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Saturday, August 18, 2018 7 Elul 5778





The Month of Compassion

The month of Elul is the month of Divine compassion. The word Elul is an acronym of various verses in Torah that denote Divine closeness. One such verse is “Ani L’dodi v’dodi li”--I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. This is a reference to the mitzvah of prayer. Another verse is “Ish l’reihu umatanos l’evyonim”--a reference to the two mitzvot of Purim, giving gifts to our friends and to the poor. This can be generalized to the mitzvah of charity and kindness to each other. Another verse refers to the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance: “G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children,” es l’vavcha v’es l’vav zaracha.
The name Elul also has an allusion to the final Redemption: Ashira La’Hashem vayomru leimor--referring to the song the Jews sang at the splitting of the sea, which will be echoed at the final Redemption.

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Chai (18th of) Elul
Chai (the 18th of) Elul, is the birthday of both, the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Chasidic movement) in 5458-1698 and the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism in 5505-1745. In the same way that the Chasidic movement revitalized Jewish life and introduced a new path in the service of G-d, so too does Chai Elul ("chai" - from the Hebrew word meaning "life") introduce an element of liveliness and vitality into our Divine service in the month of Elul, the main theme of which is repentance.
A basic fundamental of Chasidut is the joyful service of G-d. As surprising as it may seem, Chasidic philosophy teaches that even the mitzva of teshuva (repentance) should be approached with happiness rather than trepidation. If all of the Torah's mitzvot should be fulfilled with joy, how much more so the mitzva of teshuva, which is so great it has the power to perfect all other commandments!
At first glance, the pairing of teshuva with joy appears unrealistic. Repentance is serious business: conducting an honest assessment of one's past behavior, feeling remorse for one's misdeeds, and begging G-d for forgiveness for transgressing His will. How are we to do this out of a sense of joy?
The answer is that joy, as defined by Chasidut, is not the opposite of seriousness. Joy does not mean frivolity, a life without responsibilities or mindless revelry. Rather, joy itself is serious business, a deep feeling created when a Jew contemplates the enormous merit he has to have been born Jewish, to be able to study G-d's Torah and to fulfill His commandments. When a Jew appreciates that he is never alone and that G-d is always with him, his joy becomes the impetus to draw even closer to the Infinite.
With Rosh Hashana approaching, what could make us happier than the knowledge that doing teshuva during Elul is easier than at any other time of year? For the gates of repentance are always open, and G-d always gives us the opportunity to return to Him.


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The following story describes how Rabbi Shneur Zalman became involved in the fledgling Chasidic movement.
At the age of twenty, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, decided to leave home for a period of time in search of a teacher and guide. Two centers of learning beckoned his attention. One was Vilna, the Lithuanian capital, the center of the Talmudic scholarship, with the famed "Vilna Gaon," Rabbi Eliyahu at its head. The other was Mezritch, the seat of Rabbi Dov Ber, the "Maggid of Mezritch, heir to Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the leader of the still young Chasidic movement.
For Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Mezritch was both geographically and intellectually the more distant place, but he had heard about the great scholarship of Rabbi Dov Ber, and the new way of Divine service which he was teaching. Rabbi Shneur Zalman had to make a momentous choice. He thought, "I have already been exposed to Talmudic discipline; I have yet to learn the discipline of prayer," and he decided in favor of Mezritch. The decision was, of course, the turning point of his life.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman's decision to go to Mezritch aroused his father-in-law's vehement opposition, to the extent of depriving his daughter and son-in-law of any further financial support. But Rabbi Shneur Zalman's wife stood by him, and agreed to his going there on condition that if he decided to stay, he would not extent his stay beyond 18 months.
His first impressions were not encouraging. Rabbi Shneur Zalman closely observed the Maggid and his senior disciples. He discovered that they devoted considerable time to the daily prayers, and in preparation before the prayers, inevitably reducing the time left for Torah study. To the intellectual that he was, this emphasis on prayer seemed extravagant. He decided that Mezritch was not for him. The Maggid made no attempt to detain him.
As Rabbi Shneur Zalman left Mezritch, he remembered that he had forgotten one of his belongings in the synagogue of the Maggid. Returning there, he found the Maggid engaged in the examination of a question of Jewish law. The brilliant analysis by the Maggid of all aspects of the question, which displayed his extraordinary erudition in the realm of Halacha, made a profound impression on Rabbi Shneur Zalman, and he decided to stay a while longer in Mezritch. Thereupon, the Maggid told Rabbi Shneur Zalman that his saintly master, the Baal Shem Tov, had revealed to him that one day the son of Rabbi Baruch would come to him, would leave him, and then return again. Then he - the Maggid - was to tell him about the great destiny that was linked to Rabbi Shneur Zalman's soul. The Baal Shem Tov further predicted that Rabbi Shneur Zalman's path in life would be hazardous, but that he, the Baal Shem Tov, would intercede in his behalf, and in behalf of his followers, so that "his end would be exceedingly great."
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was deeply moved by what he heard, and he decided to cast in his lot with the new Chasidic movement.
But what mostly impressed Rabbi Shneur Zalman was Rabbi Dov Ber's demonstration of the perfect equilibrium and harmonious synthesis of the mystic and rationalist which was the object of Rabbi Shneur Zalman's quest. To quote Rabbi Shneur Zalman: "Two things I saw: The sublime ecstasy of the Holy Society on the one hand, and the remarkable composure of our master Rabbi Dov Ber on the other, which enthralled me completely. That is when I became a Chasid.' Once the young "Litvak" (native of Lithuania) became attached to Rabbi Dov Ber, the latter began to give him special attention, though he was the youngest and newest of the disciples. 
Rabbi Dov Ber arranged that his son, Abraham, (who because of the saintliness of his character had earned the appellation Malach ["Angel"]), initiate the new disciple into the esoteric doctrines of the Kabbala and Chasidut, as had been taught by the Besht and himself, in return for instruction in Talmudic study. Rabbi Shneur Zalman's time was now equally divided between the study of the Talmud and Chasidut, which he studied with his customary diligence. He also closely observed the master, Rabbi Dov Ber, and his distinguished disciples, in an effort to emulate their day-to-day behavior and refinement of character. Here was a group of scholarly mystics who exemplified Chasidut at its best. This is what Rabbi Shneur Zalman had been looking for.
When Rabbi Shneur Zalman returned home after 18 months had elapsed, he was asked by his erstwhile colleagues in Vitebsk whether he had found it worth while to go so far away while Vilna was so much nearer. Rabbi Shneur Zalman answered, "In Vilna you are taught how to master the Torah, in Mezritch you are taught how to let the Torah master you."

