Monday, January 12, 2009

On The Baal Shem Tov, A Reflection

Below I have included a reading which was originally used as a meditation by our synagogue youth group on a backpacking trip in the Cascade mountains. Students were encouraged to find a quiet place alone in the forest to read this short story. After answering the questions at the end of the lesson they were given time for personal prayer and reflection.

A Throne in the Forest
Israel was a teenage wanderer who found himself staying in a small village inn. The innkeeper was a simple Jew who struggled to read his siddur and had no understanding of the Hebrew words it contained. The innkeeper however was an extremely spiritual person. He had the practice of yelling, “Blessed is He for ever and ever!” on just about any occasion, and he meant it. The innkeeper’s wife, also devout but quite simple, was known for repeatedly remarking: “Praised be His holy name.”

When Israel arrived in the village it was his sixteenth birthday, Elul 18, 1714. He went to meditate alone in a field. He secluded himself in order to reflect upon his life, how he had spent his early years in a home for orphans where he was severely beaten, and how the forest had been his refuge. Israel dreaded the orphanage and would often escape into the forest after Hebrew school spending days and nights in the woods. It was there in the deep forest that Israel first witnessed real davening or prayer.

At the age of six Israel heard the melodious voice of a man as it was carried on a breeze through green leafy branches to his ear. He followed the voice to its source and quietly watched to see who it was coming from. Israel was awestruck; it was a man in prayer, a kind of prayer he had never seen before. The prayer of this strange Jew was ecstatic. The man seemed to be in another world. Israel befriended the man and was taken as a disciple. Throughout his sixteen years Israel had studied under many holy men, all of them outcasts. Some lived in small huts in the forest, others in tiny mountain villages. To the world, even the Jewish world, these men were nobodies, ignorant village Jews, but Israel had a way of seeing greatness in simplicity.

As he continued to meditate Israel began to recite chapters from the Psalms. He became completely entrenched in prayer to the extent that he became entirely unaware of his surroundings. It was prayer like that of the man he had met in the forest so many years ago. Then seemingly from nowhere there appeared to him a vision of Elijah standing before him, with a smile on his face.

Elijah said to him: “Aaron Shlomo the innkeeper and Zlateh Rivkah his wife are unaware of the cosmic effects of their utterances, ‘Blessed be He for ever and ever,’ and ‘Praised be His holy name.’ However these words resonate through all the worlds, causing a greater stir than words spoken by the greatest holy men.”

The Prophet continued to explain to Israel that G-d derives tremendous joy from the words of gratitude and praise spoken by men, women and children, especially by simple folk, when it is uttered in pure faith from a wholesome heart, from those who remain in perpetual attachment to G-d in their simplicity.
This confirmation took root in Israel’s heart. It became his practice to always stimulate a spirit of thanksgiving towards G-d within the souls of people he would encounter during his traveling. Israel would intentionally bring up topics that would cause people to bless G-d, a birth of a child, a new garment, just about anything that would bring that person a sense of gratefulness.

Throughout his early years Israel remained a wanderer who spent most of his time in the vast forests of the Ukraine were he lived in the Carpathian Mountains. When he returned from the forest to enter a village people treated Israel harshly. Most took him for being illiterate and a fool. Israel wasn’t without understanding but he almost liked the fact that others thought he was. He never defended himself. He let people come to their own conclusions.

Israel found work walking young children back and forth to Hebrew day school. This wasn’t a desirable position in the eyes of most but Israel delighted in his interactions with the children. Israel also worked in the house of study cleaning up after the students. In those days it was common practice for students to sleep in the house of study after learning late into the evening. Israel would collect half burned candle stubs left behind by the students and even small bits of wax he removed from the floor. After the students had fallen asleep Israel would study the holy books by candle light. Enveloped by the words of Torah and the mystical writings Israel attached his soul to G-dliness.

He continued to spend many hours and even days in the forest just as he had when he was a boy. Israel would run through the trees, plunge his hands into the soil along the river’s edge, and dance in the meadows. Some nights he would sleep on the grass, without a blanket or even a shirt to come between himself and the night sky with its countless sparkling stars. Israel had a secret, he knew how to come close to G-d in a way that no one else in his generation had. Israel was willing to sacrifice everything in order to enter G-d’s presence. Through the experience of his life Israel had developed a character like that of the Mashiach, a man he would be privileged to meet many years later in a most wondrous vision.
Israel’s secret, his uncommon closeness to G-d, was about to be revealed. An unnamed student went to visit his master in the town of Kuty. Through a series of unlikely mishaps this student was forced to spend the Sabbath in Israel’s simple home. In the night the student was startled and roused from his sleep when he saw what he believed was a fire in the kitchen. The man rushed into the room only to behold the face of his humble host now transfigured as it were, enveloped in a flame. The man fainted. When he awoke Israel spoke, “You shouldn’t have looked where you had no permission!”

After the Sabbath the student left Israel’s home and hurried to the city where he confronted the pious men of the synagogue and their rabbi telling them: “There is a great light near your community. It would be good for you to bring him to the city.” When they heard what he said, they all agreed that this great light must be Israel ben Eliezer for they had seen and heard many remarkable things regarding the man. Rumors had been trickling in for some time that Israel had even performed secret miracles, healing the sick.

The pious men of city went to retrieve Israel from the village where he lived. Foreseeing this, Israel met them along the way. Upon meeting him the pious men descended from their carts and fashioned a throne of tree branches in the forest. There they seated Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer accepting him as their master (Rebbe), and bestowing upon him the title of “Baal Shem Tov” which is how he is most commonly remembered unto this day. From his seat in the forest Rabbi Yisrael revealed to his disciples both secrets of the Torah and those of a personal relationship with their creator.

Israel ben Eliezer birthed a revival that would spread throughout all Europe and eventually the world. It was not an easy path however. In the early years of the movement his disciples were excommunicated from greater Judaism and cast out of synagogues. Today the spiritual descendants of Israel ben Eliezer can be found among many Hasidim whose devoted lives should be an inspiration to Jews of every affiliation.

Some things to think about:

1. Why do you think Israel used the mountains and forests as a way to connect with G-d? How do you find a connection to your creator?

2. Tradition seems to imply that Israel was actually raised by a secret society of completely righteous men. Each of these men took on the persona of a simple illiterate peasant worker of some sort. There is an old saying: “If you believe all the stories about the Baal Shem Tov you are a fool. If however you believe none of them you are an even bigger fool.” Israel may not have been raised by a secret society; perhaps what is closer to the truth is that Israel had a way of finding the good in any person. According to the Baal Shem Tov, a coal smelter living in the forest that had raised him for a number of years was truly an unknown tzadik.

In your life have you ever known a person who was unappreciated by most but was in actuality a remarkable individual? Why have so many great people including the most holy Mashiach been unappreciated by the world?

3. In the story above it was mentioned that Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer met the Mashiach in a vision. This information comes from a letter Rabbi Israel wrote to a relative in the holy land. In the letter it is revealed that the spiritual knowledge Israel held was taught to him by the Mashiach. Sometimes in life we learn from experience. How were the experiences of Rabbi Israel’s life similar to those of the Mashiach Yeshua?

If you are unfamiliar with the life of Yeshua try reading the following passages and comparing them to the story above: Luke 9:28-36, Matt 13:54-55, Mark 9:36-37 Mark 7:32-36

1 comment:

Mitko said...

Hello Tim! It's Mitko from Sofia. The girl from museum sent me photo of Rabbi Zion. It's already on my blog:
You can copy it for yours. Hope i helped:)
Best regards