Ba’al Shem Tov: Think Good and it Will Be Good!

When the Ba’al Shem Tov was about ten years old, he was already a member of the company of hidden tzadikim. At seventeen years old, his holy custom was to visit the villages and the towns to reinforce faith in the hearts of our Jewish brethren.

The Ba’al Shem Tov would wander around wearing an outer garment that was half fur, like the village folk. Once, the Ba’al Shem Tov arrived at a Jewish village where the Jews worked the land. It was during a particularly difficult period during mid-summer, when an arid drought prevailed. It had been so long since rain had fallen that the crops and vineyards had dried out and the large and small cattle were plagued with pestilence.

The farmers were God-fearing people and were aroused to repent, but when they saw that the situation did not improve, they decided to invite a magid to inspire them to do teshuvah.

And so, it transpired that they brought in a magid. All the villagers assembled together in the synagogue, and the magid did not spare his words. He poured out a storm of fire and brimstone until the entire congregation broke down and wept uncontrollably.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, who was present in the synagogue and saw the Jews in their sorrow, approached the rebuking magid and yelled at him in a thunderous voice, “What have you got against these Jews?” He then turned to the Jews and said, “Come, my Jewish friends, let’s dance together. After minchah (the afternoon prayer), it will begin raining!”

At first, they looked at him apprehensively, suspecting that perhaps he was a non-believer, or that he had gone out of his mind, but when our teacher the Ba’al Shem Tov began bringing proof from the teachings sages to support his words, they began listening to him and were strengthened in their faith that God would redeem them. Together they all went out to dance with our teacher, the Ba’al Shem Tov, and in the middle of their dance, it began pouring with rain.

Sefer Hasichot, 5701, p. 113


Spirited Teshuvah

A measure of tension prevailed between the Ba’al Shem Tov and his company of hidden tzadikim, and between the band of maggidim, who preferred harsh rebukes. Thus, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s strong stand against the magid in this story should be quite clear.

However, what is not so clear is the content of his words. He might have said that the Jewish villagers did not deserve all the fire and brimstone that the preacher heaped on them, but what is the meaning of his words, “What have you got against these Jews?” And what is the meaning of dancing to bring rain?

All in all, the villagers’ together with the magid’s intention was right. They wanted to be aroused to teshuvah (return to God) with tears of true regret, in order to deserve God’s salvation!

Weeping and teshuvah are always linked with each other. In all of Jewish literature bitter tears always play an important role, and testify to the genuineness of our feelings of regret. Heartfelt tears are an initial response that results from feeling distanced and separate from God and they stem from the fathoms of the heart, and echo in its ears to break through the iron screen and to wash away every shadow of sin.
In the writings of the Holy Arizal,[1] we find that the month of Elul is that is referred to in the verse, “And she shall weep for her father and her mother a month of days.”[2] This is a month of tears that laps over into the next month during the Ten Days of Repentance. Only once this bitter introduction has passed, bringing the ba’al teshuvah (returner to God) to a genuine sense of his own lowliness, can we rejoice on the festival of Sukot; the “Time of Our Rejoicing.”
Whereas the entire population has a set time for each of these dynamics – awe and tears in Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance and joy on Sukot and Simchat Torah – the illustrious souls contain both extremes at one and the same time: “Tears are stabbed in their hearts on the one side, and joy is stabbed in their hearts on the other side.”[3] Therefore it is certainly questionable how the Ba’al Shem Tov always showed a joyful face to the simple Jewish folk in the current story and in many other stories. At every opportunity for teshuvah, for rectification, for heartfelt matters, he always demanded joy. Moreover, even though serving God with tears has become obsolete in Chassidic teachings, nonetheless, it gradually takes up less and less space.
The Ba’al Shem Tov was privy to God’s thoughts and he was able to direct his service to the times when the shifts changed in the management of the worlds. He knew when souls came into the world who were no longer suited to tears, and they were no longer a significant tool in their service of God, and he understood this change clearly and profoundly.
We weep because we feel separate. Via our moans and groans[4] we attempt to straighten out our the distortions in our hearts that we have formed with our sins. Through our tears we hope to wash away and erase the stain that has been left on the purity of our souls. We stand before God like an errant servant and like a child who has forgotten their father.
This is why the Ba’al Shem Tov came to testify that there are sins that do not separate us from God as such, and there are sinners who even as they are actually doing the sin, still remain faithful to the Almighty. Whatever exists in every individual in the depths of his soul, in the “single one” (יחידה) of his soul, shines from one end to the other in a simple Jew.

On various occasions we have clarified at length how no Jew has ever sinned, because just as the contraction of God’s light at the outset of Creation cannot be taken literally, neither can sin be taken literally.

A Jew never gives himself over to totally disregard God’s will and to separate from his union with Him for a split second. And when we are discussing a simple Jew, this is quite apparent.

