At the end of the year 1798 a man was miraculously
released from prison in Czarist Russia. The world has never
been the same since then.
Now, 205 years later to the day, another major event has
taken place that is changing the landscape of the world.
The 1798 event is not widely known, but I submit that we
cannot fully understand the implications of current events
until we appreciate the event that transpired 205 years
On the 19th of Kislev 1798 (in the Hebrew year
5559), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was released from prison
after his wrongful arrest at the hands of the Russian government.
This day of liberation became known as the Rosh Hashana
of Chassidus, which heralded a new stage in history.
On this same day, 205 years later, Saddam Hussein was captured
“like a rat in a hole.”
What connection, you may wonder, is there between these
Some history first. During the Russo-Franco war of 1812,
after Napoleon invaded Russia, Jewish leaders in Russia
broke into two camps, one supporting the victory of French
Emperor Napoleon, the other Russian Czar Alexander. The
former felt that if Napoleon won the war material life would
become much easier for Jews. The latter argued that though
Napoleon’s victory offered physical emancipation of
the oppressed, it would compromise Jewish spiritual life.
Napoleon, after all, represented an atheistic, self-glorifying,
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe,
was a major voice in the Jewish opposition to Napoleon.
His position was the one that ultimately prevailed. (for
the detailed story click
here). Rabbi Schneur Zalman was obviously not opposed
to freedom from material oppression. What he wisely recognized
was that this freedom has to be attained gradually, so as
not to overwhelm the tenuous nature of spiritual life in
a material world. And his fears were confirmed in the events
that took place in Europe during the 19th century:
Modern assimilation was birthed as a result of a people
unprepared for the challenges of accelerated emancipation.
As time passed, emancipation was finally achieved to the
point that today we are virtually free of any institutionalized
oppression. But today, having achieved a deeper state of
maturity we also have the opportunity to integrate both
freedoms: material and spiritual. Today we have the ability
to use our prosperity and comforts to advance a spiritual
revolution. Yet, the challenge still remains not to take
our freedoms for granted. Our greatest enemy today is within:
our enemy is complacency – the one borne out of prosperity.
When we don’t have to fight for our ideals, they tend
In Biblical terms the battle between matter and spirit
is the struggle between Esau and Jacob. After Esau and Jacob
reconcile (in last week’s Torah portion), Esau invites
Jacob to become his neighbor. Jacob replies, “My
lord you know that the children are weak and I have responsibility
for the nursing sheep and cattle. If they are driven hard
for even one day, they will die… Please go ahead of
me… I will lead my group slowly, following the pace
of the work ahead of me, and the pace of the children. I
will eventually come to you, my lord, in Seir.”
Jacob is telling Esau and all of us that there is much
work to be done in resolving the inherent tension between
the material and the spiritual. And this work must be done
with complete focus. Jacob rejects even Esau’s offer
to help by putting “some of my people at your disposal,”
even that poses too great of a risk. “Just let me remain
on friendly terms with you,” Jacob tells Esau.
History is a process – the process of refining the material
world and slowly acclimating it to its inner soul. As the
river of time flowed forward, each generation carried the
baton of its leg of the great marathon of history – each
progressive generation building upon its predecessor, slowly
refining the mundane world.
Today, after 3559 years of work from the time of Jacob
and Esau, the accumulative energy of countless generations
has so refined the world that it is ready for reconciliation.
Jacob can finally fulfill his promise to Esau, “I
will eventually come to you,” and the world can be united
under one G-d, with a complete fusion of matter and spirit
and each nation serving in its own unique manner. (for more
on this see The
Big Confrontation - Jacob & Esau Meet).
Yud Tes Kislev, the 19th day of the Hebrew month
of Kislev, is a major milestone in this process.
Chassidus is contemporary Jewish mysticism. It renders
and channels this ancient wisdom into an accessible blueprint
for life that teaches us how to integrate our material lives
with a higher, spiritual purpose.
The 19th of Kislev is the birthday of this powerful
system. Tradition tells us that the deeper reason for the
Alter Rebbe’s arrest was a heavenly challenge to his
efforts to reveal the depths of mysticism to the mainstream.
Until that point in history, cosmic secrets were in the
exclusive domain of sacred few Tzaddikim. The Alter Rebbe’s
liberation on Yud Tes (19) Kislev was a Divine signal and
declaration that a new phase in history had arrived –
the time had come to empower the masses with the ability
to transform their material lives and the physical world
into a home for the sublime.
This was always the purpose of existence, but in
earlier generations global transformation would have not
have been possible without overt Divine intervention. In
natural terms, it did not seem possible that human efforts
could achieve worldwide change. Yud Tes Kislev opened up
a new channel – which would lead in subsequent years
to the Industrial revolution, the emergence of democracy,
the atomic and nuclear age, the information revolution –
enormous changes that continue to grow at an accelerated
Now back to Saddam’s capture on Yud Tes Kislev 2003. 14
years ago during the first Gulf War the Rebbe, my Rebbe,
reacted strongly to the attack on Saddam Hussein. In the
winter of 1991, the Rebbe elaborated on the fact that in
history there were nations that had a certain level of permanence,
for good or for bad. One of these forces was Babylon. Going
back to the times of the great Babylonian Empire, which
dominated the region, and even before that, when Babylon
was developed by Nimrod, and the building of the powerful
Tower of Babel.
