1. Chai Elul (the eighteenth of Elul) is the birthday of “two great luminaries” — the Baal Shem Tov, in the year 5458, and the Alter Rebbe, in the year 5505.
In view of the dictum of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos that states: “practical deed is the essential thing,” we must try to learn something today from the Baal Shem Tov and from the Alter Rebbe that will affect our daily actions.
We find that there are different levels in the area of deed. While the simple Jew is required to deal with the mundane world directly, leaders and scholars occupy themselves mainly with the study of Torah. Their deed constitutes “applying theory to practical law.” Torah scholars fall into the category of ‘Issachor’ — the tribe which learned Torah — while the rest of the Jews are part of ‘Zevulen’ — the tribe which dealt in commerce and supported the tribe of Issachor financially. It is their mission, those of Zevulen, to elevate the mundane world and to convert it into a sanctuary in which G-d can dwell.
Although the actual deed of Issachor is very different from that of Zevulen, they share a common theme: that actual deed is essential. Hence it is clear that regardless of which category we fall into, we must find a way to apply the lessons of Chai Elul in practical deed. only then will we have fulfilled our G-dly mission in the spirit of Chai Elul.
At this point the following question arises: How can we apply the lessons of Chai Elul to something as mundane as deed? We are told that Chai Elul is the birthday of two luminaries, indeed, two great luminaries. The expression “two great luminaries” is derived from the Chumash; it is a description of the sun and the moon (before its light was diminished).
That this day is called the birthday of the two great luminaries reminds us of the day when Moshe was born, where it is stated that the “house was filled with ‘ light” (Rashi Shmos 2:2). The birthday of the Alter Rebbe is also the time when in the words of the Baal Shem Tov, a “new soul” descended in order to illuminate the world.
In view of the above, it may seem difficult to understand how such a sublime occurrence as the births of the two great luminaries can have an effect on the deeds of a plain, simple Jew!
However, the truth is that the birthday of two people who were vital in their respective generations, as well as in subsequent ones, must have an effect on the most essential area of our endeavors, that of deed. Furthermore, to gain the proper effect it is not necessary to expound upon the esoteric aspects of Chai Elul — this is contrary to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and to those of all his successors. They all desired that every aspect of Torah be a lesson for the “woodchoppers and waterdrawers,” as well as for the “heads of the tribes.”
Since everyone is acquainted with their names, a fundamental lesson, which can be grasped by everyone, can be derived from their names.
Let us begin with the Baal Shem Tov, whose name was Yisrael. The meaning of this name is stated in the Chumash (Ber. 32:29): “And he said, your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have fought with Elokim, and with men, and have prevailed.”
There are many interpretations of this verse. The simple meaning is: You have fought with angels (which are often referred to as “Elokim”) and with Esav and Lavan (“men”) and have prevailed. The word for “fought” — “sorisah” — indicates that the combatants possess a certain superiority even before the battle is actually won. There are two points which must be noted here: First, he goes out to battle with a feeling of superiority. This is a noteworthy accomplishment, even if he is not sure of victory. And second, he actually prevails over the enemy. When one does battle feeling confident of eventual victory, he obviously fights the war with a different enthusiasm. This idea is expressed in the following verse (Dev. 21:10) “When you go forth to war upon your enemies, and the L-rd your G-d has delivered them into your hands.” The Torah uses the expression “upon (Al) your enemies” and not “with,” or “against,” your enemies. When a Jew goes forth to do battle, if he is confident that he is upon his enemy, then he is assured that “G-d has delivered them into your hands.”
All of these lessons are derived from the name Yisrael. A name is something which is only given to a soul in this world. A fetus in its mother’s womb, although it possesses a soul, is nameless. The Baal Shem Tov’s name is meant to have an effect on the life of every Jew in this, the mundanest of worlds. The Baal Shem Tov was our leader and our shepherd; he is, therefore, connected with every Jew. Furthermore, he is not only a shepherd who now directs his flock from above; rather, he can be found within each and every one of us, in this generation. This is similar to Moshe, who, as the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya, can be found within each one of us. This element of “Yisrael” which is within each of us, enables us to go out to battle, and to be victorious (C).
