Monday, July 13, 2020

On Chasidism- Lecture 2-The Baal Shem Tov

June 13
Solitude by Marc Chagall

Session 2- The Baal Shem Tov
Lecture Notes:

To hear the lecture recorded, go to: . Fast forward 1:15 into the recording.

or also 1:15 into the video.

Enjoy some examples of Chasidic Music

Legends of his origins
Adapted from  and other ecclectic sources:

Rabbi Israel ben Elizer is referred to as the " Baal Shem Tov", Master of the Good Name, to refer to his great mystical abilities and to contrast him with previous preachers of mysticism. This is abridged, in Chasidc lore, to the abbreviation: BeShT.

A lesson on confronting our greatest fears

        Yisrael, who was affectionately called ‘Srulick,” was only five years old when his father passed on to his heavenly abode. Just before he passed on, Rabbi Eliezer called little Srulick and left him with the following instruction. “My sweetest son, I love you with all my heart. I want you to know that before you were born, it was made known to me that Hashem will always be with you because you have one of the Innocent Souls of Heaven. So fear nothing except God because He is always with you. And love every Jew dearly.
. . . each time, after a day or two at cheder, he would sneak away and go into the forest. Srulick felt most at home with the trees and the earth. There he felt connected to God. At first, the school teacher and members of the community would search for him, scold him, and return him to school. But eventually, they realized they just couldn’t control him. They told each other, “After all, he does seem happy and well adjusted, especially for an orphaned child.”

When Yisrael was about 12 years old,. . .he became a teacher’s helper. His job was to accompany the young children to and from cheder each day. At first everything went well. Srulick taught the children songs praising God and sang with them as they walked through the fields and forest to and from cheder. The songs had a powerful effect on the children and they grew happier and more joyful each day. The children’s feelings of joy were infectious . . . . But the Satan (the angel representing the innermost source of darkness) became very angry because such a spiritual uplifting was interfering with his work. So the Satan appeared before God and requested that this spiritual influx cease because it was not the time for the Moshiach to come. God reluctantly agreed….

[The legend goes on to describe the Satan descending into the soul of a werewolf and menacing the young Baal Shem Tov and his children .It becomes a lesson in facing our fears.]

 Srulik remembers his father’s promise “fear nothing except God.”
Srulick instructed them, “No matter what happens, walk directly behind me and don’t run. When they came close to the forest, they could hear snarling. Srulick quickly walked towards the forest as the werewolf came running out towards him. The werewolf appeared to grow larger and larger and then started snorting and pawing the ground. But Srulick was not afraid of the werewolf. Without hesitation, he walked right up to the beast and smashed it’s skull in with the club he had been carrying.

The legend goes on to say that the human behind the werewolf finally found its tranquility.  

His Beis Medresh, House of Worship and Teaching

His emphasis was on involvement in, not turning away, from this worldy life.:

At the core of the Besht's teaching is the principle of devekut( clinging to God), and he demanded that devekut exist in all daily acts and in social contacts. Man must worship God not only when practicing religious acts and holy deeds, but also in his daily affairs, in his business, and in social contacts, for when a “man is occupied with material needs, and his thought cleaves to God, he will be blessed” (Ketonet Passim (1866), 28a). This belief is linked with the Lurianic doctrine of the raising of the holy sparks (niẓoẓot), though he limited this concept to the salvation of the individual soul.

On accepting, not denying, our passions:

Because of his emphasis on devekut, he did not advocate withdrawal from daily life and society, and he vigorously opposed fasts and asceticism.

 The Besht is reported to have illustrated his views of asceticism by the following parable:

A thief once tried to break into a house, the owner of which, crying out, frightened the thief away. The same thief soon afterward broke into the house of a very strong man, who, on seeing him enter, kept quite still. When the thief had come near enough, the man caught him and put him in prison, thus depriving him of all opportunity to do further harm.

The Function of Tzadik and Chasid

A man once caught sight of a magnificent beautiful bird perched high in a treetop. He was disheartened that he could not reach it. People around him heard him exerting himself to get up the tree, to no effect. They could not see the bird, but them man was so sincere, that they decided to help. They formed a human ladder, raised him up to the tree top, and he brought back the magnificent bird for all to enjoy.
Thus, the Tzadik sees that which is splendor, but he can not attain it alone. He needs his Chasidim,his followers to work with him to bring that splendor down to earth.

