Stories of the Ba'al Shem Tov #3: I Am Asleep Yet My Heart Is Awake

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The Story

The Rebbe Rayatz told the following story:

Before the Ba'al Shem Tov was born there were terrible decrees on the Jews, such as the decrees of the anti-Semitic Ukranian barbarians, Chmelnitzki and his troops in 5408 and 5409.1 The situation of the Jews throughout Europe was dire, both spiritually and economically. The landlords harassed them, the priests falsely accused them of crimes they had not committed and not a year passed in which the Jews did not suffer from these libels, physically, spiritually and financially.

There were landlords who leased inns to Jews, either on the highways or in town, and if the Jew did not have the wherewithal to pay the lease payments on time, the landlord would act as if the Jew was his personal acquisition and would deal with him in various malicious ways.

If the leaser had no way to pay the lease and no ransom was available, then the life of the man and his family were in jeopardy and the landlord would imprison them all in a dungeon until they were able to acquire the means by which to repay the debts.

The economical situation of the Jews fell considerably, and the material situation seriously affected their spiritual state, so much so that they entered a state of spiritual slumber and unconsciousness.

In heaven they saw that in order to arouse the Jews and elevate them, both materially and spiritually, a uniquely superior soul must descend to the world; the soul of our teacher the Ba'al Shem Tov, who is called, "Israel," after the nation of Israel.2
The tried and trusted way to revive someone who has fainted is to call him by his name. So too, the soul of Israel Ba'al Shem Tov descended to this world and awoke the nation of Israel from their spiritual slumber.3

(from: Reshimot Devarim 3, p. 7)


Birth Pangs

Through the test of suffering in particular, we become ever stronger, revealing our most potent inner strengths. This quality is expressed in the verse, "It is a time of sorrow for Jacob, and he will be saved from it."4 Indeed, during every period of strife and animosity that the nation of Israel has suffered throughout its long exile, we have constantly seen how this verse is actualized. The same reaction manifests in the human psyche when approached by a challenge: contending with the problem sharpens and reinforces the personality and brings latent potential to light.

So, strife and challenges are not punishments; they offer us an opportunity to come closer to God and express our dedicated self-sacrifice to observing His ways.5 When God and the nation of Israel are distanced from one another, there are times when a powerful and traumatic experience is necessary in order to renew the relationship.

The supreme salvation from any trouble is to draw the lofty soul of a tzadik into this world; a tzadik who has the power to be a true leader and to truly set the nation back on its feet. The tzadik is the fruit of the renewed relationship between God and Israel; the beloved offspring that is born after a prolonged state of distance.

We can see how this idea was realized during the Egyptian exile, the precursor to all other exiles. After being enslaved in Egypt for many years, we were privileged to receive the soul of Moses, the tzadik and redeemer of that generation, through the bitter cries and prayers of the nation. This is why the word in Hebrew for "trouble" (צרה ) is related to the phrase "birth pangs" (צירי לידה ) and also to the expression which refers to the faithful emissary (ציר נאמן )6 who stands between God and us to save us and redeem us by God's word.

Just as the light inherent in the soul of Moses emanated from him to illuminate the seventy elders, completing the leadership of that generation, so too the Ba'al Shem Tov was sent to us together with his "sixty captains" who he illuminated with his great light.7

The Hidden Name

Thus we have learnt that the challenge of trouble causes the latent powers of the nation's collective soul to become revealed from their potential state. Salvation is not something superficial; it manifests from the moment the trouble begins, waiting until the nation reveals and appropriates its potential light.

In Chasidut we find three different parables that explain the qualities of the soul's latent powers:

  • There is a type of hidden power that is like a flame within a glowing ember. The flame exists inside the ember, but it is not burning observably on its surface; it is present but not visible. This type of hidden quality is called an existent hidden quality, since it exists (within the ember) and is indeed on the verge of being revealed. It is sufficient merely to puff upon the ember for the flame to blaze into life.
  • A deeper kind of hidden quality is compared to the fire that is in flint stone. The flame is not at all existent within the rock; nonetheless, the rock contains the fire in a state of potential that may become revealed. This type of hidden quality is called a nonexistent hidden quality. In order to reveal the latent fire from within the rock one must strike the rock forcefully.
  • The most profound type of hidden quality is the name of a person or object that is hidden within it. A person's Hebrew name reflects his quintessential self; only to this name does his soul answer since this is the name that is hewn from the foundations of his supernal soul-root. Only Adam was able to intuit the true name in Hebrew (the language of creation) of every species, as the verse8 states, "Whatever Adam called the living creatures, that is its name."9

Yet the name is the most difficult aspect to reveal from its latency within the object. It is even less apparent than the fire in the flint stone. Indeed, the tzadikim have said that a person's parents are gifted with a Divine spirit when they come to name their child. If this were not so, they would not be able to correctly divine the child's name.

