Stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov #2 The Soul of Israel

This article may contain special characters or charts. To view it correctly, you can select the PDF version of this document by clicking here. (You can also download the PDF version of this document by right-clicking on this link and selecting “save link as…”).If you do not have Adobe Acrobat Reader and cannot view PDF files, please go here and follow the instruction to install this free software.

The Story

The tzadik, Reb Eliezer, father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lived in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains in the Ukraine and was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of hospitality. It was his practice to send emissaries to bring visitors to his home, and after he had filled their needs with food and drink, he would supply them with more provisions for their journey.

In heaven they were very impressed by his practice, but the heavenly prosecutors claimed that Reb Eliezer had not yet reached the level of hospitality that Abraham had reached. Nor had he stood up to any particularly trying situation with his guests. The devil asked for permission to test him, however, upon hearing of this, the prophet Elijah said that it is not proper that the devil be the one to carry out this mission, because Reb Eliezer might not be able to withstand his exacting judgment. Elijah requested that he be the messenger instead and his request was granted by the heavenly court.

And so it was that one Shabbat afternoon, in the guise of a poor man on foot, Elijah descended to visit the tzadik Reb Eliezer. Upon entering Reb Eliezer’s home, he called out, “Good Shabbos!”

It appeared to Reb Eliezer that his guest had desecrated the Shabbat, God forbid, and was not even embarrassed by his deeds, yet he did not become angry at him for arriving with such gall. Instead, Reb Eliezer immediately offered the pauper food for the third Shabbat meal and after Shabbat was over, he served him the Melave Malka meal.

The following morning, on Sunday, Reb Eliezer provided his guest with a generous donation, still making no mention of the sin of desecrating the Shabbat day. Then Elijah revealed himself to him and announced, “I am the prophet Elijah, and in merit of your exceptional deed, you will be privileged to bear a son who will light up the eyes of Israel.”

(source: Reshimot Devarim 4, p. 35)

Commentary

A General Soul

The story before us is truly wondrous. By reading it we can contemplate the cradle of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s birth to reveal the essential purpose for which his holy soul descended to earth. The story offers us a glimpse at the foundation of his actions throughout his life, as we are taught, “The end of the deed is in its initial thought.”

The special virtue by which we have been privileged to bask in the light of this supernaltzadik—”An angel and a holy man descended from heaven”1—is unbiased loving-kindness towards every Jew. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s father looked at the poor person who came into his home and saw neither his misdeeds nor his impediments. He saw only the holy soul that lies within every Jewish person, the actual part of God above that vitalizes him and acts within him.2 It was due to such love and devotion directed towards such a Jew that the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Rebbe of generations to come, descended to our world.

In Chasidut we are taught that the soul of a Rebbe is a new soul, a soul from the World of Emanation and a general soul.3

  • A New Soul – meaning a wondrous new innovation that the world has never yet experienced. We are privileged to receive a new light that elevates the world to a new level as we approach the complete redemption.
  • A Soul from the World of Emanation – the World of Emanation serves as an intermediary that joins the realms of pure Divine light with the lower worlds. Within the World of Emanation there is nothing that is separate from God, therefore someone who is identified with this world is able to elevate the lower worlds and fuse them with God, avoiding the hindrance of foreign associations that prevent this connection.
  • A General Soul – the Rebbe can never truly be the head of the children of Israel4unless his soul includes all the souls of Israel. He must be, “‘A man of spirit,’ who is able to adjust himself to suit the spirit of every single Jew.”5 Only if all Jewish souls are rooted within the innermost depths of the Rebbe’s own soul can he truly connect and cleave to the outer manifestations of all souls of Israel.

In particular, our present story highlights the general quality of the soul of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He was totally devoted and committed to the nation of Israel6 and indeed, he brought all three spiritual levels required of a Rebbe under the wings of this one special quality.

