Some 300 years ago in whatís now Ukraine, a young boy, Yisroel Ben-Eliezer, couldnít stand to stay in the classroom. Heíd run away into nearby forests and fields. On one of his runaways he came upon a small house, illuminated from within. On his return he told of entering the innermost room where demons were laughing wildly.
An orphan, he remembered his father telling him, ìI wonít have the pleasure of raising you,î but to ìnever fear anyone or anythingî but God. ìRemember that God is always with you. Think about this constantly.î
When reciting Psalms, the boyís eyes would water at the verse, ìYou are my son; today I have begotten you.î God is the living father of orphans, the boy thought.
Outside the classroom Yisroel was a master of what made him restless within. He discovered that singing, dancing, imagination, storytelling and simply love itself could teach him about God in ways that scholarship couldnít. As an adult, he worked undercover, helping Jews as a member of a society of hidden holy souls. A late developer, some rabbis thought him an ignoramus. It was only at age 36 that he became known as the Baal Shem Tov ó the founder of chasidic Judaism.
If Yisroel Ben-Eliezer was revealed as the Baal Shem Tov (ìMaster of the Good Name,î a kabbalistic title bestowed for his skills in drawing upon Godís name) in or about the year 1736, he is revealed all over again in a new book by Yitzhak Buxbaum, ìThe Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov,î published by Continuum.ì
The Baal Shem Tov is the most influential Jewish religious figure in the last 2,000 years,î Buxbaum told The Jewish Week. ìHe was the greatest mystic in Judaism. He created a movement,î but the Besht, as the Baal Shem is also known, may even be a greater influence on liberal Judaism than on Orthodoxy, argues Buxbaum, considering how much liberal Judaism relies on storytelling, music, and the idea that a good heart counts for as much as traditional yeshiva knowledge.Buxbaum says that he has ìsmicha [ordination] as a maggid from my rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,î a maggid being a teller of Jewish stories for spiritual uplift and inspiration. Rabbi Carlebach, known for his music, was every bit the storyteller, if not as well known for that, and Buxbaum is of the Carlebach school, which is really the Beshtian school. He believes that a well-told story, as if in a tavern, goes a lot farther than a pulpit sermon.Buxbaumís book is not a biography but a collection of stories, more than 300, arranged in an approximation of chronological order so that a portrait forms as if from the smoke from the Baal Shemís pipe. The book is openly devotional but is less concerned with the miracle stories than with those illuminating the Baal Shemís soul.
Jews in 18th century Europe, said Buxbaum, were so debilitated by pogroms and anti-Semitic restrictions that ìmisery and fear infiltrated Judaism.î The Baal Shem reignited the idea of love rather than fear as the primary religious emotion. He brought dancing and singing back into a Jewish culture where it had died out. In an Orthodoxy that valued only the prodigy and the genius, the Baal Shem, writes Buxbaum, would teach that ìsometimes the childlike innocence of a simple Jew has more power to shake the supernal worlds than even the Torah study and praying of the great tzaddikim of the generation.î It wasnít just Jewish souls that attracted him, says Buxbaum. The Baal Shem would stop to listen to even a drunken non-Jew singing in the street, because, said the Besht, ìWhen a person sings, he confesses about his whole life. And when someone confesses, youíre obliged to listen.î
The Baal Shem told his students that better than coming to class they should come to his home to watch him play with his little children, writes Buxbaum, so they could learn the ìmany mystic secrets about how God behaves with His children.îWhen a young rabbi wanted to marry the Baal Shemís daughter, Edel, an expert kabbalist in her own right, the Baal Shem sent an emissary to test the suitorís Torah knowledge. The returning emissary told the Baal Shem that when he peppered the suitor with questions, the young man only replied, ìI never knew, I donít know, and I wonít know.î The Baal Shem laughed with delight, writes Buxbaum, and immediately agreed to the match.
Once, hearing that a rabbi was rebuking a congregation while citing Godís biblical rebukes of the Jewish people, the Baal Shem Tov told the rabbi that God, like a father, could scold his own children but would never allow anyone else to.Buxbaum says that the Baal Shem would often smoke his pipe when preparing to daven, until it occurred to the Besht that perhaps he was wrong to light his pipe with a candle made from non-kosher fat. Non-kosher candles are allowed for common use, though not for Shabbat candles, but what about for the Baal Shemís pipe? When the Besht realized, after several days, that this problem was distracting him, writes Buxbaum, ìhe jumped up and swore that from then on he would always light his pipe from a candle of non-kosher fat.î The Baal Shem taught his students, writes Buxbaum, that he could have easily sworn off such a candle, in accordance with the usual impulse of people who want to become more pious. But for those kind of people, said the Besht, ìtheir world grows smaller and smaller,î until one becomes ìlike a rabbi I once met, who sat on his chair almost the whole Shabbos with his arms at his side and his legs tucked in for fear of touching something muktzeh [forbidden on Shabbat] or stepping on an ant Ö This morning while smoking my pipe, I heard the voice of what seemed to be my good inclination whispering in my ear, telling me not to use the candle. But then I realized that this was actually my yetzer hara, my evil inclination, and I refused to listen to it because thereís no end to that path.î
When he was dying, writes Buxbaum, he taught his students how the soul leaves the body, leaving one limb, then another. He told Reb Yaakov, one of his disciples, to ìtravel to all the places where they know of me and tell stories about what you saw when you were with me, and that will be your livelihood.îAnd so Reb Yaakov became a maggid, as did Reb Yitzhak Buxbaum in our own day, because thereís always another story. n