by Rabbi Sholom D. Avtzon
Being that this Sunday night is the eve of Yud Tes Kislev, I am presenting here part of the booklet which I prepared and is being mailed out to all Anash in the USA, by the United Lubavitch Yeshiva on Ocean Parkway.
The Power Of Chassidus
One of the well-known stories about the Alter Rebbe is that once, when he was visiting the town of Homil, there was a fire that was being fueled by powerful winds and it was ravaging the houses and everything in its path; nothing was exempt from its fury. People were fearful that the entire town would burn, so the army dispatched soldiers with instructions to help the populace contain and extinguish the fire before it did any more damage. However, by the time they arrived it was burning out of control; there was nothing they could do.
One of the chassidim ran and informed the Alter Rebbe, who then went over to the fire and stared at it. The winds suddenly changed directions, now blowing towards the area that burned already, and the fire began extinguishing itself, until it died out completely.
The soldiers that were there couldn’t believe their eyes. Either this person was a miracle worker, or a wizard. But, whatever it was, they were flabbergasted and returned to their base and excitedly told their general about it. Hearing this, the general asked that they go to the rabbi and ask him if he would be so kind to accept a visit from their general. He would like to meet the man whose eyes are stronger than legions of men and machinery. The Alter Rebbe replied in the affirmative and a time for the meeting was set.
When the general came and saw the Alter Rebbe, he asked in astonishment “Are you still alive?”
The Alter Rebbe replied, “You are mistaken, I am his spiritual grandson.”
Hearing this reply the general was satisfied and said, “Just as I thought,” and their meeting concluded.
The Chassidim who overheard this exchange were mystified by the cryptic words of the question (and answer), so they asked the general to please explain.
He happily obliged and said, ”Allow me to answer by relating a story I heard from my father.”
“My father was a general in the Czar’s army and was often away from home. However, my mother would always write to him. One time when my mother was pregnant, my father had to go to the town of Mezibuzh, which was quite a distant place from his city, for war maneuvers. Being that the country was then at war, they severely limited the delivery of any mail, and as the weeks and, indeed months, passed by without receiving any letter from her, he was becoming nervous and perhaps even distraught. He almost became paralyzed with fear.”
“His men cared for him and informed him that there was a miracle worker in this town and perhaps the general should go visit him and ask him about his family. My father sent a message to the rabbi asking if either the rabbi can come to him or if he can come to the rabbi. The rabbi replied, ‘If the general needs something, he will accept a visit from him.’”
“When he entered the rabbi’s house, the rabbi gave my father a mirror and told him to look into it. My father was bewildered by this request, expecting to see his own reflection; however, he followed the instructions and looked into the mirror.”
“How shocked he was when instead of seeing himself in this house, he saw himself leaving the town and then flying over forests and rivers, passing over the large city of Kiev and then arriving at his hometown of Homil. He then came to the outskirts of his large estate, entered the gardens and came to the gate of his courtyard. He then heard one servant inform the other that the general’s wife just gave birth to a baby boy. Then the mirror became blank and all he saw was himself.”
“The rabbi, whom you all know as the Baal Shem Tov, then said to my father, ‘In a few days a messenger will arrive and inform you that your wife gave birth to a healthy son,’ and I,” concluded the general, “am that son. Seeing all this, my father thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely and returned to the base.”
“When I heard about this miracle, I thought, ‘Is it possible that that great rabbi is still alive, as he is the only one that I thought had such a power.’ Your rabbi replied that he is his spiritual grandson, but meeting a disciple’s disciple, and seeing that he maintains that same greatness was inspiring and I was grateful to have the honor of meeting him.”
A beautiful story indeed, but there is so much more hidden in it. It teaches us a few fundamental lessons of what Chassidus and, specifically, Chassidus Chabad, is all about.
There was a fire fueled by the winds, which despite people’s strenuous efforts to contain it, was raging and uncontrollable. This is a metaphor of the enticing winds of persuasion and culture, which are so powerful that they sometimes consume and devour even the best amongst us. While the people valiantly try to contain and control them, too often it is to no avail. The fire gains strength day by day and devours more and more wonderful people.
Then came the Alter Rebbe and with his stare, the fire lost its strength and ability to create any damage and fizzled out. This is alluding to the point that when one learns Chassidus his look at the world is different and then these winds of culture, etc. lose their power; they don’t consume or even affect him.
We then come to the question that the general asked the Alter Rebbe, “Are you still alive?” (or as another version has it, “Are you the son of the Baal Shem Tov”)? This vividly brings out the point that the Rebbe Rashab wrote in a letter, which the Rebbe placed as the opening statement of HaYom Yom, stating (with a double expression) that Chassidus Chabad is the Toras HaBaal Shem Tov. This is so clear that even a non-Jew recognized this point.
We then come to the point in the story about the general’s visit to the Baal Shem and how he received his answer. As everyone knows there are different ways of neutralizing the opposition. One way is through battling and conquering them in war; however, there is the possibility that even the victorious army may also suffer some casualties.
But there is a different way to battle the opposition, a much more secure way, and that is by not dealing with the opposition at all; rather, it becomes nullified by itself. This is what happened by his visit to the Baal Shem Tov. Initially, the Baal Shem Tov didn’t speak to him; rather, when the general entered the environment of the Baal Shem Tov, he was captivated by his greatness.
This is what the Rebbe writes numerous times – the atmosphere in our homes should be permeated with the warmth and lichtikeit of Chassidus. We don’t have to preach to our children how a chassidishe boy or girl conducts themselves, they see it from our example.
May we indeed learn and live Chassidus in this manner.
Another point that should be emphasized is the lesson of mishmaas (obedience) and kabbolas ol.
The Baal Shem Tov told the distraught general to look into the mirror. The general could have thought, “How is this going to help me or answer my question, all I am going to see is myself.” However, he didn’t make his personal calculations, he obeyed and to his utter happiness, he saw that his calculations were so wrong; this indeed helped him in the best way possible.
We also all face questions and wonder, “why this” and “why that”. “How is this or that going to change the situation?” Let us follow the general’s lead, fulg (obey) and you will be pleasantly surprised to see the tremendous benefits that come from it.
May we all merit to see it in a revealed way for all of our needs.
Heard the above by a farbrengen of Reb Nissan ‘שיחי Mangel.
Posted in honor of the continued recovery of Schneur Zalman Ovadya ben Rina Miriam. Boruch Hashem he has improved drastically, but still needs your tefillos.
Rabbi Sholom Avtzon is a veteran mechanech in the United Lubavitch Yeshiva – Ocean Parkway, and the author of numerous books, including the acclaimed Rebbeim Biography Series and Early Chassidic Personalities series. He is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.