The source of these three qualities can also be found in the actions of Reb Eliezer as recounted in this story:

The greatest innovation of the “new” soul of the tzadik is expressed through the light of the Torah innovations with which he illuminates the world. The Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings are considered a spark of the ultimate Torah of Mashiach, innovated that, in his innermost point of essence, a Jew has never sinned. All apparent flaws and iniquities are merely superficial and have absolutely no hold over the fundamental essence of the Jew. Similarly, his father was able to accept a Jew who appeared to have brazenly desecrated the Shabbat in public, without feeling any sense of animosity towards him.

tzadik is from the “noblemen of Israel.”7 This soul from the World of Emanation stands out in its nobility.8 A tzadik is defined by the pleasant aroma of his deeds and he has a magnetic quality about him that attracts all hearts to him. This quality too, the Ba’al Shem Tov revealed and utilized for the benefit of the Jewish people, attracting them and drawing them ever closer to God by his words of affection and love. This method was unique and superior to the accepted practices of God-fearing Torah scholars who preceded him.

This precious quality is rooted in a different facet of his father’s hospitality, when, through the loving approach that he revealed towards the poor man, he merited to actualize the positive potential latent in the event—the revelation of the prophet Elijah. From a more profound point of view, one could say that this was merely an example of the revelation of the potential that is hidden within every Jew. The way to reveal this priceless treasure is by speaking words of love and encouragement and by making an effort to assist each and every Jew, both physically and spiritually.

A soul is called a general soul when its personal history touches and even unites with that of the entire nation. The Ba’al Shem Tov used to say that, if he had chanced to see a flaw in the deeds of the people he met, it was a sign that in some way that flaw must be present in him too. He identified within himself the entire nation of Israel,9 with all its superficial shortcomings and impediments.

Why, for instance, should I become angry at a poor man who desecrates the Shabbat? Only good can come of my contact with him, for through him I can come to realize points that I must rectify within myself. Once a person is pure and rectified, he will certainly be able to have some effect upon others.10
In a similar context, there is a famous story that is often told about various tzadikim:

There was once a tzadik who was so poor that he dressed like a pauper. On one occasion, when he traveled by train, a rich man rode with him in the same carriage. Upon noticing his mode of dress and his appearance the rich man treated him with scorn and disrespect. When the tzadik arrived at his destination, the rich man saw how a crowd of people had come to welcome the tzadik and to offer him their respect. Suddenly, the rich man noticed the upright bearing of the tzadik and his shining face. Before his very eyes, it was as if the simple man had removed his pauper’s garments to reveal the garments of royalty.
Shaking, the rich man pushed his way through the reception party, and upon reaching thetzadik, he wholeheartedly begged his forgiveness for not realizing his greatness and for behaving so disrespectfully. The tzadik replied, “You need not ask for my forgiveness, for your words were not directed towards me in any way. You did not act disrespectfully towards me at all, but to the simple Jew who traveled with you in the carriage. You must beg forgiveness from such Jews as these and never act disrespectfully towards them again.”

This story perfectly suits the story of the birth of the Ba’al Shem Tov. According to the latter story, his father merely saw a simple Jew and did a kindness for him. Indeed, if we would have the opportunity to visit the Ba’al Shem Tov and ask him how it was that the world merited such a great light as his, perhaps he would reply, “Why are you so surprised? My father paid respect to a simple Jew and he was rewarded with a simple Jew! What more am I? I have merely drawn everything—piety, the Torah, fear of Heaven —from the Jewish soul that is within me; from that very sacred point that is in every single one of us.”

Judaism in general is a simple matter in the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The simple Jew is united with the simple quintessence of God.11

How Can A Young Man Merit

Reb Eliezer, the father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, was sent a test from heaven in the particular mitzvah which he most excelled. This relates to the Talmudic phrase, “In what matter was your father most careful?”12 The Divine soul of every Jew has a special affinity towards a particular mitzvah, which manifests as an inner desire and drive that draws him to cling with great devotion to it. If we note accurately the language used in the Talmud, we see that the sages did not ask “Which mitzvah did your father like the most?” rather, they emphasized the special “care” with which he carried out the mitzvah.

The main force of a person’s vitality is revealed in the mitzvah that he is most strongly connected to; that particular letter in the Torah from which the root of his soul is hewn and the very place where he reveals the essence of his life—that is where he has constant work. That is the point at which he is tested before the heavenly court at any moment to evaluate whether or not he is carrying out his task as he should. When he is as careful as is expected of him, his soul shines more brightly.13
It is relevant to mention here the words of the Magid of Mezeritch.14 Before the Magid’s death, he told the Alter Rebbe that, in merit of his extraordinary efforts in the mitzvah of hospitality, he will bear a son, as in the secret of the verse, “In what way can a lad merit his way in life?”15 which can be rendered to mean, “How can a person merit a son? By hosting guests.”

