1. Living with the Weekly Torah Reading

My1 revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], recounted in one of his talks:2

“The Alter Rebbe once said that ‘one should live with the times.’ His chassidim toiled to grasp the meaning of this statement, until it was clarified by his brother, Maharil:3 ‘One should live with the weekly Torah reading.’4

“The week of Parshas Bereishis is mainly a happy week, even though the end of the weekly reading isn’t all that pleasant. The week of Parshas Noach is a dismal week, because that’s when we learn about the Flood, the dispersion following the Tower of Babel, and the like. Parshas Lech Lecha, in contrast, is the really cheerful week, because we live each day with Avraham Avinu, the first Jew to open the conduit of self-sacrifice,5 the mesirus nefesh which he bequeathed to all succeeding generations of Jews.

“(This potential for self-sacrifice which Avraham Avinu bequeathed to his heirs is also present in converts, for they, too, are [considered] his descendants.6 They are deemed sons of Avraham, as Rambam writes in his well-known responsum7 (based on a teaching of the Talmud Yerushalmi8): Converts, too, are able to speak of ‘the Land which G‑d swore to our forefathers to give us,’9 since Avraham Avinu is the father of all converts.10 They too, therefore, are expected to observe the Torah and its mitzvos with full-powered intensity, which entails mesirus nefesh.11)”

2. Circumcision as a Spiritual Catalyst

Accordingly, we may assume that the week following Parshas Lech Lecha is certainly a happy one, for at this point the Torah speaks of Avraham Avinu’s spiritual state after his circumcision, which elevated him incomparably.

Now even before the circumcision, and even before the command to12 “go forth from your land,” Avraham Avinu was at a lofty level. In the words of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], in the sichah of Simchas Torah, 5710 [1949],13 Avraham Avinu was then a Jew of 75, master of many estates and master of all areas of his conduct. He had attained all the levels that he could have possibly attained by his own efforts, including even the level [in the apprehension of Divinity] known as14 שכל הנעלם מכל רעיון.

And at that point he was commanded to “go forth from your land,” i.e., to elevate himself to an even loftier level, and then he was commanded further concerning the circumcision. From this we may gain some notion of the sublime level which his circumcision enabled him to attain.

To explain: All of his spiritual levels and accomplishments before the circumcision were secured by dint of his own avodah, because they were of a kind that stand in some proportion to finite created beings. The mitzvah of circumcision, in contrast, elicits a flow of divine lights so sublime that they utterly transcend the created universe and Seder Hishtalshelus, the chainlike scheme of orderly descent by which divine light is progressively contracted. These are lights so sublime that they cannot be drawn downward by mortal avodah: they are granted from above as a gift. Of this divine gift it is written,15 את לבבךlhekt wvומל - “And the L-rd your G‑d will circumcise your heart.”16 In such a case, the function of man is merely to remove the screen that intercepts the divine light, to remove the foreskin that derives from the kelipos. This preparation makes it possible for the divine lights to then descend spontaneously.17

(A parallel case may be found in today’s daily reading of Tanya:18 Secrets of wisdom (i.e., supernal sparks and lights), which had been in bondage in the exile of the kelipos, are revealed by the prior activity of terrestrial beings; these are each garbed in a body stemming from kelipas nogah, whose strength they weaken by crushing the passions; as a result, the celestial beings19 come to hear innovative insights into the Torah from the terrestrial beings.)

Furthermore, the mitzvah of circumcision upgrades the individual out of all proportion to his former spiritual state - like birth.20 A newborn infant is a new entity, a manifestation in this nether world of the infinite power of the Ein Sof (as is explained in Chassidus21).

From this we may grasp how great is the joy of the week following Parshas Lech Lecha, when we live with Avraham Avinu after he had attained the heights made accessible by the mitzvah of circumcision. This joy continues in the following weeks and throughout the entire year as well, just as joy for the entire year is elicited by Simchas Torah. (As explained by my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz],22 the transcendent spiritual energy drawn down on Simchas Torah is the makkif elyon haklali which incorporates all the makkifim of the whole year.)

