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Torah for the Times

Torah for the Times

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TORAH FOR THE TIMES 
  
 
 
 
Torah Reading: Eikev: Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
Haftora: Isaiah 60:1 - 22
 
Shabbat Candle Lighting: 6:58 PM
Shabbat Ends: 7:56 PM 
 
Pirkei Avot - Chapter 3&4

 

B"H

 

LCHAIM-TO LIFE!
 
This Shabbat occurs on the 18th of Elul, known as Chai Elul. This is a day that carries much significance, inasmuch as it is the birthday of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, 312 years ago, and of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe,” the founder of the Chabad branch of the Chassidic movement, 265 years ago. That these two saintly leaders were born of the 18th day of the month of Elul tells us something about their contribution to the Jewish people.
 
It is well known that the number 18 in Hebrew is indicated by the letters chet and yud, together they form the word chai, which means life. It has been suggested that these two luminaries instilled life into the Jewish people in unprecedented ways through their innovative teachings and approach.
 
What this means in simple terms is that the Chassidic movement—of which these two rabbi were founders and leaders —did not change Judaism. What they did was to instill new life into it. This they did by exposing its inner soul; unleashing the true and vital nature of Judaism. 
 
One verse in this week’s parsha may help us to understand the nature of these great leaders and how they so profoundly affected the Jewish people.
 
In this week’s parsha, Moses utters the worst curses to the people in the event that they turn away from G‑d’s commandments. Chassidic Masters averred that, in essence, these curses are “hidden blessings,” the full import of which will become manifest in the Messianic Age. Our efforts today at doing good—and thereby converting the curses in our lives and in the world around us into blessings—are the forces that will help us unleash the positive energy from these otherwise frightening predictions. It can be compared to nuclear energy, which can either be used as man’s most lethal weapon or harnessed for incredible good. It depends on our intentions. 
 
In one verse, the Torah speaks of how G‑d will bring upon the people a “plague that is not written in this Torah.” Following that, Moses continues, “You will remain few in number.” 
 
There are two things here that we must try to understand:
 
First, what is the meaning of a “plague that is not written in this Torah?”
 
Second, why is the effect of this plague—that we will remain few in number—not mentioned in connection with other devastating calamities that would surely drastically reduce our numbers?
 
According to the Midrash, the “unwritten curse” refers to the death of righteous Torah scholars and leaders. 
 
Some commentators explain that the righteous leaders of the Jewish people were the transmitters of the Oral Torah—the parts of the Torah that were handed down to Moses at Sinai and were transmitted orally until they were finally put into writing in the Talmud—represent the teachers. Hence the plague is described as one that was not written in the Torah, referring to the loss of those who taught the oral teachings of Judaism. 
 
We can now understand why their death leads to the diminution of the number of the Jewish people. Whenever we lose the knowledge of Judaism because the transmitters of Torah are no longer with us—either because they left us, or we lost contact with them—the Jewish people lose touch with the teachings of the Torah and their numbers dwindle. We are tragically witnessing the loss of Jews through assimilation these last few centuries. And in most cases it is directly attributable to their lack of knowledge of the Torah, particularly the oral traditions.
 
But there is a deeper way of understanding the connection between the demise of the righteous leaders and why their passing causes the diminution of the Jewish people. And it is this dimension of their lives that will help us understand the significance of the day of Chai/life Elul.
 
When people are alive they possess a force that not only enables them to function as a living entity, but this force/soul also unifies all parts of their beings into one organic whole. A dead person’s limbs can also be moved and made to function, but there are obviously two things missing: First, these movements are not voluntary. Second, the various parts that are moved are moved independently of each other.  
 
A living person’s entire body, by contrast, is one cohesive whole where all parts work in concert with each other.  
 
When the Jewish people are without proper leadership, they are as a nation that consists of so many disparate entities that are only marginally connected to each other. It is thus only when we speak of the soul of the Jewish nation, represented by its spiritual leaders, that we can talk of it as a living nation that consists of many cohesive and interdependent parts. 
 
