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Chai Elul: Breathing New Life Into Our Divine Service

Chai Elul: Breathing New Life Into Our Divine Service


The Birthday of the Two Great Luminaries

The Eighteenth of the month of Elul is “the birthday of the two great luminaries”1 — the Baal Shem Tov (R. Yisrael ben R. Eliezer, born 1698), founder of the chassidic move­ment, and the Alter Rebbe (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, born 1745), founder of the trend within Chassidism known as Chabad.

Eighteen is the numerical equivalent of the letters jwwh, which when inverted form the Hebrew word chai (“alive”). Thus the Eighteenth of Elul is commonly referred to as Chai Elul.

The Rebbe Rayatz relates2 that there are two versions of a traditional chassidic aphorism: “Chai Elul breathes vitality into Elul,” and “Chai Elul breathes vitality into the service of ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”3

The two versions of this aphorism parallel the two di­mensions of Chai Elul. The first version reflects the contribu­tion of the Baal Shem Tov, and the second version, the con­tribution of the Alter Rebbe.

With the advent of the month of Elul, our divine service as a whole is intensified. “I am my Beloved’s...” represents one dimension of this intensification.4

By revealing the formerly hidden teachings of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov introduced new vitality into every aspect of Jewish life. With the teachings of Chabad Chassidism, the Alter Rebbe (as will presently be explained) gave expression to a particular thrust of divine service.

Life — A Quality that Defies Definition

Injecting vitality does not involve a simple quantitative increase. The difference between a living organism and a dead one cannot be measured in the number of limbs in the living organism or by any other material measure. Life is not a tan­gible ingredient that can be added to an entity’s mass: it is an expression of the being’s soul, a spiritual dimension that can­not be calculated in material terms. This spiritual quality, however, transforms the nature of the organism in which it is enclothed. A living body is identified with its soul so entirely that it takes on the soul’s qualities. Every aspect of the body becomes infused with the vitality of the soul.5

Vitality can, however, be described at different levels. When we speak about feeling more alive, for example, we mean that a greater dimension of the soul is manifest in the body. And since the soul is “truly a part of G‑d,”6 its life-force is infinite. There is thus an unbounded potential for an indi­vidual to increase the intensity of his life experience.

Living By Faith

The infinite potential of the soul is mirrored by the in­fi­nite nature of faith. Although our souls find expression in our thoughts and feelings, this revelation is checked by the limi­tations of both intellect and emotion. The power of intellect is limited by one’s range of ideas, and the power of emotion, by one’s range of feelings. Faith, by contrast, is undefinable and infinite, just as the soul is. It therefore has the power to give unlimited expression to the potential of the soul, thereby in­fusing our lives with an immeasurable vitality.

The Hebrew word for faith, emunah, is semanti­cally related to the Hebrew word imunmeaning “developing a skill.” I.e., faith requires practice in training one’s thinking habits, until it reflects the limitless divine po­tential at the core of every man’s being.7

The Baal Shem Tov imparted the vitality of emunah (“faith”) to every dimension of our lives, revealing every in­dividual’s potential for an ongoing dynamic bond with G‑d. He taught a way of life that enables us to express the infinite spiritual power of our beings in our observance of the Torah and in every aspect of our experience.8 His teachings gave tangible expression to the verse, “A righteous man shall live by his faith,”9 because these teachings make faith a vibrant force which encompasses every dimension of our conduct, infusing it with the vitality that stems from the soul’s essential power.

Understanding That Which Transcends Comprehension

The unique quality of faith is that it permits a connection with G‑d which transcends the bounds of intellect. This ad­vantage is, however, potentially problematic, because the spiritual plane on which a person operates through faith is far higher than his level of personal awareness. Since faith taps into a dimension of soul which transcends the limits of the individual’s identity, a gap is created between the infinite po­tential made possible by faith and one’s finite mind.

The teachings of the Alter Rebbe enable us to bridge this gap, because the Alter Rebbe explained how to bring our spiritual potentials that transcend intellect into the realm of understanding. To borrow from chassidic terminology, the Alter Rebbe showed us how to introduce emunah (which transcends intellectual categories) into the intellectual proc­ess called Chabad. (This word is an acronym formed by the initials of the Hebrew words, Chochmah, Binah, and Daas; lit., “wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.”) Through the teachings of Chabad, the functioning of our minds is shaped by the essential G‑dly power of our soul.

Ability to Take the Initiative

When a person develops a conscious relationship with G‑d, he gains mastery of his spiritual experience. As long as his divine service is centered on faith alone, it is dependent upon inspiration, a state in which the soul is aroused.10 If in­spiration is lacking, the fervor of commitment is reduced. However, because we have control over our thought proc­esses and can use our minds as we desire,11 when faith is internalized and drawn into the realm of intellect, a person can take the initiative in his spiritual growth.

