There are many facets of this Shabbos which are worthy of mention, but one should always begin with the concept which is closest personally. In this case the Nassi, the Previous Rebbe, revealed to us the significance of the 18th of Elul -- the birthday of the "Two Great Luminaries," the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe. Since "the Nassi equals the entire generation," the concept he revealed is obviously the most significant to us all.
The Previous Rebbe explained that Chai Elul brings life and vitality (chayus) to the G-dly service which is performed during Elul. Elul is the time to make an honest appraisal of one's service of G-d throughout the past year. This includes Torah study, prayer, charity, teshuvah, and bringing the redemption, as is known from the hints present in the acronym of the word Elul. Chassidus itself brings life and vitality into all Torah and mitzvos. This fact is hinted to in the birthday of the founders of Chassidus on Chai Elul, which brings life into the service of Elul, and through it, into all Torah and mitzvos.
This effect is intensified when other factors compound the life-giving quality of Chai Elul. This year, Chai Elul falls out on Shabbos, which also gives off vitality and blessings to all the subsequent days of the week. In addition, it is a Sabbatical Year, Shemittah, which is a source of vitality for the subsequent six years.
The impact of Shemittah is also seen from the fact that it is the prelude to the year of Hakhel. During the Shemittah year, every single Jew is free to devote his time to Torah study. This is the proper preparation making it possible for Hakhel to have the proper effect -- that everyone can listen to the Torah in a way that makes a permanent impression strengthening their observance in Torah and mitzvos.
From all this we see that this Chai Elul provides a special opportunity and strength helping one add in the service of Elul, and through it, in all matters of Torah and mitzvos. Everyone should therefore make firm resolutions about future improvement. These should be as specific as possible, for only in that way can one be certain that the resolutions will be actualized.
In describing Chai Elul, the Previous Rebbe said that it is the birthday of the "Two Great Luminaries" (shnei meoros hag'dolim). Certainly his choice of words was precise, and provide insight into the nature of the day.
This phrase is used in the Torah to refer to the creation of the sun and the moon, which were originally created at the same time and through the one utterance y'hi meoros. Nevertheless, we find them described as two luminaries, indicating their individuality and distinctness.
We find the same regarding the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe: on the one hand we have the day of Chai Elul which applies to them both equally. On the other hand, they lived in different times, and had different roles -- as the founders of Chassidus in general and Chabad Chassidus respectively.
We can understand the relationship between their unity and distinctness through first looking at the difference between them. The Baal Shem Tov devoted himself primarily to arousing the innate faith, the spark of emunah present within every Jew. The Alter Rebbe, however, worked in the way of Chabad -- stressing the necessity of exertion and avodah in the service of G-d.
These two approaches correspond to the Chassidic concepts of mil'malah l'matah ("from above to below") and mil'matah l'malah ("from below to above"). The Baal Shem Tov worked in a way which transcended all the rules and boundaries of nature. For this reason his primary efforts were non-intellectual -- appealing to the infinite spark of G-dliness within every Jew. For this same reason, his service was characterized by miraculous behavior, bringing that which is normally "above" down here to the physical world.
The Alter Rebbe stressed the opposite trend, taking that which is "below," and elevating it to holiness. This represents the ultimate goal of making a dirah b'tachtonim, a dwelling place for G-d in the lowest realms of existence. For that reason, he stressed the idea of working with one's intellect and emotions in order to make them holy. This is also the reason why the idea of miracles always received little stress in Chabad -- because the ultimate is not to break nature (mil'malah l'matah), but to elevate and purify it (mil'matah l'malah).
The same characteristics are alluded to in their names. The Baal Shem Tov's name, Yisrael, represents the essence of the Jewish soul, which remains unaffected by any worldly occurrences -- "even if he sins, he is still a Yisrael." The Alter Rebbe's first name, Shneur, refers to sh'nei or -- the "two lights" of the revealed and concealed parts of Torah. This stress on Torah study corresponds to the service mil'matah l'malah. The second name, Zalman, has similar implication, since it's letters also constitute the word l'zman, indicating serving G-d within the natural constraints of time and space.
Both types of service are necessary, and together constitute a logical progression of development. We see in general that supra-natural conduct must precede that which is within nature. An example of this is when the Torah was given -- a process which was initiated by G-d's descent to Mt. Sinai, and only then followed by Moshe's ascent.
The same applies in the course of revelation of p'nimiyus haTorah. First came the revelation from above through the service of the Baal Shem Tov. Only then came the service of the Alter Rebbe, revealing G-dliness within the world and making a true "dwelling place below."
