The Spiritual Ice Bucket Challenge

By Rabbi Akiva Wagner


The year was 5746 (1985). I was a young bochur, learning in Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon, Chabad, in Los Angeles. Our means of staying in touch with Beis Chayenu was via a little room – hardly more than a closet – in the zal that was known as the “hook-up” room. That room contained the technology to set up a phone connection with 770 that would then be played on speakers in the zal. That was how we tuned in to the “chazoroh” on motzoei Shabbos whenever there was a Shabbos farbrengen, and it was through it that we listened live to the weekday farbrengens whenever they occurred.

One of the formerly obscure dates in the year that the Rebbe turned into a Lubavitcher “yoma d’pagra” is zayin Cheshvon, the 7th day of Cheshvon. Previously significant only with regards to its relevance to the halochos of Tefilah and reciting משיב הרוח ומורד הגשם, which would seem to be a technicality, the Rebbe taught us the great importance of the day and its relevance to avodas Hashem, and used it as an opportunity for farbrengen.

Sure enough, on that year as well we were treated to a farbrengen of the Rebbe, which we participated in via “hook-up”. The farbrengen began “routinely” enough, with sichos about the significance of the day and the various shiurim. These led to a sicha on the daily shiur in Rambam, with a very shturem’dige lesson about Moshiach, which was already quite extraordinary. This was followed by a “העירני חכם אחד”, about the various sources that discuss the need to demand Moshiach.

All of this, while certainly making for an especially memorable farbrengen, was still not singular.

Afterwards, however, came the surprise. The Rebbe issued a new directive, prefaced by the following very unique address. The Rebbe said:

“Amongst the letters that I’ve received lately, was a letter from a very frightened woman. What caused her fright? She received a letter, which, at the end, instructed her to make ten copies of it and to send them to ten of her acquaintances. It promises her reward if she obeys, while threatening her with many negative consequences if she doesn’t cooperate and breaks the chain. It adds that there were others who broke the chain, and indeed suffered the consequences”.

“The letter, which was filled with nonsense, was unsigned, and the woman has no idea how the writer had her address. However, the threats unsettled her, and she wrote to me – the Rebbe said – to ask whether she should follow the instructions in the letter just to be on the safe side”.

“I responded to her – the Rebbe told everyone at the farbrengen – that she should tear up the letter, and forget about the entire matter. I added that the Possuk states מאותות השמים אל תחתו כי יחתו הגוים ההם, – that Jews don’t even have to fear the heavenly bodies”.

“But then”, the Rebbe continued, “I began thinking: I don’t know this woman, nor does she know me – she merely heard about me – so why am I receiving such a letter, and what is the message here? And I realized that this is in order that we should utilize this scheme for kedusha!”

The Rebbe went on to propose sending out “chain letters” to publicize the need to demand the coming of Moshiach along with the previously mentioned sources.

I remember well the buzz of activity that followed that farbrengen, as everyone worked on choosing their ten recipients, as well as some of the interesting responses that some of them elicited.

Fast forward 28 years (give or take. .)

I don’t know how many of you heard about it, but millions of people have been gripped this summer with a new craze. It’s called the ice bucket challenge. Basically, someone gets nominated and challenged to pour a bucket of ice water over his head. Just like that. And if he refuses, he has to give a hundred dollars to charity.

And there are all kinds of “rules”: the person nominated has to do it within 24 hours. The challenge has to be videotaped. Etc.

Now, I know this sounds like the craziest nonsense imaginable, but there you have it. It has already had millions of participants, and it’s been done by the some of the greatest celebrities around. Bill Gates did it (he’s the guy who gave us the internet). George Bush did it (he’s the guy who gave us the intifada). Obama is doing it (but, never one to follow rules, he’s playing it his own way; – trying to dunk the whole country into ice water).

And many of the who’s who of Lubavitch have apparently already taken part in the challenge (okay, maybe not Rabbi Yoel Kahan (yet), but Rabbi Dov Wagner and other prominent shluchim).

Additionally (perhaps most noteworthy), this “campaign” has already raised over $53,000,000 for ALS (and that’s quite a few dollars!).

So what’s the message for us here?

I think that if we use the abovementioned farbrengen as our guide, then our reaction and response should be quite clear! If it’s accepted in the world to do something that amounts to craziness and nonsense (and I’m not talking about the money part, that goes to a very good cause, I’m talking about the challenge part), then we should be able to do the same for kedusha.

