day. Do me a favor; do yourself a favor; do a favor to your parents and grandparents and their grandparents all the way back to Yaakov Avinu; do a favor to your children and descendants till the end of all the generations, until the coming of Mashiach.”

Someone is likely to argue that it is not polite to approach a person whom one does not know and whose situation one does not know, and whose Jewishness is not even certain because his face shows no sign of it…. The answer to this argument is the principle that the saving of life67 overrides [almost] every other consideration, and on Shabbos or Yom Kippur one digs into the rubble of a collapsed building to save a buried victim even if it is doubtful whether he is still alive.68 The same principle applies to spiritual lifesaving: even in a case of doubt (including a doubt as to whether the individual concerned is a Jew) one should exert oneself and do everything possible to save his life.

In this spirit the Gemara69 relates that “Rav Ada bar Ahavah saw a Cuthean woman who was wearing a provocatively immodest headdress in the marketplace. Mistaking her for a Jewess, he stood up and tore it off her. When it became apparent that she was a Cuthean, he was fined 400 zuz.” Because of a doubtful case of saving a fellow Jew from committing a transgression for a mere few minutes, he risked losing his money rather than wait and first clarify whether she was in fact a Jewess.

Another point: One’s endeavors for the good of a fellow Jew in matters between man and G‑d also affect that person’s conduct in matters between man and man. This approach runs counter to the argument that there is indeed a need to become involved in the life of a fellow Jew in matters between man and man, in matters involving social order, but in matters between man and G‑d - especially with regard to the superrational obligations known as chukim - “the other fellow’s conduct doesn’t concern me: I’m not G‑d’s policeman….”

The effect of the latter kind of conduct (between man and G‑d) on the former kind of conduct (between man and man) is illustrated in the Gemara.70 In the course of a discussion of a [male’s] headcovering as a spiritual catalyst71 for the acquisition of the fear of heaven, the Gemara relates: “One day… the hood of the cloak of [one of the Sages] fell from his head. Looking up, he caught sight of a date palm. His Evil Inclination overcame him” and he succumbed, stealing not in stealth but even overtly. From this episode it is apparent that exerting oneself for the sake of a fellow Jew in matters between man and G‑d, such as wearing a headcovering or putting on tefillin, also affects matters between man and man, even to the point of distancing that person from theft and robbery.

11. That Clever Little Fellow

At the same time that one is involved in outreach, one must keep one’s own spiritual labors in mind. In this spirit, the prophet first exhorts his listener:72 “When you see a naked man, should you not clothe him?” then adds a reminder: “and do not overlook your own flesh.”

Some people think that all that is needed is to be involved in the spiritual needs of others - as if one’s ability to “animate others” testifies that his own situation leaves no room for improvement. The truth, of course - as my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], demands in a sichah73 - is that “One mustn’t forget oneself, either.”

The Evil Inclination, whom the Rebbe [Rayatz] used to call74 “that clever little fellow,” tackles each individual according to his station:

To those who by nature focus on themselves, he argues that what is needed is avodah that concerns oneself and that is directed to refining and elevating one’s own body and animal soul - as opposed to thinking about a fellow Jew. “You have not yet conquered the territory adjoining your own palace!”75 he argues. Or: “[If one is confronted by the option of rescuing] his own lost property or that of [his father], his own lost property takes precedence.”76

In response to such arguments the prophet teaches:77 “Should you not share your bread with the hungry, and bring the outcast poor into your house? And when you see a naked man, should you not clothe him?”

To those who by nature are communal activists, the Evil Inclination argues that when the saving of life is at stake, one must not think about oneself, since the saving of a life overrides the entire Torah. (Indeed, the Evil Inclination can even argue that one should keep his store open on Shabbos, G‑d forbid, in order that he should be able to donate an extra dollar to enable Jews in Displaced Persons Camps to settle in the Holy Land, for78 “whoever walks four cubits in Eretz Yisrael may be assured of a share in the World to Come.” And if in addition that settler speaks the Holy Tongue - why, words cannot describe such a worthy cause….)

