Last week, we marked the Alter Rebbe’s the Baal Hatanya’s yahrzeit. He passed away on 24 Teves 5573 (1812) while fleeing from the onslaught of Napoleon’s army, and his Ohel (resting place) is in the town of Haditch.
We all know that in his days there was much antagonism directed toward the chassidim, and the rabble-rousers dragged the Vilna Gaon, into the dispute as well. It was the Alter Rebbe’s fervent wish to quiet the controversy and for there to be peace amongst the Jewish people, but unfortunately, it didn’t materialize in his days.
In a letter of the Alter Rebbe to the community in Vilna we hear of his efforts in this area. This letter is printed in the sefer “Beis Rebbe” by Rabbi Chaim Meir Heilman (1855-1927), in chapter 12. Rabbi Heilman was not a Chabad chassid but rather a chassid of Kopust. He toiled on the sefer for 13 years and verified every detail from reliable sources. Anything he couldn’t verify, he left out. The letter is also printed in various other sources such as Chassidim Umisnagdim and others.
“If I would be able to bring to a proper agreement with them,” wrote the Alter Rebbe, “there is certainly no greater mitzvah than making peace amongst the Jewish people. But what could we have done that we haven’t done yet? We put much effort into this and weren’t successful.”
The Alter Rebbe goes on to describe how he went to visit the Vilna Gaon to discuss the complains he had against the chassidim. But the Vilna Gaon closed the door on them twice. When the leaders of Vilna implored the Gaon to debate them and finally show how they are wrong, the Vilna Gaon left the city until the Alter Rebbe had left.
Interestingly, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik told this story at a 1968 Yud-Tes Kislev public gathering in Boston. Rabbi Soloveitchick told the story with the details according to the tradition handed down through the Brisker dynasty, tracing back to the Vilna Gaon’s prime student, R. Chaim of Volozhin, grandfather of the Soloveitchick family. This is the story:
The Alter Rebbe came to Vilna to see the Vilna Gaon. They came to the Vilna Gaon’s kloyz (beis midrash) and began climbing the staircase to the attic where the Gaon studied. The Gaon sensed that they were coming, so he locked the door. The Alter Rebbe knocked on the door and asked permission to enter. They implored him to open so they could show him how the accusations were unfounded. He peeked through a crack in the door and saw the handsome, inspiring, spell-binding, and fascinating countenance of the Alter Rebbe. He remarked to himself, “There’s too much beauty to his face, too much power to his personality. I’m afraid that if I’ll open the door, I won’t be able to withstand his charm. I’ll yield to his commanding eyes. I’ll walk out hand-in-hand with him, both proclaiming and spreading Chabad Chassidus. Let me flee.
The story goes that the Gaon’s mother helped him climb out through a window and flee down a ladder. He fled and spent the next several months in a small town named Kaidan. This is the story told by Rabbi J.B Soloveitchick according to the tradition of Brisk.
Returning to Beis Rebbe: Further in the letter, the Alter Rebbe wishes that the Gaon would elucidate his complaints clearly in writing with his signature. Then the Alter Rebbe would write responses to all the questions and complaints with his signature. Subsequently, both letters would be sent to “all the rabbonim near and far,” for them to express their opinion. This way, the majority view would be accepted and there would be peace once and for all.