This treatise was printed in Kovetz Lubavitch, a journal that appeared from time to time during the 1940’s which the Rebbe edited. In this letter, the Rebbe outlines several general guidelines with regard to his response to letters addressed to the editor of that journal. In particular, he gives a lengthy explanation to a question raised concerning a statement made by the Previous Rebbe in one of the talks he delivered during his visit to Chicago. This treatise was later reprinted in Teshuvos U’Biurim.

{Iyar, 5704}

One of the goals of the establishment of this journal was that it should serve as a platform for communication between members of the chassidic brotherhood and their comrades with regard to any difficult matters that arise with regard to the teachings of Chassidus in general and in particular, with regard to the works that have been recently printed, as stated in the introduction to the first issue of the journal.

It is self-evident that only questions and answers that are relevant to the chassidic community as a whole will be printed in this journal. Those which are relevant only to the individual will be answered privately or will receive merely a brief response in this column.

In opening this column, I would like to resolve a general issue that I have heard raised by many. [After] reading the sichos published by Otzar HaChassidim, they state: “The matter discussed in the talks is not explained at all.” Or “The interpretation of the verse or statement of our Sages mentioned in the talk is just a clever twist; it has no foundation or source.”

To respond to this point: By and large, the sichos (which are published) should be understandable to everyone, even those who do not have previous familiarity with Chabad teachings. Nevertheless, they do contain concepts — particularly those mentioned parenthetically — that cannot be understood thoroughly without first studying these teachings or at least knowing the foundations of this approach. Certainly in the maamarim of Chassidus or in another sichah, the concept [which is not clear from this sichah] will be explained thoroughly. For “The words of the Torah are lacking in one place, and complementary in another" (the beraisa of the 32 principles, sec. 15; see also the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 3:5).

Similarly, the overwhelming majority of the explanations of the verses and statements of our Sages found in the sichos are found in the statements of our Sages or based on the explanations of our Sages in Nigleh, the revealed legal realm of Torah study, or Nistar, its hidden, mystic knowledge.

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As an example, I would like to bring one of the statements that has been labeled as astonishing (by questioners). They singled out a statement in Kuntreis Bikkur Chicago that has recently been published. I have chosen this question, because the questioners considered it a matter that has no resolution whatsoever, yet as will be seen, the only reason that the question was asked was because of the questioners’ ignorance. For indeed, the statement which they regarded as “astonishing” has a source in an explicit statement from our Sages. From this instance, extrapolation can be made to the other questions.

In the second sichah in this kuntreis (p. 20),it is related that R. Boruch Mordechai related the following witticism: “[Our Sages’ statement:1] ‘Akavya ben Mahalalel says:..’ can be interpreted to mean: ‘The heel from a person who prays and praises G‑d says:...’”

When the sichah was first published — in mimeograph, in the winter of 5702 — the people who raised questions were divided in two groups. The first was composed of critics who raise questions in order to chide. They were happy to find [what appeared as] a blunder and proclaimed: “This is what we have claimed all along. It is the practice of chassidim to make up allusions and witticisms lacking a foundation and a source. Here we have another example. True, Akavya relates to the word eikev, meaning ‘heel.’ And Mahalalel relates to the word Hallel meaning ‘praise.’ That said, is there any rationale to say that the Mishnah’s statement, ‘Akavya ben Mahalalel says:..’ has any connection to ‘The heel from a person who prays and praises G‑d says:’?

“This is not sufficient for the chassidim,” [they would continue their complaint,] “but the facetiousness of their statements has multiplied. For in fact Akavya and Mahalalel are two separate individuals, while according to the interpretation of the chassidim, it appears that they are one person.”

A second group, who seek to look at every person — even chassidim — in a positive light will explain: “It’s true that R. Boruch Mordechai’s remark is no more than a witticism, and it has no foundation. But the sichah said that it was a witticism. Now even the best preachers occasionally make statements like this, so why shouldn’t the chassidim be allowed to do so as well? After all, the concept implied by this statement is very lofty, emphasizing the great importance of “service in the heart,” and feeling [during prayer].”

Indeed, the statement of R. Boruch Mordechai aroused questions to the extent that even the chassidim asked: “Why are statements published that give opponents the opportunity to make derisive comments, saying: ‘See, the chassidim invented another interpretation that is not intellectually sound and has no source in our Sages’ statements’?”