3. Worldly Shackles, Holy Shackles

As a preparation for the circumcision (which signifies a birthlike revelation and elicitation of sublime spiritual lights), Avraham Avinu was commanded: “Go forth from your land,” and so on. I.e., in order to arrive at the level of such lights, he first had to step out of his present bounds, even holy bounds.

The way to break out of the bounds and restrictions imposed by the animal soul is to conduct oneself according to the Shulchan Aruch and to study ethical writings. This enables a person to realize that materiality is utterly worthless.23 As a result he will free himself of the restrictions of the animal soul, and of course from the restrictions of the body. However, when it comes to freeing oneself from restricting bounds in holy matters, that’s quite a different story.

4. Trussed up in a Mindset

Exactly what are the latter restraints?

Concerning the study of Torah a man might argue: It’s enough for me that I am one of the24 “supporters of the Torah”; it’s enough that I study25 “one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening”; the shiur after davenen will suffice; studying without exerting the soul or the flesh will be quite enough; it’s enough that I study nigleh, the revealed plane of the Torah: do I have to study Chassidus as well?!”

Concerning avodah, i.e., davenen, the same individual argues that it’s quite enough that he arrives at shul in the middle of davenen; according to the Shulchan Aruch he can then skip most of Pesukei DeZimrah, the psalms of praise - i.e., three-quarters of the davenen - so long as he prays together with the congregation.26 Surely it’s enough that he hastily churns and chops his way through the words,27 without taking time off to think what they mean.28 If he does think about what the words mean, without meditating for a moment on Whom he is addressing,29 then surely that’s more than enough. As to the earnest frame of mind30 that is supposed to precede prayer, he discharges this obligation by clasping his hands like a servant before his master;31 now, having done that, he can allow his thoughts to fly hither and thither….

Concerning tzedakah, this individual argues that the Shulchan Aruch32 itself lays down limits. There is a certain quota required by the Torah, deoraysa, and there is a certain quota required by the Sages, deRabbanan - and surely he is not obliged to give away more than the prescribed minimum. As to giving away more than a fifth of his income, then this is not only not obligatory, but (he argues) forbidden! For did not the Sages say that33 “he who gives freely should not give away more than a fifth”…?34

Besides, this individual argues, in no area of his life should a man make more stringent demands on himself than the Torah requires him to. For this stance he quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi:35 “Let the Torah’s prohibitions suffice for you!” “Tell me,” he protests, “am I expected to be more pious than the Yerushalmi…?!” In similar vein such a man contends that it is not proper to expect him to do things that go beyond the letter of the law:36 if only he would conduct himself according to the law, he says, according to the Shulchan Aruch….

These arguments derive from the limitations of one’s mindset - including the limitations of one’s mindset in holy matters.

5. Are You Allowed to Eat Meat?

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], once remarked37 that in America there is an illness called “you’re allowed to.”

On a number of occasions, by way of contrast, he related that chassidim are accustomed to say:38 “What you’re not allowed to do, you’re not allowed to do, and what you are allowed to do, you don’t have to do.”

Along these lines it is taught that39 “an ignoramus is forbidden to eat meat.” This does not signify an actual prohibition,40 for something that is actually forbidden (assur) is irredeemably bound (assur) in the clutches of the kelipos,41 and one cannot pronounce a blessing over it. In contrast, meat eaten by an ignoramus is not bound in the clutches of the kelipos; moreover, the ignoramus is obliged to pronounce a blessing before and after eating. Rather, the brakes applied above to the ignoramus echo the traditional advice: “What you are allowed to do, you don’t have to do.”

6. Who Are You to Tread on Me?

Chassidus discusses the question42 of whom eating is mainly intended to benefit. Eating is not primarily intended to serve the needs of man by enabling him to be a recipient and derive his nourishment from it, for man’s spiritual standing is higher than that of the food he eats. Rather, eating is mainly intended to serve the needs of the food. The food desires and waits for man to eat it, so that he can sift its materiality and discover the divine sparks embedded in it and thereby elevate it.

