1. Chai Elul is connected with the birthdays of the two great luminaries, the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe. That connection is further emphasized by the fact that the farbrengen is held in a Shul and a Bais Medrash (House of Study), for the service of G-d which are associated with those places — prayer and study — constitute two kinds of service which were the hallmarks of these leaders.
The Baal Shem Tov’s connection to Torah study began even before he revealed himself as a teacher. In his youth he served as an aid in a Cheder, helping young children learn Alef-Bais, etc. The Alter Rebbe, as well, began making a contribution to Torah study before he assumed leadership of the Chassidic community. He established Chedarim with classes for scholars who were on different levels. He did not seek out only the select few, the most highly developed; rather, he accepted students whose levels not only did not approach his own but were lower than the full measure he would expect from a student.
This variety of levels in his Chedarim emphasized a basic principle: that Torah study must be adapted to the individual’s level of understanding. For example, the study of younger children should not consist of understanding the Talmud and its commentaries; rather, their goal is to study the Chumash and appreciate its simple meaning. This is the level they are capable of understanding and is best for them at that time in their lives. It represents their ultimate goal and complete fulfillment.
This principle gives us the strength and the incentive to carry on in our own service of Torah and Mitzvos. Without it, we might become disillusioned. After all, Torah teaches us that no matter how much effort we put into the study of Torah, and no matter how much we achieve, whatever we learn will be “nothing compared to the Torah of Mashiach.”
However, regardless of the level of our study, when it is weighed on the ultimate scale of perfection, for each person at each moment in time, in every place, his Torah study constitutes his complete fulfillment. On the surface it is difficult to understand how we can study Torah, make a Brocha before our study, and even render decisions in Torah laws — and do all this with joy — when we know that compared to Mashiach’s Torah, our study is of no importance. How can Torah itself teach that “every decision of a trained scholar was given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai,” when Mashiach’s coming will completely override the importance of that decision?
The answer is that G-d only asks according to our own abilities. He demands service that is relative to the powers He has given. He asks us to serve Him “Bechal Me’odecha” — with all your might — i.e. we must surpass and transcend our nature. But He specifies, “Your might” — a service that transcends your own nature. There is no arbitrary scale. Each one of us is judged individually. What is transcendent for one of us may lie within the normal confines of the service of another. Through transcending our own nature, each one according to his own individual level, we bring about a revelation of G-d’s transcendent energies.
[Translator’s note: The same concept applies to the other service mentioned above, the service of prayer. This service is related to the sacrifices, as our Sages commented: “the prayers were instituted in place of sacrifices.”] The ultimate perfection in the realm of sacrifices will come in Messianic times. Then, the sacrifices will be offered “according to the command of Your will.” Then the entire world, the human, animal, plant, and inert kingdoms (as frequently explained, a sacrifices includes all four of these elements) will attain their ultimate fulfillment. Nevertheless, when a Jew brought a sacrifice in the Bais HaMikdash, he fulfilled the Mitzvah completely. He brought G-d pleasure, as our Sages commented, “I received pleasure, since I commanded and My will was carried out.” There, too, the same principle operates. Even though in Messianic times the level of the sacrifices will be incomparably higher, nevertheless, at the time of the Bais HaMikdash this was what G-d desired, for “He only asks according to our strength.”
The same principle applies to the present occasion. Chai Elul is the birthday of the Alter Rebbe and the Baal Shem Tov. The AriZal explains that the spiritual influences of every past event can recur every year. On the verse, “These days were remembered and carried out,” he commented that if a holiday or occasion is commemorated properly, all the G-dly energies generated the first time will be brought into effect again. However, even when we commemorate an event properly, we must be a vessel to receive these revelations. How can we do so when the rungs of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe far surpass our own? Again, “G-d only asks according to our strength.” When we gather together and repeat their Torah (and that of their successors) “these days are remembered.” The spiritual energies are regenerated and we are able to receive them. Not only do we have a general feeling for the event, but we are able to internalize our experience and learn lessons applicable on the intellectual and emotional planes and more important, on the levels of thought, speech, and practical actions.(F)
This, in turn, will prepare us for the new year and the service of the month of Tishrei. The Rebbeim have taught that the last twelve days of Elul are “a day for a month” (the 18th corresponds to Tishrei, the 19th to Cheshvan, etc.) such that on each day, we can do Teshuvah and thereby compensate for anything that was lacking in the corresponding month of the past year. This service prepares us for the coming year, a Shemitah year, a year that is “a Shabbos unto G-d.” Then, in the near future, we will merit the fulfillment of the prophecy, “The departed will arise and sing,” with the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe among them. At that time we will learn Torah from them, as well as the Torah of Mashiach, speedily in our days.
