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Which would you prefer, stuff a “rebellious” child, viagra or a “good” child? Most parents and educators would choose the good, well-behaved and polite child who does everything he is told and behaves as expected of him. Who needs the trials and tribulations of the rebellious child?!

But, a seasoned educator may well prefer a rebellious child. He knows that this kind of child is a great challenge, but he also knows that beneath the rebellious shell hides a special soul. A sharp-witted Chassidic saying states, “If he does no harm, he will do no good!” Meaning that if the child does no harm as a youngster, when they grow up they may just be like everyone else…

The Days of the Rebellious

So why are we talking about rebellious children now? Because we are now in the period that is referred to as “the days of the rebellious,” or in Hebrew, “shovavim.” In Rabbinic literature, a custom is mentioned to fast and repent during the weeks of the first six Torah portions in the book of Exodus.[1] The initial letters of the names of these six portions in Hebrew spell out the word “rebellious” (??????????; shovavim). Later, Kabbalists, headed by the Holy Arizal, authorized the custom of fasting and repenting while revealing the allusions and profound meditations that abound during this time period.[2] However, as the generations pass, the practice of fasting has gradually diminished, as the great Chassidic masters since the Ba’al Shem Tov have instructed. Nowadays, the recommendation is to donate charity abundantly instead of fasting, since money is a person’s “energy,” and giving it away is considered to be like a physical fast. In addition, many communities have the custom of saying extra prayers during this time period, especially Psalms (which are always a good thing to say).

In modern Hebrew, the word shovav (???????) has taken on the connotation of “mischievous,” which sounds quite playful. However, in its Biblical context, the word means “rebellious,” which does not have a positive connotation at all. Indeed, as we must work to appreciate the genuine meaning of any Hebrew word, when we look at the various forms of this word in the Torah, we discover that it certainly is a negative adjective. Examples of this negativity can be seen in the verses, “He went rebelliously following his heart,”[3] “Return, rebellious sons,”[4] etc… The scriptural rebel does not just play childish pranks; he is mutinous, licentious and defiant.[5]

The days of shovavim are dedicated to rectifying sin, and to repenting for our rebellious behavior. In particular, this refers to the sin of “the flaw of the covenant” (i.e., illicit sexual behavior), beginning with the promiscuous thoughts that contaminate the mind through a sense of sight that wanders around unchecked, culminating in complete physical arousal (God forbid). The gravity of this sin lies in the fact that our ability to achieve our God-given potentials are “lost” during the process. However, it is clear that this flaw can be rectified, as we read in the Torah portions of these weeks how the entire Jewish nation was indeed lost under the Egyptian bondage. Yet, as the Jewish People left with “great possessions,” and redeemed all the holy sparks that were in captivity, so too we can reclaim the sparks of achievement lost by this sin.

Although, in its particular sense, this sin relates more to men than to women, in its more general sense, this flaw exists in women too. “Covenant” refers to a genuine connection between souls, and when a woman does not make a single, faithful alliance with one man, but explores other options in thought, speech or action, she damages her part of the covenant.

Enough with Playing Around

What rectification can there be for this type of evil mischief?

At first glance it appears that the rectification is quite simple: just pull back to the other direction. If until now you have been a mischievous rebel, from now on, you must get back into line, accept the yoke of discipline and begin to “behave nicely.” Although children have something mischievous about them, they must finally grow up and realize that licentiousness is not the goal. There are laws and there is a Judge, there is justice and truth; and the time has come for a person to take control of himself and begin doing what should be done and not what he feels like doing.

This can be appreciated well in the context of “doing teshuvah” (i.e., returning back to God and His Torah). Many Jewish people can testify how they lived for years in this “rebellious” way, doing what they liked and never listening to anyone who told them to do otherwise. Such people may have believed that they need not observe the Jewish traditions that they could not comprehend. But then, the day arrived and our no-longer-juvenile delinquent suddenly realized that the very same ancient Torah that his grandfather studied in yeshivah, and those very same mitzvot that his grandmother devoted her life to, are not an outdated museum piece that has become obsolete. Ours is a living Torah that never ages; a true Torah whose finest accents conceal the most profound wisdom. At that point, he took himself in hand and realized that until now he had lived a hollow life, a life of rebellion that offered an imaginary sense of freedom and pleasure but was irresponsible and immature.