The more intense the challenge that a person contends with and the deeper the damage penetrates his psyche, the greater is the need to draw down a new light that will revitalize the person from his highest root. Whereas during a small challenge a slight shake may be enough to arouse a person to return to his true self, during a serious trial, when a person is already unconscious, there is no other choice but to call his name, the root of his life-source. It is there that the dew of life can be found to revitalize him. This is the significance of calling someone by their name. Due to strife, the soul returns to a pre-birth state, a state of nothingness, and there it begins to flourish once again. Now it becomes refreshed, courageous, and prepared for the new circumstances that encompass it.10

During the times of the prophets, prior to the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish nation was in a state of dozing and daydreaming. The prophets, with their rebukes and their words of comfort then tried to "puff" upon our glowing embers in order to bring our souls ablaze.
In the midst of the Babylonian exile, in the time of Mordechai and Esther, we fell into a deep slumber. The words Haman used to describe the Jewish people, can be read to mean, "One nation is asleep."11 Only by striking them forcefully by means of Haman's decree to destroy, to kill and to annihilate the entire Jewish people, God forbid, was the collective soul of Israel revived.

But about two and a half centuries ago, as the final stages of this prolonged exile approached, the darkness became ever thicker, as it does before the first light of dawn. The strength of the Jewish nation abandoned us and we were left lying unconscious, in a deeper state of sleep than ever before. It was then that the Ba'al Shem Tov was sent to us, the soul of Israel and the spirit of their breath. When the name "Israel" is called in the ears of the nation's soul, it is revived as if reborn.

The Name and the Essence

Since the Ba'al Shem Tov and until today, many years have passed and we find ourselves once again in a state of unconsciousness. Within us, we know that in comparison with those bygone generations who merely fainted, we are truly in a state of coma.12

If in those days we were caught in the torture chambers of evil non-Jews, today we are causing our own troubles. It is as if a malignant disease has nested itself in the heart of the nation, God forbid, and it sends out its shoots, damaging the Jewish brain and heart, God forbid.
There is a tradition13 that is passed down that, before his death, Rebbe Isaac of Homil said that he saw the world falling and that "a new order" is needed. The concept of order to which Rebbe Isaac referred was the order of the Chasidic Torah tradition: the appearance of the Ba'al Shem Tov followed by the Magid of Mezeritch and then the Alter Rebbe.

Rebbe Isaac recognized that the light that had shone until then could no longer suffice. The thick veil of darkness that he envisioned around him bore testimony to the fact that the task had not yet been completed. The name that the Ba'al Shem Tov called into our ears must now be revealed to us loudly and clearly, not merely by whispering it as one does in the ears of someone who has fainted.

To those who are familiar with Chasidic teachings, one can distinguish that Chasidut in general, and the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in particular, are concerned more with the essence of the study rather than with nomenclature. This is in answer to the burning need of our times, the time of the redemption. The Rebbe taught us the way to connect to the essence and how to draw down the revelation of God in all His glory, without compromising with any intermediate stage whatsoever.

1.  See also, Reshimot Devarim IV, p. 17.
"It is known amongst Chasidim that in order to bring about the descent of a high soul into a body, there must be some arousal of true self-sacrifice. Before the descent of the soul of the Arizal there was the exile from Spain, and before the descent of the soul of our master the Ba'al Shem Tov there were the decrees of 5408/5409."

2. In reference to improving the physical situation, the Rebbe Rayatz commented:
"It is told that the Ba'al Shem Tov would make great physical efforts to redeem Jewish prisoners, traveling from place to place to collect the finances necessary to pay their leases to the landlords, in order to save the Jewish leaser and his family from death."
The following letter from the Genizah of Charsun is particularly interesting in reference to this (Reshimot Devarim IV, p. 52):
"With God's help. I, the undersigned, owe the sum of one thousand gold rubles, to Mr. H. Anten Schteritzki from the village of Ternefke, in order that he release all those who are captive on the undersigned day, that within a month from this day I will recompense him the aforementioned sum of one thousand rubles (1,000 rubles). Signed on the first day of the Torah reading of Vayikra, 5513, here in the holy congregation of Litin, says YisraelTallis Macher son of R' Eliezer Ba'al Shem of Mezhibozh.

