#154 (s5761-01 / 27 Elul 5760)


That year on Shavout, when the Alter Rebbe was speaking during the farbrengen about the Baal Shem Tov, everyone felt an intense foreboding.


NARRATOR: The year 1791 was a very difficult year for the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chassidism. For many long months he suffered in private from the opposition to the Chassidic movement and from the dissension among the various Chassidic Rebbes.

That year on Shavout, when the Rebbe was speaking during the farbrengen about the Baal Shem Tov, everyone felt an intense foreboding. The Rebbe was deep in thought. His eyes were closed, tears fell on his cheeks. From the seriousness of his mood, everyone understood that the Rebbe was praying to awaken heavenly mercy on all of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings and students.

The Rebbe's work for 18 years of educating and guiding the Chabad Chassidic movement had awakened a heavenly accusation and the Rebbe was in need of strong defendants to arouse mercy. Before Rosh HaShanah of that year, he had sent special messengers with a pidyon petition to be read at the graves of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. He also sent one to the Rebbe of Chernobyl, Rabbi Nachum. Afterwards, the Rebbe told the Chassidim that this year they will be in need of extra help.

(The Rebbe seated at his desk, his head bent over resting on his arm, sighing. He gets up and begins to pace back and forth.)
RABBI SHNEUR ZALMAN: G-d in Heaven, what will be? You know how hard we have struggled for the truth of Chassidut to be spread among your Holy people. The Adversary on High has caused such jealousy and rift among the Chasidim of The Holy Land and Europe. I fear for the future of the entire Chassidic movement. It is very grave indeed. All is at stake. I sense that I will soon be summoned on high. What is to be done? What is to be done? I feel I must unburden myself to my first-born, Devorah Leah.

(Music as Devorah Leah enters.)
RSZ: My dear daughter, Devorah Leah. I must speak with you of the grave anxiety in my heart. The continuation of the whole Chassidic movement and the Baal Shem Tov's teachings is at stake and it weighs heavily upon me.

A good fruit-bearing tree requires cultivation and care for 30 years in order to bring it to its optimum fruitfulness. It is now 30 years since the teachings of our Master, the Baal Shem Tov were firmly planted by my master and teacher, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and grew into a Tree of Life. Now the adversary threatens to destroy it all.

The Maggid forewarned me of difficult times, and promised to come to my aid. He appeared to me recently, but his face was overcast, an ill omen. I want to live! Indeed, this is the duty of every man, according to the Torah. Yet, more precious to me than life is my obligation to cultivate this tree so that it continues to give its fruit until the coming of Moshiach.

DEVORAH LEAH: Father! Rebbe! How can this be? Your life has been devoted to the teachings of the holy Baal Shem Tov, spreading and explaining them with total self-sacrifice for the redemption of the Jewish people. I will help you! There has to be a way! G-d Al-mighty will help us.
(Music. Blackout.)

NARRATOR: Devorah Leah realized the gravity of the situation, and sensed that her father's life was in danger. For several days she kept her anxiety to herself.
(Devorah Leah anxiously paces back and forth, pausing.)

DL: The time has come to enact my resolve by stating it before a Beis Din, an official rabbinical court. (Turns aside) Please call for Rabbis Moshe Meizels, Pinchas Reizes, and Moshe Wilenker. It is most urgent.
(Blackout. Music.)

(Devorah Leah and Chassidim around a table. Devorah Leah stands.)
DL: I urgently call upon you three close Chassidim of my father to act as a Beis Din. But you must promise under oath that you will fulfill my request, whatever it may be, and to keep all that will be revealed to you in strictest confidence until the time will be fitting to keep this matter secret no longer.

(The three exchange glances.)
MOSHE WILENKER: An oath is a very serious matter. We must have time to consider your conditions, Rebbetzin. Let us take council among ourselves.
(Devorah Leah departs.)

(Chassidim speak among themselves:)
MW: Something is very serious indeed.

