Shneur Zalman of Liadi
Kabbalah and mysticism was based on the personalities that expressed it. Many of the saying in the Talmud are also based on the personality and characteristic of that person, but in Kabbalah and Chassidus especially, it's the personality that really informs the teachings. The people who not only taught, but lived and expressed those ideas, and the way it came out in everything from their relationships, to their world view, and even to their songs; melodious and soulful tunes.
Their world view was very much shared by their personality and the way they constructed mysticism.
The Alte Rebbe
Since I was a child, I grew up learning about his life reading about his stories about his parents and grandparents. Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Frierdiker Rebbe) wrote down most of the tales we know of the Alte Rebbe from the stories he was told. What shaped the Alte Rebbe into this personality who went against the grain within his society and his own group of mystics? He was a minority, one against many. What happened? Where was he coming from?
In his lifetime, he composed 10 niggunim for which he is known. Each of his 10 songs was a direct expression, a direct result, of his entire perspective of the world and his relationship with G-d.
He was born in Liozna in Belarus in 1745 to Baruch and Rivka. They each had their own histories. Baruch came from a family of well-to-do Jewish merchants and hard workers, in coal and blacksmiths as well as scholars - which was unusual, usually the scholars choose not to get their hands dirty. Jewish population was largely illiterate because they had no one to guide them.
His mother came from a Rabbinical background. He was named after his mother's grandfather, Sheur Zalman and he traveled throughout Europe as a social justice warrior, debating priests and bishops in local towns when there were stolen children or threats of expulsions. He was one of the Rabbis who went to the Vatican and debated, and they still have the historical records that include his debates. He was descended from the Maharal of Prague. And the Maharal himself traced back to King David. So the Schneerson family could trace themselves back to David.
So his father and mother decided to go to the Baal Shem Tov for his upsherin. In Międzybóż, the Baal Shem Tov cut his hair. He blessed him with "a warm heart" The BST then asked that they not bring the child back to him.
At the age of 15 he studied in Minsk, one of the largest towns in the area. HE was already called the Eloi (genius) He had Talmud both memorized and knew RAMBAM cold. They said he could swim in the sea of Talmud.
When the Alte Rebbe was 15, the Baal Shem Tov died. At 18, he had outgrown all his teachers and had to decide where to go. In the Talmudic world, the Vilma Gaon was the leading luminary, and the Alte Rebbe was invited to go there. Or he could go to Mezritsh, and study with the Rev Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritsh.
About his decision, he said, "In Vilma they teach you how to learn. Learning I know a little. In Mezrich, they teach you how to pray, and that I don't know how to do." And at the age of 18, he was the youngest student to be accepted in the court of the Maggid of Mezritsh.
In a quick time, he was tested, hazed, and the students tested his knowledge and his humility and his patience.
And they realized he was for real, he became over time, a top student and a lecturer.
60 of the Maggid's students became Chassidic masters in their own rights. But in the Alte Rebbe he saw something. He paired him as a Chervuta with his son, Avram the Malach. He was a tremendous mystic and he wanted his son to teach the Rebbe Kabbalah and the Rebbe taught the Malach Talmud.
Their partnership lasted for 10 years.
AT the end of 10 years, when the Alte Rebbe was 27, he was the head of the"Chevraya Kaddisha" ("Holy Society"), the Maggid's elite group of disciples. The Maggie passed away. And on his death bed, he tells his students, some go to Israel and some should stay in Poland. He gave them provinces to spread out and provide inspiration, guidance and leadership for the Jewish communities throughout Poland and to Israel. This was a period of conflict between mysticism and the Yeshivish community. So Lithuania and Vilma, fell to the Alte Rebbe, which was a major Yeshiva center where he would meet great opposition.
Menachem Mendel of Horodok (aka Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk) became his teacher for his year. And then MMH moved to Israel (first in Sfat, then after being expelled, settling) in Tiberius. At the Deniper river, the Mencham Mendel turned him back and said you need to stay here. "If you want to be with me, send tzeddaka to support thecommunities in Israel."
He moved to Liozna and set up a following. He was invited to Minsk to debate and educate scholars. And he gained hundreds and hundreds of students. His greatest opposers became him greatest advocates. He tried to make peace with the Yeshivish community, he tried to visit the Vilna Gaon, and his audience was refused. (1772 with Reb MMH) His students probably blocked his access, probably the Gaon never knew. So the Alte Rebbe never met the Vilma Gaon. As long as the Vilna Gaon lived, things worked and were peaceful, but after he passed away; things went a little wrong.
The Baal Shem Tov brought the spiritual elements and said that all people are equal in the eyes of Hashem, even if the ignorant farmer says the Psalms and screws them all up, it's still a devotion equal to or perhaps even greater than a scholar studying Talmud. Very different from the Yeshiva hierarchy of scholarship.
1770s Alte Rebbe in his younger 30s, started a Cheder (Chardarim) with different levels and classes and students and he his two brothers taught with him. He taught the most advanced students and his brothers taught the the other classes.
He was giving a lot of attention to his students, directly, but he had a hard time giving attention to the petitioners who came with questions and sent letters. So he realized he needed he needed to write a comprehensive book explaining spiritual ethics, how a human being should understand himself, and how his soul works, and how to become a better human being and serve Hashem the right way. He worked on his book for 20 years. He said once that he spent six months on one Vav (and) trying to figure out whether it was the right choice to use there. The Tanya was that meticulous in its construction.
