March 26, 2018
Rabbi Gershon Avtzon in #1112, Ha’yom Yom & Moshiach, S’firas HaOmer

Dear Reader sh’yichyeh,

We are now during the time of S’firas HaOmer, when we should be working on our Middos. It is a time of refinement and much inner reflection about whom we are and where we should be heading. The Rebbe writes (HaYom Yom 24 Nissan): “Everyone has in him something not so good. Sending the goat to Azazel was one of the services in the Beis HaMikdash. Since something not good exists within a human being, it must be banished to ‘an uninhabited place.’”

Yet, Avoda and personal refinement is more than just not doing what is forbidden. It includes working on ourselves to refrain even from permitted things, if not fully for the sake of Avodas Hashem. This is spelled out clearly in the HaYom Yom (25 Adar Sheini): “As an eminent Chassid by the name of R. Mordechai of Horodok once recalled, ‘The first maxim we heard from the Alter Rebbe when we came to Liozna was this: ‘What is forbidden is forbidden. And what is permitted is dispensable.’ We worked on this challenge for three or four years, until we internalized it in our own lives. Only then did we enter the Rebbe’s study for yechidus, to request his guidance in choosing a personal path in our Divine service.”

And then there is even a stronger and deeper level (HaYom Yom 27 Shevet): My revered father, the Rebbe [Rashab], writes in one of his maamarim: “The Chassidim of earlier generations made a firm resolve in their souls that whenever they encountered something that was halachically permitted but they desired and craved for it, they would refrain. Such a habit breaks physical desires.”

This is illustrated, as the Rebbe himself notes, by the following classic story: Once, while R. Shmuel Munkes and several other Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe were sharing a farbrengen, a delicacy was brought to the table, a roasted lung. R. Shmuel took hold of the dish, held it aloft, and began dancing around with it. At first the other Chassidim were amused by his antics, but with time they lost patience and reached for it. R. Shmuel ignored them and then suddenly threw the whole delicacy into the garbage.

The other Chassidim were upset and determined that R. Shmuel deserved to be punished. He willingly accepted their verdict and lay down on the table. Some of the younger men volunteered to mete him out a fair measure of slaps, and he then went out quietly to find some alternative dish.

Minutes later, the butcher came running in and cried out, “Don’t eat the lung! It’s not kosher!” He explained that a non-kosher lung had been sent to the house by mistake. When R. Shmuel returned, his fellow Chassidim admonished him even more forcefully: “What business do you have showing off your Ruach HaKodesh (prophetic inspiration) in public?”

R. Shmuel denied that his action had come from a spirit of prophecy. They were puzzled: “So how did you know?”

He then related that before his first yechidus with the Alter Rebbe, he resolved to no longer have any desire for material things. “However,” he said, “when the lung was brought in, I felt a powerful desire for it, the strongest desire I had ever felt since that yechidus. And I saw that others around me had a similar desire. It occurred to me that such strong cravings could not be aroused by a permitted object. That’s how I understood that that delicacy must be treif. So I dumped it in the garbage.”

When working on ourselves, one of the main things that we need to be aware of, and make sure to limit, is the reliance on our own intellect and understanding. It is only natural to try to understand everything and to rely on one’s understanding, yet we must realize that our understanding is limited and always needs to be guarded from leading us astray. The Rebbe writes (HaYom Yom 27 Adar Sheini): “[The rationale is that] ‘I appear in a cloud upon the cover.’ [Paradoxically, the intentional self-screening that is called] the First Tzimtzum exists for the sake of [G‑d’s ultimate] self-revelation [to man]. The prerequisite to that revelation is hinted at by the phrase ‘he shall not,’ humbling one’s ego, which means doing what Chassidus demands, not what one’s own intellect dictates. With this preparation, one ‘may enter the holy chamber.’”

This is especially relevant in the Avoda of bringing the Geula ( HaYom Yom 12 Teves): “In 5648 (1887), my revered father, the Rebbe [Rashab], was elected gabbai of the Chevra Kadisha. Following the local custom, he was escorted by a large number of townsmen to the synagogue on Simchas Torah. There he delivered the maamer that begins ‘Ein HaKadosh-Baruch-Hu Ba B’Trunia,’ and concluded with these words: ‘Even those of superior intellect who are here now must put their minds aside and not follow their own reasoning, for their minds can mislead them to the extent of (Heaven forbid) a bitter end.’ This is the fundamental point in this era of Ikvisa D’Meshicha: not to follow one’s intellect and reasoning, but rather to observe the Torah and its mitzvos with artless sincerity and simple faith in the G‑d of Israel.”

Yet the question begs to be asked: How can someone who is a real intellectual have that ability to reach the sincerity of a simple person? This question is also answered in the HaYom Yom.

First, let us understand the historical background. In the times of the Tzemach Tzedek, Russian Jewry suffered from the canonist decree. What was the decree? Jewish children were conscripted to military institutions in Czarist Russia with the intention that the conditions in which they were placed would force them to adopt Christianity. The canonist units were barracks (cantonments) established for children of Russian soldiers. They provided instruction in drill and military training, as well as a rudimentary education. Discipline was maintained by threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18 the pupils were drafted to regular army units where they served for 25 years. Enlistment for the canonist institutions, which originated in the 17th century, was most rigorously enforced during the reigns of Alexander I (1801–25) and Nicholas I (1825–55). It was abolished in 1856 under Alexander II.

Military service was made compulsory for Jews in Russia in 1827, the age for the draft being established as between 12 and 25 years. The Jewish communal authorities, who were required to furnish a certain quota of army recruits, were authorized to make up the number of adults with adolescents. The high quota that was demanded, the brutally severe service conditions, as well as the knowledge that the conscript would be forced to transgress Torah and mitzvos and cut himself off from his home and family, made those liable for conscription try every way to evade it. The communal leaders who were made personally responsible for implementing the law took the easiest way out and filled the quota from children of the poorest homes, who made up over half the total of those conscripted. In actual practice, children as young as eight or nine were also grabbed and forced into the army to fill these quotas.

The Tzemach Tzedek spent much time and effort to free and to inspire these young boys. One time, he told his Chassidim of the great impact Above that is caused by the sincerity of these simple Jews, that even the Rambam is jealous of them. One of his Chassidim, a great scholar named Reb Chaim, was so inspired by these words that he asked the Tzemach Tzedek how he can attain such a level. The Tzemach Tzedek responded (HaYom Yom 3 Adar Sheini):

Kabbalas ol, the unquestioning acceptance of G‑d’s yoke, transforms a person’s essence. By adopting the kabbalas ol of a simple servant, whose yoke of servitude is apparent even when he sleeps, even a scholar and a genius can attain the lofty rung and stature of a simple, artless Jew who serves G‑d with mesirus nefesh, with self-sacrificing devotion.”

Let us all take advantage of these days of s’fira to add in our Ahavas Yisroel and to strengthen our Kabbalas Ol and commitment to the Shlichus that the Rebbe gave each and every one of us on 28 Nissan: “What more can I do so that all the children of Israel should create an uproar and cry sincerely and cause Moshiach to come in reality, since all that was done until now, has had no effect, and the proof is that we find ourselves still in exile, and most essentially an inner exile in Divine service. The only thing I am able to do is to turn the matter [over] to you: do everything in your ability – things that are in the nature of lights of Tohu, but in vessels of Tikkun – to actually bring our righteous Moshiach immediately, instantly, in reality!”


Rabbi Avtzon is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Lubavitch Cincinnati and a well sought after speaker and lecturer. Recordings of his in-depth shiurim on Inyanei Geula u’Moshiach can be accessed at

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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