In response to such arguments [i.e., that when the saving of life is at stake, one must not think about oneself] the prophet warns, “Do not overlook your own flesh.” Or, in other words, “One mustn’t forget oneself, either.”

12. Kashering One’s Flesh

One must not forget oneself. To use the language of the above-quoted verse, one must not forget his own flesh, his own coarse and material flesh that needs to be refined and uplifted.

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], once related that his father, the Rebbe Rashab, uttered the following remark with reference to the question of wearing one’s tallis katan on the bare flesh: “Do I need your flesh?! At the kosher butcher’s I can buy as much flesh as I want!” And these words were said to a live child, a child who was later to grow up to become the leader of his generation!

The process of making flesh fit for kosher consumption comprises three stages: soaking, salting and rinsing,79 and each has its counterpart in every man’s avodah.80

Soaking meat in water corresponds both to the study of Torah, which is81 “likened to water,” and to prayer, as it is written,82 “Pour out your heart like water.”

Salting, which removes blood from the meat, signifies freeing one’s flesh from the heat of passion. (In contrast, the blood that was sprinkled on the altar was holy.)

Rinsing is intended to ensure that the removal of the blood (by means of salt) should not be perceptible. In the analog, the function of rinsing is to ensure that one’s avodah in the removal of undesirable heat should not make him preen himself with his attainments, as if to say, “Look, here is the blood that I have removed from myself; now I’m a tzaddik, and a baal teshuvah as well….” To anticipate this pride, salting must be followed by a brisk rinsing.

13. The Years Go On

As was discussed not long ago,83 in recent times the Rebbe [Rayatz] issued directives and clarified various matters relating to the period that would follow.

In a talk on Yud-Beis Tammuz last year,84 he said: “Every day, every chassid should recite a chapter of Tehillim with the specific intent that the merit of the Rebbeim should be drawn into himself and that the revelation of light should be absorbed and integrated within his soul.”

Now, the flow of blessing from the Rebbeim has been current since the time of the Baal Shem Tov, yet no directive was issued about reciting a chapter of Tehillim in order to elicit the merit of the Rebbeim and to integrate the revelation of their light within oneself - until Yud-Beis Tammuz, 5709 [1949]!85

One may assume that the intention here was that every chassid should continue to recite the Rebbe’s chapter of Tehillim,86 in accordance with the number of his years.87

Some chassidim were accustomed to reciting the Rebbe’s kapitl (viz., ch. 70), but after Yud Shvat doubts arose as to whether or not they should continue. And now that Yud-Beis Tammuz, the Rebbe’s birthday, has passed, they are unsure as to whether they should continue with ch. 70, or begin ch. 71; in other words, whether or not the addition of years is still relevant after histalkus.88

The Rebbe [Rayatz] clarified this question by saying, on the last Yud-Gimmel Tammuz of his life in this world, that every day, every chassid should recite a chapter of Tehillim - the Rebbe’s chapter, so that his merit will thereby be elicited, and the revelation of his light will be integrated within each individual’s soul.

When this directive was issued last Yud-Gimmel Tammuz not everyone knew of it, and the written record of the sichah was known to only a few people within the chassidic community. Now, however, it has been published and made known to all.

14. Keeping a Secret

These words of the Rebbe [Rayatz], which were intended to clarify matters and to guide chassidim with relation to the period that was to follow, after his histalkus, were not stated explicitly. The reason for this may be understood by reference to the phrase in which the Torah testifies concerning Moshe Rabbeinu,89 בכל ביתי נאמן הוא - “In all My house he is trustworthy.” Seeking to explain the meaning of trustworthiness in a situation in which nothing can be taken, the classical sources write90 that trustworthiness here means that not everything that one sees may one reveal.