In the introduction to Tanya, he explains, there is no need to come to me with your challenges in Avodat Hashem, this is a comprehensive compilation of how to understand your spiritual identify. It was published in 1797 the year after the Vilna Gaon passed away, and then everything went squiffy. The Litvish community, the first thing they did was they reported him to the Czar and took the Tanya, explaining it out of context, and showing that it said that non-Jews have no soul, and he's an enemy of the state, just look at the money he is sending to the Ottoman Empire (Israel). In 1799 he was arrested and he was sent to an island off St. Petersburg, [in the Petropavlovski fortress] and he pleaded his case. Russia has recently published his written response to the 19 accusations against them. He answered 18 of them, and the 19th, the question of whether Russians have a soul, he didn't answer, saying if you can't figure out how I feel about this, I'll answer it. He was released on the 19th of Kislev.
So he was being released, and he went to the apartment of his student and the student went to the prison. There was a mixup. The guards returning him didn't know what to do.
So they went upstairs and saw a mezuzah and the knocked on the door, and a man answered. They explained who they were and what they were doing, and the man agreed to take custody of the Alte Rebbe. The man offered him some tea, and then revealed himself to be a Misnagid, a strong opposer to Chassidus, and spent 3 hours grilling him with questions until his disciple, realizing there had been a mistake, returned to the apartment. The Rebbe said "those three hours were worse than the 53 days in prison."
The Alte Rebbe was one of the few Jewish leaders who opposed Napoleon. He felt the Jewish people's identity would be stronger in Russia, against the Czar than than the freedom offered by Napoleon. He sent his students to support the Czar in the battle. Moshe Valenker went to Napoleon and became a spy on the French front. As Napoleon moved through white Russia, in 1812, the Alte Rebbe had to flee to avoid Napoleon. He left most of his library behind and it was during the dead of winter and he passed away on the run. His sons Dov Ber and Aaron settled in Lubavitch until the fall of the Czar.
What set him apart from his colleagues who disagreed him?
Before we even start with Tanya, on the Sharblot (the first page, the graphic) on the bottom of the page it reads, "This book is based on the verse, "for this is something that is very close to you, in your mouth , in your heart, that you may do it." It is all relevant and personal to you.
"To explain how it is exceedingly close in a long and short way."
In a long and short way - he's quoting the Talmud. (http://www.chabad.org/library/tanya/tanya_cdo/aid/1117/jewish/The-Longer-Shorter-Way.htm)
He said he was leaving the teaching he grew up in, the way it has previously been taught, the way they connected with their students, was that the students would become spiritual in a short way, but in the long term, they couldn't get in. Their spiritual kesser was connected to the Rabbi who taught them, and when they left his presence, it was hard to recapture that same spiritual essence.
There are no short cuts, it's going to be long, and there will be long ways and sometimes you won't feel that you get there, but ultimately it's the short way. If you're expecting a quick experience of spirituality, that you won't find here. In his introduction he tells the students, don't come to me, everything is in the book. His other colleagues believed they should come to the master to gain to spiritual status, to be enveloped in the aura of the master. That's how you attain spiritual elevation. Came the Alte Rebbe and said No. Stay where you are, what I have to offer you can be obtained by study.
And that's why they are Chabad (Chachma, Binah, and Da'at) the key to a spiritual connection to Hashem is to learn how to make it your own.
This was in opposition to the other Chassidic movements who took an approach of Chagat; Chessed, Geurah, and Tiveret, through love, prayer, and fear. Through understanding the world in beauty, and loving and fearing and opening up on the emotional level.
Chabad allows you to approach Hashem in an objective manner. If you have a connection to someone else, it falls away when you leave; you lose the high. Through Chabad, through making it your own, understanding how your Neshama works, how your soul works, ultimately you'll be able to connect to Hashem on your own in a permanent way; in an emotional way, as well as a logical way.
One Yom Kippur the the entire shul was packed and the Alte Rebbe had a Talit over his head, and he was praying and then within a second, the Alte Rebbe throws off his Talit and walked out the door. Everyone was curious, what's going on? So they all followed him, the whole entourage. He goes to the edge of town and comes to the cottage and they hear a child crying and he goes in, and he builds up the fire to make and serve soup to the mother and then returns to the Shul.
At that moment, nothing was more important than helping the Jewish woman. One moment his priority was an emotional connection to Hashem and the next, his priority was a connection to another human being. By throwing off the Talit, he said "this means nothing", if you get lost in your emotional attachment to Hashem, you lose priority. None of your studying is compared to a child crying.
One of his disciples had three daughters and he married off his children and promised the boys a living and then 3 months later he lost everything. And he came to the Rebbe crying. The Rebbe said, "instead of asking what can Hashem do for you, what are you doing for HKBU" don't allow Judaism to become a selfish emotional thing where you ignore your own child, ignore the things you need to do. Keep a way of thinking that understands what your mission on this world is and don't lose focus. Be attached on an intellectual level, which will allow it to trickle down on an emotional level.
A person has to make Hashem a personal G-d, "you are mine." If you look at the 1st Niggun of the Alte Rebbe, it's based on a Psalm that appears in Hallel. "You are my G-d and I will give thanks to you. You are my G-d and I will extol you"
A person must have an attachment which goes through all his or her faculties. You are my G-d, not something above or only accessible through emunah (faith) or bitachon (faith-based trust), but something you can bring into your life. Only when we can say, "You are mine" then that brings true thanks, true gratitude and then G-d can be exalted.
Next week, Reb Nahum of Bresslev