In this spirit my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], once related that one day a morsel of food fell from his father’s fork into his plate. The Rebbe Rashab smiled and remarked: “He’s not yet agreeable….”

When does the food desire that a man should eat it? - Only when he eats it not for the sake of his own desire but for the sake of the food’s desire; i.e., he eats in order to elevate the food. If, however, he eats because of his own desire - i.e., he eats the food for his own need, since he wants to be a recipient and derive his nourishment from it - then not only does he not elevate the food, but in fact the food downgrades his spiritual standing. This in turn downgrades the standing of the food itself, because through it the man stumbled.43

Along similar lines, my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], once stated in a sichah:44 While walking down the street one should think about words of Torah. (The subject matter varies from person to person - Chassidus, Gemara, Mishnayos, Ein Yaakov, or at least45 a verse of Chumash or Tehillim.) If he does not think about words of Torah, the cobblestone on which he steps cries out to him: “Clod! Who are you to tread on me?”

It is true that the man is more elevated than the stone - a medaber, an articulate human, as against a domem, an inanimate object. However, the medaber is superior only when his conduct is directed by his intellective soul.46 But when a spirit of folly47 enters him, so that he does not fulfill his function as a thinking being and is therefore called a clod, then the cobblestone protests: “Clod! Who are you to tread on me?”

7. How to Survive the Trek through Galus

Nevertheless, even after all these reasoned explanations have been made, the mortal mind (including the mind of a Jew) is still bothered by a question: Granted that what the Torah forbids is forbidden - but when it comes to things that are permitted according to the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch, why should a person be told that these too should not be done?

In response to this question: One should not debate it by means of human logic, because here one will find a kashe (a logical query) based on a statement in the Talmud Bavli, and there one will find a kashe based on a statement in the Talmud Yerushalmi, and so on and so forth. Rather, the approach that is called for is kabbalas ol, an unquestioning acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice. What is required in the early stages of one’s avodah is kabbalas ol; at a higher level this becomes mesirus nefesh - for, as Chassidus explains, mesirus nefesh (lit., “surrendering one’s soul”) basically means mesiras haratzon (“surrendering one’s will”), because nefesh [also] means “will”. This surrender of one’s will also includes one’s will in matters of kedushah (which is a Jew’s real will, as Rambam states as a psak din in the course of a halachic decision48). Such a surrender of the will obligates one to leap out of all his inhibiting restraints, including those involving kedushah.

This approach is especially required in the time of galus (now that49 “because of our sins we were exiled from our Land”) - because at a time like this, avodah that follows the dictates of reason and commonsense will not suffice. What is needed is mesirus nefesh, for this is what gives Jews the stamina to survive the trek through galus. (Tanya50 explains why “Moshe Rabbeinu… commanded… to the generation that entered the Land that they recite the Shema twice daily in order to acknowledge the Sovereignty of Heaven with self-sacrifice” - but this explanation speaks only of potential self-sacrifice, whereas the era of exile requires actual self-sacrifice.) One of the proofs for this is the fact that it is specifically during the era of exile that self-sacrifice is present and manifest.

To revert to Avraham Avinu: We can now appreciate why, when he began his period of exile, G‑d commanded him to “go forth from your land,” to step beyond his accustomed limits.51 This would empower him to go “to the land,” to go out to the world. He knew that though52 “travel lessens three things,” not only would nothing be weakened with relation to himself, but, moreover,53 “I shall make your name great” - i.e., Your Name, the Divine Name Havayah, the Name of G‑d’s Essence (as is expounded in Chassidus54). Moreover, Avraham Avinu’s self-transcendence would empower him to attain the level of the circumcision - the revelation of sublime spiritual lights, a revelation that resembles birth.55

8. Nine Months After the Histalkus

As was explained above, the mitzvah of circumcision elicits a flow of divine lights so sublime that their revelation resembles a birth. (To prepare oneself for this, moreover, one must first fulfill the Divine command to “go forth from your land” - to outgrow one’s innate and habituated limits.)56 This concept is especially relevant to today’s date, the tenth of Cheshvan, which marks nine months since the histalkus of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz].57