The Good Rebels

But, although changing to a religious lifestyle is a long way along the road of teshuvah, the ultimate rectification is yet to come. We have already mentioned that a mischievous child contains a special treasure of potential. Their energy and astuteness are precious assets that cry out for a guiding hand. Does doing teshuvah mean completely suppressing all mischievousness and rebelliousness? Does it mean that we all become insipid, obedient automatons, without any spark of daring and defiance? Unfortunately, ba’alei teshuvah do suffer from this type of negative image, but the time has come to release ourselves from it. The time has come for all rebels to make good mischief and they are all invited to transform their rebelliousness into holy mutiny.

When we look more carefully at the abovementioned verses that refer to rebels, we see that they do have a positive side. For instance, the verse, “Return, rebellious sons,” concludes with the phrase, “I will heal your rebelliousness,” meaning that there is a cure for rebelliousness. In fact, the word “rebellious” (???????) is from the same root as “return” (?????), which is the root of teshuvah (??????????). This root almost always appears in a very positive context, as in the verse, “Return rebellious sons” (??????? ??????? ??????????) in which the two words appear in conjunction with each other. Teshuvah transforms the rebel into a good mutineer.

This means that someone who has a rebellious personality does not need to suppress the vital energy that burns inside him. The rebel is astute and quick. He has courage and audacity. But now he must behave with “holy boldness,” as the mishnah states, “Be as bold as a leopard… to perform the will of your Father in Heaven.”[6] We need to make use of all our faculties and talents and with wisdom and insight harness them to serve God. Indeed, the most essential principle of Judaism is “accepting the yoke of Heaven.” In contrast, licentiousness is referred to as “throwing off the yoke,” and in Chassidic thought is considered the archetypal sin of impurity.

Once an individual has submitted and accepted Heaven’s yoke upon him, he reveals that this type of yoke is fun! Within the framework of Torah and mitzvot there is a very broad scope for active personal initiative. And yes, there is even room for the added “spice” of mischievousness and rebellion. So, for example, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson instructed a ba’al teshuvah (returner to Judaism) whose name was Nimrod (????????; meaning “Let us rebel”), that there was no need for him to change his name. Despite the fact that the Biblical Nimrod was the image of a negative rebel who rebelled against the Almighty, the modern Nimrod must now utilize this quality of rebelliousness positively and rebel against the counterfeit conventions of the world at large.

Responsible Rebellion

A successful rebel has freedom of thought and is quick, assertive and pragmatic. All these qualities are something that we require?like the air we breathe?regarding all that relates to the rectification of the public face of the Jewish People. Only such a positive rebellious nature can help us shake off the fetters of an alienated establishment, and the foreign husks that encase us. Only a positive rebel can initiate the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel that we desire. We are in dire need of such holy rebels, who can “overturn the world” and transform us all into genuine ba’alei teshuvah (returnees). However, it must be stressed that our good rebel must act out of a sense of mutual responsibility for the entire Jewish People.[7]

In conclusion, let’s remember that we are in the year 5774, which, as explained elsewhere, is an allusion to the holy boldness and audacity that is required to breathe new life into the world.[8] For this we pray that all rebels will become ba’alei teshuvah and will utilize their rebelliousness to benefit the entire Jewish People and the whole world.

from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s classes of 27th Shevat 5772 and 16th Tevet 5774



[1] Sefer Haminhagim Tirna (Purim); Leket Yosher (p. 116); Levush Orach Chayim 685.

[2] See Birkei Yosef, Orach Chayim 685:1.

[3] Isaiah 57:17.

[4] Jeremiah 3:22.

[5] See the root shin-vav-bet (??”?) in Radak’s Sefer Hashorashim, there he enumerates three principles, the third of which is rebellion.

[6] Avot 5:20.

[7] In Hebrew, “shoulder” (??????), the seat of responsibility, has the same numerical value as “rebels” (??????????). “Shoulder” (??????) is also the name of the city of Shechem (??????) where all the Jewish People became responsible for one another. It is also the city where Joseph is buried. Joseph in particular was one who was bold enough to reject worldly pleasures for holiness and he also took care of his brethren and led an entire country through difficult times.

