This past week, we celebrated Chai Elul – the 18th day of the Jewish month of Elul. It was on this day, in 1698, the great master and sage, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Great Name), was born. Thirty-six years later, he began to disseminate his teachings throughout the world, after the Biblical Achiyah HaShilon revealed himself and started teaching him Torah. Last, but most definitely not least, one of the most influential leaders of all Chassidic thought, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, (fondly known as the Alter Rebbe), was born, in 1745.
What do these events have to do with us, in the year 2009, the last Shabbat before the new Jewish year? Close your eyes, and come back with me to a time, so dark and scary in the Jewish world, only 300 years ago…
You walk down a dirt path, your trousers rolled up to your mid-thigh, as you trek through the mud of a bitter winter. You look around, and see Jewish children walking through the streets of the small village, almost without a smile on their smudged, sad faces. Judging by the look in the sky, you realize its time to pray the afternoon services, and you hurry to a nearby shul, or synagouge.
As you enter, you notice everyone looking you up and down. Suddenly, the Gabbai in charge of this particular shul, comes over to you, and in a thick accented Yiddish asks you what you do for a living, to which you respond, “I’m a travelling peddler”. He grabs you by the arm and leads you out the door. “This shul is not for people of your lowly class!”, his voice booms, as your heart cringes inside of you.
Shrugging your shoulders, you straighten your hat with dignity, and silently take three steps back and pray your own silent afternoon prayer, underneath a rugged tree. As you finish praying, you notice a sign nailed into the tree, announcing a lecture by the esteemed rabbi of the neighboring town, in the village yeshiva (study hall).
You find your way around, and see the sign for the yeshiva, and respectfully walk in without making a sound, as the tall wooden door creaks behind you. You see a room filled with both young and old Torah scholars, sitting with an open book of Talmud, waiting for the rabbi to enter. One of the scholars approaches you and asks you which Tractate you are studying, to which you mumble and tell him you have no formal Torah education. With rage, he asks you to leave the building, as Torah is only to here to the elite of the elite, the creme de la creme, of the surrounding areas scholars.
You can only imagine the feeling of emptiness, of being forsaken, of loneliness, as you sit on those cold steps outside the yeshiva. “Where am I?”, you ask yourself bitterly, “Is this how Jews treat each other?”
Little did you know, that less than a 500 kilometers away, sat a saintly man, stroking a young child’s cheek as he taught him the Hebrew alphabet, who was thinking the same exact thought. He shuckled gently, dreaming of a world where Jews lived as one, with love in their hearts and joy in their souls. And being the great soul that he was, he stood up from his chair and decided, “If I do not do it, who will”?”, setting out to revolutionize the world of Judaism as it was in the shtetls of Europe 300 years ago. This man – was Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement.
The Baal Shem Tov was fond of saying that he never came with a new Judaism, rather he was reiterating the points of Torah-true Judaism, one of them being “And you shall love your fellow as yourself”.
Look around – does the world look any different today than it did just a few hundred years ago? Does anyone ask your trade when you enter a house of study? Do you have children learning in yeshivot? Do you walk past Jewish children in the streets, smiling and laughing with their kippot proudly on their heads?
To this, we owe a special debt of gratitude, to our master and rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov. He stood up against all odds, against the greatest rabbis of his generation, against opposition from both Torah scholars and simple laymen alike, due to his steadfast commitment to the Torah, Hashem, the Jewish people, and most importantly – you and me.
I dont think it is any coincidence that we are reading this weeks Parasha, during this special week, and especially me, here in the holy city of Yerushalayim. Let us take one quick glance at this weeks Torah portion (Chapter 29):
9. You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,
ט. אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם כֹּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל:
10. your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers,
י. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָ מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ:
11. that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day,
יא. לְעָבְרְךָ בִּבְרִית יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּבְאָלָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם:
Immediately following this, the Torah continues:
21. And a later generation, your descendants, who will rise after you, along with the foreigner who comes from a distant land, will say, upon seeing the plagues of that land and the diseases with which the Lord struck it:
כא. וְאָמַר הַדּוֹר הָאַחֲרוֹן בְּנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר יָקוּמוּ מֵאַחֲרֵיכֶם וְהַנָּכְרִי אֲשֶׁר יָבֹא מֵאֶרֶץ רְחוֹקָה וְרָאוּ אֶת מַכּוֹת הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא וְאֶת תַּחֲלֻאֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר חִלָּה יְ־הֹוָ־ה בָּהּ:
22. Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow [anything], not [even] any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage.
כב. גָּפְרִית וָמֶלַח שְׂרֵפָה כָל אַרְצָהּ לֹא תִזָּרַע וְלֹא תַצְמִחַ וְלֹא יַעֲלֶה בָהּ כָּל עֵשֶׂב כְּמַהְפֵּכַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה אַדְמָה [וצביים] וּצְבוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הָפַךְ יְ־הֹוָ־ה בְּאַפּוֹ וּבַחֲמָתוֹ:
23. And all the nations will say, Why did the Lord do so to this land? What [is the reason] for this great rage of fury?
כג. וְאָמְרוּ כָּל הַגּוֹיִם עַל מֶה עָשָׂה יְ־הֹוָ־ה כָּכָה לָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת מֶה חֳרִי הָאַף הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה:
The covenant of the Jewish people with Hashem, our Creator, is that we will love all Jews. That we, our children, our wives, out water carriers – that we all stand as one, before Hashem our G-d.
Let us follow in the path of the Holy Baal Shem and may we see miracles happen in our days as well!