October 23, 2020 |

Remembering the Besht

Sometime we will be sitting down to dinner in our house and the phone will ring or someone will ring the door bell. It is often an annoying intrusion of someone trying to sell us something. It can be annoying. Well the next time that happens think about this story.

One time the Baal Shem Tov was sitting inside his house teaching his students when a knock was heard on the window. A poor man, looked inside the Baal Shem Tov’s house and said: “Does anything need to be repaired? Perhaps a chair, or a gutter, or a part of the roof.”

The students of the Baal Shem Tov were annoyed by this interruption. They wanted to continue their Torah studies. So they shouted back, “We are all fine. Everything is all set. There is no need for any repairs.”

“Nothing at all,” said the poor man. “Surely something needs to be fixed inside your house. If you look hard enough you will find it.”

“Indeed,” said the Baal Shem Tov turning to his students. “Nothing is by chance. How often do we think, we are all fine and that everything is all set. But if we look inside our hearts and evaluate our lives we will understand that we are in need of great repairs.”

In just a few weeks we will commemorate a major milestone. On Shavuot, we will observe the 250th anniversary of the passing of one of the most influential rabbis in the last two thousand years, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer who died on May 22, 1760. The Hebrew date is 7 Sivan or Shavuot 5520.

Rabbi Yisrael is better known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut. Hasidut is a stream of Judiasm which has had a profound effect upon the entire Jewish people. As we lead up to this milestone yahrtzeit, I would like our congregation to spend time studying about the Baal Shem Tov himself and understanding some of his revolutionary teachings.

The Baal Shem Tov as an actual historical figure is shrouded in mystery. There is so little in the way of contemperaneous sources about his life.

The primary source for the life and teachings of the Besht is the Shivchei Habesht, which contains many anecdotes and teachings of the Besht. But it was only published in 1815, two generations after his death. So as a historical source of the Besht’s life, it is incomplete. Recently a scholar by the name of Moshe Rosman went through the tax records of the Besht’s home town and was able to glean some more personal and historical information. But still, so much of this great figure’s life remains a mystery.

According to the legends told of the Besht, he was born (in what is now modern day Ukraine) to two parents who were very old, and are described as “close to 100 years old” at the time of his birth. He was orphaned as a young boy and the Jewish community enrolled him in the local Cheder. Although he was a bright student, he had some unique habits that set him apart like, for example, wandering off from school to spend time whistling and walking alone in the forest.

His first job in life was as a teacher’s assistant. His task was to walk the children to and from school. Here too, he was unusual. Instead of just walking them to school, he would sing to them as they walked and thus his students would enter into the classroom with great joy.

Later he moved to a new town where he got a job as a school teacher. He married a woman, who was the daughter of a prominent rabbi, Avraham Gershon Kutover of Brody. But before the marriage could take place the rabbi died. The rabbi’s son was horrified that the Besht—who appeared to be a simple Jew--would marry into his distinguished family, but nonetheless the marriage took place. However, the Besht and his new wife were given a horse and a wagon and told to leave town so as not to embarrass the prominent family.

The Besht and his new bride lived for seven years in an isolated village in the Carpathian Mountains. While living there, the Besht spent most of his time in the seclusion of the majestic mountains pondering the greatness of Hashem.

At the age of 36 the Besht finally decided to reveal his greatness to the world; and he revealed to the world that he was in fact a Baal Shem. Baal Shem literally means a master of the Name. It refers to a person who has the possibility to use the Name of Hashem in a mystical manner, like through Kabbalah, amulets and special prayers.

Eventually word of the Besht’s miracles and great holiness spread and people began to approach him in his town of Medzhybizh for help. He would often respond by praying with great fervor for a miracle. We are told that when he prayed in a barn, he prayed with such kavvanah that even the barrels around him would dance. Medzhybizh eventually became the center of this new movement, which was slowly formulating a revolutionary approach to Judaism.

The most important of the Besht’s students was Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, also known as the Maggid of Mezeritch. It is primarily through the Maggid that many of the Besht’s teachings were able to spread far and wide.

What was so revolutionary about Hasidut? A few things. Hasidut popularized many of the secrets of Kabbalah; it emphasized joy in the service of Judaism; it gave great importance to the soul of the uneducated Jew and turned away from the elitist Talmudic scholar; it frowned against ascetism; and it emphasized the role of the tzaddik, the greatness of the spiritual leader’s connection to Hashem.

In order to get a small taste of the Besht’s theology, let us examine one example of his teachings as it relates to this week’s portion.

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most fundamental mitzvoth of the entire Torah, “veahavtah lereackhah kamocha, love your neighbor like you love yourself.”

