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Happy Birthday To The Greatest Jew That Ever Lived

Happy Birthday To The Greatest Jew That Ever Lived

Associate Editor

The first day of Shavous is the 250th birthday of one of my best friends, the most spectacular Jew that ever lived, Yisroel Ben-Eliezer. Most folks know him as the Baal Shem Tov, but today I’m calling him Reb Yisroel since that’s what his mom and dad called him at the dawn of his life.

(They didn’t say "Hi, liitle Besht, I love you, Baal Shem Tov!" They called him Yisroel when they cuddled him and put him to bed at night. I just wanted to send some love to his parents, Eliezer and Sarah, since they gave us so much, and they died when their son was so young.)

Chabad has a terrific new site devoted to this holy soul,, and Yitzhak Buxbaum has written absolutely the best book, "The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov."

Here’s one of my favorite stories that Reb Yisroel enjoyed telling. The Baal Shem opted to spend a goodly portion of his life as a "hidden" tzaddik, without title, degrees, or honor. And even after he was "revealed." the Baal Shem, for all of his own vast knowledge of earthly and heavenly truths, used to love to gently take down a notch all the overly academic, overly critical yeshiva guys (and these days, he surely would have had fun with some of the high-fallutin "Aint I Brilliant" women from the Drisha "scholars," too). The Baal Shem preferred a respect for mystery to a display of mastery. You could hear an echo of the Baal Shem when Reb Shlomo Carlebach would often end a story saying, "What do we really know?"

When it came time for the Baal Shem’s daughter, Edel (an expert kabbalist in her own right) to find a husband, many of her suitors, in the fashion of haredi courtship, tried to impress the Baal Shem with their advanced scholarship, rather than with their souls and humility. The Baal Shem was not impressed by any of them.

And then one young man (that Edel liked), wiser than them all, impressed the Baal Shem. Peppered with yeshivish and mystical questions, the young man only replied: "I never knew. I don’t know. And I won’t know." The Baal Shem laughed with delight and immediately agreed to the match.

This wasn’t about illiteracy but about spiritual and mystical humility.

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