This explains, then, the two qualities mentioned previously. They are called together "luminaries" because they represent stages in the one process of the revelation of p'nimiyus haTorah and G-dliness throughout the world. However, it is also stressed that they are "two," i.e. distinct stages separated in time and in function.
The connection between the Baal Shem Tov's service and that of the Alter Rebbe is also hinted to in an amazing story told by the Previous Rebbe 50 years ago. At that time he related how on Chai Elul, 5652, his father, the Rebbe Rashab, ascended to Gan Eden and heard seven Torah discourses from the Baal Shem Tov.
As mentioned previously, Chabad places little emphasis on miracles. This being the case, it is most surprising that this story was publicized. This is particularly true since it was a miraculous occurrence regarding Torah study, which certainly must be learned within the parameters of human intellect -- as our Sages said, "Torah is not in the heavens."
The answer lies in the two stages described above. Hearing the teachings in Gan Eden was a revelation from above in a supra-natural manner, similar to the service of the Baal Shem Tov. When it was conveyed by the Rebbe Rashab, with the additional explanations of Chabad Chassidus, the special advantage of service mil'matah l'malah was added.
Just as Chai Elul has both qualities, conveying this story brings us the advantages of both. We learn the seven teachings with our intellect in the way of Chabad; but the knowledge that they came to us in such an unusual way gives us a special feeling of spiritual elevation and a unique approach to it.
Why was it that it took so long for this story to be publicized, and that it was done only through the Previous Rebbe and not his father? As the darkness of the exile increases, more and more light is needed to dispel it. Just as the "spreading of the wellsprings to the outside" grows as time progresses, this story was also revealed to give us additional energy and inspiration in Torah and mitzvos.
The intent is, of course, that this inspiration affects us to the extent that it reaches the realm of action, and that our increased good deeds hasten the arrival of Moshiach, may he arrive speedily.
Regarding the seven teachings of the Baal Shem Tov mentioned above, there are a number of details which need elaboration. In the written version of these seven teachings, the word chasser ("missing") is written in several places. Since everything in the world -- and certainly something regarding Torah -- is guided by Divine Providence, this certainly contains a message for us all.
This is especially true since in other cases we find that even where it would be appropriate, the word chasser is not written. One of the Alter Rebbe's well-known students, R. Aaron Strasheler, wrote that the second part of Tanya, Shaar HaYichud V'HaEmunah, was never finished by the Alter Rebbe. In the first printed editions of Tanya, it was indeed printed at the end, "chasser." This note was removed in later printings, however, and was certainly done upon the guidance of the Rebbeim. Perhaps the explanation is that after all the explanations and elaborations of the Rebbeim, there is in reality nothing "missing" -- the subject is covered completely in other writings of Chassidus. If so, what could be the purpose here, in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, of leaving the word chasser?
This can be understood in light of the verse (Proverbs 9:9), "Give to a wise person and he will become more wise." This means that there are certain things that a person must be taught directly, and others which he must realize on his own, only after personal effort and exertion. After giving him a certain amount of knowledge ("Give to a wise person"), he will be able to expand upon this knowledge and develop new concepts on his own ("and he will become more wise"). This is the desire aroused within a person when he sees the word chasser. He immediately wonders what was missing, and he uses the principles of Torah and his previous knowledge to try to formulate a possible completion of the missing section.
Another interesting aspect of this story is that the first two teachings were delivered publicly before the Baal Shem Tov's students, his students' students, the chassidim, and even women. From this description, it is obvious that women were not present for the latter five. The obvious explanation for this is that the teachings were aimed at different types of souls. Women have souls from alma d'nukva, whereas mens' souls come from alma d'd'chura. The last five teachings were meant specifically for souls from alma d'd'chura, and therefore only men were present. The first two fit both types of souls, and therefore women were also there.
Today, this presents somewhat of a paradoxical situation. Women are halachically obligated in the mitzvos of love of G-d, fear of G-d, belief in G-d, etc. They are therefore obligated to learn Chassidus, which leads to the performance of these mitzvos. But the last five teachings are, as mentioned above, only for souls from alma d'd'chura! How could women learn them?
We can understand this by first relating an incident in which Torah meant for alma d'nukva came also to alma d'd'chura. The book Beis Rebbe tells of Freida, the daughter of the Alter Rebbe. She was especially dear to him, and he would frequently deliver Chassidic discourses specifically for her. In fact, when her brother, who later became the Mitteler Rebbe, wanted to hear Chassidus, he would sometimes ask her to make a request, whereupon he would hide and listen. Obviously the Mitteler Rebbe wasn't fooling the Alter Rebbe, and didn't intend to do so. If so, why did he have to receive this Chassidus in such a way? The answer lies in the concept mentioned previously. These discourses were intended specifically for alma d'nukva, and therefore had to be delivered to a female.