3. This parable is quoted elsewhere in the name of R' Pinchas of Koritz in reference to the revelation of the Ba'al Shem Tov (see Keter Shem Tov, addendum 418).

4. Jeremiah 30:7.

5. See our book in Hebrew, Lichyot Im Hazman (to be published soon), in the explanation of the Rebbe's sichah on the Torah portion of Shemot.

6. Proverbs 25:13.

7. See Netiv Mitzvotecha, 1:13 (as quoted in the introduction to the Ba'al Shem Tov on the Torah, 4).

8. Genesis 2:19.

9. When the Tzemach Tzedek was an infant of about three years old, he sat on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe. His grandfather asked him playfully, "Where is Grandpa?" and his grandson touched his hands and said, "Here's Grandpa!" The Alter Rebbe said, "No, those are Grandpa's hands." He touched his face and said, "Here's Grandpa!" The Alter Rebbe said, "No, that is Grandpa's face." The child then got off his grandfather's lap and went outside to play. Suddenly the child cried out, "Grandpa!" The Alter Rebbe ran outside to him and asked, "What?" The child replied, "Aha! That's Grandpa!"
From this story one can learn that calling someone by his name acts to reveal his true essence. A name is not like the faint flame that lies hidden within an ember, nor is it similar to the fire that is latent in the flint stone. These revelations are not manifestations of the actual essence of the matter in which they lie dormant, therefore when they manifest, the connection between them and their source is no longer apparent. A name, on the other hand, is an absolute and actual expression of the inner essence, therefore calling someone by his name acts to reveal his complete identity.
From here we can understand the basis of R' Isaac's words that the revelation for which he hoped would not be something new, but a direct continuation of the Ba'al Shem Tov's essence. Since the revelation of the Ba'al Shem Tov is similar to calling a name, and a name carries within it the revelation of the actual essence, it is therefore understandable that our expectation of the renewed state should not be for something completely new. Instead, the new perception will be of the very same concepts that the Ba'al Shem Tov already taught, but now they will be released from all the limitations that constricted them in the past.

10. This was also the opinion of the Ba'al Shem Tov himself, who said (see "Chachmei Yisrael – Ba'al Shem Tov," letter 41) "I came to the world only to rectify and revive the dried bones so that everything should have vitality and a soul." In this context we will remember a point that we have mentioned a number of times (see below p. 141), that the Ba'al Shem Tov was taught by the prophet Achiah Hashiloni who is called Ba'al Hachai("Master of Life") because of his relationship to the higher planes of the soul [Chai is also an acronym for chayah yechidah, the two highest levels of the soul]. From these levels that are close to the essence, new vitality is drawn into the unconscious slumbering soul. R' Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk said that every thought of repentance that anyone will have, from the time of the Ba'al Shem Tov until the arrival of Mashiach, emanates from the power of the Ba'al Shem Tov. That same vitality that God breathed into the nation of Israel through their collective soul by means of the revelation of the Ba'al Shem Tov must once again revive the masses to follow his light until the time of the ultimate redemption.

11. Esther 3:8; Esther Raba 7:12 (In the words of Haman who spoke out against God as if He is asleep and no longer watches over His people, God forbid. More profoundly, this is the issue of the inner sleep of the nation's collective soul, which causes the mistaken attitude of believing that God is no longer among them.)

12. See also in the source cited above in endnote 3, in which four levels of sleep are enumerated: a. a state of dozing in which the person hears someone calling him but is unable to reply coherently; b. a state in which the person has fallen into a slumber and needs to be awakened; c. the person has fainted and needs to be aroused by medicinal means. A spiritual remedy for this is to whisper his name into his ear; d. someone who must be anesthetized in order to amputate a limb, God forbid, is given an anesthetic gas that removes his sense of feeling, completely numbing the pain of the incision. In the same source, these levels are shown to correspond to the various stages of exile until the current time.

13. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Duchman, Lesheima Ozen, p. 176.

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