1 1. Mazel-Tov to us and to all of Israel! On this day the two luminaries were revealed: today is the birthday of our mentor the Baal Shem Tov and of the Alter Rebbe.2

Our mentor the Baal Shem Tov was born on Monday, the 18th of Elul, in the year 5458 (1698). When the Alter Rebbe came home from his first visit to Mezritch, he told the married young men who were his devoted disciples that while he was there, the Rebbe3 told him that the year of the Baal Shem Tov’s birth has two distinguishing signs: (a) the Hebrew letters that indicate the year 5458 are תנ"ח, which when transposed comprise the word נחת (nachas – “peacefulness, a sense of fulfillment”);4 (b) in that year, the Shelah (Shnei Luchos HaBris) was reprinted with clear typography, in Amsterdam.5

2. It is significant that both birthdays fall on Chai Elul, for both of those [pioneers of Chassidus] introduced vitality (chayus) into the avodah of [teshuvah through love initiated by the davener, and that mode of teshuvah is represented by the words], Ani leDodi, veDodi li – “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.” [The initials of those four words in the Holy Tongue spell אלול – Elul.] Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe had mesirus nefesh to enable every Jew, scholarly or not, to yearn for an inner vitality. They revealed the path of Chassidus, which enables even ordinary, unlettered Jews to live with inner vitality.

* * *

Two similar names can have two distinct meanings. In relation to joy, for example: a bar simchah is someone whose state of mind results from a revelation of simchah, whereas a baal simchah (lit., “a master of joy”) is someone who creates the simchah. So, too, a baal Shem is someone who is master over the activity of the name.6

Our mentor, the Baal Shem, was not only a baal Shem as distinct from a bar Shem. Beyond that, he was also at the level of being called the Baal Shem Tov, because his mastery over the Divine Name enabled him to draw down the good from Above and implant it within Jews down here below, and also to elevate them to the level of good, Above.

3. It is written,7 “Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” [This means that G‑d’s word, such as the creative utterance,8 “Let there be heavens in the midst of the waters,” stands firmly forever, and at every instant recreates the heavens afresh, ex nihilo.] The Alter Rebbe cites this interpretation in chapter 1 of Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, even though it appears in Midrash Tehillim on the above-quoted verse from Tehillim. He had a particular reason for doing so, namely: The above creative utterance was issued on the second day of Creation, and this serves as an everlasting reminder that on Monday, [Chai Elul,] the Baal Shem Tov was born.9

4. One day in 5658 (1898), my father took me with him from a summer resort to Lubavitch. The two-way trip took almost four hours – enough time to hear a complete concept from him, and to tune into it.

On the way to Lubavitch my father told me that he would ask my grandmother – [his mother,] Rebbitzin Rivkah – to relay to me oral traditions that she had heard from her great-uncle, the learned tzaddik Reb Chaim Avraham,10 from her father-in-law the Tzemach Tzedek, and from her mother-in-law, Rebbitzin Chayah Moussia.11 Fortunately, my grandmother was not occupied at that time, though she was usually busy helping some poor family put together a mitzvah-celebration.12

5. My father’s trips followed a precise routine. He would rise very early and daven, and then observe his regular study sessions. At 9:30 he would set out for Lubavitch and study all the way. This time, however, he devoted all of his time, both on the way there and back, to speaking with me. No words can express the joy in my soul that those words of his impressed upon me and within me.

As we approached Lubavitch, my father said: “Once at yechidus, my father (the Rebbe Maharash) told me: ‘You will savor the inner relish of this subject only after you have heard a certain oral tradition from my mother (Rebbitzin Rivkah) which she heard from my father (the Tzemach Tzedek). She is a true repository of oral traditions.”13

This time, too, in accordance with his custom whenever he came to Lubavitch, the first thing he did on his arrival was to observe the mitzvah of honoring his mother by visiting her in her apartment. She had already prepared a steaming samovar in the reception room together with sweet pastries, the blessing over which was undoubtedly mezonos. He poured and served her a cup of tea, and I did the same for him.

My father first answered all her questions about the summer resort – whether there was a suitable place to take a stroll, and the like. He then asked her if it would not be hard for her to tell me stories and oral traditions from her parents concerning situations at which she was present, and concerning incidents that she had heard about from reliable people who had either witnessed them, or had heard about them from reliable sources.

