Everyone knows Kislev is the month of miracles, with Chanukah as our emblematic holiday of Jewish victory over all physical and spiritual opposition. Less well known is the holiday of Yud Tes Kislev, the nineteenth day of Kislev (corresponding to this Monday), a day of victory celebrated in the world of Chabad as “the New Year of Chassidus.” On this day in 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the “Alter Rebbe”) was liberated after 53 days in a czarist prison. If you’re at all familiar with Chabad Chassidus, you know that everything occurring in creation reflects something deeper, something higher, something G-d wants us to understand so we can figure out what we’re doing in this world. Yud Tes Kislev is celebrated as the day that revolutionized and clarified what it means to be a Jew — it’s a good day for everyone.
It’s hard to imagine exactly what life was like in czarist Russia, but we know that being Jewish wasn’t easy. Those Jews who followed the emerging Chassidic movement faced the added challenge of harassment from some among the religious elite who disapproved of the movement’s emphasis on pious humility and serving G-d in the mundane. The Alter Rebbe wove these ideas together into the “Chabad” way of life, an accessible method of study, meditation, and character refinement, only to be arrested and jailed for being a threat to the czar.
The contentious events in this world reflected a holy war in heaven: Should his teachings be disseminated or should they not?
Spoiler alert: The fact that I’m writing this gives away the answer. When the Alter Rebbe was vindicated, so were the teachings of Chassidus; G-d approved this message. Ever since that day in Kislev in 1798, a person being called “a good Jew” would be like a woman being “a little bit pregnant”–an oxymoron. Every Jew is equally and inherently precious to G-d. (Chabad Chassidus shares a powerful message for non-Jews, too: Everyone is precious to G-d, just by virtue of having been created.)
But being a Chassid is no simple feat, as evidenced by the letter the Alter Rebbe sent his followers immediately after his release from prison. He thanked G-d for “the many kindnesses” and urged people to “humble your spirits and hearts with the truth of Jacob…”
What is the “truth of Jacob”?
When our patriarch Jacob, the father of the Jewish nation, petitioned G-d for help before meeting his adversarial brother, Esau, he recognized that G-d had already shown him extraordinary kindness in his life. He acknowledged, “I have become small from all the favors You have done to Your servant.” (Genesis 32:11) Jacob questioned whether he had responded appropriately to G-d’s previous benevolence and whether he merited its continuation.
To me, in those few words, the Alter Rebbe lays out my life’s work, explaining what it takes to be a mensch: I am like nothing next to G-d, yet He still wants to bring me closer to Him, which He shows me through His kindness to me. My gift to Him in return is to first recognize this dynamic, then to try to respond with the “smallness” of our forefather Jacob–with genuine and gracious humility.