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Born Into A New Avoda
By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

When the Alter Rebbe explained to his mother-in-law why he couldn’t return to Vitebsk, he used the analogy of a newborn baby: Once the baby is born and has taken its first breath, it can never go back to the womb. * Similarly, we cannot content ourselves with the avoda of previous generations. Each generation has its own specific mission, and ours is to bring Moshiach.


The mashpia Reb Mendel Futerfas once related:

When Rabbi Yehuda Leib Segal of Vitebsk took the Alter Rebbe as a son-in-law, the Alter Rebbe was already known as a remarkable gaon and prodigy. As the father-in-law of such a promising young man, Reb Yehuda Leib expected to receive a great deal of nachas from the new member of his family. Before they were married, he promised to support the couple for many years so the Alter Rebbe could continue learning without distraction.

For a while everything went according to plan. The Alter Rebbe studied Torah night and day, and everyone was satisfied by with the arrangement. People marveled over the illustrious husband Reb Yehuda Leib had found for his daughter, Rebbetzin Shterna Sara. But later, when it became known that Rabbi Schneur Zalman had traveled to Mezeritch and had fallen in with the Chassidim, his father-in-law was furious. All his hopes for honor and prestige were dashed before his eyes. The new “sect” was wandering into uncharted territory, going off in a direction unheard of in previous generations. Many gedolim were horrified and had even excommunicated the fledgling Chassidic movement. To Reb Yehuda Leib, it appeared as if his son-in-law had abandoned the proper path.

People tried to convince the Alter Rebbe of his folly, but to no avail. The young chasan persisted in following the ways of Chassidus and influenced others to do the same. He refused to consider changing his mind.

When the Alter Rebbe’s father-in-law realized that being nice wasn’t working, he changed his tactics and demanded that the Alter Rebbe divorce his daughter. The Alter Rebbe agreed to give her a gett, provided it was what she really wanted. But Rebbetzin Shterna Sara insisted that there was no reason to divorce. In her opinion, her husband was a tzaddik, an oveid Hashem, and a true gaon. His conduct was entirely in keeping with the Torah; he was completely innocent of wrongdoing, and everyone was persecuting him unjustly.

One of the Alter Rebbe’s practices was to daven ba’arichus on Friday nights. By the time he came home from shul, everyone else in the household had already eaten and gone to sleep. Only the Rebbetzin would wait up for him to hear Kiddush.

One time, the Alter Rebbe’s father-in-law decided to teach him a lesson he wouldn’t forget. After their Friday night seuda, he locked up all the food, wine and mashke in the house so his son-in-law wouldn’t be able to make Kiddush. For extra measure, he even put away all the bechers and drinking glasses. When the Alter Rebbe came home in the middle of the night, he wouldn’t be able to find a drop of wine for Kiddush or challa for HaMotzi. Maybe that would put an end to his peculiarities.

That night, the Alter Rebbe was greeted by the Rebbetzin, who tearfully explained what her father had done to punish him. Although she had conducted a thorough search, she was unable to find anything over which it was permissible to make Kiddush.

The Alter Rebbe told his wife not worry, and started to look around for himself. Their efforts paid off. In the cellar they found a bottle of mashke that Reb Yehuda Leib had overlooked. And without any wine available, it was permitted to make Kiddush over the beverage of the country.

Now, however, they had another obstacle to overcome. With all the utensils and dishes under lock and key, they had no cup into which to pour the mashke. Furthermore, there still wasn’t any food, and one can only make Kiddush in the same place as the seuda. Without food for a seuda, the Kiddush wouldn’t be valid.

But necessity is the mother of invention. A huge washing cup for netilas yadayim was transformed into an impromptu becher. The Alter Rebbe filled it to the brim, recited Kiddush, and made sure to drink most of its contents. [In another version the exact amount the Alter Rebbe drank isn’t mentioned; indeed, in the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch he rules that it isn’t necessary to drink that much.]

Afterwards, relying on the halachic opinions that an additional cup of wine may substitute for a seuda, and that the beverage of the country may be used instead of wine, the Alter Rebbe downed another reviis of mashke to fulfill his obligation.

The next morning, the Rebbetzin’s father asked if her husband had finally learned his lesson, and was very angry when the Rebbetzin told him what they had done. “I suppose your husband got very drunk and went right to sleep,” he said mockingly.

“On the contrary,” the Rebbetzin replied, “it was then that I saw his true greatness. My husband stayed up the whole night learning, the same as always…”

Reb Yehuda Leib was very surprised; but unfortunately, the Alter Rebbe’s unique conduct that night did not improve their relationship.

Years passed. The Alter Rebbe had moved to Liozna and become world-renowned, attracting followers from all over the world. His father-in-law, Reb Yehuda Leib, had passed away, and the Alter Rebbe’s mother-in-law asked the Alter Rebbe to move back to Vitebsk with all of his Chassidim. She was very wealthy, and promised to take care of all his needs.

The Alter Rebbe responded: The baby in his mother’s womb is well taken care of. Physically, he eats whatever his mother eats, and is warm and snug and well protected. Spiritually, a candle is lit by his head, and he is taught the entire Torah. Nonetheless, once he emerges and breathes on his own, there is no turning back; he can never return to the womb. This is for two reasons: 1) he is now too big, and 2) his former place has grown too small…

* * *

Last week, in connection with Chaf-Hei Adar, the birthday of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, and Yud-Alef Nissan, the birthday of Melech HaMoshiach, we explored the significance of birthdays and why we celebrate them.

