The Shepherd, The Werewolf,
And The Baal Shem Tov
It is said that at the beginning of the world, the souls of all mankind were present in the soul of Adam, and that when Adam stretched out his hand to eat of the forbidden fruit, the soul of Israel ben Eliezer turned away, for he had no wish to disobey the Lord.
Israel ben Eliezer, who came to be known as the Baal Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name, was born in eastern Europe, in the small town of Okop, at the turn of the eighteenth century. His father, a well loved old Rabbi, died while he was still a small boy, and the people of those parts tried to make sure young Israel received an education. But he was always wandering off from school and spending days in the woods by himself. When he grew old enough, he took the job of fetching the children from their homes and bringing them to school each day. He would lead them singing and dancing through the fields, and so clear were their voices, that they were even heard in heaven. Satan began to fear this child, and one day he sent a werewolf to frighten the little procession. But Israel's father had told him to remember that God was always with him, and Israel struck the werewolf between the eyes, and killed him.
Soon Israel became the servant boy in the House of Study. But he made a point of sleeping all day long, and used to wake up to pray and study in secret, when he was sure the rest of the household was asleep. One saintly old Rabbi recognized the signs of holiness in the young boy, and promised him his daughter's hand in marriage. The bride's brother was a famous scholar by the name of Gershon of Kitov. Rabbi Gershon found it hard to ap prove of the ignorant lad his sister had married, and tried to persuade her to divorce her husband. When she refused, he bought the pair of them a coach and horses, and told them to be gone. They drove up into the Carpathian mountains, and there found a place to live.
Israel used to spend the week in a but way up on the mountain side, quarrying clay, and would return home for Sabbath. On one occasion, he set out for his little but with six loaves of bread and a jug of water, and when he returned home at the end of the week, he opened his sack, and found the six loaves still there, untouched.
After some years, Rabbi Gershon bought Israel a small inn in a village on the banks of the Rin Prut. Israel used to spend his time meditating in a cave nearby, and whenever guests came, his wife would call him, and he would serve them. One day a disciple of the Rabbi Gershon came to the inn, and took supper. After the meal, he told Israel to prepare his horses so he might continue his journey. Israel harnessed the horses, but invited his guest to stay for the rest of the week and celebrate the Sabbath with him. The guest smiled and went on his way, but hardly had he travelled half a mile when the wheel on his carriage broke. All through the week, the guest's attempts to leave the inn were foiled by accidents of this sort, so many of them that it seemed coincidence must be at work. Finally, the guest was obliged to spend the Sabbath with Israel. The latter invited his guest to lead all the prayers, so that his own trembling love for God should not be apparent.
That night, Israel ben Eliezer received word from heaven that he need no longer hide his love of God from men. During the night, his guest awoke, and was astonished to see the little hearth of the inn ablaze. He was sure the wood pile had caught fire, and that the whole place would burn down. But when he came nearer, he found that what he had taken for a fire was a great blaze of light that surrounded the Baal Shem Tov at his prayers. The guest fainted, and Israel had to nurse him back to consciousness. He commented that a man should not see that which is not given him to see. It was the night of the Baal Shem's thirty-sixth birthday.
The next day, the guest continued on his journey, telling the people of the surrounding villages and towns that a great saint was in their midst.
It is said of the Baal Shem Tov that at first, he hardly knew how to speak to the people who came to him. But he said, 'When I weld my soul to God, and allow my mouth to speak as it wishes, all my words are tied to their roots in heaven.' He once told his grandson, 'I swear to you that there is one man on earth who was taught his path not by men nor by angels, but by God Himself, and even that man is afraid that God will push him aside and forget him.' His fear and love of God was so great, that his heart would begin pounding as the Sabbath approached, so loud that all who were with him could hear it. Once he told his body that he was surprised it had not fallen apart for fear and love of God.
