(Click here to see the video of Rabbi Ginsburgh’s full lecture, from which this article was excerpted).
Pirkei Avot 2:5 “In a place where there are no people, you should strive to be a person.”
The tractate of Avot has no Talmud on it, neither in the Babylonian or the Jerusalem Talmuds. Therefore, some 100 years ago, someone compiled an anthology of teachings from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds on Pirkei Avot. On this mishnah he brings the following passage from the Jerusalem Talmud:
“Do not despise your old mother” (a verse in Proverbs). Said Rabbi Ze’ira: If your nation, your people, has become old and weak (mother means nation), do not despise her, but rather get up and strengthen it (גודרה).
For instance, in our generation, the Jewish people seem to be old and weak. Get up and strengthen it. If you see that your people are old and weak, pull it together. Take Elkanah, the father of Samuel the Prophet, Channah’s husband, as a role model for how this is done.
The sages state that Samuel the prophet is equal to Moshe Rabbeinu and his brother Aaron together. Samuel anointed the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David. The whole anointment, the messianism of the king of Israel, comes from him. His mother Channah was barren. She poured out her heart to God in the Tabernacle in Shiloh and God gave her Samuel. When Samuel was 2 years old and weaned, his mother brought him to Shiloh, to the Tabernacle and placed him in the care of the priests, because she had made a vow that the son born to her would be dedicated to God.
Now the question is: How did she merit giving birth to such a great son—the source of Mashiach, the one who anoints? You have to have tremendous merit. There are many things about her merits, but now we’ll hear about Samuel’s father, Elkanah. Of course there are two people, mother and father, that have to merit such a great son.
Elkanah’s story in Tana Devei Eliyahu
First of all the Yerushalmi tells us not to despise our nation if it’s weak. Strengthen it, fence it and take your example from Elkanah. What did Elkanah do? He taught and led the Jewish people to make the pilgrimages to the Tabernacle on the festivals. In the Bible there’s very little said about Elkanah, but one of the things it does say is that he had a custom to go to Shiloh, to the Tabernacle every year. The sages had an exact tradition of who Elkanah was and what merited his having such a great son. The Yerushalmi here doesn’t give the whole story behind this man. But in the Tana Devei Eliyahu in the 8th chapter, it brings his story in length. Again, Elkanah is the role model for someone who takes the leadership role and strengthens his whole generation.
Four pilgrimages a year to the Tabernacle in Shiloh
Elkanah made the pilgrimage to Shiloh, to the place of the Tabernacle, 4 times a year. Before the Holy Temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon, God’s Presence manifest in the desert Tabernacle, which once the Jewish people entered the land of Israel made its way to Shiloh, where it stood for 369 years. Now, making the pilgrimage 4 times a year is very strange because there are only 3 festivals. We’ve never heard of a requirement to go 4 times. The festivals are the time of pilgrimage.
Elkanah’s consciousness of God’s place
Elkanah (אֶלְקָנָה) equals “place” (מָקוֹם). “Place” equals 186, or 6 times 31, the value of God’s Name, Kel (אֵ־ל), or “to” (אֶל). One of the explanations therefore of God’s Name Kel is that it is like a vector driving you “to” a certain place. The first two letters of Elkanah’s name are “to” (אֶל), so the rest of his name’s letters, קנה equal 155, or 5 times 31. What this teaches us is that Elkanah has a very strong relationship with spatial-consciousness, he is constantly aware of the “place.” One of God’s connotations is the place (הַמָּקוֹם). God is the place, the space of the universe. God is everywhere, but the consciousness of God is only revealed openly in His special place, in the Tabernacle in the desert and later at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When you take Havayah and square each letter, the sum comes also to 186, the value of “place” (מָקוֹם). This is one of the two kavanot in Kabbalah regarding the word “place.”
Properly adding to one’s special mitzvah
So Elkanah is very aware and devoted—his whole life is devoted—to bringing the Jewish people to the place. This is like the saying “with what mitzvah did your father most shine brilliantly” (בְּמַאי הָוֵי אֲבוּךְ זָהִיר טְפֵי). The “father” here is now Samuel’s father. Elkanah merited Samuel because of his most brilliant mitzvah—making the pilgrimage to see God and be seen at the Tabernacle. His campaign was to bring the entire Jewish people to the place.
The first thing that we now see is that he used to go 4 times a year. Why 4 times? 3 from the Torah and 1 more that he took upon himself as a present (נְדָבָה) to God. When something is your mitzvah, then you have to be a chassid vis a vis your mitzvah, and you have to do it more than the letter of the law requires. So he took it upon himself, he volunteered to go not 3 but 4 times. The sages don’t say when this was. But, as we’ll see later on, there must be some mathematical principle behind when he decided to make his 4th pilgrimage.