These Jews did not sin because of any warped beliefs and their guileless desire to return to God together with their bitter tears testify like a thousand witness that their souls are pure, and that they are truly guiltless. The sins of the simple Jewish folk happen because of a lack of knowledge, which in itself is the result only of life’s hardships – which God, who turns the wheels of fortune, brought their way.

A distinguished Jew usually needs to arouse himself and the knowledge that he has sinned does not immediately bring him to tears, however the Jewish folk of this village were overcome with tears just from the sense that God demands something from them. It was they who invited the preacher’s rebuke, their tears just needed a good reason of some kind, a stump of guilt and pure and faithful springs came through and overwhelmed them.

We can naturally understand now how much we should speed up the rectification of such Jews as these[5] and how mistaken the preacher’s attitude was – in thinking that their weeping needed reinforcement and their tears to increase. There is no screen that divides between these Jews and their Father in Heaven, and a wealth of abundance was waiting behind their walls for immediate revelation, but in order to draw it down into mundane reality, they just needed to be happy.

Those simple Jews, who in their generation were almost considered a separate creed, are an archetype for the entire Jewish people in our generations. In the days of “the footprints of Mashiach,” we are all considered “heels” Jews of simple sanctity that penetrates and illuminates even down to the coarse heel of the foot. Previous generations achieved what they achieved through their service and we, like a dwarf on the back of a giant, sense that we are quite simply constantly close to God.

In a moment of sin or in a moment of teshuvah, more than we stand before Him like servants or like sons, we appease Him as a wife appeases her beloved husband. There is no distance, no separation, only “A bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”[6]

The service of God in tears has not ended yet, because our lowliness and the sense that something is missing never end.[7] But, the king’s wife does not act like his servant or his son. Her beloved is not interested in his wife’s tears, but has a specific preference for her when she is happy (as Rebbe Dovid of Lelov learnt from Jacob’s initial preference for Rachel over Leah, who wept). Our covenant of closeness is strong enough and tangible enough to shorten the process of regret and appeasement and to stand the main government of the individual and the collective on the limit of joy and dancing.”[8]

The Rebbe Rayatz[9] described the beginning of this trend in his discourse regarding his birthday and the Ba’al Shem Tov’s birthday: “The eighteenth [written with the Hebrew letters that spell “life” (חי)] of Elul is the day that brought and will bring vitality to Elul.” On this day, new life was breathed into the service of teshuvah, life that springs from the wondrous wellsprings of faith and trust in God that the Ba’al Shem Tov exposed.[10]

For in Him our Hearts Rejoice

Probing a little deeper, these things relate to the essence of our sense of trust in God. The biggest question is how can we trust in God that everything will be good? Even our Patriarch Jacob was worried that his sins might affect the outcome of his meeting with Esau![11]

One possible answer is that our trust in God is not necessarily that things will always be good in a way that is open for all to see. According to this interpretation, trust is the clear knowledge that is steadfast in the soul that everything that happens is God’s will, and since God is the essence of goodness, everything turns out for the best, even if we can’t see how it is so.

However, this answer is not at all satisfactory, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson[12] pointed out (based on Chovat Halevavot):[13] if that is trust, why is there any need to command us to trust in God if it is merely a branch of believing in God who “Did, does and will do all the acts,” so there certainly can be nothing bad that descends from above.[14]

Moreover, doesn’t the literal meaning of “trust” refer to complete trust, when an individual has a sense of total trust on what will transpire? As the chassid wrote:[15]

“The essence of trust is the calmness of the truster and his heart should rely on the One who he trusts in that he will do the best for him in what he trusts him.”

According to these words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, although it might well be that because of one’s sins and according to one’s deeds, one might not be worthy of experiencing the best realized in its obvious form, nonetheless, every one of us has a mitzvah to trust in God that He performs only good. This is not at all referring to the question of faith in God, because, as mentioned above, according to the ways of faith, it could well be that there will not be revealed goodness.[16]

This is referring to serving God in practice, by the individual making a conscious effort to set in his heart the knowledge that God is his trust and his only support, who in His great kindness will certainly lead His people above and beyond the attribute of judgment and will tend towards lovingkindness, even if they have sinned.

The secret for the attribute of trust is the knowledge that God loves every individual with revealed simple love. The stronger this knowledge becomes in the individual’s soul, so his soul becomes able to receive more and more love from Him.

As in other areas, so it is with the attribute of love: God “gives wisdom to the wise.”[17] Someone who expects judgment to be meted out on him clarifies this method as the only means by which he can receive attention from God. In contrast, someone who expects God to actualize His simple, clear love that He certainly has for him, draws upon himself more and more the nature of good to give good in an evident and palpable manner.[18]

 

Photo by Rich Soul on Unsplash

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