My father then told his mother: “The melamdim Yekusiel and Nissan made it their custom to tell the children stories at the end of every school day, and that gave Yosef Yitzchak an appetite to hear stories of tzaddikim. Nissan, his melamed, also allowed him to read and copy various stories that the old melamed in Lubavitch, Reb Nissan Ber, had written down, concerning the period in which the Alter Rebbe had studied in Lubavitch under the maggid, Reb Yissachar Dov.14

“That aged chassid, Reb Nissan Dov,15 saw the Baal Shem Tov four times and heard Torah teachings and stories. He also met Reb Yosef Yitzchak, the Alter Rebbe’s learned uncle, and Reb Baruch, the Alter Rebbe’s saintly father. Reb Nissan Dov was in Mezritch when the Alter Rebbe first arrived to study at the feet of the Maggid, and described the extraordinary marks of closeness that the Maggid showed ‘The Young Veteran.’ That was the nickname that the Maggid’s elder disciples gave the Alter Rebbe, because though he was the youngest student there, he was the most seasoned veteran when it came to receiving the teachings of the Maggid.”

In conclusion, my father told his mother: “Since the time of Yosef Yitzchak’s bar-mitzvah, he has been collecting stories, and I’m very happy about that.”

My grandmother responded: “I nurtured myself on the stories of our holy forebears, of the Mezritcher Maggid and of the Baal Shem Tov. I don’t remember my father,16 but my mother17 used to tell us various stories, and my grandmother, Rebbitzin Sheine,18 was very warm towards us.

“When I was nine years old, our mothergave me a handwritten book in which my father had recorded stories of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, and of the Mezritcher Maggid and his disciples, and of the famed chassidim of Shklov. I dearly cherished my father’s book, and read it every day until I knew each of its stories perfectly.

“In honor of my marriage to your father,19 my mother gave me another two of my father’s manuscript books. In one he recorded whatever he had heard about the Alter Rebbe, and also whatever he himself had seen of the Rebbe and had heard from him. In the second book he described the conduct of his father-in-law, the Mitteler Rebbe, as well as a number of other narratives.”

6. In the course of the five years [since the age of bar-mitzvah] that I had been writing memoirs in my diary, the process of recording the entries that described events and sights worthy of preserving fell into a certain pattern. I first made very brief, orderly notes, and later wrote them up fully and precisely.

On that blessed Monday, my grandmother’s narration of each one of her numerous historical accounts and oral traditions was organized and alive. I could sense that she was reliving each incident and each era. It was that richly relived experience of hers that I endeavored, as far as is possible, to capture in my writing. I also endeavored to communicate, at least to some extent, the intensity of feeling that the present narrator experienced when he himself heard each of her stories, for in the course of the several hours during which my grandmother told them, and in the course of the time during which I recorded them, I too had a sensation of reliving those experiences. They became deeply engraved within me. I developed a mental picture of the personalities involved and of their lives – and that is the living verbal picture that I painted in my diary.

Today I would like to share with you just two of that day’s stories. In her words:

(i) “By the time I was thirteen years old, I had already written up many stories that I had heard from my grandmother, Rebbitzin Sheine, and from my mother, and also from my mother’s sisters, my aunts. I always noted where and when I had heard each story, and from whom. At that time I would gather together the little girls of the family and tell them stories that I knew – of the Baal Shem Tov and the Mezritcher Maggid, and of our forebears, the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe. When my uncle, the Tzemach Tzedek, heard about this, he called for me and asked me where I had heard so many stories. I told him that I had heard them from my mother and grandmother, and that I also had a manuscript book of my father’s. He was very pleased and asked me to bring him the book so that he could read it through. In his words, ‘A story told by your father ought to be learned.’

(ii) “In 5609 (1849) I became the Tzemach Tzedek’s daughter-in-law, the wife of your grandfather (the Rebbe Maharash). My father-in-law called together all of his daughters-in-law who were in Lubavitch – my sister-in-law Rebbitzin Chanah lived near her father, the Cherkasser Rebbe – and told them that they should make a point of telling a story of the Baal Shem Tov every Motzaei Shabbos. We asked him whether he meant that we should simply mention the Baal Shem Tov or that we should tell a story about him. He answered, ‘A story, of course!’ From that time on, every Motzaei Shabbos one of his daughters-in-law would go and hear a Baal Shem Tov story from him, and then she would repeat it to everyone.”

7. The Alter Rebbe devoted considerable attention to educating his sons and grandsons in the paths of Chassidus. For example, he urged them after school hours to spend time in the company of chassidim in order to hear what they had to relate. As I have already told you, my great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek used to write down whatever he heard from the Alter Rebbe at yechidus, and also various things that he had heard from elder chassidim.

