Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi had a great library of sacred texts and teachings. Among his books was a rare manuscript of Hasidic philosophy. On the cover of the book was the following inscription: “The ban of Rabbeinu Gershom respecting the secrecy of documents is hereby invoked — in This World and the Next.”
It once happened that a fire broke out in the rebbe’s home, destroying all his books and manuscripts. The Alter Rebbe (literally, “The Old Rebbe”) called his son, Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch, to his side.
“Did you ever open this book?” he asked, tears stinging his eyes.
“No, father, not once.”
“Perhaps you were curious and opened it. Read a chapter or two. Can you recall a chapter of this manuscript? Even a single discourse from this book would restore my spirits.”
Astonished, Reb Dov Ber said. “But father, the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom clearly states that one who opens this manuscript will he cursed in This World and the Next.”
“And you didn’t think that the discovery of some new wisdom was worth the sacrifice?”
Alter Rebbe (literally, “The Old Rebbe”): Term of endearment applied to the founder of HaBaD, Reb Shneur Zalman.
Was the Alter Rebbe crying because he had not read the book or because his son had not read it? We can assume that if Reb Shneur Zalman was willing for his son to risk the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom, he himself had already done so. Yet, if he knew what was in the book, could he not simply teach his son, even though the book itself was gone?
The Alter Rebbe was not crying over a book. He was crying over his son’s unwillingness to risk everything for wisdom. Wisdom is worth every sacrifice. Look carefully at the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).
Unlike her husband, Eve did not simply take of the fruit and eat. She thought about it long and hard. First, she saw that the tree was good for eating; that is, she saw that it would ease her hunger. But that was not enough to make her violate the ban against eating it. Second, she realized that the fruit was beautiful, that it satisfied her craving for the aesthetic. But that, too, was not enough to motivate her to violate God’s decree. Only when she saw that the fruit would make her wise did she take and eat it. It was not hunger, desire, or passion but wisdom alone that motivated her. She was willing to risk death for wisdom, and we should do no less.