מִפִּתְגָמֵי הַצֶּמַח צֶדֶק: אַ פְּנִימִי אִיז, אַז בּעֶטעֶן אַ בְּרָכָה אוֹיף עֲבוֹדָה אִיז דאָס אַל יִשְׁעוּ בְּדִבְרֵי הָבֶל, אוּן עֶס דאַרף זַיין תִּכְבַּד הָעֲבוֹדָה עַל הַאֲנָשִׁים.

The Tzemach Tzedek used to say: “A pnimi1 is a chassid for whom the very notion of asking [his Rebbe] for a blessing for [success in his] avodah is ‘empty talk.’2 [A pnimi understands that] the approach should be to ‘let the work fall heavily on the people.’”

A Mini-Farbrengen

A chassid once came to the Tzemach Tzedek and asked him to bless his grandson with a good memory, for then the boy would retain what he heard from the Rebbe, “and then automatically3 he will be G‑d-fearing.”

The Tzemach Tzedek responded: “For more than fifty years, my grandfather (the Alter Rebbe), my father-in-law (the Mitteler Rebbe) and I have been urging chassidim to acquire a fear of G‑d through the labors of their own avodah, so that it should not come automatically.”

Avodah — working on oneself — is a hallmark of the Chabad tradition. At the heart of this concept is the recognition that for a change to be true and lasting, it cannot result from outside influence. Seeking a blessing for such an endeavor is thus missing the point.4

One of the chassidim in our generation whose efforts personified the strivings of a pnimi was a diminutive giant of the spirit called R. Abba Pliskin. On one of the rare occasions on which he spoke of himself, he recalled that as a member of the Lubavitch underground in Stalin’s era, he found himself at one point trying to eke out a living by working as a clandestine tinsmith. As he worked, he recalled the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching: whatever a person sees or hears is doubtless engineered for him by Divine Providence so that he should be able to learn something from it that he could apply in his Divine service.5

As a chassid whose main concern was how to stay close and cleave to his Creator, what could he possibly be expected to learn from soldering tin patches on to battered kettles?

The lesson hit him in a flash: If you really want one thing to cleave to another, you first have to sandpaper it patiently, over and over again, until it is so clean and shiny that there is no speck of dirt or rust to mar the union….