The 19th of Kislev is a highlighted day on the Chassidic calendar. It marks the anniversary of the release of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), author of the Tanya, Shuchan Aruch HaRav, from Czarist imprisonment in 1797.
“Rabbi released from prison;” is not ordinarily trumpeted as a point of Jewish pride. However, when the jailer is the Czar of Russia the implication is the imprisoned has done something extraordinary to benefit the Jewish people, as such it’s an indication of great heroism to have so irritated the tyrant that he has you imprisoned. As such Jews around the world mark this date with special celebratory feasts and host special communal celebrations. (Locally a celebration and farbrengen will take place on Tuesday, 19 Kislev, November 27, 7:00 pm at the F.R.E.E. Synagogue/ Bellows Center on Devon Ave.) The miraculous release of the Alter Rebbe is memorialized alongside the Peter Paul Prison in the former capital of Petersburg, Russia where its wax museum depicting its famous “residents;” includes Rabbi Shneur Zalman and a brief biography of his story.
Despite the celebratory ending – the 53 days the Alter Rebbe spent in the prison nicknamed “the Gates of Death,” where life and death hung on the whim of a ruthless dictator were frightening. Reb Shneur Zalman recounted his personal uncertainty that he would ever be released, fearing he would meet the fate of other suspected revolutionaries whose lives ended there.
We know that nothing happens in this terrestrial world unless it is so dictated in the Heavenly worlds, so what was the Divine Cause of this torment and confinement – what had the Alter Rebbe done that warranted 53 days of torment?
A little background – the Alter Rebbe is the founder of the Chabad school of philosophy – embodied most profoundly in his primary work – the “Book of the Intermediate Man” – known colloquially as the Tanya. Although the arrest was described as “providing aid to the enemy” – the Alter Rebbe having established the Colel Chabad Fund to support the colony of chassidim who had settled in Eretz Yisroel, which was under the political empire of Turkey, an enemy of Russia – as such supporting Jews in Israel, a Turkish province, was aiding the enemy. Under this pretext Reb Shneur Zalman was arrested and carted off in wagon painted black to announce the heinous nature of the crimes of its passengers and transported through those gates of death where prisoners checked in but did not check out.
Once there the Czar interrogated the Rabbi about his teachings and about Torah and its opinion of Royalty and gentiles, after 53 harrowing days Rabbi Shneur Zalman was released and the joy was unbounded!
In our ever persistent search for the spiritual meaning of the experience we ask ourselves, as the Alter Rebbe himself did; why did Hashem allow the Alter Rebbe to be imprisoned by the Czar?
The 53-day sentence matches the 53 chapters of the primary text of the Tanya; is that the signal – was publishing Chassidic doctrine, an unprecedented move at the time, the spiritual cause of the imprisonment? Was the discharge from the Czar representative that the world, even a world dominated by dictators was indeed ready for the Tanya and its lessons?
Jewish history has always had works of philosophy, Maimonides Guide to the Perplexed, Reb Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, Duties of the Heart by Rabeinu Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, and on and on. So, what was the “calamity” of the Alter Rebbe adding another work? What is so radical about the Tanya that even the Czar was afraid of it?
Most ethical works extol the benefits of adherence. Do good and good will be done to you; and since Torah is the “besta schora,” the best occupation, observing Torah affords the compliant the greatest reward! Sound advice!
The Tanya takes another angle. The message of Tanya is how profoundly meaningful the observance of Torah and Mitzvos are to Hashem; how eager He is for our fulfillment of His decrees for His sake. As the Alter Rebbe summarizes (Chapter 33 of Tanya) the “entire purpose of Creation, from the loftiest to the least evidently G-dly, is = to make this world, warts and all, into a welcome home for Hashem.
When a parent tries to persuade a child to follow the rules a simple and effective strategy is to describe the benefits to the child, to society and their future of compliance. “If you pay attention in school you will graduate” If you study well you will be successful.” All true and all useful information. The Alter Rebbe saw a generation that was unresponsive to that strategy. People were so discouraged due to the pogroms and destitute poverty and even spiritually disheartened due to the minimal Torah education most could pursue. Jews were drifting away from passionate commitment and feeling disenfranchised. Desperate times, desperate measures. When people don’t respond to the portrayed benefits he proposed a radically different message. Instead of describing how Torah and mitzvahs will benefit the observant, the Tanya describes how they benefit Hashem. Hashem created us for something He desires and we have the opportunity to contribute towards His plan.
A dangerous tact. Akin to telling a child how eager the parent is for the child to do well, how the parent suffers along with the child, how the parent celebrates the child’s success, of the unique bond a parent feels with his child’s every move. A child’s childish misunderstanding of this vulnerability could lead them to manipulation: “Oh so you want me to do well, if so then what can I get out of you?” The Alter Rebbe acknowledged the danger of exposing this side of our relationship with Hashem and still, after painstaking deliberation and editing and rereading, took the bold move to print and distribute the Tanya. And that is what was being deliberated for 53 days up in Heaven. Was this the right time to reveal this dimension, was it too risky to entrust this kind of sensitive information to the masses via a cold impersonal publication, available without a guide to make sure the reader understands the subtle nuances. It took 53 days for the decision to be a resounding “yes!” the world needs this and the well-founded fears should not prevent its dissemination. The Alter Rebbe was released – people celebrate and the Tanya has been reprinted over 5,000 times all over the world.
On a personal note, I have recorded classes on the Tanya – available at chabadillinois.com/tanya and click on my name under the list of lecturers.
Study the Tanya, see your place in fulfilling Hashem’s plan and make the world a better place!