On Music and dance

Why do Chassidim Sing and Dance?

The Baal Shem Tov was once asked: "Why is it that Chassidim burst into
song and dance at the slightest provocation? Is this the behavior of a healthy, sane individual?"
The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story:

Once, a musician came to town – a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on
a street corner and began to play.Those who stopped to listen could not
tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious
music whose equal they had never heard. Before long they were moving to
its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of

A deaf man walking by wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the
townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in
middle of the street?

"Chassidim," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "are moved by the melody that
issues forth from every creature in G-d's creation. If this makes them appear mad
to those with less sensitive ears, should they therefore cease to dance?"

On putting one's Neshamah ( soul) into what he or she learns

Rav Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritsch, chose to travel to Mezibush and judge the Baal Shem Tov's greatness for himself.

Rabbi DovBer was one of the biggest Talmidei Chachomim ( wise scholars)  in his generation., , ,
Upon his arrival in Mezibush, the Maggid went directly to Baal Shem Tov's home. He thought that he would hear Torah from the Baal Shem Tov, but instead, the Baal Shem Tov started telling him a story. "On one of my recent trips, I had no food for my gentile wagon driver. I finally found a poor gentile carrying a sack of bread, and I was able to purchase some bread for the driver."
The Maggid looked at the Baal Shem Tov in surprise. Here he had wasted hours of precious learning to travel and meet the Baal Shem Tov-only to be rewarded with this story . . ..
The next day, the Maggid decided to meet the Baal Shem Tov again, hoping to hear Torah insights from the great Rebbe. "You know," said the Baal Shem Tov as the Maggid entered, "once when I was traveling I couldn't find any hay for my horses. I was lucky to find some hay after a while, and was able to feed them."...
The Maggid did not understand this and he thought that he was just wasting his time, hearing seemingly meaningless stories, so he decided to return home immediately.
They got ready to leave when the Baal Shem Tov's attendant came. "The Baal Shem Tov wants to speak to you," said the attendant.

Surprised, the Maggid decided to follow the attendant, and entered the Baal Shem Tov's room. "Do you know how to learn?” inquired the Baal Shem Tov.
"Yes, I do," responded the Maggid.
"So I hear. Are you knowledgeable in Kabbalah?"
The Baal Shem Tov summoned his attendant and instructed him to bring a Sefer of Kabbalah, called Eitz Chaim. Opening the book to a certain page, he pointed to a specific paragraph and showed it to the Maggid. "Here!" he said. "How do you explain this particular piece?"
The Maggid read the paragraph and explained it to the best of his ability. A look of displeasure crossed the Baal Shem Tov's face. "You know nothing!" he said.
The Maggid reread the paragraph. After a few minutes of thinking, he turned to the Baal Shem Tov. "I definitely explained it correctly," challenged the Maggid. "If, however, you are aware of a different explanation, please let me hear it as well. Then I will decide which of us is correct."
"Stand up!" ordered the Baal Shem Tov and he started reading the paragraph. Now in this paragraph, there were mentioned names of Malochim (angels). As the Baal Shem Tov read them aloud, dazzling light filled the house and a wall of fire encircled the Baal Shem Tov. They were able to clearly see the Malochim whose names the Baal Shem Tov was reading.
The Baal Shem Tov finished reading and the awesome sight disappeared instantly. "Indeed, you read it correctly,"the Baal Shem Tov turned to the Maggid. "However, your study lacks ‘Neshama’."

[Source: Kesser Shem Tov Ois 424]

So what happened to the splendor or the original Chasidism?

The Baal Shem Tov Lights a Fire!

When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and asked for a miracle to save the Jews from the threat. Because of the Holy Fire and faithfulness of the prayer, the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of
the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. “I do not know how to light the fire,” he pleaded with God, “and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, the miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich, who, who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, ( Note: in  a palace so wealthy that the Tsar was jealousof him) holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story. That must be enough.”

All that we Jews have been doing, since the Besht, is telling his story, hoping that by the retelling, that will give us the power to overcome whatever confronts us.