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Ba’al Shem Tov: The Storyteller

Once the Ba’al Shem Tov came to the town of Shargorod early in the morning and stood with his wagon in the town square. When the townsmen went to pray in the synagogue, the Ba’al Shem Tov called them over and began to tell stories. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, author of Toldot Yaakov Yosef and future disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, came to the synagogue and saw that no one was there except for the beadle.

“Why have I come and no one is here?” Rabbi Yaakov Yosef asked the beadle. “A Jewish man is standing in the town square,” answered the beadle, “and is telling stories. Everyone is listening.”

“Go tell them that they should come immediately to pray on time, as they do every day,” Rabbi Yaakov Yosef impatiently directed the beadle.

The beadle went, and when he heard the Ba’al Shem Tov speaking, the stories entered his heart and he also stayed to listen. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef himself went to call for the worshippers to come, but when he heard the Ba’al Shem Tov’s stories, he too stayed to listen.

One of the stories the Ba’al Shem Tov related was that in a certain city lived a porter who knew nothing more than how to pray. He would come to the synagogue at daybreak to recite Psalms and pray with a minyan [a quorum of 10 Jews]. All day he would be busy with his back-breaking work. The porter would also come to the synagogue for the afternoon prayers and between the afternoon and evening prayers he would hear a class on the Ein Yaakov for simple folk like him.

In his neighborhood, there lived a Torah scholar who had a comfortable livelihood. When he would come to the synagogue, this scholar would pray at a slow pace, and when he finished his prayers, he would stay to study the intricacies of the Talmud. He would come again to the synagogue quite some time before the afternoon prayer and again study Torah at length. Then he would pray again at a slow pace and between the afternoon prayer and the evening prayer he would study Torah by himself.

Once, following the evening prayer, the porter and the Torah scholar met outside their homes. A sigh escaped from the heart of the porter, as he felt that his service of God was not worthy or up to par with his neighbor’s. The Torah scholar, on the other hand, smirked, thinking, “What do I possibly have in common with my simpleton of a neighbor? He has no value in the face of my Torah study and service of God.”

When the two passed on from this world and came before the heavenly court, the defending angels set the Torah scholar’s Torah study and prayers on the scale and weighed it down on their side. But then the prosecuting angel came and set his smirk on the other side of the scale, and it outweighed all of his good deeds.

The porter, on the other hand, did not have much in the way of Torah study or prayer for the scale, but when the defending angels placed his sigh on one side, it outweighed everything else.

Since then, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef became a devoted disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov.[1]

In this story, the Ba’al Shem Tov appears in a surprising role—a storyteller in the town square. With the power of his speech, he gathers all the worshippers to him and ultimately draws their leader, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, to him as well.

On the surface, how can a story hold a candle to the words of the Torah and why would a storyteller draw the Rabbi to him? The Torah teaches us the words of the Living God, explains things clearly, and instructs us on how to conduct ourselves. A story, however, may be nothing more than a collection of words of no value. If we can speak clearly and directly, why should we waste our time spinning tales and dressing words of Torah in seemingly distant garb?

The Infinite Power of Stories

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev explained the power of the story, saying, “The world says that pregnancy does not result from stories, and I say that from the stories of a tzaddik—a righteous and pious individual—that awaken people from their slumber, by means of these stories, barren women become pregnant.”

The event that took place in the market square clarifies this well. The Rabbi of Shargorod is the last person who has time or patience for this strange Jew standing by his wagon, certainly not prior to the morning prayers. Nonetheless, the story drew him in.

The initial distance between Rabbi Yaakov Yosef and the Ba’al Shem Tov, who ultimately aroused his soul and became his rebbe, is a very common phenomenon. Every person has a blind spot. We are so preoccupied with our soul’s desires that we are blind to what it truly lacks. We can talk about the lack, learn Torah connected to it, and still the soul remains in a state of slumber, without understanding that all the speaking and learning is focused on that point of lack.

We can assume that Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye did not want to hear Torah from the Ba’al Shem Tov—not only prior to the morning prayers, but at any hour. When the heart does not reveal to the lips that it needs something, we are always too busy to listen to it. Furthermore, even if an important rabbi had spoken with him about overcoming pride and the obligation to invest effort in Torah study without taking credit for it – he would have heard the words without thinking that they referred to him.

A story, on the other hand, pierces the heart and enters its chambers, specifically because it doesn’t directly relate to the issue. It is told outside the walls of the study hall and in completely mundane language. By means of stories, people are aroused and barren women can become pregnant. The listener is the female receiver, while the storyteller is the male figure who wishes to inseminate and awaken a new life. The story ensures that the seeds of light emerging from our speech will be integrated into a place where words of the Torah do not penetrate deeply.

The Scholar’s True Sigh

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s story is about a Torah scholar who thought highly of himself. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the Alter Rebbe opened his seminal work with the word “Tanya” to crush the impure husk that carries the same name, referring to the impure nature of the prideful Torah scholar. Chasidim said that the book of Tanya in its entirety can be summarized in one sentence: “Do not be a fool.” If a Torah scholar feels pride as a result of all the Torah he has learned and he imagines that he is already a holy person who has come close to God and from now on all will be peaceful with him, he is nothing more than a coarse fool. Every page of Talmud learned in depth and every prayer that one prays with deep intention should itself ultimately elicit a very deep sigh that says, “O’ how distant am I still from God.” “If you have learned much Torah do not take credit for yourself, for it is for this that you have been created.”[2] Torah is only sustained in a person whose spirit is low, “who studies Torah on a constant basis and does not give credit to himself.”[3] This is the secret of “Moses merited binah (understanding).”[4] Moses’ primary spiritual singularity was “and the man Moses was very humble, more than any man on the face of the earth.”[5]

The Alter Rebbe adds that the sigh of the person learning Torah should be much deeper than the sigh of his simple neighbor, for every person is judged on his own merits, alone. How can we compare the conditions of the talented Torah scholar, who sits in the study hall all day long, with those of the simple Jew who does not easily understand the Torah and is preoccupied with his work and its surroundings?

The Ba’al Shem Tov is quoted as saying that this is the power of the snake, “And you shall bruise his [man’s] heel.”[6] The heel is at the end of the body and as such symbolizes the culmination, the very end of every good action we take. When a person is privileged to do a mitzvah or learn Torah, the snake immediately comes to him and attempts to bite him. The snake’s venom is the pride that attempts to take possession of the holiness of the act, painting it as an act of personal loftiness of which one should be proud. A person with a bit of foresight will take pre-emptive measures and crush the snake’s head. He will tell himself that every good that comes his way is from God, and it is totally irrelevant to give himself any credit.

When Rabbi Yaakov Yosef adopted this lowliness in his soul, he prepared himself to receive the Torah—the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

[1]. Reshimat Devarim vol. 1, p. 6.

[2]. Avot 2:8.

[3]. Sanhedrin 88b.

[4]. See Rosh Hashanah 21b. Zohar 2:115a (and Nitzotzei Zohar there).

[5]. Numbers 12:3.

[6]. Genesis 3:15.

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