In a talk delivered in late 1952, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (Ramash; 1902-1994) opened a tale with the words, “The story is known…” The tale had not been previously documented (the transcript of that talk was published only in 1997), so this may be the earliest recorded source of the story. Ramash recounted the story on a Thursday night in November, the Hebrew date was 10 Kislev, and the Lubavitch Hassidim had gathered to commemorate the 1826 release from prison of Rabbi Dovber Shneuri (1773-1827).
In Chabad circles, Rabbi Dovber is known as the Mittler Rebbe (or in Hebrew: HaAdmor HaEmtzai) – the middle hassidic master, who served as a bridge between the founder of Chabad Hassidism, his father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (ca. 1745 – 1812) and Rabbi Dovber’s nephew, son-in-law, and successor Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1789-1866). Given that the gathering was in honor of Rabbi Dovber, it was therefore to be expected that Ramash’s teachings would touch on his legacy.
Ramash recalled the legendary abilities of Rabbi Dovber to focus while studying, being lost in a state of devekut. On one occasion, a baby who was in the same room as Rabbi Dovber fell out of the cot and began to cry. Rabbi Dovber was so deeply engrossed in spiritual pursuits that he did not notice.
The story of the crying child and being lost in devekut
At the time, Rabbi Dovber’s father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, was in another room. He too was in a state of devekut, immersed in Torah and prayer. Yet he heard the cry of the baby, entered his son’s room, picked up the baby, calmed the baby, put the baby back to sleep in the cot, and returned to his room.
At this point in the tale, it is not entirely clear who was the hero of Ramash’s tale. Was it Rabbi Dovber, whose powers of concentration and focus allowed him to transcend this world to the extent that he was undisturbed by the cries of a baby? Given the fact that the tale was recounted on a day and at an event commemorating a chapter in Rabbi Dovber’s life, it would seem logical that Ramash was extolling the total devekut of his predecessor.
Or perhaps this was a critique of unbridled devekut that blocked out even the cries of a helpless baby; perhaps the real hero of the tale was Rabbi Shneur Zalman. Despite his committed focus on study and prayer, the founder of Chabad Hassidism was still able to hear the baby and come to his aid.
Ramash solved the puzzle by relating the continuation of the story: Some time later, Rabbi Shneur Zalman rebuked his son, explaining:
“That the entire essence of Hassidism is that there should not be a contradiction between spiritual devekut and a physical matter. That is, that even when people are in the loftiest state of devekut, they should sense physical matter.”
Ramash concluded his account with the continuation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s lesson: “And also at a time when sensing and dealing with a physical matter, people should be at the loftiest state.”
Spirituality and physicality need not be divorced states of existence. Being absorbed in devekut should not be an impenetrable state. Rather, the cry of a baby should be able to pierce the veil of devekut and be heard by the mystic. Conversely, the spiritual person strives to be connected to God even when dealing with mundane matters.
While Ramash was extolling Rabbi Dovber’s spiritual abilities, he was not advocating this path as the hassidic ideal for Lubavitch Hassidim. Recounting a story that presented the honoree in a less than favorable light would be incongruous. Lest this be read as a critique of Rabbi Dovber, Ramash quickly moved to cite a passage from Rabbi Dovber’s later writings where he gave voice to the idea of devekut undetached from physical existence. This passage recounted a tradition that the Besht would offer multiple supplications and fast a number of fasts just so that when he was in a mystical state of soul ascension, he would still be able to respond to those who asked him questions.
By citing this source, Ramash may have been implying that Rabbi Dovber internalized the lesson taught by his father: Mystical states should not involve total detachment from the world. Poetically, Ramash added that by being grounded, it is possible to reach greater heights.
THE STORY of the child crying would have further iterations, both in Lubavitch lore and in communities beyond the Lubavitch sphere of influence. Yet when it was first recounted, the story was offered as a critique of mystical paths that take over and detach people from human interaction.
Ramash assumed the leadership of Lubavitch Hassidism in January 1951. So the 10 Kislev hassidic gathering on that November 1952 evening was still early in his career. Lubavitch was not yet the Lubavitch we know today with its ubiquitous presence and prodigious impact. Likewise, Ramash was not yet “The Rebbe” – a publicly recognizable figure whose image would appear on the sides of buses and hanging off bridges. Ramash would grow into one of the ultimate religious leaders of the second half of the 20th century. The vehicle for Ramash’s rise to prominence was the network of Lubavitch Hassidim who span the globe and have flourished around the world.
Notwithstanding the yet-to-emerge state of Ramash and Lubavitch, this tale – in its 1952 version – would provide a blueprint for years to come as Lubavitch under Ramash’s leadership sought to commune with the Almighty without blocking out the presence of other Jews and engaging others as part of the devekut quest.
Looking back, we can say that the story of the voice of the crying child reflected the changes in Chabad Hassidism in the 20th century as it evolved from an elitist and intellectual hassidic group to a community that is far from mystical practices that block out the sounds of the surrounding world. Rather, Lubavitch Hassidism hears the cry of every Jewish child the world over.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.