Think about it. You walk over to someone and challenge him to pour a bucket of ice water over his head. ICE WATER OVER HIS HEAD??! It doesn’t make any sense, it’s crazy and it’s outrageously so. Why would you tell him that, and why on earth would he listen? Unless you’re both certified whackos, it’s the most nonsensical thing in the world. But you’ll do it, all the same. Everyone is doing it, and they’re as proud as can be (publicizing it with every available venue)..

Well, let’s try this. You walk over to someone and challenge him to wake up 15 minutes earlier to learn chassidus for a week (or two weeks, or a month or whatever). Or you challenge him to finish the entire Likutei Torah (the chassidisher parsha) every week until Rosh Hashonoh. Or to do a random act of kindness or chassidishkeit that is hard for him within the next 24 hours.

What’s the expected reaction? Probably anything from “Mind your own business” to “Are you crazy?” For that matter, we probably can’t picture ourselves demanding of someone to do something significant in Torah and mitzvos or chassidishkeit to begin with. We’d be too uncomfortable and it would seem too bizarre to even contemplate.

True, the above challenges are somewhat difficult to carry out. But I can’t imagine that getting dunked with a bucket of ice-water is the most pleasant experience either (although I may be wrong there, I haven’t actually tried it out myself). And, if we follow the reasoning of the above-mentioned sicha, then we should somehow be applying and utilizing the latest eccentricities that we happened to hear about for the sake of kedusha.

So, comfortable or not, we should be ready to follow suit, and nominate and challenge people to be better chassidim!

We’re approaching chodesh Ellul, a time of cheshbon hanefesh, a time of reckoning and improving. It’s a time when we all know that we have what to work on, and we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting serious about it. Surely the only reason we heard about the international “ice bucket challenge” at such a time is for us to adapt it to the “G-dliness Challenge”.

Never mind the ice and cold water. Our mission, after all, is to eradicate kaltkeit, coldness, and to replace it with warmth and enthusiasm.

But we can take our cue from the campaign, to randomly challenge someone (and ourselves) to do something radical for the Eibishter. Nominate him to sit down and learn with you a maamar, right here, right now. Not for any special reason, just because. Nominate him to start going on mivtzoim for an hour every week. Nominate him to go to the mikveh every day, even when it’s summer vacation and it’s inconvenient, even if the mikveh is cold and/or dirty (it’s not colder than an ice bucket). Whatever is relevant, whatever is applicable and whatever is necessary.

[And – according to the rules – if he doesn’t take the challenge, then he has to write out a $100 check to tzedaka. Or $1000. Or maybe the rule should be that he has to give the money regardless (at or to Neirot at].

The point is to take the challenge, to challenge ourselves, our friends and acquaintances and the world around us to get out of our comfort zone and do something drastic and radical in order to bring ourselves closer to the Eibishter and bring the world closer to Moshiach!

Come to think of it, it may have somewhat of a precedent:

The Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe were with the Alter Rebbe celebrating Yud Tes Kislev. The way they were celebrating on that particular year was with, well, a mashkeh bucket challenge. The chassidim were dancing in a circle, and in the middle of the circle was a big bucket of mashkeh (it doesn’t say whether or not there was ice, “on the rocks”).

Every time a chosid would come to a specific place, he would dip his head into the bucket and say l’Chayim.

One particular chosid dipped too sharply, and his hat fell into the bucket. The Alter Rebbe, who was observing, remarked “וכובע ישועות בראשו”. That year, that chosid became wealthy. [The next year, another chosid deliberately dropped his hat into the bucket, hoping for the same results, but the Alter Rebbe didn’t react. (In one source, this story is with the Mitteler Rebbe)].

Indeed, we have to take the challenge, to take the plunge, to immerse ourselves in learning and davening. We have to do it for its own sake, not with any expectations of reward, and without any concern about the consequences. In the end it will pay off, and bring us abundant brochos even in gashmyus.

So get out there and take the Ellul challenge. Challenge yourself, and let us challenge each other to go beyond our limitations, to achieve more in our avodas Hashem.

And while we’re at it, let’s all nominate the Ribono Shel Olam, and challenge Him to give each of us and all of us and all Yidden a Ksiva vachasima tova for all good things, beginning with the geulah shleima immediately now!

L’chaim! May we all take the challenge to increase in every area of Torah and mitzvos, and may the Eibishter take His challenge to wash away the whole golus with a bucket of ice water, and to replace it speedily with the immediate hisgalus of Melech haMoshiach TUMYM!!!


Rabbi Akiva Wagner is the Rosh Yeshivah and dean of Yeshivas Lubavitch Toronto. He is known for his brilliant lectures and his passionate farbrengens. As a fiery example of what a chassid ought to be, he serves as a mentor for thousands.

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