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The Sterile Barb

Pure oil of olives crushjed for lighting, to raise an ever-burning lamp (27:20)

"Crushed for lighting" - When one speaks crushing words of rebuke, it must be with the sole purpose of enlightening, illuminating, and uplifting one's fellow; never, G-d forbid, to humiliate and break him.

- Rabbi Yechiel, Rebbe of Alexander

In 1927, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch was arrested and sentenced to death for his 'counter-revolutionary' work to preserve and strengthen Jewish life throughout the Soviet Union. The sentance was commuted to exile after international diplomatic pressure was exerted on the soviet regime on the Rebbe's behalf, and soon afterwards he was released and allowed to leave the country. But the harrowing ordeal of imprisonment and torture at the hands of Stalin's henchmen greatly weakened the Rebbe's health, necessitating his treatment at various sanatoriums throughout Europe.

The following letter was written by the Rebbe to one of his sons-in-law in the winter of 1935.

BH, Tuesday, 21 Adar II 5695
[March 26th 1935]

Purkesdorf Sanatorium, near Vienna

…Today I saw something which can be used to illustrate and explain a principle in the life's work ('avodah') of man. This caused me great pleasure.

A prevalent theme of chassidic teaching is that man derives many elements of his service of his Creator from worldly models. The intellect and thought process of man, the human character, the natural phenomenon - all serve as examples to explain various aspects of man's relationship with the Almighty.

Our master, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, taught that every single thing or event that a person sees or hears is an instruction and guide to his service of the Almighty. This is what avodahis all about: to perceive and comprehend your path in the service of G-d that is implicit in everything you chance to experience and observe.

But there are incidents which do not necessitate extensive contemplation, which at first glance reveal their lesson in avodah. Today, such an incident came my way.

For some time now I have been observing the vigorous regimen that holds sway at the sanatorium. All revolves on one axis: that everything must be in accordance with the laws of medicine to yield the utmost results in the healing of the body.

It goes without saying that, of course, this regimen applies to the doctors who come to examine the patients: they come exactly at the appointed time, thoroughly inquire into every detail and record it all in their notes, and consult with each other time and again throughout day regarding the diet and treatment of the patients. But even the simple orderlies do their work faithfully: feeling for the pain of the patients and aspiring with all their souls to releive their pain. At all times, they present a cheerful face to each patient, forever standing ready, night as day, to fulfill his every order and desire.

In his 'Letter of Repentance'[1] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes concerning the giving of charity to atone for wrongdoing: "though this may amount to a considerable sum, one need not be concerned with the rule 'do not squander more than a fifth of your possessions charity'[2] for this is no worse than spending for the healing of the body and his other needs…" His holy words, "this is no worse than the healing of the body," are forever before my eyes. I am constantly thinking of how necessary is a 'sanatorium' for those who suffer from the illnesses of the soul. And whenever I observe another of medicine's techniques for healing the body, I envision its counterpart in the healing of the soul.

Today the doctors came to administer a certain remedy, applied by injecting a healing drug with a needle.

I observed the extreme care the doctor and his assistant took in preparing for this: dressed all in white, the meticulously examined their clothes for cleanliness; then, they washed their hands twice and three times and checked their nails for the slightest trace of dirt; finally, they poured upon their fingertips - especially on their nails3- a strong chemical which removes the slightest contamination.

When they finished these preparations, they scrubbed my legs with strong spirits and other chemicals which remove even the most insubstantial and invisible bit of dust. Twice and thrice they scrubbed. Seeing these extensive precautions I asked: for what purpose are they scrubbing my legs, if but a short while ago I had bathed and my flesh was clean? The doctors replied: Nevertheless, it is an ironclad rule that before a needle penetrates living flesh, one must first wash the entire area with spirits which remove the slightest trace of dust. For were the minutest particle to enter the body together with the healing drug, G-d forbid, not only would the particle cancel the benefit of the medicine, but it could also cause many severe illnesses, G-d forbid.

The gathering of chassidim to farbrengis comparable to the injection of a medicine into the body by the prick of a needle. In most instances, the speakers urge their fellows to improve their behavior, to schedule and keeep set times for the study of Torah, and that their study should result in action and observance. Now these demands, though they are made out of an inner love and with great affection, nevertheless, often come in the form of a pricking needle - much the same way that a needle containing medicine comes for a most positive end yet still must be accomplished by means of a prick.

Before the 'stab', in addition to insuring that the needle itself is perfectly clean, one must also cleanse the area of the injection. With the neglect of these pre-conditions, not only is the 'remedy' rendered utterly useless, but one endangers the very life of the patient, G-d forbid. For so long as the dirt remains outside, it can be eliminated or, at least, swept away; but should it enter within, G-d forbid, it inflicts great damage.

A gathering of chassidim - a chassidishe farbrengen- is a healing balm, a literal life saver, bringing unimaginable benefit. We have seen time and again how every chassidicword penetrates to the innermost parts of the mind and heart, how every note of a chassidic melody awakens the heart, brings it closer to goodness and cleaves it to the truth. But the healing medicines of a farbrengencome with a prick, that is, in a tone of rebuke. Therefore, great care must be taken that the instrument for penetrating the being of another be perfectly clean, and the 'stab' be cleansed and sterilized of any taint of antagonism or self-interest.


1. The third section of Tanya
2. Talmud, Ketuvot 50a.



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