This lesson applies to everyone — from the “heads of the tribes” to those who insist, in the words of the Previous Rebbe, that the name Yisrael is a secondary name to them. All of us must at all times — but especially now, at the time of Chai Elul go out and battle with the evil inclination. We must not be deterred; we should feel superior to our enemies, for we will be “upon” them. Then will we be victorious, and then the enemy himself will praise G-d. This will be the same as with the angel who fought with Yaakov — it was he who gave Yaakov the name Yisrael.
We will then be blessed with the blessing which is stated at the beginning of the Sedra — “And it will come to pass, when you will come to the land” — speedily, in our days.
Chai Elul is the birthday of a second luminary, the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe had two names: “Schneur” and “Zalman.” The first is in the holy tongue while the second is in Yiddish. Both make up one name. Hence, one lesson can be derived from them both.
We will discuss Schneur, the Alter Rebbe’s first name. This name is a composite of two words, Schnei Or, which mean “two lights.”
Light does not create anything else; rather it reveals to us what already exists. In a dark room which is full of furniture, a person may stumble blindly around. With the presence of light, however, the whole room becomes illuminated and one no longer stumbles. Nothing of the rooms essential contents changed; they simply became clearly defined and easy to see. This is readily understandable to a small child who is aware of how much caution is required in a dark room.
The above analogy fits the Alter Rebbe well — he illuminated what was already there, namely, the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.
It is possible for someone to conduct himself in accordance with all the principles of the Chassidus which the Baal Shem Tov expounded. His behavior, however, may not be “brightly lit” i.e., he may not do things with enthusiasm. This is called Kabbolas Ol and it consists of doing something without any feelings of accomplishment.
The above behavior is, to be sure, a very commendable one. However, “Schnei Or,” two lights, teaches us that one’s service of G-d must be an illuminated service. That is, one must fulfill Mitzvos with all one’s faculties, and not with Kabbolas 01 alone. One must experience his performance of Mitzvos both intellectually and emotionally, and with his faculties of Ratzon (will) and Ta’anug (pleasure). One thereby justifies the existence of all one’s faculties, since everything must be used for the sake of Heaven. This is in accordance with the teachings of our sages: “G-d did not create anything for naught,” and, “All that the Holy one, blessed be He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory.”
The contribution of the Alter Rebbe manifests itself when one deals with another Jew. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized the Mitzvah of having a very strong love for one’s fellow Jew. He taught that one must even love a Jew who lives at the other end of the world. He used to set an example by doing favors for his fellow Jews at every opportunity.
The Alter Rebbe added on to this teaching as follows: When we give a coin to Tzedakah we utilize only our fingers. The Alter Rebbe taught that one’s whole being should be permeated with the Mitzvah. This can be accomplished in part by giving the Tzedakah with a “cheerful countenance,” and by comforting the poor person to whom the Tzedakah is given. In this way all one’s faculties are illuminated by the Mitzvah, and the Mitzvah “shines brightly.” Consequently, one feels what one has accomplished in the Mitzvah for oneself and for the world in general. This idea can be applied to all Mitzvos.
The Alter Rebbe is the best example for one who wants to follow his teachings. He used to travel to nearby towns with the express purpose of arousing feelings of brotherly love amongst the Jews living there. He exhorted his Chassidim to deal with their opponents, the misnagdim, in a pleasant manner, expressing the hope that: “maybe, through all that, G-d will put into the heart of their brethren “ (Iggeres HaKodesh Ch. 2), i.e., that they would respond in a similar fashion.
