By Boruch Merkur
"Where are we going so early in the morning?" Yankel asked
his father. "It’s still dark out."
"For a quick dip in the river," his father replied.
As Yankel was growing up, his father included him in more and
more of his religious activities in preparation for the boy’s bar mitzva,
which was still a few years away. Yankel knew that the "dip in the river" to
which his father was referring, was t’villa, ritual immersion for added
purity and holiness, the "breakfast of champions" for anyone who’s serious about
prayer and Torah learning.
Though spring had already begun, and it wasn’t too cold out,
nevertheless, just a couple of weeks prior, Yankel had been able to walk across
the frozen river. Now, of course, it was no longer safe to cross; but surely it
was too cold for even a "quick dip." Yankel was puzzled.
When they arrived at the stream, to Yankel’ s surprise he
found that it was still frozen over. "What a relief," thought Yankel, "Father
must’ve been kidding."
But the boy’s jaw dropped when he saw his father take out a
small ice pick which he used to hack at the frozen surface. "He’s serious all
right," Yankel concluded.
After a short while, Yankel’s father had uncovered a hole a
couple of feet wide. Then he stripped off his clothes and lowered himself in the
frigid waters. Not only once, twice, or three times, but nine times in total did
his father dunk his head under the shallow stream. Then he climbed out of the
water shivering, and dried himself off and got dressed.
The child was proud of his brave father, but now it was his
Dipping his toe into the water, the boy could not believe how
cold it was. His father encouraged him by showing him a large pelt of fur and a
steaming thermos. Realizing that he would never be able to get into the water if
he were to do it in stages, the boy summoned his courage and prepared to dunk
himself in one shot. But his father intercepted him. "That’s not safe," he said.
"Let’s not take any chances with the current."
So he picked his son up and in one fell swoop, he lowered him
in the water until it covered his head and quickly drew him up. "Ahhh!" screamed
the boy in agony from the cold, his teeth chattering.
Immediately, his father wrapped him up in the fur and rubbed
him briskly. Then he poured for his son a cup of hot tea.
Even by the first gulp, he began to feel settled and warm
again. "Ahhh," he sighed with a contented smile.
His father looked at him and said: "The righteous strive hard
in this world, and they continue to serve G-d even through the most difficult
times. But the ‘Ahhh!’ of their toil is soon followed by ‘Ahhh’ as they bask in
their Heavenly reward.
"With regard to the wicked, however, it is the exact
opposite. First they experience the ‘Ahhh’ of worldly pleasures, which quickly
fizzles out, and then they cry out ‘Ahhh!’ as their tarnished souls are scoured
* * *
Just after the Torah finishes telling us of the mighty
dynasty of the wicked Eisav - as it says, "these are the eight kings who reigned
in the land of Edom before a king reigned over the Jewish people" - the Torah
tells us the story of the "settling" of the house of Eisav’s twin brother,
Yaakov Avinu, as it is written, "And Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s
sojourning, in the Land of K’naan."
For the 36 years prior to his arrival in K’naan, Yaakov Avinu
lived a very difficult life. For the most part, this time was spent in hiding
from his vengeful bother, Eisav, and laboring for his deceptive uncle, Lavan.
Additionally, during this time, Yaakov lost his beloved wife, Rachel, and his
daughter, Dina, had been kidnapped, etc. And then finally, after all these
travails, "Yaakov settled in the land of his father..."
Home at last! Time to take it easy. Time to retire to a life
of peace and tranquility - or so we would think. But actually, around this time,
the worst possible torment sprang up upon Yaakov: he is led to believe that his
most beloved son, Yosef, was mortally wounded by a wild beast!
And Yaakov did not take the news easily, as it says: "And
Yaakov rent his garments and placed sackcloth on his loins, and he mourned for
his son many days. All of his sons and all of his daughters arose to comfort
him, but he refused to be comforted." Yaakov mourned the loss of Yosef until
they were reunited 22 years later. So what then could the verse mean when it
says that "Yaakov settled in the Land of K’naan" when the years that he lived in
K’naan were the most unsettled and bitter years of his life?!
To answer this question, Rashi, the classic Torah
commentator, explains that Yaakov merely sought to settle in peace and
tranquility, but G-d had other plans for him. "Is it not enough for the
righteous," said the Alm-ghty, "to enjoy that which is awaiting them in the
World to Come, that they must also seek tranquility in This World?!"
And if the righteous don’t have it good in This World, how
much more so should this apply to the wicked. But curiously, this is not so...
