Chai Elul, 18th of Elul
b.) General Significance
c.) Two great luminaries; distinction between the Alter
Rebbe and the Baal Shem Tov
d.) Beginning of month by month evaluation of previous
Birth of our master and teacher Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, 5458 (1698). On the same date in 5494 (1734) he revealed himself and was no longer a hidden tzaddik.
Birth of our master and teacher Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, in 5505 (1745).
Passing of Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, the Maharal of Prague, outstanding philosopher and Kabbalist, in 5369 (1609). The Maharal was an ancestor of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
The Eighteenth of the month of Elul is “the birthday of the two great luminaries” - the Baal Shem Tov (R. Yisroel ben R. Eliezer, born 1698), founder of the Chassidic movement, and the Alter Rebbe (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, born 1745), founder of the approach within Chassidism known as Chabad.
Eighteen is the numerical equivalent of the letters Yud and Ches, which when inverted form the Hebrew word “chai” (alive). Thus the Eighteenth of Elul is commonly referred to as Chai Elul.
b.) General Significance
Though originally, the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe revealed their teachings only to a limited circle, at present these teachings have to be “spread outward,” until they reach every Jew. (A similar pattern may be seen in other aspects of Torah. Originally, they started among a small group or were limited to a specific time or place, and afterwards they spread throughout the Jewish people.)
Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe were Nesiim. A Nasi combines two seemingly contradictory factors: On one hand, a Nasi is, as implied by the simple meaning of the word, “uplifted” above the common people. On the other hand, he seeks to convey his qualities to the people at large, lifting them up to his own level; i.e., after a person carries out his own service to the utmost of his abilities, “with all your heart and all your soul,” the Nasi lifts the person beyond his limits and boundaries, the service of “with all your might.” There is the level of completion and perfection to which a generation’s service can attain in its own right, and then, there is an added level which comes about through the influence of the Nasi.
Thus, the fact that the Rebbe Rayatz, the Nasi of the generation, ordered that the idea of Chai Elul be publicized implies that the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe can influence each and every Jew. Furthermore, they can elevate them to a higher rung of service beyond their individual capacities.
Thus, we can see in Chai Elul, two opposite extremes. On the one hand, Chai Elul must, as a birthday of Nesiim, elevate each Jew to an infinitely higher level of service. On the other extreme, this influence must be “spread outward,” in a manner in which it will be extended to every Jew. The two points are related for, as explained above, it is through spreading the wellsprings outward that their very essence is revealed. (Sicha of Chai Elul 5746)
c.) Two great luminaries; distinction between the Alter Rebbe and the Baal Shem Tov
In describing Chai Elul, the Rebbe Rayatz said that it is the birthday of the “Two Great Luminaries” (shnei meoros ha’gedolim). Certainly his choice of words was precise, and provide insight into the nature of the day.
This phrase is used in the Torah to refer to the creation of the sun and the moon, which were originally created at the same time and through the single utterance, “y’hi meoros.” Nevertheless, we find them described as two luminaries, indicating their individuality and distinctness.
We find the same regarding the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe: on the one hand we have the day of Chai Elul, which applies to them both equally. On the other hand, they lived in different times, and had different roles - as the founders of Chassidus in general and Chabad Chassidus respectively.
We can understand the relationship between their unity and distinctness through first looking at the difference between them. The Baal Shem Tov devoted himself primarily to arousing the innate faith, the spark of emuna present within every Jew. The Alter Rebbe, on the other hand, worked in the way of Chabad, stressing the necessity of exertion and avoda in the service of G-d.
These two approaches correspond to the Chassidic concepts of milmala l’mata (“from above to below”) and mi’l’mata l’mala (“from below to above”). The Baal Shem Tov worked in a way that transcended all the rules and boundaries of nature. For this reason his primary efforts were non-intellectual, appealing to the infinite spark of G-dliness within every Jew. For this same reason, his service was characterized by miraculous behavior, bringing that which is normally “above” down here to the physical world.
The Alter Rebbe stressed the opposite trend, taking that which is “below,” and elevating it to holiness. This represents the ultimate goal of making a dira b’tachtonim, a dwelling place for G-d in the lowest realms of existence. For that reason, he stressed the idea of working with one’s intellect and emotions in order to make them holy. This is also the reason why the idea of miracles always received little stress in Chabad - because the ultimate intent is not to break nature, but to elevate and purify it.
The same characteristics are alluded to in their names. The Baal Shem Tov’s name, Yisroel, represents the essence of the Jewish soul, which remains unaffected by any worldly occurrences - “even if he sins, he is still a Jew.” The Alter Rebbe’s first name, Shneur, refers to “shnei” or the “two lights” of the revealed and concealed parts of Torah. This stress on Torah study corresponds to the service mi’l’matah l’mala. The second name, Zalman, has similar implication, since it’s letters also constitute the word “lizman,” indicating serving G-d within the natural constraints of time and space.
Both types of service are necessary, and together constitute a logical progression of development. We see in general that supra-natural conduct must precede that which is within nature. An example of this is when the Torah was given, a process which was initiated by G-d’s descent to Mt. Sinai and only then followed by Moshe Rabbeinu’s ascent.
The same applies in the course of revelation of pnimiyus ha’Torah (the inner, mystical parts of Torah). First came the revelation from above through the service of the Baal Shem Tov. Only then came the service of the Alter Rebbe, revealing G-dliness within the world and making a true “dwelling place below.”
This explains, then, the two qualities mentioned previously. They are called “luminaries” because they represent stages in the one process of the revelation of pnimiyus ha’Torah and G-dliness throughout the world. However, it is also stressed that they are “two,” i.e. distinct stages separated in time and in function.
(Sicha of Chai Elul 5747)
d.) Beginning of month by month evaluation of previous year
Each of the last twelve days of the year correspond to one of the twelve months. In these days we are granted the potential to compensate for any deficiencies, and elevate our conduct of these months. In this context, Chai Elul parallels the month of Tishrei.
It would appear then that the Rebbe Rayatz’s statement indicates that from Chai Elul a new phase of service begins. Although Elul is a month of stocktaking, from Chai Elul onward begins the “Elul of Elul.” This relates to the new life-energy that Chai Elul introduces. This new energy not only adds vitality to the previous service, it initiates an entirely new phase of service.
(Sicha of Chai Elul 5750)