Chai = Life

Friday, 12 September, 2014 - 12:37 pm

There was a time in Jewish history when a majority of European Jews felt religiously disenfranchised. Discriminatory laws and difficult circumstances made it very tough to put bread on the table. Most were unable to afford a proper education for their children and many were just barely literate enough to read the prayerbook without even understanding what they were reciting. The Cossack uprising of the mid-17th century wiped out a third of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe (some argue as many as a half a million - proportionately equal to the Holocaust). This left thousands of Jewish orphans wandering throughout Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. This was followed by the tragic Shabbetai Tzvi false-Messiah debacle, which led to a spiritual and emotional decimation of the Jewish people and their hopes for a brighter future. In short the Jews were overwhelmingly depleted in every possible way.

The scholarly elite chose to isolate themselves and remain aloof and often indifferent to the pain and disenfranchisement of the masses. Jews were religiously observant – but were just going through the motions. They simply did not know better nor did they have the energy or the capability to access the knowledge and inspiration to make their Judaism more meaningful.

Another fallout of the Sabbatean tragedy and his abuse of Kabbala was the relegation of Kabbala to near non-use. As a result even the scholars were left with the discussions of Talmud and Halacha, but the spiritual teachings of our faith were often neglected and rejected. Their worship and relationship with Hashem suffered as a result as well.

It was onto this scene that Baal Shemtov (Israel ben Eliezer - 1698-1760) arrived. The movement that he founded and the teachings that he spread were meant to breathe a new vitality into both segments of Jewish society. The simple folk were given to see how Hashem values their sincerity and dedication. Using simple messages that conveyed deep ideas, the Baal Shemtov taught about the soul, the value of joy, the importance of love for one another, the beauty within every Mitzvah and Jewish practice, and the personal relationship that every Jew can have with Hashem. He also began to reveal new depths in the understanding of Torah thus enriching the Judaism of the scholars as well.

These innovations were not without opposition, especially from the scholarly elite, who saw their monopoly over meaningful Jewish life erode. All of a sudden simple unlettered folk were empowered to have a vibrant Jewish life. As time went on and the movement grew, the opposition became more muted. A few decades later, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, took the Baal Shemtov’s cause to the next level. Until then the Judaism of the simple Jews was elevated and enlivened because they realized that they could serve G-d regardless of their ignorance. Rabbi Schenur Zalman turned the teachings of the Baal Shemtov into an intellectual discipline – a program for life that could transform the person from the mind down and not just from the heart up. This injected even greater vitality into the lives of both the simple and more learned of our people.

In short the Baal Shemtov and Rabbi Schenur Zalman revived the Jewish people from a state of comatose to rich, vibrant, alive and full of vitality.

By Divine Providence these two great men share a birthday. They were both born on the 18th of Elul (this Shabbat). As we know eighteen is Chai – life. It is no accident that the ones who brought life to our nation would be born on the day of life – Chai. This Shabbat we reflect on the gratitude we have to them and their teachings and the life it has given us. It is also a day to inject further Chai – life and vitality into our Judaism and relationship with Hashem.

May we be inscribed in the book of life – not just life on auto pilot, but a vibrant life of serving Hashem with joy and vitality free of any obstacles and troubles. May Hashem bless us with a happy, healthy, prosperous and meaningful new year.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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