As is explained in the maamar which he issued for that date,58 the word histalkus [commonly translated “passing”] signifies an ascent. The lights that are called forth in the wake of a histalkus are thus exceedingly lofty; because they diffuse upward, eliciting them is called (cf. the Aramaic verb, אסתלק59) histalkus.60 And because they are so lofty, their revelation (which is brought about by histalkus) resembles a birth.61

This theme is particularly significant today, nine months after the histalkus, because a birth follows nine months of preparation.

9. The Function of Pregnancy

To consider this more closely:62 Pregnancy and birth span three possible periods - seven months, nine months and twelve months. (The latter period follows the view of Rabbah Tosfaah.63 Though Tosafos64 states that this is not the accepted view, Rama65 rules as a halachah that pregnancy can extend even to twelve months.)

What do these periods signify?

Broadly speaking, the function of pregnancy is to differentiate between the elements that relate to the head, the torso and the lower limbs. The seminal drop comprises the entire body, from head to toenails, collectively (as is discussed in Tanya66). Pregnancy separates out its component elements, so that those that belong to the head will relate to the head, those that belong to the torso will relate to the torso, and those that belong to the lower limbs will relate to the lower limbs.

Accordingly, the longer the pregnancy, the more is the body of the fetus sifted and refined. Hence the body of Moshe Rabbeinu, who was born after a pregnancy of seven months, had to be buried, whereas the body of Eliyahu HaNavi, who was born after a pregnancy of twelve months, did not have to be buried: his body was so extremely refined that he was able to soar aloft in a stormwind heavenward.67

The usual period of pregnancy is nine months. Those whose main task in life is the refinement of the body require a pregnancy of twelve months. For those whose avodah is mainly focussed on the soul (whose light will illuminate the body, too), seven months suffices. Others have to work on both body and soul. This is the way of Beinonim, which is relevant to every man, for, as the Alter Rebbe writes,68 “The rank of Beinoni is attainable by every man, and every man should strive after it.” For such people the period of pregnancy is nine months.

10. Calculating the Date of Birth

On the definition of this period there are two views:69

(a) Nine complete months; i.e., 271 days (nine months of 30 days, with the birth on the first day of the tenth month); or 272 days (if fertilization did not take place on the first day it can take place on the second day); or 273 days (if not on the second day it can still take place on the third).

(b) Nine incomplete months; i.e., once Rosh Chodesh has passed nine times since conception, this period counts as nine months and birth can take place.

Let us now relate this model to the nine months from the day of the histalkus [of the Rebbe Rayatz], which leads up to a new, birthlike revelation of sublime lights.

According to the view that nine incomplete months suffice, this spiritual birth already took place on Rosh Chodesh. According to the view that nine complete months (271-273 days) are required, this birth will take place next Wednesday. That day is connected with today, Shabbos, which grants energy to all the days (including Wednesday) of the coming week.70

11. Straight from a Baal Shem Tov Story

If we look at the daily readings of Tanya that were allotted to the three days (271-273) which complete the nine months since the histalkus, we perceive something so wondrous that it recalls the Baal Shem Tov.71

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz], divided the Tanya into daily readings, for a regular year and for a leap year. According to this division, for both a regular and a leap year, the Biur (Elucidation) of Epistle 27 in Tanya - Iggeres HaKodesh (which discusses histalkus)72 is divided into three readings, which are to be studied in the course of three days. This division was made seven years before the histalkus. Yet remarkably, as if in a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the Tanya readings for the three days which complete the nine months since the histalkus (viz., 14-16 Cheshvan in a regular year) are the Biur to Epistle 27 - the precise source that explains the meaning of histalkus!

12. Constructive Consolation

This Epistle is unique: it is the only one on which the Alter Rebbe himself wrote an Elucidation, and his sons appended it to the Epistle itself when they first published [the selection of pastoral letters entitled] Iggeres HaKodesh as part of Tanya.

