Friday, September 16, 2011

The Baal Shem Tov's Birthday: "Chai" (18th) Elul

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov appeared in the world at a time of turmoil and spiritual crisis.  Two years of pogroms in Ukraine and Poland had left nearly half a million Jews dead, homeless, orphaned, and deeply shaken in their faith.  Jewish communal life collapsed, yeshivot closed, and desperate poverty forced many to abandon any hope of more than a rudimentary education for the quest to find their daily bread.       

The Baal Shem Tov reminded his brethren that G-d is everywhere – even in those moments seemingly devoid of His Presence; that His supervision and guidance extends to everything, down to the movement of a leaf in the wind; that one must serve G-d with joy, not asceticism.  But most of all, the Baal Shem Tov emphasized the beauty of “the simple Jew.”  He held up a mirror to the unlearned Jew and taught him to see himself as G-d does: precious. 


The Baal Shem Tov also attracted many great Torah scholars who went on to lead communities and Chassidic dynasties of their own.  But these men did not understand the Baal Shem Tov’s elevation of the simple Jew.  One summer Shabbat in the 1750s, something happened that forever changed the way the scholars saw these men. 

Following a communal meal, the simple Jews left for the synagogue to recite Psalms.  The Baal Shem Tov then arranged his disciples in a particular order and told each to put his hand on the shoulder of the person next to him. He told them to sing certain songs and to close their eyes.  He then placed a hand on each of the students on either side of him, creating a single circle.

Immediately they heard soul-stirring tunes.  Master of the World! The words of G-d are pure words like silver. Another voice pleaded, Dear Father, favor me, for in You my soul took refuge, and in the shadow of your wings I take shelter.  A third begged, Beloved Father, Holy Father, bring us back, G-d Who saves, erase Your anger toward us.   Hearing these heavenly songs of Psalms, the disciples began to tremble and tears flowed down every face. Each thought: If only I could serve G-d in such a manner!


At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov lifted his hands and the music vanished.  “Those songs you heard were sung by those simple Jews in the back of the synagogue.  All of you were touched by their beauty and power.  Imagine then, how much G-d loves them.”

To see ourselves as G-d does is to understand our essential belovedness and all the potential that comes with that.
Shabbat Shalom

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