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Ba’al Shem Tov: Candle and Connection

Connecting to the Deep Advice of the Tzaddik[1]

Once a chasid of the Ba’al Shem Tov came to spend Shabbat with his illustrious Rebbe.  When it came time to take leave of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the chasid came to him for his permission and blessing. The Ba’al Shem Tov gave the chasid a candle and told him that wherever he travels, he should take a candle with him.

On his way home, the chasid came to a town and rented a room in the local inn. The innkeeper showed him the room and lit a small piece of a candle for him. He then closed the door and locked it from the outside. The chasid immediately understood that this was not a good situation, for the key should be left inside with the guest. He also saw that the candle was so small that it would soon be extinguished.

The chasid remembered that the Ba’al Shem Tov had given him a candle. He immediately understood that this would save him, and he lit the candle. He also understood that the Ba’al Shem Tov did not give him the candle just so that he would not sit in the dark, so he took the candle and began to search through the room. He saw that the room was on the second or third floor and that there was a window facing the street, but it was closed with metal bars.

The chasid searched further and saw that there was a large mat under the bed. He lifted the mat and saw a trapdoor underneath it. He slowly lifted the trapdoor, and by the light of his candle, he saw dead bodies inside.

The chasid understood that he was the next in line and that he had best devise a plan quickly. He removed one of the murder victims from the pit below and put him on his bed, covering him with the blanket there. He removed his own clothing and put them next to the bed and also left some money in the pocket. He himself descended into the pit and closed the door.

A number of hours passed and the chasid heard the door to his room opening. Then he heard loud thuds, the trapdoor opened, and the dead body was thrown inside.

The chasid decided not to leave the pit until daylight. He sat in the darkness with the dead bodies for a few hours, until he estimated that morning had come. He opened the trapdoor a crack and saw that a bit of light was entering through the window. He pulled himself out of the pit and stood by the window.

When he saw that people had begun passing by on the street, he started shouting. The passersby heard him and gathered nearby, wondering why this man was yelling from a window that was closed with metal bars. They entered the inn and asked what was going on. The innkeeper nervously said that he had a crazy guest, so he locked him in his room. The people did not believe the innkeeper’s story and forced him to open the room. The chasid told them what had transpired in his room at night, opened the trapdoor, and showed them the bodies. The innkeeper was promptly dispensed at the police station.

Not only did the Ba’al Shem Tov save his chasid, but he also rid the town of a dangerous murderer. “May all Your enemies be obliterated so, God.”[2]

True Connection

If we pay attention to the inner dimension of this story and ignore a bit of the external tension generated by the horrific chain of events, we see the wondrous living connection between the chasid and his rebbe. He took much more than a candle from him. He also took serenity and confidence, which helped him make the right use of the candle.

There is a verse that reads, “It is time [עת] to take action for God, they have transgressed Your Torah.”[3] In the face of every transgression of the Torah, one should take action for God. The proper course of action is nourished by the “time” (עת), which is an acronym for advice and resourcefulness (עצה תושיה).[4] The advice is given directly—do this, take a candle with you. The resourcefulness is given indirectly, and with it the chasid’s connection to the Rebbe and the depth of the connection and strength of the loving supervision of the Rebbe over those connected to him are both tested.

In our story, advice alone would not have helped without the resourcefulness of the chasid. We can say that the primary factor that saved him was in the fact that he did not despair, but rather, manifested the strength in himself to think clearly and plan his course of action wisely.

These powers were nurtured by his deep connection to the Ba’al Shem Tov, who always instructed his chasidim to fear nothing in the world other than God. This is the real gift that the Ba’al Shem Tov gave him. It is the candle that he lit in the chasid’s soul. It is only by virtue of this inner candle that the physical candle could help.

This contemplation leads us to an important principle: Miracles will always derive from the external dimension of the tzaddik’s persona. It is told that the Alter Rebbe of Chabad said about his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch, that miracles were “rolling under his table,” but that nobody bothered to notice them or pick them up.

