The Chassid Rabbi Nechemia of Dubrovna (1788-1852) once recalled witnessing a Russian soldier being disciplined by his commander. The soldier’s crime? While standing watch on a frigid winter night, his feet froze in his boots. “Had you remembered the oath you took to serve our czar,” his officer berated him, “the memory would have kept you warm.”
“For 25 years,” said Reb Nechemia, “this incident inspired my service of the Almighty.
Three centuries ago, Jewish life was in quite a slump. Massacres and persecutions had devastated the Jewish community in both body and spirit. The harsh conditions dictated that all but a privileged few were forced to abandon their studies at a young age to help bear the burden of earning a livelihood. As a result, this had cut off the masses from their Jewish studies of Torah, the lifeblood of Jewish awareness. The scholarly elite kept aloof from their ignorant brethren and regarded them with contempt.
Technically, Judaism was alive. Jews went through the motions, putting on tefillin each weekday morning, praying three times a day, and observing Shabbat and the dietary laws. But the spark of life was growing cold.
Then, on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul in the Jewish year 5458 (1698), a child named Yisrael (Israel) was born. This was the famous Rabbi Israel “Baal Shem Tov.” His arrival did not necessarily add anything new to Judaism, but he breathed new life into it – awareness, warmth and joy. On the 18th of Elul, 1734 – his 36th birthday – the Baal Shem Tov began to publicly spread his message. He spoke of the immense love that G-d has for every Jew, of the significance of every mitzvah a Jew performs, of the divine meaning in every blade of grass, in every event, and in every thought in the universe. From the most scholarly to the simplest, he gave meaning and joy to their existence.
The 18th of Elul, (which was Monday, Sept. 7), is also the birthday of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Chassidism. Rabbi Shneur Zalman continued in the ways of the Baal Shem Tov broadening his message even further.
The reality of the shtetl Jew was not dramatically changed with the innovation of Chassidut. Life was still hard, illness and child mortality were high and pogroms were an ever-present threat. What changed though was their perception. They could hold their heads high and have joy in their purpose.
Today, thank G-d, we live in a free country with so many luxuries, even as simple as running water. And although times are still quite uncertain for so many, let us hold our heads high and be joyful. We have a purpose. We have a mission.
Let us move on forward.
Rabbi Berel Sasonkin is co-director with his wife, Rochel, of Chabad at Kent State University in Kent.