The 18th of the Hebrew month of Elul is one of the most auspicious days of the Jewish year.
Chai Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov
Chai Elul is also the birthday of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad, Shneur Zalman of Laidi
Chai Elul is
the day that the Baal Shem Tov revealed himself to the world
The Baal Shem Tov is regarded as the creator, let us rather say, revealer of Chassidus that we know today in its many forms: Chabad, Breslov, Satmar, Munkatch, Belz, Vizhnitz and more. All of the Rebbes of the various chassidishe sects can trace their roots back to the Baal Shem Tov.
Of the many seminal teachings of the Baal Shem Tov that permeate the stories and perekim from the Kesser Shem Tov, Sefer Baal Shem Tov, annotated teachings from his grandson, Rabbi Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov in the Degel Machne Ephraim, from Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnye in his Toldos Yaakov Yosef and Ben Poras Yosef, center around being b'simcha...serving Hashem with joy.
Melancholy, despair and sadness are all emotions to be avoided at all costs, and are seen as a separation of that person from Hashem, Who is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
The trials and tribulations of life in this lowest of spiritual worlds, Assiyah, where Hashem is concealed the most, can easily lead one to feelings of despair. So how do we rise above the outward appearance of our leading a life separated from Hashem and turn the potential melancholy into simcha?
Unlike many systems that only tell us what our faults are and what we should be thinking and feeling, Boruch Hashem the Chassidus of the Baal Shem Tov teaches us how.
It is this omnibenevolance that caused the Baal Shem Tov to teach: "A person should accustom himself to say, 'everything that G-d does is for the good' like Rabbi Akiva if he cannot say, 'this too is for the best' like Nochum Ish Gomzu: Nochum, the man who said. 'Gom zu l'tovah'.
We all know the stories that typify each: how Rabbi Akiva was travelling and came upon a village where he attempted to spend the night. However, the town’s people were very inhospitable and downright hostile to the idea so he had to spend the night in the forest with his donkey to carry his seforim, his rooster to wake him up at dawn and his candle to study by during the night. So he said, 'everything Hashem does is for the good' and off he went into the forest.
Well, in short order a mountain lion made off with the donkey, a fox got the rooster and the wind blew out his candle. And at each event Rabbi Akiva intoned, ‘Everything Hashem does is for the good. I cannot see yet how it is good, but I trust in the L-rd that everything that He does IS for the good and will be revealed in its time.’
After saying his morning prayers, Rabbi Akiva went again into the village. It was a smoking ruin. Bandits had come in the night and pillaged the town.
Now, Rabbi Akiva understood why all that happened to him: Hashem was saving him from the evil decree that befell the village. If he had been sleeping in the town, he would have been injured or even killed along with the other people. If the bandits had heard the donkey or rooster or had seen the light of his candle in the forest, he would have been in mortal danger. Truly, everything Hashem does is for the good.
Nochum ish Gomzu's story is a bit different.
His city was under an evil decree by the Caesar and the people wanted Nochum to take to the king a bribe of precious jewels and gold that had always worked in the past to have the decree undone.
It is a long journey and he had to stay over in an inn that was none too pleased to have a travelling Jew so they let him stay in the stable. Did Nochum despair, no. He said Gom Zu l'Tovah: 'This too is for the best' and went to sleep with the animals. During the night, as Nochum ish Gomzu slept, 2 robbers who had seen him arrive with a donkey burdened with a bound chest, sneaked into the barn and removed the box from the donkey and took it to their riverside hideaway. They emptied the box and filled it up with ordinary river sand, then returned it to the donkey’s back.
After Nochum rose and finished his davening, he checked his package and ... it was sand! He thought, 'if the Alm-ghty decided to turn the jewels into sand, Gom Zu l'Tovah, this too is for the best' and off he went to deliver his city’s bribe to the king.
The King looked with eager anticipation at the chest in Reb Nochums hands. Nochum made his plea to have the decree annulled and presented the box to the King. The King opened it ... and it was sand! He bellowed his outrage and sent Reb Nochum to the dungeons. But, the prophet, Eliyahu appeared to the king in the guise of one of his ministers and told the king that the Jews were not so stupid to give the King ordinary sand, that he had heard of their ancestor Avrohom who had a special sand that turned in to missiles and arrows when he fought the kings and won the battle. We have a battle going on, let’s see if this is some of that very sand. So, they did. The king went to the top of a hill overlooking the battle and threw a handful of sand into the wind. It immediately turned into missiles, spears and arrows and decimated his opponents, and his forces won the war.
The King was overjoyed, released Reb Nochum from the dungeon, gave him chests of gold and silver and annulled the decree for all time. And what did Nochum say? Gom Zu l’Tovah, this too is for the best.
The main difference between the approach of Rabbi Akiva and Nochum Ish Gomzu is that Rabbi Akiva knows that it is all good, but that the goodness will be revealed in time. It is a revelational approach. By contrast, Nochum ish Gomzu’s way was that his utter and complete faith in the goodness and benevolence of Hashem actually transformed the plain river sand into the sand of Avrohom. His approach was transformational.
So how does this lead to Simcha?
It happened one Pesach that the Besht was seated amongst his disciples at the Seder table. They were all in high anticipation of hearing their master, the Baal Shem Tov, expound on the inner most secrets of the Hagaddah as he was wont to do. But to their surprise the Besht was quiet, introspective and did not participate too much. At one point, he bade all of his students to join their arms with one another. Still he was quiet, he even got them to say Tikkun Hatzos but did not come out of his reverie.
Then all of a sudden, he clapped his hands, laughed out loud and began to give over the deepest, most secret insights on the Hagaddah, clearly some crises had passed.
They asked him, ‘Master, what was happening earlier?’
He told them that a very evil decree was going to come down on a nearby village. He said that he travelled up to Shamayim to argue against the decree, but none of his arguments had any effect. He said. ‘I had you join yourselves together to join me in my pleas, I even had you recite Tikkun Hatzos, to no avail. The decree stood and would fall on the village. ‘
Then, he said, he noticed that in that very village a childless, elderly couple were conducting their seder. But when they got to the part in the Hagaddah describing what Pharaoh did to the children, she clopped the table and said, “How could Hashem do this to His Children?” “If I had a child I would never let him suffer the way Hashem let us suffer by the hands of the Egyptians!” Her husband was quick to try to appease her, “but dearest one, it all worked out in the end, we were redeemed”.
And this debate between husband and wife went on all throughout the seder with the wife condemning Hashem and the husband defending Hashem. “I noticed”, said the Besht, “that, in the Heavenly Court, when the wife was condemning Hashem, the defending angels were winning and when the husband was defending Hashem, the prosecuting angels were winning. Finally the wife said one more thing and the husband had no answer, so he said, “My dear, you are right!” and they began to dance around the seder table with pure joy.
It was this pure expression of joy that swayed the Heavenly Court and transformed the evil decree into a good one for the village”, said the Baal Shem Tov. “Being with joy, b’Simcha can transform evil decrees.”
Now we can see the correlation between the stories.
One can see that it is the transformational quality that links Gom Zu l’Tovah with being b’Simcha. If one is able to truly believe that ‘This too is for the Best’, that all that happens to us: all the pleasant, all the unpleasant is the best thing that Hashem has arranged for us, how can we not accept all that befalls us with joy? Gom Z l’Tovah is the pathway to being b’Simcha
Bentzion Meltzer, 15 Elul 5771
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