#427 (s5766-17/ 25 Tevet 5766)

More Enlightened than the Enlightenment

When Rabbi Shneur-Zalman of Chabad was young, he studied geometry and astronomy.



More Enlightened than the Enlightenment

In the White Russian province of Mohilev lived a humble Jew and his wife. Life in Czarist Russia wasn't easy, but in spite of everything, the couple would have been very happy if only G-d had granted them a child.

They prayed for years and even made the long trip to their Rebbbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liozhna, for a blessing. Finally, their prayers bore fruit, and they became the proud parents of a charming little boy. As he grew it became clear that he also was possessed of a gifted intellect. It was almost eerie the way the boy absorbed information; seeing or hearing something only once was enough to imprint it in his memory forever.

The first time his father took him through the alef-beit it was already mastered. Even more amazing was how the toddler was able to put them together and read. The most complex philosophical concepts were comprehended at once. The boy was a rare genius.

His parents, fearful of an "evil eye," were afraid to send him to the local Jewish boys' school. A private tutor was hired, but he was rapidly outpaced. By the age of Bar Mitzva the boy was an experienced swimmer in the sea of Talmudic wisdom, and he steadily climbed the ladder of knowledge.

One day the father walked into his son's room and saw him reading a small pamphlet. His blood ran cold as he realized it was a treatise designed to lure unsuspecting yeshiva boys into the net of the anti-religious "Haskala" / "Enlightenment" movement.

"Why do you need to search in foreign pastures?" he scolded him. "The entire Torah is yours, the true source of G-dly wisdom. There is nothing to be gained by looking elsewhere."

"You are right, Father," the boy apologized. "I found it lying in the street. The only reason I have been glancing through it now was to see for myself how groundless their arguments are. Also, it states in Pirkei Avot (2:14) that we need to know how to refute them when they speak."

The father wasn't entirely convinced, but allowed himself to be deluded.

Over the next few weeks and months the boy was caught several more times. He was silent when confronted. In the end he could not deny that the Enlightenment had captured his heart. Eventually he left home, after calling his father "an idiot" for his religious convictions. His destination was far-away Berlin, the seat of the Enlightenment.
In Berlin, the Academy of Sciences received him with open arms. In no time at all he distinguished himself with his phenomenal intellectual abilities. His rise through the ranks of academia was steady and swift. After several years in Germany he went on to study in Paris.

The young man was particularly interested in mathematics and medicine, and he decided to write a book on each of them. His mathematical treatise dealt with an original theorem he had formulated; the other book was on the subject of anatomy. They were very well received in Berlin and soon he was a darling of the international scientific community. In addition to all this distinction, he found a girl whom he wished to marry.

Suddenly, he remembered his aged parents, and had an urge to obtain their blessing on his proposed marriage. He also wanted to show them his scholarly manuscripts and prove to them that he had succeeded in his chosen endeavors, despite their disapproval. He took a leave of absence and set out for home.

The long journey gave him time to think. "What good will it do to show my father my manuscripts?" he mused. "He has no understanding of such matters. Better I should first go to my father's Rebbe and get his approval. They say that as a young man, Rabbi Shneur Zalman studied geometry and astronomy. He will certainly appreciate the depth and insight of my works, and my father will respect his opinion."

The young man made his way to Liozhna and presented himself at the Rebbe's court -- an unusual sight in his moustache and Berlin garb.
Rabbi Moshe Meizlish, a well-known sophisticated chasid, fluent in many languages, approached him and inquired what the young man was seeking. He replied that he wanted only a private audience with the Rebbe. When the request was presented to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, he agreed to see him at once and the young scholar was ushered into the Rebbe's room, his two treatises clutched tightly in his hands.

The Rebbe's door was closed for a long time. When the young man finally emerged he was extremely agitated. He started pacing back and forth, lost in thought. It was obvious to the others waiting to see the Rebbe that he was in the midst of an inner battle.

Suddenly, without warning, he grabbed one of his manuscripts and threw it into the furnace. A minute later the second one followed. Both were quickly consumed by the flames. Only then did he calm down.

Rabbi Meizlish came running over to find out what had happened? It turned out that Rabbi Shneur Zalman had scrutinized only five pages of the first treatise when he drew a line through several paragraphs. After leafing through the rest, he pronounced the reasoning sound. "But unfortunately, the book is based on an error in calculation at the very beginning. As the foundation is faulty, the rest of the edifice is also flawed."

The same happened with the next book. The Rebbe pointed out a sentence that contradicted what the Torah says about a certain juncture of veins. "As our Sages are undoubtedly right, the entire treatise is based on an untruth."

The young man confessed to Rabbi Meizlish that after the Rebbe's criticism, "I was shocked to my core. I had spent years perfecting these works. All of my professors were highly impressed by them. I started to argue my point of view but I was forced to stop. For try though I may, I simply couldn't refute his objections to the statements he had marked. I left the room completely embarrassed, and I continued turning over in my mind the Rebbe's critique. I sorely wished to justify myself, but I realized that I simply couldn't. That is when I threw my precious writings into the fire."

The young man remained in Liozhna, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman offered to study with him personally. He made extraordinary progress, but, seven weeks later he fell ill, and a short time after that passed away.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman later revealed that the young man was a reincarnation of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdia, a notorious sinner whose unusual repentance is discussed in the Talmud.** His soul had already descended into the world several times, each time following the same progression: As a young man it would faithfully observe Torah and mitzvot, but as time passed it invariably left the straight and narrow. "This time, when he came to me, I decided that enough was enough. I refused to let him leave until his soul had accomplished its final tikun (correction)."

[Of further interest is that Rabbi Shneur Zalman gave his son, Rabbi Dov-Ber, who eventually became his successor, the manuscripts of everything he had learned with the young man. It was based on these writings that the second Chabad rebbe authored his profound work, Derech Chaim.]


[Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition on www.lchaimweekly.org (#678).]

**Editor's note:
Rabbi Elazar, the son of Durdia, was a profligate sinner. Once he was told, "Just as the wind cannot return to its point of origin so Elazar ben Durdia can no longer repent." He nevertheless successfully changed his fate through one prolonged act of determined penitence, placing his head between his knees and groaning and weeping till his soul departed from him. At the moment he died, a voice from heaven proclaimed, "Rabbi Eliezar Ben Durdia, is appointed to life everlasting." When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince (the redactor of the Mishna) heard this, he wept, and said, "One wins eternal life after a struggle of years; another finds it in one hour." (Talmud, Avodah Zara 17a)

The holy Ari of Tsfat (Safed) says that Elazar Ben Durdia was a reincarnation of Yochanan the high priest during the Maccabeean period, who became a heretic on the last day of his life, at age 80. Since he was righteous until his final day, he could not be punished in purgatory. However, since he became a heretic on his final day neither could he enter Paradise. Therefore, he came down as a reincarnation, as Elazar, to rectify his sin.

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.

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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