[8]  ???? – Year of “Holy Boldness” (?????? ????????????)

 

alter_rabbi

Two-hundred-and-one years ago, ailment on Motzei Shabbat (the night following Shabbat), malady 24th of Tevet 5573, healing Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi passed away. He was the author of the Tanya and a code of Jewish law. He did not die of old age on his bed at home, but while on a hasty escapade that took place in the height of the severe Russian winter.

What connection is there between Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Napoleon Bonaparte? These two figures, whose lives seem so far removed from one another, lived during the same era. In fact, the clash between them was perhaps the real war that took place behind the scenes of the French Revolution.[1]

In his boundless thirst for power, after conquering almost all of Europe, the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, set out on a huge war expedition and invaded Russia in the summer of 5572 (1812). As the French invaders where approaching Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s town, he transported his entire family in wagons, and fled with them into the depths of Russia. This was a last resort to avoid surrendering to the French rule. His concern for the fate of the Jews, together with the perils of the hazardous journey, cut short Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s life.  His descendants even said in his name that these events shortened his life by ten years.

Throughout the war, Rabbi Shneur Zalman expressed unwavering fidelity to the Russian authorities. He fervently prayed for the health of the Czar. Moreover, he kept contact with senior commanders of the Russian military and procured vital information for them regarding the location of the enemy forces and their upcoming plans. The Russians, for their part, accredited his role in their victory.[2] One of his greatest followers even endangered himself by spying on behalf of the Russians from within Napoleon’s closest command! It is a well-known fact that Napoleon attributed great importance to Jewish leaders, and it is related that he expended effort to meet Rabbi Shneur Zalman in person. However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman for his part made every effort to avoid any meeting with Napoleon. He even took pains to ensure that none of his personal belongings would get into Napoleon’s hands.

Praying for the Welfare of the Kingdom

Before we explain this peculiar battle in which one side wanted to meet the other, but the other side fled like wildfire from meeting him, let’s first ask why Rabbi Shneur Zalman was so adamantly pro-Russian? It’s not as if under the auspices of that Russian “bear” we got to taste much “honey”; neither before Rabbi Shneur Zalman, nor after him…

The simple reason for Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s choice was the golden rule of thumb that Jews have adopted wherever they wandered in the lands of the Diaspora: remain loyal to the ruling power. This was already true in the times of the Prophet Jeremiah, who warned the exiles in Babylonia, “And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to God, for in its peace you shall have peace.”[3] Similarly, the sages teach us to, “Pray for the peace of the kingdom.”[4] This is why prayers for the welfare and success of the ruling powers and the king were instituted as part of the siddur (Jewish prayer book).This is also why we want the country we live in to be successful, even though it may appear spiritually dark.

However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s decision to prefer the Czar over Napoleon had broader considerations. Rabbi Shneur Zalman resolved that the Jews would benefit most by continuing to live under Russian rule rather than under French rule.

Subjugation is better than Emancipation

Let’s read Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s own justification to his follower who spied on behalf of the Russian army:[5]

If Bonaparte wins, the Jewish People will become more affluent, and they will be more respected. But their heart will be separated and distanced from their Father in Heaven. However, if our master, Alexander, wins, although the Jewish People will become poorer, and they will be more humiliated; nonetheless, the Jewish heart will connect and cling to their Father in Heaven.

On the scales were two possibilities, each one worse than the other. This was a historic junction between the old medieval world and a promising new one. The French Revolution professed to announce the end of feudalism and the oppressive rule of Christian theocracy, and an end to ignorance and superstition. In their place, it promised to bring “liberty, equality and fraternity” to humankind, and an industrial revolution that would change people’s lives. Napoleon’s conquests spread this new spirit of emancipation to the entire world. Breaking down all the old conventions and partitions brought promise to the Jews in its wake?the day would come when they would have equal rights, and could merge into a modern world without racial discrimination. Indeed, with this goal in mind, Napoleon advocated the rights of the Jews under his rule.