Now, the Rebbe said, Saddam and Babylon’s firm power
was disrupted, and he was forced to flee from his capital
and center of power, and run from location to location.
The Rebbe equated Saddam with historical villains like Pharaoh
and Haman, and with the power of Babylon of old. (click
here to read my brother’s article on the topic).
I always wondered why the Rebbe saw this event as so significant,
more than the downfall of many previous tyrants in history.
Indeed, as it turned out in 1991, Hussein remained in power,
and the Rebbe’s words seemed moot. True, the Rebbe
said at the time "these words will be applicable at
a future time,” but still, even if Saddam had fallen,
why was this such a significant event? Seemingly many greater
events had occurred over the years.
My question was finally answered last Saturday night. I
was on a plane flying back to NY from Seattle, when I heard
the news of Saddam Hussein’s capture. What struck
me immediately was that the capture took place on the eve
of Yud Tes Kislev, concluding a long manhunt that began
on Purim last year with the onset of the Gulf War II, and
actually began 14 years ago, during Persian Gulf War I which
actually ended then on Shushan Purim! (see my article last
II: Shushan War).
“I mean, this is just too much ‘coincidence’ to ignore,”
I thought to myself sitting in my Jet Blue seat flying through
the skies of free America.
“Yud Tes Kislev,” I thought to myself, “that’s the key.”
205 years ago Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s liberation opened up
the door to a far greater liberation: the freedom to finally
unite heaven and earth.
But the battle then was with Esau – and his different
faces, the various faces of the West: Russia, France, and
Europe in general (should also mention Greece, as we approach
Chanukah). Initially the battle was to secure spiritual
integrity. This required a certain measure of insulation
from the world of “Esau.” As the years passed
and we matured, and the universe continued to become more
and more refined in the process, we reached a stage when
we can enter the emancipated world of the West and not only
would we not be compromised; we would transform, refine
and spiritualize material secularism, turning the world
into a home for the Divine.
But even as our peace grew with Esau, to the point that
America has become a haven of opportunity to integrate material
prosperity with “in G-d we trust,” our final
challenge apparently is with Babylon and Ishmael.
As Rabbi Schneur Zalman and his successors explain, that
the final frontier – the final refinement –
is confronting Esau and Ishmael (see Abraham's
Vision - Roots of Today's Conflict). The Zohar and other
mystical texts make it very clear that the last challenge
would be with Ishmael (See Zohar II 32a. Rambam, Iggeret
Teiman ch. 3. R’ Dovber, Shaarei Teshuvah II 17a).
The Romans – Esau – destroyed the second Temple. The Babylonians
destroyed the first one. So as we move forward in history,
we first repair our rift with Rome, the West and Esau. Then,
we reach further back in history and repair our rift with
Babylon, a rift that goes back over four thousand years
ago, with the building of the Tower of Babel (which means
confusion), and even further back – to the cradle of civilization
in the Garden of Eden (see By
the Rivers of Babylon).
So on Yud Tes Kislev, the day of “Jacob’s”
liberation from the clutches of “Esau” (at the
time, the Alter Rebbe and Czarist Russia respectively),
the contemporary Ishmael and modern-day Nevuchadnezzar,
the “lion of Babylon” (as
Hussein prided himself) has been vanquished.
[One interesting footnote stands out: Children of Esau
seem to never surrender. Hitler nor Stalin allowed themselves
to be captured. Like a true “warrior and man of the
field” they preferred suicide over captivity. Children
of Ishmael seem to be another story. Hussein did not put
up the slightest fight. Interesting… Is Ishmael a
greater coward than Esau?]
Babylon is like no other country, and its conquest like
no other victory. (The Book of Daniel (chapter 5) documents
in detail the fall of Babylon of old). Today everyone sees
that the final frontier is the battle in the Middle East
– the confrontation between Esau and Ishmael, with
Jacob as usual in the middle. The first stand, the first
victory, interestingly, was in Babylon.
By no means is this an endorsement of political interests
and ulterior motives that the war may have; rather it is
an observation on the deeper forces of destiny that we are
witnessing. This isn’t even about the fall of great
tyrant who perpetrated grave crimes against his own citizens.
Though not insignificant, the fall of Saddam Hussein is
not greater than the fall of other criminal leaders in history.
What makes Saddam’s capture stand out is the Babylon angle,
and now, of course, the Yud Tes Kislev one.
History is a continuum. Peace in our lifetime will only
be possible if we make peace with the rifts of our past.
Today, we are confronted with forces that have been unleashed
thousands of years ago.
Yud Tes Kislev in Babylon indeed. Who would have thought?
We always knew that this day of liberation was related to
our battle with Esau. Who would have imagined that it’s
long arms would also open up doors in Babylon…
Events are sometimes separated by 205 years. But when you
connect the dots, a bigger picture emerges that helps explain
the world altering changes that we have experienced in the
last two centuries.
And perhaps, it can help us understand what lies ahead.