Chassidic Psychologymain postsThe Ba'al Shem Tov

Ba’al Shem Tov: The Secret Blessings in Rebuke

Once, on the Shabbat of parashat Bechukotai, Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, who was suffering from many ailments, came to the Ba’al Shem Tov.

In the Ba’al Shem Tov’s study hall, the Ba’al Shem Tov himself would read from the Torah and was also the one to call others up to make the blessings on the Torah. The Ba’al Shem Tov called Rebbe Menachem Nachum up to the Torah.

When the Ba’al Shem Tov began to read from the Torah, Rebbe Menachem Nachum felt that all his pains and ailments were receding. When the Ba’al Shem Tov finished reading the portion of the Torah with the rebuke, the ailments and pains disappeared completely and Rebbe Menachem Nachum felt that he had been reborn.[1]

Rebuke with Love

The portions of rebuke in the Torah are also Torah. And just as with the rest of the Torah, there is no bad in them, heaven forbid. They are complete good, “There is no good other than Torah.”[2]

The numerical value of “rebuke” (תּוֹכֵחָה) is the same as “its interior is love” (תּוֹךְ אַהֲבָה). If we relate correctly to rebuke and merit the light concealed within it, it brings us God’s love at a deep, inner level. The correct way to relate to rebuke is to accept it with simplicity and love. When we take it for granted that there is no evil in the words of the Torah, and in general “No evil descends from Above,”[3] we merit the revelation of the concealed good within the outer façade of hardship. The verses of affliction are then transformed into life-giving words of encouragement.

The immune system that expels the bad from the body is connected to the sefirah of acknowledgment (hod), the inner experience of which is earnestness and thanksgiving to God for every manner in which He treats us.

The sefirah of acknowledgment is responsible for activating the essence of the sefirah of might (gevurah), which overcomes mundane reality by withdrawing upwards while grasping onto the root of reality, thereby sweetening its hardships.

The Talmud states that “when a person feels [pain in] his head, he should study Torah.”[4] We can say that when a person is filled with ailments and pains, he should focus his learning, particularly on the hardships described in the verses of rebuke appearing in the Torah. Through them, he will be privileged to sweeten the harsh judgments at their source, with the consciousness that all that happens to him comes from God and hence—exactly as they are described in the Torah, and the Torah is all good.[5]

Book and Scribe

The sages reveal that “God created His world with three sefarim (i.e., three different conjugations of the root ספר): “With a scribe [sofer], a book [sefer], and a story [sippur].”[6] When a person reads from the Torah, he activates it, like a scribe who reads and provides his own commentary by means of the way that he reads.

The person who is reading the Torah brings about various effects by means of the life force ensconced in the words of the Torah.[7] It is according to this understanding that the Rema determined the law that “a person who is an enemy of the leader of the prayers [the Shliach Tzibbur] should not be called to the Torah when the rebukes are to be read.”[8]

If the individual reading the Torah [the ba’al kri’ah] is worthy, his intention while reading will be aligned with God’s will, and God is the true Scribe. If this is the case, the words leave his mouth and affect reality positively. But, if God forbid, he is not worthy, he might bias the words with severity—with his limited understanding, and then his words can affect reality negatively.

There is a story about the Mittler Rebbe, who was accustomed to hearing the reading of the rebuke from his father, the Alter Rebbe. Once, in his youth, he heard the rebuke from someone other than his father and became seriously ill. Later, when he was asked why he became ill—after all, this was not the first time that he had heard the rebuke being read—he answered: “When my father reads, I do not hear curses, but rather, blessings.”

A New Covenant

It was not Rebbe Menachem Nachum alone who became a new creation after hearing the verses of the rebuke from the mouth of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The verses themselves—the words of the holy Torah given to us at Mount Sinai—also revealed a new aspect that had been concealed until that time.

For indeed, the Torah itself is held captive in the hands of those who study it. It is limited by their limitations and constrained by their shortcomings. This is most obvious in the verses of the rebuke, for these are the verses within which so few sense the good and illumination.

