by Ari. Sollish
I have been diminished by all the kindness
and by all the truth that You have done for Your servant.
He was unlike most men. He was not one who relished victory,
savoring the sweet taste of vindication. Nor was he one to
condemn those who had conspired to ruin him, although no one
would have blamed him had he done so. After all, these are
the reactions one would expect from an innocent man who had
been made to endure so much suffering. But Rabbi Shneur Zalman
of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, was unlike most others.
After he was cleared of treason charges and released from
incarceration in the Fortress of Petropavlovsk in Petersburg,
Russia, on the 19th day of Kislev 5559 (1798),
the Alter Rebbe had one primary message for his followers.
Using unusually forceful language, he wrote an open letter
to all of his chassidim, exhorting them not to seek retribution
against their fellow Jews: opponents of the Chassidic movement
who had sought to destroy him by fabricating the charges.
Furthermore, he cautioned them against harboring feelings
of anger or even pride towards them.
The letter reads:
Do not open your mouth or whistle at them, G-d forbid. A strict warning: nothing is to be mentioned [of my victory];
subdue [your] spirit and heart before every man
humility and a kind reply that removes anger
G-d will give it into the hearts of your brethren [to reciprocate
your love, for] as water reflects ones face [so
too does the heart of one man reflect the heart of another].
Though the time was ripe for the criticism of his opponents,
the Alter Rebbe nonetheless wished for reconciliation. For
these were not the words of an ordinary manthese were
the words of a Rebbe.
of the Unknown
The Alter Rebbe was not the first person to express such
sentimentshis letter is based upon a statement made
by our Patriarch Jacob, some 3,300 years earlier.
At the end of Parshat Vayeitzei the Torah relates
how Jacob, after 22 years of devoted service to his father-in-law
Laban in Charan, begins his journey back to Canaan, the land
of his birth, together with his family. As the narrative of
their journey continues in this weeks parsha,
Vayishlach, Jacob is warned that his twin-brother Esau is
approaching with four hundred men, ostensibly seeking revenge
for the blessings Esau feels Jacob stole from
him years before. Jacob, genuinely frightened, prepares for
this showdown in three different ways: he readies his family
for war by dividing them into two camps (If Esau comes
to the one camp and strikes it, then the remaining camp shall
be a refuge);
he sends lavish gifts to appease Esau; and he prays to G-d
for divine intervention:
G-d of my father Abraham and G-d of my father Isaac;
G-d who said to me Return to your land, your birthplace,
and I will do good with you: I have been diminished
by all the kindness and by all the truth that You have done
for Your servant; for with my staff I crossed this Jordan
[River], and now I have amassed two camps. Please save me
from the hand of my brother, the hand of Esau, for I fear
lest he come and strike me down, mother and children.
In explaining this unusual prayer, the commentaries note
that Jacob feared that he was unworthy of G-ds miraculous
salvation. Since he had been the recipient of G-ds munificence
so many times before, perhaps his merits had diminished.
He had been saved from Esau 34 years earlier when the incident
of the blessings first occurred; he had been blessed with
a wonderful family and great wealth while in Charan; and most
recently, he had prevailed over Labans repeated treachery.
How long would G-d continue to save him? When would his pool
of merits finally evaporate? Jacob therefore prayed to G-d
to be saved not on account of his own worthiness, but purely
through the Al-mightys benevolence.
But how is it possible that Jacob, the chosen of the
Patriarchs, could have had such doubts concerning
his own righteousness, to the extent that he felt unworthy
of divine protection? Despite his humility, certainly he was
aware of his tremendous virtues! Even assuming that Jacob
felt somewhat lacking in his devotion to G-d, surely he was infinitely more righteous than
the morally corrupt Esau!
be or not to be
The most fundamental axiom of reality is There is none
else besides Him. This is the axis upon which
we base our definitions of spirituality and physicality. Anything,
be it a creature or an ideal that embodies this truthshunning
self to instead touch the Divineis spiritual,
while anything that denies the presence of a higher reality
by purporting self-reliance and independence, is physical.
Thus, the realms of the physical and the spiritual are not
just located on different planesthey are absolute contradictions
of each other. Matter asserts its independence, while spirit
recognizes the presence of something beyond itself.
This definition of physicalityi.e., that which obscures
G-dlinessis illustrated in the four dimensions in our
physical world, namely the mineral, vegetable, animal and
human kingdoms. Take a look at a rock. Does a rock in any
way demonstrate its subservience to and dependence upon a
higher power? Does it give any clues that allow us to perceive
that there is a cause, a force beyond itself? Or does it just
sit there, oblivious to the world around it, as if crying
out: I am, I always was, I will forever be? Continuing
our geo-scrutiny, vegetation, which, by virtue of its ability
to grow and flourish, asserts its independence more convincingly
than the stagnant, static mineral world. The animal kingdom
is even bolder in its autonomy, possessing the ability to
freely move about, unlike its grounded counterparts.