2. The previous Rebbeim stressed the principle that a Jew must always progress. Even once he has reached a state of ultimate perfection, he cannot remain there but must strive for further heights. Since he has been given more time to live in this world, it is obvious that he should use that time to fulfill our Sages’ command, “Always proceed higher in holy matters” and seek an even more complete state of perfection.
Torah study and prayer are two means of progression. Prayer is described as “a ladder set upon the earth with its head extending above the heavens.” We proceed from the below to above, i.e. from Modeh Ani and Hodu L’Shem (the first prayers recited in the daily service), representing a low level: merely the acknowledgement of G-d’s mastery to the peak of Shemone Esrei, where we stand “like a slave before his master” (translator’s note: i.e. we have already achieved a direct personal relationship with G-d).
Torah study represents a different order of progression: “from above to below.” Our Sages use the verse, “Behold, My words are as fire” to describe Torah study. The Torah remains “My words” even after it has “Journeyed and descended until it becomes enclothed in a physical form, ink or parchment.” Torah takes G-d’s wisdom (and He and His wisdom are one) and brings it down to the point where it can be grasped by a child in his first stages of study.
The above concept relates to the service of Torah study and prayer. Based on the Mishnah, “The world (referring to the world at large, and also the individual world of every particular person stands on three things: Torah, Avodah (which refers to prayer), and Gemilus Chassadim (deeds of kindness). It is also proper to emphasize the third service.
All three types of service are necessary in order to prepare for the New Year. Therefore, to underscore their importance, the very name of the month of Elul serves as an acronym for three Biblical verses that describe each of these three kinds of service. The verse “Ina L’yado V’samti L’cha” (G-d ‘caused it to come to hand, and I will appoint for you, a place to which he will flee) describes the selection of the cities of refuge. This passage is related to the study of Torah, as our Sages commented, “The words of Torah provide refuge.” The verse, “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li” (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine) refers to the service of prayer. The verse “Ish L’rayayhu U’matonos L’evyonim” (sending portions each man to his friend and presents to the poor) refers to Gemilus Chassadim.
In order for these three types of service to be carried out completely, they must be charged with feelings of Teshuvah, The word “Elul” also serves as an acronym for another Biblical verse: “Es L’vovcha V’es L’vav” (G-d will circumcise ‘your heart and the heart’ of your children). This verse refers to the service of Teshuvah, since circumcision and Teshuvah are similar processes: both represent the removal of blocks and veils.
It was mentioned previously that Mashiach will reveal a level of Torah and Mitzvos incomparably higher than our own. Even though “G-d demands only according to our strength,” and our service now can bring us to the highest level of fulfillment possible in the here and now, we are still aware of the gap between our efforts and the future revelation. What should we do about this? The Baal Shem Tov explained: “The place where a person centers his thought is where he is to be found.” we must yearn and desire the revelation of Mashiach’s Torah: then we will “be found there.” To emphasize the point, the verse “Ashira L’Hashem Vayomru L’amor” — I will sing to G-d, and they spoke, saying — is interpreted by our Sages as a reference to the Messianic redemption, and it, too, is an acronym for the name Elul.
Today, Chai Elul, is literally translated as “the life of Elul.” The Previous Rebbe explained how Chai Elul must introduce new life into all the forms of services of Elul. May this service, inspired by the concept of the Messianic redemption, bring about that state speedily in our days.
3. Previously, I mentioned the stress placed by the previous Rebbeim on finding a practical application for each concept. In fact, this principle can be derived from an explicit statement of the Talmud: “Deed is most important.” In the previous farbrengen, I mentioned the need for establishing a special fund to help the needy celebrate the coming festivals in a proper manner. In the same way that before Pesach a separate fund — Maos Chittim — is established, now before Rosh Hashanah special monies should be raised.
Some people thought I spoke generally, not directing my remarks to them. Therefore, I feel the need to reiterate the request. The responsibility for this project rests first upon those who control Maos Chittim and then upon all those who participate in Maos Chittim. The more actively one is involved and the more generous his gift, the more praiseworthy his efforts are.
