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The Rebbe the Maharash: Lechatchilah Ariber – Leap Over Obstacles as First Option

By Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Rebbe Shmuel Schneerson, the Rebbe the Maharash, is the fourth Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty. He was born on the second of Iyar, 5594 (1834) – on the day of Tiferet within Tiferet in the Counting of the Omer – to his father, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek and his mother, Chaya Mushka. He was named after a hidden tzaddik, Reb Shmuel the water carrier from Polotzk. Despite the fact that he was the youngest of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons, he became the Rebbe after his father in Lubavitch, while most of his brothers became rebbes in other towns. The Maharash married his niece, Sterna, and after her passing, he married his cousin, Rebbetzin Rivkah.

The Maharash acted tirelessly for the Jews in Russia and the Jewish People as a whole, founding Jewish communities and lobbying the government for their needs. He coined the famous Chassidic phrase, “Lechatchilah ariber,” saying, “The world thinks that when we can’t go under an obstacle we have to leap over it from above. And I think that we have to leap over it from above in the first place (Lechatchilah ariber). In the first place, we have to take strong action, not get sidetracked by anything and implement what we must implement. When we start in this way, the Holy One, Blessed Be He helps.”

The Rebbe the Maharash is known for conducting his Chassidic court with wealth and generosity. He passed away on the 13th of Tishrei, 5643 (1882) at the age of 48. He was laid to rest in the ohel of his father, the Tzemach Tzedek. His son, Rebbe Shalom Dov Ber, became the next Lubavitcher Rebbe.

 

A Torah Lesson with Punch

Once a Chassid entered the Maharash’s study for a private conference, called yechidus, with the Rebbe. The Rebbe asked him if they learn Chassidut in his town. The Chassid answered that they have a regular lesson in Chassidut: Every Saturday night, they make a melaveh malkah at the home of one of the Chassidim, and they learn Likutei Torah. The Chassid related that first, they prepare a big bowl of delicious punch and all the Chassidim participate in the shiur with the punch generously ladled out for all. The Rebbe listened to the Chassid and asked, “Do they really have to have the punch?” After all, punch is a luxury, a worldly desire. Surely the drink is strictly kosher, with all exacting care taken, but it is not something that Chassidim generally do. Instead – the Rebbe advised – continue with the important lessons, of course, but don’t include the punch.

The Chassid unquestioningly accepted the Rebbe’s advice and at the next lesson, punch was not served. When the Chassidim asked why the punch was not on the menu, the Chassid answered that the Rebbe did not see the punch in a positive light and advised not to serve it at the Torah lessons.

The following week, Chassidim still came to the lesson, but there were fewer of them. Gradually, the number of participants dwindled until the weekly lesson was cancelled due to lack of participants.

After some time, the same Chassid came once again to the Rebbe and during the yechidus, the Rebbe asked him how the regular Torah lesson on Saturday nights was faring. The Chassid told the Rebbe exactly what had happened: That since the punch was off the menu, the Chassidim gradually stopped coming, until they were forced to cancel the gathering, altogether.

The Rebbe took this to heart and said – If the Chassidim need punch in order for them to have desire to come to a lesson in Chassidut, then it is best that this should be done in the first place and not as an afterthought. Let them come to learn Chassidut. The Chassid followed the Rebbe’s advice and the Torah lesson with the punch was restored to its former popularity.

This is a story of doing something pleasurable for a fellow Jew in order to ultimately bring him to Torah study. Where do we learn this order of things? This is how Abraham hosted his many guests. He would invite people to come to his home to eat and drink, and then he would ask them to give blessing to God. The Ba’al Shem Tov also taught that this is the proper way:  First give a person some material good, and only afterwards the door is opened to give him some spiritual good.

The Rebbe the Maharash originally thought that the Chassidim were already in an essential state of “mind ruling over the heart,” with no physical desires, as in the saying of the Alter Rebbe (Luach Hayom Yom, 25 Adar Beit), “What is forbidden is forbidden, and what is permissible – is unnecessary.”

This story evokes the directive of the Rambam in the preface to Perek Chelek, that one should give a child a candy so that he will want to learn (Torah), until the point that he will want to learn for the sake of learning.

Over the generations, we are all becoming more and more childlike. This is a common denominator for all – we have to get a candy and then we learn Torah. The Ba’al Shem Tov in Keter Shem Tov explains the inner logic of this in his explanation for the verse in Psalms 119:59: “I considered my ways and I returned my feet to your testimonies.” When we prepare to do a good deed, the evil inclination goes into action to prevent it. To silence the evil inclination, we have to give him his portion, a little bit of material pleasure (“I considered my ways” – my ways, my physical needs) and after he is silenced, we can finish our good deed with no ulterior motive (“and I returned my feet to Your – God’s – testimonies.”)

 

Answer a Good Question with the Real Question

The following story is good to tell to children, so that they may remember it well:

Even as a little boy, the Rebbe the Maharash was blessed with great artistic talent. He would sculpt beautiful wood sculptures. Later in life, he was also an expert sofer sta”m (scribe). Some of the things that he penned and sculpted, truly wondrous works of art, were handed down from generation to generation of the coming Rebbes.

When the Maharash was five years old, he had a small pocketknife with which he would sculpt. This pocketknife was very dear to him. The adult Chassidim saw that in addition to the holy books that he learned and his holy endeavors, the child – the Rebbe’s youngest son – had a pocketknife that was very important to him. One of the Chassidim, a wealthy merchant, had a pocketknife that was much better than the boy’s knife. The Chassid went over to the child, showed him his knife and asked him if he wanted it. The Maharash of course answered that he did. “I will give it to you,” said the Chassid, “if you will correctly answer my question: Where can God be found?” The Maharash told the Chassid that he would answer him, but that first, he had a question of his own. “Where can God not be found?” The Chassid, who did not expect this answer, was silent for a moment and then held out the knife to the child – “You won!”

How can we answer the Chassid’s question? There are many possibilities: God is everywhere, God is in Heaven (as it says in the Talmud) – but the Maharash answered with a question: “Where can God not be found?” If you can tell me where God cannot be found, then I will tell you where He can be found.

The correct understanding is that God is in every place. If there is any question at all, it is the opposite question – Where can God not be found? There cannot be a place void of God. This elucidates the concept better than just saying that God is Above or even that He is in every place. By asking where God cannot be found, we structure a definition in our minds – that it is impossible for there to be a place without God, for if God is not there, then that place does not exist at all. Nothing can exist without God. This understanding, which in our story was perceived by a five-year-old, is the “tikun hamalchut/rectification of Kingdom,” which is the understanding that “no place is void of Him” – there can be no place where God does not exist.

(It is interesting to note how the Rebbe the Maharash, even at the tender age of five, was already employing his adage, “Lechatchilah ariber,” leaping over the good question that he was asked with a greatly superior question.)

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