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Stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov #1 The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Hidden Tzadikim

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The Story

In 1712, when the Ba’al Shem Tov was 14 years old, he was part of a secret society of hidden tzadikim in Europe, and was recognized as the one who would become the leader. The young Yisrael made a suggestion that the members of the society not only act passively but also do something active to connect simple Jews with their Father in Heaven. Until that point, the hidden tzadikim had been arousing the hearts of Jews by projecting themselves. By each one of the concealed tzadikim concentrating on elevating his own soul, each would affect those Jews that surrounded him. But, there was no direct outreach, for they were concealed.

The action that the Ba’al Shem Tov proposed was straightforward: to begin to teach simple Jews not only about sincere fear of Heaven, but also about how to love God and love their fellow Jews. The point not to teach an abstract form of “love,” but an active form, by initiating a campaign, that whenever a Jew would meet a fellow Jew, he or she would ask about his or her friend’s well-being. The person would then of course answer and say: “Thank God.” This exchange, said the Ba’al Shem Tov, will cause great pleasure (nachat ru’ach) above, because of the fellowship and love between Jews, and the fact that they had mentioned the Almighty.

His proposal was accepted by the group. One of the eldest tzadikim, Rabbi Meir, blessed the Ba’al Shem Tov with the words: “may blessing come upon him” תָּבוֹא עַלָיו בְּרָכָה, for Rabbi Meir had realized that the source of this suggestion came from the supernal worlds. When the other tzadikim heard Rabbi Meir’s words, they noted that it was with Divine Providence that he had spoken so, for the year was 1712 which in the Hebrew calendar is תע”ב, the initials of Rabbi Meir’s words: תַּבוֹא עַלָיו בְּרָכָה.

Four years later, when the Ba’al Shem Tov was 18, he was chosen to lead the hidden tzadikim. His first instruction was that all of the concealed tzadikim move their homes and live between the Jews in their towns and villages and work in teaching young children, and he himself did the same.

Every day the Ba’al Shem Tov, who worked in the city of Yazlovtich, would collect the young children under his care from their homes and escort them to their cheider, their schoolhouse. On the way he would tell the children stories about Moshe Rabbeinu and review the lessons that they had learned with their Rabbi. At the end of the day, he would bring the children back home, and would stay with each one until he was ready to fall asleep and would read the nighttime Shema with them. All this he would do out of joy and while singing happy melodies. This was his second campaign, following his first at the age of 14.

Commentary

Before the Ba’al Shem Tov, the concealed tzadikim were spread out and did not yet have an organized plan of action. The essence of Ba’al Shem Tov’s first campaign is to teach people how to relate to one another. When we meet another Jew on the street is not an accident. It is by Divine Providence, in order that we take a genuine interest in our fellow Jew. The Torah commands us not to ignore objects found in public spaces, even though it may take a great deal of effort and time to return them to their rightful owners, who lost them. By instructing that we not ignore lost objects, a commandment called “hashavat aveidah,” the Torah gives us the understanding that every such “chance” encounter with a lost item is an example of the personal Providence that the Almighty exhibits in each of our lives. Similarly, “finding” a “lost” Jew on the street, we are prohibited from ignoring him (or her) and his spiritual or physical needs. Whenever two people meet on the street, it is a golden opportunity for each to help the other return a “lost” part of his being. How is this so?

In the Song of Songs, the bride, who has “lost” her beloved, says that she will find her beloved “outside” (אֶמְצָאֲךָ בַחוּץ). The bride that has “lost” her beloved symbolizes the state of a person who has lost his connection with the Almighty (his or her “Beloved”). Chassidut explains that the notion that God can be find “inside,” meaning “in me, myself” is applicable only to tzadikim, to righteous and holy people who have not lost their connection with the Almighty. But, for a ba’al teshuvah, for one whose connection with the Almighty has been severed, either because of his or her non-religious background, or because of improper conduct, to find God requires going “outside,” outside of my own self.

It is generally true (whether for a tzadik or for a ba’al teshuvah) that to really experience Divine Providence, you have to leave your private, intimate space, the space in which you feel safe and protected. The greatest Divine Providence is met when traveling. Chassidut explains that in our times, every Jew should strive to find the Almighty “outside” as well as “inside.” The idea here is that to rectify myself I have to connect with other people. Just as I cannot live alone, so I cannot rectify myself on my own. In our generation, as we are taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, even women must go “out” in order to participate in bringing Jews closer to their people, to the Torah, and to the Almighty. All this is because the entire Jewish people are like one great organism.

Kabbalah explains that one’s rectification is directly related to one’s possessions. Chassidut elaborates that possessions does not necessarily mean “physical possessions.” Rather, possessions are those things that develop and connect to one’s consciousness. Just as you cannot gather physical possessions by staying in your room—you have to have some contact with other people, if you do not go outside you cannot gather your spiritual “possessions” and are missing out on parts of your consciousness. This stems from what the sages taught us. Namely, that poverty and wealth are measures of a person’s consciousness and awareness, i.e., his or her connection with the Almighty and sensitivity to Divine Providence.