4. (Translator’s note: Some general information is necessary in order to understand the next Sicha. The Torah requires every loan to be “released” (i.e. that the obligation to pay it back be absolved) at the end of the seventh year (Shemitah). For this reason, many Jews ceased to lend money as the seventh year approached. To encourage loans, Hillel instituted a custom, the Pruzbol, which allows one to demand repayment even after the seventh year. The Pruzbol consists of making a Bais Din (the Jewish court) the agent for one’s loans. Then the loan is no longer a private matter. This can be done by writing up a legal document (Shtar, in Hebrew) or even by verbal agreement. In Shulchan Aruch the Alter Rebbe writes that today a Pruzbol is not obligatory since loans are generally made with either the expressed or understood condition that they be repaid even after the seventh year. Even so, he writes that “all who fear G-d” should make a Pruzbol. Basing his remarks on these facts, the Rebbe continued).
Another practical step is also necessary. In Shulchan Aruch the Alter Rebbe writes that the most appropriate time for making a Pruzbol is “at the end of the sixth year, before Rosh Hashanah of the seventh.”
It is necessary that the Rabbonim — teachers and community leaders in every place — find two other worthy individuals to join with them (thus constituting a Bais Din) and write a Shtar Pruzbol. In this manner, everyone can approach them and transfer their loans to them. True, a Shtar is not necessary; according to Shulchan Aruch, a verbal agreement is sufficient. However, it is easier to have one document prepared for everyone to sign. The Shtar has a further advantage. One of the conditions of the Pruzbol is that the borrower must own land. If he has no land of his own, the lender (or anyone else) can lease him a small portion of land for the purpose of making the Pruzbol. In America, where many own private homes, the Bais Din composing the Pruzbol could insure that this factor would be arranged.
The above applies even to those who don’t have outstanding loans or who would like to release them. They, too, should make a Pruzbol. By doing so they will demonstrate how dear they hold a command of our Sages and how they identify themselves with the Alter Rebbe, who writes that even though a Pruzbol is unnecessary, it should be composed.
To summarize with a practical statement, every rabbi should look into Shulchan Aruch for the proper phraseology. Then, together with two other “worthy” individuals, he should compose a Shtar. They should announce that all those who want to participate in the fulfillment of an ordinance that was in the time of the Bais HaMikdash a Torah law and now is a Rabbinic decree, and particularly all those who hold dear the opinion of the Alter Rebbe, should come and sign the Pruzbol.
It is good to remember that even though we are approaching the time when the prophecy, “there shall be no poor among you” will be fulfilled, a loan may be needed even by someone who is rich. May these efforts be spread and properly publicized and be carried out with joy and desire.
5. The Torah describes the Shemitah year as “a Shabbos unto G-d.” The Seporno explains that because of this cessation of work, “those who normally work the land will rest and be aroused to seek G-d.” Therefore, it is appropriate to increase our study of the Torah during Shemitah. This can also be understood from the comparison of Shemitah to Shabbos. The Medrash comments that “G-d commanded Moshe: ‘Make Me large gatherings on Shabbos to study Torah in public.’” The same principle should apply during the Shemitah year.
Why is there no explicit reference to this concept in the Talmud? Because it was self-understood. At that time, the large majority of the Jewish people were involved in farming. (Therefore when the prophet Isaiah wanted to portray a state of rest, he used the expression, “Each man under his vine and fig tree.”) Since agricultural work was prohibited, the Jews had free time to study Torah. If he studies all day but leaves one of his free moments empty, the Talmud declares that he is considered as one who “scorned the word of G-d,” and he is sentenced to be “cut off” in this world and in the next world.
The need for an increase in Torah study applies not only in the Land of Israel, but in the Diaspora. There, too, Shemitah is a factor, as mentioned before with regard to the release of loans. Furthermore, the spiritual aspects of Shemitah are not limited by physical space and apply inside and outside the Land of Israel. According to some opinions, Jews in earlier. times stopped much of their agricultural work before Rosh Hashanah. Based on that premise, it follows that we should begin our increase in Torah study now.
A question arises: now we must use our free time for Torah study as it is. How can we increase our study further? My intention is that we should take of our time which is not free: from the time usually spent on business necessities. Concerning Shemitah, the Torah reassures us that we need not worry about financial need, promising that G-d will “command His blessings.” The same holds true in the present situation. G-d will insure that the same amount of money can be earned with less work and shorter hours.