This helps us understand the aphorism based on the evening prayers “signs and wonders, on the soil of the children of Ham.”[5] In other words, signs and wonders, which are miracles, belong in Egypt, on the soil of the descendants of Noah’s son, Ham, not in a holy study hall. Thus, when someone has merited to be engaged in learning the secrets of the Torah and learning how to cleave to God by emulating the rebbe and his ways, when can he possibly find the time to contemplate stories of miracles?

That may be true, but throughout the generations, both Chasidut and the Jewish people have not given up their affinity to stories of revealed miracles. Everyone loves a good miracle story and is eager to repeat it and spread the word. In truth, it is difficult to find anything wrong with that. “Initially, it rose in God’s thought to create the world with the attribute of judgment. He saw that the world could not be sustained and added to it the attribute of compassion,” which is the revelation of Godliness by means of tzaddikim, and the signs and miracles in the Torah.[6]

Miracles are God’s gift to us, in His great mercy and compassion for us. It is as if, after He created His world and ruled that it would be a world of concealment and darkness, His compassion was aroused, and He wished to sweeten our service a bit.

True, the primary pillars of our service of God remain Torah and prayer; the latter constitutes a revelation of the inner and more experiential aspect of the sefirah of might and its severe judgments. We are expected to wake up from the depths of the darkness, from below to above. By doing so, we merit the revelation of light from above to below. However, the distance from the light of the King’s countenance weakens us so, that the entire reality of severity cannot stand without a constant “injection” of the attribute of compassion.[7]

It is also incumbent upon us to try to sweeten the Ba’al Shem Tov’s decree a bit (and who is better known for miracles than he?) when he said to his disciples: “Why are you spending time on miracles? Learn from my fear of Heaven!” For we can learn the fear of Heaven from the miracles themselves.

If, when we contemplate a miracle, we know how to differentiate between what is primary and what is extraneous, it will be proof that truly, God’s compassion has not been “wasted” on us and that we are not like the fool who “loses what he is given”[8] and does not extract the advantages possible from what he received.


[1]. Translated from Or Yisrael, vol. 3, p. 162.


[2]. Judges 5:31.

[3]. Psalms 119:126.

[4]. It is told of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach that once his uncle, Rabbi Aharon Porush, one of the beloved figures of Jerusalem, came to him and related to him three rules that every judge of Jewish law needs to know. One of the rules was: If you make a ruling that a litigant cannot fulfill, it is as if you have made no ruling at all. Advice is not complete without the resourcefulness that accompanies it and makes it possible to carry it out in reality.

[5]. From the blessing following the Shema during the evening services. Actually, we can explain that three sources of connection between a rebbe and his chasidim correspond to Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Shem represents the rebbe’s Torah. Ham represents the miracles he performs (like the miracles on the soil of the children of Ham, which were relevant to the Israelites and as such, created a deep sense of amazement and connection to God). Japheth represents the rebbe’s beauty (which is cognate with the name, Japheth), i.e., his persona, his character traits, and his spiritual stature.

Japheth is the median level between Shem and Ham. To perfect the world and bring about a heavenly kingdom, we require all three. But the tent that gathers them all together is first and foremost the Tent of Shem, the rebbe’s study hall, where the true secrets of the Torah are revealed. “God, make Japheth beautiful and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). In addition to the primary place of Torah study, we should speak about the persona of the rebbe and emulate his holy ways. “And Canaan (Ham’s son) will be a servant to him” includes the stories of miracles, but only when they serve Shem and Japheth—when they come to illustrate the deeds and warm the heart with stories of miracles connected to the tzaddik’s persona and his Torah.

[6]. Bereishit Rabbah 12:15; Sha’ar HaYichud VehaEmunah ch. 5.

[7] Although we are required to repent and awaken from below to above during the 10 Days of Return, God precedes that and illuminates an additional revelation in the month of Elul – and it is only by its power that we are aroused to this return to God.” God supports all the fallen” in Elul and only through that “The eyes of all wait for you.” in Tishrei. Thus, instead of the initial attribute of severity associated with service of God and its reward, God Himself ensures that we will ultimately merit “Open Your hands and satisfy every living thing with favor.” (Psalms 145:14-16 and see Likutei Torah Drushinm for Rosh Hashanah 54a).

[8] Chagiga 4a.

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