Shabbat Ki Tavoh, the 18th of Elul – The Baal Shem Tov “BeSHT” and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal HaTanya
Birthday of The Baal Shem Tov “BeSHT”
In the small Polish town of Tloste,2 Eliezer and his wife Sarah lived a life of simple piety, serving G‑d with a pure heart. Although seemingly unlearned, Eliezer was actually a member of the fellowship of "hidden tzaddikim," a group of unusually gifted and devoted Jews who, disguised as simple people, dedicated their lives to improving the plight of their Jewish brethren both spiritually and materially.
In their old age, on the 18th of Elul, 5458 (16983), Eliezer and Sarah gave birth to their only child—Yisrael.
This child was destined to infuse vitality into a suffering, depressed people. His name, Yisrael – "Israel" – is also the name of the Jewish People. His birth would serve as a wake-up call for a nation deep in a spiritual slumber.
When Yisrael was five years old, both his mother and his father died. Before his death, Eliezer called his son Yisrael to his bedside and told him, "Fear no one but G‑d. Love every Jew with all your heart and soul, no matter who he is." These two directives would serve as the basis for Yisrael's service of G‑d and future teachings.
The Jewish community of Tloste adopted the young orphan, providing him with his basic needs. Often, after the conclusion of his studies at the local cheder (Jewish school), Yisrael would wander into the fields and forests that surrounded the village. It was in this picturesque setting, secluded and removed from the bustle of everyday life, that Yisrael was able to meditate and recognize the wonders of G‑d's creation.
[. . .] On Yisrael's sixteenth birthday, Elijah the Prophet appeared to him and described to him the great effects the prayers of simple folk had in heaven. Their pure intent and the unwavering faith with which they uttered the words of prayer, Elijah explained, resonated in the "higher worlds" more than the scholarly achievements of great sages. Inspired by his conversation with the prophet, Yisrael made it his personal mission to engage simple Jews in conversation about mundane matters. By inquiring as to their wellbeing and their families' health or livelihood, Yisrael was able to elicit responses rich in words of praise to G‑d. To read a story of one such conversation, visit G‑d's Nourishment.
You can read more about the life and times of the BeSHT at Chabad
The Birth (1745) of R. Schneur Zalman
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was born to his parents, Rabbi Baruch and Rebbetzin Rivkah, near Liozna in the province of Mohilev, Belarus, on the 18th of Elul. This was the same day on which Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov, had been born forty-seven years earlier.
(1748) R. Schneur Zalman’s meeting with the Baal Shem Tov
When Schneur Zalman reached the age of three years, his father, Rabbi Baruch, took him to the Baal Shem Tov for the traditional haircutting ceremony. That was the only time that Rabbi Schneur Zalman saw the Baal Shem Tov in his life, though he was fifteen years old when the Baal Shem Tov passed away. It was the Baal Shem Tov’s wish that Rabbi Schneur Zalman should find his own way of Chassidus.
(1765) R. Schneur Zalman travels to Mezeritch
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman neared his twentieth year, he decided—with the consent of his wife, Rebbetzin Sterna—to travel to a center of Torah learning and service of G‑d. Two centers of Jewish learning and leadership competed for his attention: Vilna, the main seat of Talmudic scholarship, and the fortress of the opposition to the young yet rapidly growing chassidic movement; and Mezeritch, the seat of Rabbi DovBer, the famed Maggid of Mezeritch, heir to the ideology of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov and to the leadership of the chassidic movement. Rabbi Schneur Zalman related, “I knew that in Vilna one was taught how to study, and that in Mezeritch one could learn how to pray. To study I was somewhat able, but of prayer I knew very little. So I went to Mezeritch.”
(1769) Birth of Napoleon Bonaparte
(1770) R. Schneur Zalman begins work on the Shulchan Aruch
At the instruction of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, R. Schneur Zalman began work on a new Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). The result was an innovative work, which comprehensively explained the legislative underpinnings of each law. In addition, he skillfully arbitrated between the diverse opinions that had accumulated since the publication of Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch several hundred years earlier.
