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Yerachmiel Tilles


Yud-Tes Kislev, the "Rosh HaShanah of the Chassidic year," starts this year on Sunday evening, December 18. It is the yartzeit of Rabbi Dov Ber (c.1700-1772), the "Maggid" of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement, as well as the anniversary of the miraculous release of the founder of the Chabad dynasty, Rabbi Shneur Zalman (1745-1812), from Russian prison in 1798 on charges of treason. The day also takes on yet a third identity: it marks the publication in 1796 of his famous book of Chassidism (and Kabbalah, psychology and ethics): Tanya.

The three events are not unconnected, as we shall see by examining two interesting episodes in the history of the Chassidic movement.

One day during Rabbi Shneur Zalman's imprisonment, he was "visited" by the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid. He asked them for the spiritual explanation of his arrest. They explained that a serious accusation had been brought against him in Heaven for revealing secrets of Torah, intensified by the publication of the Tanya. When he then queried if that meant he should cease, they responded that at this point not only must he not stop, he should continue with increased effort.

This is an amazing story. However, some students of Chassidic annals find a contradiction between this story and another episode that took place a generation previously, when Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a young disciple in the court of the Maggid.

Rabbi Pincus of Koritz, a distinguished disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and a spiritual giant in his own right, objected to the Maggid's public expositions of the "inner dimensions". Once, when he visited him, he found a page containing notes on a Chassidic discourse of the Maggid's lying on the ground. He was incensed. His ire aroused a heavenly accusation against the Maggid which was only neutralized when Rabbi Shneur Zalman appeased Rabbi Pincus with his now-famous parable.

There was a king who had an only child that became deathly sick and fell into a coma. The royal physician announced that there was only one hope. If the prince could be made to swallow a few drops of a special medicine, perhaps it would help. The main ingredient of this remedy was the ground-up particles of a certain precious stone. The jewel was so rare, however, that there was only one in the entire kingdom: the central and most beautiful gem of the king's crown.

His advisors told the king not to risk destroying the crown, because the chances of success were much too small. Without the slightest hesitation the king dismissed them, exclaiming, "If the prince doesn't survive, of what value is the crown?"

The two stories seem to clash. Given Rabbi Shneur Zalman's successful defense of his master, isn't the seemingly identical charge against him decades later a clear case of double jeopardy?

The key is to isolate two different approaches to the study of the mystical teachings, each of which is an outgrowth and embodiment of one of two justifications for the spread of this study in our times.

Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) wrote in the name of the Holy ARI of Tsfat, that the spread of the hidden wisdom is indispensable for two reasons: to overcome the increasing spiritual darlness of the modern environment, and to help usher in the Era of Moshiach. For the first purpose the best approach is to search the literature for those sparks that impact meaningfully for you - or in terms of the parable, to assimilate a few drops. The latter purpose, however - to prepare for and elicit the Messianic redemption - mandates a more explicit, detailed knowledge than the first, scanning approach. Here the goal is not illumination but saturation - until "the world be full of the knowledge of G'd as the waters of the sea cover their bed of earth" (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah (end), from Isaiah 11:9).

Now the two stories can be understood in sequence, resolving the apparent contradiction. The "crown prince" parable effectively defended the "spark-gathering" approach. The second accusation, a genetation later, was not a repetition of the first; rather it focused on the intellectual explicitness of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's public teachings.

Both approaches are, of course, important and necessary. However, the imminent arrival of Moshiach would seem to add emphasis to the attainment of deep, full knowledge of Torah's inner dimensions. A great way to begin on this Yud-Tes Kislev, is with the new cycle of daily Tanya study.


Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.



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