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If, however, we would focus on the character of the person who made the statement and the situation in which it was made, [we would get an entirely different picture]. R. Boruch Mordechai was one of the Geonim of his era. As a youth, in the era of the Vilna Gaon, he served as a Rosh Yeshivah in Vilna. He authored this witticism in response to his brother-in-law who was also a gaon in the study of Nigleh, the revealed teachings of the Torah, who was opposed to the teachings of Chassidus, and the son of an opponent. [Moreover,] the statement was made in the presence of the Geonim and scholars ofthe city after a deep Talmudic dissertation had been delivered.

There is no doubt that R. Boruch Mordechai would not reply to his brother-in-law with a witticism and words of ethical reproach if he did not have a strong foundation in the words of our Sages, a foundation so strong that his brother-in-law and all the others in attendance would have to acknowledge [the truth of his statements]. This is particularly true in that era when the large majority of the opponents of chassidism followed the conception that preaching and words of ethical reproach are appropriate only for women and the unlearned or for Torah scholars when they are weary and unable to devote themselves to study. In every situation, their first response was: “What is the source for these words? Where is there an allusion in the Torah?”

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The idea of elaborating on the significance of names, showing connections between the meaning of the name and the character of the person or entity called by that name is widespread in the Written Torah and in the Oral Law.

The names for species as a whole [certainly] reflect the nature of that species. As our Sages comment (Bereishis Rabbah 17:4):

[The Holy One, blessed be He] told [the angels]: “[Man’s] wisdom surpasses yours.” He brought before them animals, wild beasts, and fowl and asked them: “What is this creature’s name?” and they did not know.

He then brought them to Adam and asked him: “What is this creature’s name?” and he answered: “This is an ox. This is a donkey.”

The Ramban explains ([in his commentary to] Bereishis 2:19) that the Holy One, blessed be He, brought all the living beings of the field and all the fowl of heaven before Adam (see Tosafos, Chullin 66b, entry kol). He recognized their character and named them, [giving them] a name that reflected their character. (See also Rabbeinu Bachaye’s commentary to the above verse; Shaloh, the introduction to the Beis HaMikdash; Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah, ch. 1; the maamar entitled Amar Rabbi Yochanan, 5700, Sefer Maamarim Kuntreisim, Vol. II, p. 858.)

This concept also applies to the names of individual entities. [In this vein,] from the meaning of a name, [our Sages] have extrapolated [insights into] the character of the entity referred to by that name. The primary example of this process is expressed through an explicit verse (Bereishis 3:20): “And he called his wife’s name Chavah, because she was the mother of all life.”

Moreover, we find that a name is interpreted as expressing a person’s character even if that was not the intent of the person giving the name. We see this concept [also] explicitly stated in the Torah, as it is written (Bereishis 27:36): “Accordingly, he is called Yaakov, for he deceived me.”2 And it is repeated in the Prophets,asit is written (I Shmuel 25:25): “His name [reflects] who he is. His name is Nevel.”3 And we find abundant examples of this concept in the works of our Sages.

One might say that proof of [the application of] this concept [in all situations] cannot be derived from our Sages’ interpretation of names quoted in the Tanach. For there is a basis for their interpretation: The fact that the name is quoted in the Torah indicates that there is an allusion and a teaching to be derived. (This resolves the question raised by the Maharsha in his Chiddushei Aggados to Yoma 83b.) Nevertheless, we find (Yoma, loc. cit.) that Rabbi Meir would derive inferences concerning the character of people [living] in his own time from their names. And an event that transpired proved the truth of Rabbi Meir’s approach.

That passage concludes: “Rabbi Meir says: ‘I merely had a suspicion. I would not make a conclusive determination.’” [This, however, does not disprove the above concept. Instead, the intent is that] a person given a particular name is not forced to act in a particular way. For he has free choice; it is merely that his nature is inclined in this direction. (Note Rambam’s statements at the beginning of Hilchos Deos; seealso Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4. The inferences drawn by the Lechem Mishneh [in his gloss to those sources] are explicitly stated by Rambam in his Shemoneh Perakim.) It is possible to explain that this is the intent of the statements of the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 71:3): “There are those whose names are abhorrent, but whose deeds are attractive.” This indicates that a name does not compel [a person to act in a particular] manner to the extent that — to borrow Rambam’s wording — he cannot deviate from that [path].