But we are left with the same question in the opposite direction: how could the Mitteler Rebbe learn this Torah if it was meant for alma d'nukva?
The explanation is that because of his unquenchable desire to learn this Torah, and his constant striving for it, he attained in his soul the ability to internalize Torah from alma d'nukva.
The same applies in our case regarding the last five of the seven discourses given by the Baal Shem Tov. They were really meant for souls of alma d'd'chura -- but when a women feels a desire to learn this Torah as well, she creates within her soul the capability of connecting with this type of Torah.
The lesson to be derived from this is clear. There might be certain things which are in reality beyond the reach of your soul. However, through constant striving and persistent, you can nevertheless attain them.
It is customary to discuss the Pirkei Avos read on the particular Shabbos. In order to finish before Rosh HaShanah, the custom is to read two chapters a week towards the end of the summer, in this case, chapters 3 and 4. The question therefore arises as to the Mishnah, kol Yisrael, which precedes the chapter, and Rabbi Chananyah, which follows. Do we consider them as two separate chapters needing these two Mishnayos before and after each of them; or are they considered this week like one long chapter, with kol Yisrael being read before Chapter 3 and Rabbi Chananyah after Chapter 4?
One might be tempted to be strict and say, "What's the difference -- I'll say it an extra time just in case!" However, this is not the way to approach Jewish law and custom. One must determine exactly what halachah has to say on the matter. In this case, for example, saying the mishnayos an extra time would not only be a strict observance -- since it might be an interruption between the two chapters, it might in truth be a leniency.
As far as the answer is concerned, we have discussed the matter on other occasions, and "Give to a wise person and he will become more wise."
Regarding the two chapters themselves, we find that they correspond to the content of Chai Elul. First of all, Pirkei Avos itself is called mili d'chassidusa, showing a clear connection with Chassidus. In addition, the two chapters 3 and 4 show a connection with Chassidus in general (the Baal Shem Tov) and Chassidus Chabad, respectively.
The very numbers 3 and 4 (gimmel and daled in Hebrew) stand for the phrase Gomel Dalim ("give to the poor"). The 3 therefore corresponds to the idea of giving from above, the idea of mil'malah l'matah corresponding to general Chassidus, as mentioned above. 4 corresponds to the needy recipient, the elevation and purification mil'matah l'malah, similar to Chassidus Chabad.
We see the same idea in the content of the beginning of both chapters. Chapter 3 begins, "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin..." Reflection upon these things as they are above ("from where you came, to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an accounting") automatically affects one's behavior mil'malah l'matah. The beginning of Chapter 4, "Who is wise...who is strong...who is wealthy...who is honored...?" corresponds to Chabad, as explained in Chassidic philosophy.
Even the number of mishnayos in each chapter convey the same meaning. Chapter 3 contains 18 mishnayos, the number 18 corresponding to the sefirah of yesod, which gives to the sefiros which are below it. Chapter 4 contains 22 mishnayos, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Alef-Bet and the sefirah of malchus, which is a recipient. They therefore correspond to general Chassidus and Chabad Chassidus. Reading them both together represents their unity, as explained above.
N'shei uBnos Chabad
22nd Day of Elul, 5747
For several years we have had the custom to gather at the close of the year. This has provided us with the opportunity to extend blessings and good wishes to all, for a Kesivah V'Chasimah Tovah, to have a good and sweet year. This blessing also includes those who are listening to these words in distant places, as well as those who will be informed of these words at a later time: all the Jewish people.
The Jewish people are "One Nation," for "we have one father" who created [all humanity and especially] "the people [who are] close to Him" and who are His "chosen people." The soul of every Jew "is truly a part of G-d above...." (Tanya ch. 2) Since all Jews are thus tied and bound in unity to the Holy One, Blessed be He, they are consequently all united together, despite the physical distances which might separate them.
From time to time we gather to show and exercise our unity, and we discuss the "one Torah" and express our good wishes and blessings for each other. At such times the oneness of the total Jewish Nation is brought to the fore and even a Jew in a far flung corner of the globe is also included in this unity. For, in truth, we only reveal that unity which exists among Jews from the moment a Jew is imbued with his/her G-dly soul.
In addition to strengthening our unity, these gatherings and their expressions of blessing and good wishes will also bring the blessing of a good and sweet year for all Jewish people all over the world. Our unity has its source in G-d; it is therefore complete and absolute.