What about the wicked Eisav? Did he not have it good in This World? He even
brags of his fortune, as he said, "I have plenty!" (yeish li rav), and he
was ruler over the Land of Seir, where he was sire to a dynasty of eight
consecutive generations of kings!
The Mizrachi explains that the Torah contrasts the lives of
Eisav and Yaakov to teach us that - unlike the righteous - the wicked (more
commonly) have it good specifically in This World, for it is here that they
receive their reward for any good that they may have done, thereby leaving them
without any claim for reward in the World to Come.
The opposite is true of the righteous: they are cleansed of
any inadequacies in This World, leaving no claim against them in the Heavenly
Tribunal. To this extent, Yaakov Avinu suffered being separated from his son,
Yosef, for the 22 years that he lived in the Land of K’naan, corresponding to
the 22 years that he neglected to return to his father, Yitzchok Avinu.
And after the 22-year period was up, Yaakov was reunited with
his son, who had become the viceroy of Egypt, second to the throne. "And Yaakov
lived in the Land of Egypt seventeen years." These years were the very best
years of Yaakov’s life, as it states in the Zohar, "the Holy One Blessed Be He
granted him 17 additional years of life abundant in dignity and complete in
everything." Thus Yaakov was blessed with "settling" in tranquility to the
ultimate extreme, experiencing a taste of the World to Come in This World, as
So too, with respect to the entire history of the Jewish
people, in which we have suffered beyond measure: Surely by now we have been
completely scoured of any spiritual blemishes. Therefore, as we are presently
standing on the Threshold of Redemption, we are assured that it is already
possible to experience a foretaste of the peace and tranquility of the World to
Come! But the main thing is that we should all merit to open our eyes to see the
True and Complete Redemption immediately!
When the Alter Rebbe was sitting in a Russian prison,
arrested on slanderous reports of treason, he was interviewed by a Russian
minister who was learned in Jewish matters and an expert on the entire Bible.
One of the questions he posed to the Alter Rebbe was
concerning the meaning of the verse in B’Reishis, "And G-d called to Adam
and said, ‘where are you?’"
"Did the Alm-ghty not know where Adam was," asked the
Minister, "that He had to ask, ‘where are you?’"
The Alter Rebbe answered according to the commentary of
Rashi: "G-d knew very well where Adam was, of course, but He nevertheless asked,
"Where are you?" in order to enter into a conversation with him without
startling him [thereby giving Adam a chance to ask forgiveness for having eaten
of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge]. But if G-d had suddenly came upon him to
punish him, he would have been too bewildered to respond."
The Minister said: "What Rashi says I know myself. I would
like, however, to hear an explanation from the Rebbe."
The Rebbe answered, "when a person is at the age of such and
such, for example," saying the precise age of the Minister, "the Alm-ghty asks
him, ‘where are you?’ Do you know for what purpose you were created in the
world? Are you aware of what you must do and have you taken account of
what you have done thus far?"
* * *
Although the release of the Alter Rebbe was a day of great
joy and celebration for world Jewry, the Rebbe Rayatz explains that the Alter
Rebbe himself was celebrating even before he was released from prison. In fact,
the incarceration itself was the cause of the Alter Rebbe’s great joy, having
merited to sit in prison and have self-sacrifice for the teachings of his holy
masters, the Baal Shem Tov and the Mezritcher Maggid, the founders of
chassidus. For it was in opposition to chassidus that slanderous
reports were issued, leading to the Alter Rebbe’s arrest. His pleasure was
completely unbridled and overwhelming to the extent that he was literally on the
verge of soul expiration (k’los ha’nefesh).
If it wasn’t for his conversation with the Minister, the soul
of the Alter Rebbe would have surely departed. Only by recalling how the
Alm-ghty asks every person, "where are you? have you yet done what you must do?"
was the Alter Rebbe revived, allowing his soul to remain in his body, for by
this point in time the Alter Rebbe had by no means completed his life’s work.
In fact, the release of the Alter Rebbe, which we celebrate
on the 19th and 20th of the month of Kislev, marks the beginning of the stage of
his leadership in which he renewed his commitments to "spreading the wellsprings
of chassidus outwards," and thereby preparing the world for the imminent
coming of Moshiach and the true and complete Redemption. [Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos vol. 1, p. 73]
And as the Rebbe Rayatz writes: "At the present time, when
the world trembles, when all the world shudders with the birth pangs of
Moshiach, for G-d has set fire to the walls of the Exile..., it is the duty of
every Jew – man and woman, old and young – to ask himself: What have I done, and
what am I now doing to alleviate the birth pangs of Moshiach and to merit the
complete Redemption, which will come through our righteous Moshiach?"