The Mitteler Rebbe had begun to farbreng with chassidim at age fourteen. The Tzemach Tzedek began to farbreng with chassidim and rouse them to follow the spiritual lifestyle of chassidim, at age seventeen. Once, at a powerful farbrengen with his chassidim in 5579 (1819), he said that in the court of the Baal Shem Tov, when no candles were left, they would light icicles, whereas now, he said, the knowledgeable and intellectual chassidim were frigid. The Tzemach Tzedek also said that the Baal Shem Tov was very fond of light, pointing out that the word אור (ohr – “light”) is numerically equivalent to רז (raz – “secret”).20 A person who knows the secret within any entity can diffuse light.

It once happened that the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov were distressed because they were left with only one candle. He was about to join them and they knew that he loved light. What should they do? He duly entered and said: “Among Jews, there must be light. My Divine service is to bring light to the Jews.”

When his disciples told him that they couldn’t find any more than this one candle, he told them to take icicles hanging from the roof and light them. They did so and the icicles burned.

In a singsong of spiritual rapture, the Tzemach Tzedek then said: “For the chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov, icicles blazed and gave off light. For chassidim today, it’s dark and cold.”

[Once, after my father recounted this episode, he concluded:] “My grandfather (the Tzemach Tzedek) released in his chassidim the ‘constantly blazing fire’21 in their souls, so that the spiritual lifestyle of Chassidus should light up their homes. Thus, wherever they may be in the ends of the wide world, they will succeed in radiating the light of the Torah.”

[8.] The Alter Rebbe and the saintly Reb Mendele Vitebsker once traveled to Vilna in order to explain to the Gaon the approach of Chassidus according to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.In his youth, Reb Mendele had studied under the celebrated Reb Yosef Pinsker, and later under Reb Yissachar Ber Lubavitcher.22

When the Alter Rebbe came home after his first visit to Mezritch, he had discovered the blazing light of Chassidus, enwrapped in the cold scholarship of the revealed level of the Torah.

Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was deliberate by nature. When he was asked he would answer: “The Rebbe23 said that the mission of my soul in This World is to let people know that they are lacking something; they should know what is lacking; and they should want to replenish that which is lacking.”

[9.] The Alter Rebbe was born in 5505 (1745). Until he was eleven years old he studied under Reb Yissachar Ber Lubavitcher, who then returned him to his father, explaining that the Alter Rebbe no longer needed him.

The Alter Rebbe avoided being noticed. If people had known who he really was, they would have taken him to the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov, however, did not want to encourage the notion that he should be brought to him. In fact, he obscured himself from him overtly, and only secretly did he reveal the Alter Rebbe’s stature to the Maggid.

[10.] The Alter Rebbe once said that the basis for the Chabad school of thought24 was already born in his mind when he was in Lubavitch – because he once heard a teaching in which Reb Yissachar Ber spoke of intellect that is influenced by one’s will,25 and will that is influenced by one’s intellect.26 It was then that the first seeds of the Chabad school of thought appeared.27

[11.] In the year 5566 (1806), my great-grandfather the Tzemach Tzedek used to deliver finely-honed and intricate interpretations of teachings of the Sages, in the spirit of Chassidus.

On one such occasion he discussed the fact that an entry in the communal registry28 of Liozna refers to the Alter Rebbe by the rare deferential title of tanna upalig.”29 Regarding the original phrase, Rav tanna hu upalig, the author of the Aruch30 cites three teachings of the Sages in which Rav is referred to as a tanna: (a) in Berachos, in a discussion as to whether gratitude must be expressed both at the beginning and at the conclusion of the second blessing of the Grace After a Meal; (b) in Shabbos, in a discussion of the circumcision and immersion of the son of a maidservant; (c) in Kesubbos, [in a discussion of property rights]. On that occasion, the Tzemach Tzedek explained the mystical significance of the title “rav” in terms of Chassidus and avodah. Later, when the Alter Rebbe was told of that explanation, he responded: “Blessed be G‑d for enabling me to hear it. The guidance has succeeded!”

[12.] Meat is rendered kosher for consumption by salting, the forbidden blood being removed in three stages – soaking, salting, and rinsing. Their parallels in terms of avodah are: Soaking, which means immersing oneself in the words of one’s Rebbe; salting, which means meeting him at yechidus; and rinsing, which means singing a niggun. If a person immerses himself in the words of his Rebbe to the point that he is aroused to meet him at yechidus, and then sings a chassidisher niggun, his “meat” is kosher: his physical flesh becomes a means for the revelation of the soul.