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Tzemach Tzedek






In the little town of Lubavitch, the month of Elul was drawing to a close. The winds of teshuva (repentance) had blown through the village for 30 days, aiding everyone in perfecting their spiritual service. More Psalms, more charity, more Torah study. The frenzied preparation reached its climax.
The setting sun signaled the beginning of a new year. Many thousands of Chasidim poured into the town, eager to spend Rosh Hashana with Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the third Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek. They crammed into the Rebbe's shul. A hush fell on the room as the Tzemach Tzedek entered. Maariv, the evening service, began.
It was an unusual Maariv. The Tzemach Tzedek appeared drawn, worried. His prayers were imbued with extraordinary fervor, as though - if it were possible - they were more fervent than an ordinary Rosh Hashana. Fear and dread gripped every heart. This is the time when "the angels tremble, terror seizes them, and they exclaim: 'the Day of Judgment is here.'" The Chasidim redoubled their concentration, desperately trying to arouse Divine mercy. Everyone felt that something unusual was in the air.
That night after the prayers, the Rebbe joined his family in the holiday meal. Though the Rebbes minimized all talk on Rosh Hashana, the Tzemach Tzedek would always make it a point to speak during the meal. He discussed current events in the capital, the names and ranks of different ministers and the political situation in general. Reb Yehuda Leib, one of the Rebbe's sons, would remark, "He is performing wonders in Petersburg right now."
This year was no different. The Tzemach Tzedek related all the goings-on in the capital and focused on certain ministers and their roles. In fact, he seemed more detailed than in other years.
The day of Rosh Hashana dawned and throngs of Chasidim streamed to the Rebbe's shul. Again the Rebbe's prayers were permeated with emotion. After the morning prayer was completed and the Torah reading was finished, everyone prepared themselves for the mitzva (commandment) of shofar.
A feeling of awe enveloped the large shul as the sons of the Tzemach Tzedek took their places around the bima, each in his designated place. The Tzemach Tzedek himself finished his preparations, readying himself to blow the shofar. His face burned brightly as he sang softly to himself, his eyes closed in deep concentration. Suddenly his voice resonated throughout the shul, "Woe! My heart! A Psalm..."
Panic gripped the congregation and tears flowed freely. Some evil decree prompted the Rebbe's unusual outburst, no doubt. Everyone's heart was open, raw and receptive. The congregation recited the Psalm seven times as required and the Rebbe began the shofar blasts...
Minister Suvorin, minister of Petersburg, the capital, studied his reflection in the mirror gracing the walls of the czar's antechamber. He was waiting for his scheduled appointment with His Majesty. In his hand was the document in which he had invested so much work. It concerned the great rabbi, the one they called the "Tzemach Tzedek."
It was intolerable that a rabbi should have such power, what with all his followers spread across White Russia. His power lay in his choice of residence, a small village away from prying eyes and government informers.
No more. The rabbi would now be forced to move to either Petersburg or Kiev. His followers would think twice before visiting their rabbi in such a large city. They would be too easily followed, easily questioned, easily inspected. He had the official document in his hand now: all it needed was the czar's signature.
Suvorin stared out the window. There had been some trouble lately - anger was brewing among the populace, and he was mostly to blame. Two new decrees had raised the ire of Petersburg's residents, but they were just a mob of common folk anyway. After all, his intentions had been pure.
He smiled as he recalled the new decrees. No smoking was allowed on city streets; it was untidy. No meat would be sold within the city; no longer would the beautiful capital carry the smell of rotting flesh. He, Minister Suvorin, would make Petersburg the most beautiful capital in the world.
A liveried servant entered the antechamber and bowed. "Minister Suvorin," he said. "His Majesty will see you now."
Suvorin followed the servant, beads of perspiration forming on his forehead. He entered the audience chamber and bowed low before the czar.
The czar was in a foul mood. "You passed two decrees banning the sale of meat and the use of cigarettes. The population is angry; the decrees are unbearable."
The czar tore the document out of the minister's hand and hurled it angrily on the floor. Suvorin turned white, bowed low and quickly left.
The minister stood once again in the antechamber, his mind whirling. His dream had been shattered. Gone was his goal of restraining the great rabbi. For such was the accepted law: any document that had been thrown away by the czar was automatically negated and it was illegal to present the request again. The rabbi would stay in the village of Lubavitch after all.
Far away in the town of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek finished sounding the shofar. He returned to his place and the congregation resumed their prayers.
Reprinted from Beis Moshiach Magazine

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