And man is by far the most independent of all creatures, having
not only the freedom of mobility, but also the power of expression
afforded to him by speech, and the intellectual facility to
make his own free choiceseven the freedom to choose
to deny the existence of his own creator, G-d forbid.
However, man is not a wholly physical being. He is hewn of
matter and spirit, possessing a soul to temper and
guide the body. And the soul, being literally a part
of G-d above, innately desires to be reunited with her divine
home. Thus, the soul is likened to a flickering flame, constantly battling the physical wick
which tries to drag her earthbound, licking the air above,
yearning to return to her heavenly source, though sheas
she exists now as a perceptible flamewould
cease to be.
Mans challenge then is to transcend his physical nature,
to strengthen spirit over matter, stripping away the coarse,
selfish, materialistic shell that obscures the pure soul within
him. This allows his soul to spring forth and summon the collective
soul of creation, thereby revealing the innate synonymy of
Creator and creation. But this seamless
state of selflessness is extremely difficult to attainindeed,
it is reached only by the few perfectly righteous, who, despite
the magnitude of their accomplishments, desire nothing more
than to be consumed in the limitless light of G-d.
Jacob epitomized this form of divine service. The higher
he climbed in his spiritual journey, the less he focused on
himself and his personal achievements, concentrating rather
on the infinity that is the divine. That is why he feared
that he was unworthy of G-ds salvation, for he had totally
abolished any feelings of self, including those of his merits.
This is what the Psalmist means when he sings, The justice
and kindness of Jacob, You have madeeven when Jacob could have
demanded divine intervention as a form of justice,
fitting payback for his faithful service, he nonetheless asked
G-d for His kindness, the same pure, irrational
kindness normally reserved for one who truly does not deserve
is not the question
From this it would appear that the greatest attribute one
can possess is selflessness. Yet King David writes, regarding
Jacobs virtues, justice and kindness,
implying that justicethe awareness
of ones meritsis also a noble virtue that one
should strive to attain.
This quality is also hinted at in Jacobs prayer. On
the words, For with my staff I crossed this Jordan [River],
the Midrash explains that upon encountering the Jordan
River on his way to Charan, Jacob placed his staff on
the Jordan and it split.
Thus in his prayer Jacob alludes to a miracle that he performed,
indicating that he indeed possessed a keen awareness of his
These insights into Jacobs life illustrate that self-awareness
and selflessness are not contradictory. For when we evaluate
ourselves truthfully, we recognize that our every quality
has a limit, a certain definable boundary that separates mortal
achievement from that of the Divine; human compassion from
its G-dly counterpart; earthy love from heavenly love; and
indeed, renders the former utterly insignificant. Thus, it
is the true awareness of oneself, understanding every
shade and nuance of our character, which allows us to realize
our shortcomings and experience the ultimate in selflessness
and abnegation to the G-dly torch that shines beyond. Jacob
personified a seamless integration of both approaches, possessing
intimate knowledge of his own virtues together with the awareness
of their limitations. In turn, G-d reciprocated Jacobs
self-transcendence by suspending the natural order
in which the weak succumb to the mighty, showing instead His
quintessential love of Jacobthough Esau is a brother
to Jacob, it is Jacob whom I love, while Esau I despise.
Two men. One perspective. The Alter Rebbe experienced a clearly
divine miracle, the ultimate triumph of victory. A lesser
man might have used it to fuel his ego, to gloat in vindication
and chastise his opponents. But not Rabbi Shneur Zalman. He
took the opportunity to reveal to us a larger, grander picture.
A picture in which there is no divisiveness, no fragmentation,
and no pain: only a single, perfect unitybetween men,
and with G-d.
Based on an address of the Rebbe given Yud Tes Kislev,
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by
 For a detailed account of the episode, including
important background information and the interesting aftermath,
see The Arrest and Liberation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman
of Liadi, Kehot, 1999.
 Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh, epistle 2.
 The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok
Schneersohn (1880-1950), once mentioned an explanation that
he heard from his father, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (the fifth
Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860-1920), regarding the words or
whistle at them G-d forbid: A whistle is an
expression of inward ecstasy, stemming from holiness, yet
in regard to that the [Alter] Rebbe says G-d forbid.
See Likkutei Dibburim, vol. I, p. 39.
 Rashi to verse 11; Cf. Talmud, Shabbos 32a; Berachos
4a; Bamidbar Rabbah 19:32.
 Bereishit Rabbah 76:1. Based on Psalms 135:4: For
G-d has chosen Jacob for Himself.
 See Rashi, ibid: I am fearful that perhaps
from the time I was promised [G-ds salvation], I stumbled
in sin, thus causing me to be delivered into the hand of
 This is in contrast with the typical definition
of physicality and spirituality, namely, that physical
describes that which is tangible and/or perceived by the
five senses, while spiritual describes that
which is sublime and imperceptible.
 Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, beginning of ch. 2.
 The soul of man is the candle of G-dProverbs
 Rashi, ibid. Note Rashis first explanationI
had with me neither silver nor gold nor cattle, just my
staff alone emphasizing Jacobs lack
 Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 274-280.