We discussed that, although in many respects the fetus is better off than the newborn infant, the fetus is not considered fully “alive” – “it is not a person.” Before it is born, the fetus is completely dependent on its mother and the outside influences it receives (food, Torah learning, etc.) are not really his. At the moment of birth, the baby is transformed into an independent being. Whatever the individual’s deficits, his accomplishments will be truly his.

This is also one of the major innovations of Chassidus, that a person mustn’t keep Torah and mitzvos as if they are “in addition to his essence,” but with a real vitality and enthusiasm, thereby rendering his observance truly his.

Moreover, the particular innovation of Chabad Chassidus is that a Jew’s vitality and enthusiasm mustn’t be makif (encompassing, rather than internalized), based purely on faith. Rather, the effort must come from below, from the individual himself, which is the concept of independent service.

And while in previous generations only the higher powers of the soul were able to do this, in our generation, the seventh generation, G-dliness has already suffused the very lowest levels of existence, both physically and spiritually.

This is amply demonstrated by our modern world of technology. Every means of spreading the wellsprings outward is used: G-dliness is bursting out of satellites, videos, and the Internet.

Every generation has its own special chiddush. It is obviously inappropriate to serve G-d in the same manner as in the times of the Baal Shem Tov, disregarding everything that came afterward. Every particular time and place has its own avoda, as revealed to us through our holy Chabad Rebbeim.

Many arguments have been raised against this. The yetzer ha’ra might prompt a person to counter, “Halevai that I should reach the level of the Baal Shem Tov’s generation! Why isn’t it enough to attain the mesiras nefesh of the Rebbe Rayatz’s generation? Why must I do something ‘new?’” But these arguments are clearly not coming from the side of holiness.

This has particular relevance for our unique situation at the present time. We mustn’t content ourselves with the avoda of the early years of the Rebbe’s nesiyus, but must remember that we have entered a new period (as the Rebbe said in connection with the Rebbetzin’s passing on Chaf-Beis Sh’vat 5748, when Mivtza Yom Huledes was first announced). The concept of birthdays requires that we serve G-d with independent effort. Whoever thinks that a previous level of avoda is sufficient is simply mistaken.

Before the “birth,” the new period in which we find ourselves now, the old avoda of the early years was entirely appropriate. Today, of course, it is still no less holy, G-d forbid, but the Rebbe has already led us on to the next step.

The underlying objective has been and will always be the same: to make a dwelling place for G-d in the lower worlds. However, the particular means by which we are to accomplish this goal changes over the generations. In the Baal Shem Tov’s time, the emphasis was on the emotional arousal of the heart and Divine service that transcends logical reasoning. The Alter Rebbe, by contrast, stressed the study of Chassidus Chabad and the contemplation of G-d’s greatness. In the Rebbe Rayatz’s generation, mesiras nefesh was the key. For the Rebbe shlita, during most of his nesiyus, it was primarily hafatza – spreading Yiddishkeit and Chassidus through his network of shluchim. In later years, however, the Rebbe began to speak of the unique service that is required of us at present – “the only service that remains.” This does not take away from the service that preceded it, G-d forbid, in the same way that the Baal Shem Tov’s chiddushim did not detract from the Torah and mitzvos of previous generations, but superceded them. Similarly, the Alter Rebbe’s teachings did not take anything away from the path of the Baal Shem Tov, but provided a new gateway for the Divine service of his generation.

This concept is not anyone’s invention, but was explicitly elucidated by the Rebbe in many sichos kodesh (particularly that of Chaf-Beis Sh’vat 5752). In order to know exactly what to do and how to act at present, we must delve into the Rebbe’s most recent teachings and study them diligently.

The Rebbe’s early sichos and maamarim are infinitely wonderful and deep, yet at the same time we are obligated to know what he expects from us now. These particular directives are not to be found in the earlier sichos and maamarim, but only in the most recent sichos.

On Shabbos Parshas Tazria-Metzora 5751, the Rebbe said that learning about Moshiach and Redemption is the “straightest path – the easiest and quickest of all Torah ways – to bring about the actual revelation and coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.” Following this directive, the Vaad L’hafotzas Sichos decided to publish a collection of the Rebbe’s sichos on these subjects. The Rebbe, however, insisted that they wait until the very latest sichos were ready to be included.

These sichos kodesh aren’t too long, they aren’t too hard, and they aren’t too complex or inaccessible to the common man. The above arguments were raised hundreds of years ago to justify learning only nigleh to the exclusion of Chassidus, and are all instigated by the yetzer ha’ra. We simply have to learn the Rebbe’s latest sichos in order to know what to do at present, as “the Rebbe forewarned everything.”

This is also perhaps an explanation of what the Rebbe meant when he said that too much polishing of the buttons could only cause damage. We mustn’t concentrate on the earlier sichos (which have already been sufficiently polished) while ignoring the latest ones, for the only service that remains is to actually greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu. May we merit to do so immediately.


When the Alter Rebbe’s father-in-law realized that being nice wasn’t working, he changed his tactics and demanded that the Alter Rebbe divorce his daughter...




The concept of birthdays requires that we serve G-d with independent effort. Whoever thinks that a previous level of avoda is sufficient is simply mistaken.



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