Two letters in this collection discuss histalkus - the above one (with its Biur) and Epistle 28.73 The latter is a letter of condolence addressed to the saintly R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev on the passing of his son; the former is a letter of condolence [addressed to the chassidic brotherhood] on the passing of the saintly R. Menachem Mendel of Horodok [or Vitebsk].

There are differences between them. For example: The son of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was a man of exemplary stature, a tzaddik, a chassid, and so on - but he was not a Nasi: he was not the Rebbe of a community of chassidim. R. Menachem Mendel of Horodok did fill this comprehensive role, as a Nasi among Jews. Moreover, he had a particular connection with the spiritual leadership of Chabad Chassidus,74 for his Nesius extended over Reissin (Belorussia).75 Indeed, for a time even the Alter Rebbe himself used to travel to visit R. Menachem Mendel of Horodok - in much the same way as a chassid makes the journey to his Rebbe. (This was related by my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz]76.)

The above distinction may help us understand why the Alter Rebbe added an Elucidation to the letter written after the passing of R. Menachem Mendel of Horodok.

First of all, the Gemara77 says that the histalkus of any Jew is “like the burning of a Sefer Torah.” Here, moreover, we are speaking of the histalkus of a tzaddik (which is likened to78 “the shattering of the Tablets of the Covenant”). More particularly, we are speaking of a comprehensive soul, one of the79 “heads of the thousands of Israel.” Surely, then, the very possibility of such a histalkus defies all understanding!

The Alter Rebbe sought to bring consolation to his chassidim for the concept of histalkus and particularly for the histalkus of a Nasi in Israel. Indeed, he sought80 “to console them with redoubled support,” so that as a result of the histalkus they would gain in double measure. (In similar vein, the Sages teach81 that as a result of the shattering of the former Tablets of the Covenant, the latter Tablets were enhanced “with redoubled support.”) To console in such measure is a difficult task indeed - and that is why the Alter Rebbe himself was obliged to add an Elucidation to his letter of condolence.

13. A Conduit for Enlightenment

Seeing that it would be difficult for us, unaided, to understand the concept of histalkus, and even more difficult to attain the revelations that result from a histalkus, the Alter Rebbe wrote his Elucidation on this subject. Through this he opened up a conduit, so that others, too, would be able to arrive at such levels. (Along these lines, Chassidus explains that by his own self-sacrifice Avraham Avinu opened up a conduit and made mesirus nefesh accessible to every Jew.82 Similarly, in the words of the Sages,83 the Holy One, blessed be He, declares: כל העולם כולו ניזון בשביל חנינא בני - “The entire world is nourished only by virtue of Chanina [ben Dosa] My son.” [The word here translated “by virtue of” is bishvil, which also means “in the path.” Hence:84] “Shvil implies a conduit; [by his virtuous conduct, Chanina ben Dosa] opened up a path, or conduit, for the downward flow of Divine benevolence.”)

One might add: Once the Alter Rebbe (by means of his Biur) opened up a conduit for the comprehension of the utterly incomprehensible concept of histalkus, other conduits are automatically opened for an understanding of all difficult subjects in Tanya, and hence, of all difficult subjects in Chassidus. So, too, when a scholar seeks to clarify a series of difficulties in any complex subject, once the most problematic query has been answered, the entire subject is made easier. To borrow the metaphor used in Chassidus:85 If the walls of a house have to be raised, then the first supporting beam to be raised is the lowest, for then all those that rest on it will be lifted automatically.

14. There’s Still Room for Elucidation…

The truth is that even after the Elucidation, I’m not sure that for men of our measure86 the concept has been elucidated…, especially “with redoubled support.” Nevertheless, we can just imagine how things would look if this Elucidation had never existed, even if only in the abstract!

And this Elucidation - which explains the concept of the histalkus of a Nasi and how it can lead to a veritable birth, to a consolation with redoubled support - the Rebbe [Rayatz] fixed (seven years in advance) as the daily reading for the days which mark the end of nine pregnant months from the date of his histalkus!87