Photo Credit:
Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad on the right; Napoleon Bonaparte, on left

(Editorial Note: What follows is an excerpt from a two-part series written about the epic spiritual battle between Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, and the forces of the enlightenment, led by Napoleon Bonaparte. While the original two part series (one, two) was written two years ago in commemoration of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s day of passing, 24th of Tevet, much has changed in two years.)

This Thursday, the 24th of Tevet, is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad. During the past year we have witnessed both tragic and unprecedented events in France. This is not by coincidence. According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, as explained by Rabbi Ginsburgh previously, this year of 5775 possesses great potential for the coming of Moshiach. Therefore to gain insight into what has transpired in recent weeks throughout Europe, specifically in France, we need to first appreciate more about the spiritual battle that took place over two-hundred years ago: To flee the snake at all cost.


Fleeing from the Serpent

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s decision to flee from Napoleon is reminiscent of Moses’ reaction to the serpent at the Burning Bush in the Torah portion of Shemot (the last portion that was read in Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s lifetime). God told Moses to throw down his staff. When it suddenly turned into a snake, Moses immediately, “fled from it”―an instinctive human reaction to an encounter with a snake!

Before Moses’ encounter with this snake, the previous appearance of a serpent is in the Torah portion of Bereishit, where, together with Adam and Eve, it appears as one of the main characters in the Garden of Eden. There, the snake does not appear as a physical enemy to mankind but as a spiritual enemy―one that seems to have man’s best interests at heart. But instead of the unassuming animal that it pretends to be, it is representative of the persuasive evil inclination. The snake’s smooth-tongued honey-sweet promise is that, “you shall be like God, knowing good and evil.” The snake’s primary intention is that mankind no longer be subservient to God.

From a deeper perspective, the secret of the snake’s lure is in its wrapping of a pseudo-logic puffed up by man’s ego (when the serpent suggests that Adam and Eve adopt a self-consciousness that is separate from God, instead of the Divine consciousness that they had been immersed in previously).[1]The emphasis here is that this is faulty logic, because a rectified inner intellect does not propose heresy nor self- aggrandizement, but stands in humility and wonder before God.

However, Eve did not stand up to this seductive package of both heresy and desire, and the rest is history… What should Eve have done? She should have fled in order not to be tempted by the clever claims of that inciter to sin. Like Rabbi Shneur Zalman, we need to simply block our ears and not even sit down to a “peace-talk” to hear his propositions (even if our only intention is to argue against them). Perhaps Rabbi Shneur Zalman learnt this tactic from the Almighty himself, who, after the sin, did not give the serpent a chance to defend himself before passing judgment on it. Since then, mankind has developed a natural instinct to flee from snakes (this is true of any form of seduction). So, Moses was right when he fled from the snake. This teaches us that you should not believe the snake even if a moment before it had been an innocent staff in your hand. As the teaching goes, “[even to] the best of snakes, [you should] smash its brain.”[2] That is, unless you have an explicit command and Divine assistance that paralyzes the snake, and turns it back into a staff!

The model example of someone who withstood a test, and was not seduced to eat from the forbidden fruit, was the righteous Joseph. Joseph’s test with Potiphar’s wife is the epitome of seduction in the Torah, and Joseph—who identified the serpent hissing before his very eyes—took the correct step: “and he fled and went outside.”[3] This is exactly what Moses did when he saw the snake. In fact the word “and he fled” (וַיָּנָס) appears only in these two contexts in the Torah: the first in reference to Joseph, and the second in reference to Moses. Regarding Joseph, the temptation was also accompanied by heresy. Even though this wasn’t verbalized, Potiphar’s wife’s implicit message to Joseph was: “There is no judgment and no Judge, so why should you take into consideration the ancient convention that adultery is forbidden. Only you and I are present, we are free people and we can do as we like.” Joseph’s response was, “How can I do this greatly evil thing and sin to God!?”[4]

Napoleon’s proposition to the Jews―the Enlightenment and the emancipation that were born then―was the serpent’s venom in its modern incarnation. After generations of darkness under oppression by the countries where Jews lived, after oppressive laws and annihilation, poverty and torture, hatred and rejection, the non-Jewish nations finally offer us a new, welcoming face (from their point of view, this was a step in the right direction). With a seductive hiss they say, “You no longer need to be a ‘nation that dwells alone.’[5] Come along with us and we will become a united nation, and instead of the old God who oppressed you, let’s coronate mankind and his intellect as the ruling power.”

This is why Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s initial, healthy reaction (like Joseph before him) was “and he fled.” Although there are select individuals who need not fear their personal welfare against the Enlightenment, [6] nonetheless, for the general public who guarded their Yiddishkeit throughout the generations, there was a definite danger that their natural Jewish sincerity will be threatened. In particular, the greatest danger is for the young children (Joseph was also a youth at that time, a teenager of seventeen). Jewish education needs to be purely holy and not a game with dangerous vipers.