The Ba’al Shem Tov was imbued with the power of innovation. The inner dimension of the Torah in general is about innovation. As it is being revealed, it shakes off the dust and removes the cobwebs from the senses of the soul that have descended into the depths of oblivion and restores the souls of Israel to their inner treasures. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the master teacher of the Torah’s inner dimension is often described as having “opened” (פָּתַח) his words suggesting that with every teaching, a new channel of abundance is opened into the world, and heaven and earth rejoice together.

The word “Chasidut” (חֲסִידוּת) has the same numerical value as “opened” (פָּתַח), and as “opening” (פֶּתַח). The Ba’al Shem Tov, whose revelation opened the sparks of the light of the Torah of Mashiach—the new teachings of Torah that were sequestered for the future[9]—was an absolute innovation.[10] He demanded that all those who surrounded him look at the inner dimension of reality and see how God renews everything literally at every moment. The Ba’al Shem Tov beckoned us to break out of our limitations, to shake off the darkness and our contracted consciousness, and to ready ourselves for the new light that God will shine on Zion.

Translated from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s Or Yisrael, volume 3, p. 119ff.

[1]. Reshmot Devarim, vol. 4, p. 31.

[2]. Berachot 5a.

[3]. Bereishit Rabbah 51:3.

[4]. Eiruvin 54a. In Channah Ariel on the Torah portions Acharei and Kedoshim (folio 20a), Rebbe Isaac of Homil enumerates six levels of healing (see Body, Mind, and Soul, pp. 184ff). The fourth level is explained here. In the words of Rabbi Isaac:

There is a fourth aspect above this, and it is what is written, “He who feels (pain in) his head should engage in Torah. As is written “Whoever engages in the light of the Torah – the light of the Torah enlivens him” (Ketubot 111b). This is specifically by means of the cleaving of his soul to the light of the Torah in which he engages. Through this, his soul and body will be strengthened and healed.

And this [level of healing] is analogous to [the law that an impure (sick) body of water instantly becomes purified (healed) when brought in contact with the waters of a mikveh], “They bring the waters together to purify them” (Beitzah 2:3)…. In the same manner, when the soul touches the light of God in the Torah, it is imbued with life to vitalize and heal the body.

[5]. This method can be likened to God’s way of healing, described as “like with like” (See Bereishit Rabbah 77a; Ramban on Numbers 21:9), a principle purported to be utilized in homeopathy. However, homeopathy can only be rectified and grounded when it is based on the holy language of the Torah, something that will specifically occur in the future, as the prophet says, “For then, I will turn to the peoples a pure language” (Tzefaniah 3:9).

[6]. The Book of Formation 1:1.

[7]. The words of the Torah are filled with holiness and energy on their own, of course, and do not need the person reading them. Nonetheless, the person reading them has the ability to affect and activate the words of Torah, and to direct the energy ensconced within them to various directions. This is similar to the Shabbat, which in and of itself “stands holy” (Pesachim 117b), and nonetheless, we are commanded to sanctify it. The same is true of the words of Torah. The Torah is holy, but we can fertilize its relatively passive holiness and channel it with our efforts and intentions.

[8]. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 53:19 (in the Rema).

[9]. Vayikra Rabbah 13:3. We know today that every seven years, all the cells of the body are completely renewed. We can associate this with the secret of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year, in the Land of Israel, the place where the “new [interpretation of] Torah” will be revealed by the Mashiach.

[10]. The Ba’al Shem Tov said about himself that he is a new edition of the book, “Duties of the Heart” (Chovot HaLevavot), considered the most ancient of the ethical-moral works of Torah, and among the most accepted of them. By saying so, the Ba’al Shem Tov intended to characterize the teachings of Chasidut as a practice that preserves the same inner content that illuminated the world until its time, while renewing its countenance. By doing so, it reveals its light with even more intensity.

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