Chai Elul—A Rosh HaShana Teaching for the Baal Shem Tov’s Birthday

Rosh HaShana 5781 / 2020
Sarah Yehudit Schneider—

The 18th day of this month of Elul marks the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov (R. Yisrael ben Eliezer), the revolutionary founder of the chassidic movement. The Baal Shem Tov was certainly a brilliant thinker but this was not his prime distinction. Rather, he translated the most exalted mystical ideas into a practical worldview that could be followed by accomplished scholars and simple-folk alike. Chassidut stresses the profound importance of prayer, love of God, and the unconditional love of one’s fellow Jews. He taught that even if we were not blessed with the ability or opportunity to be a Torah scholar, we can still reach great spiritual heights through these other channels.  On one hand, he said nothing new; he simply transmitted the same time-honored Jewish teachings that had passed through the generations from Sinai. On the other hand, he transformed the observance of Judaism at its core.

The symbolic correspondences to his birth date coincide with the two pillars of his inspired teachings—his emphasis on love and lifeLove in the sense that the letters of the word Elul (his birth month) are the acronym of a verse from Song of Songs, “I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me” (אני לדודי ודודי לי)[1]. Elul is the month that Hashem (with great affection) makes Him/Her/Itself especially available to us down here on the earthly plane.  R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi characterized this aspect of Elul as: “the King is in field,” meaning that His/Her/Its Presence is as accessible down here (in the trenches, so to speak) as in the heavenly realms.[2]

And life, because the date of his birth, eighteen, is the numerical equivalent of the word chai / life / חי. Also, because chayim (life) is really the over-arching theme of these times. The Talmud advises us to use these pre Rosh HaShana days to examine our deeds and make a plan of self-improvement that will, hopefully, earn our inscription in the mysterious Book of Life.

I say mysterious because it’s actually not at all clear what it means to be written in that Book of Life. Many would say, “What’s your problem? It means to make it through the year alive. With sufficient merit, you live, if not, you don’t.” Yet, obviously, that cannot be what it means. There are just too many holy souls fated with early demise, and far too many psychopaths that prosper year after year. And then there is the holocaust (and the like) where righteous millions die in their prime while their slayers live to a ripe old age. Could it really mean that the live-ers have more merit then the die-ers.

So if we agree that the Book of Life is not literal, then what is it? What are we praying for when we say: “Remember us for life, King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your sake, Living G-d.” (זָכְרֵנוּ לְחַיִּים, מֶלֶךְ חָפֵץ בַּחַיִּים, וְכָתְבֵנוּ בְּסֵפֶר הַחַיִּים, לְמַעַנְךָ אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים).[3]

The teachings I am about to mention are from three of the Baal Shem Tov’s most illustrious spiritual offspring (R. Tsadok HaKohen[4], the Beit Yakov[5] and the Baal HaTanya[6]).

Tsadok notes that Rosh Hashana is actually a very strange Yom Tov. True it is actually a Yom Nora (an awesome day), but it is also a festive day. As we know that “celebrates” the birthday of humankind. Adam and Chava were born on Rosh HaShana, and they contained the souls of all humanity within them. But R. Tsadok asks, why do we celebrate that as a holiday, given the famous debate between Hillel and Shamai about the joys versus the pains of life.

The Talmud reports that Hillel and Shamai debated this matter for two and a half years: נוח לו שנברא או שלא נברא—Is it preferable to be born or to not be born.[7] And as we know, in the end Hillel capitulates to Shammai and agrees, “you’re right, its better to not be born,” given the unavoidable dangers of backsliding, trauma and sin.  But since we’re here, we’ve got no option but to roll up our sleeves, get to work, and bring our lives into line with spiritual law, ie Torah.”

Yet the Beit Yakov draws our attention to a detail that is often overlooked in this debate.[8] He notes that actually the issue is not whether it is preferable to be born on the level of tov (ie whether the good of it outweighs the bad).  Rather the debate is about nochut: Is it more pleasant for the soul to be born or for it to stay lounging in the heavenly Riviera basking in the blissful radiance of Divine Presence. Life is a lot of work. On the level of nochut (נוח לו שלא נברא…better to not be born). Hillel gave it a good try, but he was pulling at straws…on the scale of ease/comfort/luxury…heaven is the place to be.

But, says the Beit Yakov, on the level of good (tov), there is no debate.  It is definitely better to be born than to not be born. There’s no contest. Every moment without exception (says the Leshem) brings more tov into the world and into each of our souls.[9]  For really, says he, when you boil things down, the essence of tov is consciousness (אין טוב אלא תורה)[10].  There is no sliver of good that does not (in its enjoyment) expand our capacity to know HaShem (at least a hair’s breadth).

And so, says the Bet Yakov, on the scale of tov, earth has it over heaven.  In shamayim you can bask, but you can’t transform, or earn merit, or actualize potential. In short, you can’t acquire more tov. For that the soul must come down into a body and engage with the physical world. It is matter scraping against matter that scores transformation into the soul and thus expands its capacity for consciousness, ie. tov.

This all sounds nice on paper.  But it certainly doesn’t feel like tov increases every moment without exception. There are just too many tragedies in the world…and heartbreaks.

That, says Baal HaTanya, is because there are two kinds of good. There is revealed good, which is what we pray for, say mazal tov about, and wish upon our children.  And there is concealed good, which is what we seek to avoid and say G-d forbid about.  Concealed good is often so well concealed it appears as its opposite…ie bad.[11]

And that brings us round to our mysterious Book of Life, and our striving at this time of year to get inscribed in it. So what are we asking for, exactly?

Basically we are asking that the growth that HaShem expects from us this year should happen through paths of revealed good—through picking the high road and even preferring it—through passing the test because (בָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים) we chose life at every crossroads.  We are praying to do it that way, instead of accomplishing our growth through wrong choices and ego deaths and concealed good.

And so on this propitious day of Chai Elul, this convergence of love and life, I want to bless us individually and collectively that we should be inscribed for perpetuity in the Book of Life—that the gates of grace that are open in this moment should stay open, and they should (תודיענו אורח חיים)[12] “reveal to [us] the path of life” —the most spiritually productive option in any given moment. And we should choose that option with a whole heart because it really is (and has become) our first choice. That’s what it means to be inscribed in the Book of Life.  L’chayim.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה


[1] SHS 6:3.
[2] R. Shneur Zalman bases statement on the rabbinic teaching that interprets the verse “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near” (Isaiah 55:6) as referring to Elul and the special accessibility of HaShem at this time.
[3] The verse inserted into the first blessing of the Amida during the Ten Days of Teshuva from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur.
[4] R. Tsadok HaKohen 1823-1900).
[5] R. Yaakov Lainer (1820-1878), the son and subsequent Rebbe of the Ishbitzer (Mei HaShiloach).
[6] R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (mentioned above), the Baal HaTanya, Alter Rebbe of Chabad (1745-1813).
[7] TB Eruvin 13b.
[8] Beit Yakov on Bereshit, Intro.
[9] Leshem, HaDrush Olam HaTohu (HDOH), Maamar Klali (intro) p 5.
[10] Avot 6:3.
[11] Tanya, chapter 26.
[12] Psalms 16:11 (although I changed the singular verb to plural.) תוֹדִיעֵנִי אֹרַח חַיִּים.

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