In this connection, a story is told (as I recall) of the Maggid of Mezritch. (I did not read of this in a Chabad source, but in these matters there is a well-known directive of the Rebbe [Rayatz] about advancing one’s studies in a spirit of the fear of heaven.91)

One day one of his disciples entered his study in order to receive his farewell blessings. When he left the room the Maggid instructed his other disciples, the members of the Holy Brotherhood, to prevent their colleague from leaving. Seeing that their attempts were proving unsuccessful, they told their friend that this instruction originated with the Maggid himself. The chassid found this hard to believe, for the Maggid himself had given him his farewell blessings. At the same time, he did not feel comfortable about asking the Maggid directly, so he decided to enter his study once more, and to request his farewell blessings anew. When the Maggid had again blessed him, the chassid went straight to his colleagues and, with all the uninhibited informality of which chassidim are so proud, he gave them a piece of his mind: “Well, do you finally see that the Maggid has given me his farewell blessings?”

In the meantime, however, the Maggid repeated his instruction to his disciples. Again this chassid took his leave of the Maggid, and again his colleagues tried to dissuade him from leaving. After this sequence repeated itself several times, he ignored their pleas and set out for home. On his arrival there, however, he passed away.

Distressed by the news, some of his colleagues approached the Maggid and asked: If he knew…, then why did he not tell the chassid explicitly that he should not leave?

The Maggid answered: “In all My house he is trustworthy - this means that not everything may be revealed.”92

15. Foretelling the Future

Commenting about the fact that in HaKeriah VehaKedushah93 the Rebbe [Rayatz] used to publish things that related to future events, someone once asked: Why did he write in hints and allusions instead of explicitly, and why after some time did he stop writing of future events?

The point here is that if the Rebbe wanted to be duly labeled as an individual who foretold the future, he would have acted accordingly, but this was not his concern at all. (We once explained94 that it is immaterial to chassidim whether or not the Rebbe knows the future, and not upon such questions does the bond of chassid and Rebbe hinge: what counts only is that he is - the Rebbe.) He therefore did not disclose future events indiscriminately, since “In all My house he is trustworthy.” He did so only to the limited extent that was required to advance the theme of LeAlter LiTeshuvah.95

16. For the Public Good

In general, the Rebbe [Rayatz] revealed a great number of things, even though in former times this was not the custom.

In a talk on Pesach last year,96 the Rebbe [Rayatz] said that he had decided to reveal a certain matter which he had not disclosed until that time,97 and added: “Even though this concerns myself, it must be done with self-sacrifice.”

From this we see that when it came to a matter that affected the public good, the Rebbe [Rayatz] was willing to put not only himself in jeopardy, but even his trustworthiness in jeopardy!

17. No War to be Seen

Last summer there was some commotion about a possible war, and many people were afraid to undertake business transactions and the like. A certain wealthy individual, who was a generous donor to charitable causes, decided to ask the opinion of the Rebbe [Rayatz] as to whether or not there would be a war. Having been brought up in America, this Jew had plenty of outspoken self-confidence98 - but nevertheless could not quite bring himself to ask the Rebbe himself. He therefore called me and asked me to ask the Rebbe if there would be a war, for if so, he would refrain from certain transactions.

I, too, wanted to know how the Rebbe would reply; on the other hand, since I was only a conduit to transmit someone’s question, my query would not be taken amiss. So I entered the Rebbe’s study and asked this individual’s question in his name.

The Rebbe looked up at me, smiled, and said: “There’s no war to be seen.”

A few days ago that individual reminded me of this episode.99

18. The Sooner the Better

In Shaarei Orah,100 the Mitteler Rebbe explains the difference between the two possible modes of Redemption101 - בעתה (“in its appointed time”) or אחישנה (“I shall hasten it”). He discusses there which of these two modes is preferable from the point of view of the task of beirurim, the sifting of materiality in order to refine and uplift the sparks of Divinity that are embedded in it.

In our era, however, which is so long after the Sages’ declaration that “all the appointed times have ended,”102 whichever of these two modes the Redemption follows, and whenever it comes, without any further waiting, will be the best possible way.

And may G‑d grant that the Blessing for the New Month “for deliverance and consolation” will indeed be fulfilled speedily and literally in our own days.