It is also proper to increase prayer this year. The Shemitah is parallel to Shabbos, and on Shabbos prayer is a central element. In Torah Or, the Alter Rebbe comments on the statement of the Talmud: With difficulty the Sages allowed the discussion of Torah on Shabbos.” He explains that the reason for the supposition that Torah was prohibited on Shabbos was because the most prominent service of Shabbos is prayer. The connection between prayer and the Shemitah year can also be seen in the Seporno’s expression, “Aroused to seek G-d.” The concept of seeking G-d is more closely related to prayer than to study. When learning our awareness of G-d is only the beginning of our study. In the middle, we become involved in the intellectual understanding of the law. Prayer, on the other hand, is by its very nature the act of “seeking G-d.” Tefillah, the Hebrew word for prayer, means connection — a bond between Jew and G-d.
To increase in prayer means to spend more time in meditation before prayer and/or to lengthen the time spent in prayer itself. This increase must also begin thirty days before Rosh Hashanah. It is particularly appropriate in view of the special relation between prayer and the month of Elul.
The above also relates to women In Chassidus it is explained that Rosh Hashanah is related to the Sefira of Malchus, the spiritual counterpart of women. Therefore, they must be involved in the three kinds of service necessary as preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Regarding Gemilus Chassadim, the Talmud teaches that a woman’s charity is greater than a man’s. She is found at home and can provide a poor man with food immediately upon his asking.
Regarding prayer, it is customary for women to pray daily — if not the whole service, then at least a “short prayer.” Today, women generally recite the entire prayer service at least once a day, and some recite all three prayers.
Regarding Torah study, the women are required to know all the laws that they are obligated to perform. How wonderful it would be if their husbands would study and remember as much as the women are required to know.
These activities will lead to the coming of Mashiach and the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in Israel with the complete redemption, including “our youth and our elders, our sons and our daughters,” “who will take their gold and silver with them.”
- (Back to text) At that point, the Maggid was the leader of the Chassidic community. Our Sages have taught that there is only one leader per generation. Therefore, even though the Alter Rebbe was later to assume that role, his potential was not yet revealed.
- (Back to text) At times, the Halachic perspective of Torah study conflicts with and even overrules the simple meaning of the Chumash. Nevertheless, at the moment the child is learning, that study represents his ultimate level of fulfillment for that time and place.
- (Back to text) The question is reinforced by our awareness of the continuous spiritual decline seen over the generations, as our Sages commented, “If the first generations were considered angels, we are considered men.” In view of this great decline, and in view of the greater elevation to come in Messianic times, how can Torah say that a decision from a Sage of this generation was “given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai”?
- (Back to text) The above applies to a sacrifice brought in the second Bais HaMikdash as well. There, the spiritual level was lower than in the first Bais HaMikdash. Nevertheless, all the sacrifices were brought.
- (Back to text) Rav Mendel Horadokar stated that “the Baal Shem Tov’s level was unique” — totally transcending even the rung of his successor, the Maggid of Meseritch. Likewise, the Alter Rebbe represented an extraordinary level. He possessed a “new soul” and was destined, as emphasized by his name “Schneur” — a combination of the Hebrew words Shnei Or, two lights — to illuminate the world with the light of Chassidus and the light of revealed Torah law.
- (Back to text) Chassidic thought emphasizes finding a “bechane;” a practical application for every concept learnt.
- (Back to text) The Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya how the letters of the Torah are rooted “above comprehensible knowledge” in the “primary levels of G-d’s wisdom.” When studying Torah a child relates to even these high levels of G-dliness.
- (Back to text) As our Sages commented, “Man is a small world, and the world a large body.”
- (Back to text) This is particularly true since each new year reveals “a new, more elevated divine light ... a more elevated light than has ever shone since the beginning of the world.”
- (Back to text) As the Talmud comments, “The words of our Sages are dearer to me than the words of Torah.”
- (Back to text) The above is—particularly true in light of the importance the Previous Rebbe placed on He would teach children to do so at an early age, to ingrain the tendency within their nature.
- (Back to text) Therefore, there is room to say that in Messianic times, loans will still be given.
- (Back to text) This particularly holds true for the Land of Israel, which was noted for its agricultural work. The Medrash relates that Avraham decided that Israel was a fit land when he saw how its people were involved in weeding and hoeing the land.
- (Back to text) On Shabbos we have an additional prayer service, Mussaf. This emphasizes the need for an increase in our service of prayer, in fact the word Mussaf means “additional.”
- (Back to text) The Alter Rebbe writes that during prolonged study it is proper to renew one’s awareness of G-d every hour.