The Previous Rebbe expressed these ideas succinctly:12 “The Baal Shem Tov revealed that we must serve G‑d, and the Alter Rebbe revealed how we can serve G‑d.” This statement was obviously not intended to disparage the divine service of those who do not follow the Chabad approach, but rather to emphasize the distinctive potential generated by Chabad, namely, the potential to equip every individual with the inner life-energy revealed by the Baal Shem Tov. Although this spiritual potential is fundamentally beyond human reach, the Chabad approach enables every individual to be in control of it, by internalizing it and making it part of his thought proc­esses.

Adding Vigor to Our Divine Service in Elul

In light of this, we can appreciate the connection between the birthdays of these chassidic masters and the month of Elul. Because the heavenly source of a person’s soul radiates powerfully on his birthday,13 the contributions of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe to our divine service are espe­cially potent on Chai Elul.

The vitality generated by the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings energizes the intensified divine service which characterizes the whole of Elul.14 Now unique to Elul is the concept re­flected in the verse, “I am my Beloved’s” — that man, rather than G‑d, takes the initiative in heightening the love relation­ship we share with Him.15 This aspect of Elul requires that man be capable of proceeding in his divine service on his own initiative. And this ability was granted us by the Alter Rebbe’s teachings.

The vitality which Chai Elul imparts to our divine service increases the blessings we will receive in the coming new year, assuring us all of a kesivah vachasimah tovah, with every Jew inscribed for a good and sweet year. May this include the greatest blessing — the coming of Mashiach,16 and may this take place in the immediate future.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XIX, Ki Savo/Chai Elul, and Chai Elul

The Previous Rebbe (Sefer HaSichos 5703, p. 142), quoting his father, the Rebbe Rashab.
Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. III, p. 946 (and in English translation: Vol. III, p. 235).
Shir HaShirim 6:3. As explained above (see the essays “A Time to Take Stock” and “The King in the Field”), the initial letters of the Hebrew words of this phrase,Ani VeDodi VeDodi Li, spell out the name Elul.
See the essay above entitled, “The King in the Field.”
See the maamar entitled Ki Imcha 5700, ch. 2, where this concept is explained at length.
Cf. Tanya, beginning of ch. 2, based on Iyov 31:2.
See Tanya, conclusion of ch. 42.
The Baal Shem Tov (see Tzavaas HaRivash, sec. 2) expresses this principle through a non-literal interpretation of the verse (Tehillim 16:8), “I have placed G‑d before me at all times.” Noting that the word h,hua, which literally means “I have placed,” is related semantically to the word vua meaning “equal”, the Baal Shem Tov explained: “When G‑d is before me, everything is equal; it is possible to maintain a connection with Him in all circumstances.”
Chavakuk 2:4. In Makkos 24b, our Sages state that the prophet Chavakuk under­stood this verse as the motivating principle of the entire Torah.
In this context, note the well-known non-literal interpretation of the above phrase of Chavakuk, by chassidic masters other than those of the Chabad school. A homi­letic change in vocalization transforms the Hebrew verb into causative mood, so that it reads not yichyeh (“A righteous man lives by his faith”), but yechayeh (“A righteous man imparts life by his faith”): through his own spiritual attainments, a tzaddik inspires the divine service of those who cleave to him.
The Alter Rebbe, however, opposed this approach. He required that the divine service of each of his chassidim be generated by his own hardwon efforts. See Likkutei Dibburim (English translation), Vol. I, p. 311.
See Tanya, ch. 12.
Sefer HaMaamarim 5708, p. 292.
Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 3:8.
The vitality imparted by Chai Elul and its total effect on our divine service is also reflected by the fact that this date is the first of the final twelve days of the year. The Rebbe Rayatz explains (in Sefer HaSichos 5703, pp. 177, 179) that these days are uniquely significant because on each of these twelve days, we are able to com­pensate for any deficiency in our divine service during the corresponding month of the year. Chai Elul enables us to compensate for deficiencies in the divine service of Tishrei, a month of comprehensive importance, as is seen from its various holi­days.
See the above essay entitled, “A King in the Field.”
The coming of Mashiach is a direct outgrowth of the spiritual import of Chai Elul, for it is the spreading of the wellsprings of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings that will hasten the coming of Mashiach. See the Baal Shem Tov’s letter to his brother-in-law, R. Gershon Kitover (Keser Shem Tov, sec. 1).
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