Now, sometimes in the Torah it is forbidden to add a mitzvah—in this case though it is permissible. You can go every day to the Temple. Not only is it ok, but it’s a sign that you’re a chassid who again does more than what the Torah requires of him. It was not an oath, but a present that he gave out of his heart. The sages learned that he went 4 times a year from the verse, “And the man [Elkanah] would ascend from his city, as was his custom, to bow down and bring sacrifices to the God of Hosts in Shiloh” (1 Samuel 1:3). He went from time to time to fulfill his vows and bring sacrifices at the Tabernacle. It’s not clear though how the sages learned from this verse that he went 4 times a year.
Now, here is what the Tana Devei Eliyahu tells us about Elkanah’s pilgrimage. Elkanah went with his wife and his children. He never traveled alone. He took his entire household and his sisters and all his relatives. He paid all the expenses of course, and told them: Learn from the Canaanites, the native pagans. What can you learn from them? In our generation we can learn this from the Arabs. What can we learn from them? They are our enemies. We can learn from their sense of devotion to their pagan temples. Learn this from them, that even though their faith is empty and vain, yet still they make pilgrimages to their temples. All the more so that we should go up before the Ark of the Covenant, the place of the Ever-living God, may He be blessed forever and ever.
Elkanah instructed his family to learn from the non-Jews, look at the religious non-Jews who devote themselves to emptiness and vanity. All the more so that we should devote ourselves to go to God’s place, the place where it is manifest that God is the place of the whole universe. Meaning, that after you go home, you retain the consciousness that God is the place you are in, wherever you happen to be.
Caring for one’s fellow Jews
When they were on the way, it took a few days, and wherever they camped, they camped in the middle of the street. In every city they visited on their way there were inns, but they slept in the marketplace, the whole family. The 3 festivals are when they are, because it is difficult to travel during the winter. (It also means that the fourth time he added, could not have been in the winter). He made sure that all the men and women were separated when they went to sleep. Since they were sleeping in the marketplace, all the men of the community came to be with his family’s men, and all the women would gather around the females in his family. Each woman would choose a woman to talk to and each man would choose one to talk to—this is pure mivtzo’im.
There were also adults whose task was to speak with the children. Obviously, all the children came out to see Elkanah and his family and so it was like a youth movement. In this manner, the longer it took to reach Shiloh, the better, because they would farbreng all night long. The entire country was excited. They would ask them of course: Where are you going? They would answer, “We are going to the House of God in Shiloh from whence Torah and good deeds go out to the entire world. Why not join us and we’ll go together.” Immediately people began tearing. Other Jewish people never dreamt of going to Shiloh when they heard the sincerity of these people and saw their self-sacrifice, they immediately decided to join them.
Even though Elkanah only made the pilgrimage to Shiloh 4 times a year, it took him all the time in between his travels to plan each time. The first year it was only his family that went with him. In the second year, there were 5 households that accompanied him (his relatives, etc.), apart from the people that joined him on the way. In the third year, there were 10 households. In the fourth year, the emotion and power of his pilgrimage grew geometrically, and 60 households went with him. He had it all planned out, so that the path that he took one year, he didn’t repeat the next year. Every time he went through new towns. Until, eventually, all of Israel made the pilgrimage to Shiloh in his merit. His campaign was a total success.
In this manner, Elkanah brought the entire Jewish people to merit. He educated the entire Jewish people in mitzvot in this way, and many were purified thanks to his virtue. The Almighty who sees man’s innermost feelings said: You brought merit to the entire Jewish people, and you educated them in mitzvot, and many have merit in your virtue, by your life [God’s oath], I will give you a son who will bring merit to the entire Jewish people and do the same, he will educate them in mitzvot, and bring them merit. Thus, the midrash concludes, the reward for Elkanah’s actions was Samuel.
Elkanah and Samuel: Run and return
The interesting thing is that God says, just as you did 3 things: you merited the entire Jewish people, and you educated them in mitzvot, and in your virtue—the people merited to perform mitzvot, likewise, you will merit having a son who does these same 3 things. It appears that Samuel is just a copy of his father. But, in practice, Samuel was very different. He made a circuit of the entire country once a year, and judged the people where they lived. He did not at all do the same thing as his father. And yet, he accomplished the same 3 things. Elakanah aroused “run” (רָצוֹא) in the hearts of the people, and then Samuel inherited that merit and turned it into a state of “return” (שׁוֹב). Samuel grew up in Shiloh, he was there fulltime, but then his life was devoted to take the light from the Tabernacle and to bring it to all the people.
In Hayom Yom, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the Torah’s revealed dimension attracts people without fear, therefore they are drawn to it naturally. But, Chassidut is like fire, so it causes fear. That is why to spread Chassidut you have to go out yourself and bring it to them.