Let’s suppose that all these promises would indeed be realized. Would this new world be a better place for Jews? Retrospectively, we know very well that, alongside emancipation and the improved conditions under which the Jews lived in the West, there followed a corresponding decline in Jewish observance. This forms a sad equation: equal rights for the Jews plus more secular education equals leaving traditions behind. Additionally, a weakening of Torah and mitzvah observance often leads to complete assimilation, God forbid. This was the danger that emancipation held in store for the Jews. Torah giants of all kinds identified this hazard, and they were all wary of it. They wanted neither the honey nor the sting of emancipation.

On the other hand, “our master Alexander,” the Russian Czar, represented the old world, and medieval times at their peak. Rabbi Shneur Zalman was under no delusion: the Czar’s rule had been and would be bad for the Jews: “the Jewish People will become poorer, and they will be more humiliated,but Judaism would flourish. While materially they would remain poor, spiritually it would be beneficial for the Jews. The walls of the ghetto, the hatred and the alienation would guard the Jewish community well against the winds of assimilation, and the heretic spirit of the enlightenment would not easily penetrate the Jewish fortresses.

One explicit source for Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s decision in favor of the Russian Czar can be found in the Midrash regarding the Covenant Between the Pieces. Abraham received the announcement that his descendants would undergo a long and cruel exile: “And they will enslave them and torture them for four-hundred years.”[6] On this verse, the sages state that the Almighty told Abraham to choose how his descendants should be punished if they do not follow the Torah. The two options were either Hell or being oppressed by the non-Jews, “Abraham sat and pondered that entire day, which should I choose, Hell or the non-Jews?” For Abraham, the archetypal soul of love, the choice was a very difficult one. But in the end, he decided that oppression was preferable. This was the only way to guard the special character of the Jewish People, and the only way to preserve its eternal existence.

Nonetheless, the matter of who to side with was a great controversy among the Chassidic masters of the time. In contrast to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, there were those who said that it would be better that the French win the war. Their hope was that this was the War of Gog and Magog that would overturn the world and bring the redemption (even if there would be great suffering involved). This was the viewpoint held by the Maggid of Kaznitz and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Riminov. Although some small-minded people might ask, “who asked them?” We know that God’s Providence takes into consideration the opinions of the tzadikim. Therefore, there was definite competition between Rabbi Shneur Zalman, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Riminov and his colleagues, concerning whose opinion would be accepted in Heaven, and whose prayers would be the most effective. According to Lubavitch tradition, the spiritual battle that determined the outcome was on Rosh Hashanah 5573, since on Rosh Hashanah the verdict is given in Heaven for the entire year. On that day, Rabbi Shneur Zalman made haste to sound the shofar (ram’s horn) in the early hours of the morning, intending to signify Napoleon’s downfall (preceding the other tzadikim who lingered over the spiritual preparations before blowing the shofar). Then the tzadikim sensed that the decree had been decided in the Heavenly tribunal that Napoleon would fall.[7]

The far-sighted will realize that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was not a lone fugitive on the battle field. Not only did he assist the Russians on the tactical plane, he and his colleagues literally headed the battle and determined the most crucial strategic processes.


[1] Main and recommended sources: the book, Beit Harabi; Igrot Kodesh (the Alter Rebbe, the Mittler Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek) p. 150; 237-247; Reshimot IV p. 24; article by M. Ziggelbaum in Beit Mashiach magazine, 28th Av 5752; Yitzchak Alphasi, Bisdeh Hachasidut p. 249-260,

[2] A letter sent by Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s wife, after her esteemed husband’s passing, has recently been published (Segulah journal, Av 5770 edition) in which she mentions this fact, “the military officers used him [Rabbi Shneur Zalman] to locate the camps of the enemy forces and as a result of his successes in this field, he merited a medal from the military secretariat.”

[3] Jeremiah 29:7.

[4] Avot 3:2.

[5] See different versions in Igrot Kodesh (Rabbi Shneur Zalman), noted in footnote 1.

[6] Genesis 15:13.

[7] Although the accepted opinion is that the Maggid of Kaznitz was pro-Napoleon, he apparently changed his mind towards the end of the war. One tradition states that during the Torah reading of Parashat Yitro, he interpreted the words, “You will surely wither” (????? ???????) to read the similar sounding, “Fall, Napoleon” (????????????? ?????????). Another tradition holds that he said this on Purim with reference to the words in Megillat Esther “You will surely fall” (?????? ????????). Both these occasions were after the passing of Rabbi Shneur Zalman.

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