This particular gathering of Jewish women and girls carries the themes of Elul, the portion of Nitzavim, taking place in a Shemittah year and, on the threshold of the year of Hak'hel.
What may we learn from the unique aspects of this get-together?
The theme of Elul is encapsulated in its name which forms the acrostic of "Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li," -- "I am [devoted] to my Beloved and my Beloved [is devoted] to me," symbolizing the unity of the Jewish people and the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the framework of love and affection. For this reason G-d is referred to with the sobriquet "Dodi" -- my Beloved -- which clearly connotes love and affection for every Jew, as well as G-d's desire to fulfill the wishes and prayers of each individual Jew.
This intensification during Elul of the unity of G-d and the Jewish people, also intensifies the unity of the Jewish people among themselves, especially as it is expressed and revealed in an assembly of many people. Furthermore, since we are past the day of Chai Elul (18th of Elul) of which the Previous Rebbe has stated, "Chai Elul gave, and gives, vitality [and enthusiasm] into the month of Elul," more specifically, "it vitalizes the Divine service of `Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li.' "
The portion of Nitzavim begins:
Today you are all standing before G-d your L-rd -- your leaders, your tribal chiefs...even your woodcutters and water drawers. (Devorim 29:9-10)
Clearly the emphasis is on Jewish unity which is strong and firm because they are "standing before G-d" with firmness and determination. While all year round the Jewish people are one with G-d, and thereby are united among themselves, the unity is more clearly expressed and more intense when the portion of Nitzavim is read, on the Shabbos before Rosh HaShanah. For then all Jewish souls stand firm and are uplifted. This increases the blessing of Kesivah V'Chasimah Tovah, for Nitzavim also means that we are meritorious in judgment.
Shemittah is the Sabbatical year dedicated to G-d. As the Seforno writes:
All year the workers will be free from agricultural labor...and they will be encouraged to seek G-d.
The Jew's unity with G-d is strengthened when more Jews study more Torah.
Following Shemittah we go into the year of Hak'hel. During Sukkos of that year we have the special mitzvah to gather men, women and children in the Beis HaMikdash -- the paramount exercise of Jewish unity.
In all of the subjects we have just discussed we can find a special quality and a richer facet, in relation with this gathering of Jewish women.
Consider our analysis of the month of Elul. The heavenly constellation associated with the month of Elul is B'sulah (Virgo) -- the young maiden. Symbolically speaking the young maiden is a metaphor for the Jewish people based on the verse "young maiden of Israel." (Yermiyahu 31:3) The constellation Virgo is of course a group of stars which the ancients saw as a young woman, and since the Jewish people have been compared to the stars, in this case they are seen as a young woman who awaits the betrothal and marriage. As the Midrash says, in the future time the complete marriage of G-d and the Jewish people will be realized, and then G-d will "grant abundant joy to the loving friends."
This symbolism is more prominent in relation to Jewish women who are the actual young maidens of the Jewish people.
At the espousal of G-d and the Jewish people -- at Mattan Torah -- we also find that the Jewish women were spoken to first. How appropriate it is that Jewish women should gather during the month of Elul whose "fortune" is connected to the young (Jewish) maidens.
Let us now turn our attention to Nitzavim where the goal of "standing before G-d" is to be brought "into the covenant of G-d...so that He will be a G-d to you...," the unifying bond between the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the Jewish people who are close to Him.
Here, too, the lofty role of Jewish women came to the fore. Why were the women given precedence at Mattan Torah? Simply because they have the power and ability to influence the men -- husband and children -- to increase, strengthen, magnify, broaden and deepen their unifying bonds with G-d, and to introduce more vitality and enthusiasm in all their actions.
What special status do we attribute to women regarding Shemittah? The difference between the Shemittah year and the previous six years applies to work in the field and vineyard, which is mainly the domain of the menfolk.
What is in the domain of the women? "The complete glory of the princess is within!" (Tehillim 45:14) Thus, for example, the administration of the household, preparation of food and clothing, cleanliness etc., all of these labors are in the power of the Jewish women and they all continue to be practiced right through Shemittah. Moreover, since the whole year is a Sabbatical year all aspects of the home take on the loftier aura of Shabbos -- including the conduct of the home, the food, clothing, and the invocation of beauty -- lighting candles -- much more than during the week days.
Now, when the men are exempted from the field work during Shemittah they should share in the other chores and activities in the house so that it should be permeated with the light of Torah and mitzvos.
Here, however, the women "pull rank" since they have greater experience in dealing with these matters during the six years. They lead the way and show a living example to the men how to illuminate the house with the light of Torah and mitzvos.