Since everything that happens in the world is Divinely ordained, an allusion can be found for this idea in Napoleon’s name. As mentioned above, the tzadikim already found an allusion in the first letters of Napoleon’s name to the fact that “he will surely fall.”[7] Now, we will complete this allusion by referring to the last three letters of Napoleon’s name (on, אוֹן), which is a reference to the ego which boasts by saying, “I will rule.”[8] This can also be seen as a reference to Potiphar himself, who was “a priest of On.”[9] The ancient Egyptian culture worshipped On (i.e., power worship, like Pharaoh who idolized himself). A synonym for “iniquity” (אָוֶן) is also spelled with the same letters, as in the phrase, “The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to God.”[10]This suggests that beneath the highfalutin words of liberty and fraternity, there are also “iniquitous thoughts” that burst out murderously like a fatal snake-bite. It is remarkable to read the words Rabbi Shneur Zalman, wrote to his chassid who spied for the Russians, Rabbi Moshe Meisels, regarding the comparison to the two sides in that war:

The main essential point of the enemy [Napoleon] is in two things: 1. Anger and murder―senselessly disposing innumerous souls―and the power of victory to the extent of self-destruction and annihilation. 2. The pride and gall to depend entirely on his own strength and courage, the power of wisdom and war tactics and organization, and on the power of his success. Of this the verse states, “If you rise like an eagle [from there I will bring you down, says God].”[11]… For anyone who boasts and relies on his own power, saying, “My strength and the power of my hand [has made me successful]” [12] and dismisses providence, faith and trust in God… the Almighty will humble him in the most humiliating way and fell him…

Yet, in direct contrast to this, is the essential aspect of loving-kindness and goodness… From loving-kindness stems the trait of lowliness and complete selflessness (not sensing his own strength and power of his hand), because even if he has done great things and excels and is successful, he never attributes it to his own power [13] at all. Quite the opposite, it is as clear as sunshine to him that this is not his own power, because he knows and realizes well that no one can succeed with might. Neither with horse-power nor with intelligence since it is God who is essentially fighting the war… This level is clearly apparent to anyone who has a little acquaintance with our majesty, the Czar and all his consultants and ministers. We have seen his great faith in God and his humility and lowliness, and even now, he does not attribute this to his own strength, but only to God Himself, as everyone knows…

This is how Rabbi Shneur Zalman argues in a profoundly intellectual way why the French—who were confident in their own power and wisdom—would lose the war. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that it was Napoleon’s arrogance that subsequently brought his downfall.

Catch Him By His Tail! The end result was that Napoleon was defeated and fled Russia by the skin of his teeth with the remnants of his army (although Rabbi Shneur Zalman paid ten years of his life for it). In contrast, although the conditions for Western European Jewry still worsened during that era, the Russian victory offered a precious reprieve for Eastern European Jewry that lasted until the Enlightenment reached them. From there, let’s skip to the new stage we have reached today. Above, we mentioned that Moses fled from the serpent, but God taught him that the goal is to catch it: “And God said to Moses, extend your hand and grasp its tail. And he extended his hand and caught it, and it turned into a staff in his palm.”[14] Normally, we say to kill the snake by bashing its head, as God said to the snake, “He [man] will crush your head.”[15] But here, the allusion is that when we reach the end, the serpent’s tail, we will succeed in catching the snake by its tail. At that time, not only will we hold onto the snake, but we will fearlessly control it as well!

How will this happen? One great principle in the Torah’s inner dimension states that every “husk” exhausts itself, eventually falling and dying. The French Revolution, and the Enlightenment that fed the entire development of the modern world, is about to reach its end. More exactly, the evil side of it is gradually exhausting itself completely. The attempt to place mankind on a Divine pedestal, to worship human intellect and success, and to use it as the only gauge for truth and judgment, is gradually losing its appeal. After shattering all the old myths, the statue of mankind who coronated himself is crumbling to dust. So much so that in today’s post-modern world (or perhaps, post-post-modern) we are hearing completely different tunes than what were heard during the French Revolution. Now, in our generation in particular, we are witnessing a vast upheaval. Since the Enlightenment, traditional Judaism has been on the defense, and even receded in a constant process of retreat. Many communities fell captive to the winds of the Enlightenment, and it seemed traditional Jewish observance was being cast away by this self-confidence wave of secularism. At the time, it appeared that this trend would continue; showing religious observance to be something outdated and irrelevant. Yet amazingly, a generation of teshuvah (returnees to God and His Torah) has arrived, and the serpent once again lies helpless to the “hand of Moses” in our generation. At the final showdown, the serpent itself will become a Divine staff. All the beauty and symmetry, all the wisdom and intelligence that has been discovered since the French Revolution, will be refined and brought under the auspices of holiness: “And an infant shall play over the hole of a snake, and over the den of an adder a weaned child shall stretch forth his hand. They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the land shall be full of knowledge of God as water covers the sea bed.”[16]

[1] See our article The Tree of Consciousness in our book (in Hebrew), The Inner Dimension (הממד הפנימי).
[2] Yerushalmi, Kiddushin ch. 4, h. 11. Based on the verse from Genesis 3:15.
[3] Genesis 39:12.
[4] Ibid 39:12.
[5] Numbers 23:9.
[6] They can enter safely and leave safely like Rabbi Akiva in the Pardes; eating the fruit of the pomegranate and discarding its skin.
[7] See The Emperor and the Rabbi Part 1, note 7.
[8] I Kings 1:5.
[9] Genesis 41:45; Rashi ad loc.
[10] Isaiah 55:7.
[11] Obadiah 1:4.
[12] Deuteronomy 8:17.
[13] For some fun, “own power” could be seen as a pun for “own on” (אוֹן אוֹן) according to the explanations brought here.
[14] Exodus 4:4.
[15] Genesis 3:15.
[16] Isaiah 11:8-9.
[17] Yoma 69a.
[18] Pirkei D’rabbi Eliezer, ch. 10.
[19] Isaiah 42:6.

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Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh is the Dean of Yeshivah Od Yosef Chai in Yitzhar. For more of Rabbi Ginsburgh's teachings, please visit