The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov
Edited by Yitzhak Buxbaum
Publisher: Continuum Press, NY, 2008.
Some like to have their spiritual instructions delivered in a rational, straightforward or even scientific language. Others want their spirituality in devotional tones: with poetry, colourful imagery and appeals to the heart. Then there are those of us who are happiest when the life of the spirit is illustrated by a story.
One of the great storytellers in the mystic tradition of Judaism was the Baal Shem Tov, also called the Besht. The founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov lived from 1698–1760 in what is now Poland and the Ukraine. He was a controversial rabbi in his own time, probably because his teaching – offering a mystic path to God accessible to all – contrasted with the elitism of many Torah scholars.
In The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, the editor, Yitzhak Buxbaum offers his own selection from a variety of traditional material about the Baal Shem Tov, including disciples’ descriptions of the Besht, tales from his life, and the stories he told to illustrate his spiritual teachings. Many passages about the Besht’s life revolve around rituals and customs specific to Judaism; for understanding these, the glossary at the back of the book is helpful. The Besht’s teaching stories, on the other hand, are very simple to understand, and indeed seem universal in their appeal.
The reminiscences by disciples offer heartfelt, sometimes ecstatic, reflections about what it means to be a disciple, to be on a spiritual path and moving towards God. They describe how disciples felt in the Besht’s presence:
It was not only what he said, but how he said it, and who was saying it. As soon as he opened his holy mouth, they felt elevated. The very sound of his sweet voice was like a balm to troubled souls. His face shone like the face of an angel of God and his word were the words of the Shechinah [Indwelling Divine Presence] speaking from his throat.… [He] taught them Torah the way it is taught in the Garden of Eden, and his disciples could smell the fragrance of paradise that filled the room. Its perfume was so ravishing that their souls almost flew away with each word that he uttered. Everything he said was perfectly true, directly from heaven.
Although many miracle stories are included, the reader can observe how for his disciples the greatest miracle was the master himself.
The Baal Shem Tov’s disciples saw with their own eyes that the glory and the majesty of the greatest king was insignificant next to the glory and the majesty of their holy master. And the self-effacement of the lowliest beggar, who is contemptible in his own eyes, was insignificant next to the self-effacement of the holy Baal Shem Tov. His light was like the light of the Holy One, blessed be He, which is infinitely high and exalted above everything, yet is infinitely low, descending to the lowest depths.
Despite the value of these accounts, it will likely be the Besht’s stories that the reader will best remember, and turn to again and again. In one story, to incite his disciples to strive to realize God now, while living, the Besht uses the most homely, everyday and sweet analogy possible:
When a father wants to play with his little child, he hides his face with his hand, and then shows his face to him – doing this again and again. But the father’s pleasure is even greater when the child is clever enough to push his father’s hand away, so that it no longer conceals his face. God’s glory fills the earth, and there is no place where He is not present. When it seems that he is absent, he is merely hiding His face from you. But if you know that he is hiding, there is no more concealment. If you truly want the game to end, and to see Him always, push your Father’s hand away to see His face.
In many stories the Besht extols the humble, simple and sincere devotion of the poor and uneducated. Once he stood on the street corner gathering a crowd of listeners as he related the long and winding “Tale of the Sigh and the Sneer.” He told of a poor man who worked all day, barely able to feed his family, who was exhausted at the time of evening prayer. Uneducated, he couldn’t say the prayers properly. Each evening as he walked home after prayers, deeply aware of his own failings, he sighed, wishing he could devote himself more completely to God. Meanwhile, in the same village, a wealthy Torah scholar spent his entire day in prayer and studying the scriptures. Each evening, walking home after prayers, he saw the poor man who made so many mistakes in his prayers, and a sneer formed on his lips.
Years later, both of them died. When the Torah scholar’s many pious deeds were weighed on the scales, that sneer – placed on the other side of the scales – weighed heavier than all the scholar’s prayers. But when the poor man stood before the judges, ashamed because he had hardly any pious deeds to put onto the scales, an angel put that sigh onto the scales, and it weighed so much that it tipped the scales to the side of the good.
In another story, the Besht suggests that the path of divine service may not be so much “to focus on increasing your efforts to do God’s will, but rather to accept God’s will in the events of life.”
A disciple of the Baal Shem Tov wanted to live comfortably, like a normal person, but also to be properly spiritual. So he went to the Master and said, “Rabbi, I’m not capable of doing anything extraordinary in serving God. Please give me some divine service to concentrate on so that I’ll have this world and also the world-to-come.” The Baal Shem Tov answered him, “I’ll give you the service of being happy with your portion in this world.” “Rabbi,” said the man, “that is still very difficult!” “That is what I intended,” replied the Rabbi.
On another occasion a disciple complained that when he had first sought God, he had been full of faith and enthusiasm and had experienced great joy, but that over the years his devotional life had grown flat and uninspired, except when he was in the presence of the Besht. The Besht answered with a story:
A person went into a store to buy sweets, and the shopkeeper let him taste the candies. But when the customer wanted to continue tasting, the shopkeeper said, “I let you have a taste so that you’d know how good everything is. But if you want to have more, you’ll have to pay. I didn’t treat you for nothing!” God gives a person a taste of the sweetness of the Hidden Light. But after that, he must pay; he must exert himself to achieve and earn that joy and light in the future, to make it a spiritual possession, to win mystic consciousness, and the bliss of ‘d’vekut’ [cleaving with intense love to God; God-consciousness]. That is your task now.
According to the Hasidic tradition, relating stories about the tzaddikim (spiritual masters) has great spiritual value, for these “are the stories of God’s doings in this world; they tell of the meeting of heaven and earth.… Tales of the Tzaddikim awaken the heart and kindle the inner fires of love for God.… Your heart will awaken from its slumber and say to you, ‘Why should I also not seek intimacy with my Father in heaven?’”
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