Wednesday is “Chai Elul” – the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the chassidic movement, and of the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), author of the Tanya and founder of Chabad Chassidus. Since, by Divine providence, both birthdays occur on the same date, a deep soul-connection must exist between these two great leaders and their respective movements.
At first glance, Chabad appears to be just a sub-section of the wider chassidic movement. Indeed, the Alter Rebbe used to refer to the Baal Shem Tov as his spiritual “grandfather.” When he was arrested by the Czarist regime in 1798 and accused of treason, he went out of his way to answer his interrogators’ questions on the Baal Shem Tov and his movement because, as he later explained, he didn’t want to separate himself at all from the Baal Shem Tov. Yet, Chabad is far more than just another school of Chassidus.
Non-Chabad chassidic groups, in many ways, continue the path blazed by the Baal Shem Tov with little change. This path emphasizes the dictum, “v’tzaddik be’emunoso yichyeh – a righteous man will live by his faith [in Hashem]” (Chavakuk 2:4), reading “yechayeh – he will enliven” for “yichyeh – he will live.” In other words, the tzaddik inspires those who grow close to him. He enlivens their souls with a reflection of his own exalted level of faith and his love and awe of Hashem.
This approach does not insist that chassidim personally labor to advance in serving Hashem. Rather, it allows them to be carried on the Rebbe’s back, so to speak; as the Rebbe progresses to higher levels, they advance along with him in the merit of their personal devotion to him.
The path of Chabad, on the other hand, while maintaining the close Rebbe-chassid relationship, emphasizes personal labor in serving Hashem. This element was always present, even under the leadership of the Baal Shem Tov – and particularly under his successor, the Maggid of Mezeritch – but it was only for their close disciples. Great scholars in Talmud and the mystical secrets of the Kabbalah were well equipped to advance to exalted levels with their own efforts.
The Alter Rebbe, with the founding of Chabad, proposed that every Jew who puts his mind to studying Divine concepts can, through understanding and meditating on them, progress to higher levels of faith and love and awe of Hashem. He enabled them to accomplish this task by explaining the profound mystical concepts of the Zohar and Arizal in comprehensible intellectual terms – in his Tanya and in the thousands of Chabad discourses he delivered.
In other words, the Baal Shem Tov’s approach is “top down” while the Alter Rebbe’s approach is “bottom up.” The Baal Shem Tov worked to inspire Jews at all levels utilizing all means possible – e.g., telling inspiring stories and teaching joyous and haunting melodies – to encourage Jews to serve Hashem however they could (by thanking Him for His bounty, responding “Amen” in davening, reciting Tehillim even without knowing what the words mean, praying with enthusiasm, etc.).
The Alter Rebbe, while not abandoning any of these ideas, emphasized inspiration from the bottom up – striving to learn and understand whatever possible about Hashem and the soul’s exalted source, what we can accomplish in the higher worlds by fulfilling His mitzvos and studying His Torah, and much more.
Clearly these two approaches do not clash; they complement each other. Chabad, besides its many scholars and intellectuals, has always included simple Jews who, if not always grasping the depth of profound Chassidus, found enough to inspire them to advance on a simpler level. And non-Chabad chassidim on all levels, while retaining their unique customs and relationship with their own Rebbes, find much to inspire them in Chabad Chassidus.
Together, these two branches of the chassidic movement continue to inspire many thousands of Jews of all communities, helping bring Moshiach closer.
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)