Chassidic PsychologyStoriesmain postsThe Ba'al Shem Tov

Ba’al Shem Tov: All My Thoughts Are About You

Translated from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s trilogy of stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Vol. II p. 124

The Ba’al Shem Tov said: Even if the bowl full of food is set on the table, if God Almighty does not command to eat—it is impossible to eat.

Reshimot Devarim vol. 4, p. 81

Always Doing as Commanded

A fundamental principle in the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov comes from the verse, “Know Him in all your ways”[1] (בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ). A servant of God lives with Him always. Every action that he takes is an act of unification, an act that draws him nearer to God Almighty.

In previous generations, we did not find the likes of this fundamental principle—instructing us to act with unification in mind. There was no such general guidance for those who sought to pursue Divine service. Most of those who committed themselves to serving God (avdei Hashem) concentrated their energies on the fulfillment of the mitzvot—the Torah’s 613 commandments. Everything that was not directly attached to mitzvot—the mundane affairs of day-to-day life and the needs of material life—was perceived as undesirable; at the very best, it could be tolerated as a begrudged necessity that the servant of God would prefer to forget about.

The Ba’al Shem Tov was sent to the world to arouse the soul of the Congregation of Israel, to awaken it from its comatose state into which it had fallen after so many centuries of exile. The Ba’al Shem Tov came to revitalize Jews and Jewish life. His arrival is seen as a preparation for the time of the Mashiach, when as the prophets predict, “Behold God has created a novelty on earth—the female will pursue the male.”[2] The “female” represents those material and mundane affairs of life that had been largely ignored by previous generations in their pursuit of dedicating their life to Godliness.  Hence, his teachings lend great significance to initiatives that come from below, to the meeting with God Almighty that stems from the mundane matters themselves.

Initially, God weaved the threads that could connect humanity with Him by Himself. Now, as the Congregation of Israel is ascending from the wilderness of exile and preparing itself for the complete redemption, He expects us to weave our own threads, and see Him in all aspects of life.[3]

When the Ba’al Shem Tov sat at the table to eat, he sensed the difficulty in initiating a unification between the mundane and the Divine. He was looking for a commandment, a mitzvah upon which he could base his connection with God. The Ba’al Shem Tov sought to fall under the category of “he who is commanded and fulfills his obligation.”[4] Before a person comes to a state in which he is able to initiate the unification with God on his own, he is filled with the feeling that truly, he has nothing of his own to offer. This experience is not to be confused with the sense of nothingness that accompanies lowliness. Rather, it is the state of absolute nullification of being one experiences before God. When the ear is eternally awaiting to hear the word of God and to be diligent about all that He commands, one becomes accustomed to being in the position of the receiver, of the one upon whom God acts. One is used to saying, “May my mouth be filled with Your praise,”[5] meaning, that I can say nothing to You, if You do not first put the words in my mouth.

A God-fearing person trains all the organs in his body to be connected and committed to God Almighty, to do all that they are commanded and to refrain from doing anything that is prohibited. With a mindset like that, it follows that even if the bowl of food is set before such a God-fearing individual, what difference does it make? If there is not the thread of the mitzvah that can obligate him to eat, he cannot touch the food at all. Because only that which is obligated leads to action. Merely craving the food is not enough for him to eat it.

Couching the same idea in Chassidic terms, we would say that a person needs awakening from above prior to his own awakening from below. For him to be able to initiate an action—for the awareness that he has something to offer God to develop—he needs God’s authorization and assurance. This is the awakening required to bring such an individual to eat, as the Ba’al Shem Tov stated in the opening passage. In practice, the “commandment” to eat is not one of the Torah’s mitzvot, it is rather the more general commandment that in our generation, God expects each and every one of us to stand tall and take initiative. In the words of the sages, “strive to be a man”[6] so that you can cause spiritual satisfaction to God Almighty from literally everything with which you come in contact.


[1]. Proverbs 3:6.

[2]. Jeremiah 31:21.

[3]. In Hebrew, the word meaning “know Him,” part of the verse quoted earlier, “Know Him in all your ways” is  דָעֵהוּ) the verse from Proverbs 3:6 is: בכל דרכיך דעהו. The word דעהו  can be split in half, and written as  דע הו , which means: Know hei vav,  the last two letters of God’s Name, Havayah, in reverse order. This alludes to the unification that we must make from below to above, from the hei to the vav, From the Shechinah that dwells in the created worlds to God. In Hebrew, the word mitzvah (commandment) can also be split in half to spell out מצ וה, the unification of the vav with the hei, from above to below. The other two letters of מצוה, mem and tzaddik equal yudhei in the Atbash letter transformation system. Hence, the mitzvah is the secret of God’s Name that descends and evolves to vitalize all creations.

[4] Bava Kama 38a.

[5] Psalms 71:8.

[6]. Avot 2:5.

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