On the 19th of Kislev we commemorate Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe’s release from prison in czarist Russia and all charges against him were dropped. It is the practice of Chabad chassidim to celebrate this date as Rosh Hashanah (the “New Year”) of Chassidut). But, what is it that makes Yat Kislev (19th of Kislev) such a momentous occasion?
If we were asked to pick an historical event to pinpoint the initiation of Chassidut, we might be inclined to choose the Ba’al Shem Tov’s birthday, or the date when Rebbe Shneur Zalman completed writing the Tanya, or some other similar occasion. Why, then is it that Yat Kislev, the day of Rebbe Shneur Zalman’s release from prison, has become the traditional date that marks the beginning of the Chassidic year?
Rebbe Shneur Zalman and his followers explained that the charges held against him, and his subsequent imprisonment, were the physical manifestation of spiritual prosecution against him in heaven for publicly disseminating the secrets of Chassidut. Similarly, they saw his release from jail as a sign that the Heavenly tribunal had cleared him of all charges. This begins to answer our question, but we need to delve deeper into the special implications of commemorating his release from prison as a full-fledged festival that marks the beginning of the new Chassidic year. How, for example can we compare this event to the Divinely ordained festival of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new Hebrew year that we celebrate on the first day of Tishrei? The Chassidic Revolution The sages teach us that the righteous Joseph was released from prison on Rosh Hashanah. This is one facet of Rosh Hashanah that is clearly apparent on Yat Kislev, the Chassidic New Year, when Rebbe Shneur Zalman, like Joseph on Rosh Hashanah, was released from prison.
The sages state further that on Rosh Hashanah the Matriarchs, Sarah and Rachel, as well as the Prophetess Hannah were blessed with children. Infertility is a distressing phenomenon that goes against the grain of nature, but childbirth sets reality back on its natural course. Thus Rosh Hashanah, when the world is “reborn” as it were, is an auspicious time for correcting deficiencies in nature. Infertility is a hindrance to fruitful expression and is comparable to the limitations to free speech that are incurred by imprisonment. Similarly, on Yat Kislev, when he was released from prison, Rebbe Shneur Zalman regained his right to speak his beliefs freely.
In addition, it was on Rosh Hashanah that the Jewish People in Egypt were released from active slavery to Egypt. Enslaving an entire nation is a severe violation of human rights and its annulment (even before the Exodus) returned the Jewish People its right to exist as a free nation.
By comparison to these last two events that are commemorated on Rosh Hashanah, Joseph’s release from prison not only removed an obstruction or corrected a social bias – it was a veritable revolution! Joseph was not only released from jail to return to life as a regular citizen, he immediately became second-in-command to King Pharaoh himself. A downtrodden prisoner in the Egyptian jail suddenly turned into the undisputed sovereign of the entire Egyptian Empire.
This revolutionary dimension of Rosh Hashanah is particularly fitting for the Chassidic Movement, which generated a complete shift in social standards. It elevated the simple Jew from the lowest of the low to grant him a new place of honor that sometimes made him more precious than the most prestigious Torah scholars; it initiated the dissemination of the Torah’s innermost mysteries and turned them into a vibrant focus of daily life for the general public; it redirected the course of Judaism from an accelerating decline to a new era of hope and growth that ultimately leads to the revelation of Mashiach; it began a revolution that proclaimed that the era of asceticism has passed and the time has come to rectify the physical body and the world at large by uniting body and soul in harmony. The Chassidic revolution avows to turn darkness into light and bitterness into sweetness, and its ultimate goal is to turn exile into redemption, as Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson publicly declared, “Revolutionize the world today!!” From Prisoner to King Joseph’s release from prison directly to the throne of royalty is not a coincidental example of an extreme transition from rags to riches. It reflects a genuine and absolute change in world order that is certainly worthy of the name “Rosh Hashanah.” From his youth, Joseph, the “Dreamer,” was a potential leader, but that itself was the cause of his brothers’ jealousy, so much so that they couldn’t bear his presence. The righteous leader challenges existing reality, and there are only two possible places where he can freely express his opinions: either in a bare prison cell, or on the throne of royalty.