SECOND CHASSID: Perhaps the Rebbetzin Devorah Leah knows why the Rebbe has secluded himself in his private room and no one has been admitted, not even any of the Rebbe's closest inner circle of Chassidim.

MW: She is indeed very agitated. She must know something of extreme gravity! The Rebbe's condition is definitely a result of the slander from the opposition and the split among the Chassidim.

THIRD CHASSID: Rebbetzin Devorah Leah knows more than we know and it is absolutely necessary to fulfill all of her conditions.

(Three Chassidim and Devorah Leah at the table.)
DL: We are all Chassidim of my father, our Rebbe, and each one of us must be ready and willing to give his or her life for him, and for the future of the Chassidic movement.

(Devorah Leah bursts into tears. The three Chassidim become deeply moved.)
MW (rises and impulsively exclaims): Why are you crying? What is wrong? I am ready to be the first to give my life for the Rebbe and for the perpetuation of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings. Tell us what to do, I will gladly go through fire or water!

DL: First you must all swear to me by the most stringent Torah oath which has no absolution, that you will do whatever I ask of you, without any reservations, even if it be a matter of life and death.

MW (sorely distressed): Such a matter must be reconsidered in a calm atmosphere and with due deliberation.

OTHER 2 CHASSIDIM (one shakes then nods his head while the other speaks):
No, there is no time for such deliberation. This is a grave emergency and we have already carefully weighed the matter and agreed to abide by the Rebbetzin's conditions, come what may. We must act now.

(The three Chassidim lift together a large book.)
ALL THREE (one after the other): I take oath according to the law of Moses and the Torah.

DL: Then I make the three of you a Beit Din to rule on the situation in accordance with the law of The Torah. In the wake of the intrigue which has cast a shadow over the relationship between the Chassidic leaders in the Holy Land and my saintly father, and due to the persecution from Vilna, the present situation is grave in the extreme. From what I have heard from Father, the consequences could be frightful, G-d forbid.

(The three Chassidim display great distress and weep.)
DL: In view of the situation, I have resolved to place my life in lieu of my father's! I wish to be his exchange. I bequeath my life to him. I will die so that he may live a good and long life, in order to cultivate The Tree of Life. In this way I will also have a share in it.
Blackout. Music becomes louder

NARRATOR: The first night of Rosh HaShanah.

(Festive table set with loaves, honey, apples, pomegranates and wine.)
RSZ: Where is Devorah Leah? I must bless her.

(Devorah Leah comes. The Rebbe begins to bless her to be inscribed and sealed for a good year.)
RSZ: L'Shana Tov...

DL (interrupting her father): L'shana tova tikatev v'tikatem.

NARRATOR: On the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah Devorah Leah became acutely ill.

(After Rosh HaShanah. Cup, wine, candle and spices for Havdalah are on the table.)
RSZ: Oh, no! What has she done! (Turns aside) Please bring Devorah Leah and her husband, Rabbi Shalom Shachne.

(We see them speaking but do not hear. Then…)
RABBI SHOLOM SHACHNE: What will happen to the 2 year old boy? And such a 2 year old!

DL: My last wish, dear father, is that you yourself will educate and guide my only son.

RSZ: I promise you, my daughter, your son Menachem will be my comfort, your comfort, and comfort for all Israel.

NARRATOR: The day after Rosh HaShanah, on The Fast Day of Gedalia 5553 (1792), Devorah Leah passed away, clear minded to the last second. Two hundred years later we live for what she died for. May we merit the fulfillment of her prayers for the coming of Moshiach and the complete redemption, NOW!


[Adapted by Shulamit and Yrachmiel Tilles from the biography, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Nissan Mangel, Kehot), and first published in Ascent Quarterly #29.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Shnuer Zalman
[18 Elul 1745-24 Tevet 1812], one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch, is the founder of the Chabad-Chassidic movement. He is the author of Shulchan Aruch HaRav and Tanya as well as many other major works in both Jewish law and the mystical teachings. His grandson, Menachem Mendel, son of Devorah Leah and Sholom-Shachne, eventually became the third Chabad Rebbe.


Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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