Rashi says about this verse: zeh clal gadol batorah, this verse is the major essence of the Torah. But how is this so?

Traditionally this verse was explained in the Talmud by understanding the negative. As the Talmud says: De-alakh sani lechaverkhah lo taavid, “Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want done on to yourself.”

But the Baal Shem Tov took a new approach to this verse.

The Besht compares the word veahavtah, in the verse you must love your neighbor, to the word, veahavtah in the first paragraph of Shema. He explains that veahavtah lereackhah kamocha is actually an interpretation of and commentary on vehavtah et Hashem Elokekhah. One who loves a fellow Jew loves Hashem, because every Jew has a part of Hashem within himself. When one loves a fellow Jew, he loves the Jew's inner essence, and thus loves Hashem.

The Maggid of Mezeritch reported about his teacher’s love of his fellow Jew: “If only we could kiss a Torah-scroll with the same love that my Master kissed the children when he took them to school as a teacher's assistant.”

So for the Besht, loving every Jew became a core of his theology—i.e. actually loving God. When one looks at a fellow Jew one is supposed to see a reflection of God. For many of us today this might not seem like such a revolutionary idea. But that only proves the point of the success of the Besht’s revolution.

The Besht took a culture in which many Jews were unlearned and literate and therefore despised and ridiculed by the rabbinic elite. Instead, the Besht not only loved them, but he also elevated them. He taught them that even though they were not Talmud scholars or towering intellects they were essential to the redemption of the Jewish people.

He taught the Jewish community that the way to loving One God is by loving another Jew. And he taught the unlearned Jews that they can come close to God without knowing the Talmud. In order to do so what they needed to work on was clinging to God through prayer and bringing holiness into the performance of their mitzvoth.

Whereas the intellectual center of the Jewish community, like Lithuania, focused on Talmudic casuistry, which was completely inaccessible to the average Jew, the Besht taught that it was not about Talmud study. Instead it was about deveykus or cleaving to Hashem. He said: “Cleaving to Hashem is the master-key that opens all locks. Every Jew, including the most simple, possesses the ability to cleave to the words of Torah and prayer, thereby achieving the highest degrees of unity with Hashem.”

With this approach the Besht took the idea of veahavtah lereakhah kamokhah from a nice simple aphorism and transformed it into the central pillar of his theology. We must love every Jew and thus we must teach them that they too can be as spiritually connected to Hashem as long as they cleave to Him.

As we move towards this special yahrtzeit let us bear his teachings in mind. Let us recognize this fundamental teaching that we can fulfill the mitzvah of loving Hashem by loving our neighbor. And that loving our neighbors is essential to our redemption as a nation.

We close with a famous story of the Baal Shem Tov which teaches us this lesson that we must strive for a holiness that is dependent upon all of us climbing on each other’s backs. It is a holiness that can be found through prayer and performing the mitzvoth with special kedushah:

The Ba'al Shem Tov used to daven at great length and with tremendous intensity, longing and yearning for his Creator. His students would finish their prayers much earlier and then wait, sometimes for hours, for the Rebbe to finish.

“Once the Ba'al Shem Tov extended his prayers even longer than usual and the disciples grew weary of waiting. They decided each one to attend to whatever he had to do and then to gather again in the Shul an hour later. After an hour, they had all returned and they waited some more until the Ba'al Shem Tov had finished his prayer.

He then turned to them and accused, "You've created a great disunification in that you went out to attend to your private needs and left me here alone!" Then he told them the following parable.

It is know that the nature of birds is to migrate to the warm countries during the winter months. Once, the inhabitants of one of those countries spotted an unusually beautiful and unusual bird with feathers of every color in the universe, and he was perched at the crest of a very high and mighty tree that was impossible to climb. When the King of the land heard about the bird, he decided that he must capture it. He ordered many, many people to be brought to the forest where the tree was located. One was to stand on the shoulders of the other until they were able to reach the perch of the beautiful bird, and then to bring it to the King.

The procedure of reaching the heights of the tree was very arduous and time consuming. Some of those at the bottom of the human ladder lost sight of the task at hand. Weary and disgruntled with the amount of time it was taking, they began to disperse. It goes without saying that the whole ladder toppled to the ground, injuring those on the highest sections. The King wanted that his people should be banded together with a common purpose, but this time nothing was gained.

"It was good", concluded the Ba'al Shem Tov, "when you were bound together with me in my prayer. But when you disbanded, each going his own his own separate way, everything fell. What I had hoped to achieve, was lost."

In memory of the Besht let us now bind ourselves together in prayer.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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