We should tell everyone we meet that today is Chai Elul, that it is the birthday of the two “great luminaries” — the Baal Shem Tov, and the Alter Rebbe. The lesson that we learn from them is simple: that a Jew should always be permeated with the element of “Yisrael” — undeterred by any obstacles — and that he should illuminate himself and every other Jew with the light and warmth of Torah, as we learn from the name Schneur.
2. The third and fourth chapters of Pirkei Avos are read this Shabbos. Mishnah fifteen in Chapter Four states: 11 ... rather be a tail to lions than a head to foxes.”
Two explanations are offered by the commentaries:
a) It is better to be a lowly follower in a superior group, than to be a leader in an inferior one. b) The Mishnah is teaching a lesson in humility.
Both of these explanations are difficult to understand. It is well known that the purpose of Pirkei Avos is to teach us “matters of ethics.” There is no ethical principle apparent in the first explanation, while the concept of humility is more than merely a “matter of ethics.” The prohibition of haughtiness is one that is mentioned in the Torah, as we find in the Talmud (Sotah 5a) where the Almighty says of a haughty person: “He and I cannot live in the same place.” It is also stated in Tehillim (101:5) that “...him that has a high look and a proud heart, I will not suffer.”
Let us preface our explanation by discussing a passage in the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:8). The Mishnah relates that when the Sanhedrin (Rabbinical Court of seventy-one, or twenty-three, judges) met, three rows of students sat before them. These students were seated in the order of their eminence. The first row was more eminent than the second, and, in each row the first student was more eminent than the second one.
When it was necessary to ordain a new judge (for example, when a judge passed away), the student at the head of the first row was chosen. Everyone then moved up one place, and a new student was chosen to sit at the end of the third row. At this point the Yerushalmi quotes Rav who says: “the Mishnah says ‘rather be a tail to lions than a head of foxes.’ The parable says ‘rather be a head to foxes than a tail to lions.’ We act in accordance with dictum of the Mishnah, as we have learned: ‘In case it was necessary to ordain (a new judge), he was appointed from the first row (of students).”
It is important to note that the “head of foxes,” is in one sense superior to the “tail of lions.” He is a leader. The Talmud expounds upon the verse, “One from among your brethren you shall set [as] king over you,” saying that even an irrigation superintendent is appointed from heaven. A leader, albeit of a group of lesser importance, has the power to influence those under him to increase their good deeds. A follower, however, although a member of a superior group, is merely an individual in the group. The leader in the first row of students has some basis for not wanting to become the “tail” of the court. There he may not be able to accomplish as much as he was able to accomplish when he was a leader. When he is called upon to preserve the integrity of the Torah by becoming a member of the court, he must forego his self-gratification as a leader and become the most junior judge. Both these concepts — “tails to lions,” and “head of foxes,” have their time and place. It is always important to know when to cease being a leader and when to become a follower. This is the great ethical teaching of the Mishnah.
- (Back to text) Although even those of Zevulen are obligated to learn “a portion in the morning, and one in the evening [of Torah], this does not mean that their obligation ends there. Since the only reason for our creation is “to serve my Creator,” it is clear that we must justify our existence every moment of our creation. Not only at the time of study, but also during our mundane pursuits, must we fulfill our G-dly mission.
- (Back to text) A similar concept is to be found by the Mitzvah of Bedikas Chometz — the search for chometz before Pesach. The Mitzvah is to make the search, regardless of whether or not something is found.
Similarly, in our case — the battle with the forces opposing Torah and Mitzvos is in itself a Mitzvah, despite the fact that there may or may not be a victory.
- (Back to text) If G-d will surely deliver the enemy into our hands, why must we battle in the first place? The answer is that G-d desires our efforts. Only then can it truly be said that “G-d will deliver them into your hands.”
- (Back to text) Regarding practical law, we are to carry out the decisions of the Halachic authorities. However, regarding the theoretical discussion of the Torah one is encouraged to voice one’s difficulties with a stated opinion. This must obviously be done with a great measure of humility.