A famous story about the Baal HaTanya:
Hearing the Cry of a Child: A story with a living lesson
Once, in the middle of the night, one of the Mitteler Rebbe’s children fell out of bed. Entirely engrossed in his studies, he did not hear the child’s cries. However, his father, the Alter Rebbe, heard the cries, closed his Torah books, and went to comfort the child. The Alter Rebbe later said to his son: no matter how deeply immersed you are in holy pursuits, when a child cries you must hear it; you must stop what you’re doing and soothe their pain.
You can read much more about the Baal HaTanya Chabad: Timeline and Biography of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
Ohr HaChaim – Ki Tavoh
Moses compliments the Jewish people that they walk in G-d’s paths even in matters G-d has not specifically commanded.
"You have distinguished G‑d this day to be G‑d for you."(Devarim 26:17)
The reason the Torah added the word "this day," may be understood in conjunction with what we learned that "anyone who lives in the Diaspora is considered as if he does not have a G‑d." [Ketuvot 110] The words "this day" limit the application only to people who are in the Holy Land.
Even though at that precise moment the Israelites were still on the land that used to belong to Sichon and Og, this was considered part of the Holy Land, seeing that it had been conquered by the whole nation at the command of their prophet Moses. We have discussed and proved this point in connection with our commentary on Numbers (32:3). Seeing that the land in question was no longer part of the Diaspora, the Israelites could truly claim to have adopted the Lord as their G‑d, and G‑d in turn adopted them as His exclusive people.
...G‑d in turn adopted them as His exclusive people.
Another meaning of this verse may be based on the Zohar (I page 108) according to which the other countries on earth have been assigned by G‑d to a respective heavenly minister, who is in charge of them on G‑d’s behalf. The land of Israel and its people on the other hand are not subject to any delegate of G‑d but are ruled over directly by G‑d Almighty. David phrased it thus: "My judgment will proceed from directly in front of Your eyes." (Psalms 17:2) In other words, we are not subject to the authority of any of G‑d’s deputies.
Still another thought which many be concealed in our verse is that G‑d will utilize His attribute of Mercy when in judgment of the Jewish people. While it is true that G‑d judges everyone and every nation according to their just deserts, in our case, G‑d the Merciful will cause the Israelites [to acknowledge and] to say that His judgment is fair, i.e. they will bless the Lord even when they experience what appears to them to be a harsh judgment.
"…And to walk in His ways…”
Moses compliments the Jewish people that they walk in G‑d’s paths even in matters G‑d has not specifically commanded. As soon as they have divined what it is that He would want them to do, they do so of their own accord. Specific examples are such good practices as visiting the sick, burying the dead. The Israelites learned from G‑d visiting Abraham or burying Moses that these were virtues He wants us to practice, though there is no specific commandment ordering us to do so.
Israel’s walking in the paths of G‑d extends both to His Statues...as well as His other Commandments and His Social Laws…
Israel’s walking in the paths of G‑d extends both to His statures, the laws that appear to have no rationale, as well as His other commandments and His social laws, i.e. the laws governing inter-personal relationships, relationships which are to be administered by terrestrial courts.
"…And by listening to His voice.”
This is a reference to Torah study. The reason the Torah describes this as G‑d’s "voice" may be understood with reference to the question: "how do we know that if one studies Torah from the mouth of a minor scholar this is equivalent to one’s hearing the Torah from G‑d’s own mouth? (Sifri, 115, See Rashi on Deut. 15:5).
Why did the Torah mention Torah study as the last of the virtues Israel is to practice? This is to inform us that even if a person has mastered all the disciplines of Judaism and is thoroughly familiar with all the laws and precepts, he is still obligated to make study of the Torah part of his daily program. It is a commandment all by itself. As long as man lives, he has never fully discharged his obligation to engage in the study of Torah as we know from a mystical interpretation to Numbers (19:14):
"This is the obligation to study Torah. It extends until man dies while engaged in its study.”
[Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of "Ohr HaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar" by Eliyahu Munk.]