In other words, when we sense disunity and distance between one Jew and another, we become a very small nation, qualitatively and also quantitatively. We cannot then all be counted as part of the same nation because we lack that which binds us together as a nation. It’s only when there is a coordinating force that sees the underlying unity of all Jews that makes us a great and numerous people. It is the soul factor that we possess—and the spiritual leaders recognize, cultivate and reveal that enables us to be viewed as one nation that consists of multiple parts all working together. In doing so we create this incredible mosaic, which is, simultaneously, the most unified piece of art because it consists of so many multitudinous and diverse hues and shapes. 
 
When these righteous leaders’ souls are introduced to the world they serve not only as leaders, teachers and mentors. If they did only that, their contributions to the people would still be formidable. But the greatest spiritual leaders—such as the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe—did much more than that; they succeeded in penetrating beneath the surface of the Torah’s teachings and of the Jew and, sought out and uncovered their inner soul, and thereby revealing their internal cohesiveness and harmony. 
 
Thus, the Torah, when discussing the loss of these great leaders (“The plague that is not written in the Torah”), follows it with the result of their demise—they remain few in number; the Jewish people lose not only their stature, but they are diminished in number as well; for individuals are only able to be counted as constituent members of a group, when there is some unifying force that keeps them together.
 
This is the meaning of the “curse” that when the leaders are gone it diminishes the actual number of Jews since they lack the spiritual ingredient that transforms a scattered number of disparate individuals into one group consisting of so many beautiful hues and colors.
 
And this is one aspect of the significance of Chai-the 18th of Elul. With the introduction of the Ba’al Shem Tov and Rabbi Schnur Zalman and their teachings that illuminated the souls of the Jewish people with the inner dimension of Torah, they instilled new life into the Jewish nation and, in a certain sense, increased their numbers exponentially as well.
    
It may be suggested, that an additional reason why the death of the righteous is characterized as a “plague that is not written in this Torah,” is to underscore that it cannot be written in the Torah for that would guarantee its inevitability. By not overtly enunciating this plague, the Torah alludes to the belief—discussed in Kabbalah—that the souls of the righteous never truly leave this world. This is especially true of those souls whose lives were devoted to instilling life into the Jewish nation by focusing on their inner spiritual identities, as were the souls of the Ba’al Shem Tov and R. Schneur Zalman. 
 
Their emphasis on the inner light of Torah might also be alluded to in the description of this “curse” (read; hidden blessing) as “not written in this Torah,” because it alludes to the inner, esoteric and concealed soul of Torah that, by definition, cannot be articulated, that they revealed and disseminated. 
 
With this novel interpretation we can suggest that the follow up statement in the Torah that we will become a numerically diminished people can also to be understood in a positive fashion.  This verse seems to echo another verse that refers to the Jewish people as the “smallest of all the nations.” The term “small” is also understood to mean that we possess the trait of humility. We have acquired this trait as a result of our acute awareness of G‑d’s greatness through all of the miracles He performed for us, as well as through all the teachings of the Torah that have made His presence so vivid in our minds and hearts. 
 
And here is how we can reinterpret the curse that it should read as a blessing:
 
When we are “afflicted” (read: blessed) with an introduction to the transcendent, spiritual and mystical teaching of the Torah that it defies transcription; and these teachings are inscribed and etched into our souls, hearts and minds, then we become a diminished (read; humble, self abnegating) nation. Our egos that cause us to become separated from each other are diminished. 
 
To be sure, the terms “humble” and “self-abnegating” were not intended, G‑d forbid, to mean meekness and helpless in the face of threats to our people. It means acquiring an awareness of G‑d’s overwhelming presence in our lives and a lack of condescension in our relationships. This form of humility is not at all inconsistent with a sense of pride in our Jewish identities. 
 
The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe—whose birthdays we celebrated this Shabbat on the 18th of Elul—enabled us to access that inner, “unwritten,” dimension of Torah, which helps us achieve the state of true humility. 
 
These hidden teachings will be fully revealed in the Messianic Age. However, through the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, we were given a taste and a sample of these G‑dly teachings to help prepare us for that time when the entire world will be engulfed with an awareness of G‑d that will engender true unity and love amongst people. 
 
In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the water covers the sea bed.”  The entire world will be one great Mikveh, and we will all be immersed in its waters. It is no accident that the Hebrew word for “immersion” “tevilah” contains the letters of the word “habittul” which means total nullification, because our existence will be totally absorbed within G‑d’s presence.  
 
 
 

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