This leads us to the special role and lofty quality of women in relation to Hak'hel. The mitzvah of gathering all the Jews includes even the tiny-tots and infants. This can only be accomplished by the women, for a father cannot substitute for a mother. No matter how learned he may be, he cannot give the child the attention, love and motherhood which a mother can give and which the child needs.
Now, although Hak'hel in its original form can only be fulfilled in the Beis HaMikdash, nevertheless, the spiritual role of Hak'hel applies now also even more strongly.
They will thus learn to be in awe of G-d your L-rd, carefully keeping all the words of this Torah. Their children, who do not know, will listen and learn to be in awe of G-d your L-rd as long as you live in the land....
Here the women assume the major mission, to effect the spiritual theme of Hak'hel in their own private Beis HaMikdash. For in her house each woman is the foundation of the home and she makes that home a holy Sanctuary. Then her husband and children will listen and observe all the words of the Torah.
At the close of Shemittah, and after Chai Elul, it behooves you to increase all your activities on behalf of Torah and mitzvos, qualitatively and quantitatively.
Start with your special mission to illuminate your homes with the light of Torah and mitzvos, this means Shabbos and Yom Tom candles kindled with a shining, joyous countenance. Preface this with praise and thanks to the Al-mighty for having merited you with this special commandment to bring light into your homes.
When you begin with this act you will make your house a mini-Sanctuary for the Omnipotent One, and then the light will radiate and spread from your home -- because of your efforts on behalf of spreading Torah and Yiddishkeit and the wellsprings of Chassidus -- to all Jews; and to all people, the Seven Noachide Laws which apply to them.
This will make the world a fitting dwelling place for the Shechinah, and as a preparation for the new year of Hak'hel all of these good practices should be increased.
All of these actions should also be influenced by the lessons culled from the Torah section of these days, the portion of Nitzavim. It is there that the Torah bears witness on all Jews that they stand together before G-d.
This presence of the Jewish people before G-d that takes place before Rosh HaShanah also influences the life of a Jew every day of the year. When a Jew awakes in the morning he proclaims "I offer thanks to (before) You" -- this is the same thought as (standing) "before G-d." He then adds, for "You have returned my soul to me" that soul which "is truly a part of G-d above." This attitude then continues throughout the day so that all his actions will conform to G-d's will, because he stands and is bound to the will of G-d. The problems of the world around him do not stop him and despite the fact that the Jew is one sheep among seventy wolves he stands firmly before G-d -- and the Nations of the world see the Name of G-d upon him -- including the mezuzah which proclaims: "Shema Yisrael..." that the house is dedicated and stands before G-d.
There is another lesson to be gleaned from the portion of Vayeilech: that a Jew must always advance. One must not be complacent and feel satisfied with the level he attained yesterday, even if it is the level of the righteous. When G-d gives a person long life he must utilize each day to grow and increase in all areas, especially Yiddishkeit, Torah and mitzvos which are tied to the Holy One, Blessed be He, truly rising in matters of holiness.
In connection with the preparation for Hak'hel we should make note that it should be infused with joy. First of all, Hak'hel takes place during Sukkos -- the Season of Our Rejoicing -- and since all members of the family gathered in Yerushalayim their joy and enjoyment was very great. This coming year is, moreover, the year of Tismach -- the acrostic for "rejoice!" In order to usher in a new year of rejoicing we must end off the old year in the same manner.
We will close with a matter of tzedakah by making each of you a messenger of a mitzvah [to increase the tzedakah] and since G-d rewards measure for measure He will increase His kindness and charity to each of us. This is not the same as paying a debt, rather in the Jew it emerges from his/her natural attributes of kindness. G-d's reward is also a form of tzedakah. As we say at the start of Selichos," "Charity is yours O' G-d." And since charity brings the redemption, may it come speedily in 5747, so that we may celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur, Sukkos -- the Season of Our Rejoicing, and Hak'hel, in the Third Beis HaMikdash which will be built very speedily in our days.
And may all the Jewish people "our youth and elders, sons and daughters" be led by Moshiach from their dispersion to one place, the Holy Land, "a land where the eyes of the L-rd your L-rd are upon it always from the beginning of the year to the end of the year." The complete people, complete Torah, and complete land -- to Yerushalayim the Holy City, and, on the Temple Mount, to reach the greatest joy of Hak'hel in the year Tismach, speedily and truly in our days.
May we all be blessed with a Kesivah V'Chasimah Tovah -- for a good and sweet year -- blessed in all details. And the joy should increase into the new year.
A good and sweet year.