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Ba’al Shem Tov: Different From How You Know Me Now

I heard that the Ba’al Shem Tov said: “If the righteous redeemer [the Mashiach] will not arrive within sixty years, I will have to come back to this world.”

And I asked Rebbe Aharon of Mezhibuzh, and he told me that he said: “I will certainly reincarnate in this world, but I will not be as I am now.”

And he didn’t know what that meant, saying, who is it that can ask him the meaning of things?

(Shivchei HaBesht, p. 119)

Sixty Brave Men Surround it

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s tangible influence remained in the world for sixty years after his passing. This is similar to what the Bible writes about Samson: “For twenty years after Samson’s death, his fear remained over the Philistines, and they lived quietly.”[1]

This may be connected to what is told about the Ba’al Shem Tov:[2] His soul did not agree to descend into the world until they gave him sixty heroes, sixty loyal disciples who would strengthen his influence and fortify his position in the world. Each of these disciples took action to ensure that the impression of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s holy life would be drawn down into the world for one more year.

The Arizal’s Return

This is not the first place that we have encountered the phenomenon of the return of tzaddikim to this world after their passing. It is known from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, that just before his passing, he said that he would return to finish revealing his teachings. There is a tradition amongst the Kabbalists that he was revealed in the image of the famous Kabbalist, Rabbi Sar Shalom Sharabi, known as the Rashash, who lived from 1720 -1777 and was the head of the Kabbalah Yeshivah Beit El in the Old City of Jerusalem. Many view the Kabbalah of the Arizal and the Kabbalah of the Rashash as deriving from the same source and accept the Rashash as the final authority on the Arizal’s teachings.

Unlike the return of the Arizal in the persona of the Rashash, the return of the Ba’al Shem Tov was not to complete what he had started. Instead, it is something new, independent of his role as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidut. As he predicted, “I will not be as I am now.” When the essence of what is initially revealed is beyond our comprehension, as was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s life, then the soul’s essence can remove the appearance that it had adopted, and enclothe itself in a new appearance that is surprising and completely new every time.[3]

A New Kabbalah

The Ba’al Shem Tov came to this world to reveal the light of inspiration[4] (הַשְׁרָאָה)—to reveal that God is everywhere, in every corner of reality. In the Ba’al Shem Tov’s case, not only did he reveal the inspiration in the world, but he himself was the inspiration that made it possible to merit this revelation.

Unlike the prior stage of the revelation of Kabbalah known as enclothement (הִתְלַבְּשׁוּת), whose teachings are clearly defined, the revelation of the Kabbalah of inspiration is always surprising. One way to see this is to think of an artist who cannot know where his inspiration will arise the next time he needs it. Who was the Ba’al Shem Tov? We know what was documented and what is written in books about his life. But we have no idea who he will be. Maybe he will be revealed as a great Torah scholar and adjudicator. Perhaps he will be revealed as a ba’al teshuvah—someone who was not observant and then returned to God. Perhaps he will even be a great war hero? We will not know until we see him…

[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 14:9.

[2] See Netiv Mitzvotecha, path A:13 (Brought in the preface to the book, Ba’al Shem Tov Al HaTorah §4).

[3] The Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek once said to his son, the Rebbe Maharash that there are also hidden tzaddikim in this time, but that they manifest as something else (Ramach Otiyot, 222). The essence is the same, but the garment has completely changed.

[4]. There are three schemes of Kabbalah known in Chasidic thought as: 1) Evolution (הִשְׁתַּלְשְׁלוּת), 2) Enclothement (הִתְלַבְּשׁוּת), and 3) Inspiration (הַשְׁרָאָה). See What You Need to Know About Kabbalah, p. 9ff. See also Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh 25.

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