Chassidic story & lesson for Parshas Vayishlach-Accepting truth over politics and personal ego even when it hurts

Chassidic story & lesson for Parshas Vayishlach

Accepting truth over politics and personal ego even when it hurts

In Parshas Vayishlach we learn of how Eisav had traveled with 400 warriors to battle against his brother Jacob and annihilate him and his entire family. In the end, the charm and kindness that Yaakov showed when he met up with his brother affected them so much that they deserted him and wanted to no longer be part of his war. As Rashi points out, they were later repaid in the times of Dovid in surviving the battle of Dovid against Amaleik, in which 400 young men were allowed to escape. These 400 men correspond to the 400 men in our story. Lehavdil, in the story below we will explore how a public debate that the Alter Rebbe had in the stronghold of the Misnagdim managed to win over 400 of his most fierce opponents who then joined the Hasidic movement and became the pillars of the Chabad dynasty.

The showdown between the Alter Rebbe and the great Gedolim of the Misnagdim in the city of Minsk:[1]

In the month of Tamuz of the year 1783, a great debate was organized between the illustrious Torah scholars of the opposition camp, known as Misnagdim, versus the camp of the Hasidim, with the Alter Rebbe chosen as the representative of the Hasidic movement in the debate. The debate was meant to be a culmination of the decades long animosity and opposition that the movement had for Hasidim, and to once and for all to show the world that they are rightfully deserving of excommunication due to their heretical beliefs and sinful activities. The debate was set to take place in the city of Minsk, a great opposition stronghold at that time.

A number of conditions were set forth for the debate, including that the Alter Rebbe would first need to prove himself as a scholar in the revealed aspects of Torah as it was beneath the dignity of the illustrious scholars of the opposition to debate an ignoramus. While the Alter Rebbe gladly accepted the challenge, he made it contingent on that he too will get to ask them questions and that they too must answer his questions to prove that they are fit to debate with him.

The great day of the debate arrived with tremendous anticipation from both sides of the camp. Thousands of the most illustrious Torah scholars from Minsk and many other surrounding cities such as Shklov, Vilna, and other known opposition strongholds, came to watch the debate. Likewise, thousands of followers of the Alter Rebbe joined to watch and show their support. When the Alter Rebbe entered the large room with the debate would take place, he recited a verse out loud, which threw trepidation and fear onto the faces of all present including the side of the opposition. The atmosphere in the room suddenly changed being overtaken with awe. The debate began with the side of the opposition challenging the Alter Rebbe with deep and difficult questions in the Talmud, to which the Alter Rebbe answered very clearly and organized quoting all the sources by heart. This left a tremendous impact on all those present, seeing that not only did the leader of the Hasidim have expertise knowledge in the revealed Torah but was blessed with amazing orating skills to explain it. After eight hours of questioning, it then came the time of the Alter Rebbe to question the scholars representing the opposition camp. He asked them a very complex and difficult question in the Talmud which they were unable to answer, and which caused the Beis Din which oversaw the debate to decide to convene the next day. The next day, the great scholars of the opposition camp gathered together to try to come up with an answer, but were unsuccessful. This was a great shame for them in the eyes of the public, and in a last attempt to save their honor they said that they would like the Alter Rebbe to address the various serious questions they have on the Hasidic movement which to them tantamount to heresy. The Alter Rebbe, however, pushed back and said that a deal is a deal, and they must first answer the question, and this caused a great tumult to occur in the room, leaving the presiding Beis Din in a difficult position, as they had signed off on the agreement. Finally, to break the stalemate, the Alter Rebbe gave his own answer to the question that he presented them. Everybody was amazed by the deep, lengthy, and scholarly explanation, and the Alter Rebbe then concluded that he had heard this question and answer by his master and teacher the Maggid of Mezritch who they are trying to besmirch and oppose. Later the Alter Rebbe answered each one of their questions in detail.

While this debate began with two very opposing camps of Hasidim versus their opponents, the truth that became evident with the Alter Rebbe words had such an impact that 400[2] of the greatest and illustrious scholars of the side of the opponents joined the Hasidim and traveled to Liozna to become students of the Alter Rebbe. It is the students that formed the foundation of the school of the Alter Rebbe, which became the pillar stone of the Chabad movement. Amongst the great scholars of the opposition who were won over by this debate included the following illustrious Hasidim: Rav Yitzchak Issav of Vitebsk, and Rav Pinchas Reitzis, the son of the Avad of Shklov.

The Divine lesson:

We are probably in one of the most politicized times of our modern history, with countries deeply divided in their politics, unable to form stable governments, and unable to sway people from one side to another. This form of tribalism is also unfortunately able to creep into the Jewish community and cause people to have animosity to other sects that are not theirs, or other people who hold of different philosophies than they, and no matter what is said to maintain an opposition following the slogan “my mind is made up do not confuse me with the facts”. The original Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe were people who were able to put truth before politics, and even before their personal safety. The same great opponents of the Hasidic movement were the same ones who later joined it, stabilized it, in face of great opposition and threat of physical harm. These were truthful people whom we can all learn from in various aspects of our life. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, don’t be afraid to admit mistake and say that the other side was correct. Even the 400 men of Eisav managed to do so and certainly we the Jewish people contain this power. Our admission of mistakes will only help strengthen the Jewish community, family relationships, love for another, and most of all, to help us learn and gain knowledge and forms of service of God that until now we have shunned.


[1] Sefer Hatoldos Admur Hazakein 2:16 based on Reshimos of Rebbe Rayatz

[2] Sefer Hasichos 5702 p. 48

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