The Jews in the shtetls were simple, but careful to keep mitzvot to the best of their knowledge. They set times for daily prayers and respected Torah learning. They were sincere Jews who tried their best.
But, for many, an ice had formed around their hearts. They did the right acts, but coldness permeated their souls. The hardships of life, the constant persecutions, the daily drudgery had wiped away their joy and grinded at their sense of purpose. The Jewish body was doing what it needed, but the Jewish soul was lethargic, semi-conscious.
This was the state of world Jewry when the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chassidic movement, began publicly disseminating his teachings on the 18th of Elul, 36 years after he was born on this day in 1698. This special day, which falls this week, also marks the birthday of his spiritual successor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who later established the “Chabad” branch of Chassidism.
So, how did the chassidic movement rejuvenate the Jewish spirit? The Baal Shem Tov’s teachings are vast, but I want to focus on these three simple but profoundly deep ideas:
1) The Baal Shem Tov taught about the soul’s infinite power. Every individual—no matter how simple or learned, no matter your lineage, state of observance, talents, or where you fit into society’s hierarchy—is a child of G‑d, completely bound to G‑d, whose love for you is infinite and unconditional. And since you have this ongoing dynamic bond and relationship with G‑d, you too have infinite capabilities.
2) Since G‑d loves you so much, it follows that He constantly watches over you, and in fact watches over and determines even the minutest aspect of all of creation. Divine providence means that everything in our world, as well as every encounter we have, the good and the bad, is exactly as it is supposed to be, for a positive growth experience.
3) Knowing that everything is predetermined by G‑d, who has such overwhelming love for us, naturally creates a life filled with tremendous joy. Think about how G‑d is all goodness and wishes only good for you. Celebrate G‑d’s love for you and feel the joy in doing His will.
It’s now the 21st century. We’re no longer living in shtetls across Europe, but in large skylined metropolises. We may be more sophisticated, but the hardships of life, the constant struggles, the daily drudgery wipe away our joy and grind at our sense of purpose. Our souls, too, feel lethargic.
In the month of Elul, in preparation for the upcoming High Holidays, the Jewish soul begins to shine. Eighteen, in Jewish numerology, stands for life, chai. What an appropriate time to revitalize our souls, to infuse ourselves with lifegiving warmth, faith and purpose by focusing on these ideas and studying these teachings, so vital for our times.