In the summer of (5543) 1783 the city of Minsk was the stage for a momentous meeting of minds. Orchestrated by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi – the Alter Rebbe and encouraged by the most influential Rabbinic authority of the time, Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, “the great debate” attracted the greatest and most venerable Talmudic scholars of Lithuania, and was intended to resolve the ongoing conflict between the Chassidim and their opponents (“Misnagdim”).
After much deliberation the Goan Rabbi Eliyahu had decided that “if “the cult” [as the Chassidim where referred to] are to demand a debate then we are obligated to answer them”, and so Rabbi Schneur Zalman let it be known that he would be present in the city of Minsk on the Shabbos following the 9th of Av and would remain there for two or three weeks thereafter, so that he may answer “anyone with a query or a complaint against the Chassidim or their conduct”.
Hundreds of young men from the camp of the Misnagdim drawn by curiosity and anticipation, as well as many followers of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, flocked to Minsk to witness the awesome spectacle, a gathering of the great of rare occasion and momentous import to all concerned. Among the great throng was Reb Yitzchak Izik of Vitebsk, chosen to accompany his uncle and teacher, the great Talmudic scholar, Reb Zemil Ztutzker on the more than one hundred verst journey. The famous sage was then more than eighty years old and was determined to “rescue the Rabbi of “the cult” from mistaken heresy”.
All that he saw was absorbed and imprinted on his young mind and many years later Reb Yitzchak Izik was able to recall “the great debate of 1783” in astonishing detail:
When Rabbi Shneur Zalman came to meet with his opponents, accompanied by his two brothers and some of the elderly Chasidim, “I was amazed to see that not a single white hair could be seen in his beard”. Rabbi Shneur Zalman was at this time in his mid-thirties.
Having proven his great ability in the field of Talmudic and Halachik learning, dismaying the assembled sages with his superior knowledge and incisive analytical skill, Rabbi Shneur Zalman went on to describe and define “the basis of the theology of our teacher the Ball-Shem-Tov and the teaching of the Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch” declaring the theological underpinnings of the Chassidic movement to be “based on the first G-dly revelation to Moshe Rabeinu”. He repeated a teaching heard by the Magid of Mezritch from the Ball-Shem-Tov, and subsequently taught to himself, describing how G-d revealed Himself to Moshe at the burning bush:
“The verse states “an angel of G-d appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush.” Rashi comments: “in a flame of fire, the heart of the fire.” In other words G-d reveals himself in the heart of fire – in the intent, the inner, earnest and sincere warmth, which fills the heart in the service of G-d... Where is this flame of fire, the heart of fire? – Within the thorn-bush. Rashi comments: “[specifically the thorn-bush] and not any other tree...” This is a reference to the simple Jew’s who have hearts of fire, they pray with sincerity and simplicity, they say Tehilim with pure faith, though they do not even understand what they are saying. This comes from the heart of fire that burns with an unquenchable thirst for G-dliness, for Torah and Mitzves.
The verse continues “Moshe said I will depart from here” and approach the burning bush (Rashi). Moshe understood that this supernal vision was a display of the tremendous merit of the simple folk, compared to the sophisticated scholars of Torah. He realized that naturally the heart of fire is only revealed in the thorn bush. It is for the rest of us to do Teshuvah to remove ourselves from our present situation and try and try and achieve the sincerity and fiery heart of the simple folk. Even a complete Tzadik such as Moshe Rabeinu had to devote himself to this lofty pursuit saying, “I will depart from here to approach there”... '