He was not a man to encourage empty learning or mere formality in religion. On one occasion, the Baal Shem Tov was
visiting a House of Prayer with some friends, and when he arrived at the door, he would not go in. 'The whole house is packed with prayers and teachings from floor to roof,' he said, 'and there's no room for me.' The people who were with him were surprised to hear him speak of prayer and learning in this way, so he continued, 'You know, those prayers which are not given wings by the heart, cannot rise to heaven. They just accumulate down here.'
On another occasion, a man was travelling to spend the Sabbath with the Baal Shem Tov, but he was still quite far from the town when the Sabbath began. As the Sabbath laws forbade him to travel any farther, he was obliged to pass the Day of Rest in a field in the country. When at last he did arrive at the home of the Baal Shem Tov, the latter greeted him warmly. He said, 'Your heart set free all the prayers that were waiting in that field.'
There are many stories about the Baal Shem. Martin Buber, in his wonderful book Legend of the Baal-Shem, tells of a time when the Master needed all his strength to combat the forces of darkness. An impostor by the name of Jacob Frank was troubling the people of Poland, marching from city to city, claiming to be the Messiah.
In order to overthrow the false Messiah, the Baal Shem called to himself all the blessings which he had scattered among men in the course of his whole life. When all his blessings were gathered together, one small blessing asked the Baal Shem Tov's permission to say a few words. '0 Master,' he said, the poor boy into whose life you sent me was as good as dead until your blessing entered his heart. All his pleasures had turned into pain, and he stumbled from one day to the next without reason to hope. With your blessing, he has been able to see the glory of the Creator shining forth in everything. Before, the world seemed drab and monotonous to him: now he watches the changing of the seasons with loving eyes. Must you withhold your blessing from him? Will you not allow your blessing to go out to him again?
The Baal Shem Tov signalled that he gave his blessing to the boy. But no sooner had he done this, than other voices began to request permission to return to their charges. For those whom the Baal Shem had blessed had all been drowning in the darkness: and now that they knew the light, to send any one of them back into darkness seemed a terrible thing. The Baal Shem Tov was too merciful to hold back his blessings.
Next, the Baal Shem sent his soul to heaven, to look for a fellow soul that would give him the support he needed. The Prophet Elijah told him to look for a shepherd called Moshe, whose heart was afire with the love of God.
When the Baal Shem found Moshe, he was jumping back and forth across a ditch, singing to himself, and sometimes running off to fetch a sheep that was straying too far from the flock. The Baal Shem came up to him and asked to speak of him, but Moshe replied, 'I am sorry, but I have been hired to look after these sheep, and my time is not my own. The Baal Shem answered, 'Yet you have been dancing to and fro across this ditch and singing to yourself for hours.' Moshe replied, 'But that was for love of God. I can always find time for the love of God' The Baal Shem Tov told him it was for love of God that he wished to speak with him. And then he explained his need. Moshe was glad to hear the words of the Baal Shem, and eager to help. But as the pair of them were talking, the prince of darkness began to tremble, for he saw that their combined prayers would overthrow his false Messiah, and bring an early end to the sway of hell on earth.
He plagued heaven with his prayers. 'Is it not given to me to hold this world?' he cried. Heaven spoke. 'Satan, the earth is in your hand until the dawning of the age.' At once the demon became a storm in the valley where the friends were talking. Dark clouds, raging winds drove across the slopes of the valley, scattering the flock of sheep. Moshe turned away from the Baal Shem. 'My sheep,' he cried, 'my sheep.'
The Baal Shem died, as all men must. Long after his death, one who had seen the Baal Shem as a child, and had grown old remembering his face, the Rabbi Nahum of Tchemobil, spoke these words: 'It is written that one generation passes away, and another generation arises. I tell you that you shall not see the like of the Baal Shem Tov until the coming of the Messiah. And when the Messiah comes, the Baal Shem Tov will also be there. He will be. He will be. He will be.'
Martin Buber. The Legend of the Baal Shem and Tales of the Hasidim are published by Schoken Books.