We can explain the words of the Magid by saying that hospitality depends on a sense of self-nullification, by which one allows another person into one’s home and makes an effort for him, taking care to tend to his needs. The needs of the visitor suddenly become those that stand at the top priority of the host, while his routine life becomes of secondary importance.

The phrase, “In what way,” that appears in the verse, indicates the trait of self-nullification as we learn from Moses, the humblest and most self-effacing person of all time, who said, “And what are we?”16 Nullification is the opening in a person’s psyche that makes him accessible to those surrounding him.17 The size of the opening is in direct proportion to the person’s trait of self-nullification. When a person effaces himself while relating to another Jew, his nullification testifies to his nullification to the congregation of Israel and her Beloved, and he is rewarded from the union that is created from his observance of themitzvah to draw down the soul of a new Jew into his home.

1 Daniel, 4:10.

2 See below in the story, “יושב תהלות ישראל ” endnote 26.

3 See in detail our book in Hebrew, Lev Lada’at, pp. 135-138.

4 Likutei Moharan I, 11.

5 Numbers 27:18. See also Yalkut Shimoni on the verse, remez 776.

6 See above concerning the three qualities of a true Rebbe. See also Ramach Otiot, ot 152.
The Ba’al Shem Tov said that the purpose of all that is created is only in order to bring benefit to the nation of Israel and if it was of no benefit to the nation of Israel, it would not have been created. It could even be that something was created in order to bring benefit to a Jew just once in the seventy years of his lifetime.

7 Exodus 24:11.

8 “Nobility” is the literal translation of Atzilut, “Emanation”.

9 According to the aforementioned idea, all of the three qualities of a Rebbe were revealed in the Ba’al Shem Tov within the aspect of his general soul, thus this level is the most general of all in its meaning for us as taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov – not only should a person feel that he belongs to the entire nation, but he must also understand that he himself is a reflection of the nation, uniting with it through mutual responsibility.

10 This is the way the Ba’al Shem Tov interpreted the Torah obligation to offer rebuke: “‘You shall surely rebuke your acquaintance’ (Leviticus 19:17): Rebuke yourself when you rebuke your acquaintance and then he will also become aware of the evil that he has done” (Keter Shem Tov 131).

11 See addendum to Keter Shem Tov 154 (Likutei Diburim 27, 3). The Ba’al Shem Tov did not suffice with judging simple Jews favorably, by saying that their simplicity is related to God’s quintessential simplicity, he actually demanded that even great Torah scholars acknowledge this precious quality and try to adopt it for themselves. Instead of focusing on our own talents and abilities, we should attempt to reach a state in which our entire being emanates from the point of simple union that lies within the essence of the soul. See in detail in volume II, gate 9.

12 Shabbat 118b.

13 In Hebrew, the word for “careful” (זהיר ) and the word for “shines” (זוהר ) share the same root.

14 See Letters of the Rayatz part 2, letter 479.

15 Psalms 119:9.

16 Exodus 16:7. Similarly, the numerical value (47) of the Hebrew word meaning “In what way” (במה ) is equal toבטול , meaning “nullification.”

17 In the supernal sefirot, this relates to the sefirah of wisdom(חכמה , the letters of which can be permuted to form the wordsכח מה , “the power of what”), which perceives the inspiration received from the super-conscious sefirah of crown above it, creating the first spark of awareness in our psyches. Thus, wisdom is the opening through which all of thesefirot below it can approach the essential ‘nothingness’ that lies above it (unlike the downward evolution of the sefirot in which each sefirah receives from those above it, a process that is none other than a transition of substance from one to the other, and therefore does not necessitate nullification). When one sees that someone else has something to give, the ego, the substance of the human psyche, causes one to wish to receive it. However, in order to receive renewed energy from the unique source of the essential life-force, which is enigmatic and hidden, one must reach an egoless point in the psyche. In this egoless state of openness and readiness to receive from the beyond, we are able to reach the wellspring of the Torah. “Just as water leaves the high places and descends to the lower places, so too words of Torah can only be found in one who is of a humble disposition” (Ta’anit 7a).

Leave A Comment