With true self-sacrifice, the Rebbe Rayatz directs his aide to burn his memoirs and the historical accounts he had written. This self-sacrifice is totally for the sake of the holy nation that needs a leader who will look forward and courageously lead them through the hardships and upheavals of their times.
The Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Born to his father, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber in 5640 (1880), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak worked tirelessly to keep Judaism alive in the Soviet Union and was jailed for his heroic efforts. Forced to leave Russia, he continued to conduct the struggle from Latvia, and then from the Warsaw Ghetto, eventually escaping the Holocaust to the United States. By the time of his passing in New York on the 10th of Shevat 5710 (1950), he had built the foundation for the global renaissance of Jewish life in the US and throughout the world. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.
When the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab passed away in 5680 (1920), his son, the Rebbe Rayatz was forty years old. The Rebbe Rayatz was so connected to his father that during the year of mourning he became very ill. For a number of weeks, he laid unconscious, and his chassidim feared for the life of their new Rebbe. He remained bedridden, not moving for nearly half a year. After he began to recuperate, he was still bedridden and would lead the prayers while laying down.
A short time after his father’s passing, before he became ill but when he was already very weak, the Rebbe Rayatz asked one of his aides to go down to the cellar of his house (in Rostov). He told his aide that in a certain place he would find a box full of his writings. “Burn them,” the Rebbe directed.
This was the Rebbe’s directive and a true chassid follows the Rebbe’s orders. The young aide descended into the cellar and immediately found the box. But how could he burn a box full of the Rebbe’s writings without first going through them? He opened the box and was amazed. The box contained personal writings and historical accounts that were top secret and very interesting. For example, it is told that in one of the writings in that box, which was an excerpt from the Rebbe Rayatz’s diary, he wrote that on a certain night, an old venerable man, whose face shone with an aura of wondrous holiness and who was holding the Zohar in his hand, manifested to him. “Why don’t you write a commentary on my book?” the man asked him. “I want you to promise me that you will write a commentary on my book.” In the dream, the Rebbe Rayatz promised that he would write a commentary on the Zohar. Three weeks passed and he had not yet begun writing. The Rayatz wrote that he dreamt that the sage came to his once again and asked him why he had not yet started writing.
The young aide was so excited about his discovery that he called several of his friends from the yeshivah, who each took a number of pages and burned what remained. When the Rebbe Rayatz discovered that the aide had not burned everything immediately, but rather read some of the papers first, he was very upset. “Don’t you care about my life?” he reprimanded him. Shortly thereafter, the Rebbe Rayatz became extremely ill for months.
Like the scapegoat, who was thrown to the desert to atone for the sins of the entire people of Israel, the writings of the Rebbe Rayatz were thrown into the fire to save his life. There are stories of other great tzaddikim who needed some sort of soul-exchange when heavenly prosecution threatened them. For example, the Alter Rebbe of Chabad’s daughter, Devorah Leah, gave up her life to save her father and his teachings.
This principle of exchange can manifest in various ways. Sometimes, it is extremely distorted, as in the demand made by some today that Israel should surrender its territory in exchange for “peace.” Sometimes, however, as is the case in our story, the notion that “writings can be exchanged for life,” is the result of serious spiritual prudence. The idea of an exchange can be found in many chassidic stories, often appearing when it is necessary to make an exchange to draw Divine abundance down into the world. Some people merit all good things: children, health, and wealth. Others, however (each according to their soul root), have to exchange life for children or wealth for life. In their case, the two (life and children or life and wealth) cannot manifest together.
For the Rayatz, the burning of his writings was a huge sacrifice—far greater than just watching some possession of his going up in flames. A Rebbe’s writings are a significant part of his personality. Surrendering them is a surrender of a part of himself. We learn this from the Talmud, regarding the giving of the Torah. The first word of the Ten Commandments that God spoke to the Nation of Israel was the exalted “I,” or Anochi. The sages explain that this exalted form, “Anochi” (אָנֹכִי) is an acronym for, “I wrote My self and gave it” (אֲנָא נַפְשִׁי כְּתָבִית יְהַבִית). Interestingly, just before the Rebbe Rashab passed away, he said to his chassidim, “I am going up to heaven, but I am leaving you my writings.” His son, the Rebbe Rayatz, chose the opposite approach. He remained alive here on earth while his writings ascended in fire to heaven.
In contrast to the Rebbe Rashab, who founded a glorious yeshiva, wrote a tremendous treasure trove of chassidic discourses and left his writings and his son after him, the Rebbe Rayatz in this story is a young Rebbe with no inheritor. He was just at the beginning of his role as Rebbe and at the brink of the difficult era of Communist persecution. If he would not sacrifice something in exchange for his life and leadership, the people of Israel would have had to bear an even harsher era. At that point in Jewish history, his life was more important. But why burn his writings? What were the guidelines that helped the Rebbe to understand what to sacrifice?
This can be likened to Rabbi Zeira, who fasted one hundred fasts to forget the Talmud of Babel before he began to study the Torah of the Land of Israel (Baba Metzia 85a). Rabbi Isaac of Homil and other chassidim also burned the writings that they had authored before they began to learn Chassidut. In our story, the Rebbe Rayatz felt that the writings and memoirs that he had penned before he became a Rebbe were a connection to his past and that the time had come for him to disconnect and to move on to the next stage of his life as a Rebbe. Without burning his writings, he would not have been able to continue with his life, quite literally. The Rebbe climbs to new heights of holiness as fire ascends upward while burning the material below. Burning the past transforms it from a burden into fuel that can propel him into the future.