We find an even more encompassing concept in the statements of our Sages. Not only does a name reflect a person’s character, it engenders [the formulation of that character]. As our Sages commented (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Haazinu, sec. 7): “A person should always review the name that he [intends to] call his son... for sometimes, the name will lead to either good or bad.” Similarly Yoma 38b states: “See what happened to him.” (I.e., because of his name. [The passage speaks of a child, Doeg ben Yosef, who died tragically.] His name, the name of a wicked person,4 caused his death. We cannot say that [his death] came as punishment [for having been given that name], for the punishment would be too great. Moreover, it is the person who gave the name, and not the one who bore it, who was fit to be punished.)

Moreover, the effect that a name brings is not confined to the person bearing the name, but also affects his descendants. As Berachos 7b states: “What is the implication of the name Rus? Rabbi Yochanan states: ‘That she earned merit and David who was imbued with ruach hakodesh (the spirit of prophecy) descended from her....’ How do we know that a name influences [a person’s character]?”

Accordingly, it is understand that one may gain insights concerning the character of a person from the name of his ancestor. We find two approaches to this issue in the words of our Sages:

a) the names of the ancestors are given because of the character of the descendants,5 as cited with regard to Rus above; similarly, our Sages (Megillah 12b) interpret the names of Mordechai’s ancestors as reflecting his [character or deeds which he performed];

b) although the names of the ancestors are not given because of the character of the descendants, when the names of the ancestors are mentioned in connection with their descendants, insights can be drawn with regard to the character of the descendants.6 As our Sages (Sanhedrin 109b) state with regard to Korach: He was “the son of Yitzhar,” for he “caused the entire world to boil with [Divine] anger as during midday.”7 [That passage continues:] “Should we also call him: ‘the son of Yaakov?’ [For a connection could also be made with his name,] for Korach ‘caused himself to tarry8 in Gehinnom.’”

Since [the passage] asks: “Should we also call him: ‘the son of Yaakov?’”, raising that question without any hesitation, it is apparent that even though the ancestors were not at all named [in reflection] of their descendants’ [future conduct], we can, nevertheless, derive insights from their names when they are mentioned in association with those descendants.

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The above applies with regard to deriving insights from the names in general, based on our Sages’ practice of focusing on [the allusions of] a person’s name and also the name of his ancestors if they are mentioned together with his (as in the instance Akavya ben Mahalalel). In particular, with regard to the witticism mentioned by R. Boruch Mordechai, there is an explicit source in the writings of the AriZal.

As a preface, the Midrash Aggadas Bereishis (Buber edition, the preface to ch. 11) states: “Why was (Kenan’s son) named Mahalalel?9 Because he was the first to repent and to begin to recite praise before the Holy One, blessed be He.” The writings of the AriZal, Shaar HaGilgulim (Introduction 31) state: “Know that all the souls... are included and dependent on Adam, the first man.... Every one of his 248 limbs [is associated with specific souls].... The heel... is divided into more than 613 sparks of souls. Included among them are the souls of... and the soul of Akavya ben Mahalalel.”

More explanation is given in that source (at the conclusion of Introduction 32): “Akavya ben Mahalalel... [is associated with] the secret of the heel (eikev). For this reason, he is called Akavya. And since this Akavya corrected the attributes of Mahalalel ben Kenan, he is called Akavya ben Mahalalel.”

Note should also be taken of the Mishnah (Ediyus 5:6): “When the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash was locked,10 there was no member of the Jewish people equivalent to Akavya ben Mahalalel in wisdom — according to other versions, in humility — and in the fear of sin. See also the commentary of the Baal HaTurim to the beginning of Parshas Eikev.11Seealso the interpretation of the verse:12 “The outcome (eikev) of humility is the fear of G‑d” by the Shaloh and others that states that these two qualities — humility and fear — are called eikev.

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Theexplanation of the basis for this “astonishing” witticism can serve as an example and a portent that certainly all the statements in [the Rebbe’s] holy talks — even though they may appear astonishing to us — have a thorough interpretation and explanation. With regard to such matters, we can apply our Sages’ comment (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 1:1) on the verse:13 “It is not an empty matter for you”: [The Torah is not an empty matter] but if [you regard] it as empty, [that emptiness] is “from you,”14 because you do not labor in Torah [study].

If a witticism of the chassidim of the early generations is so [instructional], one can assume that their teachings and Divine service are several times more.