It may be that another Jew is in possession of a spark of consciousness that you need for your spiritual development. It may actually be the most essential part of your being that is “outside.” He or she is carrying it around and just waiting for the rightful owner to show up. When you go outside and meet another Jew, Divine Providence has orchestrated things in a manner that the particular Jew that you meet always has a spark that you need. By saying “hello” to that person, you catalyze the connection between your souls and activate an experience of Divine Providence.

Indeed, the spark that the other Jew is carrying around for you has been part of your rectification since the creation of the world. This element of yourself was always meant to be part of the way that you know God. If you turn your head and ignore that person, you are missing out on what might be a once in a lifetime (or many lifetimes) experience. All of this occurs at the conscious, revealed level. The continuation of the explanation of this story is what happens at the same time at the level of the super-conscious. The Miracle of Saying “Thank God.”

In order to be able to return a lost item, or in our case, to be able to return a “spark of consciousness,” a person has to experience two psychological dynamics. The first is to genuinely be interested in other people. This is different than having good manners which only requires one to ask others how they are. It means being genuinely concerned about the other’s state. The Alter Rebbe taught his disciples to feel that they were one family, living according to the Torah with mutual love. Secondly, one must be willing to enter and become an active part of another person’s hardships and happiness.

Indeed, before you ask “how are you?” the person being asked is still unaware of his own state. You should not feel that “How are you?” is an empty question, because what could you possibly do to help the person if the answer is negative. Every person should know that it is potentially in their power to help another heal their wounds. Every one of us is a doctor in potential. But, you cannot heal a wound that is not revealed. (This is also the idea behind psychoanalysis, which alleviates problems by voicing them in words, as in the verse: “When a person has worry in his heart, he should voice it.” ) In order to heal something that is repressed, it must first be revealed.

Normally, when asking a friend “How are you?” your intent should be to focus him on how kind and good the Almighty has been to him. The simple reply “thank God,” can by itself reveal to him a deeper understanding of his reality and how it is full of God’s loving-kindness. Nonetheless, if you see that a person is not aware of the things for which he can thank God, then it is up to you to intercede on his behalf. A person who does not answer in a meaningful way is experiencing hardship and frustration and it is then up to you to help him by opening him up and listening to him. Your task is then to reveal the presence of the Almighty, the true “thank God” that is present even in your friend’s problems and hardship. The sages explain that many times the Almighty works miracles in a way that the person who benefits from them cannot recognize for what they are. But, though he cannot recognize them, you can! Asking a simple question may be all that is needed to spark his awareness about the good that he has been the recipient of.

It may indeed be that the answer to “How are you?” is negative. If this is the case, then it is a clear sign that it is now up to you to exercise the second dynamic, which is truly involving yourself in the problems of another Jew. The first step in doing so is to help the person you’ve met realize that everything is from the Almighty alone—for better, or for worse. Just being able to realize that, for example, not having enough money to pay your bills is from God, by itself already solves half the problem because, once more, the reason that you have met in the first place is to transfer awareness and consciousness of God’s Providence. Once this has been achieved the person is “rich” again, and the problems become easier to solve.

Bringing God “Down”

How does all of this relate to the verse “He who rests on the praises of Israel”?

As long as we are not aware of the Almighty’s Providence and Presence, then we have an image of Him as transcendent, meaning we imagine Him to be detached and disengaged from our lives. What is the way to make God imminent for another Jew? How can we help every Jew palpably experience the Presence of the Almighty in their lives?

The answer is provided in the verse: “He who rests upon the praises of Israel.” “The praises of Israel” refers to the simple praise “thank God” that we give when asked how we are. When a Jew praises God, the Almighty “descends” to rest—that is, reveals His presence—in that person’s reality. That person experiences the clear understanding and awareness that his soul is rooted in the Almighty.

The Ba’al Shem Tov in Action

To illustrate all that was said, let us relate another story told by the Friedeger Rebbe: One day the Ba’al Shem Tov came to a town where there lived a very old Jew who sat and studied the Torah in solitude all day. He had been doing this for more than fifty years, sitting alone in his room donned in his talit and wearing his tefillin. He would also fast during the daylight hours. Only after the evening prayers would he taste a bit of bread dipped in water.

The Ba’al Shem Tov entered his room and asked him “how are you?”, “Do you have enough to eat? Are you making a suitable livelihood?” The scholarly old man ignored him. The Ba’al Shem Tov repeated his questions a number of times until the old man motioned that the unruly peasant stop bothering him and head for the door.

Seeing that he was ignored the Ba’al Shem Tov, asked: “Rebbe, why do you not give the Almighty His livelihood.” He used the rabbinic connotation “the As It Were,” for God. Hearing this connotation used by a simple peasant, the great old man became confused. How could it be that such a simple peasant would use such learned language. The Ba’al Shem Tov felt his confusion and said: “Jews ‘rest’ on the sustenance given them by the Almighty; on what livelihood does the Almighty rest?”

The Ba’al Shem Tov continued: “King David tells us in Psalms that ‘You are holy,’ and on what livelihood do you ‘rest’?—’on the praises of Israel.’ The ‘As It Were’ rests on the praises that the Jewish people give Him for the gifts of food and health that He gives them. And in return for these praises, the Almighty gives them children, life, and food, all in plenty.”

(This class was given on the 8th of Elul, 5765 [September 12, 2005) in Los Angeles)